Computer rankings like OSU more than polls do

Joey Kaufman
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields avoids Wisconsin's Isaiahh Loudermilk last weekend. It is the Buckeyes' best win on their College Football Playoff resume. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Ohio State boasts the nation’s top football team.

At least that’s how most computer rankings view the unbeaten Buckeyes.

Prior to this weekend’s slate of games, they stood No. 1 in Anderson & Hester, Colley Matrix, the Massey ratings and the Sagarin ratings, four of the six computerized ranking systems that once made up a third of the formula for the former Bowl Championship Series.

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Other prominent analytics-based rankings held the Buckeyes in a similarly high regard, with ESPN’s Football Power Index and SP+ rankings putting them at No. 1.

However, traditional polls have kept them lower throughout this regular season. In the latest Associated Press poll, the Buckeyes were No. 3, while they were No. 4 in the coaches’ poll.

The slight divide leaves the question of how the College Football Playoff selection committee, which seeds the top four teams for the postseason bracket, will judge Ohio State in its initial rankings to be released Tuesday.

In the computers, a few factors have strengthened the Buckeyes’ hold on the top spot. The ratings from Massey and Sagarin incorporate average scoring margin, a boost for Ohio State, which has won all eight games by an average of 40.4 points, the most in the nation. Only two other teams have won their games by an average of 30 or more points.

Others, such as Anderson & Hester and Colley Matrix, weigh the Big Ten, not the SEC, as the nation’s best conference, a designation that helps Ohio State’s strength of schedule compared with some of the other top contenders.

Bill Connelly, a writer for ESPN who oversees the SP+ rankings, has five factors in his formula — efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers — that favor Ohio State, which has drawn praise from analysts for being well-balanced.

“There has been no weakness,” Connelly said. “They have played every aspect of the game at a very, very high level.”

The top of the rankings was unlikely to reshuffle after the games this weekend. Four of the top-five unbeaten teams — Alabama, LSU and Penn State as well as Ohio State — were idle. Only Clemson, which sits fourth in the AP poll, played Saturday, and the Tigers routed Wofford, a team in the Football Championship Subdivision.

Among the pollsters, teams’ high-profile victories and preseason rankings are seen as carrying the most sway; both are likely reasons that Alabama and LSU have remained ahead of the Buckeyes.

LSU has defeated Auburn and Florida, both of which have been ranked in the top 10 this season. It wasn’t until last week, when Ohio State beat Wisconsin, that the Buckeyes had a win over a team that had been in the top 10 — and the Badgers had achieved that earlier in October.

Alabama lacks similar signature wins but began the season at No. 2 in the AP poll. Clemson, which was the preseason No. 1 team, fell after several weeks of uninspiring performances.

But voters are generally hesitant to drop teams on their ballots if they win, a reason that Ohio State, which debuted at No. 5 in both the preseason AP poll and the coaches’ poll, has risen only so far, unable to leapfrog other undefeated teams. Computer rankings, in contrast, have seen more movement.

The 13 members on the Playoff’s selection committee are not expected to lean significantly on any of the analytics-based rankings, rather emphasizing certain statistics or other factors, along with additional observation.

SportSource Analytics is charged with providing data to the committee.

Doug Lesmerises, a columnist for who participated in the Playoff’s mock selection event last month in Grapevine, Texas., said of the committee members: “They rely on advanced statistics in the categories they prioritize more than voters do. While there is not a computer element in this, I think there is a computer element in this.”

Lesmerises, who was among 13 media members in attendance, said relative scoring differential was emphasized, as were other metrics that included relative scoring offense and relative scoring defense. Each one is adjusted for the strength of the opponent. The idea is that a 40-point win over a conference juggernaut is interpreted differently than is one over a cellar dweller.

The emphasis bodes well for the Buckeyes, as they were No. 1 in both relative scoring offense and relative scoring defense through the first nine weeks.

Although specific data points rather than catch-all analytics rankings were to be more relied on by the selection committee, according to Lesmerises, members weren’t precluded from acknowledging other systems.

“In sort of the general talking that happens, and you just sit in a room and talk, if someone says, ‘Listen, they're number one in SP+, and they're number one in Sagarin,' that can enter the discussion,” Lesmerises said, “because everything enters the discussion. But specifically in terms of numbers, it is not my understanding they would say, 'Let's pull up the SP+ numbers.'”

The official directive for the committee remains: pick the four best teams.


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