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Beware the Polls

   by Larry Ness - 08/06/2013

NFL 2013 opened Sunday night with its Hall of Fame game, as the Cowboys beat the Dolphins 24-20. Week 1 of the season won’t begin until September 5 but I will have my first look at the 2013 season in an article I’ll post this coming Thursday. Here, let me make a few comments regarding the Coaches’ preseason poll, which was released this past Thursday, To no one’s surprise, Alabama was ranked No. 1, as the Tide have won THREE of the last four BCS national titles. However, as a USA Today front-page article pointed out the day after, NONE of Alabama’s recent three national titles have come after opening a season as the coaches’ poll preseason choice.

The 2009 team opened ranked No. 5 and each of the last two seasons (2011 and 2012), the Tide have opened as the nation’s second ranked team. The SEC has captured seven consecutive BCS national championships, so it comes as no surprise that five of the nation’s top-10 teams come from that conference. Georgia is ranked 5th, A&M 6th, South Carolina 7th and Florida 10th. LSU checked in at No. 13, giving the SEC six, top-25 teams, one more than the Big Ten and Pac-12, which each had five teams in the preseason poll.

Stanford at No. 4 (Pac-12), South Carolina at No. 7 (SEC), Clemson at No. 8 (ACC) and Louisville at No. 9 (AAC, formerly the Big East), all achieved the highest preseason rankings in school-history in the coaches’ poll (Oregon of the Pac-12 at No. 3, matched its highest-ever ranking). Ohio State, 2012’s lone unbeaten team at 12-0 (but on probation), checks in as the nation’s No. 2 team in the poll and be aware that the coaches’ poll’s No. 2 team has gone on to win FOUR of the last 10 BCS national championships. In comparison, the coaches’ poll’s preseason No. 1 has gone to win the BCS national championship just ONCE in the last 10 years. That came back in the 2004 season, when USC accomplished the feat, only to have its title vacated for violations surrounding Heisman-winner Reggie Bush, year later.

The 2013 college football season opens August 29 and sports bettors everywhere are chomping at the bit. However, a word to the wise, just like the famous line from the Wizard of Oz warned, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” I say “beware of the preseason polls.” Do you really think the coaches have much of an insight? Consider this. Alabama's opponent in last year’s national championship game was an undefeated Notre Dame team, which barely made into the coaches’ preseason top-25 at No. 24 (AP preseason poll didn’t have the Irish ranked at all).

Commenting on the AP poll for just a second, it had USC as its No. 1 team and the Trojans would '”Fight On” to finished 2012 at 7-6, including an embarrassing 21-7 loss in the Sun Bowl (not exactly the Rose) to Ga. Tech. Getting back to the coaches’ poll, USC was ranked No. 3 and was joined as “major flops” by Arkansas (ranked 10th, only to finish at 4-8), West Virginia (ranked 11th, only to finish 7-6), Wisconsin (ranked 12th, only to finish 8-6), Michigan State (ranked 13th, only to finish 7-6), TCU (ranked 17th, only to finish 7-6), Oklahoma State (ranked 19th, only to finish 8-5), Virginia Tech (ranked 20th, only to finish 7-6) and the “worst of the worst” preseason picks, Auburn (ranked 25th, only to finish 3-9, including 0-8 in the SEC).

That’s a total of nine schools ranked in the top-25 to finish outside of the top-25 in the final poll. Look at how well these nine unranked schools in last year’s top-25 coaches’ preseason poll finished the 2012 season. A&M finished 11-2 and featured Heisman-winner Johnny Manziel at No. 5. Northwestern finished 10-3 and ranked 16th. Utah State finished 11-2 and ranked 17th. Oregon State finished 9-4 and ranked 19th. Vanderbilt finished 9-4 and ranked 20th. San Jose State finished 11-2 and ranked 21st. Cincinnati finished 10-3 and ranked 22nd. Northern Illinois finished 12-2 and ranked 24th. Tulsa finished 11-3 and rankled 11-3.

Recapping, of the nine preseason top-25 teams which landed outside of the top-25 come year’s end, Arkansas and Auburn finished a combined 7-17, obviously not becoming bowl-eligible. Of the other seven schools, Michigan State and TCU played each other in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (Spartans fittingly won 17-16), while the other five schools went 3-2. As for the nine schools which finished among the final top-25 teams after opening the year unranked, all nine participated in bowl games with SEVEN coming away victorious.

So how much can we draw from preseason rankings as handicappers and bettors? The answer is not much. Check back Thursday for my next article, “NFL 2013, a first look.”

Good luck...Larry

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