Is it too early to start thinking about the 2006 college football landscape? Of course not. Today's entry is inspired by two recent articles, as well as one of 2005's best.
Last year, LD from Gunslingers wrote an indelible post about "narrative" and mass media news coverage, sports or otherwise. His point was a broad one: that profit-driven giant media seek predictability. To that end, they drive the stories to fit their preconceived plans for coverage.
In the world of sports, the effect may be the strongest of all, where ESPN has a virtual monopoly on college football news coverage. Thus, if ESPN has decided that Texas and USC are the top two teams, destined to meet in the Rose Bowl, then that's the story that's going to be hammered over and over. Inconvenient teams that don't fit that story are at a distinct disadvantage. Not only do they have to win their football games, they have to overcome a bias in the way teams are covered; and in college football, how teams are covered affects how teams are ranked.
Of course, sometimes reality and the narrative coincide neatly. Texas and USC were the two best teams last year; fortunately, they both ran the table and everyone got what they wanted.
But we only need look back to 2004 to see that it doesn't always work out that way. In that year, you recall, USC and Oklahoma were the darlings of the year. Auburn, not in the narrative when the season began, became that inconvenient story. And in the end, they never got their chance to compete for the national title. So sorry.
The point, of course, is that the narrative matters. When you're looking at a team's chances to compete in the national title game, or even to get an at-large BCS bid, you'd be unwise not to look beyond just the players headed to the field. You'd better take a close look at their role in the narrative, too.
So what about 2006?
Two recent articles, one here at College Football Resource and another here at College Football News are jumping in on one of the big themes of the 2006 narrative: Brady Quinn and Notre Dame. CFR wonders, prudently, I think, whether the same fans that complained of USCPN will be equally annoyed by NDSPN this year. It's important to predict the Notre Dame hype: as noted above, there are very clear and very real advantages to being a part of the narrative -before- the season begins. Sometimes, it's not enough to just win all your games.
And that's why you can ink in Notre Dame to the national title game if they win all their games. Of course, if they win all their games, they'll likely deserve a slot in that game anyway. But here's where it gets interesting. One thing I think you'll hear a lot this year is that all the teams have a critical weakness or two that they'll be trying to overcome. There don't appear to be any USC- or Texas-loaded teams that clearly have all their bases covered.
Ohio State lost 39 defensive starters to the NFL. USC lost two Heisman winners. Vince Young is now a Titan. Notre Dame's defense is unproven. And so on.
Could this be the year that there are NO undefeated teams left standing come January? It's a real possibility, and the scram among the one-loss teams would be electrifying, and not necessarily in a good way. In this scenario, it's pretty much -entirely- going to come down to the narrative. Those that cover the teams will be the ones to decide which team will get to compete for the title. Think Notre Dame might have an advantage there? Bet on it.
And what about Texas? The Horns are fortunate. As defending champions, Texas is automatically a big part of the narrative, and will be given every chance to defend their title in the event that they're a part of a logjam at the top. The winner of the Texas-Ohio State game (which will be hyped to no end by ESPN/ABC), is the most likely candidate to latch on to a #1 ranking. For Texas, it's simple: win and they're in. Same for Notre Dame. Same for Ohio State.
As the 2006 season grows nigh, watch closely what stories are being driven. Where will Shelly Smith be planted this year? Which team will Steve Cyphers be latched onto? Which safe pick will Kirk Herbstreit pimp from day one on? Why? Because it matters.