Here is something you won’t see printed here very often: when it comes to Clemson football, ESPN is doing better than the rest of the media at recognizing what’s going on. This week’s AP Poll came out yesterday and, inexplicably, the Clemson Tigers are still unranked.
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The reason for that is obvious, if not smart. Clemson is 3-2, while most of the teams at the bottom of the AP Poll have lost no more than one game (the exception being 3-2 Stanford, which lost to No. 6 Notre Dame and currently-unranked Southern Cal).
That’s basically the level of thought that is going into these polls. Never mind that Clemson’s two losses came to No. 12 Georgia and to No. 1 Florida State (in overtime). And never mind that, a week after the media was tripping over itself to praise NC State and Jacoby Brissett, as Brissett was running up almost 400 total yards of offense against FSU, Clemson apparently received no credit for shutting the Wolfpack out 41-0 and holding Brissett to only 35 passing yards.
No, forget all that. Clearly the No. 23 Missouri Tigers, of the mighty Southeastern Conference, deserve to be in more than Clemson even with a loss to Indiana, thanks to their impressive victory over the now-unranked South Carolina Gamecocks. And, of course, ECU also deserves to be ranked ahead of Clemson, despite a loss to the aforementioned Gamecocks, thanks to their wins over two unranked ACC teams (not to mention their 45-24 victory over a winless SMU team that had only managed two touchdowns prior to playing the Pirates).
ESPN’s Power Rankings, on the other hand, moved Clemson up five spots to No. 20 this week. Why is that?
Well, it’s safe to say that ESPN noticed Clemson slaughtering the Wolfpack this week. It was broadcast on ESPNU, after all. Their power rankings also pointed out that Clemson’s losses both came to ranked teams.
And here is another possibility–maybe the Worldwide Leader took a glance at the advanced stats.
ESPN uses a couple systems of advanced stats, but the best is probably their Football Power Index (FPI). Here is how ESPN describes it:
"“Football Power Index that measures team’s true strength on net points scale; expected point margin vs average opponent on neutral field.”"
In this system, Clemson is actually ranked No. 13 in the country. It also shows that Clemson is favored to win each of their remaining games this season, with no worse than a 72% chance of victory in any of them. The FPI also gives Clemson a 29.1% chance of winning out.
Another metric that ESPN uses measures efficiency on offense, defense, and special teams, as well as assigning an overall rating. Right now, ESPN’s system lists Clemson as the 29th-most efficient offense and the 6th-most efficient defense. Overall, Clemson is calculated to be the 12th-most efficient team in the country. And if that efficiency ranking for the offense seems a bit low, keep in mind that it includes the Georgia game, when Deshaun Watson only played a few series at QB and the offense struggled in the second half. Watson, by the way, currently leads the nation in ESPN’s Total QB Rating system.
This sort of thing is exactly what Clemson football fans have been screaming from the rooftops. The Clemson Tigers are 3-2 because they started with the most difficult three-game stretch in the country. Against average teams, Clemson has been dominant, especially since Watson took over the starting QB job. And Clemson has a young football team this year–one that is only going to improve as the season goes on.
By the end of the year, Clemson will most likely have nine or ten regular-season wins and a decent ranking. And that will only serve to demonstrate how the polls work. Piling up wins is really all that matters–even if you don’t play anyone good. Style points and moral victories don’t factor in–except for SEC teams–because the voters are only paying attention to the overall records.
The only thing the AP Poll still accomplishes is it ensures a seat at the debate for preseason expectations and subjective media narratives.
But college football is slowly moving towards more objective methods of evaluating teams. The College Football Playoff selection committee will utilize myriad forms of advanced stats to make their decisions–something AP Poll voters are under no obligation to do. The only thing the AP Poll still accomplishes is it ensures a seat at the debate for preseason expectations and subjective media narratives. We don’t need it anymore.