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Preseason Poll Rant: Focal Points and Arcade Ladders

How much of a chance does your favorite team have to make the final four field? Well, it depends who they are and where they play.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

A few years ago, I attended a lecture by former World Bank Chief Economist Kaushik Basu in which he discussed his return to the academy to study game theory (Cornell) after a long tenure working in public policy and international relations. I invite Basu into this week’s column not to merely be the only college football blog you’ll read this season that mentions former World Bank Economists, but to discuss his ideas of “focal points.” In these strategically rational situations, certain elements draw attention for no apparent reasons, and they cause inefficiencies. In his talk, Basu illustrated this concept with a game. The game features two players, stranded in an imaginary park. The park has a stream flowing through, and a single bridge over that stream. In addition to the stream, there is a grove of trees, a gazebo, a swing set, and other general park features. The players need to pick a place to rendezvous, but they can’t communicate: each player must pick a point on a map and go there. Where do they go, every time? The bridge, of course. And why do they go to the bridge? It’s a natural sticking point - travel is constrained there, it’s singular over the water, and it draws attention.

This week, I’d like to meditate on the rolls of the polls in college football, and how preseason polls, specifically the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll, create arbitrary focal points which frame the narrative of the season and contribute to determining a college football playoff field. If you’re looking for a recap of the polls, I’ll direct you to the consistently-excellent Dean Straka’s post. In this column, I lay out a framework for how preseason polls are mere guesses, informed only by program history, that ultimately pave the path to the playoff.

To paraphrase American Hero Ron Swanson: Don’t trust early polls or late polls; polls are ponzi schemes run by morons. Preseason polls, both media’s and the athletics department intern coach’s iterations, are simply guesses based on interesting match-ups throughout the season and based on team reputation. Case in point - look at this article from FiveThirtyEight. Based on the difference between historical preseason and postseason rankings, FiveThirtyEight identifies as most consistently overrated the following teams: Notre Dame, Texas, Penn State, Florida, Ohio State, Nebraska, Miami, Tennessee, Oklahoma. Five of those teams are in the top 12 this year, and 8 total in the top 25 according to the AP Poll. Seeing as how, historically, these teams have finished below their ranking at least 60% of the time, you have to wonder if the preseason poll is based on quality assessment or name recognition. (I presume the latter.) The flip side of that assessment is the list of most underrated teams: Oregon, Wisconsin, Utah, Auburn, Boise State, Clemson, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, TCU, all having finished better than their preseason ranking at least 40% of the time. There are certainly some name brands in there, and Alabama is the outlier for being ranked in the top five and finishing first, most of the time, but a string of these teams are the off-brand, less respected historically. 7 of these teams are in the top 25, and if you account for Clemson, Auburn, and Alabama’s recent eliteness, really, only 4 chronically “underrated” teams are in the top 25. This isn’t a total indictment on the process, but rather a baseline understanding that the polls generally trend towards overrating unknown commodities that are wearing the right colors and underrated teams from the West and with smaller fan bases.

I like to think of the polls, especially the College Football Playoff Rankings, as a sort of arcade ladder for the committee. The CFP rankings follow these trends of placing teams in conflict with each other, and provide paths for each team, given their schedule and peer group, to excel or fall, based on the circumstances. Using each team’s schedule and the AP Top 25, let’s examine how the preseason polls map out the road to the College Football Playoff.

Each bullet point below is a ladder, and discusses a group of teams on a similar path. These will have overlap, as teams may have multiple paths. For the sake of my sanity, I will only stay in the Top 25.

  • Path 1: SEC is all but a lock for a playoff spot.

Teams(Rank): Alabama(1) Georgia(3) Auburn(9) MS State(18) LSU(25)

Auburn plays all five of these teams, and the poll has three of these teams clustered in the top 10, with MS State and LSU within a reasonable striking distance, should they make the appropriate kind of noise. At least the best team of this group will make the playoff, and the way it is set up, the winner of the SEC West will be playing Georgia for a playoff spot, perhaps 2. Auburn is kind of the swing vote here, and perhaps the only team who could swing the second playoff bid, as they have a pretty strong schedule, opening with Washington, and that might be the only factor to outweigh the national disdain for a second two-SEC-team playoff.

  • Path 2: Win and you are in.

Teams(Rank) Clemson(2), Miami(8), Notre Dame(12) Florida State (19), VTech(20)

This is effectively the grouping to determine the third concrete playoff spot, and it’s Clemson’s to lose. Miami and Notre Dame are lurking as second tier contenders, and Florida State/VT are given the room to impress.

  • Path 3: Big 10

Teams(Rank): Wisconsin(4), Ohio State (5), Penn State (10), Mich State(11), Michigan (14)

The Big 10 group is similar to the SEC group, with four division rivals hovering around a fifth conference opponent. Wisconsin draws Michigan and Penn State om the regular season, and would face a Michigan State/Ohio State in the championship. Given the out of conference match-ups, here, though, a second playoff bid is unlikely. Michigan faces Notre Dame and the toughest schedule in the country, and so is unlikely to run the table. Ohio State has TCU, a second tier contender, in a neutral site, but that alone may not be enough to push them in without a conference win.

  • Path 4: Hoping to go undefeated, or going to need some magic.

Teams(Rank): Washington(6) Oklahoma(7) Stanford(13) USC(15) TCU(16) WVU(17) Texas(23) Oregon (24)

Here we see how the poll grouping frames the season a little clearer. Conference favorites Washington and Oklahoma will have to fend off a middle-class of contenders to make the playoffs. One of Stanford/USC/Oregon would have to rise up to push Washington out of the picture, and the same with the TCU/WVU/Texas group against Oklahoma. This is a bottlenecking: unlike the group above, where three teams are highly rated and a couple of contenders are around, here we have clear favorites and the challengers, which sets up some tension- two teams from this group are unlikely to go to the playoff unless one is undefeated, but at least one from this group will go.

  • No Path: Boise State, UCF. As we have seen last year, G5 teams are guaranteed nothing. The best they can do is win every game by 50 and hope for an act of God.

In summary, the AP Poll shapes the important match-ups throughout the season, especially in absence of the CFB Rankings, and those match-ups become focal points, arbitrary reference points for the decision-making of the committee. The AP Preseason poll has laid the initial landscape of the playoff situation as follows: The SEC winner, the Big 10 Winner, the ACC Winner/Notre Dame, and the Pac12/Big12 winner are the four most obvious avenues to the playoff. This means huge match-ups early in the season between LSU/Miami, Auburn/Washington, Michigan/Notre Dame, and FSU/VT all are now laden with playoff stakes (wonder if it has to do with the name brands?). Lest you think the worst of me, I’ll admit this is far from definitive. None of this is shocking in the least bit. An exercise in divining the preference orderings of the polls, though, gives some insight into the general groups the CFB committee will consider later in the year. These poll numbers are essentially guesses that serve to direct observation and team consideration to these “focal point match-ups”, and thus the narrative of the college football season hangs on shots in the dark.