Yes, that's what I said. The pre-season college football rankings are absolutely the most important poll of the year, at least if you think your school has a chance to be #1 at the end of the year. That can't be right, you say -- surely a poll taken before anyone has played a game is the least important. Here is my reasoning:
In theory, voters in the college football polls each week come up with their current ranking of teams, which in theory could be very different from how they ranked things the previous week. In practice, however, voters start with their rankings of the previous week and then make adjustments up and down for individual teams based on that week's game results. The result is as I described in the comment thread of this post at the Sports Economist:
In effect, the college football rankings are a bit like a tennis ladder. Each
week, losers drop down 3-8 spots and all the winners and no-plays move up to
fill in the vacated spots. Sometimes a team will leapfrog another, but that is
rare and it is extremely rare to leapfrog more than 1 or 2 spots. In this sense, the
initial football poll is the most critical, since only those in the top 10-15
have any chance of moving up the ladder to #1.
In effect, the pre-season poll is the baseline off which all future polls start. I haven't done the research, but you could probably refine my statement in last sentence above to a set of rules such as:
- A three-loss team can never win the championship
- A two-loss team can win but only if they start in the top 5 of the pre-season poll
- A one-loss team can win but only if they start in the top 15
- An undefeated team can win even if they were left out of the initial top 25, but only if they play in a major conference. A minor conference team, even undefeated, will not ever end up #1 unless they started the season in the top 25.
Again, the numbers in these rules may not be exactly right, but I think they are directionally correct. This is what I call my theory of College Football Calvinism (the religion, not the cartoon character) since one's ultimate fate is in large part pre-ordained by the polls even before the season is born. So, if your alma mater has any shot at the title, you should hope your AD is out there in the summer lobbying the writers like hell to up their pre-season poll standings. Every spot you gain in the pre-season poll is one you don't have to win on the playing field.