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What’s In A Name – A CFBGab Investigation

with 3 comments

Picking up on Jon’s lead from yesterday, I took a look at the 10 winningest teams in college football history, where they started in the AP Poll the last five seasons, where they finished and what that might indicate for what name recognition means for them.  Just to clarify on my method, if they were unranked, I treated them as though they were simply ranked 26th.

And this is far from scientific, as it leaves out teams that have made a name for themselves in recent years and are perennially overrated, such as Virginia Tech, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami and California.  I’m not one to buy easily into the east coast bias argument, but it’s hard to argue against when east coast teams are so constantly overrated.  It also can’t take into account “fad” rankings, where a team makes it much higher than they should because voters allow one or two wins to overshadow the rest of their season.

At any rate, this is what I found when I looked at the ten winningest teams, their average starting position, average ending position and how far up or down they moved.

Team Starting Rank Ending Rank Difference
Michigan 11.4 18.4 -7
Texas 5.4 6.6 -1.2
Notre Dame 21.2 20.8 0.4
Nebraska 23.6 25.6 -2
Ohio State 5.8 8 -2.2
Penn State 22 17.4 4.6
Alabama 25.6 18.4 7.2
Oklahoma 6.2 9.8 -3.6
Tennessee 13.6 20.4 -5.8
USC 2.4 2.6 -0.2

There are a couple of different ways to analyze this.  One is looking at the starting rank to determine if there is a name bias going on.  The team that has been ranked highest is USC.  However, based on the difference between average starting and ending rank, it seems that’s also the one that voters have gotten the most correct the last five years.  USC is bonafide.

Next highest is Texas, but again, their margin of drop is very small.  And they have actually finished higher than they started three out of the last five years, and one of those times was a move from second to first.  That’s impressive.

Then there’s Ohio State, and despite their national championship chokeration the last few years, I have to say that they’re legitimate.  They finished in the top 5 three times and really only got hit for finishing 20th the year after their championship when they suddenly found themselves without the services of Maurice Clarrett.

The last average top-10 starter is Oklahoma, and I think we have ourselves a winner here.  They have the largest average drop for teams in the top 10 at -3.6.  It’s not drastic, but I soon expect voters to get tired of putting Oklahoma in BCS Bowls only to have them lose.  They’ve got to get disaffected at some point.

By that same metric, the team that has benefited the least from their name is Alabama.  To be fair, Alabama had some really bad teams over the last five years.  They only started the season ranked once and only finished ranked twice.  But, both of those times, they were in the top 10, which is why they have moved up the most on average.  All told, it seems to me the Crimson Tide has benefited from name the least.

The other way to look at it is by sheer difference of ranking, and the team that has fallen most is Michigan.  The worst was 2005, when they started preseason #4 and finished unranked.  They started in the top 10 only to finish outside the top 10 three times in the last five years.  That’s more than any other team, and two of those years, Michigan started in the top 5.  Clearly, Michigan has benefited the most from name recognition without actually doing what it takes on the field to justify it.

Tennessee is another bad one, dropping an average of almost six spots.  They have finished lower than they started three times, the most severe of which was 2005, when they started #3 and finished unranked.  East coast bias strikes again.

I want to close by giving a shout out to Notre Dame, which does not appear to experience much bias based on average starting rank and average drop.  However, a couple of things should be pointed out.  Their stats are skewed because they only started in the top 25 once.  That was 2006.  In 2005 they had a surprisingly good season and made it to a bowl game, finishing the season ranked 9th after starting unranked.  The next year, following a surprise season and a BCS Bowl beatdown by Ohio State, they started ranked second.  That’s right – #2.  They finished 17th.  There was also a season where they did not start or finish the season ranked, but jumped into the top 25 two different times.  Don’t be fooled by the table above…there is a very strong pro-Irish bias in the polls.


Written by Austin Swafford

September 30, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Commentary

3 Responses

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  1. Good stuff… thanks for the interesting data!


    September 30, 2009 at 1:32 pm

  2. My concern is that this data does not in any seem to detract from the idea that voters may also do what they can to justify their early votes with their later votes.

    If USC starts a season ranked say 2nd in the nation, like they did last year, and loses a game they’re not supposed to early then climbs their way back up into the BCS and wins their bowl game, are they really better than the Utah team that starts ranked 29th, wins all their games, but never climbs high enough to make it to the national championship game and never gets to play against USC, Oklahoma (or Texas), or Florida? How do we know those 1-loss teams would have fared any better against Utah than did Alabama last year?

    I think the polls bias is more than just preseason benefit-of-the-doubt name recognition. I think a lot of it is simply based on performance from the past few years, some of it is conference bias, some of it is lack of TV exposure, and a lot of it is simply voters believing that they are more often right than wrong and having the power to justify that belief with their votes.

    If I were to look back at last seasons teams without the benefit of polls and BCS rankings before the BCS match-ups were determined, I’d have to say that the NC game should probably have been between Utah and Texas. Texas had the most-forgivable loss. Oklahoma shouldn’t be there over a team that beat them (Texas), Florida shouldn’t be there because they had a much more unforgivable loss, and Alabama shouldn’t be there over a team that beat them either (Florida). But that was the furthest possibility from reality simply because of the polls and particularly, the human elements of those polls.

    In fairness, we are talking about the 10 programs with the most wins in college football history. They HAVE actually won all those games, and they did it for reasons that have nothing to do with their rankings in the polls. I think it’s important to separate out here the difference between criticizing the voters who buy into the idea that until proven otherwise the big-name teams should get the benefit-of-the-doubt and the teams themselves that just play the games.

    I’m still going to look at median poll shifts… it occurs to me that based on those preseason-to-final ranking numbers you’ve got there that I would expect those big-name schools to have a very low median. I’ll have to look at the change in rank after a win independently from the change in rank after a loss I think. That should be a telling statistic as well.


    September 30, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    • It should be a telling stat. And, like I said, this was far from scientific. Just a taste. A brief look at one of the possible factors for poll bias. There will be more to come. This will be an on-going story, believe me. But this was the easiest place to start. Now we branch outward and take a look at some more complicated factors.

      But you do bring up some very good points about voters justifying their own preseason picks. There is always that possibility. And they have a tendency to do some things at the end of the season based on one game. Like Texas falling last year from 3 to 4 because people thought they should have played OSU better, while USC annihilated Penn State. Having Texas fall after winning a very good BCS Bowl is messed up. And I’ll be the first to admit that USC has received benefits like that in the past. Like my previous complaint about them being crowned national champions by the AP Poll even though they didn’t play in the national championship game.

      I also think I make it abundantly clear that my criticism is of the voters, not of the teams.

      I have always been the first to say that some leeway, especially in preseason polls, is understandable. A lot of these schools have earned credibility by being good year in and year out and I’ve said that if small schools want to compete, they have to show the ability to do it on a consistent basis like the big schools already have. That said, it does not justify pollsters refusing to punish big schools after embarrassing losses or rewarding them too much after big wins. My beef in this case is with the voters, not the teams.

      Austin Swafford

      September 30, 2009 at 7:01 pm

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