Schwartz’s Sunday Notes: How Predictions Work

July 23, 2017

Written by David Schwartz

Hawkeye Nation

Six weeks from Iowa’s season opener against Wyoming, Hawkeye fans this past week were hit with diverse storylines. Some were inspirational, others matter of fact, others attention-grabbing

We’re knee keep now in college football’s preseason hype. We’ll be completely submerged a week from now with the coming of Big Ten Football Media Days.

In the meantime, let’s review the past week:

• Cleveland.com – owned by the same company that runs the Cleveland Plain Dealer – polled Big Ten beat writers about the predictions for the season. They predicted the Hawkeyes to finish fourth in the Big Ten West.

The predicted order of finish was:

1. Wisconsin
2. Northwestern
3. Nebraska
4. Iowa
5. Minnesota
6. Purdue
7. Illinois

The fan in me wants to stand up and fight anytime the Hawkeyes are ranked so low. How dare they!

Reality and logic, however, paint a different picture. Sports media generally consider the same criteria when making preseason football predictions, and it’s a pretty simple formula.

Is Iowa’s starting quarterback returning? No.

Is Iowa’s best defensive player returning? No.

Does Iowa have the same reputation as Ohio State and Michigan? No.

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There’s a 93 percent chance half the voters in this poll spent 10 minutes or less researching their picks. So it makes sense that the Hawkeyes are ranked so low.

Wisconsin was the right pick at No. 1, and Purdue and Illinois at the bottom are safe bets. But 2-5 you could toss into a tumbler, shake them up, and pull them out in who-knows-what order. As the world’s worst preseason predictor of any sport, I know how this goes. Seriously, click on the above link to Cleveland.com’s story, bookmark it, and return to it in December to see how well the poll predicted reality.

***

When former University of Texas and NFL running back Ricky Williams explained just after the turn of millennium that he suffers from anxiety, it marked a turning point in the public discussion of mental health.

Athletes – especially football players – were supposed to be the toughest of the tough. Yet here was Williams, unashamed to admit that his illness caused him to dread criticism and fear things that many people take for granted, like everyday conversation.

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Many fans supported Williams, but many more did not understand. They side-eyed Williams.

When former Iowa State basketball player Royce White publicly criticized the Houston Rockets’ plan for working with his mental illness, he earned some praise for bringing attention to an important issue.

Still, not everyone understood what White was going through. Even two years later, with White continuing to try to understand his illness while pursuing his basketball career, Houston’s general manager still spoke negatively about White.

There isn’t much more one can say about Sean Welsh than what Rob Howe wrote last week. Welsh, an Iowa offensive lineman on the Outland Trophy watch list, spoke last week about his own battle with depression.

Except for a few trolls, Welsh has been nearly universally judged as brave for not only taking on his disease, but speaking out and turning himself into an unintentional advocate for those who suffer similarly.

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Welsh is to be admired. If we take a step back and put Welsh’s discussion into context, it’s heartening to discover how far the sports world has come in such a short time. The sporting scene rolled its eyes at Williams, it applauded White while still throwing stones, but Welsh mostly seems to have generated a feeling of respect and understanding.

What he did last week – speaking out – was immeasurably important. How his fans and the rest of college football respond to him will be equally as important.

***

Although my gut tells me that Nathan Stanley wins the job (remember: I’m legendarily bad with predictions), the possibility that true freshman Peyton Mansell could be Iowa’s starting quarterback is the more exciting option.

The quarterback we know the least about is always the most exciting, isn’t it? It’s that old football cliché: When things are going wrong, the best player on the team is always the backup quarterback.

Will it happen? Will Mansell win the job as a true freshman? Probably not. Mr. Slow and Steady Kirk Ferentz will sleep better at night with Stanley or Tyler Wiegers than with Mansell. And just to douse all our fun, watch them redshirt Mansell or switch him to kicker or something.

Still, you never know. That’s part of the fun of the preseason. And at the very least it sounds like Ferentz and Co. are keeping an open mind.

• Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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