This summer has featured more hype about the Utah football than any other summer in recent memory. At Pac-12 Media Day, the amount of hype surrounding Utah only intensified. This was a result of the Pac-12 releasing this year’s preseason media poll. The poll is composed of 35 Pac-12 media members who vote on how each team will finish within their respective division. Each media member also offers a prediction of which team will win the conference title.
The Pac-12 preseason poll has been a part of conference tradition since 1961 when UCLA was picked to win the conference and play in the Rose Bowl. However, this year featured something that has never happened before in the history of the poll; Utah was picked to win the South Division and also received the most votes to win the conference title game.
This is big news for the Utes entering the season. The offseason has featured every college football writer in the nation picking Utah as a dark horse team for this coming season. Some prognosticators have labeled Utah as a surprise team to make the playoff, but the general consensus has been that Utah is a solid bet to at least make the Pac-12 title game and maybe challenge Washington or Oregon for the conference championship.
All of that would have been the kindest praise Utah has ever received entering a season. Now the bar has been raised even higher as Utah will shoulder the load of being deemed the team most likely to win the conference.
It’s awesome to see Utah getting more national attention, even if it’s just from a media poll. But one must also remember that this is only a preseason poll. To put it into college football lingo, ain’t nobody played anybody yet. On the other hand, college football is built on spending the entire season obsessing over polls that are completely meaningless until the last week of games. If a single poll wasn’t released until after the conference championship games, nothing about the sport would be different other than we’d have far less to yell about.
The college football fan’s complex relationship with polls raises a question for Utah fans now. What is the proper reaction to Utah being picked by the Pac-12 media to win the conference? Sometimes it can be difficult to discern how much stock should be placed into the results of a poll. But even in a preseason poll, there is some valuable information that can be taken out of the poll.
One of the most important things to do when something good happens to your favorite team, such as being on top of a poll, is to immediately find less fortunate fans to trash talk. Keep in mind, there are smart times to trash talk and dumb times to trash talk. The best time to trash talk is when your team is either significantly better than an opponent, or your team has already won, and therefore you can’t be burned by all your trash talking. Taunting and trash talk, when done correctly, are part of what makes football great.
A bad example of trash talking is Matt Hasselbeck saying, “we want the ball and we’re gonna score,” after winning an overtime coin toss. He promptly threw an interception, and the Seahawks lost. An excellent example of trash talk is the greatest postgame interview of all-time featuring Richard Sherman right after he won the 2014 NFC Championship game for the Seahawks.
A bad example of trash talk is anything Spike Lee has ever done while sitting courtside at a Knicks game. An all-time great example of trash talk is the Reggie Miller choke sign to Lee after destroying the Knicks’ soul.
You get the idea. It’s a bad idea to trash talk until you’re sure that you’ve got the win secured. In the case of Utah, fans can now throw out all the trash talk they want. Utah has officially won the contest of being on top of the preseason poll. This isn’t trash talking about games that haven’t been played, it’s just making fun of teams that the media doesn’t think are good. Here’s a complete list of things to use in trash talk:
- Utah is the first team not named USC or UCLA to be picked to win the South Division.
- Utah is only the second South Division team to be picked to win the conference. USC has been picked to win the conference three times.
- Utah received 33 of 35 first-place votes in the South.
- In the entire 59-year history of the Pac-12 preseason poll, Arizona State, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State have never been picked to win the conference.
- Colorado has never been picked to win the conference or the South since joining the Pac-12.
- BYU has also never been picked to win the Pac-12, nor did anyone pick them to win their conference this year.
All trash talking and joking aside, it’s also important not to get too high on polls of any kind, but especially with preseason polls. Predicting how an entire season will play out is often a fool’s errand. Since the expansion of the conference, the team that was picked to win the conference title game in the preseason poll has done so four out of eight years. The media has been correct the previous two seasons, picking USC in 2017 and Washington in 2018.
There have often been times where the media has been incredibly far off in their predictions. The best example is the three different years that UCLA was picked as the favorite to win the South for some reason. There was also the time that Colorado was picked to finish last in the division and then proceeded to make the conference championship game.
Such is the nature of preseason polls. They’re more effective at showing which teams the media thinks are good rather than telling us who is actually good. The previous season of Utah basketball is just as good of an example of this as any. Utah was predicted to finish eighth in the conference and instead came in at third. Washington, the team that ran away with the regular season conference title, was picked to finish in a distant third. If anything, seeing Utah at the top of the poll is wonderful just because it shows people outside of Utah know the Utes are good at this football thing.
A closer examination of the poll also gives a better explanation of how Utah ended up at the top in the first place. Utah has been discussed as the surest bet to win the South, but the team is still considered to be lacking behind Washington and Oregon in the North Division. Vegas odds back up the notion that Utah is probably the third best team in the conference. The preseason odds listen Oregon and Washington as tied for the favorite to win the conference with +260 odds. Utah was slightly behind those teams with +500 odds. No other team in the conference had better odds than +1000 outside of those three teams.
The discrepancy between the gambling odds and the media poll can be found in how the poll was conducted. In determining the division winners, media voted on how each team would finish in the division and teams were rewarded points based on where they were positioned. A team received six points for a first-place vote in the division and one point for a last-place vote. The team with the most points was deemed the division favorite. This explains how Washington State received a first-place vote but was still picked to finish fourth in the North.
The way the media chooses a conference title game winner is different. Each media member was simply asked to pick which team would win the title. There was no points system, no ranking of teams, only a total number of votes on who the champion would be. Utah ended up with 12 votes to win the championship, Oregon and Washington both received 11, USC received two, and Washington State received a single vote.
Essentially, Washington and Oregon split the vote on who would win the conference. Each team received 17 first place votes in the North Division, and they received an equal share of votes to win the entire conference. If you asked voters who the best teams in the conference were, a majority of them would likely list Oregon and Washington before getting to Utah. However, if you were to ask voters which team the safest bet is to win the conference, the preseason poll showed that Utah is going to lead in that category.
It all comes to down to divisions. The South is a far more volatile division, but it also lacks a strong team outside of Utah. USC is an enigma with a high ceiling, but betting on the Trojans is incredibly risky. Utah’s path to the conference title game runs through Los Angeles on September 20, and if they can win that game against USC, it should be smooth sailing from there.
Washington and Oregon may be more talented but playing in the North together means that they will have to go through each other. The North also has a consistently solid Stanford, a strong Washington State team, and a Cal team with one of the best defenses in the country. Trying to pick a winner in that division is far more difficult than in the South. Though in reality, it will probably be Washington again.
We as people like to be right, but at the very least we don’t want to look really dumb after the fact. It’s what leads people to make safe choices rather than risky choices with a higher payoff (someday one of these African princes will actually make me a millionaire, I’m sure). So, when media members were filling out a poll and they had a choice between a safe bet in Utah to win the conference or a risky bet in trying to pick which North team will be in the title game, many just rolled with Utah and the safe bet. Add in Washington and Oregon perfectly splitting the remaining votes, and that’s how Utah ended up as the team with most votes and the preseason favorite to win the conference.
This poll doesn’t reveal that Utah has suddenly emerged as the odds-on favorite to win the conference. Instead it illustrates that most voters feel that Utah should win the South Division with little resistance from the other division members. While Washington and Oregon are considered more talented, their paths to the conference title are more treacherous than what Utah will face.
Ultimately, this poll won’t have any actual impact other than annoying every other Pac-12 team. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a landmark moment for the program. Media perception is a vital part of college football. The more respected Utah is on a national level, the more it will help the program going forward.
Of course, this poll won’t help Utah win any actual games, but it is nice to feel important and respected. It also means that Kyle Whittingham is going to have to find a new way to motivate the team besides using the underdog speech every time. It should be a new challenge for the program.
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