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How College Football Preseason Polls Can Help and Hurt Handicappers

The major college football preseason polls are out. Every year when they come out I immediately rush to absorb what they have to say. Soon after, though, I find myself thinking about what they mean and the impact that they have for bettors – both positive and negative. Here’s a look at how the polls can be helpful, and how they can cause bettors – especially more casual ones – some problems:

The Good

Good sense of public and media appeal – The college football polls are like a cheat sheet. In no time you can see how the media is perceiving teams, and that will usually translate into how the public is going to perceive teams as well. The media and public perception have a lot to do with where the value is in college football – especially in higher profile games – so getting a good early sense of this is obviously helpful.

Can show you teams that are good that you wouldn’t have known about – It’s not hard to get a good sense of the top NCAA football teams in the major conferences. For casual fans, though, it can be harder to keep track of the teams out of the MAC, CUSA, or the Sun Belt that are getting national respect. The polls – both the teams in the top 25 and the unranked teams that still attracted a fair number of votes – can help put these teams on your radar.

Can get the public more excited than they should be about teams you are skeptical of – If your football handicapping homework has caused you to be skeptical of the capabilities of a team then a high ranking is the best thing you could have hoped for. Every year there are a couple of teams who start out highly ranked but just don’t have the game to back them up. That high ranking draws public action, and that can create value on strong opponents for you.

Can help you spot teams that will be motivated to prove they are disrespected, or those that might let it go to their heads – If a football team thinks that they are a top ten college team but they are outside of the top 20 then they are likely going to take it as a slight, and a coach can use it as a rallying point for the season. On the other hand, a team that is highly ranked and is perhaps getting more credit than they should be can find it going to their heads if they aren’t coached with enough discipline.

The Bad

Not always accurate – The college football polls are flawed at the best of times, but especially so this early in the season when games haven’t been played and there is so little known about a lot of teams. That means that reputation has as much to do with the rankings as potential and capabilities. The polls, then, aren’t always an accurate representation of what can be expected once the season starts. I’d go so far as to say that they rarely are totally accurate. If you are relying on them to shape your opinion and direct your beliefs when you make your football picks then they can mislead and cause you problems.

Based on very weak information about new players and their abilities – Because the rosters change so much every year in college football new players are a major factor for almost every team. It’s very hard to get an accurate representation of what to expect from new players when they enter the lineup. If they are true freshmen then all we have to judge them on is their high school play, and most of that information is second and against very inconsistent levels of competition. Players that have been with the team but not playing significantly are even more of a mystery because it’s hard to know how they have been performing in the practices and scrimmages that they have been participating in. As a result, preseason polls involve a whole lot of speculating and downright guessing about what players will be able to do, and it’s very difficult to maintain a high level of accuracy with those guesses. The more new players that will be in a lineup, then, the harder it is to trust a preseason opinion of that team.

Can blind you to what happens after the polls come out – The football polls come out weeks before the season starts. In the case of the Coaches’ Poll it comes out before teams have even spent a significant amount of time practicing. Relying on the preseason polls too much, then, can blind you to injuries, transfers, or notably slow or fast player development that occurs after the polls have been released. We would never handicap the first NFL games of the regular season based mostly on what we thought of teams in late July, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense for college football handicappers to do the same in NCAA football.

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