Wednesday, September 13, 2006

the Conversation | by Jay

If you've been reading the blog comments this week, you may have seen us talking about a new methodology we're tinkering with for ranking college football teams. At this point, it's still very much a work in progress, although there are a few basic guidelines that undergird the effort. Let's see if can spell it out, and maybe y'all can help us refine it as the year goes on. Wouldn't it be nice if College Football had some sort of built-in standings system, like the NFL or Major League Baseball? But it doesn't, so we have to try and graft one onto it instead. So we ask your patience, gentle reader, as we begin to test this grand experiment.

One of the major flaws in college football rankings is that by virtue of human pollsters, the rankings can reward you this year for how you did last year. And if you think about it, CFB is the only major sport where spectator judgment determines your standing. (Well, maybe also synchronized swimming. Anastasia Davydova and Anastasia Ermakova have been getting by on rep for literally years, and they definitely didn't deserve the gold in Athens. Miho Takeda is much more technically proficient.) It's hard to imagine this hangover effect being accepted in another major sport; take for instance baseball. Say back in April the White Sox are ranked #1 in the mythical Baseball Preseason Poll for winning the World Series last year, and receive what amounts to a ten-game lead right out of the gate. (They could use it right about now too, but that's a different story).

Basically, that's what happens in CFB: teams are pre-slotted before even a single game has been played. From day one, some teams are already glimpsing the summit and must merely hang on, while others have to break out the ice picks and crampons. And sometimes, you climb, climb, climb, and still don't get a shot at the ring. Ask Auburn, circa 2004.

So the first concept we came up with is the Conversation. It goes like this.

In the beginning, there was nothing. And then teams started to appear. And we looked, and some of them were good.
Before you can even begin to talk about who's better, who's best, you have to pare down the list of 117 Division-1 programs. You have to boil it and distill it and figure out which teams are worth talking about, and which teams aren't. You have to ask, is this team In the Conversation, or is this team out? And then you have to do this on a weekly basis. After that, after you've got a pool of teams worth talking about, maybe, maybe you can think about how to rank them.

There are a few starting guidelines to the Conversation that we came up with:

1. You are introduced into The Conversation only when you have done something to merit your mention.

2. Only this year's results count. No hangovers allowed.

3. Wins are golden.
3a. Wins over major conference teams (the BCS members) are always worth talking about.
3b. Wins over non-BCS teams are sometimes worth talking about.

3c. Wins over Division 1AA (and lower) are NEVER worth talking about.

4. Likewise, losses sink you in the eyes of the Conversation, especially losses to 1AA teams (I'm looking at you, Colorado).

5. Winning is everything, but no matter by how much. Margin of Victory is for ruffians like Bobby Petrino. Conversely, there is no such thing as a "Bad Win".

6. Power teams from non-BCS conferences may join the Conversation if they prove they belong there, and not a moment before. It's true that a number power MAC teams could dispatch Duke with the agility of a cheetah, but let's let them do it first. (The Boise State codicil.)

7. Teams are free to move into and out of the Conversation as the year progresses.

8. There can be a variable number of teams in the Conversation from week to week. We are not sure what the upper bounds are. But consider your average Top 25 list; those teams in slots 21-25 are rarely worth talking about, are they? We don't think so either.

9. Your opponents' records are important. In time, the records of your opponents' opponents will be important, too.

So who's in the Conversation for Week 2, 2006? Here's what we've got:

2-0 versus BCS

BCS Bonafides
Opp. Record
2-0 WSU and Mississippi State
Notre Dame
2-0 Ga Tech and PSU
2-0 Cincinnati and Virginia
2-0 UNC and Illinois
Wake Forest
2-0 Syracuse and Duke

1-0 BCS teams versus BCS, undefeated overall

BCS Bonafides
Non-BCS Win
Opp. Record
Boston College
2-0 Clemson CMU 1-3
Florida State
2-0 Miami-Fla
2-0 South Carolina
W. Kentucky (1AA)
2-0 Syracuse
Montana (1AA)
2-0 Kentucky
2-0 Arizona
2-0 Vanderbilt
2-0 Mississippi
Murray St (1AA)
Ohio State
2-0 Texas
N. Illinois
2-0 Washington
2-0 Stanford
Fresno State
Southern Cal
1-0 Arkansas
2-0 Cal
Air Force
Virginia Tech
2-0 North Carolina
Northeastern (1AA)

Notable teams NOT in the Conversation:
Texas. Lost to Ohio State, no other BCS games yet.
Miami. Lost to FSU, no other BCS games yet.
Florida. Hasn't played a BCS team yet.
West Virginia. Hasn't played a BCS team yet.
Stay tuned for the next installment, where we move beyond the Conversation, and begin to rank teams within the pool according to various criteria. As teams start racking up wins and losses and we can start to track opponents' records (and opponents' opponents' records) this is going to get a little more complicated. And although we'll keep refining the rules towards some kind of system, I have a sneaking suspicion that some subjectivity will always remain in the process. In the end, hopefully we'll come up with something resembling a true "standings" for college football -- just like the other major sports.