NPR Morning Edition just had a terrific episode of Story Corps about a local bookstore employee who described her love affair with reading at a young age. Her line that stuck with me was that she was an “extrovert without friends,” so she eagerly got a membership at the public library on Ponce at age six and then spent all of her free time either reading or listening to audio books. The feature ended with an especially poignant story of the girl crashing her bike, breaking an audio book, and then tearfully presenting it at the library along with her library card.
The story struck me because it sounded a little like me growing up in Macon, only with college football previews in the place of actual books. I was never keen on doing my summer reading, but I always had a stack of previews on my bed stand. At my apex, I probably bought nine previews every summer, obsessing over returning starter numbers and projected All-American lists until the Fall when all of the names and numbers would come to life.
College football previews have always fascinated me, initially as a way to pass the time in the summer during the dead hours in the afternoon when TV was a wasteland* and now as an intellectual matter. To the extent that I have any original thinking on college football, it’s in trying to find the flaws in preseason prognostications. That’s where the Charles Rogers Theorem came from and when it died, Negative Grohmentum replaced it. In short, I think that most writers take the lazy route and make subjective predictions because deep analysis of teams is a hard task, as is looking back at prior predictions to find trends of mistakes.
* – Watching The Price is Right was such a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, I loved that show during summer mornings. On the other hand, it meant that there would be nothing on TV for the rest of the day. Ah, the days before 900 channels.
Because I like comparing the unscientific judgments of college football writers against the judgments of people with actual skin in the game, I prepared the following handy-dandy chart comparing the consensus rankings from the preseason magazines* against the over/under lines for total wins. This is not a true applies-to-apples comparison because wins do not necessarily correlate to rankings, but it is pretty close. This comparison is more peaches-to-nectarines than apples-to-oranges.
* – Not all preview magazines are subjective in their rankings. Phil Steele stands out as an exception. That said, he is only one of many and my sense is that the Athlon’s of the world just put their writers around a conference table and talk their way to a top 25..
A few random thoughts on the numbers:
- Boise State strikes me as a little overrated. The fact that Vegas is giving them the same odds as five major conference teams, all of which play demonstrably tougher schedules, indicates that Vegas sees this Boise State team as a little inferior to its predecessors. Boise State hasn’t been under ten wins in a regular season since 2005. Is the step up from the WAC to the MWC minus Utah and BYU really that pronounced?
- At the end of the 2008 season, Florida, Texas, and USC looked poised to dominate college football for the foreseeable future. Those three teams were ruling recruiting in the three most talent-rich states in the country, they had stable, able coaching staffs, and they were producing consistent results on the field. Three years later, those programs are included at the very bottom of the preseason top 25, almost out of a sense of obligation. This all happened in two seasons. That’s a long way of saying that Texas seems a little undervalued by the commentariat right now. Unless there was a massive flaw in their approach to recruiting, their roster is way too talented to be at the bottom of the top 25 and unlike Florida and USC, they have the same coach who had them at the summit of college football at the end of the Aughts. Compare Texas to Texas A&M. A&M is way ahead of the Horns in the rankings, but Vegas sets the Aggies’ over/under at 8.5 and the Horns at 8. That smells to me like the sharps being skeptical of Texas A&M, which matches my admittedly subjective sense that the Aggies are this year’s version of Ole Miss.
- Vegas is also skeptical of Oklahoma State, pegging them for eight wins despite an easy non-conference schedule. I suspect that Vegas sees Dana Holgorsen’s departure as a big deal.
- Vegas is also skeptical of Stanford. The commentariat sees a team that went 12-1 last year and returns the presumptive #1 pick in the Draft at quarterback. Vegas sees a team that is returning 11 starters and has a new head coach. Again, I am in the Vegas camp.
- Vegas loves Virginia Tech. Despite the fact that they sit outside of the preseason top ten, Vegas pegs them for ten wins, which is equal to the projections for Alabama and Oklahoma. The Tide and Sooners play tougher schedules than the Hokies (VT’s non-conference schedule: Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State, and Marshall. If you want to be treated as a major program, Hokie fans, then maybe your team should schedule like one. And might I remind you that you play in the ACC and miss Florida State in the regular season?), but that is a lot of faith in a team returning 12 starters.
- Vegas is feeling Negative Grohmentum for Michigan State. The Spartans are pegged for seven wins, the same as their in-state rivals who are not in anyone’s preseason top 25. Michigan State and Mississippi State are both pegged for seven wins, but the Bulldogs can point to playing in the brutal SEC West. The Spartans just seem like a team that Vegas sees as one that was way lucky to win 11 games last year and faces a major regression to the mean. Many in the Midwest have debated whether Nebraska or Michigan State should be favored in their half of the Big Ten, but to the sharps, there is no question at all.