Preseason polls are much like picking out a watermelon. There is no shortage of theories on determining readiness. The only way to know for sure is by opening it up and digging in.

Those looking for a football feast will have to wait a little longer, but if today’s Big 12 media poll is an indication, BYU will need as much time on the vine as it can get before going to market.

The Cougars are picked to finish 11th among the 14 programs, with Texas on top.

Getting picked 11th is a first for BYU. At no time in program history has it faced such a forecast. The old Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference had just seven teams. The early WAC had eight before expanding to 16 and the Cougars’ previous home, prior to going independent, was a nine-team Mountain West Conference.

Welcome to life in the big city.

The poll reveals two things. First, most of the Big 12 media remain fixated on Texas and Oklahoma. For understandable reasons, they haven’t paid much attention to the four newcomers, including BYU. Second, no matter the level of validity, the Cougars have a lot of work to do.         

Polls and surveys are living organisms in our mind’s eye. We can’t get enough of them. That’s why there are so many. We love polls when they favor our ideology, and we dismiss them, even refute them, when they don’t.

Hillary Clinton loved the pollsters right up until election night when she suffered a stunning defeat in the 2016 presidential race. A 2018 poll sparked debate when it revealed Phoebe was America’s favorite character on “Friends.” A 2022 poll showed moviegoers chose “Iron Man” as the best of the Marvel movies.

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College football fans follow the polls from beginning to end and argue about them daily. The poll is used as a measuring stick for fandom and a boasting point for Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State, who typically fight over first place. On a secondary and more personal scale, BYU and Utah followers love it when their team is in the top 25 and seem to love it even more when their rival is out.

The Cougars haven’t always started the season in the polls, but they have made it a common practice, even a program goal, to finish there. Since 1980, as calculated by WestCoastCFB, BYU has more appearances (254) in the AP Top 25 poll than any Big 12 school not named Texas or Oklahoma.

In 2020, the Cougars started the season unranked and finished No. 11. In 2021, they began unranked and finished No. 19. Last year, BYU began the season at No. 25 and finished unranked.

Historically, the pattern of season-ending poll position took hold when quarterback Marc Wilson started throwing the ball. The Cougars began the 1979, 1980, 1983 and 1984 seasons unranked, but finished No. 13, No. 12, No. 7, and No. 1, respectively.

No one disputed the 1984 final poll more than Washington, which turned down a chance to play undefeated BYU in the Holiday Bowl that year. Instead, the Huskies went to the Orange Bowl and beat Oklahoma. However, when the Cougars dominated Washington 31-3 to open the 1985 season the protest was put to rest.

There are other cases where BYU improved its poll position from rags to riches. The 1996 squad started outside the top 25 but went 14-1 and defeated No. 14 Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl to finish at No. 5.

The 2002 Cougars went from the unranked to as high as No. 8 before finishing at No. 25 with Luke Staley winning the program’s first Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back.

Max Hall’s 2007 group was unranked when it stunned No. 3 Oklahoma in Dallas and set the season on course to finish at No. 14.

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The Big 12 is no stranger to seeing an unranked team come out of nowhere to shake up the conference and the country. TCU didn’t pick up a single vote in last year’s AP preseason poll and was picked seventh in the Big 12, but the Horned Frogs leaped to the CFB national championship game.

In 2021, Baylor didn’t earn a single vote in the AP preseason poll and was picked eighth in the Big 12, but the Bears rolled to the conference championship and beat Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl.

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The Cougars will begin the 2023 season outside the top 25 and are picked to finish 11th in the Big 12. The number is nothing more than a talking point and possible motivator. What truly matters is how BYU takes the field on Sept. 2 and every game after until the final poll of the season declares their value.

So, the next time you see someone thumping a watermelon to determine its readiness, ask them how they think the Cougars will do in their first year as a member of the Big 12. Their guess may be as good as yours.

The most effective way to know if a melon is ripe is by opening it up and digging in. Melons are in season and on the market right now — so have at it. As for football, its season is still a little way off and that’s just fine with BYU. As the Big 12 media poll insinuates, the Cougars can use a little more time on the vine.

Head coach Kalani Sitake talks with quarterback Kedon Slovis after the BYU football team practiced in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com. 

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