A Note on Rankings (And Power Rankings Week 13)

What’s in a ranking? The Warriors post them here, once every week or so. Some Warriors rank the teams with their heads – looking extensively at the stats and schedules before carefully making their selections. Some rank the teams with their hearts, being too lazy to do any research and relying on their perception and what they’ve seen during the games. Some (like Grayhack) wear a blindfold and click randomly around the screen until they’ve picked 14 teams.

The point is – each person does it differently. At its core we are all trying to answer the same question. “Who are the best teams, and in what order?” But each has his own way of coming to the answer.

This applies to the West Lot Warriors B1G rankings each week, but also to any polls you please, including the College Football Playoff Rankings. At the end of the day, it’s a subjective practice and there’s no clear right path. Are you selecting the teams by who you think would beat the other teams, i.e. who looks better on the field right now? Is it about who has done the most thus far, i.e. who has the best resume?

It all comes down to tenses – some people look at who they think the best team has been so far, some look at who they think the best team is now, and some look at who they think the best team could be, if they live up to their potential. Each person seemingly relies on one of these options more heavily than the other.

If you look at the ‘Cats by their straight-up resume right now, they are no question a top 15 team. They have two high quality wins, and have only lost to two top 15 teams (though by a combined 68 points). Their strength of schedule is up there with any team in the country’s. But then you watch the ‘Cats play. Are we good? Yes. Do I definitively think we would beat the team ranked behind us? Uh, not so sure about that.

When you look at every team in the top 25, each one tends to lean one way or the other – getting more points for either the “eye test” or the “resume.”

  • Alabama looks like it could roll any team in the country right now, but they haven’t beaten much of anyone and lost at home to Ole Miss. The Eye Test.
  • Michigan State squeaked by teams like Purdue and Rutgers, but had three impressive top 25 wins. The Resume.

And so on, and so forth. UNC? Eye test. Northwestern? Resume. Florida State? Eye test. Iowa? Undefeated.

College football rankings have been put together in strikingly different ways throughout the years. They started out by solely relying on the eye test and human polls, as the teams just played out their seasons, and at the end “they,” whoever “they” were, would throw up their hands and typically declare Notre Dame or Alabama the champion. Then the BCS era incorporated more  stats and computer analysis, focusing a bit more on team’s resumes in an effort to remove some of the subjectivity and spread the wealth. Then teams like an undefeated Auburn were still getting left out of the title game, and we decided to create the College Football Playoff. The current holy institution solves all problems by locking twelve quasi-random but important people in a room for two days to talk, drink lemonade, make paper airplanes and then light them on fire to signal white smoke showing they’ve come to a decision on their top 25 teams. Basically, it’s the same thing as before but now with four teams getting a shot to win the championship at the end, as opposed to two teams in the BCS era, and one team before that.

At the end of the day there is no perfect recipe, and that’s the beauty of college football, and just rankings in general. We can bicker and argue and postulate and pull out obscure factoids, but at the end of the day each of us is guided by our own biases and is going to make picks based on them. College football is great because there are way too many teams to play each other each year – with more than 120 teams only playing 12 games. So, there are few opportunities to actually use the only objective measure you can to rank one team over another – a win on the field. And even if you win on the field – as Northwestern did when they soundly beat Stanford this year – you’ve got people making excuses about time zones, and lack of preparation, and Zodiac signs, and other BS intended to distract you from the fact that one team scored more points than the other in a 60 minute football contest.

There is no one right way to rank teams, because if I asked 100 people to rank the best ways to rank teams, I’d probably get 100 different rankings of ways to do rankings. But I have to say that I enjoy these College Football Playoff Rankings more than the systems that have come before. For one, there are now four teams that get a shot to prove – in the only objective way possible – that they are better than the others by winning on the field.

In years past, would an undefeated Iowa have ever sniffed the championship? I highly doubt it. Iowa is not OHIO STATE, or MICHIGAN or ALABAMA, and so they start each year at a branding disadvantage. Because they haven’t been a traditional powerhouse, no one gives them a shot heading into the year, and so even when they actually pull off 12 straight wins, people don’t fully buy into their success. “They got lucky.”

But now, with four spots available in the playoff, Iowa can get in with a win against Michigan State in the B1G championship. Where in years past they’d probably need help (in the form of other teams losing) to get a shot at the ‘ship, this year they have controlled (and still do control) their own destiny.

For every team like Iowa who benefits from the rankings structure, there’s a team like the ‘Cats who sits on the outside looking in. As of now, it’s looking very unlikely that the ‘Cats sneak into a New Year’s Six Bowl, unless the Committee has a sudden change of heart and vaults us over Florida State. The ‘Cats project to be around 12-13 in the CFP rankings tomorrow – approximately 12-13 spots higher than everyone projected they’d be at the beginning of the year. Some Northwestern fans are lamenting about the close miss – if we had one more dominant win during the year, or a loss or two by a team ahead of us, we would have probably snuck into a NY6 bowl.

But our positioning has benefits. We are going to likely play in the Outback Bowl, against an SEC team that is not nearly as good as their NAME BRAND suggests. We have a legitimate shot to win that game, and get to 11 wins on the season (like, whoa). The teams ahead of us in the rankings will all be playing each other, meaning half will drop. We could very realistically be looking at a top 10 ranking in the AP poll by the end of the season. Are we a top 10 team? Hell no.

Then, when the poll prognosticators are sitting down to create their preseason polls for next year, they’ll look at where everyone ended up in 2015. The thing about people in general is that they’re lazy, and stubborn. These rankers fall into the same boat. It’s why they continually give NAME programs like Oklahoma the benefit of the doubt – they have seen Oklahoma in title games before, so it feels right to rank them up at the top again. Once they’ve seen Oklahoma in several championship games, it becomes ingrained in their heads that Oklahoma is the type of program that belongs there. When push comes to shove and you need to make the tough decision between the #2 and #3 teams in the country (or now the the #4 and #5 teams in the country), you fall back upon your experiences and biases having seen certain programs succeed throughout the years.

I’m not saying that I don’t think Oklahoma is a top team in the country – I’d probably put them #1 right now. I’m just saying that if you’re a different kind of team – a team like Iowa, for example, who hasn’t been ranked that highly that often – you need more evidence than a team like Oklahoma to break into the top of the rankings. You need to overcome the uneasiness rankers feel when putting you in the top four. You never see Iowa up there, so it just doesn’t feel right.

But sure enough, Iowa is #4. Northwestern was #16, and will be higher when the CFP ranking come out tonight. I think we could climb into the top 8 at the end of the year if we get a favorable Outback Bowl matchup and win. And when the rankers create their preseason polls come 2016, the ‘Cats would likely be a top 20 team. And the rankings circus will begin anew.

With that, let’s move on to the only rankings that actually matter. Here’s how the Warriors see the B1G conference this week.

Team Points
1. Iowa (3) 94
2. Michigan State (3) 93
3. Ohio State (1) 86
4. Michigan 77
5. Northwestern 70
6. Wisconsin 63
7. Nebraska 48
8. Penn State 47
9. Indiana 45
10. Minnesota 41
11. Illannoy 29
12. Maryland 17
13. Purdon’t 14
14. Rutgers 11
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