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Fixing the Final 2012 AP College Football Poll

1) Alabama 13-1
2) Oregon 12-1
3) Ohio State 12-0
4) Notre Dame 12-1
5) Georgia 12-2
     Texas A&M 11-2
7) Stanford 12-2
8) South Carolina 11-2
9) Florida 11-2
10) Florida State 12-2
11) Clemson 11-2
12) Kansas State 11-2
13) Louisville 11-2
14) Louisiana State 10-3
15) Oklahoma 10-3
16) Utah State 11-2
17) Northwestern 10-3
18) Boise State 11-2
19) Texas 9-4
20) Oregon State 9-4
21) San Jose State 11-2
22) Northern Illinois 12-2
23) Vanderbilt 9-4
24) Michigan 8-5
25) Nebraska 10-4
Here is the final 2012 AP college football top 25. If you want to play along, you can access all of these teams' full schedules here: College Football Data Warehouse (amongst a number of other places). The fixed final AP top 25 follows the article below. 

But before I get to correcting the AP poll's errors, let me make one thing clear. This is not about what I would personally prefer to see in the rankings. I myself would probably rank Texas A&M way back behind LSU, Louisville near the bottom of the top 25, and I would not rank Vanderbilt at all. But all those choices the AP poll made are fine-- logically valid choices. This is about fixing only those AP poll choices that are not logically valid or fair.

Northwestern immediately jumps out at me as overrated, because they took 3 losses to teams ranked lower than they are. I'll drop them back a bit, but they'll still make the final fixed top 25 because 2 of the teams that beat them are ranked (#24 Michigan and #25 Nebraska). A bigger problem with this top 25 is the pack of "Little Big Teams" studding the bottom half: #16 Utah State, #18 Boise State, #21 San Jose State, and #22 Northern Illinois. As I'll demonstrate in the article below, the AP poll has fallen in love with mid-majors in recent years.

But as they say, love is blind.
Alabama running back Eddie Lacy scoring the opening touchdown from 20 yards out in Alabama's 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game for the 2012 season

My painting of Alabama running back Eddie Lacy, who led the Tide to a 42-14 mauling of Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game, giving Alabama its 3rd title in 4 years.

Notre Dame and Ohio State

Notre Dame was punished for getting steamrolled 42-14 by Alabama, dropping from #1 to #4. However, take a look at #2 Oregon. They have the same record as Notre Dame, but Dame's loss came to a team ranked higher than Oregon, while Oregon's loss came to #7 Stanford-- a team that Notre Dame defeated. Doesn't seem very fair. I would probably rank Notre Dame #2 ahead of Oregon for that reason, but on the other hand, Oregon did clearly outperform Notre Dame on the season as a whole. All 12 of Oregon's wins came by more than a touchdown (closest game was a 17 point win), whereas Notre Dame had 5 close wins, 3 of them against unrated opponents and 2 against losing teams. Throw in Notre Dame's ugly beatdown in the national championship game, and I think Oregon can be validly ranked higher than the Irish.

Ohio State, however, performed even more weakly than Notre Dame did, and so I don't see a valid reason for them to be rated higher than the Irish. Sure OSU went undefeated, but they did not play an opponent ranked higher than #24, and so you can't hold Notre Dame's loss to #1 Alabama against the Irish in comparison. Ohio State had 6 close wins, 5 of them against unrated opponents and 3 against losing teams, more than Notre Dame had in every category. Dame beat Michigan State 20-3, while OSU beat them 17-16, and that ultimately serves as the performance difference between these 2 teams. Edge to Notre Dame.

Furthermore, the highest-rated teams OSU defeated were #24 Michigan and #25 Nebraska, while Notre Dame beat #7 Stanford and #15 Oklahoma. Nothing points to Ohio State here.

Move Notre Dame to #3 and Ohio State to #4.

The SEC/ACC Tangle

A couple of bowl upsets-- Louisville over Florida and Clemson over Louisiana State-- created a bit of an SEC/ACC mess to untangle, and I don't think the AP poll got it quite right.

Florida and South Carolina

11-2 South Carolina ended up ranked #8, and 11-2 Florida finished #9, but Florida defeated South Carolina by the massively decisive score of 44-11 earlier this season. How short the memories of sports writers are. Yes, Florida was upset by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, but SC took an upset loss this season as well, losing to #14 Louisiana State, whom Florida defeated. Florida also beat #5 Texas A&M and #10 Florida State, so they had 4 wins over top 15 teams, while SC had just 1. No legitimate case for South Carolina here.

Switch 'em, Florida to #8 and South Carolina to #9.

Louisiana State

10-3 Louisiana State, ranked #14, was over-punished for their upset loss to Clemson in their bowl game, and they are definitely underrated. 11-2 Louisville and 11-2 Kansas State sit just in front of them, presumably because they have better straight records than LSU does, but LSU's relevant record is actually better than that of both Louisville and KSU. All 3 of LSU's losses came to teams ranked higher than both Louisville and KSU (#1 Alabama, now-#8 Florida, and #11 Clemson). Louisville lost to 2 unranked opponents, so LSU is effectively 2 games better in that regard, and Louisville beat 1 higher-rated opponent (Florida), while LSU defeated 2 (#5 Texas A&M and now-#9 South Carolina), so in the end LSU is effectively 3 games better on the season. KSU only lost to 1 unrated opponent, but they did not beat any higher-rated teams, so LSU's 2 upset wins put them effectively 3 games better than KSU as well. That's too big a difference to ignore for any reason, and so we'll move LSU up ahead of both. But wait, there's more...

Since 11-2 Clemson beat 10-3 Louisiana State in their bowl game, and they obviously have a better straight record to boot, it may seem a no-brainer that Clemson should be ranked higher than LSU. However, this situation is not so simple, because LSU has a better relevant record than Clemson does even after losing that bowl game.

LSU defeated 11-2 South Carolina (now #9) and 11-2 Texas A&M (#5), both of whom are rated higher than Clemson is, and that means that LSU was effectively 2 games better than Clemson before their bowl game was played. Clemson's win over LSU only makes up for 1 of those games, leaving them effectively 1 game worse than LSU for the season (LSU's other 2 losses came to #1 Alabama and to now-#8 Florida, both rated higher than Clemson). Furthermore, Clemson's win over LSU was razor-close, 25-24, and as such it seems rather arbitrary, certainly not compelling enough to forget LSU's better overall season. Lastly, LSU is the only rated team Clemson defeated. Their schedule was very weak, and they did not come close in either of their losses (to now-#9 South Carolina and to #10 Florida State).

LSU should also be ranked higher than #10 Florida State (12-2), and this one is much easier to see than the Clemson case is. FSU took an upset loss to unrated North Carolina State (7-6), much worse than LSU's loss to #11 Clemson, and LSU defeated 2 teams that are ranked higher than Florida State is. LSU is thus effectively 2 games better than FSU for the season.

Move Louisiana State up to #10, dropping Florida State, Clemson, Kansas State, and Louisville 1 spot each.

Clemson and Florida State

With LSU moved up ahead of Florida State, where they belong, 11-2 Clemson now has a better relevant record than 12-2 Florida State does. Yes, Florida State beat Clemson 49-37 early in the season, giving them a game lead, but then FSU lost to North Carolina State 17-16 (Clemson beat NC State 62-48), leaving the 2 teams even, but FSU owning the head-to-head edge. But Clemson's bowl win over LSU, now rated higher than FSU, pushes them effectively 1 game better than FSU for the season as a whole.

Clemson also performed a bit better than FSU did this season. In addition to losing to NC State, Florida State
had close wins over Virginia Tech (28-22) and Georgia Tech (21-15), while Clemson beat both by more than a touchdown.

Move Clemson to #11, dropping Florida State to #12.

An Alternative Fix to the Previous 3 Problems

An alternative way to solve all 3 of the SEC/ACC problems noted above would be to simply move Louisiana State up behind Clemson and drop 11-2 Texas A&M (#5) back behind LSU. If you do that:

1) South Carolina could remain ranked ahead of Florida, since Florida would no longer have a win over a higher-ranked team.

2) LSU would remain ranked behind Clemson, since they would lose one win over a higher-ranked team. That would give them the same relevant record Clemson has, with Clemson owning the head-to-head edge.

3) With LSU remaining behind Clemson, Clemson would have to remain behind Florida State.

So one move-- dropping Texas A&M-- would make all 3 of those problematic AP poll choices valid. And dropping Texas A&M behind LSU would be a legitimate move, because at that position, A&M has the same relevant record LSU does, and LSU beat them head-to-head.

However, while dropping Texas A&M would be the simplest way to fix those 3 problems, it would not be as close to the AP voters' intentions. Dropping Texas A&M would lead to teams being a total of 17 ranking placements different than the AP poll has them now. But fixing those 3 problems separately, as delineated above, leads to teams being a total of 10 ranking placements different than the AP poll has them now. Since the latter approach is much closer to what the AP poll voters wanted, that is the one I am going with here.

Oklahoma and Louisville

11-2 Louisville now sits right in front of 10-3 Oklahoma. Louisville has the big bowl win over now-#8 Florida, and Oklahoma did not beat a higher-ranked team, so Louisville is effectively 1 game better than Oklahoma there. But Louisville lost to 2 unranked teams, whereas all 3 of Oklahoma's losses came to teams ranked higher than Louisville, so in the end Oklahoma is effectively 1 game better than Louisville on the season. Oklahoma also performed a bit better. Louisville had 6 close wins, Oklahoma 4. And Louisville's schedule was quite a bit easier than Oklahoma's was.

Remember that West Virginia was Big East champ, a big BCS bowl winner, and highly rated in 2011, and then they joined the Big 12 and went 7-6 this year. Looking at Louisville's performance over the course of this season, I don't see them doing much better in a real conference. Sure, Teddy Bridgewater is great, but remember Geno Smith? Heisman candidate until a major conference ate his lunch?


Move Oklahoma to #14 and Louisville to #15.

Northwestern and Vanderbilt

Northwestern parlayed an easy schedule into a 10-3 record and a #17 rating, but they lost to 8-5 Michigan (#24), 10-4 Nebraska (#25), and 8-4 Penn State (#27 in the Others Receiving Votes section of the AP poll). Needless to say, they are overrated, and should be dropped back behind Michigan and Nebraska. Nebraska won 29-28 at Northwestern, and on top of that they beat Michigan and Penn State, both of whom beat Northwestern. There is simply no reason for Northwestern to be ranked ahead of Nebraska. However, Northwestern can remain ranked ahead of Penn State due to PSU's upset losses to a pair of unranked teams, Ohio and Virginia.

Northwestern defeated 9-4 Vanderbilt (#23), so Vanderbilt needs to drop back behind Northwestern. Vanderbilt is lucky to be rated at all, as they accomplished little to nothing on the season. They did not beat a team that is ranked or even nearly ranked, their big win coming 38-24 over 7-6 North Carolina State in a hometown bowl game.

Note that Nebraska did defeat Michigan 23-9, but Michigan vastly outperformed Nebraska on the season, especially down the stretch. Nebraska was, of course, slaughtered 70-31 by unranked Wisconsin in the Big 10 title game, and they were similarly stomped 63-38 by Ohio State (Michigan lost to OSU 26-21). Nebraska beat Iowa 13-7, whereas Michigan beat them 42-17. And facing comparable bowl game opponents, Nebraska lost by 14 to Georgia while Michigan lost by 5 to South Carolina. I would rank Nebraska ahead of Michigan because their head-to-head win was decisive, but I think the overall performance difference gives the AP poll enough reason to keep Michigan rated higher.

Drop Northwestern to #24 and Vanderbilt to #25. Michigan and Nebraska move up 2 spots each, and the following teams move up 1 spot each: Boise State, Texas, Oregon State, San Jose State, and Northern Illinois.

Little Big Teams

In recent years the AP poll has fallen head over heels in love with mid-majors, or Little Big Teams, as I like to call them. This is largely because of the success of Utah, Boise State, and Texas Christian over the last 10 years (though Utah and TCU are now major conference teams). It seems to be an unwritten rule nowadays that any FBS team with 2 or fewer losses will finish in the top 25, no matter how poor a schedule they played. This year we have 11-2 Utah State, 11-2 Boise State, 11-2 San Jose State, and 12-2 Northern Illinois. In the last 9 years, only 12-2 Ball State in 2008 finished with 2 or fewer losses and was left unranked.

But it wasn't always this way: 1989-2003, 18 Little Big Teams finished with 2 or fewer loses and were left unranked, including 10-2 Northern Illinois in 2003, 10-2 Boise State and 10-1 Toledo in 2000, 12-1 Marshall and 10-1 Miami-Ohio in 1998, 11-1 Bowling Green in 1991, and 11-1 Fresno State in 1989. Clearly the AP poll has changed the way it ranks teams, leading to a big inconsistency between the rankings 1989-2003 and 2004-present. But fear not, I am here to fix it.

1989-1998, I only had to toss out a total of 4 Little Big Teams when fixing the AP polls, but 1999-2011 I have had to eject 18 of them from the fixed polls, an average of 1.5 per year. And this year we have 4 more to jettison, because none of this season's ranked Little Big Teams really earned their spots in the final top 25.

Utah State, Boise State, San Jose State, and Northern Illinois built nice-looking records playing a bunch of nobodies. But what would their records have looked like had they been playing in a major conference?
We can never know for sure, but we do know that Utah went 13-0, 10-3, and 10-3 for 3 years before joining the PAC 12, after which they have gone 8-5 and 5-7. We do know that Texas Christian went 12-1, 13-0, and 11-2 for 3 years before joining the Big 12, and they went 7-6 this season. And we know that West Virginia, though not technically a mid-major, went 10-3 the year before joining the Big 12, and they went 7-6 this year. That is the power of strength of schedule right there.

I'm all for ranking Little Big Teams in the top 25, but they have to earn it. When they play major conference teams, they simply have to win those games. Losing to the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa, as this year's ranked mid majors did, should not be rewarded
.

Utah State and San Jose State

11-2 Utah State, originally ranked #16, lost to a pair of unranked teams, 8-5 Brigham Young and 8-6 Wisconsin. The only rated team Utah State defeated was 11-2 San Jose State (#21), another Little Big Team that beat nobody. Frankly, Utah State should not be ranked ahead of Wisconsin. Yes, Wisconsin's 8-6 record looks decidedly worse than Utah State's 11-2, but those records are entirely the result of the schedules played. Had Wisconsin played Utah State's schedule, they might well have gone 13-0.

In addition to beating Utah State, Wisconsin defeated now-#23 Nebraska 70-31 for the Big 10 title, and they showed that they were no fluke when they played #7 Stanford to a close game (20-14) in the Rose Bowl. All of their losses were close, and all came to major teams that finished ranked or nearly ranked. The exception was 7-6 Michigan State, a team that played a schedule nearly as tough as Wisconsin's and that defeated 11-2 Boise State (more on that next). Wisconsin's wins over Nebraska and Utah State were more than Utah State accomplished in their 11 wins.

Wisconsin is in the Others Receiving Votes section of the AP poll, at #35. We'll move them up behind 8-4 Penn State (currently outside the poll at #27), who beat them in overtime, and we'll drop Utah State and San Jose State behind Wisconsin. Utah State and San Jose State falling out of the rankings opens up 2 slots, but we'll just bump the AP poll's #26 and #27 teams, 8-5 Baylor and 8-4 Penn State, up into the top 25.

All of that leads to the following ratings shift: #16 Boise State, #17 Texas, #18 Oregon State, #19 Northern Illinois, #20 Michigan, #21 Nebraska, #22 Northwestern, #23 Vanderbilt, #24 Baylor, #25 Penn State, #26 Wisconsin, #27 Utah State, and #28 San Jose State.

Boise State

Boise State has fielded quite a few legitimate top 25 teams since 2002 (8 to be exact), but this season's edition, though 11-2, is not one of them. In 2011, Boise State beat #19 Georgia 35-21 and Arizona State 56-24, and their only loss came to a ranked opponent. They beat every other team they played by more than a touchdown. This year they did not beat a ranked opponent, lost to 2 unranked teams, and posted 4 close wins over unranked opponents. That is a pretty vast difference, and yet there they are, still ranked this season at #20. Despite not playing a single ranked team.

One of Boise State's losses came to 7-6 Michigan State, and just as Utah State belongs ranked behind Wisconsin, Boise State belongs ranked behind Michigan State. In other words, out of the top 25.

Toss Boise State out. Everyone that had been ranked behind them moves up 1 slot, and that nudges Wisconsin into the top 25 at #25. Note: though Michigan State beat Wisconsin, they also took an upset loss to Iowa, and Wisconsin notched an upset win over now-#20 Nebraska, so Wisconsin has a better relevant record than does Michigan State.

Northern Illinois

12-2 Northern Illinois, originally ranked #22, has a better case for being ranked than do Utah State and Boise State, because they took just 1 loss to an unranked team rather than 2. On the other hand, that loss came to a losing team (Iowa), and NIU did not beat anyone of value. Their best win, in overtime against 11-3 Kent State, lost all its value, which wasn't much to begin with, when Kent State dropped its bowl game to Arkansas State. NIU edged 2-10 Army 41-40 and 1-11 Kansas 30-23 at home. There is just no indication that NIU was a top 25 team this season.

Furthermore, since the AP poll ranked Utah State, Boise State, and San Jose State higher than Northern Illinois to begin with, it seems to me that NIU should drop back behind those teams now that they have fallen out of the fixed top 25.

So Northern Illinois is outta here. The teams that had been ranked behind them move up 1 spot each, and that puts #26 Utah State back into the poll at #25. But alas, not for long...

Baylor, UCLA, and Nebraska

One more item to attend to, and this poll will be fully repaired. 9-5 UCLA was left sitting in the Others Receiving Votes section of the AP poll at #31, but they beat 10-4 Nebraska 36-30, and as such, they should be rated ahead of the Huskers. UCLA's 49-26 bowl loss to 8-5 Baylor (now rated #22) was certainly embarrassing, but no more so than Nebraska's 70-31 loss to 8-6 Wisconsin in the Big 10 title game. So we'll move UCLA up ahead of Nebraska, and of course Baylor needs to move up also, as they belong ranked ahead of UCLA.

Move Baylor up to #19, UCLA into the poll at #20, and drop Nebraska to #21. That drops Northwestern to #22, Vanderbilt to #23, Penn State to #24, and Wisconsin to #25. Utah State drops out of the top 25, leaving the 2012 fixed AP poll devoid of Little Big Teams for the first time since 1986.

Fixed AP Top 25

11-2 Utah State, 11-2 Boise State, 11-2 San Jose State, and 12-2 Northern Illinois fall out of this fixed AP poll top 25, replaced by 8-5 Baylor, 9-5 UCLA, 8-4 Penn State, and 8-6 Wisconsin. Your typical AP poll voter would likely look at this and say, "Are you nuts? The teams you're tossing out were 45-8, and the teams you're putting in were only 33-20!" However, what matters is this: discounting their games against each other, the 4 teams falling out had 5 losses to unrated opponents and no wins over a rated team, while the 4 teams that replace them had 7 losses to unrated opponents and 5 wins over rated teams. And head-to-head, the replacements were 1-0 against the teams falling out (Wisconsin beating Utah State).

9-4 Vanderbilt may not seem like a solid top 25 team, and I wouldn't rank them myself, but all 4 of their losses came to ranked teams, and that puts them a step ahead of the teams that fall out of this fixed poll.

The best part of the fixed top 25 is Baylor getting in-- it's a crime that the AP poll did not initially rank Baylor in their top 25, because the Bears spent their final 4 games beating 11-2 Kansas State, 8-5 Texas Tech, 8-5 Oklahoma State, and 9-5 UCLA. That's light years  beyond anything Utah State, Boise State, San Jose State, or Northern Illinois accomplished.

Anyway, here it is, now logically coherent, your fixed final AP poll for 2012.


1) Alabama 13-1 --
2) Oregon 12-1 --
3) Notre Dame 12-1 +1
4) Ohio State 12-0 -1
5) Georgia 12-2
     Texas A&M 11-2
--
--
7) Stanford 12-2 --
8) Florida 11-2 +1
9) South Carolina 11-2 -1
10) Louisiana State 10-3 +4
11) Clemson 11-2 --
12) Florida State 12-2 -2
13) Kansas State 11-2 -1
14) Oklahoma 10-3 +1
15) Louisville 11-2 -2
16) Texas 9-4 +3
17) Oregon State 9-4 +3
18) Michigan 8-5 +6
19) Baylor 8-5 IN
20) UCLA 9-5 IN
21) Nebraska 10-4 +4
22) Northwestern 10-3 -5
23) Vanderbilt 9-4 --
24) Penn State 8-4 IN
25) Wisconsin 8-6 IN

OUT: #16 Utah State 11-2
#18 Boise State 11-2
#21 San Jose State 11-2
#22 Northern Illinois 12-2

Fixed AP Polls
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