Altstadt: College football rankings don’t deserve the importance placed on them


Jacob Altstadt, Columnist

If you’ve been following the current Northwestern football season — as you should be — then you won’t need me to tell you that it’s been a rollercoaster of emotions this fall. Starting with tragically low expectations, the season picked up after two impressive wins over Stanford and Duke on the Wildcats’ way to a 5-0 start and a peak ranking at No.13, only for them to get blown out in consecutive weeks and drop out of the rankings. But what if a key reason behind this seemingly tumultuous start was due to the unimportance and — oftentimes absurd — subjectivity of the rankings that gave us so much joy early on in the season?

The NU situation is only the tip of the iceberg of reasons behind why we, as college football fans, shouldn’t place as much importance on rankings as we do. If you’ll look closely you’ll notice some very interesting dynamics of the rankings that render them misleading.

For one, there is no one fully accepted poll. Yes, ESPN chooses to take the AP Poll as the primary rankings in the early weeks, but there also exist the Coaches Poll, various power rankings, and — as of Tuesday — the College Football Playoff rankings. And as you can see if you peruse the polls, numerous discrepancies exist between them. For example, the Wildcats are unranked in the Coaches and AP polls, yet they snagged a No. 21 CFP ranking. Additionally, the four potential playoff spots according to the CFP have clear disagreements with the AP top four. Because of these differences, it is difficult to prescribe legitimacy to any one poll in evaluating the relative quality of teams.

Additionally, there even seems to be discrepancy when just looking within one individual ranking system over the course of the year: The Week #1 Coaches’ Poll looks vastly different than the Week #10 Coaches Poll. While this, of course, is affected by results throughout the season, the polls often fluctuate on the whims of voters who are influenced by recency bias and information based on a small sample size.

In fact, the early rankings have very clearly demonstrated that they are not indicative of a team’s true standing in the college football world: USC was favored over then-ranked No. 3 Utah and beat them. No. 15 Ole Miss beat then-No. 2 Alabama — only for the winner to eventually fall to No. 25 Florida and unranked Memphis and for the loser to beat No. 8 Georgia and No. 9 Texas A&M. And as of Thursday afternoon, an unranked opponent has “upset” a ranked one 21 times already this season. In fact, I could spend days listing example after example where the rankings, based on past results and ostensibly ranking America’s best teams, failed to predict future outcomes. Yes, upsets happen, but the fact that Utah was ranked No. 3 and was not favored against a 4-3 USC team really says something about the validity of the AP rankings and all rankings in general.

What seems to be the obvious solution, then, is to create a statistic-based objective rankings system that removes the human element from the equation. Well, this has already been done in numerous ways — Football Outsiders, for example, has a number of statistical polls — yet, even these systems seem to lack 100 percent accuracy just due to the sheer unpredictability of the sport. For example, No. 20 Toledo in the S&P+ Rankings lost to No. 57 Northern Illinois on Tuesday.

Yes, all of these ranking methods provide a cool, in-the-moment indication of a team’s success and make it easy for ESPN and other sports news agencies to project narratives onto the minds of Americans. But ultimately, on any given field with any given teams, your guess is as good as mine and is as good as the AP Polls’ as to which team will win. This is due in large part to the very nature of what rankings are: a subjective attempt at quantifying specimens based off of a minute sample size.

In a perfect setting, college football would be run like European soccer: Each team would play every other team twice, and the team with the best record would be the undisputed champion. But by the very nature of college football — the vast number of teams, the limited number of games, the travel times for student-athletes, etc. — this is impossible. So, although rankings are incredibly misleading, they’re the best we have. At the end of the day, the sport is still fun and the rankings still provide some interesting stories, but don’t buy too much into them: They’ll most likely be different next week.

Jacob Altstadt is a McCormick junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.