Picking Splinters: Polls Not Ready to Crown Rutgers, but Computers Are

November 15, 2006 4:00 PM0 comments

Don’t look now, but according to the computer rankings portion of the BCS Standings, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights are the No. 2 team in the nation. Take a second to soak that in.

Those figures, generated from an average of the Anderson & Hester, Richard Billingsley, Colley Matrix, Kenneth Massey, Jeff Sagarin and Peter Wolfe ratings, place Rutgers ahead of THE Ohio State University, the team that sits atop both the Harris and USA Today polls, which are also used to calculate the all-important BCS Standings. Unfortunately for the fans of the Scarlet Knights, their respective rankings of seventh and eighth in those two polls places them at No. 6 in the overall BCS Standings behind Notre Dame, Florida, Southern Calif., Michigan and OSU. Given that status, it likely means that Rutgers will not only have to beat No. 8 (in the BCS Standings) West Virginia in the Knights’ season finale, but they’ll need outside help too. Namely, Rutgers needs USC to lose to California this weekend and then beat Notre Dame on Nov. 25. They’ll need Arkansas to lose to Louisiana State and then beat Florida in the SEC Championship. And Michigan will probably have to win this weekend’s Big 10 clash.

That should pave the way for a BCS Championship bid by an undefeated Rutgers team, but even that complex scenario offers no guarantee.

This whole problem exists because the Big East stinks. Well, that was the perception coming into the 2006 season anyway. That’s why the Scarlet Knights, to this point a program perpetually stuck in the “Rutgers Rut,” didn’t even crack the USA Today poll until week five. Everyone was certain that the Big East was only two teams deep — West Virginia and Louisville, that’s it. And if they were wrong with their assumption, no big deal, everyone knows that pre-season polls don’t mean anything anyway. Right?

Turns out … not so much. And right now, pre-season poll position is precisely what is keeping an undefeated Rutgers team out of the Championship picture.

The Knights have made more headway in the BCS Standings’ objective component because it takes far more time for people to change their perceptions than for a machine to crunch numbers. And the perception, for some time now, has been that the Big East is a weak football conference. That’s why Rutgers sports the greatest disparity between the computer rankings and their USA Today poll position. The next highest-ranked team with the biggest disparity? Louisville. West Virginia is skewed too, only the other way. USA Today has the Mountaineers ranked No. 7, while the computers have them four spots lower. The difference? The Mountaineers started the season ranked No. 7 and climbed to No. 3 before losing to Louisville. Perception strikes again.

Just how crippling is a lack of pre-season prestige? It took Wake Forest, a team leading its conference with just one loss, until Week 10 to climb to No. 23 on the USA Today chart. That despite the ACC boasting five teams in the Top 25 of the BCS Standings as of Nov. 12, tied with the SEC for the most of any conference.

But ACC standard bearers, and preseason top 10 picks, Florida State and Miami are wallowing at .500, and with their fall from the top of the polls, the conference lacked the scheduling strength to power its teams up the computer rankings. Georgia Tech is currently tops at No. 15.

That’s not the case with the Big East, where top pre-season teams West Virginia and Louisville have remained in the Top 15 all season. But no one saw Rutgers coming, and that’s why the polls, determined more by reputation and preconceptions than actual analysis, still have them ranked behind three one-loss teams.

The ironic bit is that, if Rutgers is left out of the BCS Championship game, it won’t be because of the oft-derided computer rankings, but rather the polls. The polls are where the little guy is supposed to have a chance, where the voters can be swayed by story lines and where strength of schedule doesn’t come directly into play. And before people start griping that those computer rankings don’t properly account for strength of schedule, consider that similarly undefeated Boise State of the Western Athletic Conference is still No. 10 in the computer compilations. The conclusion: Maybe the Big East is that good after all.

If Rutgers beats West Virginia, it will have wins against two teams in the Top 10 of the Nov. 12 BCS Standings (West Virginia, Louisville). The only other teams to match or capable of matching that feat are Michigan (with wins over Notre Dame, Wisconsin and possibly Ohio State) and USC (with a win over Arkansas and a possible win over Notre Dame). Thanks to Texas’s loss to Kansas State, and the collapse of Iowa, if Ohio State loses to Michigan, not only will the Buckeyes have no wins against the BCS Top 10, they’ll have just one win against a ranked opponent all season.

That’s right, the Big 10 is playing only three deep this year, and Ohio State didn’t play Wisconsin. Maybe that’s why THE State University of New Jersey is ahead of OSU in the computer rankings.

Of course all of this becomes moot if the Scarlet Knights lose to the Mountaineers, but the situation is definitely worth exploring — particularly with a mind to reforming the system for the future. Hmmm, sounds like a topic for next week.

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