Comparing the College Football Playoff Top 25 and the Preseason AP Poll
The college football playoff committee waited until the end of October to release their first top 25 rankings. One of the reasons for waiting so far into the season was that the committee would rank the teams off of actual games and wouldn’t be influenced by preseason rankings.
At least, that was the idea.
Earlier this year, I found that the final AP poll was correlated with the preseason AP poll. That is, if team A was ranked ahead of team B in the preseason and they had the same number of losses, team A was still usually ranked ahead of team B. The biggest exception was SEC teams, who were able to regularly jump ahead of teams (with the same number of losses) ranked ahead of them in the preseason.
If the final AP poll can be influenced by preseason expectations, could the college football playoff committee be influenced, too? Let’s compare their first set of rankings to the preseason AP poll to find out.
Comparing the Ranks
There are currently 17 different teams in the committee’s top 25 that have just one loss. I recorded the order they are ranked in the committee’s poll and their order in the AP preseason poll. Below is an individual value plot of the data that shows each team’s preseason rank versus their current rank.
Teams on the diagonal line haven’t moved up or down since the preseason. Although Notre Dame is the only team to fall directly on the line, most teams aren’t too far off.
Teams below the line have jumped teams that were ranked ahead of them in the preseason. The biggest winner is actually not an SEC team, it’s TCU. Before the season, 13 of the current one-loss teams were ranked ahead of TCU, but now there are only 4. On the surface TCU seems to counter the idea that only SEC teams can drastically move up from their preseason ranking. However, of the 9 teams TCU jumped, only one (Georgia) is from the SEC. And the only other team to jump up more than 5 spots is Mississippi—who of course is from the SEC. So I wouldn’t conclude that the CFB playoff committee rankings behave differently than the AP poll quite yet.
Teams below the line have been passed by teams that had been ranked behind them in the preseason. Ohio State is the biggest loser, having had 9 different teams pass over them. Part of this can be explained by the fact that they have the worst loss (a 4-4 Virginia Tech game at home). But another factor is that the preseason AP poll was released before anybody knew Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller would miss the entire season. Had voters known that, Ohio State probably wouldn’t have been ranked so high to begin with.
Overall, 10 teams have moved up or down from their preseason spot by 3 spots or less. The correlation between the two polls is 0.571, which indicates a positive association between the preseason AP poll and the current CFB playoff rankings. That is, teams ranked higher in the preseason poll tend to be ranked higher in the playoff rankings.
Concordant and Discordant Pairs
We can take this analysis a step further by looking at the concordant and discordant pairs. A pair is concordant if the observations are in the same direction. A pair is discordant if the observations are in opposite directions. This will let us compare teams to each other two at a time.
For example, let’s compare Auburn and Mississippi. In the preseason, Auburn was ranked 3 (out of the 17 one-loss teams) and Mississippi was ranked 10. In the playoff rankings, Auburn is ranked 1 and Mississippi is ranked 2. This pair is concordant, since in both cases Auburn is ranked higher than Mississippi. But if you compare Alabama and Mississippi, you’ll see Alabama was ranked higher in the preseason, but Mississippi is ranked higher in the playoff rankings. That pair is discordant.
When we compare every team, we end up with 136 pairs. How many of those are concordant? Our favorite statistical software has the answer:
There are 96 concordant pairs, which is just over 70%. So most of the time, if a team ranked higher in the preseason poll, they are ranked higher in the playoff rankings. And consider this: of the one-loss teams, the top 4 ranked preseason teams were Alabama, Oregon, Auburn, and Michigan St. Currently, the top 4 one loss teams are Auburn, Mississippi, Oregon, and Alabama. That’s only one new team—which just so happens to be from the SEC.
That’s bad news for non-SEC teams that started the season ranked low, like Arizona, Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Kansas State. It's going to be hard for them to jump teams with the same record, especially if those teams are from the SEC. Just look at Alabama’s résumé so far. Their best win is over West Virginia and they lost to #4 Mississippi. Is that really better than Kansas State, who lost to #3 Auburn and beat Oklahoma on the road? If you simply changed the name on Alabama’s uniform to Utah and had them unranked to start the season, would they still be ranked three spots higher than Kansas State? I doubt it.
The good news is that there are still many games left to play. Most of these one-loss teams will lose at least one more game. But with 4 teams making the playoff this year, odds are we'll see multiple teams with the same record vying for the last playoff spot. And if this college football playoff ranking is any indication, if you're not in the SEC, teams who were highly thought of in the preseason will have an edge.