Wait, why do we rank 25 teams anyway?
Good morning, and thanks for your continued support of Extra Points.
I've mentioned this before, but want to give one more plug for a cool event I'm doing with the University of South Carolina later this month.
Excited to be speaking with my friends at @UofSC on Nov 17 about some of the great What If questions in college football history. The event is open to public, so feel free to join us on Zoom!
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownEP)
Nov 8, 2021
On Nov 17, at 3 PM ET/2 PM CT, I'll be discussing my college football What If book, along with other recent scholarship, in a public zoom. If you're interested in hearing more about say, the early history of BYU football, why the Ivy League pulled the plug on big time college sports, failed conference realignment plans, and more, I think you'll enjoy the presentation. Attendance is free, but please register ahead of time.
In other news, this evening, the collective college football world will tune in to the latest College Football Playoff Rankings Show, and will get really #mad #online about the rankings. Even though the playoff only includes four teams (for now, anyway), the committee ranks 25, creating plenty of ammo for arguments.
Why do we do this? Have we always done it this way? Actually,,,,no!
Let my man Andy Wittry explain. I'll pass the mic over to him.
You might think that we’ve been ranking the 25 best college football teams since the dawn of time, dating back to when Rutgers was a national championship contender.
But that isn’t actually true. Prior to sponsoring the coaches poll, the USA Today-CNN Top 25 poll ranked the top 25 teams starting in 1983, the AP poll didn’t start doing so until 1989 and the United Press International (UPI) poll followed suit in 1991, after it restructured from being the coaches poll.
After the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season were released, CFP selection committee chairman Gary Barta said on the media conference call, “In addition to the top four, our charge is to rank the top 25 teams, and while we spend a lot of time one through four, I can tell you that we spend a great deal of time all the way through.
“We know how important it is to rank all the way through to 25.”
That the rankings go to 25 isn’t just so we have another quip for the content mines. It has actually shaped the playoff selection process
After the playoff field was selected last season, there were seven times in the ensuing press conference in which Barta cited the number of top-25 wins a team had as a justification for its ranking.
“Alabama was undefeated and has been dominant all season long. They've beaten three top-25 teams throughout the year.”
“Ohio State is also undefeated against top-25 teams with wins against Northwestern and Indiana, Northwestern in the championship game last night.”
“Talking about Iowa State, Iowa State did beat Oklahoma earlier in the year, and also had another top-25 win against Texas.”
In addition to the fact that a top-25 win is only a top-25 win because the committee says so, it’s worth outlining that the practice of even ranking 25 teams in college football, or any other sport, is roughly only as old as the nearest millennial in your office.
Younger fans of the sport may not realize that the AP poll, which was founded in 1936, actually ranked the 20 best teams for more than half of its existence. And for less than a decade, the AP poll only ranked the top 10 teams in the country:
- 1936-60: 20 teams
- 1961-67: 10 teams
- 1968-1988: 20 teams
- 1989-present: 25 teams
(Lincoln Journal Star | Aug. 1, 1961)
The men’s basketball AP poll launched in 1949, one year before the UPI poll made its college football debut, followed by the women’s basketball AP poll in 1977.
When the AP’s college football poll expanded from 20 teams to 25 in 1989, then-AP sports editor Darrell Christian told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “It was evolution. The number of top teams has been expanding for the last few years, and we thought our poll should expand as well. We seriously thought of going to 30 but didn’t think we had the depth of voting yet.”
The Star-Telegram noted the change meant that teams on track for an 8-3 or 7-4 season would now deserve consideration.
“How the schools like it and how the bowls like it never entered into it,” said Christian, the AP sports editor. “It’s more of a fan device.”
In the final year of the AP Top 20 poll, 1988, there were 105 schools competing at the highest level of college football, which meant that 19 percent of the teams in the sport were ranked in a given week.
“That was simply a matter of Division I-A growing,” Ralph Russo, the AP’s college football writer, said in a recent phone interview, when asked about the expansion of the AP poll. “I think that more and more teams were moving up at that point and I think that it was a response to, ‘OK, if there are more teams that are playing this sport, shouldn’t we be ranking more of them?’
“As far as I remember from talking to people and asking about it, it was a simple matter of if there are going to be so many more schools, maybe we should have more [teams in the poll], which of course sort of speaks to the idea of ‘Now there are 130 FBS schools, should you have even more than that?’
“That has not come up at all.”
Today, with 130 FBS institutions, 19.2 percent of the teams nationally are ranked in the AP Top 25, which is roughly in line with the percentage from 1988 when the AP poll ranked 20 teams.
As the number of FBS schools will increase in the near future, with schools such as Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State moving to Conference USA, and James Madison joining the Sun Belt, could there be a simple mathematical case for the size of popular rankings systems to increase in order to keep up with FBS expansion.
“Honestly, there has been no discussion of this,” Russo said.
(Fort Worth Star-Telegram | Aug. 27, 1989)
Is there really that much of a difference between team number 20 and team number 30?
When the AP poll expanded to 25 teams, AP poll voter Jake Curtis of the San Francisco Chronicle told the Star-Telegram, “Twenty-five should be the limit. I think 20 is enough. It’s tough enough picking teams after you get down below 15th.”
Then-Baylor coach Grant Teaff added, “What you usually have from about 18 to 25 are teams pretty close to each other in caliber.”
What was obvious then to coaches and poll voters alike is that starting somewhere between the No. 10 and No. 20 team in the country, voters are ultimately splitting hairs as they fill out the rest of their ballots.
We now have even more ways to quantify the often razor-thin margins between teams.
Using the Simple Rating System (SRS) – a rating system that takes into account a team’s average point differential and strength of schedule, and whose output is listed in terms of points above or below average – the current gap between Georgia at No. 1 and Michigan (!) at No. 2 is almost five points, which is roughly the same separation as the No. 10 team in the SRS, Cincinnati, and Minnesota at No. 25.
While ESPN’s SP+ ratings sees a slim margin between the best teams in the country, with Georgia at No. 1 with a rating of 31.4 and Ohio State at No. 2 at 30.0 – a rating of 31.4 means SP+ says Georgia is 31.4 points better than the average college football team – the same principle holds as SP+ evaluates teams ranked in the teens and 20s.
After a bit of a dropoff from No. 9 Oklahoma (19.2) to No. 10 Pittsburgh (17.6), there’s just a field-goal margin from 10th-ranked Pitt to No. 21 Utah.
“I often try to get across to readers,” Russo said, “that the difference between 15 and 35 is really not that much.”
If anything, these margins show the potential value of a theoretical college football rankings system that is both vertical and horizontal, something that college football writer Matt Hinton has done previously when ranking his top 40 teams.
A tiered approach is something college basketball has adopted with its quadrant system, which while imperfect, attempts to categorize wins and losses based on game location and the strength of the opponent, not merely “top-25 wins.” It acknowledges the reality that beating the No. 15 team at home should be considered with similar merit as beating the No. 30 team on the road.
The final NCAA team sheet for Gonzaga men’s basketball from the 2020 season, with its wins and losses sorted into four quadrants.
Basically, college football’s postseason and the national conversation is kind of based on an arbitrary number
When the number of teams in the AP poll expanded from 20 to 25 in ‘89, there was a belief that the AP poll could expand again. Heck, the number of teams in the poll almost grew to 30.
In fact, there was a poll in that era that ranked 30 teams in DI men’s basketball. The U.S. Press poll was founded in the late ‘80s by a 14-year-old named Ben Mutzabaugh, who once spent $300 on a month’s worth of phone bills as he called coaches around the country, according to the News & Record. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and the late John Chaney were among the group of weekly voters, which also included sportswriters.
When the AP poll expanded to 25 teams in 1989, Nolan Richardson, the legendary former Arkansas men’s basketball coach, told the Star-Telegram, “The schools with household names just seem to keep getting in there, the UCLAs, the Kentuckys, the Louisvilles. That leaves little room for up-and-coming teams, like Ball State last year, to break in. Now with 25, the little guy has a better chance to be somebody.
“I don’t see why it couldn’t eventually go to a top 40.”
In the college football AP poll for Week 11, there are nine teams featured in the “others receiving votes” category, an honorable mention list that was a 1987 invention. In this season’s preseason poll, there were 19 teams that weren’t ranked in the AP Top 25, but still received votes.
So the AP poll is essentially ranking the top 35 to 40 teams anyway, even if there aren’t numbers attached to the teams ranked No. 26 and worse.
In a society that operates with a base-10 system, perhaps ranking the top 25 teams isn’t any more arbitrary than it would be to rank the top 20, 30 or 40 teams – at least on its face. But data from modern ranking systems – the ones that are determined by computers, not committees – could make a compelling case that setting a hard cutoff at 25, then using the results to determine playoff candidacy, is indiscriminately leaving out teams of a similar value and valuable data points.
To put it another way, look at whichever team the CFP selection committee ranks No. 25 this week. Why should beating that team be so much more valuable than beating, say, Houston? Or Penn State? Or Louisiana? Is there really that big of a difference?
The reason why the AP didn’t expand to the AP Top 30 in 1989, according to the sports editor at the time, was because there wasn’t enough “depth of voting.” Whether he meant depth of quality teams or depth of quality voters, both have been rectified since.
With 130 FBS teams in 2021, there are 25 more teams at the highest level of college football than there were in 1988, with even more teams on the way, including two programs that won an FCS national championship in the last half-decade. And for voters, there are certainly more TV and streaming options, and advanced analytics to parse when ranking teams.
While the poll has ranked 25 teams for the last 33 years and while the number of teams ranked in the AP poll has changed 30 years or so, on average, there’s a compelling case for the format of the AP Top 25 poll to stick to its name.
“The poll has had a certain amount of consistency through the history of college football that is unlike anything else in college football because...college football has no orderly systems, right?” Russo said. “It doesn’t have consistency of conferences. It doesn’t have consistency of championships and how they are awarded. It has been decades and decades of, ‘Oh, this year we’re trying this,’ and next year we’re trying something else.
Russo continued, “I don’t know if we want to mess with that because I think, again, it’s been this thing that has allowed college football to connect through the ages and sort of tell the tale of college football.
“To me, that’s the most powerful thing the poll does, right? Especially in a period where now it no longer is really what is deciding the championship, so the one thing that sort of keeps it relevant is the way it is able to tie together history. I think if we start messing with it, it loses some of that.”
But that doesn’t mean the CFP selection committee, now operating in year eight of its existence, has to stick to ranking – and valuing – 25 teams and 25 teams only.
When the 2022 College Football Playoff field is selected on Dec. 5, we’ll likely hear Barta say that top-25 wins were a reason why at least one of the four playoff teams was chosen. In a world where four quarters equal a dollar, 25 is a clean number for everyone to grasp, but in college football’s postseason, it allows both quality teams and sound logic to slip through the cracks.
Welcome to college football.
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