University of Washington

Christian Caple: UW’s Chris Petersen is right — preseason rankings are inherently flawed

Preseason polls “absolutely mean nothing, and I’ve been saying that ... for 25 years. You shouldn’t have them,” says UW’s Chris Petersen.
Preseason polls “absolutely mean nothing, and I’ve been saying that ... for 25 years. You shouldn’t have them,” says UW’s Chris Petersen. The Associated Press

There are times when Chris Petersen’s please-stop-talking-about-how-good-my-team-could-be shtick makes me roll my eyes.

College football is, after all, a big-money enterprise. There is a reason college football coaches — like Petersen — are paid upwards of $3 million per year to coach the game, and it isn’t just because they’ve been tabbed as world-class molders of men.

None of it — outrageous coaching salaries, TV contracts, gleaming new facilities — would be possible if the sport weren’t tremendously popular, and a sport cannot be tremendously popular without its millions of fans thirsting for some kind of speculation before the season begins. Such hype might be deemed an unwanted distraction — and it’s certainly wise for a coach to instruct his players to ignore it — but it is inherent to the kind of enterprise college football has become.

There is one thing, though, that UW’s head coach could not be more right about.

“I get the importance of preseason polls and that type of stuff, for the pageantry of college football and those types of things,” Petersen said last month at Pac-12 media days. “But they absolutely mean nothing, and I’ve been saying that — and every coach will tell you — for 25 years. You shouldn’t have them.”

This is the exact thought I have each year when it comes time to assemble my preseason ballot for the Associated Press top 25 men’s college basketball poll. I enjoy being part of the process, and I take my vote seriously. But I find myself wishing we could wait a few weeks before debuting the poll, if only to avoid the preseason prejudices that are inevitably attached to teams ranked near the top.

That kind of thing can be even more prevalent in football. If, say, six teams are undefeated through the first eight weeks of the season, the top-ranked team on any given ballot might just be the unbeaten team that began the year ranked the highest, since there’s no objective way to compare teams that haven’t played each other (or, in some cases, haven’t even played any common opponents).

Even after the season starts, the polls aren’t based entirely on results. Let’s say I’ve got SEC Powerhouse University ranked No. 1 on my preseason ballot, and it opens the season with a 56-14 victory against Directional Tech A&T. And let’s say an unranked team beats, say, the No. 9-ranked team, and nobody ranked ahead of that team loses.

Shouldn’t that unranked team jump to No. 1, given the data available? Wouldn’t the unranked team, in that scenario, have the most impressive victory of anyone in the country? The only excuse for keeping the preseason No. 1 at No. 1 is because it hasn’t lost yet, and is there really any logic to that once the games start?

This is an age-old pattern that I find myself falling into as a voter — hesitant to drop a team after a victory, regarding the previous week’s poll as relevant even after more games have been played — and preseason rankings are a part of the problem.

(It should be noted that the College Football Playoff committee — proprietors of the only rankings that truly matter — claims to completely disregard the previous week’s rankings when it comes time to rank teams each week.)

“I’m a voter in the top 25 and all that,” Petersen said. “It’s like, why would we do this until at least game five or six? Let’s play. So if people want to talk to us after game six when we play three Pac-12 teams — at Arizona, short week on Stanford and then at Oregon — and after that want to make a big deal about things? OK. But until then, why are we talking about this stuff?”

We’re always going to speculate, of course. And why shouldn’t we? Fans can’t get enough of preseason predictions. The buildup is part of what makes the season so intriguing.

But if we’re really interested in ranking the best teams come midseason, we should really stop ranking them before the season begins.

Christian Caple: 253-597-8437, @ChristianCaple