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December-09-2006,
Looking Back at the College Football Crystal Balls...By S.H. Austin

Many of you probably go out and purchase some of those preseason college football annuals during the summer. You can't wait for football season to arrive, and you're anxious to see what the outlook is for the coming season.

Have you ever gone back after the season was over to see how the forecasters fared? Are these publications really accurate when it comes to assessing the upcoming season? Or, are they just basically jam-packed with trivia that can trick readers (and sports wagerers) into thinking they know more than they really do.

I had the preseason copies of the 2006 Athlon and Phil Steele previews handy. I thought it might be interesting to run through their preseason top tens and see how many direct hits they scored with the current BCS top then.

CURRENT BCS TOP TEN
1...Ohio State
2...Florida
3...Michigan
4...LSU
5...Southern Cal
6...Louisville
7...Wisconsin
8...Boise State
9...Auburn
10...Oklahoma

ATHLON PRESEASON TOP TEN
1...Oklahoma (currently 10th)
2...Notre Dame
3...USC (currently 5th)
4...Ohio State (currently 1st)
5...Florida (currently 2nd)
6...West Virginia
7...Texas
8...California
9...Auburn (direct hit)
10...Louisville (currently 6th)

Athlon did have six of the top ten pegged in the right general area. Though four of their top eight weren't able to live up to expectations. It should be noted that the pick on Oklahoma came out before the Sooners projected starting quarterback Rhett Bomar was suspended from the team. If you make allowances for that...Notre Dame and USC would have moved up to the top spots. Ohio State and Florida were right behind them, which would have to be considered a very accurate assessment all things considered. A lot of things can happen in that top group. Kudos to Athlon for expecting Florida to come out on top in the tough SEC this season, and for estimates that did a pretty good job of forecasting the reality of the season. Only nitpickers could find much to really complain about.

PHIL STEELE'S PRESEASON TOP TEN 1...Oklahoma (currently 10th) 2...Auburn (currently 9th) 3...Louisville (currently 6th) 4...USC (currently 3rd) 5...Texas 6...Miami of Florida 7...Notre Dame 8...Ohio State (currently 1st) 9...Virginia Tech 10...Florida State

Steele only had five of the top ten, having greatly overestimated the impact that the ACC would have on a national basis this year. Eventual champion Wake Forest was forecast to finish in a tie for last in the Atlantic Division of the ACC. Though there was only one less team in the top ten, the list is clearly less accurate than that of Athlon. We don't need to make allowances for Oklahoma here, as Steele said in his newsletter after the suspension that OU would still be his number one team anyway. Auburn finished third in its own division of the SEC rather than second in the nation.

And, where's Florida? Athlon had them in the 5th spot. You have to dig down deeper into the publication to find that Steele had them in 20th spot, well off the national championship pace.

Note that neither source had Michigan in the preseason top ten, though the Wolverines are currently #3 and have a legitimate case to make as one of the two best teams in the country. Steele had them at 11th, Athlon at 13th.

Note also that neither source had LSU in the preseason top ten, though the Tigers have surged to a #4 slot in the current BCS rankings. Athlon had them at 11th. Steele had them at 21st.

Both sources also missed Wisconsin (26th in Athlon, not registering in the top 40 with Steele, who picked them to finish 7th in the Big Ten) and Boise State (19th with Steele and 27th with Athlon).

What's it all mean? Forecasting football months in advance is harder than you think!

Nitpickers could go through either publication and find some monster errors. Marketing gurus could find highlights that would make either one sound like a must have "football bible." Here are some keys to remember:

*It's not that difficult to project in general how most teams are going to do. If you gave out estimated letter grades to everybody (A+, A, B+, etc...) most avid fans would do as well as the guys who write magazines. Even then, there would be some big errors. Steele wasn't the only one expecting bigger and better things from Miami and Florida State this year. Nobody thought Wisconsin would improve a little bit while most of the Big Ten took a few steps backward. There are always going to be surprises, and preseason publications are unlikely to alert you to those surprises.

*Attempting to rank teams within the letter grades is an exercise in futility. It's impossible to know with any real certainty how the 10-15 teams you give an "A" to are going to line up. Something like that creates the illusion of expertise where none exists. There's too much randomness in the sport. And there's too much that isn't possibly knowable before the season starts about key newcomers or eventual injuries. Even now, after everyone's played 12-13 games, there are posters here at MajorWager.com who could argue intelligently that any of Ohio State, Florida, Michigan, LSU and Oklahoma could reasonably claim to be a top two caliber team. If it's hard to rank the teams at the end of the season, how meaningful could preseason rankings be?

*Preseason publications can be very valuable research tools that help handicappers set the tone for reasonable expectations. Trying to pick games in September without reviewing coaching changes, quarterback changes, graduation impacts, etc... is just an invitation to disaster. Incorporate the facts, throw out the predictions!

How does this help us now? Well, college basketball has just started. Many of you have purchased and read newsstand previews, or even the thick Blue Ribbon publication. There are going to be predictions and assessments on those pages that will end up looking foolish in March. Don't waste time believing them now.

Stay on top of coaching changes from last year, personnel changes from last year, and the general "report card" assessments of where teams stand in the big picture. Then let the scoreboard results guide you to the reality of the sport.

Somebody in college basketball is going to "pull a Rutgers" and come from off the radar to make a national statement. Somebody in college basketball is going to fall off the map the way Miami and Florida State did in football. The evidence for this will be clear in the early boxscores, but invisible in preseason annuals.

Preseason publications are just research tools. This past football season proves once again that they're not crystal balls.

12-09-06
S.H. Austin
MajorWager.com
editor@majorwager.com



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