What the Super Bowl Can Tell Us About College Rankings

football on a fieldIn case you haven’t heard, the Super Bowl is this coming Sunday. Sometime during the ridiculously overdone coverage, viewers will see the starters from each team announcing their alma maters. And this has got me thinking. Here you have the two best teams in a championship game based on wins and losses with rosters of players from colleges ranked on wins and losses. Maybe, just maybe, the Super Bowl has something to teach us about rankings including US News College Rankings.

BCS controversies aside, football has been ranking college teams long before US News College Rankings came around. And unlike the US News College Rankings, the football rankings are based on results of wins and losses. Actual results–not the quality of the their players or the number of tickets they sell. You can also see how many players make it to the pros.

The football powerhouses are well-known. And while people may not agree as to which team is the best each year, the top tier for any year is generally undisputed.

So an aspiring professional football player can easily identify the colleges that will provide the best opportunities for making it to the pros.  You have a choice between University of Florida and North Carolina State, you go with University of Florida. Auburn and Purdue? Auburn.

However, if you look up the alma maters of the Patriots and Seahawks, you’ll see that not all players came from the well-established football power houses.

In fact, there were players from North Carolina State and Purdue but none from Auburn or the University of Florida.

If you look at the colleges for all the players on the two teams (so yes, this will include bench players) 15% of them did not come from nationally ranked schools. Another 17% came from colleges that didn’t make the top 75 schools.

What are nationally ranked schools? I used the CollegeFootballPoll.com historical composite rankings. This ranks 126 FBS teams based on their season-ending rankings from 1993. Is it the most appropriate rankings to use? Now that’s the issue of the more general rankings such as the US News College rankings, isn’t?

Given that this is the first year there was even an attempt at a true national championship for college football, I’m not going to claim that these rankings are the final statement on the best teams in college football. After all, they are still based on votes and just ask TCU or Baylor about what they think about the voting.

However, they do have something that legitimizes them in a way the US News College Rankings has never had. A true fluctuation from year to year based on actual team records. Ohio State, number 1 overall, was ranked 65th in 2011 when they had only six wins. Of the top ten teams, all fell out of the top 50 at least once since 1993. And there are teams not in the top 50 overall that have managed to break the top 50 more than once, and even the top 25 occasionally.

Ultimately, football players would be foolish to assume that a college’s ranking is a guarantee to be drafted by the NFL. Since 2007, there are only 21 schools that had 25 or more players drafted by the NFL. That means that the majority of colleges on average send less than four players a year to the NFL. So if you’re looking to play D1 football, how important are the rankings for your future employment prospects?

Then what can we learn about rankings from the Super Bowl? That they don’t matter? That’s not necessarily true since just over half of all the players in the Super Bowl come from a top 50 college team.

What I think it shows is that it matters more what the players did at the schools they chose to attend regardless of ranking. Most of the players were considered quality players in high school but few were obvious future NFL draft picks. Yet, here they are in the Super Bowl.

I suspect it has something to do with research showing that “the average SAT score at the most selective college students apply to turns out to be a better predictor of their earnings than the average SAT score at the college they attended.” The fact that you aim high is more important than where you actually go.

Nobody looks at Tom Brady and thinks, “what a great job Michigan did getting him to the NFL.” Rather, it’s what a great job Brady did at Michigan. After all, just think of all the players who were on the same college teams and never made it to the NFL, much less the Super Bowl.

So what does the Super Bowl tell us about rankings? That they’re a lot less useful for predicting success than anyone wants to admit. Maybe that’s why the NFL has teams playing each other for 16 weeks and then goes into play-off games instead of just having the team owners rank the teams by reputation.

Leave a Reply