Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sixth Sense

Back before the 1997-98 basketball season, the Ivy League media poll had Princeton as a unanimous No. 1 selection on the men's side.

At one of the few basketball media days that the league actually held - this one at the World Trade Center - then-Princeton head coach Bill Carmody had this to say when informed of the poll: "We should be."

As any Princeton fan knows, the Tigers tore through the league that year, going 14-0 with only one remotely close game (at Penn in the regular-season finale). Princeton went 27-2 overall that year, with losses only at North Carolina as the Tar Heels moved into the top spot in the national rankings and then to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament (the Spartans would have four of its starters in that game start together two years later as MSU won the NCAA title).

Of course, TigerBlog cannot mention that team without saying this sour grapes-inspired comment: Had Princeton played the equivalent of Temple and Wisconsin in the first two rounds, it would have been a Sweet 16 team just as easily as Cornell was this past year.

And here's a non-sour grapes comment on TB's part: It would be great to somehow see that Princeton team, the Mueller/Jackson Princeton team, last year's Cornell team and the Penn teams of Maloney/Allen/Pierce, Jordan/Langel and Onyekwe/Archibong play some sort of round-robin to determine who the best Ivy team of the last 25 years was.

Anyway, getting back to today's point, the opposite of the 1997-98 men's basketball poll are the 2005 and 2006 football polls.

Let's start with the 2005 poll:
1. Penn, 120 (8)
2. Harvard, 119 (8)
3. Brown, 91
4. Yale, 66
5. Cornell, 63
6. Princeton, 57
7. Dartmouth, 36
8. Columbia, 24

And then the 2005 final standings:
1. Brown
Tie - 2. Princeton/Harvard
Tie - 4. Cornell/Yale
6. Penn
7. Dartmouth
8. Columbia.

In that poll, four teams sort of finished where they were supposed to, but the No. 1 preseason pick finished sixth and the No. 6 finished second (and very, very close to a tie for first).

A year later, the preseason poll was this:
1 Harvard (9) 116
2 Penn (2) 99
3 Brown (3) 94
4 Cornell 79
5 Yale (2) 77
6 Princeton 62
7 Dartmouth 31
8 Columbia 18

And the final standings?
Tie - 1. Princeton/Yale
3. Harvard
Tie - 4. Cornell/Penn
Tie - 6. Columbia/Brown/Dartmouth

In other words, Princeton was supposed to finish sixth in both of those years and finished third and then first. Penn was supposed to finish first one year and finished sixth. Harvard was supposed to finish first in 2006 and finished third, with losses to the preseason No. 5 (Yale) and No. 6 (Princeton), who tied for the championship.

The business of predictions isn't easy. Take Major League Baseball, for instance. This year, on Feb. 6, cbssportsline.com posted some preseason selections. Among them? Seattle to win the AL West and its manager, Don Wakamatsu, to be AL Manager of the West; the Mariners, at 43-70, fired Wakamatsu yesterday.

Of its six divisional selections, only one is in first place today: the Yankees. The Padres, picked last in in the NL West, are currently in first. The Reds and Rangers were picked fourth and third; they are both in first.

For that matter, MLB.com put together five baseball "experts," including heavyweights like Peter Gammons and Hal Bodley to make their preseason predictions. Of the 30 divisional winner selections they made between them (six divisions x five experts), nine of their picks are in first right now, as four picked the Yankees and all five picked either the Twins or White Sox, who are tied.

All five had the Yankees and Red Sox in the playoffs, which means that not one picked the Rays.

On the bright side, you can pick whatever you want, because if you're wrong, no one will remember and if you're right, then you can remind people.

Of all this leads us to this morning's release of the 2010 Ivy League football preseason media poll.

Princeton is, again, picked in what is probably its favorite spot - sixth. In the last three years, Princeton has been picked fourth once and fifth twice, but its best seasons in the last five were the two when it was picked sixth in the preseason.

In fact, going back to 1991, Princeton has averaged a better league finish when picked sixth that it has when picked third, fourth or fifth - and only slightly behind when it was picked second.

The bottom line? When the games get going, none of this is going to matter. Princeton has a new head coach in Bob Surace, which presumably means major changes from years past. Can anyone say right now what Princeton will look like in October and November? Nope.

Still, as TB has said for years, people love to read about what's going to happen next rather than what just happened. To that vein, the release of the poll plays to two important things:

1) people love predictions, whether they be Ivy football media polls, NCAA tournament bracketologies or political polls that say "would you vote for Barack Obama or the Republican, no matter who it is?" that are taken more than two years before the 2012 election.

2) people love football.

The release of the poll is a reaffirmation of the first and a sure sign of the second.

Princeton's No. 6? We'll see - but not in August.

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