The Poll Tax
College sport distinguishes itself from the professional ranks in many ways. A reminder was provided on Friday with the announcement of USA Today’s Top 25 pre-season college football poll.
Since 1936, polls have been a continuous part of the workings of college football, beginning with the Associated Press College Football Poll. The AP provided the first college champion by vote, the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The coaches joined the process in 1950 with the United Press publishing their voting tallies.
The polls, which by definition are popularity listings based on the perspectives of writers and coaches, give the fans benchmarks before and throughout the season. These lists of relative team worth color our own perspectives. They define expectations. They provide primary reasons for how we feel our team is progressing and how we feel we should perform.
By this metric, 1970 and 1985 were two of the greatest seasons ever in this history of Tennessee football. Before these two campaigns, Tennessee was unranked in the preseason AP polls. At the end of these two seasons, the Vols were ranked 4th in the nation. Never have there been two seasons in the history of the Vols where so little was expected and so much was gained. I’m too young to fully remember the impact of the 1970 team. I’m plenty old enough to remember the utter exhilaration of the 1985 season. We didn’t win the national championship, but we won the SEC and beat a team that should have won the #1 spot during a season when nothing much was expected of us. In that way, 1985 ranks right up there with 1998 on the emotional scale. No wonder the Sugar Vols are one of the most popular teams in the history of Big Orange football.
Conversely, there were six seasons when the Vols were ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll at some point in the season and finished the season unranked (1959, 1960, 1966, 1986, 2002, and 2005). The worst of the lot was under the guidance of Phil Fulmer in 2005 when Tennessee was ranked 3rd in the pre-season poll. Who will ever forget the pain of that season just five years ago? The anguish we all felt was made doubly painful because of the lofty expectations handed to us by the coaches and writers with their polls.
Retched pain and utter ecstasy were rampant on campuses last year, largely because of polls. In 2009, the biggest busts as defined by pre-season expectations (coaches’ poll) going unfulfilled were Oklahoma (pre-season #3 / unranked in final), Southern Cal (pre-season #4 / #20 final), Oklahoma State (pre-season #11 / #25 final), Cal (pre-season #12 / unranked in final), Georgia (pre-season #13 / unranked in final), and Ole Miss (pre-season #10 / #21 final). And on the other side of the coin, there were the overachievers, giving fans and alumni something to remember for decades: Cincinnati (pre-season unranked / #9 final), Iowa (pre-season #21 / #7 final), Boise State (pre-season #16 / #4 final), and TCU (pre-season #17 / #6 final).
A a college football team’s season is a process by which the unknowable unfolds. This is why sport is the only reality TV that is real. The polls give us some sort of relative understanding of team quality. But the voters also give us so much more, providing good life lessons there for the taking: expectations can lead to a wide range of emotion that make indelible imprints on our lives and color our experience.
The Poll Tax. That is the price we pay for following a sport in which voting provides an inescapable measure of expectation.
At least I won’t be too disappointed with a losing record by the 2010 Vols. On the other side of the coin, the potential for utter ecstasy makes me view the upcoming season with great anticipation.
PHOTO SOURCE: http://www.cocatalyst.com/blog/