NCAA Football Polls Unduly Influence Point Spreads
by Robert Ferringo - 08/11/2007
There's an amazing symbiosis between polls and people in this country. On one hand, polling data alleges to reflect the national consensus through the science of random sampling. On the other, polls have an incredible power to influence the general public perception, sometimes even more than they "reflect" it.
The ultimate example of this phenomenon is politics. But since this isn't a political website we're going to focus on how this all pertains to putting coin in your khakis during college football. See, the multitude of college football polls released during the season are some of a sharp gambler's best friends. The idea is that these polls not only represent the public's skewed and generally biased expectations toward certain programs, but they also influence the action on these teams and thus have an impact on the spreads when Top 25 clubs play.
It seems simple to Joe Public - the No. 12 team in the country is laying 10 points to some unranked team. The No. 12 team should win ad cover easily because, well, they're No. 12. Ridiculous? Yes. True? Absolutely. But when that No. 12 team just got done winning a savage tussle with its in-state rival the week prior, has a homecoming game against the defending conference champion the week following, and the unranked team their facing returned 18 starters from a team that got humiliated in the meeting the year before, well, I'll take those 10 points to the bank.
The first NCAA football poll of the season was released last week. It was the USA Today Coaches Poll and marked the first step in the dog-and-pony show that the sport can be. So I've decided to have a little bit of constructive fun with it.
So, do you remember that challenge on "The Price Is Right" where Bob Barker would set out an item with its alleged price below it. The contestant would have to guess whether the actual price was higher, lower, or the same. It was a jolly good show. Now I'm stealing their idea and applying it to the recently released USA Today Poll. Only here I'm going to break out the crystal ball and try to predict a team will finish higher, lower, or the same when the final poll is released in January. If I say that a team will stay that same, that means that I think they'll be within four or five spots either way of where they are now. If I suggest a team will end up "higher" or "lower" then that means I think they'll finish at least seven spots up or down from where they are now. Got it?
In a broader sense, these are my first college predictions as far as which teams I think are going to be better than the general public believes and which will be worse:
1. USC - SAME
Pete Carroll has a championship defense two years too late. The Trojans are jacked up on D and will feature their usual assortment of offensive playmakers. Their schedule is favorable, but games at Nebraska early and at Oregon and Cal late won't be easy.
2. LSU - SAME
Big Glenn Dorsey is the linchpin in what could be the best defense in the country. The Tigers had to face four Top 10 teams on the road last year, but have a fantastic schedule this time around.
3. Florida - LOWER
OK, this ranking is a joke. I know they were spectacular in the National Championship Game, but they return just eight total starters and lost 27 lettermen. They have only three SEC home games and have to deal with the burden of being the defending champs. If they end the season in the Top 15 I'll be shocked.
4. Texas - SAME
It looks like the coaches are weighing in early on which team they think will win the Red River Shootout on Oct. 6 in Dallas. However, if the Sooners are favored over Colt McCoy and the Longhorns then that should be a huge red flag.
5. Michigan - LOWER
The Wolverines are another team that I believe has garnered this ranking based more on the team they put on the field in January than the one they'll have in September. Chad Henne and Mike Hart are heroes, but neither the offense nor the defense will be as strong this season.
6. West Virginia - SAME
The Mountaineers defense surrendered 32.2 points per game over the second half of the year. They brought back seven starters, and if WVU is going to make a run at the National Championship it will be determined by how tough they prove themselves to be.
7. Wisconsin - SAME
The Badgers won't have a cupcake schedule again this year but they will have 16 starters and powerhouse back P.J. Hill to build around. They're going to be a tough team to make a buck on after a 9-2 ATS mark last year.
8. Oklahoma - SAME
They don't have a quarterback or an elite running back, but that's all that the Sooners are missing. Bob Stoops is good for nine wins all by himself, and that Sept. 8 meeting with Miami is a must-see.
9. Virginia Tech - SAME
Armed with Good Karma and a bone-cracking defense, the Hokies are a dark horse national title contender. They have eight starters back on both sides of the ball and will be riding an emotional high all season. The question is, can they keep it up?
10. Ohio State - LOWER
As with Michigan and Florida, I think the Buckeyes are severely overrated given their dearth of experience. The problem is that they won't get tested until late October - and won't get exposed until November in a weak Big 10.
11. Louisville - SAME
I still don't think they're over that loss to Rutgers late last year. And with just five starters back on D and games at USF and at West Virginia, I think a repeat of last year's dominance is asking too much.
12. California - LOWER
Does anyone east of the Rockies know that the Golden Bears actually earned a split of the Pac-10 title last year? Cal is Louisville (West) and has an absurd schedule. I think they're out of the Top 20 by late November, if not sooner.
13. Georgia - LOWER
The Dawgs are a shady team right now. On one hand, I love Mark Richt and I think Matthew Stafford breaks out this year. On the other hand, even their longtime play-by-play announcer has said he has a bad feeling about this year.
14. Auburn - LOWER
Like several other traditional powerhouses on this list, I feel like the Tigers are ripe for a fall. Their defense is still barbaric but their offensive line - the true strength of the team the past four seasons - is raw. Road games against UF, LSU, Arkansas and UGA don't help.
15. Tennessee - LOWER
This one is tough, because I think Uncle Phil Fulmer could coax eight wins out of the Vols heading into the bowl game. They have the second-fewest returning starters in the SEC (10) and other than Erik Ainge I don't know that they have the senior leadership to hang in their conference.
16. Rutgers - LOWER
This rating is out of respect for last year's sensational season, but the Scarlet Knights are going to find out what it's like to be marked men this year. Believe me, it's not that they're weak as much as it is that WVU and Louisville are that much better.
17. UCLA - HIGHER
If they were good enough to beat USC last year, and they brought back 20 of 22 starters, you tell me how they're not going to end up as a Top 10 team. They should be favored in four of their six road games, could be undefeated when they enter the rematch with USC on Dec. 1.
18. Penn State - SAME
I always doubt the Nittany Lions and Joe Pa always makes me pay. I'm not a huge Tony Morrelli guy, but he has a lot of "weapons" (by Big 10 standards) back and a strong line. The D is the one thing you never have to worry about at Linebacker U.
19. Nebraska - HIGHER
Without Sam Keller, this isn't a Top 30 team. But I think the kid is that good and playing with a chip. This pick is going to completely be determined by a Sept. 8 meeting with Wake Forest. A win and they go 9-4 on the year. That's good enough to keep their name in the Top 25.
20. Arkansas - LOWER
Darren McFadden is a rhino, but this team is in trouble. Houston Nutt had an, um, eventful offseason off the field. On top of that, he lost four of his top six tacklers and prize QB Mitch Mustain. They'll stay afloat because of candy-ass nonconference games but this team is about to step back.
21. Florida State - HIGHER
The 14 returning starters that Bobby Bowden has are the most he's had since his 1999 national title team. If Drew Weatherford can just be "pretty good" then the Seminoles have the defense and the raw talent to be a BCS buster. The problem: three of the last four are at B.C., at Va. Tech, and at Florida.
22. TCU - SAME
The Horny Frogs are getting a lot of dap for what they've done over the past two years. They have one of the most smothering defenses in the nation, but with a schedule that has two short weeks, two back-to-back road trips, and away games at Texas and at Wyoming, it could be tough to live up to expectations.
23. Boise State - LOWER
Their season peaked by getting the cover of EA Sports' college football game. There is only room for one WAC team in the Top 25, and that team is Hawaii. With only three of their front seven back on defense I don't see the Broncos bucking anyone.
24. Hawaii - HIGHER
The Rainbows only leave the Islands twice after Oct. 1. And with five of their last seven at home they'll be gaining momentum just at the right time. They have Colt Brennan and his 58 TDs back this season, along with eight starters on an underrated defense. They should run the table and will likely be the second WAC team in two years to crash the BCS party.
25. Texas A&M - SAME
All five of their road games are B-R-U-T-A-L. But that should keep them in the spotlight for a majority of the year. A couple marquee wins behind triple threat Stephen McGee could boost the ol' Q Rating. Or they could roll right out of the Top 25 - as I see them doing.
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