What was once huge news in Tuscaloosa is now no news at all.
The University of Alabama football team is the preseason No. 1 team in USA Today’s Coaches Poll, easily outdistancing No. 2 Ohio State. Once upon a time, that would have caused at least a ripple of excitement. Now, it gets a cursory dismissal from Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who does not like distractions even if they are not distracting anyone.
“It means little to nothing,” said Saban, who didn’t even wait to be asked what the poll might mean. “I think this team, like any team, has to re-establish an identity. That’s no one’s call to make, not even a preseason poll.”
Alabama will probably be at No. 1 in the Associated Press poll when it drops in a couple of weeks, to minuscule fanfare. For anyone that simply can’t stomach that, my advice is to wait until the first week of the season. If Alabama is a hollow pretender, then the Crimson Tide won’t get past Florida State — a team that also deserves No. 1 consideration — in the season opener. That will solve the problem.
In the meantime, Alabama gets the preseason nod for a couple of reasons. The first is branding. At this point, Alabama is still be the most recognized name in the sport and one of the immediate associations that one makes upon hearing the name is “plenty of good players.” The Crimson Tide is replacing so much talent and experience on defense that it is hard to imagine the 2017 unit being as good as some of its predecessors. However, a returning quarterback and star power at running back and wide receiver carry a lot of weight. Being the defending champion normally gives a team a solid shot at the preseason No. 1 spot the next year. (See Ohio State in 2015.) Clemson, which won last year’s championship, might well have been the preseason choice to repeat — but the Tigers are replacing a gifted quarterback. (Dabo Swinney’s team still wound up at No. 5, which reflects at least a small post-title bump.)
The other reason that there isn’t the poll clamor that there once was is that neither a preseason or a postseason poll really matters any more. Until the last 20 years, college football picked its champion, weirdly enough, at the ballot box. Being No. 1 in the preseason was like being a racehorse that draws a good starting position. There’s a chance of going wire-to-wire and even if you stumbled, you’d still be among the lead pack. Now, the objective is to be in the top four teams — and the polls don’t determine that. They are conversation pieces and, arguably, recruiting tools. That’s all. Anyone who views them differently misses the point — nothing is as hollow as smack talk in August.
Saban was clearly ready to put as many distractions as possible in one basket on Thursday and deal with them as early as he could. He also announced that defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand would not be suspended for the Florida State game based on information from his DUI arrest. That announcement sparked conversation and some criticism — but in early August, not during the week of the opening game.
There’s no way to entirely isolate a group of players from hearing talk, good or bad, not even if they follow Jalen Hurts’ lead and switch off their social media entirely. (That’s a wise choice for any college quarterback.) Saban likes to try, though, even if the “news” is yet another No. 1 ranking.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.