Number Monkey Rankings
In my mind we start polling teams far too early. Around a quarter of all the players on a team will turn over between any given year, sometimes it can be far more than that. On top of that between injuries and changes in line ups, the team that ends the year is rarely similar to the team that starts the next year. Due to that, no one ever knows who will be good leading into a season.
On top of the fact that no games are played in the preseason to get a gage on any of the teams is they don’t all play similar schedules. Some play weaker teams early while some play them late. Some play more peer teams than others and some play more games on the road than at home, which is a harder path to play.
What ends up happening is that teams that start ranked high drop slowly, even if they prove to be terrible, and those who didn’t start ranked have a hard time climbing the rankings. In general, if you’ve got a big brand you’ll have an easier chance remaining in the polls than one without.
Thankfully the College Football Playoff committee doesn’t start their rankings until mid-season to take this into consideration. This allows them to see who has performed well against peer groups and who has struggled. They also ensure that every win is not created equal. While winning is always beneficial to losing, winning on the road is worth more than winning at home and beating a ranked or peer team is worth more than one who is not. The same holds true for losses, where losing on the road doesn’t hurt as much as losing at home.
My ranking system was designed to model the committee’s possible decisions and have gotten close recently. It favors peer games over non-peer, and road over home. For instance a loss at home hurts more than a loss on the road, just like a win on the road is worth more than at home. It then factors in margin of error within those settings to give a total score. Since, at any point in time, not every team has played as many games as the rest, I then divide that total score by games played to get to a ranked score.
To the right is the first ranking of the season, since it requires numerous games played across the FBS spectrum to be able to compare. It should be noted that at this point it only includes teams with 5-2 records. As the season progresses what will matter are the top two tiers of the playoff rankings, which amounts to the top twelve teams. No teams with more than two losses will qualify for those tiers, so this raking is then laying out who is most likely to make those upper tiers.
As usually happens with the playoff rankings, those without losses float to the top in a system like this and it is what we see here. What surprised me was the Michigan jumped ahead of Alabama, but it was just by fractions of a point and came down to the margin of victory in games played so far. I expect a lot of movement in the charts as more difficult games are played, especially between these two.
As you can tell from the points, the teams end up falling into tiers, just like the playoff committee uses. As a reminder they place teams in groups of six, then rank those six after. Due to that seven is closer to twelve than it is six. The top tier starts with Michigan and ends with West Virginia. These six teams are all averaging more than .900 per game.
Baylor is just off this group and starts the second tier, even though they are undefeated. That’s a pretty good indication of how weak their schedule has been so far. That isn’t to say there aren’t more teams with weak schedules, over half of the SEC schedules just like Baylor. However, Baylor is the only one who had all the lackluster games up front, instead of spread out throughout the season (RE: The SEC way). The rest of that tier goes from Ohio State to Utah and features the better of the one-loss teams remaining.
After about 15th place everyone is pretty much out of the playoff race at this point, until more losses start to show up in the top two tiers. This is why anyone with three losses currently isn’t even worth plotting. That may change around week eleven, but currently there are too many teams with good records to make up for barely having a winning record. Those types of teams have bowl games to attend, not playoffs.
Everyone likes to compare conferences, so here is how each conference breaks out in this first ranking. As you can imagine the larger conferences have more teams represented. The Big Ten this year has just a few less teams in the 5-2 club as the Big 12 and Pac 12, combined. However, moving to nine conference games hasn’t hurt them to date as they out perform the SEC.
Looking at the top two tiers, however, breaks down where the power lies currently. The Big Ten has the most teams with three, but two of them are in the same division. There is no way both end up in the playoffs. What it does make possible, however, is that the championship game victor will make the playoff, the loser will end up in the Rose, and the third place team gains an at large bid. That’s a lot of post season exposure if it plays out.
The Pac 12 has two who are in different divisions, but with one loss, it’s hard to tell at this point if Utah could jump into the top if they beat Washington. The best chance for the Pac 12, currently, is having the Huskies win out and make it into the playoffs. Utah will be in the Rose regardless. The ACC, SEC and Big 12 are all in a position where the two teams they have in the top two tiers won’t both enter the playoffs.
For the Big 12, West Virginia and Baylor not only meet each other on the last weekend of the year, but have to get through Oklahoma as well. The ACC has Clemson and Louisville, but Clemson already beat Louisville so it will be difficult for the Cardinals to replace them in the ACC championship game and the SEC is basically Alabama, a giant gap, and everyone else.
This is more evident when you look at the percent of divisions represented in this first list. The bulk of the power comes from the ACC Atlantic, the Big Ten East, and the SEC West. A whopping 60% of those divisions are on the list, which won’t last for much longer with divisional play ramping up.
On the other end of the spectrum we see the SEC Least, who would be in last place if it weren’t for the AAC East being included. Only Tennessee and Florida are represented on the rankings and neither of them have looked dominant this year.
It should be pointed out that, at this point in the season, not every batch of points are created equal. Very few of the teams have played the same amount of games at home or on the road. While most will even out nearing the end of the season, some teams excel at gaming the system to provide more home games. Within the rankings, here are the teams in order of most home games at this point in the season, to least.
Michigan, Auburn, and West Virginia have played a lot of games at home. This could indicate that their current points are not quite as valuable as other teams or that the rest of their schedule is going to get much harder. In West Virginia’s case, however, they play both Baylor and Oklahoma at home this year, so it could be a sign the stars are aligning for the Mountaineers.
Another thing of note is how much of a schedule is still remaining. Alabama and Clemson only have 33% of their schedule remaining. The benefit of that is not only will they have less opportunities remaining for a loss, but they’ll also have a lot more rest heading into the post season. They also, however, have less games left to make an impact on the committee. If they gain a loss at this point, it will be extremely hard to make up ground.
Baylor, West Virginia, Florida and Auburn still have half of their schedule remaining. This provides a lot of risk in these rankings as there is a greater chance that a loss will end up on the schedule. On the other hand, it also provides more opportunities for each of these schools to gain more positive ground within the playoff rankings.
The College Football Playoff Rankings don’t start until November, so expect this list to alter a lot before then. From a confidence stand point, after modeling this for a few years, I’m far more confident with the positions of teams at the top of the rankings than at the bottom. Multiple losses in different situations becomes very difficult to compare evenly.
Thankfully, as mentioned, the only two tiers that really matter are the top two, which equates to 12 teams. Those are the schools that will be playing in the big games at the end of the year and it is where I’ll start to focus. While it is possible you’ll see someone ranked low in this model work its way up that is very rare. The odds drop considerably after the first loss. For now, focus on those either undefeated or with one loss and you’ll have a good indication of where the committee will be looking as well.
©2016 Number Monkey Media