What does it mean to be No. 1, or to be ranked among the so-called best 25 teams in college football in the preseason? Absolutely nothing. What's that time-worn motivational phrase? It's not how you start but how you finish that matters.
OK, OK, we've heard all of that before, but the one huge factor you've got going for you when you start out at the top is that you don't have to depend on anyone else to get the job done for you. You're in complete control of your own destiny - well, that is, until someone comes along and plays a better game than you, even if you may be the better team on the field. And that tends to happen more than most of us would like to believe.
No team is pressure free when it has to play every week with a big red (in this case, crimson and cream) bull's eye on its back.
The annual Associated Press preseason college football rankings came out today, and the Oklahoma Sooners out of the Big 12 Conference - yes, that same conference that just a week ago was in the midst of another seismic realignment shock and circling the wagons in another frantic effort to hold the conference together - topped the poll as the nation's No. 1 team heading into the 2011 season. The top preseason ranking in the AP poll gives the Sooners the top spot in the two major preseason polls: the USAToday/ESPN coaches' poll and the AP top 25 rankings, which are voted on by the national sports media.
The two national college polls agree with each other through the first four spots. Both place Bob Stoops' Sooners in the catbird's seat, followed in order by Alabama, Oregon and LSU. After that, the two polls start to get slightly different, but only in the order of the teams that make up the elite grouping known as the top 25 in the country. West Virginia and USC hold down the 24th and 25th spots in the AP media poll, while Texas and Penn State round out the top 25 in the USA Today coaches' poll. Beyond that, there is complete agreement on the other 23 college teams that belong in the top 25. Only the order is different.
The Southeastern Conference placed a record eight teams among the AP preseason top 25. The Big 12 (Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Missouri) and Big Ten (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan State) both have four teams in the top 25 and the Pac-12 (Oregon, Stanford and USC) is represented by three teams. USC is serving an NCAA probation period and is precluded from the coaches' poll
While the SEC is the clear winner in the number of teams ranked in the AP college football top 25 two weeks from the start of the season, the Big 12 comes in with three teams ranked in the top ten: Oklahoma, No. 1, Texas A&M No. 8 and Oklahoma State at No. 9. Both the SEC and Pac-12 have two each in the AP top ten.
This is the tenth time Oklahoma has been ranked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll in the 76 years the poll has been published. The last time the Sooners began the season as the nation's top-ranked team was in 2003. That year, the Sooners' lost in the BCS championship game to LSU of the SEC. Four times since the AP poll started, Oklahoma has finished the season just as they started it, ranked No. 1 (in 1956, 1974, 1975 and 1985). OU has been ranked at the top of the AP college football poll for a nation-best 97 weeks and 371 weeks in the top five, also the most of any program in the country.
Asked this week what he thought about having his team perched in top spot in the preseason polls, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who is beginning his 13th year in Norman, said: We're very matter of fact. All we think about is doing the work.
"We're also very aware we're not much different than about 12 or15 other teams that'll be competing for it that have legitimate chances to win it," Stoops said. "What are we going to do differently to separate ourselves."
As we begin the two-week countdown to the start of the season, it's interesting to note that only one team in the last decade - Southern California in 2004 - started and finished the season ranked No. 1, although the Trojans were much later forced to vacate their 2004 national championship because of NCAA rules infractions pertaining to Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.
In recent years, the teams ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP poll have failed to hold on to the top ranking. Georgia was No. 1 in 2008 and ended up 13th, and a year ago, Alabama began the season No. 1, but fell to No. 10 at the final gun. The average final national ranking for the last 10 BCS national champions was 6.7.
All of this will get sorted out for real over the next 15 weeks, and it's almost certain to be much different than what it is now. We may not think it means anything, but try telling any one of the teams ranked in the preseason top 25 that it carries no intrinsic value. It's good for bragging rights at the very least.