The Associated Press’ decision to let the voters in its preseason football poll change their votes after Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off the LSU team added validity to the rankings and helped the Tigers out along the way.
The unexpected departure of Mathieu, the most dynamic player on the team, would force any reasonable person to take a second look at their expectations for LSU.
Now certainly no cornerback/punt returner’s presence or absence, even that of one as rare as Mathieu, is going to make or break a team’s candidacy to contend for a national championship. But when a Heisman finalist who was voted the best defensive player in the country a year earlier leaves a team, that change can be enough to knock that team down a peg or two in the anticipated championship pecking order.
In this case, it led to 12 voters dropping the Tigers below the No. 1 spot they had assigned to them while Mathieu was on the team. The trickle-down effect led to three voters moving USC up to No. 1 and nine voters moving Alabama up to No. 1.
The net result was the Trojans becoming the preseason No. 1 team, the Crimson Tide No. 2 and LSU dropping to No. 3. The adjusted votes are not unreasonable, and if you’re the Tigers they shouldn’t be unwelcome either.
Had LSU added the AP preseason top billing to the one the coaches had given it before Mathieu’s departure, the talk of the college football world would have this team that lost one of the top players in the country at the 11th hour and still pulled off the double preseason No. 1.
Instead, even though the Mathieu factor was news, the biggest headline regarding the AP poll was USC’s return to No. 1 just a few years after being hit with serious NCAA sanctions resulting from the Reggie Bush scandal.
Coach Lane Kiffin and the Trojans, who happen to operate in the second-largest media market in the U.S., now enter the season with the added baggage of that No. 1 in front of their name as they are expected to immediately return USC to serious national championship contention even though the Trojans haven’t been able to participate in the post-season the past two seasons because of the sanctions.
Even though the Tigers still will enter the season as the coaches’ No. 1 team, the buzz around them is less about expectations and more about uncertainty as to what Mathieu’s absence will ultimately mean, which no one knows.
In the meantime, Mathieu has at least temporarily taken himself out of the headlines by going through drug counseling, and the national media is happily obsessing about USC once again being on top of the college football world — even though no one has played a game.
LSU is beginning classes Monday, and next Monday it will begin preparations for a relatively low-profile opener against unheralded North Texas.
Thus, the Tigers are able to focus internally more than an AP coronation would have allowed, and that’s a good thing.