Saturday, June 23, 2007


The Rivals network is counting down the preseason top 50 football teams, and yesterday declared Bama to be the preseason #37. I really detest preseason polls. They're just something about ranking teams before they even report for practice that strikes me as, at best, a useless exercise. What's worse, the preseason polls act as a starting point for later evaluation during the season, which usually consists of moving down teams who lose and moving teams up to replace them.

All that matters are the number of losses you have and when they occurred. Big wins mean little except that they avoid losses. This discourages teams from scheduling quality out of conference opponents, because the polls punish a loss a lot more than they punish a weak schedule. And in the end, if three teams are undefeated, there's a very large chance they'll be ranked in the order in which they started the season. Just ask the 2004 Auburn team about this.

In fact, preseason polls tend to perversely reward a weak schedule, because they typically do not profess to actually rate the skill of teams. They profess to be predictive and frequently talk about how a team's schedule lines up for success as justification for a high (or low) ranking. This year, LSU is rewarded by that because we have most of our toughest games at home. Last year, we were hurt by that.

And why does all of sports media need to focus on being so predictive anyway? I've complained before about how sports media substitutes prediction for analysis. Well, I think it's part of an even broader trend in media that extends into political coverage (all horse-race, all the time, with little analysis of how particular candidates will actually govern), somewhat into film analysis (I swear I've seen more articles questioning Evan Almighty's commercial prospects than I've seen discussing its quality). Sports media is probably the worst about it though. I think it has to do with gambling culture.

One person defended preseason rankings to me by pointing out that they have been rather good at predicting the national championship contenders. Setting aside the point that the preseason rankings are partially determinative rather than simply predictive, I question whether prediction of national championship contenders is really a worthwhile accomplishment, or even a legitimate objective of a ranking that occurs before the season. Even more importantly though, these polls go well beyond merely listing the national championship contenders. After all, this particular ranking lists a top 50! It portends to tell us who is better between BYU (#45) and Central Michigan (#50).

Despite my protestations, preseason polls are definitely here to stay and I have to live with them. This one rated Bama at #37, but the poll is not over yet so I don't know exactly who is ahead of them. I know that Kentucky was ranked #38. Those are the lowest ranked SEC teams, but I imagine several are unranked.

What? They won't tell me who is better between Ole Miss and Vandy? For the record, I think Vandy is better, and is actually a pretty big threat to make a bowl this year.

But I digress. The #37 ranking suggests that Rivals considers Bama to be a solid bowl team, but not really a threat to win the conference. I think that's a pretty fair analysis. I just wish they wouldn't put a number to it.

Tomorrow, I use this as a jumping off point to analyze Bama's schedule.

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