Over the past few weeks, I’ve somewhat inadvertantly adopted a new Sunday afternoon ritual. In addition to watching the Jets routinely throw away two-TD leads, I’ve increasingly found myself staring with bemusement at my computer screen — and with the AP Poll firmly in my cross-hairs. I’ll admit, this has been a surprising development. As fellow-nerds will be acutely aware, it’s typically the Coaches Poll that throws up the most baffling college football rankings (Michigan ahead of Michigan State last week, anyone?). However, this year, the AP Poll — the supposed gold standard of college football rankings — has induced its fair share of head-scratching.
With this in mind — and as we now prepare for Week 9’s inordinately consequential slate — I thought it was time to take stock and throw in my two cents. If the poll is indeed painting an inaccurate picture of the college football landscape, where is it erring in particular? And what’s the cause of such glaring inconsistencies? Here are the four biggest problems with the Week 9 AP Poll:
The Top Four
It would be difficult to take issue with the current composition of the top four. Alabama’s place at the top of the pack is incontestable, and Penn State, Georgia, and TCU have each done more than enough to justify places in the playoff spots. A reasonable case could, however, be made for flipping Georgia and PSU. The latter’s marquee win came against an overrated Michigan team, whereas the former bested Notre Dame on the road. With that in mind, I’d give a slight edge to the Bulldogs — but this is more of a quibble than a criticism.
Here’s where it starts to get strange. In both the AP and Coaches Polls, (6-1) Clemson is ranked ahead of (6-0) Miami. The voters will tell you that the Clemson’s place at the #7 spot is justified by the Tigers’ strength of schedule. They’ll also point to wins against Auburn, Louisville, and Virginia Tech, before insisting that the loss to Syracuse was an aberration. The reality, however, is that Clemson’s early wins against Auburn and Louisville don’t look quite as impressive as they once did, and the defeat to Syracuse is an embarrassing loss whichever way you slice it. Miami, by contrast, is perfect through six games, and while the Hurricanes’ resume might not induce awe, Mark Richt’s resurgent team beat a Syracuse club that Clemson (inexplicably) couldn’t stop. Based on the evidence available, the Hurricanes deserve to be ahead of their conference rivals.
No critique of the polls would be complete without a diatribe about Washington’s placement. To date, the Huskies have played no one, and they still carry a loss on their record. If your marquee out-of-conference win came against Rutgers, you have no business being anywhere near the top 10, and I’m even asking questions about your eligibility to be included in the top 25. At present, (6-1) Washington is ranked #12, but was placed at the 4 spot as recently as Week 7 following a home win over, umm, Cal. Washington’s status is the result of pre-season expectations. This type of bias is fine through maybe the first four weeks, but we’ve now seen enough football to know that the Huskies are not a top 15 team. Here’s a new rule that could help us avoid needlessly elevating teams like Washington in the future: If the in-season record conflicts with the pre-season hype, lean toward the former when making an evaluation.
Do wins mean anything, anymore? Right now, the AP Poll has (6-2) LSU ranked #23 and (6-2) Auburn at the #19 spot. Does anyone else see a problem here? These two teams played each other just two weeks ago and, what d’you know, LSU won. Auburn’s elevated status in the polls is entirely the product of that same pre-season hype-bias that has lifted Washington into the top 15.
On a similar note, #6 Ohio State and #10 Oklahoma both stand as 6-1. The only problem with this is that Ohio State’s one loss came at the hands of Oklahoma, and it was a comprehensive win for the Sooners. Of course, voters will tells us that Oklahoma’s loss to Iowa State was unacceptable, and that the rankings ought to reflect what was in essence an embarrassing home loss. Although I’m sympathetic to such an argument, that still doesn’t explain why Ohio State is ranked ahead of an Oklahoma team that beat them.
Perhaps even more egregious is the way USC is now ranked behind Stanford following the Trojans’ Week 8 loss to Notre Dame. Again, USC beat Stanford in Week 2, and the Cardinal have scarcely played anyone of merit since. USC is simply being punished for losing to an underrated Notre Dame team, and Stanford is the principal benefactor. We’re entering into dangerous territory when we discipline teams who take scheduling risks.
The Group of Five
To witness the ultimate case of preseason hype bias in action, we need to turn our attention to two Group of Five programs from Florida: the #17 South Florida Bulls and the #18 UCF Knights (#14 and #17 respectively in the Coaches Poll). This inconsistency is truly unbelievable, and borderline sickening: En route to taking the #18 spot in the polls, UCF has beaten Maryland, Memphis, and Navy, while South Florida has played all of (3-5) Temple and (2-5) Illinois. The highly-rated South Florida Bulls are being unjustifiably elevated here, and this is squarely due to the preseason hype surrounding the program. UCF are the principal losers here and that’s a great shame for a team that remains perfect after facing serious competition.