The USA Today Coaches Preseason Top 25 for the 2016 NCAA football season is out, with the Associated Press Top 25 due in a little over a week. Do the polls know something that perhaps sportsbooks don't when it comes to college football futures?
Early Polls Mostly Irrelevant
First off, realize that the USA Today and AP Top 25 Polls are essentially meaningless now, nothing more than talking points. The formation of the College Football Playoff and the poll that committee releases weekly around midseason is all that matters when it comes to teams potentially reaching the national semifinals. The first College Football Playoff poll will be out Nov. 1 this year.
Before I look at this year's USA Today Poll, let's examine last year's preseason version.
Ohio State was almost a unanimous No. 1 (was in the AP poll) as it was the defending national champion and Coach Urban Meyer was set to return 15 starters, including perhaps the deepest collection of quarterbacks in NCAA history in Cardale Jones (started and won the Big Ten title game and College Football Playoff semifinals and title game), J.T. Barrett (started every regular-season game and was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year but was hurt in the regular-season finale) and Braxton Miller (a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year but missed 2014 due to injury).
The Buckeyes looked unbeatable. Except that Michigan State went into Columbus late last season and win, knocking OSU not just out of the playoff but even the Big Ten title game. So keep in mind that in these preseason polls, the coaches or media are often simply looking at how a team finished last season as well as the number of returning starters. They aren't going in depth on schedule analysis, etc.
The No. 2 team last year was TCU, which closed the 2014 season just missing out on the playoff and then smashing a very good Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. The 2015 Horned Frogs brought back Heisman Trophy favorite Trevone Boykin at QB, but they had some injuries and finished second in the Big 12 and with an 11-2 overall record.
Alabama lost to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals in the 2014 season and brought back only 10 starters last year but was still No. 3 in the USA Today Preseason Poll. Of course, the Tide won their fourth national championship in seven years. The Tide beat Clemson for the title and the Tigers were No. 12 in the preseason poll. The two semifinal losers were Michigan State (No. 6 in preseason poll) and Oklahoma (No. 19).
The biggest mistake by far that pollsters made last summer was ranking Auburn No. 7. The Tigers were just 2-6 in the SEC and 7-6 overall and now Coach Gus Malzahn is on the hot seat entering 2016. Georgia Tech was a huge mistake last year, too, ranking 17th in the preseason poll and finishing 3-9, the school's worst mark 1994. Coach Paul Johnson is on the hot seat as well.
Cougars, Hawkeyes, Broncos Are Intriguing
Alabama ranks 11th in the SEC and 98th nationally in returning starters but is the preseason No. 1 in this year's USA Today Poll. It's the third time the Tide open at No. 1 in that poll. They are +665 favorites on college football odds to repeat. I don't happen to think they get back to the playoff -- or even win the SEC West -- with tough trips to Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU.
Clemson is No. 2 in the poll and Florida State is No. 4. I do believe the winner of their game Oct. 29 in Tallahassee will go on to win the ACC Championship Game, finish the season unbeaten and reach the playoff. I'd favor FSU simply because it's home. The Noles are +1350 on college football picks to win the NCAA title.
I believe Houston, ranked No. 13 in the preseason poll, is great value at +1250 on 5Dimes to make the four-team playoff. The Cougars were the best Group of 5 team last year and beat up on Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Houston brings back star quarterback Greg Ward Jr. as well. If the Cougars beat No. 3 Oklahoma on Sept. 3 in Houston, then UH could easily run the table all the way to the playoff.
I also think Iowa, ranked No. 15 in the poll, is solid value at +1400 to reach the playoff. The Hawkeyes play in the weak Big Ten West Division, which they won last year. Their three toughest opponents in the regular season are all at home: Oct. 22 vs. Wisconsin, Nov. 12 vs. Michigan and Nov. 25 vs. Nebraska. Iowa would be an underdog most likely in the Big Ten title game vs. Michigan, Ohio State or maybe Michigan State, but anything can happen in one game.
Finally, consider unranked Boise State at +2000 to reach the playoff. The Broncos will be favored in every Mountain West Conference regular-season game, with their toughest two non-conference games, vs. Washington State and BYU, coming on the blue turf in Boise.