SportStars Magazine

Behind The Clipboard: Rankings Are Only Numbers; Just Go Win

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All Rankings Are Subjective But You Need To Control What You Can Control And Not Worry •

Who is MaxPreps? Is Max some guy who makes up numbers that say how good teams are? Our coaches said our MaxPreps’ rankings has a lot to do with our postseason seeding, but we lost two games when our quarterback was hurt. Is that part of the rankings? If not, the rankings can’t mean much, because obviously, we’re a lot better when we have our first-string quarterback, who’s going to play in college. It’s stupid that some number determines what happens to us in the postseason, not how good we really are.

—J.W., Oakland

There’s a lot wrapped up in this question, but let’s start with the underlying philosophy. Teams are primarily rated not on how good they are today, but how good they were over the course of the season.

At first glance, as you point out, this doesn’t seem fair. A football team that has its quarterback healthy after missing two or three games is likely better than its results show. But if you shift the perspective to the committee responsible for the postseason seeding, it becomes more complicated.

OK, the quarterback for Team A missed two games with an injury; but the star running back for Team B broke up with his girlfriend just before their biggest game. What about Team C that as a defensive lineman who was suspended for two games? How should that factor into rankings or postseason seeding?

And of course, if a committee is doing the seeding, there’s no way they can know all these things. On top of that, let’s say Team A lost to Team B but Team A was missing its quarterback. Does that mean the result of the game doesn’t really count? Should Team A get credit for winning even though they lost? If you were Team B, how would you feel about that?

And there are good reasons to go on the body of work of a team as opposed to a very personal judgment by a committee member about how good that team is now. People should have reasons for making these kinds of decisions. Simply saying “Well, I think they’re better than their 6-4 record shows and that 9-1 team was really lucky” isn’t necessarily convincing. On the other hand, saying “The idea is to win games and the team that won nine games is probably better than the team that won six – especially since the MaxPreps’ rankings formula says the nine-win team is better,” tends to hold more weight.

Yes, it’s a formula, and not some guy named Max. CBS owns MaxPreps and is part of a big corporation with a reputation to uphold. It crunches a lot of numbers to come up with the rankings. Though no one outside MaxPreps knows the exact formula, it takes into account who teams beat and lost to, the quality of their opponents, home and away records, and even margin of victory. And since all the schools in California put their results in MaxPreps, the formula is pretty accurate. (It’s even more accurate in volleyball and basketball, where there are more games, and luck tends to even out.)

But of course, the system doesn’t always work. Sometimes that team with the now-healthy quarterback upsets a higher seed on the road; sometimes the team with the high MaxPreps rankings plays horribly and gets eliminated in the first round. The thing is, though, that no system is perfect, in sports or in life. The goal is to find a system that works better than most of the alternatives.

Over the years, a rankings system that relies on a body of work and a computer rating has been more accurate than a system that relies on how a committee feels about teams on the day they make the decision. “More accurate,” however, is a long way from “always accurate,” so there will always be controversy.

There’s one way to fix that, though: Go out and win the game, and show Max how wrong he was.

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