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UCLA Football: Alamo Bowl Consolation Prize for Not Meeting Preseason Expectations

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The AP Preseason Poll featured all four National Semifinalists among their top five teams. Oklahoma was #4. Clearly a major miss. But who else was a major miss? The Bruins.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The AP Preseason Poll voters did an outstanding job in predicting the top four teams in the country. Florida State was #1 and is playing in the Rose Bowl. Alabama was #2 and is playing in the Sugar Bowl. Oregon was #3 and is playing in the Rose Bowl.  And Ohio State was #5 and is playing in the Sugar Bowl. Clearly these voters had their thinking caps on. Here is the preseason top 25.

But the voters clearly missed the mark big time on certain schools. Who were the biggest disappointments, and who were the biggest pleasant surprises?

As a thought exercise, I went through the preseason top 25, and placed them in Bowl games, based on conference pecking orders, and bowl tie-in rules, including factors that the Bowl Committee is supposed to use in allocating teams to the top six bowls. This is obviously all pure speculation. But there are some obvious discrepancies in terms of preseason top 25 picks and where teams actually wound up.

First, as a premise, if you are supposed to go the national semifinals, and you don't, your season is disappointing. If you are supposed to be in a top six bowl, and you aren't, your season is disappointing. If you are in the national semifinals, and you weren't supposed to be, your season is a pleasant surprise. If you are in a top six bowl, and you weren't supposed to be, your season is a pleasant surprise.

And finally, if you wind up in a bowl game which is at least two places lower in the conference pecking order than where you would have been based on preseason rankings, then your season is disappointing. And if you wind up in a bowl game which is at least two places higher than where you would have been based on preseason rankings, then your season is a pleasant surprise. These last two categories are more problematic, because the bowls don't pick in strict order of final standings, but nonetheless, if you thought you were going to Arlington and you wind up in Shreveport, it is hard not to be disappointed.

We will start with a comparison of Preseason Ranking to final College Football Playoff Ranking. This has a small fruit salad problem (apples and oranges), because the AP voters could be using different criteria than the Playoff voters. But since the Playoff votes determine the top six polls, this is a comparison we should make.

With that, here are the teams which declined the most versus preseason rankings, in order of magnitude of decrease-

Oklahoma-  #5 preseason, not ranked final playoff ranking

South Carolina- #9 preseason, not ranked final ranking

Auburn- #6 preseason, #19 final ranking

UCLA- #7 preseason, #14 final ranking

All four of these teams should have been in top six bowl games, but are not.

Continuing with teams who should not have been in top six bowl games, but nonetheless still disappointed, in order of magnitude of decrease-

Stanford- #11 preseason, not ranked final ranking

LSU- #13 preseason, #23 final ranking

$C- #15 preseason, #24 final ranking

Notre Dame- #17 preseason, not ranked final ranking

There could be various reasons for these results. Perhaps the team was hit by injuries. Perhaps the team was overrated. Perhaps the team was outcoached. My presumption is that if a team has as many or more all-conference selections as other teams in the conference, but finishes down in the standings, then there is a coaching issue. This does not necessarily mean that the head coach is over his head, but the coaching staff, including the coordinators and other assistants, did appear to not get the most out of the team. Again, as in a previous post, ideally the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. The sum of the parts is the number of all-conference players. The whole is the position in the standings.

Based on a cursory examination of most of these teams, here is my take. Others with more knowledge of particulars, please chime in.

Oklahoma- would have played in the Sugar Bowl based on preseason poll, wound up in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Oklahoma was tied with Baylor for the most 1st and 2nd team all-conference selections, and yet wound up 5-4 in conference play, three games out of first, including an ugly loss to Oklahoma State. Coaching?

The flip side in the Big 12, by the way, is TCU, which was not ranked in the preseason top 25, but wound up in the Peach Bowl as co-champions of the conference. TCU had one fewer all-conference selection than Oklahoma, but wound up 8-1 in conference play. The sum of the parts is solid, and the whole is even greater.

South Carolina- would have played in a top six bowl game based on preseason poll, possibly the Cotton Bowl, wound up in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl in Shreveport. This seems to be a function of being overrated and having coaching issues. The Gamecocks only had three players make 1st or 2nd team all-conference, tied for 7th best in the conference. And they have a 6-6 record to show for their troubles, 3-5 in the conference.

Auburn- would have played in a top six bowl game based on preseason poll, possibly the Peach Bowl, wound up in the Outback Bowl. As a general rule of thumb, if you wind up in a bowl named after a restaurant chain, you didn't do as well as you might have. This also seems to be a function of being overrated. The Gamecocks only had four all-conference perfomers, good for 6th best in the conference. And Auburn wound up 4-4 in conference, about what could be expected for a middle of the pack team in a division which would be considered extremely tough by ESPN, and moderately tough by Pac-12 South followers.

The flip side in the SEC is represented by Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Mississippi State was unranked in the preseason top 25, but wound up in the Orange Bowl. Mississippi State is tied for 4th in terms of all-conference selections. So in this case, the whole seems greater than the sum of the parts. Ole Miss was ranked #19 in the preseason top 25, which should have put them in the Music City Bowl or similar. Instead, they are in the Peach Bowl. They are tied for the 2nd most all-conference selections. So at least from a distance, it appears that they were underrated at #19, and the whole and the sum of the parts are both solid.

This brings us to the Bruins. UCLA was ranked #7 in the Preseason Top 25. If the pollsters were right, we would have won the South and played Oregon for the Pac-12 championship. And even with losing, we would have wound up in a top six bowl, probably the Fiesta Bowl. Instead we are headed to San Antonio for the Valero Alamo Bowl. As another general rule of thumb, if you wind up in a bowl named after off-brand gasoline, you didn't do as well as you might have.

We have nine all-conference selections, tied with Oregon for most in the Pac-12. So we weren't overrated. We were basically healthy in terms of returning 2013 all-conference mentions who avoided injury, other than Randall Goforth. So what is left? Coaching. UCLA is clearly an instance where the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

That takes care of the teams who would have been expected to play in a top six bowl game but did not. Moving one rung down, there are two other Pac-12 teams which underperformed by quite a bit compared to preseason expectations in the polls. Stanford was #11 in the preseason top 25, and wound up unranked. Based on preseason rankings, Stanford would have expected to wind up somewhere like the Alamo Bowl. Instead they are playing in the Niners House of Horrors in the Foster Farms Bowl. Stanford clearly had big holes coming into the season, so expectations might have been too high. But the Cardinal still wound up with the third most all-conference selections, while finishing with the 6th best conference record. This seems to be a case where in-game strategy decisions by the coaching staff hurt, not that you could tell this by how Stanford ran circles around us. For Stanford, the whole is less than the sum of the parts, thanks in no small part to coaching philosophy.

And we have $C, which was #15 in the preseason poll, but wound up #24 in the final College Football Playoff standings. $C wound up in the Holiday Bowl, which is about where they would have expected to wind up based on the preseason ranking, but this is more a function of a favorable decision by the bowl organizers than it is a reward for a good season. When the pollsters released their ballots, they did not know that Josh Shaw would jump off a balcony and then claim to be the 2nd coming of Lassie saving Shaw's nephew. But this does not begin to explain $C's final result. It all comes down to the following- these guys are just SC. They wound up tied for 4th in terms of all-conference selections, and they wound up tied for 5th in overall record. So they did what you would expect a mediocre team to do. They were overrated. They are just $C.

The final disappointing team in the conference was Washington. The Huskies were ranked #25 in the preseason top 25. And Washington is going to the Cactus Bowl, which is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to Pac-12 bowl game tie-ins. Washington only had three all-conference 1st or 2nd team players, tied for 6th most in the conference. And Washington wound up with the 8th best conference record. I think what the AP voters did not appreciate was that Chris Peterson walked into a program which had been run with $C standards, and therefore Peterson had to do so some major unclogging of the sewer lines.

On the flip side in the Pac-12, we have Arizona. The Wildcats were unranked in the Preseason Top 25. They only had two all-conference selections, tied for 8th best in the conference. Only Washington State, Colorado and Cal had fewer selections. And yet Arizona won the South, beat Oregon in the regular season, and will be in the Fiesta Bowl. One word- coaching. The whole was definitely greater than the sum of the parts. And Rich Rodriguez understandably won coach of the year honors in the Pac-12.

As a final note, our Alamo Bowl opponent, Kansas State, was ranked #20 in the preseason top 25. And the Wildcats wound up #11 in the final Playoff rankings. Kansas State would have been reasonably predicted to wind up in the Alamo Bowl and that is where they wound up. Kansas State was one of four teams in the Big 12 which each had seven or eight all-conference selections. And they wound up in 3rd place, one game behind the co-leaders. The sum of the parts is solid. And the whole is solid. That is what good coaching does.

So we wound up in the same place as Kansas State- the Alamo Bowl. The difference is that based on preseason expectations and the number of all-conference performers, this is a step down for us and the right destination for K State.

We need to follow Oregon's path and use the Alamo Bowl as a stepping stone to a super season in the following year. The path starts now. Go Bruins !!