College Football Rankings: An Easy Way To Get Views, Stir Debate

With the college football season four months away, one thing you’ll run across lots of on any major sports website is a writer’s early Top 25 Ranking.
Heck, on ESPN right now I’m looking at writer Mark Schlabach’s “Post-spring Top 25” – not his original Top 25 for this year; that was published January 8 – and in the samearticle, there’s a sidebar with ESPN’s “College Football Live Top 25”, which is completely different.
Football’s not alone in this: basketball columnist Jeff Goodman had a 2010 Top 25 up in April, just days after the National Championship Game.
Ten best out-of-conference match-ups. Best 2011 recruiting classes. Top left-handed, blue-eyed quarterbacks under six feet. You name it, sportswriters rank it. But with so many rankings, how do we know which one to trust?
Quick answer: There aren’t any. You’re just getting duped.
Despite what they want you to believe, none of these “experts” have a clue what will go down months from now. Check back at which experts had Butler in the National Title game last year.
But it’s brilliant, because in the dead periods for each sport, nothing gets the blood boiling and the flame wars going like a ranking. And with angry people and flame wars come clicks. And with clicks come money.
Put anything in any sort of list with some hierarchy attached to it, and people will flock, usually to do two things: brag about how their team, school or player is the best, or call you an idiot.
Sports aren’t alone in this of course. Higher education is a big time culprit of this sort of thing, although the value in knowing what the best Master’s University in the North is higher than knowing where Boise State is ranked according to Schlabach (second, by the way).
But with these rankings comes a question: What do they mean? For example, according to the U.S. News and World Report, my alma mater, Ithaca College, is ranked the seventh-best Master’s University in the North, with a score of 75 out of 100. Rochester Institute of Technology is ninth with a score of 74.
OK, so Ithaca is one point “better” than R.I.T.
How’s that higher ranking going to manifest itself for the average student? Will they have one more enjoyable course over their four years? One more interesting project? One more job prospect upon graduation?
Obviously, there’s something to be gained from knowledge, and yeah I’d like to know I’m going to a good school before plunking down $200,000.
But wouldn’t we be better served by looking at the data qualitatively, rather than quantitatively? U.S. News and World has a four-page methodology to their rankings. How exactly am I to make use of that? Both Ithaca and R.I.T. are good schools. Michigan State University and Kentucky are also both really good at basketball.
Isn’t that enough for us?