Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Public Perception and College Football Rankings

As Georgia struggles through its worst season since Mark Richt came to Athens, many people are worried about the direction of the Georgia program. After an 8-5 campaign last year, the Dawgs reputation as one of the best programs in the SEC has certainly taken a hit. While it is clear that the Dawgs will not return to the top 25 this season, it is not out of this world to think the Dawgs will at least be mentioned in the "others receiving votes" at the beginning of next season. So, how long does it take for the public perception to completely lose faith in a program? To illustrate this question, I will examine two schools currently ranked in the top 25: Michigan and LSU.

In the fall of 2007, Lloyd Carr of Michigan had announced his retirement as long time coach of the Michigan Wolverines. The team had began the year at #4 in the country, but an embarrassing loss in week 1 to 1-AA Appalachian State changed the complexion of the season. The leading candidate to take over the job was LSU coach Les Miles. After rumors that he would be leaving Baton Rouge for Ann Arbor ran wild during the week of the SEC Championship game, Miles publicly declared that he was staying with the Tigers. LSU beat Tennessee and earned a chance to play Ohio State for the BCS Championship.

With Miles staying in Baton Rouge, Michigan had to find another person to replace Carr. West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez was soon hired. Just a year before, Rodriguez had agreed to take over the Alabama coaching position, but changed his mind (resulting in Nick Saban coming to Tuscaloosa). Michigan closed its season with a thrilling victory over Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators. LSU won the National Championship. For the next two years, these programs would fail to match the success they had in the previous seasons.

The next two years in Michigan were a complete disaster. Without the players to run his spread offense (particularly after Terelle Pryor chose Ohio State), the Wolverines struggled through back to back losing seasons. Compiling a record of 8-16 in the next two years, Michigan entered the 2010 unranked, with many expecting this to be Rodriguez's final season on the sidelines.

Following its second national championship in 5 years, LSU lost its perch atop the SEC West as the Saban coached Crimson Tide retunred to national prominence. Unusual coaching decisions be Les Miles combined with poor offense and bad pass defense marked a complete change from the Tiger teams of the mid-2000's. They entered the 2010 season ranked 19 in the country.

2010 has been a successful season for both Michigan and LSU. Michigan, who in quarterback Denard Robinson finally has the correct player to run Rodriguez's offense, has looked impressive in winning 5 straight games to start the year. They appear to be a team on the rise and have returned to the rankings after a two year absence. LSU is also 5-0, but their path has been much different. The offense has been horrible with quarterback Jordan Jefferson already benched a number of times. The team struggled to beat a North carolina team missing 14 players and needed a Tennessee penalty to escape a horrible time management gaffe by Miles to beat the Volunteers. Despite the undefeated record, many are calling for Miles to be fired.

And here in lies the problem that the Georgia Bulldogs may face in the future. Michigan has looked impressive this season, climbing from the bowells of the unranked to #18 in the country. LSU, on the other hand, has looked horrible. But they currently sit at #9 in the AP Poll and #12 in the Coaches Poll. Now ask yourself, which team should be in the top ten?

After a few bad seasons, Georgia may be faced with a similar uphill battle when (or if) they get back to the winnings ways they once enjoyed. The SEC schedule is tough enough that an undefeated team will almost certainly always play for the national championship. But in the ever important recruiting season, only the top teams in the national get billing on national television. And while I think most people would rather watch Denard Robinson right now over Jordan Jefferson, LSU's #9 ranking says otherwise. Hopefully the Dawgs can find some magic like Michigan has this year, or else the climb back to the top may take longer than you think.

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