When Phil Steele began looking over college football’s Dunkel Index, a power rating system in use since 1929, he was not satisfied.
“I would look at the Dunkel ratings in the newspaper and I said these ratings are not the most accurate,” said Steele. “They’re a good baseline but I could do better than that. So I created my own ratings and would adjust them during the season based on the scores of the games.”
He was nine years old.
As an adult, he has created the equivalent of an academic journal for college football fans. Physicians have The New England Journal of Medicine. International policy wonks have Foreign Affairs. We have Phil Steele’s College Football Preview.
Steele’s preview is celebrating its 20th year. It is more than 350 small-font pages of information about each team, statistical analysis, deep rankings on every position, power ratings, loads of historical facts and the most accurate projections for the past 16 years.
“I like to feel like this year’s version is 128 media guides rolled into one, except it’s a lot easier than having 128 media guides on your desk,” said Steele. “Once you get your hands on it, you’ve got to have it every year.”
Ain’t that the truth. An issue with a shipping sub-distributor caused a delay in the issuing of Steele’s preview. After going to numerous Barnes & Nobles and CVS, I decided I could not wait any longer and ordered an edition. In an online world, this is the one item that almost demands you get the hard copy. Dog earring pages and cycling back and forth is a key part of college football’s academic journal.
As a fan, the information in Steele’s preview on teams is a must for helping prepare and understand the season and each team’s chances. More importantly, his statistical analysis has changed the way college football is viewed in the same manner that sabermetrics created the “Moneyball” era in baseball.
“I think this is what I was geared to do,” said Steele.
Even though he had a knack for it, finding his current niche in college football took time and mirrored the path of many of sports’ statistical pioneers. Bill James self-published his first Baseball Abstracts and sold them through the mail. Mel Kiper, Jr., whom Steele communicates with and considers a friend, prepared his first NFL draft report on a typewriter and mailed them from his home to coaches and scouts.
Steele was no different. He started out managing fast food restaurants in his hometown of Cleveland before coming up with the idea of opening a print shop and producing his own college football newsletter in 1981.
“What I would do is purchase all the preseason football magazines that were out there to get my information,” said Steele.
Steele produced his newsletter for the next several years but an Outland Trophy winner made him realize there was still a void of information. In 1989, BYU offensive guard Mohammed Elewonibi, a junior college transfer who only started one game his junior year and missed his senior spring practice with a shoulder injury, won the award.
“I didn’t have him anywhere on my pages because none of the preseason magazines mentioned him,” said Steele. “So I started getting the information myself through numerous sources.”
Steele began compiling the information himself and kept it in a format that he could use. In 1994, a friend suggested that he turn this information into a magazine since he had already put in the work.
“It took a little bit to tweak it and turn it into a magazine mode as opposed to just my notebook pages but we did that the first year in 1995,” said Steele.
The first preview was less than 200 pages and covered 86 teams. It was black and white and on newsprint, with one cover for the nation that had nine players on it.
“I just thought I’d throw it out there and see how it did and as it turned out, it wasn’t something the average casual fan would pick up because it wasn’t as attractive as the other publications out there,” said Steele. “But for a true fan or a hardcore fan, once they got their hands on it, they had to have it each and every year because it’s got all the information you need for a team.”
The magazine’s popularity continued to grow, eventually transitioning to full color on all the pages. This year’s edition consists of 352 pages covering 128 teams with seven different covers. The SEC version sells the most with the national cover running a close second.
The statistical analysis has remained constant in every issue. The first feature in the first magazine was “Turnovers=Turnaround,” which basically concludes that teams with high positive turnover margins will experience a drop-off in success the following season, while teams with a negative margin will dramatically improve.
“I went back that first year and did maybe five years of research on it and then I looked at how the article did after the first year and boom. You’re looking at an 80 percent success rate,” said Steele.
The article has run in every issue since with similar success rates. Steele has also added more annual articles that demystify preseason rankings based on hard data. This year’s preview debuts an article, “Stock Market Indicator,” that measures if teams are performing as they should.
“I’ve got a file that takes me back to 1992 and it’s got every stat for every team in every category,” said Steele. “Whenever, I get a thought of ‘Hey what happens if…’ I go ahead and sort my file and I can see the results of it.”
Steele writes each of the 128 team previews, spending as much time on the University Of Louisiana-Monroe as he does Alabama. He has as many one-hour phone conversations with coaches as possible (he is not able to speak with all of them because of scheduling demands on both sides), going over the strengths and weaknesses of each player on the roster.
The team previews have three phases. The first is in December and January when he compiles all of the articles written on each team throughout the year. Every team has a report that is about 100 pages long.
“I read through 100 pages on the team, basically going day-by-day and then I go ahead and write the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and special teams,” said Steele. “Then when spring comes out, I go through the team again.”
At that point, Steele has a page and half of information that he has to edit and begin adding abbreviations to save space. This year’s edition has more than 200 abbreviations.
The third and final phase occurs after viewing the spring games. He then goes through all of the post-spring analysis and finalizes the previews.
During the season, Steele works 102 hours a week. On Saturday morning he gets up around 4:50 AM and goes to work. He watches every game possible, using a set-up with 12 televisions that allows him to watch 12 games on simultaneously.
“It’s not like there are 12 plays going on at the same time so you can watch 12 games because there are commercials and the average play takes five to six seconds. Then there are 40 seconds between plays,” he said.
Steele did note that the hurry-up offense and variations in team uniforms have hindered the seamlessness of the process. He then goes to bed at 1:00 AM after the last game ends, but is back up at 4:50 AM on Sunday going through the play-by-play of each game. Steele goes to bed on Sunday around 10:00 PM.
During the week, he watches replays of as many games as he can in the early morning and late hours. During the day, he studies the next week’s games.
“Going through all the reading for next week is huge,” said Steele. “When I get the stories, I underline all of the important things and that’s what gets into the report that I read at the end of the year.”
He then spends much of Thursday and Friday appearing on numerous radio shows. All in all, Steele appears on approximately 400 broadcasts a year.
In the past, Steele has gone against the grain with his national champion prediction, but he’s not shocking anyone with his projected winner of the first four-game college football playoff.
“I have [Florida State] a double-digit favorite in every game they play this season,” he said. “So if I’m going write one team down in pen to be in my final four, it’s Florida State. This time of year, you’re going to use pencil on the rest, but I feel pretty comfortable writing them down in pen.”
Even if you disagree with him, I wouldn’t try arguing.