Thursday, October 1, 2009

Coaches Poll Irregularities

It's been a big story this week - the Coaches and Harris polls have a bunch of teams ranked ahead of teams that beat them. Penn State ahead of Iowa, Oklahoma State ahead of Houston, etc. I think most everyone agrees that these polls have major, serious flaws that cut right to the heart of the credibility of the BCS. But there's more to this story and these numbers, as usual. Let's add some context cake to the rage-flavored frosting, shall we? (The statistics that follow all track the Coaches rankings of Week 4 in each of the BCS seasons. So basically through September.)

98 99 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09
# of undefeated Top 25 teams 16 17 17 20 17 20 19 15 14 20 18 12
# of one-loss Top 25 teams 9 8 8 5 8 5 6 10 11 6 7 13

No team with two losses has ever been ranked in the Top 25 in week 4 in the BCS era. And this year, there are more one-loss teams in the poll at this time than ever. What's important about this is that it means that there's more opportunities for teams to be ranked ahead of teams that beat them. But just because something is available doesn't mean it has to be taken, right? Right. The Coaches aren't forced to rank teams that lost higher. But the next important thing to realize is that this isn't the first time they've done so: this has happened every single year of the BCS (except 2007).

98 99 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09
# of teams ranked ahead of teams that beat them 2 3 2 2 1 1 2 1 3 2 0 7

This is not an abnormal occurrance for the Coaches poll. Even when we don't count times when the team ranked higher actually had a better record than the team that beat them, there's still a lot of precedence for it - we can only account for seven instances when a team with a better record was ranked ahead of a team that beat them.

98 99 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09
# of teams ranked ahead of teams that beat them 2 3 2 2 1 1 2 1 3 2 0 7
# of teams ranked ahead of teams that beat them
(w/ same or better record)
0 3 2 1 1 1 2 1 2 1 0 5

Of course what jumps out at you is that last column, the fact that there's seven teams ranked ahead of teams that beat them in 2009. Why does it seem so much worse this year? Here's a big reason for that:

More teams in the top ten have dropped than ever before by this point in the season, and they're dropping pretty far in the rankings. (Incidentally, the red line proves that the Coaches have steadily dropped teams further and further in the first month of play during the BCS era.) In addition...

A bigger percentage of the top teams' losses were to teams ranked 11-25 or Not Ranked, not to teams in the Top 10.

So when you combine all those factors together, we're seeing many more instances of top 10 teams losing & dropping into the #6-20 range & lower ranked teams winning and climbing into the #6-20 range. That's the main reason we're seeing such "irregularities" and the current traffic jam in the middle of the rankings.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm not defending the Coaches poll or saying that nothing needs to be changed. I'm saying that this is yet another example of why early season polls aren't trustworthy. Will the Coaches poll figure itself out and begin to show improvement? Undoubtedly. But by then it's too late - the damage to its (and the BCS's) credibility is already done.

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