Guerry Clegg commentary: We often overlook these variables when predicting college football

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerJuly 22, 2012 

Well it's official. The 2012-13 national champions of college football will be …

The Southern Cal Trojans.

So say the experts of two of the top five recognized magazines and websites. Athlon and ESPNLive pegged the Trojans No. 1. Lindy's and Big Lead Sports picked them second. Phil Steele picked them fourth. For good measure, the Trojans were picked by a few people on Facebook.

I mean, how much more scientific can you get?

Thankfully, just for kicks -- and to rake in a few TV bucks -- the collective universities have decided, what the hay, let's go ahead and play the game and make it official.

A little disclosure here: I contribute to the folly of preseason forecasting by writing the Georgia section for one of the magazines. Every year, we all fall into the same trap. We look at how a team finished last season, consider the number of returning starters, sprinkle in a few key newcomers, look at the schedules, and we come up with our surefire, ironclad analyses of the coming season.

Trouble is, we overlook a few variables, such as:

• Injuries: Sure, this is obvious. Injuries happen, and injuries to key players can make a huge difference. But it's not always an injury to a great player on a contender -- like South Carolina losing Marcus Lattimore -- that changes the course of a season. Take last season, when Florida lost its starting quarterback, John Brantley. He was, at best, an above-average player. But the Gators had no one ready to take his place.

• A bad call: Instant replay has helped cut down on bad calls. But even with replay, bad calls are made and upheld after review.

• A bad missed call: I still think it's a farce that Colorado won the AP national championship in 1990. The Buffaloes benefitted from the infamous fifth down. Inexplicably, all of the officials had the downs wrong in a game against Missouri. On what actually was fourth down, Colorado quarterback Charles Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock. Johnson scored on a sneak on the next play, a play that never should have happened. Even more inexplicable is that the officials met for 20 minutes, then upheld the touchdown.

• The bounce of the ball: Even good teams fumble. Sometimes the ball bounces right to the other team. South Carolina had two such fortunate breaks last season against Georgia.

Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier acknowledged, "Georgia outplayed us. Give them credit. They definitely outplayed us. But we won the game. Sometimes it happens like that. Somebody was looking out for us tonight."

• Locker room turmoil: We know that team chemistry matters. But no one, not even the coaches, know how players will bond or split under adversity.

These are just the intangible factors. There are other factors -- tangible but hard to forecast -- that can make a huge difference:

• Maturation of returning players: Two years ago, Nick Fairley was coming off a very unspectacular junior season at Auburn. He started only two games. That certainly wasn't enough to suggest that Fairley would win the Lombardi Award as the nation's top lineman or linebacker.

• Position changes: As an undersized defensive tackle, David Pollack was a below-average player at Georgia. Halfway through his second spring with the Bulldogs, Pollack continued to struggle, so the coaches decided to move him to end. He was thought to be too slow to play end. But the move was made primarily because it had become obvious that Pollack never would be a factor at tackle. Unwittingly, the Georgia coaches created one of the most dominant defensive players in school history.

The season kicks off in just 38 days with several Thursday night games, highlighted by South Carolina at Vanderbilt. The Associated Press will release the "official" preseason Top 25 in less than a month. We know certain teams -- USC, Alabama, LSU, Oregon and Oklahoma -- will be ranked high.

But we also know this: Every year, some teams surprise while others disappoint. Every year, there will be at least one weekend -- maybe a few -- when the whole national picture gets scrambled beyond recognition.

So there's no reason to think this year will be any different.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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