A Way-Too-Early Look at the Unknowable Future

By Johnny Ginter on May 6, 2014 at 1:21p

The offseason sucks. It sucks because there's no football, sure, but it also sucks because bored sportswriters spend most of their waking hours trying to figure out ways to pump out content in a contentless world.

That means a heavy reliance on topics and ideas that have been rehashed a trillion times before, and a usual avoidance of anything that might take risks or even be halfway interesting. ESPN, SI.com, Yahoo!, whoever, mostly stick with "safe" articles about predictions that won't come true but also won't be remembered for any longer than it takes to write the next hackneyed column about Johnny Manziel's legacy or how ol' Steve Spurrier is just out there havin' fun y'all. It's all pretty halfassed (and gives me an excuse to complain about it on a regular basis).

This January, our very own Nicholas Jervey did a pretty ridiculously thorough analysis of the "Way-Too-Early" Top 25 lists that the big sports providers had just come out with, aggregating several of them and looking at some general trends in terms of how they related to Ohio State and college football at large. His conclusion on the whole enterprise?

The way-too-early poll is the shining example for recency bias, failure to account for regression to the mean, and voting inertia. And yet, it’s better than nothing. Now let’s get all worked up about #narrative for the next seven months like Missouri fans.


He's right about all of that by the way, but I'll add another logical fallacy to the mix: the Gambler's Fallacy. The Gambler's Fallacy is a pretty easy one to explain; essentially, it's assuming that something should happen because of the perception that it's happened before. It's "due" to happen, despite any evidence to the contrary. This kind of thing happens when we place way too much confidence in our own ability to peer into the future despite like some kind of godly sages, when in fact we're really just gross fleshy meat worms writhing around on a dusty planet.

Here's a great example of that in action, from ESPN's most recent "Way-To-Early" blah blah blah whatever:

Oh no!

Take out the number two preceding this write up and you're likely thinking "uhhh Nick Saban's gonna kill a guy in 2014."

Seriously: The "anticipated starter" that Mark Schlabach says Alabama is pinning it's hopes on had all of 36 passing attempts last season, an interception, and took five sacks. Which, I'm sure, should bode super well for a team restructuring an offensive line that underperformed last season. I also very much enjoy the implication that the performances of Alabama's other QBs in their spring game was anything but totally awful, and that searching for two reliable cornerbacks is not that huge of a deal.

But... they're Alabama! Sure they were a little bit down last year, but it's Nick Saban baby! You know him and Kirby Smart are in the process of dredging the very pits of hell to find some man-beasts who'll meet Alabama's lax academic requirements and reign over college football, and it's just a matter of time until they do. Screw all evidence and logic that says otherwise, they're due. Right?

And this goes on. Schlabach goes on to rank Florida in his top 25 for some reason, Georgia at eight despite losing their starting QB and to freaking Nebraska in the Gator Bowl (who, by the way, is sitting at 24th on this particular list), and hell, Ohio State at seven despite no actual live ball evidence that the defense isn't a wet paper towel anymore.

These types of lists are dumb, yes, but they're also harmful. Because Mark Schlabach is going to write another Top 25 preview in August. And barring an arrest for purse smuggling or something truly awful, like a player signing their name on footballs for money, the list will stay pretty much exactly the same as it's looked in every other version that he's written.

The narrative will be set. And just like a freaking HEISMAN PREVIEW IN MAY, any teams or people on the outside looking in of what is perceived to be the best teams and players in college football will be doomed to fight and claw for every inch of recognition that they deserved months beforehand.

Let's talk about that Heisman preview, with the front runners being the wholly unsurprising names of Winston, Miller, Gurley, etc. The next batch are guys like the aforementioned FSU transfer Coker (who is obviously on the list purely because he's the presumed Alabama QB), MSU running back Jeremy Langford, and a few other guys who might actually have a shot at the Heisman, not because of their immense ability, but because of the name recognition of their teams.

The same holds true for basically the entire list, save for Marshall QB Rakeem Cato, which in of itself is kind of a funny addition because for the rest of the article, SI's Zac Ellis seems to admit that no player outside of a major conference or from a popular school is going to have a shot at college football's most prestigious award. He doesn't, however, make a similar leap of logic that says there's pretty much no way to separate Heisman candidates into tiers because there's no real evidence to support that (especially given the numerous questions about the candidates in the first section).

Instead, Ellis could've just written something ridiculous, or made a list of players who absolutely won't win the Heisman, or made a tongue in cheek, rock solid prediction about who he thinks will absolutely win the Heisman. But he didn't do that. Instead Ellis went ahead with what everyone else goes with, a bunch of halfassed predictions based on nothing but irrelevant precedence from months ago.

I can't stop that. And frankly, as stupid as I think any ranking of teams or people before October actually is, I'm mostly okay with it because it gives me a chance to whine and complain about them on the internet for a thousand words or so. ESPN et al is a super easy punching bag that requires little to no effort for me to trash and point out how effortless and lazy their analysis seems to be on a regular basis.

But you, the reader, can stop that. Instead of demanding endless lists that exist only to be argued about, demand that ESPN, SI, Yahoo!, myself, and whoever is writing about college football specifically or sports in general provide more insight and creativity than "team X just won the championship, could they be favorites to repeat?!?!"

Because the answer never changes, and neither do the lists. Here's Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early list from February of 2013. 20 of the same 25 teams from 2013 are on it this time. Including Florida, ranked seventh. Florida went 4-8 last season. That alone is probably enough to exclude them from any current Top 25 list, but I'd allow it if the evidence was a little stronger than "they just can't keep being that bad."

But it isn't.

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