The social media scene went a little nutty yesterday when ESPN released its preseason college football FPI rankings and your Iowa State Cyclones were ranked 4th. Even for a program that has ascended at an incredible rate, it was still striking to see Iowa State ranked by a legit data source alongside Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. The FPI uses a rather complex formula that uses returning production and results from last year to measure expected results against an average opponent this year. In essence, it has no human component and is all data driven.
However, being ranked in that company by a data source that is respected by humans only portends good things. Generally, the FPI is a good indicator of where humans will rank teams in the pre-season AP and Coaches poll. I would anticipate as the pre-season polls come out Iowa State will find itself in the top ten in almost every single one.
Why is that important? College Football is the only major sport where human polling matters in deciding the ultimate champion. When humans decide who the final four teams will be and there is a beauty contest component, early season perception matters. By starting in the top 10, a team has immediate credibility that it only needs to affirm. It’s a lot easier to stay in the top 10 than it is to climb from outside the top 20 into the top 10 because simply there are fewer teams to jump past.
In the College Football Playoff era (since 2014), every single eventual national champion was ranked in the top six of the first preseason AP Poll. Most were in the top four to start the season. Now, granted, college football has been dominated by blue-bloods Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State in that time and they are usually ranked in the top five always to start the season and have been dominant in that time-period. But, it can be argued, those programs get the benefit of the doubt come Playoff selection time because they DO start in the top five each season.
Check out the Playoff finalists in history and their corresponding rank in the pre-season by the AP Poll:
2014 – Alabama (2), Oregon (3), Florida State (1), Ohio State (5)
2015 – Clemson (12), Alabama (3), Michigan State (5), Oklahoma (19)
2016 – Alabama (1), Clemson (2), Ohio State (6), Washington (14)
2017 – Clemson (5), Oklahoma (7), Georgia (15), Alabama (1)
2018 – Alabama (1), Clemson (2), Notre Dame (12), Oklahoma (7)
2019 – LSU (6), Ohio State (5), Clemson (1), Oklahoma (4)
2020 – Alabama (3), Clemson (1), Ohio State (2), Notre Dame (10)
Eighteen of 28 College Football Playoff finalists started the preseason ranked in the top five.
Expectations are going to remain incredibly high for Iowa State, but history proves this is actually a great thing. Fans can deal with those expectations however they want and obviously the Cyclone players and coaches should pay no attention to polls as ultimately making winning plays is all that matters. The fact remains, in college football, perception matters and it is best to start the season with a good one.