Long before the BCS was acting as an exclusive clubhouse, preseason polls were keeping the little man down in college football.
A fun tool for sports analysts and fans, these speculative lists have come under fire due to their use in the selection of postseason matchups -- especially that of the BCS formula. With a four-team playoff on the horizon for 2014 we won't have to deal with the shenanigans of the BCS much longer, but the preseason polls will linger as the starting point for which all subsequent polls are based throughout the season.
Preseason polls make little sense due to the obvious fact that no teams have played a single game to this point. Any rankings would be based off of last year's results even though the college game has a massive amount of player turnover from year to year. Talent and experience are measurable in less-than-exact terms, but to speculate total team value and wins is pointless when a full season awaits to allow teams to settle the questions on the field.
But do preseason college football polls have some value beyond lighthearted speculation? And more intriguing to me, how accurate are they at predicting end-of-the-year rankings?
I decided to look over the past ten years and compared the AP poll from the preseason and matched that up to the final rankings. I focused only on the finishing spot of the preseason top 15 and gave a value of twenty-six to any team finishing outside the top 25.
The first observation I made is that the average finishing spot of preseason number one and two were the only reliable positions that predicted high finishes at the end of the year. From 2002 through 2011 the average finish of the preseason number one team was 4.8, while number two averages a finish of 5.5. After that, the highest average finish climbed only as high as 12th with the top nine preseason teams being more likely to finish higher than all non-top-nine teams.
In other words, the higher the preseason ranking, the more likely a team is to finish higher than teams who started lower -- only positions one and two, however, seemed to be significant enough when correlating with high end of the year placement.
Outside of those figures I think it may be even more important to see the amount of movement (not just the finishing spot) for each team that started in the top 15. Naturally it's more difficult for teams ranked higher to balance out their averages since they can't finish much higher than their preseason rank, but their burden of maintenance is also higher to go along with expectations.
When looking at the average difference between preseason rankings and final standings the randomness of the results really illuminates how scattered and pointless preseason polls are for predicting future success.
The preseason rankings ranked from best to worst in terms of correlation between preseason and final AP standings were: #15 (-1.4), #13 (-1.7), #2 (-2.8), #11 (-4.3), #1 (-4.5), #8 (-4.5), #12 (-5.0), #14 (-5.2), #9 (-5.7), #7 (-5.8), #6 (-6.0), #5 (-8.7), #4 (-9.0), #3 (-9.3), and #10 (-10.2).
So over the last ten years, voters of the AP preseason college football poll are really good at picking the 15th, 13th, 2nd, 11th, 1st, ... you get the point. Completely scattered.
Another observation is that all of the spots averaged to finish lower than their initial ranking. While I'm not blown away by this, I find it interesting that every single position is overrated. Not a single spot came in as being underestimated. In other words, preseason polls are a big swing-and-miss across the board.
Naturally my next step would be to look over the data and apply it to this year's preseason poll. But unless you buy into random oddities of the results of my study then you probably could deduce as much without the rankings.
Top teams USC and Alabama are more likely to finish in the top five than any other team, but do we really need a preseason poll to tell us that?
Other than that, maybe you're excited to falsely assume that #15 Texas, #13 Michigan State, and #11 West Virginia are more likely to finish close to their preseason rankings than are any other teams besides that of the top two. When you're done buying that ocean-front property in Idaho, put your money down on #10 Arkansas, #4 Oklahoma, and #3 LSU finishing somewhere in the double-digits at best.
It makes about as much sense as letting computers decide who plays for a national championship. Good thing we would never let that happen right?
Sound Off: How do you feel about preseason polls?
Justin Mikels is a staff writer for Operation Sports. Follow him on Twitter @long_snapper or send him a PM with your comments, questions, or future blog ideas.