It can be difficult to alter perception, and nowhere is that tougher to do than in the world of college football.
What else would preseason rankings have to lean on if not for perception? With nothing but past performance to use as a gauge — in a sport where the rosters change from year to year — the preseason rankings shape the perception of that season.
Whether it was a combination of human polls and computers, as it was in the BCS era, or with the selection committee of the new College Football Playoff, that perception matters.
And now that perception — at least for this year — has taken a dramatic shift.
The season-ending injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has a team ranked No. 5 in the preseason Associated Press poll and a favorite to reach the inaugural playoff suddenly plummeting.
“Obviously, just devastating news for Ohio State,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “You could argue Braxton Miller is as important to his team as any player in the sport of college football in 2014.”
Herbstreit, and many others, believe Miller alone makes the Buckeyes one of the best teams in the country. That perception chooses to ignore many other potential issues at Ohio State, like the inexperience of the offensive line, the loss of one of the top running backs in the Big Ten and filling a couple of large holes on defense.
But no matter, Miller is gone and, so it appears, are the Buckeyes’ chances of winning the conference title and reaching the playoffs.
The problem with these perceptions are what they do to the rest of the Big Ten.
Lack of elite teams
In the eyes of college football, the Big Ten was already a conference devoid of many elite teams. The presence of Miller and coach Urban Meyer allowed Ohio State into that club and made a victory over the Buckeyes a potential feather in the cap for their opponents.
That would have been the case for Michigan State, the other favorite in the Big Ten. But now their showdown on Nov. 8 has lost some luster.
“To go from Braxton Miller to a couple quarterbacks who have hardly any experience, I think it opens up the conference,” Herbstreit said, “and it goes from Ohio State, in my opinion, being the favorite to win the Big Ten, to just overnight, Michigan State now is the team to beat in the Big Ten.”
Which is just fine except winning the Big Ten guarantees nothing. Ohio State now being viewed as a weaker team hurts the entire conference, including Michigan State. Same goes for Michigan, and Iowa, and Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Making the playoff field of four was already going to be difficult for a Big Ten team. Ohio State and Michigan State were seen as the only possibilities – or at least that was the perception.
Now many believe Michigan State will have to run the table, including a win at Oregon, for a chance.
That’s right, just a chance to reach the final four.
And the groundwork is already being laid to make the Big Ten’s run – and Michigan State’s specifically – to the playoff an even more difficult one.
You guessed it – perception.
“Very few people expect Michigan State to be able to go into that environment and get out of (Oregon) with a win,” Herbstreit said. “If they’re able to win that game and make a run through the Big Ten, it would be very hard to keep Michigan State out of the final four (playoff teams) based on what they’ve already established under Mark Dantonio.”
Record of success
Michigan State has won 42 games since 2010 along with two conference titles and three bowl victories. It has won at every venue in Big Ten and has beaten Pac-12 and SEC teams at neutral sites.
So why do few people believe the Spartans can go to Oregon and win with an offense finding its stride and a defense that has been among the best in the nation over the past three years?
Because the Spartans are not Ohio State or Michigan – the “traditional” powers. And with those teams down, that means the Big Ten is, as well.
“I think they’re a very trendy, very kind of hot program right now,” Herbstreit said of Michigan State.
It’s that description that illustrates how Michigan State is viewed – a good team but not really a true contender. And with Ohio State now seen as less than elite, the Spartans and the rest of the conference should step aside for the real powerhouses.
Forget the fact not a single game has been played, but the Big Ten is already fighting an uphill battle.
At least, that’s the perception.