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Permalink 10/09/09 , The CSN Way, CSN Columns

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The CSN Way: Numbers

By Chuck Burton, The CSN Way Columnist

floatedleftfloated rightCollege football, with its eleven (or twelve) game seasons, has always required polls since the very beginning. With over one hundred teams playing on fall weekends, there’s no way for anybody to really know beyond a shadow of a doubt who the top teams are in any given week. As a result of this reality, all sorts of polls - from the opinion of one or two writers, to formulas written by statisticians to attempt to settle the debates - have come and gone over the years.

With all these numbers flying around, it’s enough to make an FCS fan’s head spin. Which human poll is the best - the one based on the opinions of informed fans, coaches’ opinions, or sportswriters? Which computer poll - there’s an alphabet soup out there of different ones - is worth looking at?

The Gridiron Power Index, or GPI, makes the best attempt to make sense of all the numbers floating around. It’s not a human poll or a computer poll - it’s an index which weighs them all to get the most balanced view of the FCS landscape. That’s why it’s a leading indicator of at-large playoff selection.

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Uncertainty Principle
The GPI tries to make some sense from the uncertainty by taking the output from three human polls (the Sports Network Top 25, the FCS Coaches Poll, and the Any Given Saturday Poll) and seven computer polls (Massey, Sagarin, Laz Index, Keeper, Self, Born and Sauceda). From there the top and bottom rankings are thrown out, and the average of the remaining eight rankings are calculated.

Different computer models yield other results: Sagarin’s rating system has Richmond as the number one team, while the Laz index has Northern Iowa at No. 1, as does some of the other computer rating systems.

So who is right?

The debate on the usefulness of polls has been raging since the advent of the first one was created – whether they’re useful and whether they’re actually a good judge of worth of a team. With the advent of computer models, one of the burning issues in the FCS and FBS world alike is: Who are better judges of talent, humans or computers?

Human polls are, by their nature, subjective. One pollster might think Northern Iowa is No. 1 because they came oh-so-close to beating Iowa and have pounded four FCS opponents - none of whom have been threats to make the Top 25, to say the least. (Except for their 35-7 win over Missouri State, who in some computer polls are in the Top 25). But another might think Richmond ought to be No. 1 since they beat the FBS team that they faced - Duke - and while they struggled to put away Delaware and VMI, they did pound Hofstra and they are the defending FCS national champions.

No ranking is “wrong", but the idea for human polls is that if you get enough of a sample of smart people who follow college football, all of their disparate opinions will come together to some sort of educated “consensus” as to who is No. 1. They will take into account things that no computer model will ever consider, some good, some bad. But the basic idea is: the more people make their votes, the better the poll should be.

Yet this system is not without flaws. While technology is improving and allowing more fans to watch more games, there still is no way any one voter could see every single game in a particular week. So by definition nobody is making a decision with perfect information – some decisions are being made due by looking at scores and “going with the gut”. If votes are not evenly split between regions, there is a chance that the games in one region would be weighted more heavily than the games of another region. These problems and others would skew the results of any human polls.

A computer-based ranking system, on the other hand, relies on certain data points taken unemotionally from the game statistics. Every game is counted, and every team is weighted on a variety of different factors. The factors taken into consideration vary from system to system: for example, some take into account margin of victory, while others do not. This is why different computer polls come up with different results.

Critics of computer-based ranking systems are fond of saying that the programmers’ inherent bias is present in the data that is chosen to crunch in order to make the rankings. This is not a fair criticism. Every person has an opinion as to what is most important in a computer poll and what weight it has, but it is applied evenly and does not discriminate.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE

Computers are not perfect, though. No computer poll is going to take into account that Appalachian State’s starting quarterback Armanti Edwards was hurt: they just look at the raw statistics of “East Carolina 29, Applachian State 24” and crunch the numbers to get a ranking. But a human pollster might.

Specifically in the FCS world, an interesting wrinkle is how games versus FBS teams and sub-Division I teams are weighted. Are all wins against FBS teams rated the same? How about wins (and losses) against D-II schools? For example, Sagarin’s computer model ranks all Division I teams. That means when Villanova beat Temple, that victory was weighted across all of Division I since all those teams are ranked together in his system, from the Pac 10’s USC to the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League’s Campbell Camels.

Yet when McNeese State beat D-II Henderson State - in a surprisingly close game - that victory did not take into account their standing in Division II in Sagarin’s system – it was considered a win against a “generic sub-Division-I opponent”. Again, some computer models might take the relative weight of Henderson State into account, and human pollsters might also rate this win as a good one I they know something about them.

Basically, no system is going to be perfect. But the GPI – released this week at College Sporting News – makes an attempt to iron out some of the flaws between different human and computer polls to make a system that is more accurate than any one specific poll.

PRIME SUSPECT

In the first released GPI of the year, we learn some interesting things.

First, Richmond and Northern Iowa are neck in neck for the No. 1 position right out of the gate. While human voters all put the Spiders ahead of the Panthers, many of the computers picked Northern Iowa on top. Interestingly as well, while Villanova comes in at No. 3, not a single human or computer poll picked them at No. 1 in anything yet.

Second, while it will come as no surprise that the powerful CAA is, by this measure, the toughest conference in the land (with eight of its twelve members in the Top 25 GPI), more will be surprised that the Great West Football Conference, with Cal Poly (No. 14) and UC Davis (No. 29) leading the charge, is the second toughest according to the GPI. In another surprise, the Missouri Valley Football Conference (No. 3) and Big Sky Conference (No. 4) come in ahead of the SoCon (No. 5), home of the three-time national champion Appalachian State Mountaineers.

Third, we see a surprising number of teams in the FCS “bottom 25″ that have two or more wins: 2-2 Morehead State (No. 121), 3-1 Alabama State (No. 120), 2-2 Mississippi Valley State (No. 118), 2-2 Jacksonville (No. 113), 2-3 Wagner and 2-3 Marist (tied at No. 109), 2-2 Arkansas-Pine Bluff (No. 106), 3-2 Old Dominion (No. 105), 3-2 Bucknell (No. 104), and 2-3 Duquesne (No. 101). It shows that sometimes you can’t look at a gaudy record: it also depends who you play.

Finally, it shows that in this early stage it’s looking very difficult for schools from the bottom-rated-conferences - the Pioneer Football League (No. 14), the SWAC (No. 13) and NEC (No. 12) to grab an at-large bid to the playoffs, and even autobid conferences like the Patriot League (No. 10), the MEAC (No. 11) and Big South (No. 8) have an uphill battle to qualify for an at-large bid as well.

There’s a lot of season to go. But even from this first GPI, trends are becoming very clear.

CHUCKLES FOR WEEK FIVE ENDING 10/11

I was due for a bit of a letdown after two high-flying weeks. With a rash of upsets and near-misses I went 18-7 to put my record for the year at 113-33. It’s still good enough for a 77.3% winning percentage for the year - I’ll sure take that.

I’m still proud of a fair number of my picks: taking Southern Utah to upset Texas State, predicting Prairie View A&M to get their first win over Grambling in 21 years, and picking Lafayette to get their first-ever win over Yale in the long and storied histories of both programs. More treats involed Brown winning back the Governor’s Cup from Rhode Island, taking North Dakota to knock off South Dakota, taking Butler to upend San Diego, and even picking that App State would win late against the Citadel. For good measure, for the second straight week I picked the “Game of the Week” - Villanova’s win over William & Mary - correctly.

Regret of the week
This week there were certainly a few to pick from: Furman came oh-so-close to upsetting Elon, South Dakota State came within a fumble to beating Cal Poly on the road, Eastern Illinois with one less momentum swing than Eastern Kentucky. But one game really stands out, because it involves two teams that always seem to give me problems with my picks.

When I saw Youngstown State outside the Top 25, I knew I had to pick their game against Missouri State. But I was nervous about picking this game from the word go. It seems like every time I pick the Penguins - or expect them to win a big game - they always, always let me down. Similarly, Missouri State last year could have been the second-most frustrating team to pick since you never knew if they’d score 56 points, or 6. Why on earth did I choose to pick a game that involved one of these teams - never mind both? I should have went against my gut instincts to take Youngstown State at home. Ugh!

Five Outside the Top 25
Harvard at Cornell.
Deep Red and Big Red seem to be headed in different directions: the Crimson, led by quarterback Collier Winters, finished off Lehigh 28-14, while Cornell fell hard to Colgate, xx-xx. While Harvard will be playing at Schoellkopf field - where the Big Red are traditionally very tough to play - I still like the Crimson to pull out the victory.

Rising Red 34, Reeling Red 16

Prairie View A&M at Alabama State. It’s always tough to pick SWAC games - especially after a classic “letdown week” possibility for the Panthers, led by transfer quarterback K.J. Black (285 yards passing, 106 yards rushing, 6 TDs). On first glance the 3-1 Hornets, lod on defense by defensive lineman Kynjee Cotton, might look like they could upset Henry Frazier III’s team - until you look at the Hornet’s wins (against Concordia, Savannah State, and Edward Waters) and losses (Mississippi Valley State). Prairie View doesn’t disappoint.

Black’s Panthers 35, Cottonmouthed Hornets 16

Maine at Hofstra. Most folks had written off the Pride after their humiliating 47-0 loss at Richmond - but after their shocking 23-17 upset of James Madison, could defensive back Jordan Dangerfield and the rest of the Hofstra Pride actually make a run at finishing first in the CAA North and qualifying for the playoffs? As Hofstra’s star rises, Maine’s has faded fast after three straight losses, the latest to Delaware at home 27-17. Hofstra’s climb for respect continues this week - and they’ll succeed yet again.

Rappin’ Rodneys 17, Blacked-Out Bears 6


UT-Chattanooga at Samford.
Two SoCon teams hope to make some Top 25 noise before all is said and done - but only one will stick around, most likely, after this week. Who will it be? The Bulldogs rely on a fierce defense - with a “D” line (Devyn Keith, Austin Hayes, Erik Peterson, John Michael Clay) who already has twelve sacks on the year. The Mocs have seen their fortunes turn around with, well, improvement in all quarters - including a rushing attack led by running back Bryan Fitzgerald. Look for a defensive struggle - and the Bulldogs to come out on top.

The Fearsome Bull-"D” 10, Water Mocs 9

Alabama A&M at Grambling State. Who do you take in this game - the hot team in control of their division (the Bulldogs, led by running back Ulysses Banks, winners of two straight) or the cold, deperate team team who needs a win to stay in the SWAC Championship chase (the Tigers, led on defense by defensive lineman Christian Anthony)? It would be an easy choice - unless you consider that Alabama A&M has never beaten Grambling at Grambling. Take the home team to stay alive.

Iconic Anthonys 30, Don’t Bank (Totally) on Banks 16

Four More Games I’m Watching
Gardner-Webb at Buffalo (FBS).
1-4 Buffalo is a bad, bad football team at the FBS level. Does that mean Gardner-Webb has a chance to pull off an historic upset of an FBS team? The Runnin’ Bulldogs are good - with wideout James Perry III starting to emerge as a top-flight player at the FCS level - but in their fourth road game in four weeks, I just can’t see Gardner-Webb pulling it off. The Bulls will get a fright, but ultiamtely win.

Blue Bulls 20, Speedy Bulldogs 16

Jacksonville at Marist. It’s shocking that running back Rudell Small and the rest of the Dolphins are ranked so low as them make their first trip back to the “Frozen Tundra” of Upstate New York (more accurately, Leonidoff Field in Poughkeepsie, New York) since they were shut out by Albany in last year’s “Gridiron Classic". Expect this year’s trip to be a lot more pleasant than last year’s.

“1-1 Below Sixty Degrees” 37, Redd Foxes 10

Duquesne at Albany.
Meanwhile, upstate, Albany should handle the Dukes in yet another NEC league win for running back David McCarty and the Great Danes. The only question is: will Bob Ford’s squad hold Duquesne to under 20 points? Albany has held their last six NEC opponents under 20 points; they make it seven this week.

Built Ford Tough 29, Out-Duked Duques 9

Tennessee Tech at UT-Martin (Sargent York Trophy). With their 31-23 victory over Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech got the inside track on the Sargent York Trophy, given to the winner of the four Tennessee teams of the OVC (Tennessee State, UT-Martin, Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay). Will Lee Sweeney and their new Wildcat offense have similar success against the Skyhawks? Led by running back Miguel Barnes - and a heaping amount of York-fed emotion - I think UT-Martin takes this leg of the trophy.

Miguel’s Carrier Pigeons 31, Yellow Eagles 13

Picking the Sports Network Top 25
No. 1 Richmond at No. 13 James Madison.
With James Madison’s worst loss in quite some time this past week, all eyes were on Dukes head football coach Mickey Matthews this week, when he announced that freshman quarterback Justin Thorpe would get the starting nod on Saturday (though quarterback Drew Dudzik would still get playing time). That has to be music to the ears of the No. 1 ranked Spiders - especially the “Stonewall” defense, led by linebacker Patrick Weldon - as they use their week off to devastating effect against the Dukes.

Weldon’s Warriors 24, “Knockout?” 16

No. 2 Villanova at No. 5 New Hampshire. No problem for Villanova head football coach Andy Talley, beat one No. 5 team one week, and then turn around and face the new No. 5 team this week. New Hampshire has more than just linebacker Terrance Thomas to worry about, however: a crowd of more than 12,000 for homecoming is expected to gridlock Durham, causing the town to alter traffic patterns in front of this week’s game. (If only it were that easy for New Hampshire to direct the flow of traffic against Villanova’s defense.) New Hampshire welcomes back quarterback R.J. Toman in this game, and knows that jumping out to a quick start - like they did against Towson last weekend, getting 30 points off a free kick and turnovers pretty much as soon as they got off the bus. But Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney - no stranger to fast starts himself, after converting the first play from scrimmage into a touchdown in their win last week - will make this a day from the Wildcats. (Villanova, that is.)

Whitney’s White-Out 20, Toman’s Tumble 13


No. 3 Northern Iowa at North Dakota State.
Last year, this would have been seen as a clash of Missouri Valley Football Conference titans and a key game in the title race. This year it’s a preseason warmup tour for quarterback Pat Grace against the young, reeling North Dakota State Bison.

No Drama Panthers 34, Bison Burgers 3

Illinois State at No. 6 Southern Illinois. Is this a chance at an upset? The Redbirds - who have seen freshman quarterback Matt Brown grow up a lot in the past few weeks - could make a statement on the road at Carbondale. But then again, the Redbirds haven’t really seen a defender like Saluki linebacker Brandin Jordan in the past few weeks, either.

Sweet Salukis 35, “Teams With Red Birds: 0-fer Weekend?” 10

No. 7 McNeese State at Stephen F. Austin. The Southland conference slate opens this weekend, and you can’t come up with a more intriguing, prototypical Southland matchup than this one. The Cowboys, perennial Southland contenders behind the Fourroux/Pendland Express, face off against the upstart Lumberjacks - who have the most prolific offense in FCS to date, behind the Payton Award-caliber play of quarterback Jeremy Moses. Last year at McNeese, both teams wore out the turf at Cowboy Statium with 976 total offensive yards - how many will Fourroux, Moses and company rack up this time? It won’t be easy for Stephen F. Austin - who would be a lock for a national ranking should they win - but I think the Lumberjacks, with an improved defense, will have just enough to knock off McNeese State.

Purple Moses 42, Tripped-Up Cowboys 36

No. 8 William & Mary at Northeastern. There’s no reason to believe that the Huskies’ third-straight game against a nationally-ranked opponent will go any better than the first two.

Tribal Fusion 38, Husked Huskies 10

North Carolina Central at No. 9 Appalachian State. On the plus side, it will allow running back Devon Moore and quarterback Armanti Edwards to get some practicve reps together. If you want drama, however, there’s precious little here.

Moore’s Mountaineers 48, Near-Extinct Eagles 3

The Citadel at No. 10 Elon. Can you cram any more storylines into a game? Last year, the student (Elon head coach Pete Lembo) beat the teacher (The Citadel head coach Kevin Higgins) - they were both on the same staff at Lehigh ten years ago. But Higgins’ revenge match isn’t even the top story: it’s the final matchup college between two receivers - Elon wideout Terrell Hudgins, and Citadel wideout Andre Roberts - that could very well be playing on Sundays next fall. If you’re going to judge this game on wideouts or quarterbacks (the Phoenix’ Scott Riddle or the Bulldogs’ Bart Blanchard), it’s likely to be a dead heat. But the key to this will be defense - where, along with home field advantage, the student will once again beat the teacher.

Hudgins’ Heros 34, Andre’s Giants 28

No. 11 Central Arkansas at Northwestern State. At 0-4, but with no games in Southland play yet, the Demons technically still have everything to play for. Unfortunately for Northwestern State, that will end this weekend against the powerful Bears.

Man-Eating Killing Machines 30, Inner Demons 17

No. 12 UMass at Delaware. It’s not technically a rivalry - but ask anybody: UMass and Delaware fans hate each other with a passion. Emotions are sure to run high as Delaware quarterback Pat Devlin - and a newfound rushing game, led by running back David Hayes - try to keep the ball rolling in CAA play - but UMass safety Jeromy Miles, and the rest of the Minuteman defense, will have plenty to say about that. UMass wins - and keeps creeping up the Sports Network Top 25.

Sixty Minutemen 38, Periwinkle Hens 17

No. 21 Weber State at No. 14 Eastern Washington. Imagine, if you will, had Weber State running back Trevyn Smith gotten in the end zone against Montana State last weekend. Wouldn’t this matchup look entirely different? Instead, the Wildcats look to battle for their Big Sky (and, for that matter, playoff) lives while Eastern Washington, behind quarterback Matt Nichols, will be looking for a tough home test against Weber State. I’ll play a hunch here and say that despite being on the road, the more desperate team will come home with the win in the end.

Trevyn’s Throwback 28, Nichols’ Nightmare 27

Tennessee State at No. 15 Eastern Kentucky. It’s now the Colonels’ OVC race to lose. With quarterback T.J. Pryor leading the chase, it’s hard to see Tennessee State - despite their 23-17 victory over Southeast Missouri State last week - to hang with EKU, especially on the road.

Pryor’s Tiger Tamers 37, Tigers Tamed by Pryor 17

No. 17 South Carolina State at Norfolk State. Two questions emerged from the Bulldogs tough-fought loss last week to South Carolina, 38-14. One, can the Bulldogs keep their focus up this week against the Spartans, who are very much still looking at a MEAC title run? Second, will running back Will Ford - now the subject of many more double-teams and spies by opposing defenses - become the dominant force he was rushing the ball last year? With the Spartans’ tough rushing defense - led by linebacker Anthony Taylor - this may prove to be a tough challenge for the Bulldogs - but one that Buddy Pough’s troops ultimately meet.

Battlin’ Pough’s 24, Shelved Spartans 21

No. 18 Jacksonville State at Murray State.
Somehow I don’t think a team who has one win against NAIA Kentucky Wesleyan - along with three Division I losses - will hang very long against Perriloux’ scary, scary Jacksonville State team.

The Ghosts of Gamecocks’ Past 44, Run-Down Racers 3

No. 19 Holy Cross at Brown.
Add a Payton Award candidate - Holy Cross quarterback Dominic Randolph - and the 108th-ranked pass efficiency defense of the Brown Bears. What you get is a blowout.

Purple Crusade 49, Brown Dirt 24

No. 20 South Dakota State at Missouri State. If you look at statistics, this game should be a mismatch. The Bears are in the lower half of FCS in every category offensively - but it’s turnovers, led by defensive back Derek Miller’s three interceptions, that have the Bears entering this game on an up note. The Jackrabbits, on the other hand, were tripped up in the second game of their road trip with a 21-14 defeat at the hands of Cal Poly - but they are in the upper half of FCS in every major offensive and defensive measure. Let’s give the Bears the early momentum in this game - but I’ve got to believe that the Jacks, behind running back Kyle Minett, win the war.

Not-So-Tired Jacks 31, Miller’s Forced Miscues 24

No. 22 Florida A&M at Miami (FL) (FBS).
The Rattlers’ resurgence, for sure, is in large part to the services of the electrifying return man LeRoy Vann and the dynamic quarterback Curtis Pulley. But are they up to the challenge of playing the big boys in FBS? I’d like to think differently, but I think James Taylor’s squad, who beat up on some poor FCS teams, will get a big dose of reality this weekend in Landshark stadium.

Too Many Hurricanes 44, Too Few LeRoy Vanns 17

No. 23 Colgate at Princeton. This Thursday night tilt on ESPNU probably looked great last year, when Princeton and Colgate had just played their second straight nail-biter only determined by a last-second field goal. This one, with healthy running back Nate Eachus returning at full strength for the Raiders, doesn’t promise to be the same this year.

Eachy Raiders 42, Tippy Tigers 0

Northern Arizona at No. 24 Montana State. It must be fall; cold weather in Bozeman is the forecast for Saturday, and that couldn’t suit Rob Ash and his Montana State Bobcats any better. Fresh off their win against Weber State last weekend, the Bobcats are looking to build on that win against a dangerous Northern Arizona team that has a balanced running and passing attack led by quarterback Michael Herrick. Away from the Walkup Skydome, I think the Lumberjacks might wilt a little bit in the cold - much to the delight of Montana State defensive back Michael Rider, who leads the Bobcats with 3 interceptions.

Cold Bobcat Riders 31, Humbled Herricks 28

No. 25 Eastern Illinois at Penn State (FBS). After their heart-wrenching defeat at the hands of Eastern Kentucky last weekend, it’s tempting to predict Mon Williams and the rest of the Panthers to put forth a huge victory in Happy Valley against the Nittany Lions. It would be wrong, however.

Nittaninny Ninnies 45, Mon Mons 10

Game of the Week
No. 15 Cal Poly at No. 4 Montana

In the span of four years, two schools that on the surface have little to do with one another have created a true rivalry. It could have only happened in FCS, with the FCS playoffs and the unparalleled success both teams have had in the subdivision.

After Poly went to Missoula and pulled off a 35-21 win over the Griz - avenging a 37-26 loss earlier in the year - this game has had serious repercussions on the Top 25 every time they’ve played.

floatedright“It’s always a great game,” Cal Poly guard Will Mitchell told The Missoulian. “My freshman year when we lost (10-9) up there, that was a great game. I wish I could’ve been there.”

Last year, Montana traveled down to San Luis Obispo as - for a change - underdogs, but still managed to get the win after a late field goal was missed by the Mustangs in the Griz’ 30-28 win. “We were fired up to get it,” said Montana head coach Bobby Hauck.

Cal Poly already beat a ranked opponent - last week, beating South Dakota State 21-14 on the strength of two defensive touchdowns by Asa Jackson and Carlton Gillespie. At 2-2, a win over Montana might be exactly what the Mustangs need to remain in the race for an at-large bid to the playoffs this year.

But the Griz - behind the running of running back Chase Reynolds, and a tough defense led by safety Shann Schillinger - have proven equal to all the tests thrown their way. With the No. 2 rushing defense in the nation, can the Mustangs do enough to pull this off?

At home in sunny California, this might go a bit differently. But in sold-out Washington-Grizzly stadium, on a cold prototypical Montana afternoon, it looks like Reynolds and the Griz will get another big victory against their big FCS rival - and keep marching to yet another FCS postseason.

Montana 28, Cal Poly 21