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If we are psychological products of our past, then college football research is therapy, providing explanations for the way we think and feel about programs.
From 1969-79, the peak of my childhood fandom, Ohio State coughed up national championship chances with regularity. Five times the Buckeyes entered their final game needing a win to secure the Associated Press national title. Five times they failed.
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That does something to a kid. Trust issues, anyone?
Fast forward about 50 years to Monday’s release of the AP preseason poll that ranked Ohio State No. 2 behind Alabama (The Buckeyes were also No. 2 in the preseason USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll).
Objectively, voters got it right. With their A+ offense, the Buckeyes will be hard to beat. Even if the defense fails to meet Ryan Day’s goal of a top-10 finish, the offense will simply outscore opponents on the way to the College Football Playoff.
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Subjectively? Skepticism is the scar tissue of fans burned by poll history. Since the AP preseason rankings began in 1950, Ohio State has finished the season worse than its preseason ranking 41 times, better 22 times and matched it seven times.
The Buckeyes especially failed to live up to voter expectations during the 1970s, when they never exceeded their preseason ranking, finishing below it eight times and matching it twice.
Past results are not an accurate predictor of future success, but they do explain why certain generations tend to arch an eyebrow when hearing how the Buckeyes are almost unbeatable. Beginning the season No. 2 looks great until research therapy kicks in, which is to say fool me once, shame on you. Fool me against Michigan (1969), Stanford (1971 Rose Bowl), Southern California (1975 Rose Bowl), UCLA (1976 Rose Bowl) and USC again (1980 Rose Bowl) and shame on the program.
Naturally, Ohio State’s in-house media crew present only positive numbers: most appearances (69) and longest active streak (34) in the AP preseason poll; eight No. 1 and 10 No. 2 rankings.
Strong stuff. But a deeper dive also shows that OSU’s average preseason ranking is 8.3 – I would have thought it top-five – while the final AP ranking is 10.6.
Before the Southeastern Conference screams “overrated,” it’s silly to come down too hard on the program for “underachieving” over the past 72 seasons, mostly because the preseason poll is based mostly on previous season success and current season potential. Voters focus on the number and reputation of returning starters. Strength of schedule often gets overlooked. In that way the preseason rankings reflect more than project.
For that matter, even the AP regular-season poll no longer bears much weight on the votes that actually matter. The playoff selection committee does not release its first rankings until Nov. 2. By then, the preseason poll will be scrambled by upsets and other signs of initial voter misjudgment.
Mostly what the AP poll does well is create controversy, which is as essential to college football as rivalries and marching bands. The AP rankings are a social media bulletin board where bragging and nagging keep the “We’re better than you” conversational fires lit until the playoff committee takes over.
You better believe DawgNation is wishing eternal DamNation on AP voters for putting Alabama and Ohio State ahead of No. 3 Georgia; the defending national champions return quarterback Stetson Bennett. Then there is Southern California, which despite welcoming new coach Lincoln Riley and prominent transfers (quarterback Caleb Williams from Oklahoma and wide receiver Jordan Addison from Pitt), are ranked a pedestrian 14th. Hollywood can’t be happy.
Notre Dame is No. 5, but expect the Fighting Irish to drop from the top-10 when the Buckeyes humble them Sept. 3 in the Horseshoe.
If that kind of bold talk makes you nervous then clearly you grew up in the 1970s or 1990s, when the Buckeyes blew opportunity after opportunity to finish No. 1. Younger fans should be more buoyant; over the past 10 seasons OSU’s average preseason ranking is No. 5, while its final ranking is 4.5.
That’s called progress. If Ohio State continues to exceed expectations this year, there is nowhere to go but down next season. But Buckeye Nation would gladly accept that tradeoff.