Claiming that preseason polls are meaningless is a half-truth. To the vast majority of teams, it’s irrelevant. They’ll likely end the season in a much different position than where they started. But let’s say a team is ranked in the top 5. At that point, all they have to do is win, and regardless of how impressive or unimpressive they are, that team will likely find a permanent fixture among college football’s elite despite not playing at an elite level (i.e. Florida State in 2014, Michigan State in 2015).
So while most write off preseason polls as simply a hype mechanism, the rankings do make a difference. Since 2011, only one team has proceeded to win the National Championship after entering the season ranked outside the top 10 (Florida State in 2013 at No. 11). Only three of the 12 College Football Playoff teams weren’t given top-10 preseason respect.
This past Monday, the AP preseason poll was released. At the top were the usual suspects: Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, Clemson, etc. After a dispiriting 2016 campaign that divided its fan base even further down the middle, the Tennessee Vols found themselves ranked at the bottom of the top-25 poll.
As is tradition in Knoxville, the decision to even rank the Vols was controversial.
On one side, fans are encouraged that Tennessee is still a respected program under Butch Jones. On the other side, fans are wondering how a program led by Butch that suffered drastic losses in both its roster and coaching staff could even sniff the top 25.
But even the most pessimistic fan could agree with this: Tennessee deserves to be ranked ahead of Florida.
My only question for Florida’s ranking over Tennessee is this: Why?
It’s obviously a reputation pick and points out a serious flaw in the voting process. It’s laziness to the highest degree because there isn’t a single, solitary logical argument for the Gators’ outrageous position in the ranking at No. 17.
However, that’s what happens when you back your way into back-to-back SEC East crowns, while the program that should’ve won both times squanders away the throne with stunning loss after stunning loss.
Clearly, the voters haven’t Googled “Florida football.” If they had, it’s clear as day that both teams face nearly identical issues.
A common talking point against Tennessee is the uncertainty surrounding its quarterback competition, which is simply untrue. There are rumblings around the program that Quinten Dormady not only won the starting job, but did so quite some time ago. Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on between Dormady and Jaret Guarantano, the Vols at least have a quarterback.
The same can’t be said for Florida, who, according to head coach Jim McElwain, are considering a 3-quarterback system during its opener against Michigan. To put fuel on the dumpster fire, an additional seven players are suspended, including star wide receiver/Tennessee killer Antonio Callaway. Not only are none of Florida’s quarterbacks not sufficient enough to convincingly win the job, but they may have nobody to throw to. At the very least, Dormady has Jauan Jennings and a host of young, athletic receivers who resemble Callaway’s talents.
Under Larry Scott — who said Tennessee’s offensive system isn’t changing — Dormady is looking at a 18-22 touchdown season with under ten interceptions. Not eye-popping numbers, but enough to complement John Kelly, who rushed for 630 yards on 6.4 YPC last season. Florida’s Jordan Scarlett was impressive — 899 yards on 5.0 YPC — but again, Florida can’t decide between three quarterbacks, and it isn’t because they’re all Baker Mayfield.
The Vols and Gators match each other blow-for-blow in other areas. Tennessee lost its top two defensive ends? Florida lost its top two cornerbacks. The Vols lost Jalen Reeves-Maybin, their best linebacker last season, to the Detroit Lions? The Gators lost Jarrad Davis, their best linebacker last season, to the Detroit Lions.
This scenario between Tennessee and Florida isn’t as impactful on the college football landscape because both teams rank outside the top 15 and play each other early in the season, but it’s an oversight on the voters part to put a team that ranked 84th in offensive efficiency last season to a team that ranked 20th, especially when that team arguably got worse on offense. Although Florida’s secondary may overcome the quality talent it lost, Tennessee’s defensive backfield is an experienced bunch that held opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage of merely 55 percent in 2016.
At the end of the season, Tennessee might not be ranked in the top 25 or ranked ahead of Florida, but as of today, there’s absolutely zero reason to suggest that the Gators are better than the Vols.