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Fixing the Final 1987 AP College Football Poll

1) Miami-Florida 12-0
2) Florida State 11-1
3) Oklahoma 11-1
4) Syracuse 11-0-1
5) Louisiana State 10-1-1
6) Nebraska 10-2
7) Auburn 9-1-2
8) Michigan State 9-2-1
9) UCLA 10-2
10) Texas A&M 10-2
11) Oklahoma State 10-2
12) Clemson 10-2
13) Georgia 9-3
14) Tennessee 10-2-1
15) South Carolina 8-4
16) Iowa 10-3
17) Notre Dame 8-4
18) Southern Cal 8-4
19) Michigan 8-4
20) Arizona State 7-4-1
To the left is the final 1987 AP college football top 20. You can access all of these teams' full schedules here: College Football Data Warehouse (amongst a number of other places). The fixed final AP poll, expanded to 25 teams, follows the article below. 

There are a lot of problems to fix in this top 20, so let's get right to it.

#6 Nebraska's 10-2 record pales next to #4 Syracuse's 11-0-1, but let's really look at these teams. Nebraska's losses came to #2 Florida State and #3 Oklahoma, both rated higher than Syracuse, while Syracuse's tie came against #7 Auburn, who is rated lower than Nebraska.

Nebraska beat 4 ranked teams (#9 UCLA, #11 Oklahoma State, #15 South Carolina, and #20 Arizona State), while Syracuse beat none. Zip. Nada.

Nebraska stomped on all their unrated opponents, while Syracuse edged 6-6 West Virginia 32-31 at home in their regular season finale. There is simply no debate to be had here.

Move Nebraska to #4, dropping Syracuse one spot. #5 Louisiana State will be dropping anyway, as discussed next.
1987 Miami's Michael Irvin 73 yard touchdown against FSU

Miami's Michael Irvin on a 73 yard touchdown catch to beat Florida State 26-25. FSU dominated, but choked away the game and the national championship on missed field goals and extra points, while Miami hit on both their 2-point tries. One of the most entertaining games of the '80s.

Auburn and Louisiana State

9-1-2 Auburn (#7) did not play 10-1-1 Louisiana State (originally ranked #5), so this is not a head-to-head issue. It is a relevant record issue. Auburn won the SEC outright, finishing with just a tie in conference play, while runner-up LSU took a loss. Auburn's loss came to #2 Florida State. They tied now-#5 Syracuse, who is rated higher than LSU, and they also tied #14 Tennessee, who is rated lower. Louisiana State, however, took both their loss and their tie to unrated opponents (tying 6-4-1 Ohio State and losing 22-10 to 7-5 Alabama, both at home). That makes Auburn effectively a game and a half better than LSU. Auburn also vastly outperformed LSU against 4 common opponents, going 4-0 against them and outscoring them by a total of 104-24, while LSU went 3-1 and outscored the 4 teams 87-69. Auburn beat all four by more than a touchdown, while LSU only did so once. This is another case that is simply not close.

Auburn had been rated #6 going into the bowls, ahead of LSU, and they tied #4 Syracuse (coming in at 11-0) in the Sugar Bowl. They tied a higher ranked team. How does it make any sense at all that LSU should move past them for that result? Utterly irrational.

Switch 'em. Auburn #6, Louisiana State #7.

Georgia, Clemson, and South Carolina

#12 Clemson (10-2), #13 Georgia (9-3), and #15 South Carolina (8-4) defeated each other in a circle, Clemson over Georgia 21-20, Georgia over South Carolina 13-6, and SC over Clemson 20-7 (the home team winning each game). The AP poll, being the AP poll, ranked them by straight records, and Clemson's 10-2 is the best. Their relevant record, however, is the worst of the three, because they lost to 4-7 North Carolina State. Meanwhile, Georgia and SC's other losses all came to top 10 opponents (Georgia losing to LSU and Auburn, and SC losing to Nebraska, Miami-Florida, and LSU). Clemson also had the weakest win amongst the 3 games against each other (kicking a field goal with 2 seconds left to edge Georgia by a point), and they also had the worst loss (20-7 to SC)-- and that loss came in their last regular season game, whereas the win over Georgia was early in the season. Everything stacks up against Clemson here. 

Clemson should drop behind South Carolina. In addition to the above facts, look at their play against 5 common opponents: SC outscored those teams 182-33, Clemson 140-98. Throw in SC's 20-7 win over Clemson, and this is a rout.

We'll move Georgia to #12, South Carolina to #13, and Clemson to #14 (Tennessee had been #14, but they will be dropping anyway, as discussed below).

Oklahoma State

#11 Oklahoma State (10-2) is overrated. Let's cut to the chase and compare them to now-#13 South Carolina. OSU was stomped by the only 2 rated opponents they played (35-0 to Nebraska, 29-10 to Oklahoma). SC lost at Nebraska 30-21 (26 points better than OSU fared against them at home), and they lost at #1 Miami 20-16. OSU did not beat a rated opponent, whereas SC did (now-#14 Clemson 20-7). OSU had 3 close wins over unrated opponents, 35-29 over 10-3 Wyoming, 24-20 over 5-6 Missouri, and 35-33 over 6-6 West Virginia in the Sun Bowl. SC had no close wins over unrated opponents, and they destroyed 8-4 Virginia 58-10 and 7-4 Wake Forest 30-0.

I'd drop Oklahoma State even further myself, but AP voters have a case for rating OSU ahead of now-#14 Clemson. Move Georgia to #11, South Carolina to #12, and Oklahoma State to #13.

Notre Dame, Southern Cal, and Tennessee

#18 Southern Cal (8-4) beat #9 UCLA (10-2) 17-13, securing the Rose Bowl invite (where they lost 20-17 to #8 Michigan State). I would probably rate them higher than UCLA, being a stickler for head-to-head results. But the AP voters have a case for not doing so, because it was a close home win (whatever that's worth in this series), USC lost to 6-5 Oregon, thereby sharing the PAC 10 title with UCLA, and UCLA performed much better on the season.  

But USC still looks underrated at #18. Let's compare them to Tennessee, 10-2-1 and currently sitting at #15. Southern Cal has the one upset loss at 6-5 Oregon (34-27), while Tennessee has 2 losses to unranked teams, losing at 7-5 Alabama 41-22 and at 5-6 Boston College 20-18 (whom USC defeated). Tennessee has a nice tie with now-#6 Auburn, but USC, as mentioned, has a win over #9 UCLA. That makes USC effectively a game and a half better than Tennessee. The only problem is that Southern Cal lost 26-15 at 8-4 Notre Dame, who is ranked behind Tennessee at #17.

But Notre Dame also has a better relevant record than Tennessee. They lost to 2 unrated opponents (Pitt and Penn State), just like Tennessee, but by much closer scores (30-22 and 21-20), and to teams that finished 8-4 and that are #23 and #25 in the "Others receiving votes" section. Notre Dame defeated #8 Michigan State 31-8, easily trumping Tennessee's tie with #6 Auburn. Notre Dame also had only 1 close win (over Boston College, who beat Tennessee), while Tennessee had 4 (including a pair of 2-point wins over losing teams to end the regular season). Finally, Notre Dame has better wins on top of their rout of Michigan State, beating #18 Southern Cal 26-15 and #19 Michigan 26-7, while Tennessee's best wins came over #16 Iowa 23-22 and unrated 8-4 Indiana 27-22. Every relevant piece of data here has Notre Dame written all over it.

So we'll move both Notre Dame and Southern Cal ahead of Tennessee. That puts Our Lady at #15, USC at #16, Tennessee at #17, and Iowa at #18. 

Florida

Here comes a crazy one-- I'm saying that 6-6 Florida should be rated ahead of 10-2-1 Tennessee. Why? Well, firstly, all six of the teams Florida lost to are rated ahead of Tennessee. Tennessee tied one of those teams, now #6 Auburn, and Auburn romped Florida 29-6. However, Tennessee also lost at 7-5 Alabama 41-22, and Florida won at Alabama 23-14. Throw in Tennessee's loss to a losing Boston College, when Florida beat all their unrated opponents, and Florida is effectively a game and a half better than Tennessee. The reason Florida has so many more losses? Well, first of all, they played #1 Miami, #2 Florida State, and #9 UCLA in nonconference play, whereas Tennessee played no nonconference opponent even close to as strong as those three. Secondly, Florida played now-#7 LSU and now-#11 Georgia in SEC play, and Tennessee played neither.

All 6 of Florida's wins were by more than a touchdown, while Tennessee struggled in 4 of their wins, including 24-22 over Kentucky, whom Florida beat 27-14. And while Florida did not play Vanderbilt, it is safe to guess that they would have done better than Tennessee's 38-36 win. Other than their straight records, this debate is all Florida.

I know it can be difficult to wrap one's head around the idea that a 6-6 SEC team can be better than a 10-2-1 SEC team, but extremely disparate schedules-- such as Florida and Tennessee played in 1987-- can do that. Here's a hypothetical example for you. Let's say that there are two teams who we know are both about #17 in power level. You make one team play the #6, #19, #21, and #22 teams, the rest of their opponents unranked. You make the other team play the #1, #2, #6, #7, #9, #11, and #19 teams, the rest unranked. Who will have the better record? The first team is apt go 10-2, the second 6-6-- if there are no upsets, the first goes 11-1, the second still 6-6. Yet we started with the given that both teams are about #17. Strength of schedule is everything. Straight records are very often illusions. Anyway, as you may have guessed, those are Tennessee and Florida's schedules in the "hypothetical" example, and Tennessee, at 10-2-1, did worse than they should have against their schedule, while Florida's 6-6 was right on schedule.

So, crazy? Sure... crazy like a fox! Let's move Florida into the top 20, ahead of Tennessee (they also have a better relevant record than each team ranked behind Tennessee). That puts Florida in at #17, dropping Tennessee to #18, Iowa to #19, Michigan to #20, and Arizona State to #21.

Washington and Arizona State

Arizona State, originally ranked #20, has 2 losses and a tie to unranked opponents, and no wins over ranked teams. That's ugly. The problem here is an ignored head-to-head result, because 7-4-1 Arizona State lost at 7-4-1 Washington 27-14. The reason they have the same straight record is because Washington played PAC 10 champ Southern Cal, and Arizona State did not.

Washington comes in at #21, and Arizona State drops to #22.

Alabama

7-5 Alabama took a 13-10 upset loss at 5-5-1 Memphis, but the Tide also beat now-#7 Louisiana State 22-10 (LSU's only loss), as well as now-#18 Tennessee 41-22. That gives them a better relevant record than every team behind Florida, so you could validly and logically rank them ahead of 10-2-1 Tennessee if you had a mind to (and 41-22 is pretty persuasive).

On the other hand, Alabama lost to now-#20 Michigan 28-24 in their bowl game, and though Alabama still has a better relevant record than Michigan, other factors give ample reason for the Tide to remain ranked behind Big Blue (Alabama performed poorly, was weak down the stretch, their loss to Memphis is significantly worse than Michigan's 2 upset losses, and a bowl game carries extra emphasis). So let's compare Alabama to now-#21 Washington.

As stated, Alabama has 1 upset loss and 2 wins over higher-rated teams. Washington has 1 upset loss and an upset tie, and no wins over higher-rated teams. That puts Alabama effectively 2 and a half games better than Washington. It's over right there. Washington has just one win of value, 27-14 over now-#22 Arizona State, which pales compared to the 2 big wins Alabama has over LSU and Tennessee. And Alabama also won 27-14 at 8-4 Penn State (who will finish ranked in the fixed poll-- ahead of Washington, in fact).

It's just no contest. Let's move Alabama in at #21, dropping Washington to #22 and Arizona State to #23.

Indiana

8-4 Indiana has an upset loss to Kentucky, but they also beat now-#20 Michigan, so they are effectively a game and a half better than both Washington and Arizona State. Oh, and they have a better straight record than both too. Frankly, I don't know how ASU ended up ranked #20 in the original AP poll rather than Indiana in the first place. Alabama has a better relevant record than Indiana, so they will remain ranked higher.

Indiana comes in at #22, dropping Washington to #23 and Arizona State to #24.

Ohio State and Penn State

Let's go ahead and speed this up by doing two more at once. 6-4-1 Ohio State and 8-4 Penn State both also have better relevant records than Washington and Arizona State (and PSU has a better straight record too). OSU took an upset loss to 3-8 Kentucky, but they also tied now-#7 LSU, and they defeated now-#20 Michigan. Penn State took an upset loss to unrated 8-4 Pitt, but they also defeated now-#15 Notre Dame. OSU is effectively 2 games better than Washington and ASU, PSU a game and a half better.

Ohio State is effectively a half game better than Penn State, so they'll come in first, at #23. Penn State follows at #24, Washington drops to #25, and Arizona State is out the door.

Wyoming

10-3 Wyoming also has a better relevant record than Washington, but it's only a half game better, and Washington played a tougher schedule, so this is a tough one. The AP poll did originally rank Wyoming higher than Washington in the "Others receiving votes" section, but on the other hand, they ranked Arizona State higher than Wyoming. We'll solve this by comparing Wyoming's ranking with the average of Arizona State and Washington's rankings. Wyoming was #24, while ASU was #20 and Washington #28, averaging out to #24. Hmmm. Guess we have a tie.

So, that's what we'll do, put Wyoming at #25 in a tie with Washington. That, of course, gives us a top 26 for this season.

Fixed AP Top 25

7-4-1 Arizona State (originally #20) is the lone team falling out, seven teams zooming by them. ASU had 2 losses and a tie to unranked opponents in the original poll, and they had no wins over rated teams. The 7 teams that pass them up in the fixed poll have a total of 6 losses and a tie to unranked opponents (less than 1 loss per team), and they have 4 wins and a tie against teams the AP had rated. Plus, the new teams are 1-0 against the team falling out (Washington beating ASU).

1) Miami-Florida 12-0--
2) Florida State 11-1--
3) Oklahoma 11-1--
4) Nebraska 10-2+2
5) Syracuse 11-0-1-1
6) Auburn 9-1-2+1
7) Louisiana State 10-1-1-2
8) Michigan State 9-2-1--
9) UCLA 10-2--
10) Texas A&M 10-2--
11) Georgia 9-3+2
12) South Carolina 8-4+3
13) Oklahoma State 10-2-2
14) Clemson 10-2-2
15) Notre Dame 8-4+2
16) Southern Cal 8-4+2
17) Florida 6-6IN
18) Tennessee 10-2-1-4
19) Iowa 10-3-3
20) Michigan 8-4-1
21) Alabama 7-5IN
22) Indiana 8-4IN
23) Ohio State 6-4-1IN
24) Penn State 8-4IN
25) Washington 7-4-1
       Wyoming 10-3
IN
IN

OUT: #20 Arizona State 7-4-1

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