Peaks, Valleys, and Mount Brasky: Analyzing the AP Poll Era

Historical visualization of college football's AP Poll and how the Hokies fit into the equation.

This is the third year I compiled the Big Eleventy; a comparison of football teams that spent the past 20 years ranked at least half of the time. It's a measurement of poll visibility.

To save myself the leg work, should I continue to do this every year, I decided to place all of the current data in Excel. While doing so, I began to wonder what the data might look like historically. I use the AP poll in the Big Eleventy; fortunately the AP poll began in 1936, and is the longest running poll (still in use today).

Mount Brasky: A Histogram

The 20-year data from 1936 to 1955 accounts for the initial 20-year starting point (leftmost column). I then calculated a running tally of the 20-year average by percent and worked my way through the 2016 season. The final column (to the right) of the histogram is the Big Eleventy from the 2017 season.

The shape of the graph ended up looking like two large mountain peaks. There's an early peak starting in 1955 representing a gigantic Notre Dame presence, and second more massive summit with a towering Nebraska ridgeline.

AP Poll Landmarks


Aesthetic

With the data imported in Excel, I realized with the results displayed annually, there would be an incessant amount of "zigzagging" all over the histogram. I ended up breaking the chart into 5-year averages and this removed much of the entropy out of the lines on the graph. I further took in-between averages of these 5-year periods (the columns with the conference logos) and the graphs remained fairly easy to track. (They're biased towards the years ending in 3 and 8).

The conference affiliation seemed like an interesting twist to add to the team trajectories. The logos were largely sourced from Chris Creamer's Sportslogos.net. I started off trying to make the logos historically accurate, but this didn't hold true for various reasons throughout the histogram. (Some logos were hideous, some periods of time don't show a "logo" for some teams or conferences.)

I made an attempt to use colors for teams that don't constantly overlap. Coloring in team colors within the columns was fairly easy to figure out, but many lines criss-cross in between, so I had to develop a thumb rule for shading these in.

Since a mountain theme was already established, I thought back to a short conversation on my last big hike. My wife and I went to New Hampshire last summer and hiked the Franconia Notch loop (Mount Lafayette). We managed to get an early start and pick the "backwards" direction for our hike. On the way back, we stopped at almost every steep and treacherous area to allow those climbing up to make their way past before we descended.

At one spot, we hit an impasse with a pretty steep looking drop and a couple of folks at the bottom waiting for us. Intuitively, we thought we should probably take this one first, and the hikers on the bottom said something to the effect of "descent has the right of way", apparently agreeing with us. While parkouring down towards them, we admitted that we didn't know if there was an etiquette rule for this. They didn't actually know either, so we all laughed and admitted that some things are probably better decided using common sense than a prescribed rule.

This did not appear to be one of those things. I made a determination that a higher rate of ascent should take precedence later in the "in-between" columns where multiple lines crossed.

The far right column, "Summit" shows the largest single percentage of poll share with the year attained. Many of the graphed "peaks" on the histogram lie below the "Summit" value; this is because the graph is made using 5-year combined averages.

Gipper's Rockne

The AP poll began in 1936 and ranked the Top 20 college football teams. In general, only about 10-12 teams will remain ranked enough to stay above 50% for a 20-year span under this condition.

Notre Dame rules the early part of the histogram, and I named this peak "Gipper's Rockne". Their reign starts with an impressive peak of 91% in the first year of tabulation (1955), but within a decade drops below the 70% line. The descent of the three early high-climbers; Notre Dame, Michigan, and Duke are colored in lighter tones. This was entirely aesthetic, perhaps indicating the peaks of the early powers in the background.

During World War II in the 1943 and 1944 seasons, many traditional schools were replaced in the AP rankings by Air, Pre-Flight and base-centered teams. While some traditional mainstays such as Duke and Notre Dame remained consistently in the polls, newcomers such as the El Toro Marines, Camp Peary, Randolph Field, Bainbridge and Great Lakes Naval Stations, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Air Force Divisions and Pre-Flight teams from Norman, Del Monte, Iowa, and UNC suddenly took over the AP Poll.

Top Ten Valley

As suddenly as the influx of military teams arrived, they were gone. Military installation and base teams disappeared in '45, leaving only the formerly recognized service scademies (Army, Navy, and Air Force). While West Point and the Navy experienced short term boons, they slowly lost their dominance over traditional football powers, and with that their poll presence.

The major force of decline for the valley featured in this histogram is actually from the AP poll electing to trim their inclusion from a Top 20 to only a Top 10 from 1961-67. No dominant team reigned supreme during this time either. It is much harder to sustain a loss and remain ranked when only ten teams are included in the poll.

Oklahoma briefly managed to pass Notre Dame from 1963-1965 with poll presence around 71% during this lapse.

Mount Brasky

In the early part of the Top 20 revival (from 1968 onwards), Notre Dame, Texas and Alabama took turns leapfrogging one another. Just as USC seemed poised to jump ahead of Alabama, Nebraska jutted out from nowhere in 1982, and fast approached 90%.

The histogram is dominated by a 30-year run of ubiquitous Nebraska presence in the AP poll. In the early 1960's, Nebraska's football team had only been ranked a handful of times (~3%). From 1969-1989 they had managed a 20-year run at 99.0% ranked in the AP poll. For over a decade this number slowly climbed towards 100%; arriving at this peak of ubiquity at the conclusion of the 2001 season.

The descent of Nebraska's poll presence starts almost as suddenly as it began. After appearing in the AP poll only 1/3 of the 2002 season, Nebraska begins dropping out of the AP poll more consistently. Newer powers from the state of Florida, and traditional powers Michigan and Ohio State protrude above the football landscape.

In 1989, the AP poll began recognizing the top 25 teams. From 2009 onwards, around 20 teams remain ranked more than half the time, which nearly doubles the 10-12 teams present in the earliest Top 20 polls.

Hokies presence in the AP Poll

In 1954 the Virginia Tech Fighting Gobblers managed to make its first AP poll appearance. The Hokies posted a 3-0 mark over ACC opponents N.C. State, Wake Forest, and Clemson prior to making the poll at the No. 16 spot. They managed to stay ranked the rest of the season, climbing to No. 14 before tieing William & Mary (7-7) in a Southern Conference contest. For the season they managed to stay ranked for 9 of the 12 weeks (75% for this exercise).

The Southern Conference at this time had Virginia Tech and West Virginia, but the rest of the 9 teams (Furman, Davidson, VMI, Richmond, William & Mary, George Washington and the Citadel) are currently either FCS schools or have dropped football entirely. Success in the Southern Conference did not guarantee appearances in the AP poll.

The Hokies briefly made it back into the AP poll for 4 weeks in 1956, climbing all the way to No. 15 until a 6-21 loss to No. 13 ranked Clemson knocked them back out.

Virginia Tech's lone Southern Conference championship was not enough to vault them back into the polls in 1963. For one, they lost their opening game against Kentucky, and a second major limitation; for the 8-2 season the AP poll was only determining a top 10. The Fighting Gobblers would leave the conference after the following season, register a mascot name change, and wait until the final poll of Bill Dooley's final season (1986) before earning a ranking again (No. 20 spot after defeating N.C. State on a last second Chris Kinzer FG).

In 1989, the AP Poll changed the ranking scheme to include 25 teams. At the conclusion of the 1990 season, the Virginia Tech Hokies beat then No. 17 ranked UVa 38-13 to earn the consolation No. 25 ranking to close out the final AP poll for the season.

In 1993, Virginia Tech began a 22-year streak of AP poll appearance (they finally missed the poll entirely again in 2015). The Hokies were ranked for the entirety of the 1994, 1999-02 seasons, '05, '07, '09, and 2011 seasons.

The AP poll presence which began during the Frank Beamer regime has stayed on course. Virginia Tech was ranked for half of Justin Fuente's first year at the helm (2016), and most of the second (2017).

Comments

Thanks for putting in the work to put this together.

Warning: this post occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)..

I'm usually pretty good with graphs (being a rocket scientist and all that), but this one is making my eyes go loopy.

If you're not sure if my comment warrants a "/s", it probably does.

still incredibly qualified...

Warning: this post occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)..

brockman_148, do you have a link a full screen version so I can get into the details. I think the plot would benefit from a widescreen view.

Come to Blacksburg and see what the Hokie Pokie is really all about

You should be able to click it now, and it will open in a new tab.

Thanks! That is helpful! I also am really happy about the fact that uva and wvu have never cracked the BigEleventy and that VT's peak is tied with UGA.

Come to Blacksburg and see what the Hokie Pokie is really all about

...that VT's peak is tied with UGA.

Is that correct, though? Zooming in on the graph, it looks like UGA's peak is significantly higher than VT's, despite the percentages being the same on the right. The years of the peaks check out, too, though you can't see the years axis from my crop.

And yes, my eyes stopped spinning long enough to understand, once I could zoom in. ;^)

If you're not sure if my comment warrants a "/s", it probably does.

Mathematically the graph would be much more hectic (spiky) if I updated the numbers each year.

I originally only updated every 5 years, and it looked a lot smoother, but missed a lot of peaks (a lot of teams that made a significant jump into the tan ">40%" area were left out, too). So I halved that and went to 2.5 year samples for the visual. I threw conference logos in to the half-increments.

The peak is taken from the data table I had with every season on it. A teams' "peak" in the column won't necessarily line up with a fixed point on the graph because of this.

Added to that, only one team can represent a percent on the graph at a time. If 8 teams were all between 70-71%, I would stack them by percentage around the midpoint (with ties decided alphabetically).

TL;DR - The numbers in the peak column are accurate. The graph is accurat-ish.

If you're not sure if my comment warrants a "/s", it probably does.

I'm no Rocket Surgeon, but as a Reactor Operator I'm highly trained in both the Arts and the Crafts. Objectives "Color Somethin' Fierce" and "Happy Mountain" are both clearly met.

You make a good point; you do have to open up the image and scroll around to get any detail. I use MS Paint and haven't quite mastered the ability to make these legible in a browser yet.

Joe hooked me up and made it so you can right click on the image to open it in a new tab (for zooming and scrolling). That should at least clear up the fuzziness.

Yes, being able to zoom in helped greatly. Nice work.

via GIPHY

If you're not sure if my comment warrants a "/s", it probably does.

Wow. That's a mountain of work.

Nebraska #1 during the period when they had about 300 people on scholarship in any one year. Good times

"Hamdog is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life"....Brian Carson from the Internet(s)

I always look forward to the Big Eleventy updates, I think your 20 year period is just about right to give some credit for historical success without factoring in all the BS polling and championships of yesteryear. I am not looking forward to the VT drop-off once the 1999 season is no longer factored in. Can you maybe pre-empt the pain by forward calculating where VT will sit if they spend most of the 2018 season ranked 22nd and most of the 2019 season ranked 15th?

Come to Blacksburg and see what the Hokie Pokie is really all about

The only factor this graph displays is ranked/unranked. I use the same criteria for Big Eleventy membership.

The max you can lose is 5% from a fully ranked to unranked season.

Some teams like Tennessee and Penn State can't make up any ground because the only thing dropping off 20 years ago are completely ranked seasons. We are also starting to run into those.

Similarly, teams like Boise State have nowhere to go but up (they still weren't FBS 20 years ago).

Obviously a loss for a top ten team isn't as likely to knock them out of the rankings as a loss for a team clinging onto the #22 spot. As long as we stay ranked all year, there's no drop off from being locked in the top ten to hanging around in the teens-twenties for this exercise.

😳 wow!

This is great stuff brockman! For me, this wins the interwebs today.

Btw, are there graphical representations broken down per conference? It'd be interesting to see these mountains per conference. But you've done enough work already.

Great stuff!

Let's Go

HOKIES

I didn't do a conference breakdown. The ACC was once a pretty weak conference. Duke being the lone powerhouse in the 50's, and absolutely no representation until Clemson shows up in the late 80's. They made a killing on expansion; both grabbing Independents and fleecing the Big East.

Independent teams used to fare as well as any Conference.

The PAC-12 changed their name a lot (Pacific Coast Conference, AAWU, then PAC-8, PAC-10 & PAC-12). They've distinguished themselves as the only big conference who accurately counts their members. As for their powerhouses; USC & UCLA are constants, Cal dropped off and Oregon popped up recently. They're probably the most consistent conference on here.

The Big 10 and SEC have been the powerhouses throughout. They'd be trading for the top spot; obviously the SEC has pulled away a bit (I think half the conference is represented somewhere on the graph in 2017).

The SWC and Big 8 were both formidable by themselves before they merged into the Big 12.

There is a little bit of representation from little conferences, as well. There's some Ivy League at the start (Penn), as well as a few MWC/WAC teams (BYU, TCU & Boise).

[The PAC-12 have] distinguished themselves as the only big conference who accurately counts their members.

via GIPHY

If you're not sure if my comment warrants a "/s", it probably does.

My eyes are glazing over looking at that graph. Appreciate the work put into it, but that's a lot of info to take in at once.

"Some days you’re a horse and some days you’re a horse’s ass. I’ve been a horse’s ass for a little while." - Roy Halladay

Thanks for all of this brockman. What would be even more amazing is if he did this all while on the john. That deserves extri, extri gobbler legs/pts.

#FUENTEenFUEGO
Waho's suck
Uva swallows

Hokie "i don't actually have a thing for poo, I just talk about it all the time" MacGruber26, everyone!

"Why gobble gobble chumps asks such good questions, I will never know." - TheFifthFuller

Looks like a Gustav Klimt painting to me. Have a leg!

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#extendbronco

So what you're saying is, we've been ranked in the top 25 more over the last 20 years than all but 6 teams? And Bama is not one of them?

I'll take it.