College football fans are now in that grim time of year where the spring practices are over, the coaching changes have long since taken effect and even recruiting news (an evergreen if largely irrelevant news item) is getting sparse.
Time for pre-preseason predictions!
Of course, I’ve already made mine, but the College Football Industrial Complex needs to keep eyeballs on the screens and generate those mouse clicks, so a stream of pre-preseason nonsense is being fed out to what the appetites of the ravenous fans.
The greatest offender is ESPN, which maintains a huge pool of commentators whose idiotic predictions are reliably wrong, game after game, season after season. In fact, if ESPN experts predict your team will do well, you may as well give up on the season.
Because it’s all about the clicks, other media sites will fasten onto these dim projections and try to milk some traffic of their own.
Which is exactly what I am doing.
Via mlive.com, the latest outrage is a paywall-protected ranking of the top 25 defenses for the coming season. Spoiler alert: MSU didn’t make the cut.
I could care less about the snub, but what I think is telling is the pseudo-scientific formula being used, which includes my personal favorite piece of statistical rubbish – recruiting rankings.
I’ve said it before but it is worth repeating: recruiting rankings are absolute garbage. The ‘star ratings’ are so subjective as to be meaningless. Yes, obviously one star is worse than five, but on what basis are these determined?
The dominant input seems to be the interest of other schools. Thus if a no-star kid gets a call from Nick Saban, he is now a three-star. If Auburn calls to see what ‘Bama is up to, now the kid will be worth four. And if Florida State or Ohio State take a look, why he must be five-star material.
Basically, it’s a feedback loop. The athletes recruited by successful schools are assumed to be good because otherwise they wouldn’t be recruited.
Conversely, schools without much of a reputation will get lower ratings for their recruiting classes because it is assumed that only sub-par athletes will go there.
What makes this little racket so insidious is the way in which it keeps looping. A school that started out with low recruiting rankings that begins to find success will see its public perception improve, meaning that its scouts are now more trusted. This in turn causes athletes they are looking at to be seen as better than they were before.
Soon articles appear describing how the school is now getting “better” recruits – without there necessarily being any change in overall quality mind you, just perceived quality.
The end state is where the school – now an established power – sees its recruits magically upgraded to higher status.
As I said, it’s a feedback loop.
Some people have tried to disprove my assertion, going to the labor of correlating recruiting classes with end of season rankings.
Once again we run into the problem that the same reputation and popularity that boosts nonsensical recruiting rankings also figures prominently in the beauty pageant that is the BCS.
It’s a tautology – they are highly ranked schools because they are highly ranked schools.
Michigan State has severely undermined this happy arrangement, however. MSU has had one recruiting class in the mythical top 25 since Mark Dantonio became head coach, yet over the last four seasons it leads the Big Ten in conference wins and has won its division once, tied for the conference title and won it outright.
Conversely, the Skunk Bears of Ann Arbor regularly are rated in the top 25 for recruiting and yet over the last four years they have won…nothing. No conference or division championships.
Now the beauty of the system is that it is already starting to correct. As MSU’s stock rises, it recruits are magically being enhanced.
The reverse is not happening in Ann Arbor, however. Future inmates at the world’s largest open air insane asylum are still given a ratings boost thanks to their association with the mythical winged helmet. That may strike some Spartan faithful as patently unfair, but it actually is a bit of a double-edged sword for the Skunk Bears because it puts additional pressure on their coach to win titles.
The argument is already being made – how can Brady Hoke post such mediocre results with season after season of top-shelf talent? What is he doing to his team?
By early October, these experts will have fully beclowned themselves but no one will care because they will have forgotten all about it. One can rest assured that by this time next year, the same click bait will be offered up.
As Lou Holtz has proved time and again, being on ESPN means never having to be right about anything.