By Austin Tymins
This past week, four of the top five teams in the Associated Press College Football Poll hailed from the SEC West Division. This has led many, such as Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, to question whether ESPN’s ownership of the brand-new SEC network, which launched this year, may be responsible for such a strange occurrence.
“I don’t think that kind of relationship is good for college football. That’s just my opinion,” Pelini said at his news conference. “Anytime you have a relationship with somebody, you have a partnership, you are supposed to be neutral. It’s pretty hard to stay neutral in that situation.”
As a PAC 12 fan, I often wonder about East Coast bias in college football, especially around Heisman voting. For example, was Andre Williams of Boston College really more deserving of the award than Ka’Deem Carey of Arizona? I—and most of the west coast—would beg to differ. This, I argue, translates to the college football rankings themselves being biased against certain conferences. As an Arizona State fan, it’s particularly frustrating to see my team consistently ranked worse in the AP poll than any advanced metric would suggest.
To see if these suspicions are valid, I have compared the AP college football rankings dating back to 2005 to the Football Outsiders’s stat F/+ for the season’s top 25 teams. F/+ is a combination of the Fremeau Efficiency Index and the S&P+ Ratings. Combined, these stats account for just about everything in college football on a play-by-play level including: play success rate, EqPts per play, drive efficiency, and opponent adjustments. It is probably a fair assumption to say F/+ is the best quantitative measure of team skill that exists at this moment.
Below, I have fit a second-degree polynomial curve with heteroskedasticity-robust standard errors to the data to approximate the average AP ranking for each F/+ rank. Which team has the best F/+ rank since 2005? The 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide that massacred LSU in the National Championship game had a rating of 53.9%.
With this graph in place, I decided to test whether conference bias exists in the AP rankings. To do this, I made dummy variables for each conference (including the Big East, may it RIP). All teams that weren’t in a power conference were placed in the Not Power Conference category. Also, since many teams have shifted conferences over that timespan, I have simply placed them in the conference in which they played the particular season. So for example, Missouri was a Big 12 team until 2012 when it joined the SEC, TCU didn’t join Big 12 until 2012, etc.
AP Ranking Bias
I dropped the non Power Conference dummy to avoid perfect collinearity, leaving us with the above table that shows the effect of conference on AP ranking. It is very clear in this case that other conferences are discriminated against when compared to the SEC. Every single coefficient for conference dummies is more positive than SEC, which suggests that being in any conference besides the SEC will lead to a worse ranking in the AP Poll when controlling for F/+.
These results show that a team from the PAC 12 is on average ranked approximately 1.15 spots worse than an equivalent team in a non-power conference, and 1.50 positional spots worse than the same team from the SEC. The former Big East conference also experienced bias compared to non-power conference teams (East Coast bias anyone?), although not to the same extent as the SEC. The largest bias appears to occur on teams from the ACC, where teams are ranked about 2.63 spots worse than expected and this coefficient is statistically significant at the 1% level.
In addition to conference bias, I have found support for a “program prestige bias” whereby the historically good programs Oklahoma, USC, Ohio St, Notre Dame, and Alabama are ranked better in the AP than the advanced metrics would recommend. The last line in the table shows how these teams on average are ranked 1.44 spots better in the AP Rankings than F/+ would predict. Also interesting to note, these results are very nearly statistically significant at the 10% level.
While these results are rather interesting, they aren’t thoroughly scientific because of the lackluster p-values. To tighten the confidence intervals, I would need more data to work with. Unfortunately, the Football Outsiders’s F/+ data only goes back to 2005 and there doesn’t appear to be week-by-week F/+ data. Since these are the final AP rankings that account for the inter-conference play of bowl games, I would expect the midseason AP Rankings to be even more biased.
What teams are hurt most by conference bias? Based on F/+ ratings and a polynomial of best fit, we can predict where a team should be ranked according to F/+ and look at the difference between that predicted figure and the actual AP Ranking of teams with multiple seasons in the Top 25.
As I expected, my Sun Devils do experience ranking bias, although I surely didn’t expect them to be the most biased against in college football!
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