Voting in the Associated Press or USA Today coaches’ polls in the preseason is a lot like predicting the track of tropical storms and hurricanes.
You take your best educated guess, but often the predictions go wildly off course.
Clemson, last seen getting the CFP national championship trophy ripped out of its claws by LSU in January in our alternative pre-coronavirus reality, starts as the preseason No. 1 and that’s great. But worry and wariness are the watchwords for this season; One sure to be stalked throughout by the pandemic.
And for Clemson, this extra bit of troubling trivia: Only once in the past 10 seasons has the preseason AP No. 1, Alabama in 2017, gone on to be declared national champion.
LSU starts at No. 6 in the AP poll, the first reigning national champion since Auburn in 2011 to begin the season outside the top five the following year.
Or is it? As soon as the regular season begins, AP voters (which include our own LSU beat writer, Brooks Kubena) have been instructed to pull the teams not playing this fall from their polls. That Jenga game would, if everyone in the Top 25 started with a victory, result in a mega nine-team shakeup that would leave the next poll looking something like this:
Coming off its first national championship in 12 seasons, LSU football is ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25.
AP poll Adjusted poll
1. Clemson 1. Clemson
2. Ohio State 2. Alabama
3. Alabama 3. Georgia
4. Georgia 4. Oklahoma
5. Oklahoma 5. LSU
6. LSU 6. Florida
7. Penn State 7. Notre Dame
8. Florida 8. Auburn
9. Oregon 9. Texas A&M
10. Notre Dame 10. Texas
11. Auburn 11. Oklahoma St.
12. Wisconsin 12. North Carolina
13. Texas A&M 13. Cincinnati
14. Texas 14. UCF
15. Oklahoma St. 15. Iowa State
16. Michigan 16. Tennessee
17. USC 17. Memphis
18. North Carolina 18. Virginia Tech
19. Minnesota 19. Miami (Fla.)
20. Cincinnati 20. Louisville
21. UCF 21. Appalachian St.
22. Utah 22. Kentucky
23. Iowa State 23. Baylor
24. Iowa 24. TCU
25. Tennessee 25. Virginia
So, in that sense, LSU is the de facto preseason No. 5 with the AP preseason No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes sitting steaming over there on the bench.
It is emblematic of LSU’s respect and its question marks that the Tigers sit exactly where they were in last August’s preseason AP poll, coming off a 10-3 season with something of a breakthrough Fiesta Bowl victory over UCF. There were questions marks then about LSU’s true commitment to a wide-open offensive attack and how the Tigers would fare in the rough and rugged Southeastern Conference. Now it is evident the commitment is there, that with Myles Brennan throwing the passes instead of Joe Burrow, the Tigers are still going to keep the throttle wide open. But the question shifts to replacing Burrow and those 13 other players taken in the NFL Draft, plus the opt-outs of key defensive cogs like Kary Vincent and Neil Farrell.
As always, the road will be arduous. The pride that comes with playing in and winning the SEC comes from the quality of the teams you have to beat. Last season, LSU toppled four teams ranked in the AP top 10 at the time — No. 9 Texas (of the Big 12), No. 7 Florida, No. 9 Auburn and No. 2 Alabama — before also having to beat No. 4 Georgia, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 3 Clemson in the postseason. This year, a similar task awaits the Tigers with four preseason-ranked teams — No. 3 Alabama, No. 8 Florida, No. 11 Auburn and No. 13 Texas — on the docket. The Tigers, of course, had their home game with Texas stolen, which opens at No. 14.
Take the idled schools out of the mix and LSU has four top-10 opponents once again: No. 2 Alabama, No. 6 Florida, No. 8 Auburn and No. 9 Texas A&M. So it’s as formidable task as you could ask for, even without the Longhorns.
While LSU comes into the campaign riding a 16-game winning streak dating back to the Fiesta Bowl, it’s unrealistic to predict that the Tigers or anyone is going to get through their 10-game SEC gauntlet unscathed. The prediction here now is the same as it was this time a year ago: If the Tigers can manage to get through with only one loss, against this schedule, they will be in the thick of contention once again for one of the four CFP semifinal slots in the Sugar and Rose bowls (the national championship game is slated for Miami). Heck, this season, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 sitting out, 8-2 with losses to the toughest teams may for all we know allow an SEC team to snag one of those coveted four spots.
That said, the question remains will the CFP wait to see if the Big Ten and Pac-12 can play their seasons, pushing the Sugar and Rose semifinals and the title game back to March or April if needed? It seems outlandish, but who could foresee what hoops are being jumped through to get even this contrived season on the field, with 20-25% stadium capacities everywhere and the SEC schools only playing each other?
For now, the teams that play are the teams that will be ranked, and the ones in contention for the CFP assuming the entire season can be played. If LSU can find a way to answer the questions as effectively as it did last year, the Tigers will let the polls take care of themselves.