How to Rank Group of Five Teams in the AP Poll: a Chat with Jim Alexander from the Press-Enterprise

You may or may not be aware of College Poll Tracker, a delightful site that helps you visualize any and every individual ballot in the AP Poll for both football and basketball.

But during football season, I couldn’t help but take note of this ballot, which I personally and unbiasedly feel is a thing of beauty.

This is Jim Alexander, a man who has been covering sports for 46 years for the Press-Enterprise out in California, but who is voting in the AP poll for the first year ever.

He’s not only got eight Group of Five teams in his AP poll (UCF, Utah St., Army, Boise, UAB, Cinci, Troy and Fresno), he’s also the highest ranker for five of them. This struck me as rather unique, so I thought I would talk with Jim about regarding how he reached a ballot that is so different from a number of his peers.

“I try not to compare myself to anybody else’s ballots, or even the top 25 that gets published every week,” Alexander said. “To me, the most important thing is that number in the ‘L’ column. I see a lot of four-loss teams getting votes, and I would never rank a four-loss team.”

They say that great minds think alike, so Jim and I must be exactly that because I couldn’t agree more.

Alexander made the point that the 2018 UCF Knights, and specifically the players who comprise the roster, have exactly zero control over the schedule of games in front of them when the 2018 season begins.

The decisions about who appears on their schedule are made years in advance. Those matchups for Houston against Oklahoma and Washington State to open next season look pretty sweet right now.

When the Wazzu game was scheduled, the Northwest-type Cougars had won 8+ games for the second year in a row and were also only two years removed from 14 straight non-winning seasons.

The Oklahoma game is the back half of a home-and-home scheduled four years ago; it’s a small miracle that it is likely to be nearly as deserving of the hype the second time as the first time.

“You can only play who is in front of you any given week,” Alexander continued. “So my number one is what you did that week and what your record is. The strength of schedule is a tiebreaker at best.”

“If you’re Troy and you’re 9-2, you deserve recognition and you deserve a spot, I don’t care how big you or your conference are.”

The man has a point; you can talk about strength of schedule all you want, but whether Alabama would go 15-0 or 0-15 against UCF’s schedule has no bearing on whether UCF does, and that should be the first thing we assess.

Alexander also pointed to the ridiculous swath of advantages the Power Five teams, and how he often counts that against them.

“To me its a matter of fairness,” Alexander said. “I was walking on UCLA’s campus the other night, and their football stadium is an amazing palace. UCLA’s always been one of the poor cousins and they’ve joined the arms race. The Power Five programs have all of these other advantages – if you have all these advantages and only manage to go 6-4, why are you deserving of a ranking?”

Alexander also mentioned that his familiarity with both big and small schools allowed him to see just how hard those good matchups are to get.

“(SDSU head coach) Rocky Long touched on this in the preseason. First of all, it is tough for good Group of Five schools to get P5 games, because they are looking for easy wins.

The last two years (the Aztecs) have played Stanford and Arizona State. One thing he said was they’ve sent letters and emails to every Pac-12 school asking for home and home. When the big schools want to play a home and home, their idea is you play at their home and then again at their home.”

I like how this man thinks. These teams are already doing the best they can to schedule for quality in the one area they control (non-conference play). By the time that schedule rolls around, there’s nothing left to do but beat the teams in front of them, and the teams that do that the most (10-0 UCF) deserve much more consideration than teams that barely do it half the time (everyone in the SEC that’s 6-4).

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