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College Football's Divine Comedy: The Inferno Of Expectations

There's no college football curse quite like high expectations, as history tells us one of this year's top-five teams is doomed to plunge into the abyss.

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And halfway through the year's journey I found

Myself lost in a wood of false prediction

For the straightforward way of knowing had been lost.

Ah me! How hard a thing is this to say.

Until I looked upon the works before

And visited the rings of the damned one by one ... mostly by sifting through old rankings and ghastly box scores

-- Not Dante

The college football preseason is a place of boundless promise. Yet it is impossible to have hierarchy without subordination, meaning your hopes in this zero-sum game of football have to find their fuel in someone else's disappointment. Somewhere in college football, someone's going to have to enter the dark underworld of rankings shortfall hell. As the following survey shows, they will not be the first, and certainly not the last.

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Residents: Horace, Hippocrates, Socrates, Julius Caesar, 2009 Florida

Did you know Hell has a vestibule? According to Dante it does, and ironically enough Tim Tebow is forever standing in it in a white road uniform, weeping and kneeling on the sidelines in Atlanta. The 2009 Florida Gators brought back an embarrassment of talent, a preseason No. 1 ranking and not so much in the way of management, cohesion or order.

Believe it or not, Florida's ranked again!

What went wrong? For a long time, nothing, though cracks in the foundation popped up all over the place from the start. Without Percy Harvin, the offense stalled in the redzone. A home game against Arkansas nearly caved in the season before it started, but some truly horrendous officiating bailed out Florida. (Thanks, Marc Curles! Love, Florida football.) The additive impact of coaching staff losses and the impending crack-up of Urban Meyer roiled behind the scenes, and Tim Tebow's concussion against Kentucky spelled out the obvious: eliminate Tebow, and the offense died.

The first circle of Hell isn't that unpleasant. Florida went to the Sugar Bowl and decimated Cincinnati, but the first circle is for those in limbo, the space between one thing and the next. Polls rarely spot the teams on the way to being something else. Florida 2009 slid right along until Alabama sent them into the next world, albeit just to its relatively gentle vestibule.


Residents: Cleopatra, Achilles, Dido, 2010 Alabama

Shutdown Fullback pays tribute to the Tide.

Fresh off a national title, it would be perfectly normal to expect a letdown. Perfectly normal belongs nowhere between the state lines of Alabama, or between the boundaries of preseason polling. Alabama came in at an obvious No. 1 spot, and then the bad weather of the second circle set in and took its toll. (The second circle tortures its victims with constant winds and storms, signifying both the boundless needs of lust, and perhaps the perpetual gusting gales of Paul Finebaum's show.)

Stephen Garcia playing the best game of football he will ever play happened. Injuries happened. Weird lapses in coverage happened. Les Miles happened, and then the worst happened: Cam Newton happened, and Alabama dropped their third loss of the season in the most painful fashion of all to hated rival Auburn. Cam Newton happened to everyone in 2010, but blowing a 24-7 lead qualifies as a particularly painful happening.

They would finish the season by taking out their frustrations on Michigan State, descriptions of which violate even the standards of hell.


Residents: Mostly guys who pissed off Dante, 2006 Texas

National championship brisket. Ahhh, it is delicious, and also crippling in large quantities. Working under the mistaken assumption that Colt McCoy was Ginger Vince Young, Texas simply cranked on with the 2005 game plan and reloaded for the double championship buffet. So did preseason polls, slotting Texas at a comfortable No. 3 spot and docking the defending national champions a mere two spots for losing the most dominant player in the history of their program.*

Expectations for Texas are high all over again.

* Sorry, Earl Campbell.

The result was what competitive eaters would call "a violent and delayed reversal of fortune." All was well superficially, but eventually opponents would figure out a very familiar lesson about the 2006 Texas team: they were gluttonous for another VY, and simply slid the smaller, differently-gifted McCoy into the same slot. Physically, McCoy was pounded in the spread-option run game, and simply could not avoid the hits that glided by Young so effortlessly.

Add in defensive blips along the way, and back-to-back debacles at Kansas State and Texas A&M make a lot more sense in retrospect. The Longhorns would finish at No. 13 at the end of the season, squeaking by the Iowa Hawkeyes in a 26-24 Alamo Bowl victory.

Just for kicks, a description of the third circle's collection of the overly indulgent:

The gluttons lie here sightless and heedless of their neighbors, symbolizing the cold, selfish, and empty sensuality of their lives.

Sounds like the Longhorn Network, eh, Dan Beebe?


Residents: More guys who pissed of Dante, 2004 LSU

Another returning national championship team coached by Nick Saban that proved random process had nothing to do with the sins of the profligate and miserly. (Dante puts them both in the fourth circle, because Dante is really flexible with his definitions.)

LSU would be profligate in giving away a personal foul when it simply could not, giving kicker John Vaughn a second chance to make an extra point at the end of a 10-9 loss to eventually-undefeated Auburn. They would be stingy offensively AND overly generous with yardage in one of Nick Saban's worst SEC losses ever, a 45-17 disaster in Athens.

Then, LSU would give away the cruelest freebie of all.

LSU would finish the plummet from preseason No. 4 to a final ranking of No. 16 with the announcement of Nick Saban's departure to the Miami Dolphins. Saban would be paid around $5 million dollars a year for his services, a sum he would then use in negotiating the largest contract in the history of college football at Alabama. Fourth circle, greedy as it may be, still isn't a bad place to be.


Residents: Still more people who pissed Dante off, 1999 Arizona

College football's bold experiments that might or might not work!

The fifth circle crosses the river Styx, where the sullen fall "into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe." This gives us a perfect opportunity to discuss Arizona football, a sad tale with few high points and abundant, sullen lows.

The Desert Swarm defense and a 12-1 record in 1998 gave pollsters more than enough excuse to ramp up expectations for the Wildcats, and in a program with little record of historical success, this means only one thing: impending disaster. The Wildcats were obliterated by Penn State in the season opener, reeled through the rest of their schedule and finished at an unranked 6-6 after their highest preseason ranking ever.

Dick Tomey would last one more mediocre season in Tucson, and then Arizona football would slide into a black sulkiness called John Mackovic. Anger breeds some truly terrible decisions.


Residents: Epicurus, Frederick II, 2003 Virginia Tech

Frank Beamer is a very good coach, but with every good coach comes a year when, for whatever reason, they happen to not be a very good coach. This year, for Frank Beamer, is 2003. This is heretical to say about the man who built the VT program, but hey: the sixth circle is made for just this kind of rhetoric.

Virginia Tech doesn't have quite as far to fall in 2012.

The classic signs of letdown were there: a preseason top 10 (No. 8, to be specific), an early schedule stocked with cheesecake-quality walkthroughs, then the long chain of stumbles, falters, and ultimately the long downhill faceplant of a five-game losing streak. The Hokies only lost four in reality, but I count a one-point win over Temple as a loss here, and will defend this rhetoric on the basis that a 1-11 Temple team had no business staying on the Hokies' bumper for longer than three minutes of the first quarter.

The damned of the sixth circle are locked in flaming tombs to consider their crimes, and we'll consider any Bud Foster defense giving up 52 points in a bowl game against Cal to be the flaming tomb of football fates. Let's just forget them and leave 2003 Virginia Tech in that satanic lunchpail to consider its crimes.


Residents: Alexander the Great, 2005 Tennessee

Who's ready to tumble in 2012?

In 2005, Phil Fulmer and the Tennessee Volunteers would start the season ranked third in the nation, finish 5-6 and unranked, and start in earnest the long slide downward into the eventual firing of a coach who came close to being an institution at his alma mater.

If that sounds dramatic, well, this is is the seventh circle, a place for the violent appropriately filled with all kinds of indescribable violence. Tennessee would lose in every fashion imaginable: a 6-3 squeaker to Alabama, a 16-7 gaffe-fest to Florida, a crushing 16-15 defeat to the Gamecocks and a hammering at the hands of -- prepare yourselves -- Notre Dame.

The humiliation and pain would not end there. Tennessee would lose to lowly Vanderbilt, 28-24, costing Tennessee a shot at bowl eligibility and ensuring Phil Fulmer's first losing record as a head coach. One of the punishments for the violent is being turned into the gnarled thorny bushes and picked apart slowly by harpies. This happened to Fulmer, whose coaching staff was picked apart under public pressure. That he lasted until 2008 was a small miracle, but Fulmer was a big man. Dismantling something of that size takes time, even in the afterlife.


Residents: Jason, Bertran de Born, 2006 Notre Dame

Oh, you forget. No. 2 in the AP and No. 1 by consensus, the 2006 Notre Dame team and their preseason bubble stands as the greatest evidence that when poll addicts need a fix, they will sprint to the street corners when a fresh shipment of Notre Dame Is Back! lands.

That run on the product ended with a thunderous crashing noise in South Bend, Indiana on September 16, 2006.

Michigan, had they not employed a more gentlemanly coach, could have easily beaten Notre Dame by 50 that day, but Lloyd Carr abhorred making a mess once the game was in hand. Notre Dame would roll through the rest of their schedule -- the service academies did, at one point, help a team do that -- but the final double of USC and the Sugar Bowl matchup with an astonishingly pissed-off LSU team would kill the 2006 Irish Bubble for good.

As I said, you may not remember Notre Dame's preseason ranking. You likely do remember JaMarcus Russell raining hell down on the Notre Dame secondary, however. Forgotten in all this: that secondary, who cruelly never got a share of the bonus money Russell earned off their befuddled coverage.


Residents: Ptolemy, Judas Iscariot, Mike Dubose and 2000 Alabama

There is only one form of treachery at Alabama. Being ranked third to start the season is not, especially not after a 1999 season featuring two defeats of Florida and an SEC title. Even losing to UCLA to start the season out on the West Coast is not part of that, because ... well, that ain't a conference game, is it? No sir, it isn't, and Roll Tide.

Who else has high expectations? The entire SEC.

Losing 21-0 to Southern Miss -- THAT HAPPENED IN REAL LIFE -- at Legion Field is part of treachery. Extending the disaster into losses to Arkansas, Mississippi State, and Tennessee is also part of the formula, particularly when it is done in an inept, flailing fashion unseen since the dark days of J.B. "Ears" Whitworth.

And yet, the formula still needs something. It needs a 40-38 loss to UCF at home for potency, and an excruciating 9-0 loss to Auburn (again, at home) to seal the deal. It needs a coach incapable of going two steps without planting his foot in his mouth or running into a personal scandal, and a fanbase for whom the ultimate treachery isn't losing to Auburn, having an affair with your secretary or even losing to teams with directions in their names.

Treachery at Alabama is losing, a crime secondary to all others. Mike Dubose, forever frozen in the ice of the ninth ring, learned this the hard way. The three by their name started as their ranking, and ended as the total number of wins on the year.

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