One glance at the Associated Press college football poll—sadly still the best human measure of college teams’ value—and it is clear how broken it is. Even the use of legitimately objective measurements is unreliable these days, thanks to the easy ability to manipulate strength-of-schedule factors, leaving college football with a broken system.
Alabama is first in the poll, and perhaps that’s fine. The Crimson Tide are 6-0, and even Jeff Sagarin’s system thinks Bama has played a good schedule so far (ranked 28th in difficulty this season). How that schedule is ranked so high is a mystery, though, as the Crimson Tide has beaten just one ranked team so far, the then-No. 24 Texas A&M Aggies.
The Aggies themselves have a SOS ranking of 10th on Sagarin, despite a 3-3 record with wins over … wait for it … Texas State and Lamar. That makes no sense whatsoever. TAMU’s losses against Alabama, Auburn, and Clemson give it schedule strength, despite the fact those three teams, combined, have played the likes of New Mexico State, UNC Charlotte, Tulane, and Kent State.
What we see too much of these days is Power 5 teams scheduling cupcakes for as many as three or four games a season in order to artificially boost everyone’s SOS, in a incestuous kind of way.
So when A&M loses three times, it still creates an illusion of quality based on the opponents—and their records, plus the records of their conference opponents, too, boosted by the cupcakes, exponentially.
It’s a dizzying mess of math, really, that has even computers fooled—but you can’t fool logical analysis of what is in front of the eye.
So, how is LSU ranked No. 2 in the AP poll? The Tigers have wins over Georgia Southern, Northwestern State, and Utah State, along with their victories over Texas and Florida. But who has Texas played? Louisiana Tech and Rice. Who has Florida played? Tennessee-Martin and Towson.
Even Sagarin is not fooled by LSU’s schedule, ranking it 62nd overall. Yet the voters have fallen for these maths tricks, sadly. Sagarin has Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin all undefeated with superior schedules to LSU, yet the voters just threw the Tigers up to No. 2 based on their defeat of Florida.
It makes no sense. Take Georgia, too, and its 67th-ranked schedule on Sagarin. The Bulldogs are ranked 10th now after losing at home to 3-3 South Carolina (the Gamecocks scheduled Charleston Southern this year, by the way, winning 72-10). Meanwhile, Georgia has beaten Arkansas State and Murray State to build its record.
There are six one-loss teams with higher Sagarin SOS rankings than Georgia, yet the AP poll has Auburn (third), Oregon (33rd), Utah (60th), and Missouri (63rd) ranked behind the Bulldogs. Again, the dizziness of calculating SOS is totally manipulated by the schedule demons.
This comes down to perception, and when certain teams (and entire conferences, primarily in the South) avoid legitimate scheduling, it creates these illusions—and those smoky visions keep teams out of the College Football Playoff system, sadly.
Sagarin has Ohio State as his top team, but the AP poll has the Buckeyes at No. 4 behind three teams with inferior SOS ratings right now. Wisconsin is Sagarin’s No. 3 team, but the Badgers are only No. 6 in the poll.
The AP poll allegedly has no influence on the CFP committee’s selection process, although it would be hard to ignore it, since it has been the pre-eminent poll since the modernization of college football in the mid-1930s. And forget the coaches poll, which proved it could be rigged in 2004 and has been irrelevant since then to anyone with brains.
There is no perfect system to figure this out, and perhaps there never will be. Yet as long as the CFP practices exclusion rather than inclusion, and based on extreme subjectivity at that, there is going to be fraud and myth surrounding everything in the sport.