The Psychology of the Pre-Season Poll Debate – A Good Pre-Season Poll is a Forecast, Not Just Empty Hype

Read the debate intro and Loyal Homer’s argument that pre-season polls should only reflect the best teams at the time the poll is conducted.

There is more than one way to skin a cat. But, there should NOT be more than one way to design a pre-season college football poll. While some pollsters simply use their poll to drum up hype and skirt relevance with a poll that is only valid for a week (if they’re lucky), good pollsters take the opportunity to research and put some thought into a forecast. The best approach for developing an interesting pre-season poll is to put a stake in the ground and predict what the college football landscape will look like at year’s end, not in a week from now. Good pollsters are capable of making a statement. The only way to make a statement is with a pre-season poll that forecasts the college football season.

Let’s look to history as a guide. Let’s examine the last 10 years of the AP Poll, from 1998 through 2008. I’m using the AP poll because it is actually a well constructed poll with voters who take their responsibilities seriously… and have since 1936, when the writers first got it right in naming Minnesota national champs.

Okay, let’s see which programs the AP ranked at the top of the poll for the pre-season, and then how that team finished the season. This should give good insight and reveal if it is even possible for a poll to be a good forecasting tool.

  • 1998: Pre-season #1 was Ohio State, final poll #1 was Tennessee (OSU #2)
  • 1999: Pre-season #1 was FSU, final poll #1 was FSU
  • 2000: Pre-season #1 was Nebraska, final poll #1 was Oklahoma
  • 2001: Pre-season #1 was Florida (Miami #2 despite receiving more first place votes), final poll #1 was Miami
  • 2002: Pre-season #1 was Miami, final poll #1 was Ohio State (Miami #2)
  • 2003: Pre-season #1 was Oklahoma, final poll #1 was USC (OU #3)
  • 2004: Pre-season #1 was USC, final poll #1 was USC
  • 2005: Pre-season #1 was USC, final poll #1 was Texas (USC #2)
  • 2006: Pre-season #1 was Ohio State, final poll #1 was Florida (Ohio State #2)
  • 2007: Pre-season #1 was USC (LSU #2) , final poll #1 was LSU
  • 2008: Pre-season #1 was Georgia, final poll #1 was Florida

Despite voters having to keep up with an fast and ever-changing sport, the Associated Press pre-season poll actually did an excellent job of forecasting the season’s best team, getting it right two times and coming within one place in the rankings on six other occasions. So, the AP poll correctly forecasts one of the top two teams in college football 80 percent of the time in the last ten seasons. That’s pretty good, especially when considering how college football always comes down to the wire. That’s smart polling and statement making. The BCS should be so lucky.

Approaching a pre-season poll as a forecast is interesting and a statement that is worthy of respect. Approaching the pre-season poll as a tool for adding to the already overabundance of hype and noise in the sports marketplace is needless and annoying. And gutless.

No matter how a person feels about the psychological approach to the pre-season poll, I think we can all agree that picking just ONE universal approach is ideal. It’s clear that it is possible for a group of writers or college football experts to make good decisions during the pre-season and accurately forecast the best teams before a season begins. If that capability is demonstrated, a unified approach that hones the collective forecasting skills only makes college football better and more interesting to follow throughout the year. It adds yet another dimension to college football and reinforces why it is such a compelling sport to watch year in and year out.

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