Polls Look a Little Like 2004

Ah, 2004. The last time we had a presidential election. The last time we had a summer Olympics. Also, the year we had an undefeated Auburn team shut out of the national title game, launching the SEC’s giant unofficial public relations campaign to ensure that would never happen again. The modern conference wars that have been raging the past couple seasons can be traced back to that occurrence.

After the past two seasons, it would seem impossible for an unbeaten SEC club to be shut out again. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is not a fanatical partisan for a different league who doesn’t think the SEC is the best of the conferences. Be they Bruce Feldman, Jeff Sagarin, or Sports Illustrated, they all say the SEC is the best of the bunch.

I can’t tell you how many times in recent seasons that I’ve heard that we won’t see another undefeated SEC champion shut out of the national title game like when Auburn was passed up for USC and Oklahoma. Yet look at the rankings and what do you see? USC at No. 1, Oklahoma at No. 2, and an undefeated SEC team at No. 3.

Now, it’s only the fourth week of the season so it’s far too early to sound any alarms just yet. There’s way too much football left to be played to get too worked up over it. However, the fact that the same two teams that were at the top in 2004 are at the top now got me thinking.

USC appears to be entrenched at the top of the polls. As long as the Trojans don’t lose, they won’t fall. They have a popular coach, star power on the field, and the most powerful brand in college football today. In what appears to be a down Pac-10, USC will be able to run up the kinds of huge blowouts that will prevent them from falling.

Oklahoma appears to be the class of the Big 12, which is the consensus No. 2 best conference. If someone doesn’t have the SEC as the best now, they’ve got the Big 12 there. Thanks to the relative lack of defense in the conference, Oklahoma should also be able to run up huge scores to impress voters. Since OU is about the only team in the league that does play tough D, that will probably lead to more blowouts.

The SEC, on the other hand, definitely has a lot of tough defenses. The offenses appear to have some issues with so many first year coordinators and quarterbacks, but the defenses are definitely there. It will be difficult for anyone in the league, even Florida and Georgia, to run up many, if any, blowouts in conference play.

If the eventual SEC champ goes undefeated without scoring gobs of points, will that be enough to pass up USC or Oklahoma? In past years the answer would almost certainly be no, but there has been enough shuffling in the top five so far to think that it might. However, the longer the season goes on the more inertia there is in the polls, so the longer USC and Oklahoma stay at the top, the less likely they are to fall without dropping a game.

What would you say to Oklahoma, the team that most likely gets passed up by an undefeated SEC team? They did all they could do, were in position, and still couldn’t get to the national title game. It would be like the argument Georgia made last season, only the Sooners would have a conference title in their pocket.

If you’re going to use the conference strength argument, that being the SEC champ is worth more than being the Big 12 champ, then Oklahoma shouldn’t be the team left out. USC would need to be passed up because there is no way the Pac-10 is as good as the SEC or Big 12.

I don’t want to imply that the SEC has a birthright on the national title game; just because it is the best conference top-to-bottom doesn’t necessarily mean it will produce one of the two best teams. However, we have a rock-paper-scissors scenario. USC is in the weakest conference but will have the strongest non-conference slate, the SEC team is in the strongest conference but (if it’s not Georgia) probably the weakest non-conference slate, and Oklahoma is right in between.

This is the kind of paradox that makes the BCS a bad thing. A team can win all of its games, which is all anyone can do, and not have a chance to play for the national title. It’s something that will definitely be monitored closely throughout the rest of the season.

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