It wasn’t long ago that computer ratings played a transparent role in the process of ranking college football teams. The Bowl Championship Series used a composite of models as part of its formula to determine the two teams that competed in the national championship game and which programs belonged in a top 25 that reflected a lot of voices and calculations.
You used to hear a lot of talk about which teams the computers seemed to like more than the human polls because it was relevant to the championship race and who would be selected for the major bowl games.
Not so much anymore.
With the advent of the College Football Playoff and the selection committee’s more murky logic for ranking teams, computer formulas have faded into the background in popular conversation, relegated mostly to forums for the stats geeks of the college football community.
Which kind of stinks for Penn State because the computers like the Nittany Lions more than you might expect, and a lot more than the human polls in which they received no votes this week. For reference, 40 teams received votes in the Associated Press poll, while 44 received votes in the Coaches poll.
The popular S&P+ ratings at Football Outsiders — which take into consideration the five opponent-adjusted factors of efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers — put Penn State at No. 20, ahead of undefeated Nebraska, West Virginia and Western Michigan.
And ESPN’s Football Power Index — while slightly less bullish on Penn State at No. 39 — favors the team in five of its last six games, including against Iowa and Michigan State, teams that appeared in major bowl games last season.
While there are fluctuations in the different models, there seems to be a consensus that Penn State deserves at least some votes in the polls, if not quite a spot in the top 25.
Why, then, is Penn State not perceived as strong as the computers say it is?
“I think the two biggest things that a lot of … computer ratings can give you credit for that pollsters/fans absolutely will not are a.) playing well in a loss and b.) destroying bad competition,” Bill Connelly of Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall said. “Computer ratings judge you against a baseline, and if you drastically exceed that standard, you can move up even if one’s eyes would just say ‘Yeah, they were supposed to win that pretty easily.'”
In fact, Penn State played pretty well in its Sept. 10 loss at Pittsburgh and has a couple of blowouts wins against Kent State and Maryland on its resume. That thumping at the Big House against Michigan in late September?
“PSU doesn’t get dinged for getting killed by Michigan because almost everybody gets killed by Michigan, often by worse,” Connelly said.
The bad news seems to be that human expectations are putting quite a damper on the perception of Penn State at midseason. It pays a disproportionate price for losing the biggest games on its schedule against the Panthers and Wolverines, and gets little credit for its wins. That includes the days on which, in Connelly’s opinion, the Nittany Lions were “extremely unlucky not to beat Temple and Minnesota by much, much more.” (You can check out Penn State’s full stat profile here.)
The good news is that Penn State appears to have stronger hands against the Spartans and Hawkeyes though popular opinion might suggest otherwise. That gives the Nittany Lions an opportunity for victories that make a statement to voters.
“If the Nittany Lions show well against Ohio State this weekend, even in a loss … well … there’s not a single team that ranks better than 36th in S&P+ left on the schedule,” Connelly said. “Iowa and Indiana are far from slam dunks, and Michigan State still doesn’t feel like it should be as bad as it has been so far, but 8-4 or 9-3 are very much in the cards. In fact, S&P+ says there’s still an 8 percent chance of 10-2.”
That 8 percent isn’t much, but it’s a better shot than most fans, let alone most pundits, would probably give this team for getting to double-digit wins.
Of course, computers and formulas can exist in a reality often as fickle as our own, but if Penn State posts a strong second half, we’ll know it probably should have gotten more credit for how it played in the first.