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January 5, 2008

New Years Bowls Shape Preseason Polls

NEW ORLEANS -- The bowl season is a lot like the Iowa caucuses.

Both take place in midwinter. And both help shape the voters' choices in the fall.

That's why Georgia coach Mark Richt began stumping for his Bulldogs a few minutes after their resounding 41-10 victory over Hawaii in the Bourbon Street primary, otherwise known as the Sugar Bowl.

Normally, a tradition-laden Southeastern Conference squad wouldn't squawk much about pounding a Western Athletic Conference opponent. But Richt used the occasion as a platform to pander for votes.

"We hope we're ranked high preseason," Richt said. "I think we're going to return a very good football team."

Richt went on to say that projecting success in the SEC is "pretty brash. And I'm not going to do that. But I do think that we're going to have a more veteran team than we've had in a while, and I think we'll have some good depth, and I think we'll have a chance to make a run at it."

The message Richt was trying to get across to the voters: don't forget the Dawgs when you fill out your ballots next summer.

This is one of the chronic problems in college football. You thought NASCAR was the only sport where poll position matters?

LSU finished second in the BCS standings, right where it began in the coaches and media polls last August. The Tigers' high preseason position came in handy when they lost -- twice.

Certainly, Richt knows this; Georgia was 13th in both preseason polls and couldn't overcome its two losses.

The voters can always surprise us, as this week's results from Iowa underscored. Just don't be stunned if UGA and Friends are No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today coaches poll next August.

Georgia's breathtaking mix of strength and speed in the Sugar will be among the passel of impressions left on the pollsters during this bowl season.

They'll remember West Virginia's ballcarriers weaving through the Oklahoma Sooners as if they were traffic cones.

The Mountaineers return quarterback Pat White, who ran for 150 yards and passed for 176 more and two touchdowns. Tailback Steve Slaton hasn't said whether he'll come back for his senior year. If he doesn't return, West Virginia will plug in freshman tailback Noel Devine, who tore through OU for 108 yards and two touchdowns after Slaton left with a hamstring injury.

The voters will remember Missouri's Cotton Bowl rout of an Arkansas team coming off a win over Louisiana State -- in Baton Rouge.

They'll remember Kansas -- 12-1 Kansas, mind you -- turning to its oft-maligned defense to beat Virginia Tech in the Orange; and USC wiping its cleats on Illinois in the Rose.

What do those results have to do with next season? A lot, as far as poll positioning goes.

Look back at the last bowl season, which culminated with Florida crushing Ohio State 41-14 in the BCS title game.

Both teams lost their starting quarterbacks. Both teams returned a ton of talent. But the Gators opened the 2007 season at No. 6 in the AP Top 25, five slots ahead of the Buckeyes.

Likewise, USC opened at No. 1, four slots ahead of the Michigan team it drubbed in the Rose Bowl.

In fact, the top four teams in the 2007 preseason AP Top 25 -- USC, LSU, West Virginia and Texas -- were coming off bowl victories.

Pressed to make intelligent football decisions in the middle of baseball season, the voters pore over media guides and surf the Web until their eyes glaze. They read preseason magazines that go to press around Easter.

Many will make judgments based on what they saw this week.

It's only human. That's the last time any of these teams took a snap, not counting the spring game.

Coaches demand their players think about one game at time. Forget about next week, let alone next year.

Still, players understand their bowl performances will resonate for months.

Georgia defensive end Marcus Howard, the Sugar Bowl MVP, said next season was on the Bulldogs' minds as they battered Hawaii this week.

"We wanted to set them up to be at least (a) top three ranking, I guess top five ranking for the nation," said Howard, a senior.

Likewise, the Sooners hope another fiasco in the Fiesta won't cost them too dearly on next season's first ballots. The 48-28 loss to West Virginia was OU's fourth straight BCS defeat.

"It will stick with us throughout the next year," OU linebacker Curtis Lofton said.

Well, at least through the preseason polls.



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