Rankings Are a Whole Different Ball Game in College Football

J. Robert ByromCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2009

In College Football, you live and die by your ranking. Thus, the perception of how good your team is, is more important than how good your team actually is. If at the end of the year, you are not perceived to be one of the two best teams in the country, the chances of you becoming champion are very slim to none.

Bowl subdivision college football is the only sport that has this phenomenon, and the reason is no other sport relies on rankings the way college football does.

Let's first take a look at rankings in other sports first starting with the Pros. First of all, no pro league that I know of has rankings. Yes, there are power rankings and polls that media outlets publish but they do not mean anything to what happens on the field. 

The NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, NASCAR, and every major soccer league goes by standings to determine pecking order. The leagues themselves have no pecking order that is determined by rankings, as they stand the teams with the best records, at least within their own divisions, get the chance to move on to the playoffs and then the championship.

This often leads to a team with a lesser record getting to move on over a team with a better record in a different division but at the end of the day the one thing all these sports have in common is win your division, you advance.

This is not the case in college football, while if you win your conference you are guaranteed a bowl game, it does not guarantee you a shot at the national championship, not even close.

Actually, there have been plenty of cases where teams that have not won their conference championships have played for and sometimes even won the National championship.

There are pro sports that have rankings. Golf, tennis, and boxing are the first to come to mind, but in all three cases, the ranking mean little to nothing as far as what happens in the sport.

In golf, the rankings are there more for amusement an bragging rights than anything.  Some tournaments may use them to help them determine first-day tee times, I do not know, but outside of that I do not see them having any affect on the course.

In tennis, the rankings are used to seed tournaments but aren't the only factor, usually how you have played recently and in that tournament previously and court type are important factors as well.

So, in Tennis they are used in seeding but at the end of the day every player gets a chance to compete for it all no matter their ranking.

In boxing, the ranking may be a little more important but it opens up a whole another can of worms.  There are many different rankings used in boxing, usually, every organization who gives out a belt maintains their own rankings, plus most of the major media outlet keeps a top-10 contenders list for each weight class.

At the end of the day it is the promoters who put the fights together and promoters do not really care about rankings as much as big draws or finding the right fight for their guy, whether that means an easy win or a name that gives them more credibility. Rankings matter some in boxing but not a ton.

So, on to college sports. Almost every college sport has rankings but the difference is that bowl subdivision is the only one who uses the rankings to decide how plays for the championship.

Do not get me wrong, rankings are used to determine playoff seedings but every college sport except one division in football has playoffs.   

So you may get into a playoff because of your ranking, but you have to win a lot of games in order to become champion. However, in almost all sports they only rank the top 25 and those teams are almost always in the playoffs anyway, because of there records.

Thus in most college sports, the ranking have no affect on the championship other than helping determine playoff seeding.  

College Basketball has rankings, three actually, coaches, AP, and RPI. They have almost the same amount of hype and preseason polls as college football but your ranking means so much less in college basketball. 

If you're in the Top 25, chances are your in the tournament. If your conference is weak and you SOS is horrible, just win your conference tournament and you still get in. Actually, in theory you can go 0-25 and still win it all, if you were to win your conference tournament and then the big dance, but that is an issue for another day.

So now back to college football, the rankings mean everything. The two that matter most are the preseason ranking and the final ranking but they are all important. The preseason ranking is important because it give you a head start.

The prevalent trend in college football rankings is until you lose you keep your place, especially at the top.  Thus, if you start of in the top two in the preseason rankings and you do not lose, there is little chance of you not making it in to the preseason. 

However, if you do not start off as a team people believe can win it all your chances are nowhere near as great just ask Utah.

Twice, Utah has gone undefeated and won their BCS bowl game handily, and neither year where they allowed to even dream about playing for the national championship.

The final rankings mean the most because it is the teams that are perceived to be the two best that get a chance to play for it all.

It does not all ways turn out that way because this year the pollsters decided Texas was a tad bit better than OU but the computers over ruled them and put OU into the game instead.

Plus the perceptions are obviously wrong, you can find example after example of teams that were percieved to have no shot that won handily, Utah this year and West Virginia last as the most recent examples.  

In college basketball, the RPI is more of a formula to determine the teams who have performed best with the toughest schedule not much unlike the computer rankings in the BCS. However, no one hates the RPI and it is highly respected tool used to help seed the tournament. 

However, in college football, the computer polls are hated by many because they have a hand in determining who goes to the championship. I know if I were a Texas fan, I would be calling for the computer polls to be cut from the equation. 

The only reason I cannot agree with that sentiment now is that the computer polls are the only component that we have left calculates Strength of schedule objectively, but I would much rather prefer using a strength of schedule component in place of the computer polls.

So, we use the same ranking system in college football that we do in other sports when the same rules do not apply.  The rankings work in all those sports because at the end of the day they do not mean much, if anything.

In college football, they mean everything, so if we are going to use them as a determining factor on who goes to the championship, we have to take them much more seriously.

We have to be willing to take them away from coaches, who have biases and just don't really care about doing them, from press members who do not even seem to be watching the sport and organizations who do not even reveal who all their pollsters are. 

Every ballot should be open to scrutiny every week and every voter should have to defend their decisions. The voters should be choose more carefully and preseason polls should not be allowed by polls that are included in the BCS formula because it gives team a huge advantage.

The BCS can change the formula as many times as it wants but it is never going to get it right. Picking the best two teams out of 120 when only 12 games are played by each team is an impossible task and no formula is going to perfect it. 

So make your tweaks but there will always be a team with a gripe at the end of the day.

And that, depending on your viewpoint, is the beauty or ugliness of college football. 


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