Editor’s Note: Slight change in format for the new year. I’ll now be including links to Informed content with each post. Hopefully, this serves as incentive for me to write a little more and hopefully you, gentle reader, will click and learn something you didn’t know about your home insurance.
This week’s link: Does it always make sense to file a claim when you experience damage that insurance would pay for? Not always…
Ian’s Blog: Football Edition
I am due to produce my annual Super Bowl predictions (if you missed the CFP prediction, I gave you Georgia last week) and, with it, I thought I would keep things all football related by exploring how freer markets will impact the future of college football. Specifically, I will focus on the “transfer portal” which is a relatively new phenomenon where players can switch schools without penalty.
While the “portal” has been around for three years now, players have yet to figure out how to optimally use it. If you believe in efficient markets, it is only a matter of time before they realize they are not acting in their best interest.
My prediction is the portal (and the “NIL” where players can make money while in school) will change college football by making it more like European football. The big programs will use the smaller or mediocre schools as feeder clubs to lower their risk in recruiting high school players.
In other words, a top high school player may play as a freshman at say Rutgers or Colorado with the intention to leave after two years for Clemson or Ohio State.
How does this play out and why hasn’t it happened yet? I’ll address all that below. But first, let’s address how players have inefficiently used the transfer transfer portal to date.
The Old Way: Go To The Best Team No Matter What
Most high school players want to sign with the biggest name program they can, even if that means they will be fourth string at first. They likely suffer from the Lake Wobegon effect and believe they will eventually become the star even though all the other similarly highly rated recruits believe the same thing and only one can start at a time.
What often happens is the players who sit on the bench get disenchanted and transfer out after a couple of years. Sometimes they end up at another top school and earn the starting job (for example, Joe Burrow at LSU or Justin Fields at OSU) but many times they end up at a lower profile school. Other times they stick around and never get the opportunity to be more than a backup.
Often, this happens not because they were a “bust”, but because someone else emerged and surpassed them. When you go to a top tier program, there are often four heralded quarterback recruits so there are decent odds one of them outplays you.
Or worse, a year after you commit, the school signs another high schooler who is a bigger star and you get passed over entirely. This risk is obviously hard to predict but it has a greater chance of occurring at a top school with a long history of recruiting success.
The strategy of going to the best school made sense under the old rules where you had to sit out a year if you transferred, so it was worth gambling on working your way up from fourth string rather than have to sit out to switch schools. But when the rules changed, players’ behavior didn’t.
The New Way: Go Where You Can Play The Most Right Away
Therefore, attending a top tier school is a risk. You may be NFL worthy but never get the opportunity to play. Players like Burrow or Mac Jones were very close to never getting a chance and were not expected to be drafted at all a year before their final season.
There is a lot of randomness involved in reaching the NFL. A big part of the reason Tom Brady was a sixth round pick was because he was over recruited by younger players (Drew Henson) which limited his playing time. If you can’t get playing time, you can’t show your skill.
Thus, a prospect’s number one goal should be going to a school with greater prospects of immediate playing time. In other words, the current process of sitting on the bench at a top five school is counterproductive and a losing strategy for most players.
Instead, they should start college at a school that can offer more immediate playing time, even if that is a mid tier (say bottom half of a Power Five conference) or lower tier (perhaps the MAC or Conference USA) school.
If you can start as a freshman at Nevada or a sophomore at Houston, that makes a lot more sense than riding the bench at LSU. Why? Because if you succeed, LSU will want you to transfer in and be their starting QB the next year.
If you fail, well, if you can’t succeed at a lesser program, you probably weren’t going to get your chance at the top school anyway. So there is nothing lost unless your dream was to be a backup at Alabama.
I can’t be the only person to figure this out which means eventually high school recruits (or their advisors) will. In the near future, the top 25 schools will largely source their starters from the transfer portal and use the lesser schools as a development program.
They will still recruit high school players but likely for the less glamorous positions or those where learning the coach’s system is more important. You can imagine schools like Wisconsin or Iowa specializing in recruiting high school offensive lineman who they can develop and groom and hope to keep from leaving.
On the other end, more athletic positions like receiver or cornerback will likely want to go to schools where they can play immediately and move on to Alabama as a junior.
College Football Will Resemble European Football
Yes, this means if you are fan of a Boston College or Washington State, you may see a lot of your best players only stay for a year or two before moving up in class. That will certainly change the fan experience.
It might remind you a lot of the transfer market in soccer if you are familiar with that model. The Premier League clubs source much of their talent from the second and third tier leagues who are essentially development grounds.
What’s in it for those lower level teams? Well, for one, they get paid by the top teams to transfer (i.e. sell) their players which lets them reinvest in developing more players. But it also helps them put a better product on the field if they can get good young players they wouldn’t have had the ability to sign otherwise.
While college teams can’t sell their players, if you’re Central Florida, would you rather have two years of a future NFL first rounder or four years of a future sixth rounder? You sell a lot more seats I think with the former.
And if you are constantly able to refill the funnel with more four and five star high school players, you will be able to be more competitive than you are today even with the players you lose to transfer.
Remember, the current system is horribly inefficient. There are lots of very good players forced to sit for two or three years because they can’t get off the bench at a top program. The overall quality of football would be better if these players were starting somewhere.
Follow The Money
As for the players, there is one other factor that will likely push them away from starting at the big schools: CASH!
With the introduction of NIL payments where players can earn money from advertising, it is more lucrative to be the starter at Pittsburgh where there are plenty of companies that can pay you than to be fourth string at Notre Dame where the local car dealer is going to want the starters in their ads.
Players will be less willing to accept backup gigs if it is costing them promotional opportunities. And by proving themselves at the lesser school, the NIL payment when they transfer to the better team will be even larger because there will be much more excitement about the player’s marketability.
We are seeing some early signs of athletes realizing this with Jackson State getting the second rated recruit (Travis Hunter) in the country recently. This may be a bit of an anomaly given their high profile coach (Deion Sanders) but it could be a harbinger. It will be interesting to see if Hunter stays at JSU or leaves after two years once his profile has been raised.
The Paradox: The Game Quality Improves While Fan Loyalty Weakens
It’s going to take a little more time before players truly figure this out, but it is coming. College football will become more like the Premier League where the very top teams are the only ones who can seriously compete for the title (though is it really that different as is?).
For the second and third tier programs, life will more closely resemble college basketball where the better players stay for a year or two before moving on. These schools will get more stars than they have had in the past, but they won’t stay around.
As I said, the good news is this is better for the game overall. Rather than star recruits wasting away on Clemson’s bench, they will be starting for Minnesota. It will also increase the odds of upsets as mid tier programs will have more talent and can better compete with the top ten teams.
It is bad for fans though who will likely grow frustrated with players using them as a weigh station until they can advance to a higher level rather than develop affections for players who start as freshmen and progress to fifth year seniors. The cliché about rooting for laundry will never be more true.
That said, maybe they won’t mind if they feel like their fan support is allowing higher NIL payments to attract better players, sort of like a GoFundMe effect?
Regardless, whether you like it or not, this is where the future of college football is headed.
NFL Playoff Predictions
In what has become an annual tradition, I will try to predict the Super Bowl outcome. This has been a pretty fruitful exercise in the past. Two years ago, I nailed the Chiefs over the Niners. Last year, I got it half right picking the Bucs and the Titans.
My preseason prediction this year was Packers to win the Super Bowl at 14-1. Not bad! I did say to also take a flier on Seattle which didn’t work, so I effectively have Green Bay at 13-1.
Given GB only has to win two home games to make the Super Bowl, I will stick with them though I don’t think it’s a layup and I wouldn’t bet them at their current odds of 4-1.
I don’t sense a Tampa repeat and don’t trust the Rams (they struggle against good teams), so Dallas is really my only other alternative. They lead the NFC in point differential (i.e. they have outscored their opponents by the most over the season) which is a telling metric and have surprisingly good odds at 11-1.
Dallas is inconsistent, but that volatility can work in your favor. Their best game beats most other team’s best game. So that’s where I’d probably take a flier on new money.
The AFC is complicated. Three straight Super Bowl appearances is tough so I’m looking for a reason to pick against the Chiefs especially at 9:2.
Tennessee with the #1 seed is interesting as they only have to win two games to make it vs. everyone else at three. They also become much more compelling if Derrick Henry is truly healthy and they have beaten the Bills and Chiefs this year already. Nobody wants to pick them which is a good reason to pick them (it worked with Georgia). They’re a possibility.
I don’t believe in Cincinnati with no playoff experience (don’t be surprised if the Raiders upset them). Then, we have the Bills and Patriots. They have the two best point differentials in the league which is a good predictor of playoff success.
The best storyline is a Patriots vs. Brady Super Bowl. I think the Pats can pull off some upsets but it’s hard to back a rookie QB all the way and Belichick’s road playoff record is only OK. Asking them to win three road playoff games is too much.
I do have a suspicion the Football Gods will tease us with New England and Tampa both in the conference championship games though and then they both lose.
So we come to the Bills. In other years, the Bills would be a clear favorite. Only one of their six losses was by more than a touchdown. Four of their losses were to other playoff teams. They’re a handful of plays away from being say 14-3.
They were also one of the preseason favorites which tends to be another good indicator of postseason success. The issue with the Bills is they are expensive (the same as 7.5:1 as the Bucs) and they have a very tough path. First, they have to beat the Pats, then they probably have to face the Chiefs, and that’s before they get to Tennessee. That seems too hard.
OK, I know we’ve gone long, but bear with me here as we do some quick math on why Tennessee is the clear AFC pick and maybe the best overall Super Bowl bet. Their odds are 8.5:1. If you bet $200 on them, you win $1700 if they win the Super Bowl. To get there, they should have to beat only one of Kansas City or Buffalo.
Now, let’s say you don’t believe in Tennessee. It’s hard to decide between KC and the Bills. Your best option is to split your ticket and bet $100 on each. You would return $450 if the Chiefs win or $750 if the Bills do. That’s an expected value of $600 – $100 for the losing bet for a total of $500.
So betting on the Titans positions you to win $1700. Betting against them positions you to win $500. You have to believe the Titans odds of beating the Bills/Chiefs winner are really poor to pick the Chiefs or Bills instead. And did I mention earlier the Titans already beat both teams this year?
Even ignoring the betting odds, simple math says Tennessee needs to win one hard game, the Chiefs are facing two hard games, and the Bills three hard games. Even though I think Buffalo is the best of the three teams all else equal, all else isn’t equal.
So I’m going back to the well with Tennessee, this time not as the long shot but as the underrated top seed who nobody wants to pick. I’ll stick with my preseason Packers to win it all pick, but we’ll call it a Tennessee-Green Bay Super Bowl. If you’re looking for a longer shot, the Cowboys would be my flier there.