September 11, 2013

Poll positions: Why teams shuffle

More news about: Franklin | Mount Union
Always keep in mind not just the rank, but number of votes. UHMB was just one vote ahead of Linfield in the preseason. 

Over the years, Pat Coleman and I, and often the other 23 top 25 voters, have come to believe in some poll principles.

The laziest kind of poll rewards everyone who wins regardless of level of competition or circumstances of the results, and dings everyone who loses. We've never thought a poll like that serves the D-III community, so even though we still only influence 2/25ths of the voting, we're glad to have assembled a panel that values nuance. Still, that doesn't stop our colleagues and most loyal fans from voicing their disappointment over the top 25s that come out each week.

Personally, I don't think a top 25 can ever be perfect, but the more data you have to work with, the more accurate it can be. More data sometimes leads to conflicting data, but it's still better than having only preseason educated guesses to work with. Or is it? Our Stagg Bowl broadcast colleague Frank Rossi loves to argue. On Twitter, I made the apparently absurd suggestion that it was better to have an actual result to work with, and it was on.

Frank in this case has a valid point, and I actually agree with him to an extent. Let's present both sides of the argument and let you decide.

I've never been a fan of a poll that starts out ranking teams for a current year based solely on where they finished the previous year, and using that information to heavily influence the current year.

I don't have a problem working with the only data available in the preseason, but that shouldn't just be order of 2012 finish. It should look heavily at returning starters, quality of those starters, and maybe schedule or other 2013 factors. Now with a 2013 game in the books for most of the teams in the top 25, it's much easier to re-order.

I can't stand a poll that simply rewards everyone who wins, as though everyone played the same level of opponent under the same circumstances. I don't believe in dropping every team about five spots every time they lose either. A team can go entirely out of the poll in a week not because that one loss caused them to drop 15 spots, but because that information, coupled with everything else we know, suddenly paints a picture.

Each week is an opportunity to re-evaluate everything you know. It's not a magnetic pegboard where you just rearrrange a team or two. If the team you thought was going to win the WIAC suddenly looks like the third best team in the WIAC, then maybe you re-order the WIAC teams in your top 25. Or maybe you downgrade the conference as a whole.

A team can go entirely out of the poll in a week not because that one loss caused them to drop 15 spots, but because that information, coupled with everything else we know, suddenly paints a picture.

To me, the last thing you want to do is stay too married to what you thought before. Still, the framework for my vote each week is the vote I cast last week. It helps me remember who I thought highly of, and directs me where to look, so I don't forget anyone and I examine everyone's results closely. The ability to admit I might have been wrong in previous weeks is the key to being as close to correct as possible this week.

So when Pat and I each suggested on Twitter that we were doing our polls from scratch, it's not as if all 25 spots were completely up for grabs. Each of the the teams at the top of my ballot -- Linfield, St. Thomas, Wesley, Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor -- were very impressive, with the exception of the Wildcats, who had yet to play. I didn't have a reason to downgrade anyone, so I stuck with what I had, which meant no one moved up either. I felt good that everyone at the top of my poll impressed. I moved other teams around wildly -- UW-Whitewater fell hard but remained top 20, while Delaware Valley, Willamette and St. John Fisher joined my ranks. I don't think that's a case of putting too much emphasis on Week 1.

A voter should be balancing what we know to date with the intent of being accurate as of now with the idea that some things that he expects are true will also be reflected. To me, ignoring the Week 1 results is placing too much emphasis on the unknown -- the preseason order of teams -- or the mostly irrelevant -- last year's finishes. Obviously we need some historical baseline to formulate an opinion at all. Otherwise the top 25 would just be whichever of the 244 teams had the highest margin of victory in Week 1, or something silly like that. Which brings me to these tweets:

That's sort of an odd tack to take for Lousiana College fans, whose whole argument last season was that their only losses were to UMHB and Wesley, two top-10 teams. LC as much as anyone benefited from respect given to their aggressive scheduling, and gained poll respect despite not winning. When UMHB hosts LC on Oct. 19, those same Wildcat fans may have flipped their argument and begin asking for credit for losing respectably to one of the nation's elite teams.

Frankly, Franklin wasn't a team that most voters thought could almost beat Mount Union prior to Week 1. When Week 1 tells you the Grizzlies are that team, then you have two options: Pay them respect for being better than you thought, or ding Mount Union for being worse. Players are coached to have a win-or-nothing mentality sometimes. But when you step outside that locker room, if you believe all wins are created equal, I'm sure I could find you some D-III polls that you'd be more comfortable with. In the end, these tweets are the most wise:


comments powered by Disqus

Ryan Tipps

Ryan is's Senior Editor and begins as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011; has worked on all but one of the preseason Kickoff publications; has done game-day writing and photography and the pregame broadcast at the championship Stagg Bowl in Salem for almost a decade; and has taken photos at the Final Four for He's also on the selection staff for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

Previous Columns

December 23, 2014
2014 year in review
There were many memorable moments from the 2014 season. We can't possibly cover them all, but we'll...
November 20, 2014
Playoff picks, surprises, disappointments
Around the Nation has assembled a team of prognosticators for an annual look at who might surprise...
November 13, 2014
Playing to perfection in the MAC
Delaware Valley and Widener have been building to this point all season. This weekend there are...
November 9, 2014
Snap judgments: Finding parity
Ryan Tipps thinks parity arises from other teams following the examples of top teams, finding the...
November 6, 2014
From slumping to surging
With two weeks of football left to play in the regular season, some names that may not be so...
November 2, 2014
Snap judgments: A week with plenty of surprises
By this point in the season, our expectations for each team are pretty solidly grounded. Upsets will...
October 29, 2014
The Empire 8: The conference where all 9 can beat you
So far, Brockport State has beaten Hartwick, who beat Alfred, who beat Buffalo State, who beat...
October 26, 2014
Snap judgments: An interesting week
It’s particularly exciting to see how conferences can still get shaken up this late in the...
October 23, 2014
Finding a freshman phenom
When a freshman steps on campus, he could be the next Nate Kmic, or he could be gone before the end...
October 19, 2014
Snap judgments: Finding clarity
We found out some things about how the NJAC race will play out, as well as the ODAC and HCAC. And...
October 16, 2014
Distance no deterrent to Mighty Mikey, Merchant Marine
The Mariners' football team 'adopted' a young cancer patient a few years ago, and although young...
October 12, 2014
Snap judgments: Putting the -ack in ODAC
You can tell when someone doesn't know Division III, because they pronounce the ODAC as O-D-A-C. But...
October 9, 2014
Re-ranking the conferences for 2014
Keith McMillan ranked conferences for years for This is Ryan Tipps' first crack at...
October 5, 2014
Snap judgments: Where's the dropoff in Division III?
Saturday's loss by St. John Fisher and losses earlier this season by Bethel and North Central serve...
October 2, 2014
It’s the size of the fight in the dog
This past week, Maranatha Baptist had to cancel a game because it didn't have enough players. And...
September 28, 2014
Snap judgments: Signature wins come in upsets
St. John's and UW-Stevens Point took center stage for their upset victories, but Christopher Newport...
September 25, 2014
The phrase that stays
From DePauw Never Quits to Wabash Always Fights to Every Man a Lute, some Division III schools...
September 21, 2014
Snap judgments: Taking a new look at the poll positioning
The perception seems to be that at about Week 3, most Top 25 voters do major teardowns and rebuildin...
September 17, 2014
Startups come back for seconds
The three teams that started up Division III football programs last season are now in the midst of...
September 14, 2014
Snap judgments: These underdogs brought some bite
There were some near-upsets on Saturday, but in the end, almost all of the higher-ranked teams came...
September 11, 2014
Monarch linebacker forced to follow his heart
Forced from the middle of the action to a supporting role on the sidelines, Methodist linebacker...
September 7, 2014
Snap judgments: Right/wrong foot
There are two ways to start the season -- with a win, or a loss. Now, not every win necessarily puts...
September 2, 2014
Division III football: A gentleman's game
Hampden-Sydney and Wabash, two all-male schools, are squaring off in football this weekend for the...
March 3, 2014
Analyzing the NJAC and E8's big moves
Wesley and its Capital Athletic Conference brethren join forces with five New Jersey schools to form...

Other Columnists