Looking for meaning in the preseason polls

BURBANK, Calif. -- Preseason polls are almost meaningless. They are speculative projections for entertainment purposes only. Everyone, of course, wants a look at how the so-called experts see things, though most often in order to sniff and snark. Preseason polls win a team nothing, and they most often operate as tools to be filed away in order to launch postseason broadsides at which teams were overrated or underachieved.

Media tapped USC as the preseason pick in the Pac-12 poll on Thursday, with voters predicting the Trojans would prevail over North Division champion Oregon, winner of four of the last six conference titles, in the Pac-12 championship game. Pac-12 administrators would leap into the air and click their heels together over that sexy matchup on Dec. 5 in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, even though the teams do meet for the first time since 2012 in the regular season.

Meanwhile, the USA Today coaches poll was also released Thursday, and it rated Oregon No. 5 and USC 10th. Coaches and media at odds -- who knew?

Yet amid the frivolous if curiously captivating poll news was one of those "holy cow!" hard news stories that also seem to hit us every preseason, and you'd have to trace your finger to the very top of the coaches poll for this bit of substance. Big Ten oligarchs Ohio State, the defending national champions and overwhelming No. 1 pick in the coaches poll, announced the suspension of All-American defensive end Joey Bosa, H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson, and wide receiver Corey Smith for the Buckeyes' season-opening visit to Virginia Tech on Sept. 7 due to unspecified violations of athletic department policy.

A source told ESPN's Joe Schad that the suspensions were due to marijuana and academics.

Ohio State received 62 of a possible 64 No. 1 votes in the coaches poll. It now sets its sights on becoming the first team to start and finish a season atop the rankings since USC in 2004, but now it does so after a gut punch that will perhaps remind the Buckeyes things can come apart at the seams, no matter how veteran and talented and well-coached a team appears to be.

You remember USC in 2004. One of the all-time best college football teams. An unbeaten repeat national champion. The Trojans were picked to win the Pac-10 in 2004, just as they were every season from 2003 to 2009. Oregon won the conference in 2009, and Stanford won the Pac-12 in 2012, the last time USC was picked to win the conference.

You also remember USC in 2012, preseason No. 1 in the AP poll. Quarterback Matt Barkley's much celebrated "unfinished business" declaration in front of a Christmas tree while announcing his decision to return for his senior year became a shocking precursor to disaster -- talk about postseason broadsides -- as the team spiraled to a 7-6 finish that was capped by a 21-7 defeat to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

There are many ways teams become victims of broadsides in December over how they were overrated or underachieved. Injuries, off-field issues, locker room dissension, bad luck, or just not being that good. USC is a prime cautionary tale, and media folks are already boring the Trojans with repeated questions about how things might be different this go-around under Steve Sarkisian, who meets with reporters Friday, than under Lane Kiffin.

You remember Lane Kiffin. He was the offensive coordinator at Alabama last season. A lot of folks thought the Crimson Tide were going to win the first College Football Playoff. Until they didn't. We learned just last week from coach Nick Saban that was because Tide players were too fixated on the NFL draft. Hmm. So, well, there's another potential pratfall.

As for challenges for the Trojans, you can start with their schedule. It's brutal, ranking fourth in the nation, according to ESPN.com Stats & Information. That starts with the South Division, which placed four teams in the coaches poll, and Utah, picked fifth in the South, ended up ranked the equivalent of 28th among others receiving votes.

While USC received 32 votes out of 45 to win the South, Arizona State received seven and UCLA six. The Bruins are 14th and Sun Devils 16th in the coaches poll. Yet there isn't much separation there, as both welcome back more starters than the Trojans and beat them in 2014. UCLA, in fact, is riding a three-game winning streak in the rivalry series.

Bruins coach Jim Mora, whose team was a bit of a media darling last year -- picked to win the South and widely viewed as a dark-horse national title contender -- didn't seem to mind yielding media affection to the Trojans.

"Hopefully we won't have the focus on us," Mora said. "I would like no one to ever rank us, and I'd like no one to ever cover us, and I'd like to never be on TV and no one talk about us until the end of the year, but that's not going to happen."

While Mora delivered this with his typically wonderful mix of affability and "get off my lawn" demeanor, he's well aware that the preseason huffing and puffing is something fans -- and media -- love and anticipate with glee, meaningless or annoying or inaccurate as it may be.

Substance and actual performance ultimately win championships. Ohio State went on a memorable run of just that last winter. It appears the Buckeyes might need to pause a bit and rethink their offseason behavior and refocus on their ultimate goal before embarking on the season, and aspirants to the Buckeyes' throne might want to take note of the sort of adversity that can potentially sidetrack even the mightiest of teams.

USC certainly knows that.