Uncovering The True Value In College Football's Preseason Rankings

College Football Picks

Thursday, September 1, 2016 2:29 PM GMT

Despite not being able to predict a BCS National Champ in years, preseason polls can be a valuable futures tool for college football betting. Check out why here.

Guess how many preseason AP No. 1 college football teams have won the BCS National Championships in the last 10 years? That's right. Zero. One has to go back to the Pete Carroll-led USC Trojans of 2004 to find the last tile holder to accomplish this feat, though the team was forced to later vacate its final two wins after a 2010 NCAA investigation found the school guilty of violating rules of amateurism. Before this, in 2002, the Miami Hurricanes assembled one of the greatest collegiate teams in history, winning the title after receiving 27 first-place votes and topping the preseason AP rankings. What's the point? Despite the poll's recent failures to predict champions, it's still a useful power-ranking tool that bettors can refer to throughout the season, even with its inherent flaws, biases, and inaccuracies.

Polls & Usefulness
Cinderella teams have become the norm in most collegiate championship series. Basketball fans are now accustomed to penciling a mid-major or two into the Sweet 16 when filling out their annual brackets, while Coastal Carolina just shocked the baseball world after winning the title in their first College World Series appearance. But football is a different beast. There is too much disparity in talent, size, and strength, and too many personnel making a difference to see a team way off the radar threatening the title. One has to go back to the 1984 BYU Cougars to find a non-Power 5 school who won it all. It takes several years, much money, a vital scouting network, and a lot of luck to build a serious title contender, and the AP polls typically reflect this.

College football rankings are based on many criteria, including weighing talent and recruiting classes, recent past performances, scheduling, injuries, the number of returning starters, personnel changes, and more. In many ways, the AP poll factors all of this into one catchall category. Embrace it. Many bettors will dismiss the rankings as too square, and that value can be found fading over-hyped teams that public money will follow based on its popularity and unscientific make-up. But the poll will unearth just as many overlays as underlays. Think of it as “swarm intelligence,” or the idea that collective knowledge of a group can outperform a specific model or any individual understanding. The AP Top 25 college football poll is made up of 60 sportswriters and broadcasters from around the country, and whatever their backgrounds, are typically experts in the field and weighing many factors in their decisions; just at different levels.

One way bettors can possibly harness the power of the AP preseason poll is for futures betting. Think of the poll as a good barometer to any significant changes or occurrences that may cause a team improves or downgrade in the upcoming season. Give or take a few teams, most of the preseason AP Top 25 will be made up of schools, particularly from the Power-5 conferences, who owned the top points differential from the previous season. In 2015, for example, only five failed to fall under this umbrella. As with many sports, it can often be valuable to refer back to the rankings midway through the season to see if more or less was predicted from a team. See it as a benchmark for determining any kind of reversion to the mean.

Win Totals
One angle I like to take when betting regular-season win totals is to compare a program's betting market expectations from the prior season to its preseason rankings this year—particularly isolating top Power-5 schools with a legitimate chance to win the title. Together, the numbers signify little change among online oddsmakers and public expectations, leading to potentially greater strength and consistency across the board. Here is the angle: look for Power-5, AP Top 10 teams who averaged the highest point spreads the prior year, ignoring scheduling, and other factors. In the last decade, if a team ranks in the top 10 in each category, they own a 33-21-6 (61%) record going over their projected win totals for the regular season. The higher they are in each ranking, the better numbers too. If a team sits in the top five in each, they are 14-7-4 overall. Also in this group, I look for teams that rank equal to or higher in the preseason poll than they did in the average point spread ranking the year before. This signals some sort of upside, favorable scheduling, or other factors with voters they really like. In the last 10 years, teams in this situation are 9-1-3 going over oddsmakers projected win totals.

The AP poll has yet to be released, but the Coaches Poll, which is often nearly identical in rankings give or take a position, has, and we can use it to ferret out a few potential bets. Five teams are on the radar: Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson and Florida State. Isolating the Power-5 conferences, they each ranked in the top 10 highest average point spreads last year and opening Coaches Poll. The Tigers and Sooners, each with Heisman Trophy favorites under center, are most intriguing. They are the only two schools (Clemson -12.6, seventh; Oklahoma -15, fourth) to sit better than their average line rank last season, suggesting plenty of upside with pollsters.