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Mulvena: AP poll does matter, is too ambiguous

| Thursday, October 17, 2019

We’re entering week eight of the college football season, and the AP poll rankings are starting to get shaken up a little bit. It’s an exciting time, it’s a hopeful time. There’s nothing like a top 10 SEC matchup on a Saturday night, like we saw this weekend between LSU and Florida, to curb the angst brought on by the impending Sunday scaries. The scaries before the scaries, if you will.

But while the AP rankings start to shift weekly, there is also the potential for immense anger — anger which I’ve unfortunately experienced these past several weeks.

There’s so much I want to say about the AP rankings, and I fear I’ll begin to ramble as my fingers tremble on the keyboard, so let’s start here. Since the committee has begun releasing its own rankings later in the season, a narrative that is utterly incorrect and incredibly frustrating has begun to arise each year. Casual college football fans love to say, “Well, the rankings don’t matter at this point anyway!”

In week one or two or even three, these oafs may actually be correct. Usually, the SEC has several teams at least in the top 15, so the rankings don’t matter at that point in light of the fact that you know they will change when the SEC starts to beat itself up.

But after that, in weeks four and beyond, the rankings do very much matter. They can’t just be dismissed because the committee will eventually come out with its own rankings, as if the committee has its own completely different conception of the top 25, totally uninfluenced by the AP. What a romantic idea. But the AP rankings matter, and for a number of reasons, they should be taken more seriously by everyone in the world of college football.

One of the committee’s most important criteria is strength of schedule, and the strength of one’s schedule is heavily influenced by the number of ranked teams one plays in the regular season. Since the committee’s rankings are not out until November, there is no doubt that those members will consult the AP rankings to determine strength of schedule. If Florida loses to an LSU team ranked No. 5 in the AP poll vs. an LSU team ranked No. 15 in the AP poll, that makes a big difference in the minds of the media.

There are a number of ways in which the AP rankings do indeed matter, but this is not the central point with which I’m concerned. The idea that these rankings matter should be obvious. But this brings us to a critical problem considering the importance of these rankings: They’re awful. They’re unclear, incomplete, inconsistent and sometimes apparently nonsensical.

The AP has made it clear how it determines its rankings — by polling a number of selected college football writers — but as a result of this system, the criteria for determining these rankings becomes unclear. The committee at least sets forth its criteria for voting. Whether they adhere to it or not is a different story, but at least there is some semblance of transparency.

How are these sports writers determining the rankings? Is it strength of record? Is it the eye test? Is it more concerned with statistical data? If it’s all of these, which are emphasized and by whom are they emphasized?

This year, as in most years, there has been inconsistency among these rankings. Let’s say the AP tells its committee of writers that strength of record is the most important metric. Fine, I think that’s totally fair. But Alabama is the No. 1 team in the nation. That makes zero sense. In no universe, according to this metric, which is undoubtedly important, is Alabama a higher ranked team than LSU, who has beaten Texas and Florida.

So is it eye test, then? Alabama would make sense at No. 1 in that case, and LSU would make sense at No. 2. But Clemson at No. 3? Are you on crack? The Tigers’ star quarterback looks far less dominant than he did last year; their defensive line which tore through its competition last year looks a shell of itself. They should have lost to North Carolina, and the ACC is HORRIBLE. The ACC has quite literally no redeeming qualities beyond Clemson. I’m not saying Clemson is bad. I’m not even saying they shouldn’t be top 10, but if you go by the eye test, Clemson is not ahead of Oklahoma, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Now, in all likelihood, it’s a combination of these metrics that determines how voters vote in these rankings. And that’s fine. That’s probably how it ought to be. But right now, the hierarchy of importance for these metrics is unclear. Ohio State, who has obliterated borderline high school football teams, is behind Alabama, who has done the same, but then LSU is behind Alabama when the Tigers have proven themselves in a tough schedule. I really don’t care what the hierarchy of importance actually is, but it has to be clearer. It has to be clearer, especially for these programs competing for a playoff spot, because the rankings do have an effect on a program’s playoff hopes, so teams should at least know what they need to do to put themselves in a place to rise in the rankings.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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