Christmas in July ... the college football preview mags are out

For college sports fans, the best days on the calendar are as follows:

1. Selection Sunday.

2. Opening Saturday of college football.

3. First Thursday of the NCAA Tournament.

4. New Year's Day (realizing that the juice has been sucked out of this day by the relocation of the biggest bowls to the following week).

5. The day the college football preview magazines hit the stands.

This is the day Phil Steele has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

My quality of life has escalated significantly since the blessed day that I grabbed up the five mags: The Sporting News College Football, Athlon Sports 2007 Preview, Street & Smith's Official Yearbook, Scout College Football Preview and Phil Steele's College Football Preview.

If you're like me and the art of the double switch escapes you, if you view baseball as something more to be endured than embraced, then the arrival of the college football magazines is an unequivocal signal of hope. Blocking and tackling are not that far away.

If the mags are on the stands, then July conference media days cannot be far behind. Then practice starts in August, and by Labor Day weekend it's on.

It's like when kids see the first Christmas decorations going up in the neighborhood. And, like Christmas decorations, the preview mags seem to arrive earlier every year. But unlike the pleas to hang lights at Thanksgiving, I am not bothered by football reintroducing itself shortly after Memorial Day.

I've been buying these magazines since I was 8 years old, which I admit is fairly pathetic. That puts me back to the days when Street & Smith's, the godfather of the genre, posed its cover boys in helmets without face masks. They looked ridiculous, but that never really mattered -- it was all about what was inside.

(In a retro maneuver, 67-year-old Street & Smith's got several players to pose that way again this year for its regional covers. Florida's Tim Tebow, Oklahoma's Allen Patrick and Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen kept their face masks on, while Rutgers' Ray Rice, Louisville's Brian Brohm and Clemson's C.J. Spiller went with no helmet at all. Nine other players went throwback -- and, yes, they still look ridiculous.)

What I loved most as a kid was the very back of the magazine, where every team's season schedule was located. Back in the day, the outcomes were predicted: "F" for favored, "U" for underdog and "T" for toss-up. This was the gospel according to Street & Smith's, and I accepted it with religious conviction.

S & S no longer picks the games, and it no longer lives up to its cover claim of "most complete -- most informative." That now belongs to Phil Steele's College Football Preview, which absolutely lives up to its hyphen-poor cover claim: "jampacked with information."

All the mags have their merits. Sporting News is usually the best for design and prose. Street & Smith's still uses good writers and has greatly upgraded its look. Scout predicts game-by-game wins and losses. And, hey, Athlon always has a bunch of cheerleader pictures.

But Phil Steele owns the genre. How valuable is his book? I left mine on a plane during the 2006 season and nearly had a seizure when I discovered it was missing.

The 46-year-old uses a cookie-cutter layout for every team, and his writing will never be nominated for a Pulitzer. But he does author every two-page team preview himself, and he crams stats, facts and figures into every nook and cranny.

"If I see any white space, I ask, 'What information can I put in there?'" Steele said. "I try to make it 119 different media guides rolled into one."

He largely succeeds. The self-professed "math guy" from Cleveland bombards the reader with useful numbers.

If you want to know the scores of every game played by every I-A team over the past five years, Steele has 'em -- point spreads included. (While the book more overtly targets gamblers than the others, Steele says it has lessened that element in recent years. Still, there is a back-page inside ad featuring a bikini-clad hottie and phone numbers to get the "play of the week.")

If you want to know the outcomes of the last five bowl games your team has played, Steele has 'em. (For example, New Mexico State 20, Utah State 13 in the 1960 Sun Bowl.)

If you want to know every meaningful stat from 2006 -- individual and team, including game-by-game team breakdowns -- Steele has 'em. If you want six-year statistical trends by team, every coach's career record, a three-deep at every position and the top 20-25 newcomers for every team … yes, Steele has 'em.

"All I work on, 365 days a year, is college football," Steele said. "I don't worry about baseball, basketball or any other sport out there."

He'll start on the 2008 previews on Dec. 1 and grind away into the spring. And by the time the book comes out, it usually contains a bombshell prediction or two generated by the Steele computer formulas.

Last year, he picked an Arkansas team coming off a 4-7 flop to finish 13th. The Razorbacks surprised everyone but Phil by going 10-4 and finishing 15th AP, 16th USA Today.

"I saw a good schedule and an underrated team," Steele said. "They went 2-6 in the SEC [in 2005], but they outgained SEC opponents by 31 yards per game. That told me they weren't anywhere near as bad as their record.

"Alabama could be like Arkansas was last year. The stats are eerily similar."

Steele has the Crimson Tide ranked 17th. None of my other four magazines puts Bama in the Top 25. The man could probably run for mayor of Tuscaloosa right now and win in a landslide.

Steele also is incredibly bullish on Hawaii, ranking the Warriors 12th and predicting a BCS bowl appearance. Among the other mags, only Athlon ranks Hawaii in its top 25, at No. 19.

By Thanksgiving, we'll know who was right and who was wrong. But here in the dog days of summer, we at least have some reading material to kill time until kickoff.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.