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College football: Pundits huddle to put out rankings

Published June 9, 2009 9:19 pm

College football » At least one publication puts Utah atop the Mountain West.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A group of nine guys entered a room at Athlon 's offices in Nashville in April, gathered around a big white board with the names of teams and conferences written on it and zeroed in on the ACC. Then the debating began.

It didn't finish until more than nine pizzas and eight hours of discussion later, when all 11 conferences, as well as the top teams, in the country were ranked.

It was this process that produced Utah's No. 21 preseason ranking in Athlon 's Top 25 poll, a spot borne out of the sentiment that the Utes are going to be the best team in the Mountain West Conference.

It was a lengthy discussion that decided the Utes' spot, with BYU and TCU getting some consideration, according to Athlon managing editor Mitch Light. The Cougars were eliminated from the top spot after the group remembered how they struggled against more athletic teams like Utah and TCU.

The Utes trumped the Horned Frogs after a longer discussion.

"I was actually on the TCU bandwagon, but we do have a democracy," Light acknowledged. "I thought TCU outplayed Utah last year, but obviously Utah won that game."

The way Athlon decides its college football polls is a process repeated in similar fashion by many national outlets. A gathering of would-be know-it-alls sit around, banter about this team and that and use past performances, spring practice reports and their own hunches to decide ultimately the order of the football polls that fans eagerly await.

Knowing they are some of the first prognosticators of the coming football season puts a little bit of extra pressure on those deciding the polls in what otherwise seems like as formal affair as you and your neighbors sitting around picking players for your fantasy team.

"We take it seriously and we treat each conference equally," Light said. "I remember one year it took us forever to figure out the three bottom teams in the Big East."

So how correct are the polls? Last year, Phil Steele 's was the best, picking 16 teams that finished in the Top 25 of the AP or Coaches' poll. Athlon 's, Lindy 's and the Sporting News had 13 correct.

Phil Steele and Athlon were the only ones to project Florida would finish No. 1. Many other polls had the Gators out of the top five, including Lindy 's which had Florida No. 6 and Georgia No. 1. Knowing his magazine wasn't the only one to miss on the Gators doesn't give editor Ben Cook too much solace when he looks back at that poll.

"That is the one you want to try to get right," he said. "Once you get past No. 1, no one really remembers who you had at No. 6."

Well, some remember where specific schools are ranked. Locally, BYU was ranked in the majority of the 2008 preseason polls while the Utes were mostly overlooked. Phil Steele was one of the few that had the Utes in its Top 25 and had them the highest, at No. 14.

Former Utah quarterback Brian Johnson said the team took all the preseason polls "with a grain of salt," because the Utes didn't believe they were very accurate. However, the Utes used their lack of rankings to play up the "us against the world," motto to drive them to their undefeated season.

"We knew those polls weren't a real indication of where a team could be," Johnson said. "We went into it thinking we had to take the road less traveled."

Joey Lucci, with Phil Steele magazine, said the way Utah's schedule played out, with most of its toughest games at home, plus getting Michigan early in the season, were reasons the Utes were up so high.

Scheduling, and less obvious reasons such as turnover margins, returning starters on the lines and the health of a team are reasons why Steele has BYU at No. 15 and Utah at No. 44.

"BYU has eight returning starters on defense and now it has the senior quarterback, plus its tough games at home," Lucci said. "With Utah, I don't think anyone would be surprised to see them take a step back."

Even so, Utah's Sugar Bowl win is still bringing the Utes some attention.

Like Light, Cook said what teams do in the past plays almost as big a part in the poll as what they are expected to do in the future. It's one of the reasons why Georgia was picked by many as No. 1 after smacking Hawaii in the 2008 Sugar Bowl and why Utah is getting more respect this season after its impressive Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.

"They left such an impression with that game," Cook said of the Utes. "Utah came out and hit Alabama in the mouth and Alabama couldn't recover. Utah was clearly the better team that day."

The publications know the Utes aren't settled on a quarterback and lost two big defensive stars in Paul Kruger and Sean Smith to the NFL, but magazines don't want to underestimate the Utes again. Similarly, the publications don't want to risk overrating the BYU Cougars either.

"Losing Brian Johnson hurts them," Cook said of the Utes "That is probably the thing that hurts them the most, why they aren't ranked in the top 10, but at least they're ranked."

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2009 projections

Athlon Sports

BYU » NR

Utah » No. 21

Phil Steele

BYU » No. 15

Utah » NR

Lindy's

BYU » No. 25

Utah » No. 23

Sporting News/ Street and Smith's

BYU » No. 22

Utah » No. 19

2008 projections

Athlon Sports

BYU » No. 14

Utah » NR

Phil Steele

BYU » No. 17

Utah » No. 14

Lindy's

BYU » No. 12

Utah » NR

Sporting News/ Street and Smith's

BYU » No. 19

Utah » NR

Opening camp

Utah » Aug. 6

Utah State » Aug 6

BYU » Aug. 8