As I scrolled through my Twitter feed this morning on my way to class, I noticed the latest iteration of what has become a spring rite among college football writers: the “way too early” top 25. This morning’s rankings from Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples looked well thought-out and thoroughly researched, with a significant explanation of each team’s current status and the number of returning players, alongside other factoids.
College football junkies like myself comb over these rankings—and every other tidbit of football news that crosses the wire—but the rankings remain an extremely flawed science. The only reason they are so popular is because fans can’t wait for football season to start. It’s not like there’s anything else interesting to watch—the Miami Heat’s “Big Three” is dominating the postseason to everyone’s chagrin and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are in the cable netherworld of Versus.
Even so, I still think it’s time to junk preseason rankings altogether. For starters, they are almost always proved wrong—it is simply impossible to predict the season’s results before it even starts. They warp perceptions among fans and the all-important poll voters, who are reluctant to drop a team that doesn’t lose, even if it is clearly inferior to teams below it. Through this mechanism, the preseason rankings deprive deserving teams with low rankings from getting to big-time bowl games at season’s end.
The bigger problem with preseason rankings is that they’re often based as much on fact as they are on reputation and perceptions. Traditional football powerhouses always get the benefit of the doubt and end up highly ranked, even if there are few empirical reasons to believe they deserve such a ranking. As you might expect with such an exercise, teams with a record of recent successes get ranked pretty highly as well, even if they lose their entire defensive front and top offensive playmakers to the draft or (if it’s an SEC school or Ohio State) some sort of violation-induced ineligibility.
To illustrate my point, let’s look at Staples’ rankings from last season and compare them with how the season actually shook out. His top team, Alabama, underperformed expectations, going 10-3 with a win in the Capital One Bowl over Michigan State. His No. 2, Boise State, almost finished the season undefeated once again, but lost in overtime to Nevada to lose the WAC title and any shot at a BCS bowl. No. 3 Ohio State was actually about on the mark—the Buckeyes finished 12-1 after beating Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. No. 4 Texas was a colossal flop, going 5-7 and 2-6 in the Big 12 to miss out on a bowl berth (not to mention a season-ending loss to archrival Texas A&M). No. 5 Iowa didn’t do so hot either, going 8-5 after eking out a 27-24 win over Missouri in the Insight Bowl.
Meanwhile, that list has some pretty glaring omissions as well. The biggest one was the failure to include our very own Stanford Cardinal, which (as some of you may recall) finished 12-1 with a No. 4 ranking and a romp of Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Slightly less significant was the fact that Auburn, the eventual national title winner, was also not on the list.
The best alternative is to hold off on ranking teams at all until the sixth week of the season, when the sportswriters and coaches who vote in the polls have a much better idea of which teams actually deserve a chance at a marquee bowl game. Tradition and perception will still undoubtedly play a role, but teams will be unable to get a leg up on the competition solely by virtue of their reputation.
Of course, the worst part of moving away from ranking teams in the preseason is the inability of passionate college football followers—like yours truly—to get their fix before the season starts. I guess I’ll just have to go back to my remote, doomed to an endless channel surf in search of Versus (which I’m starting to suspect doesn’t really exist).
Kabir Sawhney projected Stanford to have three losses, including one to Washington, in the 2010 season. Give him a low ranking at ksawhney “at” stanford.edu.