Looking More Closely at ESPN’s Conference Rankings

I’ve been following ESPN’s college football conference rankings all year. I like them because they try to balance the impact of the top teams in the polls against the computers. When looking at the final results, I started thinking.

Is their logic sound?

When they started talking about the number of teams ranked in the top 25, I realized that there is an unfair comparison taking place. The SEC has 14 teams while the Big 12 only has 10 teams.

Of COURSE the SEC has more ranked teams.

When I look at the final AP poll of the regular season, there is a 6-2 count of teams in favor of the SEC. However, if you weight the count to normalize 14 teams down to 10 teams, you get 4 teams. (technically 4.3 teams but you can’t have a fraction of a team)

Since the Big 12 only has two ranked teams, there would likely be very little impact to the conference rankings. When I look at Sagarin’s conference rankings, the Big 12 and the SEC are the closest together so it wouldn’t take much to give the SEC the overall lead.

As for the Pac 12, it trails the SEC in both the computer and the polls and since they have only four teams ranked, discounting the SEC isn’t likely to make the difference.

Even though there currently would be no difference doesn’t mean that the method isn’t flawed.

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Ranking College Football Winning Tradition

So, the SEC posted a All Time Final AP Football Poll. It is fairly entertaining and takes into all the AP polls since the beginning in 1936. Their methodology is pretty straightforward:

From 1936 to 1961 the wire service ranked 20 teams. From 1962 to 1967 only 10 teams were recognized. From 1968 to 1988 AP again resumed its Top 20 before expanding to 25 teams in 1989. Points were awarded based on a team’s finish in the final AP poll each year. Points were awarded on a 20-19-18-17-16-15-14-13-12-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis from 1936 to 1988, and a 25-24-23-22-21-20-19-18-17-16-15-14-13-12-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis 1989 to the present.

They gave out half points for ties which was also a good move. There is a flaw in their methodology though. If you were ranked before1989, you got an 5 points less than you would have if you had received an equivalent rating since then. This is unfair as teams shouldn’t be penalized for playing well before the AP voted for 25 teams. To be an accurate measure, being ranked number 1 in 1950 should weigh the same as 2007.

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