College Football Rankings 2019: Breaking down Coaches Poll in Week 5

Last week the AP Top 25 was up for scrutiny after Week 3 action. This week, let’s take a look at what transpired in college football’s Week 5 Coaches Poll.

There was tons of movement in the polls this week, as teams suffered upsets all over the place and Top 25 matchups forced the issue in a couple of key contests. That was equally true for the AP Top 25 as it was for the Coaches Poll.

Last week in this weekly analytical breakdown of poll results, we focused on the AP Top 25. This week, let’s turn our attention to the other major poll running from the beginning of each season.

Now in its 70th season of existence, coaches across the country started ranking the top teams during the 1950 season. The Coaches Poll, originally administered by UPI, was taken over by USA Today in 1990 — first in conjunction with CNN, then with ESPN, before the newspaper acquired exclusive control of the top 25 list in 2005.

There are always some discrepancies between where the coaches place teams and where the AP voters place each team. Part of what we track in this space are vote-shares — calculated as the average number of points acquired on a given ballot. This works in a reverse numerical order, where 25 points equates to the No. 1 spot, 24 points is equivalent to No. 2, and so on.

Before we dive into the biggest climbs and falls in the Coaches Poll this week, let’s first look at the variance between the two major polls entering Week 5:

The most interesting parts of this list are the points of widest variance. In the chart above, the variance column shows the gaps of widest discrepancy. Marked in yellow are the points where the two polls offer vote-shares that fall within 0.05 points of one another in either direction. In green are those points where the coaches like teams more than the AP voters; in purple are those teams about which the AP voters feel much better than the coaches.

Top 5 Teams Higher in Coaches Poll than AP Top 25

  1. Michigan (+1.36)
  2. Penn State (+1.15)
  3. Wash. State (+1.10)
  4. Florida (+1.02)
  5. Memphis (+0.92)

In each of the five cases to the left, the variance in vote-shares effectively means that these teams are placed one spot higher on the average Coaches Poll ballot than on an average AP Top 25 ballot.

What is significant about this figure is not necessarily where a team places right now in each poll. Rather, a higher vote-share provides a team a stronger platform from which to climb up the ladder.

For example, Michigan is currently ranked No. 20 in both the Coaches Poll and the AP Top 25 after their 35-14 loss at Wisconsin in Week 4. But those No. 20 rankings are in no way equal, as Michigan received 1.36 more points per coach than they did from each media member.

Top 5 Teams Higher in AP Top 25 than Coaches Poll

  1. USC (+2.15)
  2. California (+1.05)
  3. Oregon (+0.98)
  4. Notre Dame (+0.87)
  5. Texas (+0.86)

To put it another way, Michigan is 56 total points behind No. 19 Utah in the Coaches Poll this week. In the AP Top 25, the Wolverines are also slotted one spot behind the Utes — but the gap between the two teams is 139 points, and that in a poll with three fewer voters.

It will be much easier for Michigan to play its way back up the Coaches Top 25 than it will be to recover in the AP poll this season. Conversely, USC finds itself ranked No. 21 in the AP Top 25 and No. 25 in the Coaches Poll. That four-spot gap is equivalent to landing two spots higher on the average AP voter’s ballot than the average coach’s ballot.

With several months still to play in the regular season, this might seem semantic right now. For Power Five teams, it often can be an exercise in futility to read too far into these numbers in September, as big results can tip voters in strange ways.

We will keep track of the variance between the two polls as we enter autumn proper, and once the College Football Playoff selection committee starts offering up its weekly list later in the season we will start evaluating that hierarchy against the two major polls.

Biggest Mover: California (+381/No. 23 to No. 16)

California made the biggest jump of the week, launching seven spots up the Coaches Poll after taking down Ole Miss on the road in Week 4. The Golden Bears earned the first road win by a Pac-12 team against an SEC program since 2010, when Oregon took down Tennessee at Neyland Stadium and the Pac-12 was still the Pac-10.

The Golden Bears have climbed rapidly from the land of the unranked. Justin Wilcox’s squad did not receive a single point in the preseason Coaches Poll, and they were still found nowhere on any ballots after Week 1. Only when they upset Washington in Seattle in Week 2 did Cal start to gain traction, climbing into the group of others receiving votes, and a week later they booked their ticket into the Coaches Poll with a six-point win over North Texas.

The win in Oxford, however, really launched California into a new realm. On the average ballot the Golden Bears were slotted six spots higher than they had been the previous week, ensuring their massive climb. With Arizona State coming to Berkeley on Friday night and a trip to Autzen Stadium in two weeks, the Golden Bears could continue climbing up into the top 12 by the beginning of October given their trajectory to date.

Honorable Mention: Wisconsin (+294/No. 14 to No. 9)

Wisconsin was an honorable mention here last week for their overall climb since the beginning of the season, and they earn that distinction again after making another rapid leap into the top 10 of the Coaches Poll. Taking on No. 10 Michigan, the Badgers showed off the top defense in the country as they held the Wolverines scoreless for nearly three full quarters in a 35-14 blowout.

Now in the top 10, Wisconsin remains at home over the next three weeks as Northwestern, Kent State, and Michigan State visit Camp Randall Stadium in succession. At this point the Badgers will probably need teams above them to lose to climb much further, at least until they face Ohio State in Columbus at the end of October.

Biggest Fall: Michigan (-539/No. 10 to No. 20)

If Wisconsin had another spectacular day in the polls, Michigan showed the danger of winning the August popularity contest before September games are actually in the books. The Wolverines looked listless, showing no coherent offensive identity as they struggled to get things going in Madison. The result was a 21-point defeat in Big Ten play that might have already doomed Jim Harbaugh’s team to spoiler status in the conference.

Even as they won over the first few weeks of the season, Michigan had already been falling in vote-shares from week to week as they gave up 21 points at home to both Middle Tennessee and Army. As mentioned in the introduction, Michigan is better placed in the Coaches Poll than they are in the AP Top 25, but getting anywhere near College Football Playoff contention is going to be a tough sell at this point.

The Wolverines have a chance to rebound next week at home against Rutgers, but the difficulty ramps up at the beginning of October when Iowa comes to Ann Arbor. The toughest road trip remaining on Michigan’s schedule is a trip to Penn State in mid-October, and the Wolverines at least have the advantage of getting Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State all at home.

Honorable Mention: Utah (-470/No. 11 to No. 19)

Unlike Michigan, Utah had been a steady climber up both major polls since the beginning of the season. Beginning with their Holy War victory over BYU to open the season, Kyle Whittingham’s crew jumped by 4.2 vote-shares over the next three weeks to climb from No. 15 to No. 11 in the Coaches Poll.

That steady progression week over week evaporated in a single loss on the road at USC. All at once, the Utes lost their shot at the College Football Playoff, dropped a key tiebreaker in the Pac-12 South divisional battle, and fell eight spots for the second-biggest drop of the week

Next: When Cinderella dreams collapse on the gridiron

Utah’s gap over the Wolverines is smaller among the coaches than it is among the media. While they are within five points of Virginia in both major polls, Utah is much closer to No. 17 Washington in the Coaches Poll than they are on the AP’s list. That could allow for a bigger climb in the former than the latter as the Utes face Washington State to close out September.