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Ten Questions For Texas Football: (1) Confronting The Narrative

With the roundtable preview and Texas team capsule posts going up in the last week, it's been something of a preview party around here. A good start anyway, but the collaborative format of both pieces at least somewhat limited me from really digging my teeth deep into the meat of the 2009 season.

It wouldn't be a BON preseason without at least a few monster posts of sufficient length to print and keep you reading through your entire morning coffee break. We're a mere 10 days to kickoff, so join me after the jump for the first of 10 questions which, if I don't sit down to begin tackling today while I have time, will simmer unattended like the other side of a Thayer Evans story.

1. Is Texas well-positioned in the 2009 Narrative?

In our beloved college football universe, our teams are sorted by a system comprised of coaches polls, unknown voter Harris polls, computer polls, and bowl tie-in procedures which, in being so comprehensively senseless, has wound up having the miraculously good fortune of serving what has proven to be the sport's most alluring value: the riveting, high-drama chaos of the regular season. The system's greatest weakness in its own way is its greatest strength: the pervasive lunacy winds up fueling the do-or-die urgency of the regular season, which, of course, is the drug to which all of us fanatics are so hopelessly addicted. (Which drug would it be, I wonder. Mescaline, maybe? Or better yet, ketamine.  Friend: "Uh, do you realize how crazy it is that you're going to ingest dog tranquilizers recreationally?"  Druggie: "Well yeah, but that's what makes it so much fun: there's no predicting what might happen in my K-hole.")

Accidental benefits aside, the system itself is silly enough to merit its own a nursery rhyme -- we use the polls, to rank the teams, to pair them randomly, to fill the bowls, to chase the money -- and that's before we've had a chance to mention the methodscientology used to select the two teams granted the exclusive chance to be crowned champion. Understanding the role of The Narrative in the sport's peculiar coronation rituals begins with a reminder that our chaotic universe is home to several mischievous, powerful gods -- the most powerful and influential of whom is ESPN.  Haters of the broadcasting behemoth might characterize ESPN's power as meddlesome and self-serving, but even if we limit ourselves to the most charitable analysis of its position, there's no escaping the conclusion that ESPN is enormously influential. It's certainly still true in 2009 that national media coverage is something of a zero sum game, with winners and losers, as determined by ESPN each time they choose which games to kickoff in primetime, the school they'll visit for Game Day, the conference whose television rights they decide to purchase, the depth of treatment they give to a game or team in the preview/highlight shows, and, of course, the storylines Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, and the ubiquitous talking heads decide to breathe life into, or ignore.

So what is The Narrative? At the most general level, it refers to the idea that college football is more than what teams settle on the field of play. Whether looking at one season for one team, a program over a period of years, or a five-game losing streak to a rival, college football discussion has always seemed to me to be a heavily narrative-/storyline-driven enterprise. Benign as that may prove in any given instance, when we shift discussion to the crowning of a season champion, we return to the looney realm of the rankings compiled in various polls and computers. Helpful as the system's madness can be for regular season drama, as far as crowning a champion among 119 teams who only play 12 opponents, it's one of the lousiest ad hoc systems imaginable.

It's here that The Narrative's importance is most profound. In 2004, Auburn failed to win a national title despite running the regular season table. Why? The sport allows only two teams to compete for the crystal trophy, there were three undefeated squads at the end of the 2004 regular season, the other two (USC and OU) were assigned dominant roles in the preseason storyline, and Auburn, barely ranked in the Top 25 to begin the year, was the outside surprise team, forced to find a way to leapfrog the two title bout favorites entrenched in the 2004 Narrative since August.

Or consider even more recent history and a story closer to home -- the 2008 Longhorns. No need to rehash all the gory details; the point here is to note the tangible effects that narratives/storylines can and do produce. The problem last year wasn't that the Big 12 had a flawed tiebreaker system, but rather that countless dopes gave the Sooners the boost they needed to inch ahead of Texas in the final BCS Standings. Lest anyone doubt the power of these narratives, consider that last year's voters had to buy into the OU narratives at the expense of the teams' head-to-head match up. Plane banners, asterisks, tiebreakers... the season was an absolute circus, but Texas was victimized as much by the ease with which a substantial number of poll jockeys and pundits created, built up, and adopted the mostly shallow narratives of the OU late-season surge... if only, perhaps, because of the 2008 preseason narrative.

Consider two of the most popular storylines that fueled the Oklahoma surge:

  • Did the streak of 60-point games demonstrate the 2008 Sooners, as the storyline went, might be fielding the greatest offensive team of all-time? Not bloody likely, but Stoops' dog and pony show was enough of an excuse for the voteratti to retreat to preseason expectations: Oklahoma, not Texas, was the title team.
  • Did Oklahoma's drubbing of Texas Tech in Norman create a three-way free-for-all, liberating voters from fairly weighting Texas' neutral field win over Oklahoma? Maybe for an automaton, but it was devastating to watch so many human beings demonstrate so little common sense in evaluating the Big 12 South's one-loss triangle. Certainly for some voters, "tie goes to the head-to-head winner" in this case meant "winner of preseason expectations."

Masochists can continue on with the list if they please, but my interest here is not re-fighting last year's ranking wars, but to suggest that the Sooners prevailed at least as much on their position at the beginning of the season, as their position at its end. And just like that, a mere thousand words later, the question presented can be addressed: Is Texas well-positioned in the 2009 season narrative?

Throughout the spring and early summer, the feeling among most Texas fans was that the team seemed likely to get a starring role in the 2009 preseason narrative. And indeed they are: with days to opening kickoff, the recent releases of the AP and Coaches Polls, in conjunction with a steady stream of media buzz establishing expectations and title-favorite storylines, the stage is very nicely set for Mack Brown and the 2009 Longhorns.

The most obvious positive -- Texas' #2 rank in both preseason polls -- is also the most important. For starters, the possibility of Texas missing the Rose Bowl as an undefeated team dramatically dissipates with the preseason edge over other perceived contenders. That's not to say undefeated Texas couldn't get leaped by, for example, undefeated USC (#4 in both preseason polls, with a markedly more challenging non-conference schedule), a team which fans might worry could be the beneficiaries of a surge of mid-season support much like that which elevated the Sooners down the stretch a year ago. It's certainly possible, but so long as we're talking about undefeated Texas, the critical difference is that in elevating Oklahoma at the end of last season, voters were, in effect, restoring the Sooners to their preseason perch in the title game and above Texas; by contrast, voters belatedly elevating an undefeated USC over undefeated Texas would be abandoning the preseason storyline. I'm not suggesting inertia of that type is a good thing just because Texas is poised to benefit this time around, but to those in the fanbase who believe that for the Longhorns, "They win and they're in," the preseason polls only help.

(Parenthetically, I'm not at all confident that Texas' preseason ranking would provide equal value should the team slip into a scrum of one-loss teams. With a loss on its resume, the dreadful non-conference schedule would negate most, if not all, of the positive value from the preseason pole position. While any number of scenarios, including a 2007-style vacuum at the top, could result in one-loss Texas playing for the title, in all likelihood, it's equally true that this year "They lose and they're out.")

Beyond the actual poll positions, an encouraging amount of the intangible, fluffy, conventional wisdom (read: preseason narrative) that I've seen thus far supports an optimistic assessment of Texas' position in the 2009 Narrative. The vast majority of all the mainstream chatter is centered on soft storylines and surface-level analysis that is no more substantive than much of the nonsense that fueled OU's surge last fall. Nonetheless, so long as this crap matters in our little sport, I'll follow and evaluate it. Happily, the 2009 Longhorns appear poised to benefit from all manner of intangible goodies, ranging from the sentimental ("Awww, last year's heartbreak was unfair for Texas!") to the convenient ("The parallels with Texas 2005 are... an irresistible talking point! Destiny unbound!") to the revelatory ("Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy are the perfect Jesus Christ Superstars. We must pair them, and their teams, so help me God.").

Take it or leave it, but so long as we have to ask the question, it's nice that the answer is the one we want to hear.

Personally? I've got right here all I need to cast my vote for Texas.