A Polling Apology: The Top 25 is more confusing than ever, guys

BY REED NELSON

Chris Pietsch/AP Photo

Chris Pietsch/AP Photo

Here’s a scenario: You are playing in a three-on-three basketball tournament. It’s a bracket-style tournament, seeded by an objective group with limited knowledge of each team’s skill level. Your team runs through its side of the bracket, crushing everyone its wake. The game’s aren’t even close. On the other side of the bracket, everyone is playing tight — two-point games, three-point games — but on your side, you and another team are just beating the snot out of everyone.

In the quarterfinals, however, your squad comes up against Steamroller #2, and in a tight game you lose by three. Subsequently, in the semifinals, a team with a higher seed than you loses by 19 to Steamroller #2, who eventually goes on to win the tournament finals by 23.

So here’s the question: Given the results of each game, the second ranked team in the tournament should be who? Should it be the team that made it to the finals? Or should it be the team that’s only blemish came against the champion?

It should be the team that was clearly the second best team on the floor, right? And that team was the team that lost by three in the quarterfinals.

Granted, in this allegory, nuance has been thrown out of a moving car’s window, but it isn’t hard to see where the fallibility of pre-ranking anything can come into play. Not only does the practice provide a falsely found paradigm from which basically everything thereafter must reference, but it also builds prejudice into those subsequent ranking systems.

And in the case of college football’s ranking systems, they’ve totally lost they’re minds. Sure, college football in general lost its mind last week, but the pollsters did not handle it well.

To recap, last week’s games were amazing and crazy and unpredictable and underdog-dominated in ways that surely induced existential crises amongst many a local bookie. The madness began on Thursday night, when then-unranked Arizona’s upset #2 Oregon, before that same madness transformed into a supernova on Saturday and consumed everything in its wake.

By now, the story is well-recited: The AP Poll’s second, third, fourth, sixth and eighth-ranked teams lost to underdog opponents causing a Top-10 shakeup of such tectonic force that it allowed two previously unranked teams (Arizona and TCU) into the Top-10.

It was absurd. But it also verged on absurdist.

Searching for higher meaning in last week’s on-field chaos was like trying to decipher Kafka through Spongebob reruns.

But then, like a cherry on top of one of the craziest days in college football history, the Week 7 rankings revealed their ugly Voltron heads on Sunday. And they were as fucking bizarre as they were jarring.

In the AP Poll, Florida State predictably held on to their top spot after waxing Wake Forest 43-3. Auburn jumped from fifth to second after demolishing LSU.

Mississippi State beat up on sixth-ranked Texas A&M, while Ole Miss knocked off third-ranked Alabama. Somehow, these feats were awarded with a split third ranking, which looks as confusing as it sounds.

Because of the third-place tie, there was no fourth-ranked team1, but Baylor rounded out the Top 5.

Notre Dame jumped three spots to sixth after edging Stanford with some late-game Everett Golson-ing.

Alabama dropped the least far, jamming their ice axe into the cliff at #7.

New(-ish) to the Top 10 were Michigan State, TCU, and Arizona, in that order.

So, to recap, it goes: Florida State, Auburn, Ole Mississippi State, Baylor, Notre Dame, Alabama, Michigan State, TCU, Arizona.

Oklahoma (4 to 11), Oregon (2 to 12), Texas A&M (6 to 14) and UCLA (8 to 18) all fell out of the Top 10.

Of the new Top 10 teams, only Alabama and Michigan State have losses, which makes no fucking sense.

Let’s backtrack for a moment: Four weeks ago, in Eugene, Oregon, Oregon outscored Michigan State 28-3 in the second half to run away with a 46-27 game. Not a single pundit argued that it was close. Michigan State was clearly the inferior team, they said. They’re good, but not ready to compete with the big boys2.

That was the overwhelming sentiment following Oregon’s win. That #7 Michigan State was good, but no Oregon. The Spartans were 1-1, and their vaunted defense had just been shelled for 46 points.

Now, flash forward to this week’s rankings. Oregon, who’s record stands at 4-1 following their shocking home loss to Arizona, sits at #12 in the AP Poll. Yes, that is four spots behind Michigan State who also happens to be 4-1.

So, how is it that the Ducks — who again, are a 4-1 football team that thrashed Michigan State to the the tune of Are They Really Any Good — behind Michigan State in the rankings?

Probably because the rankings actually rank very little.

The rankings have been so obfuscated by time, tenderized by the hammer of public perception, and otherwise blended, processed, Vitamixed and wood-chipped that they no longer resemble much of anything.

Seriously. How do we trust these things? They don’t seem to rank teams based on much besides an archaic, caste-like mobility structure. That sounds dramatic, I know and I apologize, but hear me out.

In the beginning (and by beginning, I mean sometime in March, before terrible spring games become news), there is nothing. Then, out of thin air, two allegedly separate groups of highly-intelligent individuals (coaches and writers. Ok. Mildly intelligent.), decide that 25 teams stand above the rest, and they usually decide on basically the same 253.

Then, as the season progresses, the only way to move down (and subsequently, up) is by losing. Florida State, for instance, nearly lost to NC State at full-strength and got to maintain its top ranking. Oregon was a blown Pass Interference call away from losing to Washington State yet their status was unquestioned in the eyes of the voters. UCLA was just bad until they lit Arizona State’s pants on fire, and they got to hang in the Top 10, too, at least until they got outlasted by Utah and their blitzkrieg on Bruin QB and once-Heisman hopeful, Brett Hundley.

But now that Oregon and UCLA have lost, they sit outside the Top 10, falling a combined 20 positions in the poll. Michigan State’s effort against Nebraska, a team that has lost four games every season since 2009, a game that Sparty almost blew in the fourth quarter, was apparently good enough to leapfrog Oregon.

I know the transitive property doesn’t apply in sports. It’s silly, naive and useless. But at some point, doesn’t formality seem just as dumb?

We talk about rankings with an insatiable zeal, yet they consistently and condescendingly tell us our eyes are lying to us.

“Hey fans! Remember when Oregon beat MSU? It has zero bearing on our rankings! None! Oh, and also? Remember when Florida State almost lost twice?? Who cares! Everything looks like a line drive in the boxscore!”

What other sport does this to itself?

Look, I understand that college football is different than other sports in like a million ways4, but do those differences truly necessitate a totally different lens by which we should view the sport?

In every other sport with standings and records and other methods of competitive tracking, tiebreakers matter. If you have the same record as another team in, say, the NHL (or NFL, NBA, MLB, college basketball, volleyball, squash, just pick one, it qualifies), the head-to-head record comes into play.

Did I miss something?

Did MSU’s remote-smashing win over an annually disappointing Nebraska squad really separate them from the pack?

It didn’t, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. The name of the game in the NCAA is lose early, don’t lose often. If you lose early, you have time for other teams to lose after you do, because in an “objective” ranking system, a loss automatically means everyone else moves up past you.

This isn’t a defense of Oregon. Seriously. They should probably be considered somewhere between the 10th and the 15th best team in the country based on their past two showings. History should also allow them a bit of leeway, because tradition and stuff, the same way it allows Alabama a little bit of leeway every year.

It is, however, a crack at the voters, with Michigan State serving as a proxy.

This happens every year. We don’t trust our own eyes in the polls, we allow some team with questionable credentials into the upper echelon and we justify it by using stats and legacies that are usually far more drenched in tradition than they are with relevancy.

Going back to the opening hypothetical, Alabama, not Oregon, is probably that quarterfinal team to get ousted. We know they’re really good. If the Top 25 rankings are supposed to actually reflect the Best 25 Teams in America, In Order, then they should probably still sit somewhere between #2 and #6.

But the Top 25 doesn’t reflect the Best 25 Teams in America. It doesn’t really pretend to. Nebraska has made the cut this season despite having an offense that places zero value on throwing the football.

Stanford, despite losing twice this season to underdog opponents, is still hanging around on the AP side, while Arizona State, who lost to UCLA by 35 points, sit a mere two slots behind the 18th-ranked Bruins.

The lesson to be gleaned from all of this is something like… If you lose, lose early. When you lose early, hope your fall isn’t precipitous. After the fall, hope that teams in between you and and a playoff spot play each other. A lot. No matter how those games go, someone is falling, someone is rising.

Like, for instance, if Mississippi State and Auburn play to a triple-overtime stunner this week, one of them is still falling out of the Top 5. Context means nothing anymore, and the rankings reflect on-field activity the same way that asphalt reflects the sun.

Because when it comes to voters, only wins and losses count. How you play the game is left to us fans.

It’s absolutely absurd.

Footnotes

  • And it’s not even a leap year. Fucking bizarre. Jump
  • Paraphrasing has occurred, of course, but duh. Jump
  • In the preseason rankings, the Top 5 consisted of (in order) Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma and Ohio State in the AP Poll, and Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon and Auburn. Jump
  • First and foremost of those reasons being that they happen to be the only professional league that doesn’t even attempt to compensate their players, but, you know, tradition and honor and hypocrisy and all that. Jump


Categories: Features, Sports Media

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