by Keith Aksel
Now that the Rio Olympics are over, sports fans enter their annual American rite of fall, otherwise known as football season. For college football fanatics, this time of year is chock-full of routine season previews, talking up the people and teams to watch during the 2016 season. At The Tattered Pennant, we take a slightly different tack. With our 2016 college football Un-Preview, we discuss the ways to see beyond the media’s fluff and mostly-incorrect predictions, to the read the sport better and more completely. We’ll present a handful of ideas that the usual season previews would never engage, all of which might help you watch the sport this year better than you did last year. In other words, we get you ready to watch college football this year like a thinking fan.
1. Pay close attention to Ole Miss
I don’t mean to suggest Ole Miss will contend for the national title- they won’t- but the Rebels are a super-helpful gauge for determining who will contend. Mississippi is fantastic at beating teams that go on to great things later in the year. Weeks after beating a contender, the Rebels will stumble against lesser competition, while the contender will be back in the mix. Ole Miss often ends up as the lone blemish on another more superior team’s schedule. The Rebels beat would-be national champ Florida in 2008, eventual playoff team 2014 Alabama, and eventual champ Alabama last year. Will the Rebels continue their trend of making a good team angry enough to rally all the way to the playoffs? Don’t put it by a Hugh Freeze who peaks too early each and every year.
2. How will the media play the Fournette narrative?
Will we see a repeat of LSU running back Leonard Fournette’s mid-season Heisman coronation? The media hype machine was awfully reckless last year regarding Fournette’s Heisman chances. Against truly bad Auburn, Syracuse, and Eastern Michigan defenses, Fournette raced to repeat 200- yard performances, leaving journalists breathless as they sang his praises. By most accounts, Fournette was not only a shoo-in for the Heisman, but was perhaps one of the greatest football players of all time. In an infamous November 2015 ESPN The Magazine article, a star-struck author proposed that Fournette was “making history, but what will history make of him?” Back-to-back sub-100 yard games against Alabama and Arkansas silenced those triumphant voices, at least for the rest of 2015.
This year, will the media fall into its same pattern with Fournette if LSU starts the year strong? A nationally-televised opening game with a wild-card Wisconsin team could prove to be a good stage for him. But as far as we know, the Badgers (and Tigers) are 7-5 teams waiting to happen, and the strength of either won’t be truly known until well into the season. Fournette could legitimately contend for the trophy, but the ways the media chronicles his path might be more interesting- or annoying- to watch. So, don’t pay as much attention to Fournette as the media’s reaction to him, and see if and how the talking heads police themselves in writing his newest coronation story.
3. At least one team outside the media’s radar will be in the playoffs.
As a referendum on media predictions (which we cover here on a regular basis) it is key for thinking fans to look beyond the teams expected to be at the top at the start of the season. Both of the previous College Football Playoffs have shown that some team will exceed expectations to make the final four. Last year, the Big 12 was supposed to be all about TCU and Baylor. Instead, Oklahoma navigated through to the playoff above both the Frogs and Bears. The media placed three of last year’s final four teams in its preseason top four in the AP poll. This will be proven incorrect. Sure, blue bloods rule this sport, so those interested in guessing what teams will end up at the top should keep watch on the big name programs. But, instead of expecting the same teams from last season to reach the playoff again, look at teams that have had some success in the last five years or so to put it together and make a run to the CFP. Think about teams like Auburn, rather than Clemson and Oklahoma, if you want to avoid the media herd mentality.
4. Alabama Will Not Win
The simple fact is that the last thing the media saw related to college football was Alabama winning it all. Consequently, they expect to see that same Alabama team win it all again. This is an age-old cycle- the same expectation was laid upon Ohio State the year before and countless defending champs before them. Don’t get sucked into the “right now” mindset. Be a thinking fan and watch Alabama not win, even if they make it all the way to the playoffs.
To see the last team to go wire-to-wire as the season’s #1 squad, you have to go back to Bobby Bowden’s Florida State teams from the 1990s. Teams favored to win college football’s national title at season’s outset, just don’t. And there are reasons. College football teams are populated by kids; the season-long pressure of expectation gets to them, which locks them up in crunch time in a close game. The teams that really rise to the top come without the baggage of a #1 ranking. Today the season is more competitive and longer than ever, which means more chances for the front-runner to stumble. Think this Alabama team is made of the stuff that will overcome these historical obstacles? Get in line, but we won’t be there.
5. Out of conference games matter less than ever
The one constant in the playoff era has shown us is that teams that win their conference have a shot to get to the playoffs. Those that don’t win their league, won’t make the playoffs. Simple. Last year, a solid Ohio State team was knocked out of the playoff race by not winning their league title, while a one-loss Oklahoma made the final four due to their Big 12 triumph. Equal records are not created equal in the eyes of the playoff committee.
Given this, out of conference wins don’t advantage a team more than league games do. Matchups like Alabama-USC will get early season attention simply because they are both mega-programs. However, the loser of that game is in no less of a position to compete for a playoff spot than is the winner. In the long-term, giving conference champions a leg up in the playoff race might prove to water-down early out-of-league play. Since winning or losing those games won’t necessarily secure a playoff spot for teams, there may be an emphasis on treating such matchups as primers for the real determining portion of a season: league play. For now, rest assured that the loser of Alabama-USC or Clemson-Auburn games are far from eliminated in the playoff race.
In all, we are sure to see plenty of dashed predictions by sports commentators as the season goes on. I make the above points based on the historical trends that dictate how the sport tends to work. It’s not about making better predictions, but rather, seeing beyond the predictions themselves and elevating thinking fans to a new level of awareness and college football fandom. So, state a resolution to make 2016 your year to watch a football like one of us.