Coming out of Week 5, there are a few things we know more confidently than we did on Saturday morning: Notre Dame is better than Stanford. Ohio State is just slightly better than Penn State. Florida may be good, or at least on a faster track to good under Dan Mullen than it appeared last month.
When it comes to the College Football Playoff, which we won’t get a measure of clarity on until its first set of rankings are released in four weeks, one of those things—Ohio State’s supremacy—will almost certainly be relevant. Notre Dame’s win over Stanford will likely factor into the equation, and the caliber of Florida may only be notable as a point on the résumés of the teams that have beaten the Gators. Still, all of the teams mentioned so far have something in common: They can count themselves among the 38 programs that cracked the Associated Press’s Top 25 at some point in September.
Over the first six rounds of AP polls this season, teams have dropped in and out and slid up and down. Just one of the upstart ranked teams that wasn’t among the preseason top-25 looks like it has the schedule and the talent to amass some staying power: No. 13 Kentucky. (This week’s No. 22 and No. 25 teams, Florida and Oklahoma State, also have solid chances of sticking around after bouncing in and out of the rankings so far this year.) Fourteen teams have spent time in the top 10, including the current No. 16 (Wisconsin) and No. 17 (Miami) teams, as well as teams that started the year ranked No. 17 (West Virginia) and No. 25 (LSU). A team that spent the offseason as a national laughingstock (Arizona State) cracked the poll for exactly one week (the Sun Devils have gone 1–2 since). Heading into Week 6, Colorado is the lone Top 25 team that did not receive a single vote in the preseason poll.
This year’s ranked team turnover has been right on pace with the recent past: According to STATS, in all five years of the playoff era, between 38 and 41 teams have spent time in the Top 25 by the end of September. If 2018 falls in line with recent trends, the total number of ranked teams at any point won’t grow much from here—over the four seasons from 2014 to ’17, an average of 44.5 teams spent at least a week in the AP Poll each year.
For the rest of October, the weekly rankings are worthy debate fodder, but they might just be distracting (and even detracting) from the sport as a whole, where too much time is spent predicting and projecting and not enough time is spent actually enjoying.
Sure, to rank or not to rank is hardly the most pressing question facing college football, if it’s even a question at all. But in the playoff era, where the rankings that matter aren’t issued until well past midseason and we claim to seek measured evaluation, it’s worth wondering whether the benefits of issuing a somewhat random order of teams in August outweigh the costs. The utility of the rankings is even stretched in September, when most non-conference matchups are lopsided and depth charts have yet to shake out. Yes, those early polls can stir up debate, but really only among the top teams, who are going to be discussed no matter what numbers are next to their names.
In a way, all these early-season rankings do is make it harder for teams to cross the threshold from irrelevance to intrigue. They’re an obstacle for the Missouris and Syracuses of the world, whose only losses came at the end of spirited fights against national title contenders. At this moment, are those teams better than Colorado or NC State, which are still waiting for their first test from an opponent of any quality? There’s no way to know, and there’s really no need to know, but there remains a power to this arbitrary line past No. 25: Teams that start on the right side really have to bungle things to fall out, and even then, they have a better chance of claiming one of those amorphous spots in the 20s than a team that started the year on the outside looking in.
The playoff rankings, built by informed research and the eye test, are what matter in determining the sport’s final four. And then there are the computer formulas, which no longer have an official role but still get spit out each week. But at this point, the other polls have become officially unofficial, and they’re little more than a framework through which we watch the game—but the sport might be more fun without that framework.
Most college football fans don’t need a panel of experts to tell them in August which teams will be good, and often, early rankings are more a reaction than a forecast. They capture the sure things and the has-beens, but never what’s coming next. Last year, Florida State started the season ranked No. 4. Then the Seminoles had their worst season in years and switched coaches, which was enough to bump them down to No. 19 this August, when a month of results indicate they shouldn’t have been ranked at all. If their sloppy start continues, maybe they won’t be ranked to start next year, at which point they’ll probably be hitting their stride. In contrast, UCF received no preseason Top 25 votes and had to crawl up the rankings as it ran the table, and that inertia seemed to rub off on the playoff selection committee, which refused to move the Knights within striking distance of the top four.
Or consider the case of LSU. The Tigers had been a preseason top-15 team every year since 2011, and they had disappointed every year since 2012. This season, it seemed, the poll had finally learned its lesson, ranking Ed Orgeron’s team No. 25 in August. Now? It’s the country’s No. 5 team, and if voters had been able to watch its season opener against Miami with fresh eyes, they might have realized the Tigers looked the part before they knocked off Auburn.
Rankings can serve as a shorthand for actual knowledge—it’s simpler to recite Kentucky’s ranking (No. 13) than to mention that the Wildcats have the country’s third-best scoring defense through five weeks—or as a justification that a game or a team matters, because we’re uncomfortable with the idea that early on, it’s impossible to know. With the possible exception of TV executives who need that shorthand to hype their primetime games, college football doesn’t necessarily need such trappings. Alabama is great. So are Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia, with no single-digit affixed numeral necessary. But beyond that, we know nothing, and perhaps for a few weeks at the beginning of each season, we should rank nothing and relish the confusion that ensues.