The preseason college football polls have always been a source of criticism. They appear to be totally meaningless, and if anything, harmful to the sport in the way they elevate the attention some teams receive while stacking the deck against others. The polls contribute to a system that is at best frustrating and at worst completely unfair.
However, there is one group that apparently benefits from the preseason polls: gamblers.
The reason why bettors are interested in the polls is because they have historically been helpful in predicting which teams will win bowl games. Bill Connelly from SB Nation wrote about this back in September. He took a look at the AP’s Preseason poll and discovered that since 2005, the higher-ranked team from the that poll won its bowl game against a lesser-ranked opponent 58.8 percent of the time.
This is a wonderful fact because it seems to be so counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t the more recent polls be more reliable for picking winners than the earliest poll? Apparently not, and the reason for that is pretty simple: College football fans fall prey to a phenomenon known as recency bias. What this means is that the last thing a fan or bettor saw becomes the total truth of how good or bad a team is, and not enough context is given to the full picture of a long season. The preseason poll can be a reminder of this.
With that in mind, here are a few bowl games featuring SEC teams that might prove to be solid bets based on preseason rankings:
Tennessee -8 vs. Northwestern in the Outback Bowl
Tennessee was ranked 25th in the AP preseason poll. This can be easy to forget after the collection of crushing fourth-quarter collapses that the Vols put together this season, but it is nonetheless true. And when the first poll was released, Northwestern was obviously nowhere to be found. That suggests the Vols have an advantage in terms of winning the game, but does that advantage include covering a pretty big point spread? The simple answer is yes. Tennessee is a big favorite over Northwestern here because its overall talent level is so much better. The Vols’ last two recruiting classes were ranked fourth and seventh respectively by 247sports. Obviously, the Northwestern roster cannot compare to that. Of course, the counter is that Northwestern beat Stanford this season, which is probably a better win than anything Tennessee has this year. That may be true, but it’s also misleading. Las Vegas is telling you everything that you need to know. The Big Ten team here should struggle to even keep it close.
Ole Miss -7 vs. Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl
Oklahoma State received a lot of attention during the season. At one point late in the year, the Cowboys were undefeated with a realistic shot at making the College Football Playoff. Yet OSU wouldn’t be a smart pick against Ole Miss and the preseason poll is once again an indicator as to why. Before college football viewers were clouded by the false impressions that can be formed during the season, Ole Miss was thought to be the much better team. The Rebels were ranked 17th in that preseason AP poll and the Cowboys weren’t ranked at all. One of the reasons for the preseason love for Ole Miss is all the future NFL talent on the roster. For instance, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche expect to be high draft picks as soon as this spring. Oklahoma State just doesn’t have the same kind of players, and it will have a hard time covering the spread against Ole Miss for that reason.
LSU -7 vs. Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl
The soap opera that unfolded during the final weeks of the regular season involving coach Les Miles and his future at LSU can alter the judgment about this team. The preseason poll once again serves as a reminder that the Tigers were viewed as the no. 17 team in the country to start the year, and LSU’s bowl opponent was unranked. The fact that LSU will be led by running back Leonard Fournette, who is angry about not being invited to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist, only adds to the likelihood of the Tigers covering the seven points.
UGA -6.5 vs. Penn State
At first glance this game would seem to be difficult to handicap. Penn State was one of the most uneven teams in the country this season with dramatic shifts in performance from week to week, and UGA is finishing its season without head coach Mark Richt, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and the full attention of a few other assistants who are no doubt concerned for their own professional futures. Yet a deeper look confirms that UGA is a solid pick here because its talent level just can’t be matched by the Nittany Lions. This is reflected by the fact that UGA was ranked ninth in the preseason poll while Penn State was unranked. Of course, that ranking for the Bulldogs assumed a healthy Nick Chubb at running back, but even without Chubb, UGA still has the much better roster. Former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin is eager to raise the recruiting profile at Penn State, but this bowl game will indicate how much work he still has to do.
Auburn -2.5 vs. Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl
This may be the single best bet during the entire bowl season. Memphis comes into this game with an inflated reputation on the heels of being ranked for much of the year and pulling off the upset against Ole Miss earlier in the season. Tigers coach Justin Fuente parlayed that performance into getting hired as Frank Beamer’s successor at Virginia Tech, and Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch seems poised to use his notoriety as a springboard into the NFL. However, back in the preseason nobody was talking about Memphis, who was unranked in the first poll, while Auburn came in at no. 6. This no doubt makes Auburn one of the most overrated teams in the country, but it also reminds gamblers that Auburn was once thought to be significantly better on paper than Memphis. That talent advantage for Auburn should be enough to cover a relatively tiny spread.
Obviously, not all of these SEC teams will prove to be smart bets in their upcoming bowls, but based on the data they will have a slight edge. And sometimes for a gambler, a slight edge is all that’s needed.