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Fixing the Final 1996 AP College Football Poll

1) Florida 12-1
2) Ohio State 11-1
3) Florida State 11-1
4) Arizona State 11-1
5) Brigham Young 14-1
6) Nebraska 11-2
7) Penn State 11-2
8) Colorado 10-2
9) Tennessee 10-2
10) North Carolina 10-2
11) Alabama 10-3
12) Louisiana State 10-2
13) Virginia Tech 10-2
14) Miami-Florida 9-3
15) Northwestern 9-3
16) Washington 9-3
17) Kansas State 9-3
18) Iowa 9-3
19) Notre Dame 8-3
20) Michigan 8-4
21) Syracuse 9-3
22) Wyoming 10-2
23) Texas 8-5
24) Auburn 8-4
25) Army 10-2


To the left is the final 1996 AP college football top 25. You can access all of these teams' full schedules at the College Football Data Warehouse (amongst a number of other places). The fixed final AP top 25 follows the article below. 

The 1996 poll was, of course, much easier to fix than the mess of 1997. And while the top of the poll was not questionable this time out, there are questions to ask about a choice very near the top.

That would be 11-1 Ohio State being ranked #2, ahead of 11-1 Florida State. This ranking is the result of OSU beating #4 Arizona State 20-17 in the Rose Bowl, while FSU lost big to #1 Florida 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl. But you only have to go back to the previous game for each team for the questions to arise. In their regular season finales, OSU lost to #20 Michigan 13-9 at home, while FSU defeated #1 Florida 24-21 at home.

And the main question I would ask is this: Is losing to the #1 team 52-20 in a bowl worse than losing to the #20 team 13-9 at home?

For me, the answer is simple: losing to the #20 team is much, much worse. Yes, FSU got blown out in their bowl game, but then Florida lost to Nebraska by an even worse score in the previous season's championship game, and still rightfully finished #2.

But losing to the #20 team at home is the performance of a team that is, for that game, #21 at best.
Danny Wuerffel 1996

Heisman winning quarterback Danny Wuerffel set a career NCAA passing efficiency record (now owned by fellow Gator Tim Tebow). Florida lost to rival Florida State 24-21, then got a mulligan and won the national championship 52-20 in a Sugar Bowl rematch.

Ohio State vs. Florida State

Let's put aside each team's loss for now and look at the rest of their schedules. They had very similar seasons. Ohio State gave #4 Arizona State their only loss by 3 points, and Florida State gave #1 Florida their only loss by 3 points. Note that FSU's big win came over a team that is ranked higher than OSU, while OSU's big win came over a team that is ranked behind FSU. On the other hand, OSU's win came in their bowl game, giving it extra weight, and it was played on a neutral field, while FSU beat Florida at home. So we can see these performances as being pretty much equal.

In their next biggest wins, OSU beat #7 Penn State (11-2) 38-7, while FSU beat #10 North Carolina (10-2) 13-0. While neither team was threatened, OSU's win was certainly a bigger blowout. On the other hand, UNC's whole thing in '96 was tremendous defense (they led the nation in scoring defense). I suppose we could call this comparison a slight advantage for OSU, but it is very slight.

Each team had one close win over an unranked opponent. OSU beat 8-5 Wisconsin 17-14, while FSU beat 7-5 Virginia 31-24. However, FSU's game against Virginia was not as close as the final score. Virginia scored late, but the outcome was never in doubt. So this comparison gives FSU a clear advantage.

Strength of schedule: Ohio State played two other rated opponents (winning 29-16 and 38-26 over the #18 and #19 teams), while Florida State played only one (winning 34-16 over the #14 team). But FSU played 2 more opponents that will finish just outside the fixed AP poll, at #26 and #28 (7-5 Virginia and 8-3 Southern Miss). The strength of their schedules comes out pretty much the same. The bottom half of the Big 10 was stronger than the bottom half of the ACC, but for teams battling for the #2 spot, the relative strength of their weak opponents is nearly irrelevant.

So you see, there isn't much difference between these teams.  In the above comparisons, FSU has one clear advantage and OSU has one very slight one. That gives FSU the edge. And that brings us back to the big loss each team suffered, and the question of which loss was worse. As I said, for me the answer is simple. There is just no excuse for losing to the #20 team at home. And while Michigan is OSU's rival, Florida is FSU's rival, so nothing is gained there. Furthermore, FSU's loss was not a blowout from the start. Florida only led 24-20 until late in the third quarter. Once they pulled away, the game-- and the season-- was over.

In the end, I see FSU as a clear #2. But due to that 32 point loss coming in their bowl game, carrying extra weight, I suppose we can at least give the AP poll voters a compromise here and have Florida State and Ohio State share the silver medal. Their seasons were very similar, after all. So that's the first fix. Florida State moves up a spot (half a spot, really) to #2 in a tie with Ohio State.

Brigham Young and Washington

Time once again to pick on a little big team. #5 Brigham Young's 14-1 record is very impressive, but their season boils down to this: they lost at #16 Washington 29-17, and they rallied to beat #17 Kansas State 19-15 in the Cotton Bowl. Looks to me like they belong ranked between those two teams, and the rest of their performances back this lower rating up. They beat #22 Wyoming in overtime (and Wyoming will fall out of the fixed top 25), beat unranked Texas A&M at home 41-37, and they beat unranked New Mexico at home 17-14. Looks more like a #15 team than a #5 team, don't you think?

They belong behind Washington, who sacked them 8 times and beat them easily. Normally I'd have them meet in the middle of where they are ranked now, but this is just a clear case of BYU being way too overrated. The best that I can do for the AP poll voters here is to place Washington and BYU between 10-2 Virginia Tech and 9-3 Miami-Florida. That puts Washington at #13, BYU at #14, Miami-Florida at #15, Northwestern at #16, and of course all the teams that had been ranked #6-13 move up a spot with BYU's fall.

Michigan and Northwestern

9-3 Northwestern (now #16) beat 8-4 Michigan (#20) 17-16, thereby winning a share of the Big 10 championship with Ohio State, their second title in a row after decades of cellar-dwelling. However, despite Northwestern's head-to-head win and better record, Michigan is effectively a game better than the Wildcats. That is because they defeated two teams that are ranked much higher than Northwestern: #2 Ohio State and now-#7 Colorado. And both wins came on the road. And Northwestern's win over Michigan was hardly decisive, coming back from down 16-0 in the 4th quarter and winning by 1 point at home.

Furthermore, Northwestern's performances across the season were incredibly poor. Every other week, the "Cardiac Cats" were tossing fourth down passes in last minute drives to edge out weak opponents such as Minnesota, Illinois, and Purdue. But their biggest miracle came against unranked Wisconsin. The Badgers could have knelt on the ball for the win, but elected to hand the ball off to a running back, who promptly fumbled and gave Northwestern a chance to drive for yet another last-second win. Finally, the bowl games give us a clear picture of the relative strength of Northwestern and Michigan, as they played comparable opponents. Northwestern lost to now-#8 Tennessee 48-28, while Michigan lost to now-#10 Alabama 17-14 in a great game.

So Michigan should be ranked ahead of Northwestern. We'll have them meet in the middle of where they are ranked now, behind Kansas State. That moves KSU to #16, Michigan to #17, Northwestern to #18, Iowa to #19, and Notre Dame to #20.

This new ranking fits Michigan pretty well, as they are now balanced out with 2 wins over higher-ranked teams and 2 losses to lower-ranked teams. NW is similarly balanced now, with 1 win over a higher-ranked team (Michigan) and 1 loss to an unranked  team.

Syracuse

Just as Brigham Young's performances were much worse than those of the teams behind them, #21 Syracuse's performances are much better than those of the teams ahead of them. Syracuse suffered losses in their first 2 games, but finished the season 9-1, stomping on their opponents in all 9 wins and losing only to now-#15 Miami-Florida 38-31. They were upset by a bad Minnesota team 35-33 on the road early, but made up for that with a huge 52-21 win over now-#12 Virginia Tech in their next game. They won the Big East in a 3-way tie with VT and Miami.

Syracuse also beat #24 Army 42-17 and 8-4 West Virginia 30-7 (and West Virginia will end up in the fixed top 25).

Let's compare Syracuse to another 9-3 team, Kansas State (now #16). KSU defeated no ranked opponents and struggled against 3 unranked opponents. No comparison. So we'll move Syracuse ahead of the Wildcats. In fact, Syracuse moves up past two squads of poor-performing purple-clad Wildcats. Syracuse moves to #16, just behind Miami-Florida (who beat them in the regular season finale). Kansas State, Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, and Notre Dame all drop a spot.  

Wyoming

Another little big team voted into the top 25 on the "strength" of an incredibly weak schedule. Wyoming (10-2, #22) struggled repeatedly against teams that were mediocre or worse, the lowlight being a 41-38 overtime thriller at 2-9 Iowa State. Wyoming does not have a single win of any real value (they did not play in a bowl game), so all they have to say for themselves is that they fought now-#14 BYU to overtime before losing. That is not nearly enough for a top 25 ranking, especially since they lost to unranked San Diego State.

Toss 'em out. That moves Texas, Auburn, and Army up a spot, and 8-4 West Virginia, who had been sitting at #26 in the AP poll's "also receiving votes" purgatory, now comes in at #25. As well they should. All four of WV's losses came to ranked opponents, and they beat the AP poll's #27 team, 8-3 East Carolina, 10-9. They won their other 7 games by big scores. They are far more deserving than Wyoming. As is East Carolina, who beat now-#15 Miami-Florida 31-6. In fact, maybe the Pirates should be ranked too...

Virginia, Texas, and East Carolina

8-5 Texas (now #22) had a great 2-game run, beating 6-6 Texas A&M 51-15, then pulling off one of the greatest wins of this decade in their 37-27 Big 12 title game upset of now-#5 Nebraska. That win took Nebraska out of the national championship game and put Florida in, for which the Gators shall be eternally grateful. It also put Texas into the bottom of the top 25, where they somehow remained even after now-#6 Penn State pummeled them 38-15 in the Fiesta Bowl. In the rest of their season, Texas was busy barely getting by unranked opponents such as Baylor and Texas Tech, and worse, losing to unranked opponents such as Oklahoma and Virginia.

But it is the Virginia game that is most pertinent here, as Virginia was 7-5 and destroyed Texas 37-13. That is a very clear head-to-head result, and Virginia had a big upset win of their own, beating 10-2 North Carolina 20-17.

Texas must drop behind Virginia. Virginia is #32 in "also receiving votes" purgatory, so if we have the two teams meet in the middle of where they are ranked now, that puts them both right behind 8-3 East Carolina, currently sitting at #26. So in other words, Texas is out, and Auburn, Army, West Virginia, and East Carolina all move up a spot, putting the Pirates at #25. Which they deserve, as all 8 of their wins were by more than a touchdown, including that 31-6 upset win over #15 Miami and a 23-7 win over 6-5 South Carolina (not far out of the rankings themselves).

Fixed AP Top 25

After the 1997 headache, this one was nice and easy. Aside from the difficult Ohio State-Florida State question, the rest of the fixes were no-brainers. Wyoming and Texas fall out, and West Virginia and East Carolina replace them. And East Carolina shows that I don't pick on all little big teams. Just the ones that deserve some picking. The old teams had 3 losses to unranked opponents and 1 win over a rated opponent, while the teams that replace them had only 1 loss to an unranked opponent and 1 win over a rated opponent.

1) Florida 12-1--
2) Ohio State 11-1
     Florida State 11-1
-0.5
+0.5
4) Arizona State 11-1--
5) Nebraska 11-2+1
6) Penn State 11-2+1
7) Colorado 10-2+1
8) Tennessee 10-2+1
9) North Carolina 10-2+1
10) Alabama 10-3+1
11) Louisiana State 10-2+1
12) Virginia Tech 10-2+1
13) Washington 9-3+3
14) Brigham Young 14-1-9
15) Miami-Florida 9-3-1
16) Syracuse 9-3+5
17) Kansas State 9-3--
18) Michigan 8-4+2
19) Northwestern 9-3-4
20) Iowa 9-3-2
21) Notre Dame 8-3-2
22) Auburn 8-4+2
23) Army 10-2+2
24) West Virginia 8-4IN
25) East Carolina 8-3IN

OUT: #22 Wyoming 10-2
#23 Texas 8-5

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