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The intellectual tyranny of the preseason poll must end in 2020

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For too long, college football voters have been motivated by fear. This season, let their ballots sing with inspiration.

Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Preseason college football polls have two purposes: to give us something to yell about in the absence of games, and to give us something to laugh about, like “2010 Texas starts the year ranked fifth and finishes 5-7.” Every preseason pol is doomed the moment it is released, since not even the most experienced coach or the most studious beat writer can foresee the weird losses and injuries and unexpectedly emergent players that shape every team’s year.

In normal circumstances, that failure becomes cause for condemnation. Look at these idiot pollsters, who were not exactly right about which teams would be good and the order of their goodness! Sure hope they learn their lesson and do better next year, even though there’s no reason to believe they can!

But at the end of the most disruptive offseason any of us have ever lived through, how can voters be expected to provide an accurate ranking? It’s an impossible task made even more complicated by the fact that you can’t assume any player or coach will make it through the season without a mandated quarantine absence (or, God forbid, far worse, like what Indiana’s Brady Feeney is suffering).

Being largely useless hasn’t stopped the preseason polls before, though. And that’s why, this year, if you’re a voter, you might as well just do whatever you feel like. We’re not talking about small acts of rebellion, liking “putting Michigan at seven instead of nine.” These times demand boldness.

If nothing can really be known, then almost anything is possible. Why not let your ballot reflect that?

The key is to free your brain of its old patterns of thinking. Everything you thought you knew in prior seasons is of no use to you now. That may frighten you, but it should also liberate you. Take new angles, or approach territories that might previously have seemed treacherous or downright impossible to include.

It would be easy, for example, to leave Arkansas off your ballot following a 2-10 year with no SEC victories. After all, they’re working with a new coach who hasn’t run a program since 1993 at Hutchinson Community College, and the Razorbacks have been consistently out-recruited by most of their SEC West competition.

But what if, instead, you thought about how quiet Arkansas has been this offseason? What if you focused on the three games they lost by one score (the other losses clearly being entirely on Chad Morris)? Pretty soon, you’re talking yourself into the Hogs at 17th on your ballot.

You should follow that impulse, because who can prove you’re wrong right now?

Don’t say “Iowa State looked shaky down the stretch last year and then got handled by Notre Dame in Camping World Bowl.” Instead, say “The Cyclones, free from the crushing burden of their annual leg wrestling tournament with Iowa, are poised for big things thanks to Brock Purdy, the most prolific quarterback in college football Brock history.” Now put them ninth. See, wasn’t that easy?

Forget “Maryland only beat one Big Ten opponent and yes, you guessed right, it was Rutgers.” Try “Everything about 2020 has been unthinkable to the point you wonder if you slipped through a crack in spacetime and wound up in some deeply unsettling alternate dimension, so why couldn’t the Terps go undefeated and win the conference?” Sounds like a surefire top five ranking.

Before you know it, you’ve created a ballot that’s a tiny piece of modern art. It’s a statement on the folly of predicting outcomes you can’t control and the dangers of groupthink. It will win you the favor of the fanbases you’ve championed, and the bluebloods you ignored were never going to love you anyways. Most importantly, you will have done a great service.

You will have given me another thing to blog about when I rip your rankings to shreds. That, dear voter, is symbiosis. You are the Associated Press-sanctioned anemone. And I am the clownfish.