The Sweep: Preseason Top 25

We wanted to beat the AP and Coaches' Poll voters out with our poll, plus, why not give them a guide so they don't look so foolish when they release their preseason poll in a week or two? Daniel's college football predictions have done pretty well in years past, what's the secret to gambling your way to that villa on the Caribbean? And what does the he see for this season?

The Sweep is back for Year Four and ready for some college football! It's been far too long.

So picking against the spread last year here at the Sweep, we went 27-12 last year, and were similarly strong three years ago, our other year betting against Vegas lines. We don't have a lot of money, but that's a big enough sample size that we're going to try to (legally, naturally) find a website to take the limited funds that we do have and see how we do this year.

Not that we'd condone this, of course, but if you wanted to try betting in a similar manner at home, here's my advice. All this talk of the increasing parity in college football gets repeated so much that we have no choice but to believe it. There's one little problem though: it's simply not true.

My top four of Florida, Texas, USC and Oklahoma clearly enter this season light-years ahead of the field. They will be the AP's preseason top four, they will be the coaches' poll's top four and it's hardly inconceivable that they'll be the postseason top four too. (Heck, if anyone wants to bet, I'll happily wager that three of those teams will finish in the AP's top six after the bowl games are said and done, or that all four finish in the top 10.) Just like the difference between a five-star recruit and the rest of the field is greater than the difference between a three-star and a two-star recruit, the difference between these "five-star" teams and the rest of the field dwarfs any other talent differential in comparison.

The problem is our memory plays tricks on us. We want to believe that these top teams have a shot of being toppled every week, and so any time this year's flavor-du-jour meets any of these squads, we let our minds deceive us. Well, Missouri's undefeated and in the top-five, maybe they do have a shot against Oklahoma? (They lost, twice, two years ago, in games that were closer on the scoreboard than on the field.) Maybe this will be the year Cal or Oregon or, 2009's likely Pac-10 favorite du jour, Arizona, knocks off USC? Wouldn't bet on it. In fact, I'll be betting against it.

We reinforce these annual hopes with hype and selective memory. Hype: the media wants you to watch, wants you to care, wants to drum up interest in that week's big game, and so you're bombarded with 101 reasons each week why maybe this is the year Alabama could knock Florida off, capped weekly by College Gameday broadcasting live from the game (if it's big enough), implying all the more that this will be the week's best game and the underdog really has a shot. Not so fast, my friend – but more on that in a second.

The second trick is selective memory – we're a lot more likely to remember the thrilling games than all the clunkers. We all remember Stanford's upset of USC more than the countless pantsings of the several previous years (if I recall correctly, 42-0 and 55-19), and though Stanford's not the flavor du jour -- yet, the same principle applies. [Really, Microsoft Word paperclip? Neither pantsings nor pastings is a word? Too bad you're just a paperclip – what you gonna do about it?]

Even today, my mind can play back the video of Michael Crabtree tiptoeing the sideline to lead Texas Tech to a shocking last-second upset of undefeated Texas. I'm sure plenty of you remember the play too. Anyone remember what happened the next week though? Oklahoma killed them approximately 82-7. Of course, we all turned that off at halftime, and so it's a lot less salient in our minds. Hence the opportunity for arbitrage. The data backs this up. USC has won the Pac-10 for seven straight years and dominated the world of college football for nearly as long, finishing with at least 11 wins in every year since 2002. It's no secret to anyone each August that they're going to be one of the top teams in the country come January. Yet USC is 61-41 against the spread in the Pete Carroll era, and is six games over .500 against the line since 2003, when it was abundantly clear to everyone how good the Trojans were. Similarly, Oklahoma is 11 games over .500 against the line starting from the 2005 season. They went 13-0 (with a national title to boot), 11-2, 12-2, 12-2 and 12-1 the five seasons prior, so it was hardly a shock they were going to be good. In the last four years, archrival Texas is also 31-19 against the spread. They went 11-2, 11-2, 10-3 and 11-1 the four seasons prior, so their recent success was totally predictable as well.

Perhaps most strikingly, Florida had the world's most hyped player at quarterback last year – when I'm watching ESPN features on his circumcisions (well, his performance of circumcisions, not his circumcision, you know what I mean) and come-to-Jesus prison preachings, it's safe to say the Gators flew under absolutely no one's radar. And, of course, they'd won the national title two seasons prior. Yet, somehow, Florida went an incredible 12-1 against the spread last season. That tends to happen when you win each of your victories but one comes by at least 23 points. Yet, of course, people remember their one-point loss to Mississippi more than the subsequent pantsings of LSU or Georgia or South Carolina or Florida State, all ranked at the time, by a combined 149 points, an average of 37 points per victory.

Admittedly, this trend of teams 1-5 destroying teams 6-20 was more pronounced last year than it has been in years past, and the only way someone can win 70 percent of their bets against the line in the long run is by fixing the games. So almost assuredly the Sweep will cool off this year, and maybe it'll have a losing season if this season is as unlucky as last season was lucky, or the tectonic plates of college football have shifted. Until they do though, I'm going to scream "the Emperor has no clothes" as loud as I can – for as much as all the king's advisors pretend otherwise, when an elite team meets another top-25 opponent, the hype most often rings hollow with the game an utter rout. I love good college football, but I won't mind too much – I'll be supplementing my grad student income by putting my money where my mouth is.

Okay, here's The Sweep's preseason Top 25. Like we do every year, there's more analysis, conference predictions and, of course, previews of Stanford's opponents to come in the weeks ahead. As always, these predictions account for real-world schedule strength and home field advantage and bye weeks and media biases and all the rest, and attempt to predict where the teams will actually end up come January 10ish, instead of ranking teams on a theoretical "true strength"/what would happen if everyone met on a neutral field equally rested in some alternate universe basis.

2009 Preseason Top 25
1. Florida
2. Texas
3. USC
4. Oklahoma
5. Penn State
6. Ohio State
7. Notre Dame
8. Mississippi
9. Boise State
10. Virginia Tech
11. TCU
12. California
13. LSU
14. Georgia Tech
15. BYU
16. West Virginia
17. Pittsburgh
18. Oklahoma State
19. Illinois
20. Oregon State
21. Boston College
22. Georgia
23. Alabama
24. Wisconsin
25. Iowa
Just missed: Michigan, North Carolina State
Easiest schedules: Mississippi, Notre Dame, Boise State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State (eight home games!)
Toughest schedules: USC, LSU, unranked Nebraska and Arkansas
Most underrated: Virginia Tech, Cal, Oregon State, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech
Most overrated: Oklahoma State, Alabama
Biggest surprises: North Carolina State, Boise State, Penn State, Georgia Tech

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