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The Case for Resume Ranking: A Diatribe Against BlogPoll Favoritism

The initial 2007 BlogPoll ballots are being submitted even as we speak. The BlogPoll was invented, and is administered, by MGoBlog's Brian Cook, who has turned it into one of the most respected institutions in the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere.

Consequently, we who have the privilege of voting in the BlogPoll take that responsibility seriously---not because we have any illusions about its impact, but because we believe what is worth doing is worth doing well---and those voters who cast their ballots carelessly (such as, for instance, someone who drops a team in the standings because he believes that team lost a game it actually won) are subject to being ridiculed by their peers.

I therefore found it heartening when I read this:

Brian is pretty selective in who he allows in the blogpoll, so I take my vote pretty seriously. I probably put more thought into it than the average blogpoll voter, and I'm sure I put more thought into it tha[n] the coaches and AP writers put in their ballots.

That sentiment comes from Mike of Black Shoe Diaries, whose life has included recent positive developments that no doubt help him to keep college football in its proper perspective.

I'm just getting started, but there will be an Edmund Burke reference before I'm done. Also, there will be Calvin Coolidge and Jennifer Love Hewitt references, as well, so you'll want to stick around for those, too.

Writes Mike:

There are a few different ways you can look at the teams when putting together a ballot. You can judge teams based on the theoretical head-to-head matchup method. Basically, who would win if Team A played Team B? The problem is you can't always answer that question because Team A does not always play Team B on the field. All you're asking yourself is who would be favored to win? We all know that upsets happen every week so this is far from a perfect way to judge the college football landscape. Every year we see the lineages where Team A beat Team B who beat Team C who beat Florida and that's why the St. Marys School for the Blind is the #1 team in the country. This makes a mockery of the polling system, and rightfully so.

While the theoretical head-to-head matchup method is vastly popular, you are making assumptions that the favorite team will win every time disregarding the potential for upsets. You are ranking each team based on your perception of their performance and stature. But upsets change our perception of each team. If Purdue beats Michigan we suddenly realize Purdue must be better than we thought and/or Michigan must not be as good as we thought.

Because of this, Mike concludes sensibly that he will be using the resume ranking approach this season, to which I also subscribe. His point about teams being favored, however, is one that warrants closer consideration and ought to give us pause.

When a college football fan uses the term "favored," of course, he is not referring to the expected outcome of an obvious mismatch; Florida is not "favored" to beat Western Kentucky because there is no realistic scenario under which the Gators conceivably could lose their season opener against the Hilltoppers.

However, the over/under on the number of times the poor sap wearing this suit in Gainesville, Fla., in an open-air stadium for three and a half hours of daylight on Labor Day weekend passes slap out from the heat is four.

Rather, "favored" is a gambling term. It refers to the betting line set by the Las Vegas oddsmakers regarding the outcome and margin of victory of an upcoming contest. I note this neither as an endorsement nor a condemnation of wagering, but only to call attention to the source and the underlying motivation behind the selection of favorites and underdogs.

Oddsmakers design betting lines in order to generate significant wagering on both sides of the line, so as to ensure that the bookies clean up, irrespective of which team wins or by how much. Betting lines move over the course of the week leading up to a game because the wagering is too one-sided and the bookmakers want the betting to be more evenly distributed.

These facts matter because they disabuse us of the misconception that a betting line has predictive value, or even that it represents a prediction. If the most knowledgeable oddsmaker in Las Vegas announces that Team A is favored by three points over Team B, he is not predicting that Team A will beat Team B by a field goal on Saturday. (This is more clearly illustrated by the frequency with which teams are favored by, say, "two and a half points." Such a line is designed to avoid a "push," but, obviously, it could not represent the actual margin of victory of the contest, unless you're using the metric system or something.)

Darn you, N.F.L. Europe, with your metric four-and-a-half-point field goals!

When a bookie says Team A is favored by three points, he isn't saying Team A will win by three points; he's saying that he thinks roughly half of his gamblers will think Team A will win by more than three points and the other half will think Team A will win by fewer than three points or will lose outright.

If the oddsmaker has estimated the inclinations of his bettors incorrectly, he will adjust the line accordingly. (As USA Today's rather simplistic odds primer puts it, with emphasis added: "Player injuries and wagers are among the top influences on line movement.") In other words, a bookie's goal is to have 50 per cent of the folks who put their money where their mouths are disagree with him.

Mike is right that picking favorites is no way to rank teams because upsets occur, but there is a deeper problem related to the very concept of the "favorite." In any contest expected to be competitive---in other words, in any game likely to have a meaningful effect on the rankings---a narrow favorite is, by definition, the team the oddsmaker expected would be deemed less likely to win by that much (or even win at all) by half of the folks who put money on the game. That is hardly a ringing endorsement of a favorite's expectation of victory, especially when we consider the high rate of inaccuracy even among the best bookies and shrewdest gamblers.

Point spreads neither have nor are intended to have predictive value. Much like Stewart Mandel's assessment of the national prominence of particular teams, betting lines are based upon oddsmakers' perceptions of other people's perceptions. Even though bookies, unlike Stewart Mandel, are not fools, neither are they savants intent on influencing pollsters' evaluations of particular teams. They just want there to be enough bettors both ways for the house to be assured of victory.

The house always wins. Unless you get George Clooney involved in the heist, of course.

Whether you put money on college football games is your business. (For the record, I don't, both because I am lousy at predicting the outcomes of college football games and because I am familiar with Paragraph 163(G) of the Social Principles contained in Part IV of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.)

When casting a college football poll ballot, though, a voter (be he a coach, a journalist, or a weblogger) should give consideration to several criteria . . . but the point spread ain't one of 'em. The favorite in a competitive contest is the team that the guy setting the line hopes half the bettors won't pick.

As an astute commenter at Mike's site noted, pollsters are forced to "use the theoretical head to head matchup"---as Brian puts it, "[a]t all times it should be an approximate ranking [of] who would beat who[m] on a neutral field this year"---until enough games have been played to give anything like enough data to draw reasonable conclusions. Mike's commenter, PSU Mudder, continues:

Then, as games are played and more info becomes available, slowly shift to resume. By week 7 or 8, you can use resume exclusively. But above all, use the rule of reason. Step back, take a look, and ask "Does this make sense?"

That is a succinct way of stating precisely the correct position. (Not having been blessed with concision, I regard it as a strength in others.)

Suffice it to say that no one ever lost by betting that I could be persuaded to utter at least three words.

At this point, it's all guesswork, so prospective assessments of the my-dad-could-beat-up-your-dad-and-the-Partridge-Family-would-win-a-fight-with-the-Brady-Bunch playground variety are all we have upon which to rely. This leaves folks like me in the position of sending e-mails to in-laws, old pals, and Sunday Morning Quarterback asking if I am completely crazy, thereby eliciting responses such as this one, which arrived in my in-box from a longtime friend whom I have known since he was nine at 9:45 on Wednesday evening accompanied by a mild adult language advisory:

Though honored to be part of the inner circle, I don't know why you sent me this.

You know what I think.

I think Florida (I hate Florida) would kick UCLA's ass.

I think Florida would roll up Michigan and smoke them.

I think Florida would spank Louisville.

I tremble in fear of Florida to an unnatural, unhealthy, undignified degree. But I don't think it's unwarranted.

And I don't think we are the 14th best team in the nation (though I don't disagree with your ranking.) We're either the 3rd or the 50th, I just don't know which.

Also, Arizona is setting you up. I don't know if you specifically are the intended target of their campaign of unduly raised expectation. My guess is that the season ticket holders and Pac 10 media are the bogeys of this get-their-hopes-up assault. I just don't want to see you become collateral damage.

Also, for no reason having anything to do with knowledge or analysis, I think Clemson is going to blow this year. Not under-perform-but-then-finish-strong. Totally blow.

Also, I'm ready for the Cal thing to be over. I'm not saying it is over or is going to be. But I'm ready for it to be.

That analysis could prove thoroughly prescient or absolutely baseless, but no one yet knows which for sure. Once we get into the meat of the season, though, facile evaluations of underdogs and favorites will have seen their utility dissolve into futility. When we arrive at that juncture, Mike is right that we should cast our ballots based not upon what we think might happen next Saturday, but on what we know happened on the preceding Saturdays.

Call it the Jennifer Love Hewitt theory of poll voting: "I Know What You Did This Autumn."

Until enough facts are known for reasonable conclusions to be drawn, though, those denizens of Bulldog Nation and visitors from other schools who form the Dawg Sports reader community may feel free to treat me as your BlogPoll representative. Some of you already have shared your views upon my ballot, which I appreciate and encourage, with the understanding that I subscribe to the view of representation enunciated by Edmund Burke 194 years to the day before I was born (and 233 years to the day before this year's Georgia-Troy game):

[I]t ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,--these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect. I beg pardon for saying so much on this subject. I have been unwillingly drawn into it; but I shall ever use a respectful frankness of communication with you. Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life: a flatterer you do not wish for.

Such are the weighty considerations pressing upon the minds of those BlogPoll voters sufficiently refined in their thinking to recognize the linkage between college football and self-government.

Is it football season yet?

Go 'Dawgs!