Welcome to Fact or Fanatic, a biweekly column where we set the tropes and truisms of college sports up against the stats. And today’s edition is one of the most hotly anticipated columns of the year. Forget the election, forget the Olympics, forget and complain about the fact the the NFL is apparently incapable of getting an artificial-turf field in adequate condition to play the Hall of Fame game despite having had a year to do so. Instead, sit back for a moment and contemplate the glory that is about to unfold.
College football season.
It’s August. Colleges all over the country have opened up fall camp for their players. The season starts in less than a month. And while casual fans are buying their new sweatshirts, hanging their school flags on the front porch, and getting back together with the tailgating crew to make plans, the true college football fans find themselves wandering the wilderness known as preseason.
We are bombarded by player watch lists, injury reports, a decided upswing in online trash-talking with conference foes, and the bewildering disparities in the various prognostications known as the preseason polls. Most of the bar arguments during the month of August are instigated by the polls. It’s amazing how angry the deluded fans of a mediocre school get when a poll doesn’t rank their team high enough – and how good that mediocre team actually is if you’re not the deluded fan of its cross-conference foe. That’s why polls seem to be the perfect puzzle for us to look at:
Are preseason polls accurate indicators of how a team’s season will go?
So before you run off to Vegas to put your money on your team to win the national championship, let’s take a good, hard look at the polls first.
What are the preseason polls anyway?
Preseason polls are exactly what you think they are. A group of people – media, coaches, oddsmakers – take a look at every school and make an educated guess as to how that team will fare during the season. Every major sports outlet and quite a few minor ones have their preseason rankings out, and as usual no two are alike. The two major polls – the AP/Coaches and the USA Today – carry the most weight, but magazines like Athlon, Lindy’s, and Sporting News are well-regarded as well. In recent years, the ESPN FPI_Football Power Index poll has gained a lot of ground on the older polls. As explained on the ESPN site:
The Football Power Index (FPI) is a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance going forward for the rest of the season. FPI represents how many points above or below average a team is. Projected results are based on 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season using FPI, results to date, and the remaining schedule. Ratings and projections update daily.
But here’s where we start to run into some issues. The differences among the preseason polls are vast. We compiled a couple of charts to demonstrate that. Kindly keep in mind that the AP College Football poll, which is the oldest of the ranking systems, will not come out until later this month. So we put the USA Today poll, Lindy’s, Sporting News, ESPN FPI, and Phil Steele up for a side-by-side comparison to see how similar they are.
As you can see in the first chart, all six polls have a lot of similarities with teams ranked 1-10. Four polls have Alabama ranked #1 and two have Florida State. Clemson is ranked second in four polls, and surprisingly Oklahoma is ranked third in all six. The other teams like Ohio State, Michigan,Tennessee, LSU, and Stanford are ranked for the most part in the top 10.
However, after that the rankings begin to get a little scattered. Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida State, Tennessee, Ohio State, LSU, Stanford, Michigan, Notre Dame, Baylor, Ole Miss, USC, Washington, Georgia, and Louisville are all ranked in the top 25 on all six polls. That’s 16 schools. However, 19 other schools make an appearance in at least one of the polls: Houston, Michigan State, Iowa, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, TCU, Washington State, Oregon, San Diego State, UCLA, Boise State, Arkansas, Texas, Pitt, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M, Miami, and Nebraska.
By highlighting the teams who appear in all six, it’s easy to see the range of opinion within these rankings. Now, a system like ESPN’s Football Power Index is a statistical catalog of a team’s stats from the previous season, the number of starters returning, and the strength of the team’s schedule. Right now, the FPI numbers are all conjecture – just like the rest of the preseason rankings. However, what’s great about the FPI is that it’s continuously updated during the season – updated to the point where at any given moment, the FPI can tell a fan the probability their team will win the game it’s currently playing.
That being said, you can discover some strange rankings. The FPI has Oklahoma State ranked an astonishing eighth, although it’s never ranked higher than 16th in the other polls and doesn’t appear in Phil Steele’s top 25 at all. Texas A&M, Auburn, Florida, and Pitt appear only on the FPI poll.
So obviously, there’s not a great deal of consensus among the preseason polls, which makes them prime fodder for fan arguments and multiple tavern altercations as the dogs days of summer drag toward Labor Day and the opening weekend of college football. That being said, there is a “consensus poll” on Stassen.com that averages team ratings on all the major sites and creates a composite Top 25 which looks to be a fairly accurate representation overall. Go check it out and let us know what you think. Might help to forestall a few of those bar brawls if you’re more of a lover than a fighter.
So if the rankings don’t agree, then we have another pertinent question to ask.
How accurate are preseason rankings anyway?
There are numerous articles on this topic and, not surprisingly, quite a few are in conflict. We found that this 10-year comparison done by Bleacher Report in 2014 is a well-laid-out analysis of the final years of the BCS era. But now we’re dealing with a different dynamic. With the advent of the four-team playoff, a 13-person committee is responsible for selecting the best four teams in the country to participate in the Final Four. That committee doesn’t create its first poll until the end of October, essentially week 10 of the season, and is supposed to ignore all previous polls in the creation of its own rankings.
But before week 10, the sports media and fans refer to two polls, the AP and USA Today, to identify each team’s place in the grand scheme of things, regardless of what the playoff committee is supposed to do. And along those lines, what kinds of percentages are we looking at? Fortunately, we have sources to help us out. The outstanding site SportingCharts.com breaks everything down for us in an August, 2015 article by Bob Sullivan:
The eye gravitates to the top two rankings. 96% of teams ranked #1 or #2 in the preseason poll have still hung on to a poll position come January. Over the past 26 college football seasons, only the 2012 preseason #1 USC Trojans and the 1994 preseason #2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish failed to hold on. The graph depicts potential for teams being over and underrated. Teams ranked #3-4, #9 or #18 show potential for being overrated – not a great sign for Alabama or Arkansas this season. Likewise, teams positioned #5-7, #14 or #17 have shown greater likelihood of staying ranked all season long.
From 2005 to 2014, college football gave us a reasonable sample size of 339 games to evaluate these polls. The preseason AP poll predicted 58.8% of bowl game winners (154-108 with no prediction in 77 games). The preseason Coaches poll did even better at 59.9% (163-109 with no prediction in 67 games)…The final pre-bowl AP poll has predicted 56.0% of bowl game winners (130-102 with no prediction in 107 games). The pre-bowl Coaches poll does worse with an accuracy of 55.4% (129-104 with no prediction in 106 games).
So what does this all mean? Fortunately, Stassen has done the work for us. On its site, comparison stats between preseason rankings and postseason results have been compiled from 1993 forward. If, for example, you wanted to learn what sources had the most accurate preseason rankings for 2015, you can learn that. Last year, the 10 most accurate preseason rankings were, in order: Arena Fanatic, McIllece Sports, Phil Steele, Athlon, GamePlan, ESPN, Pick Six Previews, Sports Illustrated, Steve Wrathell’s CPA Ratings, and the Harris Poll.
No, we’re not kidding.
While there are some of the best-known sources in there (Phil Steele, ESPN, Athlon, Sports Illustrated), some of the most accurate are far less well-known.
Now, these rankings are based on the hard stats. But let’s try something different. Let’s take the top four sites – Arena Fanatic, McIllece Sports, Phil Steele, and Athlon – and look at their preseason top five for 2015:
Arena Fanatic: Ohio State, Auburn, TCU, USC, Michigan State
McIllece: Ohio State, Florida State, TCU, Alabama, Baylor
Phil Steele: Ohio State, TCU, USC, Alabama, Baylor
Athlon: Ohio State, Alabama, Baylor, Auburn, TCU
The final rankings for 2015 were Alabama, Clemson, Stanford, Ohio State, and Oklahoma.
Only Ohio State and Alabama were in all four sites’ preseason rankings, and while Michigan State (one site) was one of the final four, it finished ranked sixth. TCU (all four sites) finished seventh, Baylor (three sites) 13th, Florida State (one site) 14th, USC (two sites) in the land of the misfit toys, and Auburn (two sites) somewhere in the dregs of “are you kidding me?” But Clemson, Stanford, and Oklahoma didn’t appear in the top five on any of the sites.
Just based on that tiny sample, last year the sites were 40% accurate at selecting the final top five teams.
Which brings us to their picks for 2016:
Arena Fanatic: Ohio State, Clemson, Tennessee, USC, Alabama
McIllece Sports: Tennessee, Alabama, Washington, Ohio State, Michigan
Phil Steele: Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU, Clemson
Athlon: Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Clemson, Michigan
This year, only Alabama appears on all four top-five lists. Ohio State appears three times, Clemson three times, Florida State twice, Tennessee twice, Michigan twice – and USC, Washington, and LSU only once each.
We thought we’d just throw that in for fun. It’s not time for our picks yet.
So? Fact or fanatic?
The role of college football polls has changed substantially. Despite all the hoopla that surrounds these rankings, they mean less than ever in the modern football era. In the end, the only poll that matters doesn’t even exist until the first week of November – which makes sense. After all, while there are innumerable factors that go into preseason polls, they are released before a single game is played.
As Michigan discovered when it played a tiny school known as Appalachian State, there’s no such thing as a guaranteed win. Sure, nine times out of 10 a major program full of NFL-bound athletes is more than likely going to beat an FCS program. But sometimes, the stars align and a team considered a shoo-in during August polling season suffers a total collapse before September is over.
Let’s be real here: There are so many places now giving their preseason picks, and they rarely agree on anything. With accuracy ratios between 40-60%, the preseason polls aren’t anywhere close to gospel. And while the top 10 teams are usually pretty consistent across the board, once you get to 11-25, rankings might as well be decided with darts.
So don’t hit your best buddy over the head with a beer bottle this weekend. We’re calling the idea that preseason rankings accurately predict the results at the end of the year fanatic. We find they’re more of a bridge between the long desert known as February-August into the football season – beginning points for conversation, but more fun than tool.