How Florida State and Mississippi State Prove the Uselessness of Polls

“We’re #1!”

That is what fan bases desire to say.  NAY!  They demand to say that their chosen team is #1.  The use of “we” incorporates a sense of how the accomplishment is shared by the fan base in addition to the team.  Being #1 speaks volumes to the superiority of your team over that of rivals and “lesser” teams and conferences.  Being #1 matters…it means something.  Hell, even if a team has no business claiming to be #1, we see fans of those team throwing up a single finger — a flash that claims to be the best.  Sorry, Vandy fans…beating UMass and Charleston Southern does NOT make you #1.

Naturally, in order to have a #1 we need to have a concept of what being #1 constitutes.  There must be some ordinal ranking that allows us to look and say, “ah yes, Steve…Southwest Wisconsin State Tech is indeed #1.”  So, we have polls.  Multiple polls to be exact.  And while there are multiple polls, generally the same team occupies the top slot.  Certainly other teams might state their claim to superiority.  But we obediently look to polls to justify team standings; to justify a team’s place in the hierarchy of football dominance.

But college (team) sports are one of the few sport leagues that utilize polls to determine its best team.  Most examine only records (or in the case of the NHL and various domestic soccer leagues a point system) to determine the best team.  Of course, there is a reason why this is unfeasible for college athletics, such as football.  Other than the NFL, every team in professional sports at least plays each other within their subdivision [conferences in NBA and NHL; leagues in MLB].  For professional basketball and hockey, every team plays all other teams at least once.  The smaller number of teams in professional leagues allow for better comparisons because of the way the scheduling works.

More importantly, there is greater balance between the various teams in professional sports versus college sports.  Yes, the Jacksonville Jaguars are terrible and the Dallas Cowboys are in the upper echelon [ugh, that pained me to write that].  But generally speaking, there is more competitive balance.  With college athletics, the difference between the haves and have-nots is clear.  And, it only seems to be getting worse.

Because of these two points, examining only records can be misleading.  It is why no one is taking undefeated Marshall as seriously as undefeated Florida State or Baylor.  Thus, polls are necessary to differentiate between the “quality” of teams.

But are polls truly necessary?  Or, to put it another way, have we moved beyond the usefulness (or utility, if you will) of polls?  I will make the case that polls are absolutely worthless in college basketball because the seeding of teams for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is not based on where teams are ranked.  I mean, remember that Connecticut was ranked 19th in the coaches’ poll, seeded 8th [which in reality is between 29th and 32nd], and after winning the title jumped to #1 in the coaches’ poll.  How ridiculous is that!  [Not saying the Huskies winning and being #1 is ridiculous, just the way the poll reflected that].  Thus, i think agreeing to do away with polls for college basketball would be accepted by some.  [I’ve made this argument before].

However, doing away with football polls?  Inconceivable!!!  But, i think that now is as good of a time as any.  And, i have harped on this point on numerous occasions [here, and here, too!].  So why now?  Well, it is not so much as to now being the “right time” inasmuch as there is a perfect example of the flaw of polls — the Florida State v. Mississippi State debate over which team should be #1.

Full disclosure: I privately told someone last week that i thought that Mississippi State was the best team in the SEC following its victory over Texas A&M.  It had little to do with the Aggies and more to do with the fact that in a season when the so-called top teams have underwhelmed, the Bulldogs have been consistent.  I also noted that if they beat Auburn, they should be number one.  So, i do have an opinion that Mississippi State should be the number one team over Florida State.  So yes, i have a position and i am making it known.

The Bulldogs versus Seminoles Debate

Now, that stated, i want to start with this article that came across my personal Facebook feed.  It attempts to kvetch about the media bias towards the SEC at the expense of the Seminoles.  It focuses on schedules, perceptions, and preseason polls.  In doing so, however, it overlooks key points while also undermining his own argument.  First, the author attempts to show that beating Texas A&M and Auburn did not amount to much for Mississippi State because neither of those teams have beaten anyone of note.  But that does not mean that these victories should be discredited any more than tFSU’s wins over Oklahoma State and Clemson should be.  You cannot claim that your team’s wins should matter while simultaneously dismissing another team’s victories.  Those wins over the Aggies and Tigers are quality wins AT THIS POINT IN TIME.

But here is where the argument falls apart.  The author complains about the Bulldogs’ “other” wins and how “difficult” it must have been.  After all, South Alabama and UAB are simply dyn-o-mite!  But then, conveniently ignores similar “weaknesses” on Florida State’s schedule, only noting that those were not struggles.  Typical fandom mentality that when your team does something it is okay, but when others do it DAMN THEM!!!!!!!!!!!  DAMN THEM ALL TO HELL!!!  Simply put, this is ignorance.

These aren't the only Bulldogs they were worried about.

These aren’t the only Bulldogs they were worried about.

However, the author does bring up a point that is quite vital to the entire debate here — context.  He notes that the Seminoles beat Clemson with their back-up quarterback [he tries to argue that Sean Maguire is actually the third or fourth string QB due to defections, but difficult to buy that argument].  This is a fair point.  Even if you want to argue that it was in Tallahassee and that the Seminoles defense could not stop Clemson for much of the game, you cannot dismiss the impact that not having Jameis Winston had not only on offense but on the entire team [if the offense cannot move the ball, it puts pressure on the defense].  Thus, context is important.  The UAB game cannot be explained, but the LSU game saw a close game only because of the late comeback against second teamers.  Furthermore, while criticizing margin of victories, the author fails to note the double digit wins against two ranked opponents.  Yes, context is important with the Auburn game, but the Bulldogs dominated Texas A&M [a team that admittedly was overhyped due to an opening night victory over South Carolina].

What of the contexts of the Seminoles’ opponents?  This, of course, is ignored by the author…well, other than the Clemson game.  Still, remember that game, Clemson had a freshman QB going into Tallahassee and the Tigers were able to move the ball at will against tFSU.  The Winston point is fair, but so are the other aspects of the game.  It is more than one variable and it works both ways.  The Citadel game was just flatness — a team uninterested in playing the Bulldogs.  But, North Carolina State is noteworthy as the author quickly dismisses this game as not being a struggle against an unranked opponent.  The Seminoles were down 17 points early and 10 in the third quarter.  The Wolfpack were still within one score midway through the fourth before Florida State scored again for the final margin…of 15 points.  FIFTEEN!!!  The author believes that the magic number is, for some reason, 14 points…as though 15 is significantly more superior than 13.

Finally, the author never critiques tFSU’s “best” opponents, which would be Oklahoma State and Clemson [in that order].  Oklahoma State’s victories include an FCS school, the Roadrunners of UT-San Antonio, and the bottom three teams in the Big XII [sic].  Explain to me how that justifies the Cowboys being #15!  Clemson?  They beat Louisville, which I guess counts as a quality win.  But, the Cardinals are unranked.  NC State and UNC are not world beaters.  Oh, but there was that close game with South Carolina State.  So, why should I take Florida State’s victory over Clemson seriously??

Once you start looking objectively, you see that Florida State’s schedule is not all that impressive either.  The argument i made elsewhere is that while Florida State did not necessarily do anything to move out of the top spot, they did not do anything to earn that spot either.  Which brings me to …

The Illogical Polls Revisited and the Myth of the #1

Again, i could speak ad nauseum about how the polls, rooted entirely on opinions, are illogical and biased.  Of course, the author of the cited piece would argue the same and it is here that we are in agreement.  The divergence comes over why it is illogical.  The author’s belief is that the flaw is in the love for the SEC.  If that were the case, Alabama or Auburn would have begun the season #1.  Neither team did.  Which team started #1?  Florida State.  Why?  Well, that is where the flaw truly exist.

See, the preseason polls operate off of two concepts — perception [of how a team will do in the upcoming season] and reputation [of how a team fared last season].  Florida State was privileged a starting position at #1 because of what happened last season.  That is important to remember.  In the past ten years, the only reigning BCS champion NOT to be ranked in the top ten [a favorable starting position] was Auburn in 2011 [interesting to note, Auburn was also not ranked in the top ten in 2005 following their undefeated 2004 season].  Certainly, teams that win titles do tend to return key players, which feeds into the perception factor [both Auburn teams lost many key players].  But, the weight of winning in the previous season matters.

How?  The argument many lay out for Florida State being, and remaining, #1 is that they are the defending champs and have not lost yet.  But, what does last year have to do with this season?  Nothing.  New season; new circumstances.  This angle lacks logic because certain factors beyond the players go into a team winning a title.  Thus, each season is different.  Another example of this is that the author makes mention of Mississippi State’s record from last season — 7-6.  What bearing does that have on anything?  Well, it does explain why MSU was unranked.  But apparently this does not resonate with Florida State fans; that what happened last year — something that should have nothing to do with this season — is why the Seminoles and Bulldogs were ranked where they are.

But, that leads to perception, a point the author and many other Nole fans will point out with regards to the SEC.  But, keep in mind that perception applies to all teams, especially once it comes to preseason polls.  By the end of last season, seven teams that were ranked in the preseason poll was NOT in the final poll; none of those seven even received votes!  As of right now, six teams ranked in the 2014 preseason poll are no longer ranked.  Three teams currently in the top ten did not begin there (Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Notre Dame).  Preseason polls are an inexact guessing game.  It is only natural for it to even out over the season.

Most Seminole fans will admit this — the preseason rankings were wrong and Mississippi State should have at least been ranked.  They will disagree with the meteoric rise and the displacement of Florida State.  And therein lies the rub…and the myth behind being number one.  If the preseason polls were “wrong” and the Bulldogs should not have been unranked, then why can we not accept that the #1 team in the country may not be the best team in the country?    Why must we stand by the notion that they are number one and should not be displaced?  That’s the myth behind being #1…the myth that they are untouchable.

Consider this.  The argument is that a #1 team should not be displaced UNLESS it loses.  But, this logic applies ONLY to the #1 team.  Every other position in the polls can be displaced without such backlash [admittedly, there is some but not to the extent of if a #1 is unseated].  It happens quite often that one undefeated team will jump over other undefeated teams…UNTIL we reach #1.  Last year, Florida State leaped over Ohio State to move to #3.  The Buckeyes did not lose; they in fact won their game against Iowa.  But, the Seminoles beat a then-undefeated Clemson team and thus that catapulted tFSU up.  No complaining from Seminole fans…coz it benefited their team!  If this can happen elsewhere, than it should happen with #1.  If the point of the polls is to rank the 25 best teams — from the #1 team [i.e., best of the best] to #25, then it should be accurate!  Thus, let it be truly fluid and displace #1 teams when necessary.

Death to the Polls

As long as we are top four, we good, right?

As long as we are top four, we good, right?

This weekend, Florida State will take on undefeated #5 Notre Dame.  And, should the Seminoles win, they should (rightly, according to the model) become #1 again.  Ironically, the same Seminole fans that are kvetching about Mississippi State displacing Florida State will have no qualms when/if the Seminoles do the same to the Bulldogs.  They will argue, of course, that it is righting the injustice of tFSU dropping to #2, but that argument also ignores the injustice of a seemingly good Mississippi State team starting out unranked.

Still, that the Bulldogs and Seminoles may swap claims to #1 in back-to-back weeks does not reflect the fluidity of the polls [as it likely should be if we are going to use polls].  Rather, it is a reflection of the uselessness of polls.  The Harris Poll and, to a certain extent, the BCS poll had it right by waiting until at least some games have been played before releasing a poll.  The problem is that even then the poll is incomplete.  All it does is offer a snapshot of the season for that particular moment in time.  Even waiting until the midpoint of the season is not perfect.  Last season, the first BCS poll had Miami ranked seventh…they ended up unranked.  This is why claiming the Bulldogs beat three straight top ten teams is misleading because those teams might have been top ten at that moment, but were they clearly one of the ten best?

The only way of truly knowing is once the season is over and looking at the complete picture.  EVEN THEN there are flaws.  Injuries or suspensions to players can affect a team and change the course of a season [for better or worse]; so too can a devastating loss [looking at you, 2013 Northwestern].   Therefore, while Bulldog and Seminole fans battle over who is truly #1, the reality is that we will not know until the season is over.  Being a temporary #1 for a week or a month means nothing if you are not there in January.  Leading early does not matter if you do not take home the prize…just ask Rick Santorum.

Since only one moment in time matters as it pertains to being number one — after the winner of the pseudo-playoff is determined, isn’t it time to kill the polls?

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