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January 21, 2011

Preseason Polls: Little respect for Florida

Before the 2010 Florida football season started, reporters asked senior defensive end Justin Trattou if the team felt disrespected by their No. 4 ranking in the Associated Press' preseason poll.

Trattou explained that the ranking meant nothing to the team one way or the other because there was still an entire season left to be played.

In retrospect, after an 8-5 season, Trattou should've been answering questions about whether the Gators were overrated at that No. 4 spot -- one spot behind Texas, which finished the season 5-7 and bowl ineligible.

On the other side of the spectrum, eventual national champion Auburn was ranked in the last five spots of most everyone's top-25 poll.

Still, media and fans alike love to speculate about next season as soon as the crystal ball is hoisted and the confetti drops on the current season.

Two months away from Spring Practice and two weeks away from National Signing Day, most major publications have already released their 2011 preseason rankings.

The Gators are unranked by Rivals.com, listed on the first five out by SI.com, nestled in at No. 23 on ESPN.com and, almost unthinkably, sit locked in a tie for the No. 25 spot with Central Florida on CBSSports.com.

So what's holding UF back?

"They didn't win a lot of games last year, that's what's holding them back," said college football writer Andy Staples, who is solely responsible for SI's rankings. "Would I be shocked if UF ended up in the top-10 this year? Not one bit."

Staples is committed to his rankings, but knows what many lose perspective on: It's impossible for anyone to know exactly how good a team will be seven months from now.

And that includes the teams themselves.

Staples quickly pointed to Auburn as a case study. Obviously, the media didn't know how good Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton and the Tigers would be prior to their first game against Arkansas State on Sept. 4.

But the bigger issue was that not even Auburn head coach Gene Chizik knew how good Newton would be. Chizik said as much in the weeks leading up to the BCS National Championship Game, admitting he didn't realize how special Newton was as a runner until a few games into the schedule.

"The problem is there's a lot of guesswork involved and really all you have is who they're bringing back and what they did last year," Staples said.

The Gators are bringing back a lot of inexperienced players after losing 11 starters a year ago, and a seven-win regular season is a down year for UF by anyone's standards.

As importantly, for the first time in the last six season Urban Meyer will not be the head coach at Florida, and only three assistant coaches will return from last year's staff.

Some think that the overhaul of the coaching staff after Meyer's retirement might be the breath of fresh air the program needs to rebound quickly, but uncertainty does not a high ranking make.

"That'd be a tough sell for me," said David Fox, one of the voters on the Rivals.com poll. "I don't think you would say that it needed to happen."

Staples said he fully expects new head coach Will Muschamp and his new staff to return the Gators to prominence sooner rather than later, but too many questions loom for the upcoming season to rank them highly.

Staples and Fox, both UF graduates and former Gators beat writers, had serious reservations about UF's quarterback situation, which remains unresolved after an ugly nine-touchdown, 10-interception by incumbent John Brantley in 2010.

But Fox said there's a general feeling that program's like UF tend to bounce back.

"I don't think (a disappointing year) hurts a Florida or a Texas," Fox said. "You look at a Florida or Texas and say, 'They can't be down for that long.' You give them the benefit of the doubt more so than, say, a Cincinnati."

Fox expects movement in his rankings after National Signing Day, when verbal commitments and rumor give way to the permanence of ink, while Staples plans to re-do his rankings after Spring Practice, when he has a better feel for depth charts and player development.

"If you told me last year on Signing Day that Trey Burton would've been the most important freshman in Florida's class, I would've laughed at you," Staples said.

Though Staples and Fox know their rankings are far from gospel, they were adamant about the validity of producing these self-described "way-too-early" looks into the future. Even if it means a team like Auburn has to work it's way up a pecking order crafted by educated guesses to get to the top of the coaches' poll, which releases a preseason poll and factors into the BCS formula.

"Ideally, there wouldn't be any rankings until October, but that's never going to happen because readers are obsessed with rankings," Staples said. "They may not admit it, but when we put our new rankings out, it's the most viewed college football story each week."

For Fox, the problem isn't putting teams at a disadvantage without having seen them play, it's a potential unwillingness to change the rankings once a team shows its true colors.

And that's good news for Gators fans because there's a lot of room for Staples, Fox, ESPN and CBS to move Florida up the ladder if the Gators can provide answers for all the questions about the new era in The Swamp.

"As long as you're not beholden to your rankings once the season starts, there's not a problem with it," Fox said. "If you want to move your No. 25 to No. 2, I don't see a problem with it."

Preseason Polls
Rivals.com: Early, Early Preseason Top 25
CBSSportsline: First preseason Top 25: SEC's other Tigers start at No. 1
Sports Illustrated: Loaded Oklahoma, Oregon headline way-too-early look at 2011 Top 25
ESPN: Oklahoma Sooners reload in 2011


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