The triviality yet inherent necessity of preseason polls

I wrote a series of posts about five years ago.  To this day they remain the highest traffic this website has ever seen.

On a whim, I decided to rank what I thought were the greatest sports altercations of all-time.  The list went something like this:

13 – Larry Johnson vs Alonzo Mourning

12 – Shaquille O’Neal vs Kobe Bryant

11 – Buddy Ryan vs Kevin Gilbride

10 – Roger Clemens vs Mike Piazza

9 – Jason Varitek vs Alex Rodrigues/Pedro Martinez vs Don Zimmer

robin-and-nolan8 – Jerry Sichting vs Ralph Sampson

7 – Robin Ventura vs Nolan Ryan

6 – John Calipari vs John Cheney

5 – Mike Tyson vs Evander Holyfield

4 – Latrell Sprewell vs PJ Carlesimo

3 – Rudy Tomjanovich vs Kermit Washington

2 – Nancy Kerrigan vs Tonya Harding

1 – Ron Artest vs John Green (The Malice at the Palace)

For each altercation, I included video, a brief history of the event and an explanation of why I ranked it where I did.

The posts went viral, receiving 60,000 hits the very day I posted them.  There’s a reason for that.  Aside from being incredibly well-written and spot-on accurate, people like rankings.

It’s why we rank everything.  What’s your favorite this?  Who’s your favorite that?  And yes, who are the top college football teams in the nation?

2009-march-madness-bracket-predictionsEvery March, college basketball teams are seeded, one through sixteen in groups of four, as they fight to be the last team standing.  Likewise, we seed baseball teams in October and NBA teams in June.  And every pre-season, whether it’s the coaches, sportswriters or some other random pollster, we rank college football teams based on a) how good we think they are and b) where we think they’ll be ranked at the end of the season.

It’s an obvious stab in the dark but it’s how we predict how the chips will fall during the college football season.

Like any prediction, they’re bound to be wrong.  But how wrong are they?  Let’s take a look at a recent, small sample size.

2015 Preseason Top Four: Ohio State, TCU, Alabama, Baylor

2015 Final Top Four: Alabama, Clemson, Stanford, Ohio State

2014 Preseason Top Four: Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma

2014 Final Top Four: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State

2013 Preseason Top Four: Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford

2013 Final Top Four: Florida State, Auburn, Michigan State, South Carolina

2012 Preseason Top Four: USC, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma

2012 Final Top Four: Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, Notre Dame

2011 Preseason Top Four: Oklahoma, Alabama, Oregon, LSU

2011 Final Top Four:  Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma State, Oregon

2010 Preseason Top Four: Alabama, Ohio State, Boise State, Florida

2010 Final Top Four: Auburn, TCU, Oregon, Stanford

I could go on but a few things are clear just by looking at the polls I’ve listed above.

saban-trophyThe first is that any preseason poll that includes Oklahoma is destined to be wrong from the get-go.  The second is that, as long as Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are coaching Alabama and Ohio State respectively, it’s a safe play to include them in your top four.  Other than that, determining your national champion in August is a total crap shoot.

None of the four teams ranked atop the preseason polls in 2010 finished in the top four.  Two did in 2011, one did in 2012 and none did again in 2013.

In 2014 and 2015, pollsters actually got two correct, signifying some sort of progress, we think.

If nothing else, polls are indicative of our reactionary nature.  For example, after beating Ole Miss in Week One, Florida State jumped to third in Week Two and then climbed one more spot in Week Three.  After getting waxed by Louisville, they fell from second to thirteenth while Louisville jumped from tenth to third.

Current rankings mean little but they appease our inherent need to keep things in order even if that order is based solely on yesterday’s newspaper.  Besides, without pre- and early season polls, what would we sports fans have to complain about.

ap-pollThe AP (Associated Press) has been ranking college football teams since the 1930s.  Without doing all that much research, I’m guessing pollsters haven’t gotten all that much more accurate in the almost 100 years they’ve been predicting the outcome of football games.  Lord knows I haven’t.  Sure, even a blind squirrel finds a nut every so often but trying to figure out which will be the last team standing is far more difficult that it seems even if two of those schools do have Saban and Meyer calling the shots.

So for all those clamoring that we do away with these polls altogether, I ask you what’s the point and what’s the alternative?  The point is to establish some semblance or order by using pollsters’ best educated guesses.  If polls didn’t exist, we’d still argue about the top teams in the nation, just without any basis of comparison.

In the past two years, college football has finally evolved to allow (what we think are) the best four teams to play for a championship each January.  Progress has been made.  As irrelevant and often quite flawed as they are, pre-season polls are a stepping stone in that process.

Without them, we’d struggle with our need to rank.  We’d also miss having something to complain about.

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4 Replies to “The triviality yet inherent necessity of preseason polls”

  1. Polls are great . The subject matter at the time can make it all the more interesting .
    Love the latest Stephen A comment , Jay Cutler is the worst quarterback in the NFL . Was he just getting clued in on the issue ?

  2. Did you hear that everyone? Al just agreed with me.

    And to Stephen A.’s comments, I don’t know that Cutler is the “worst” quarterback in the NFL. He might not even be the worst “starting quarterback” in the NFL.

    But he definitely ranks.

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