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Why winning in style means more during a pandemic

The Cougars are not the only non-Power Five program that boasts an unblemished record, so why did voters take an earlier shining to them?

Brigham Young Cougars players celebrate after Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) scored a touchdown during an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.
BYU players celebrate after running back Lopini Katoa (4) scored a touchdown against Western Kentucky at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Today, let’s turn our attention to one of our favorite national pastimes: trying to make sense of the college football polls, Vol. 400,553.

Everyone with a laptop and a basement produces a poll these days, but let’s focus on the oldest of them all, the 70-year-old Associated Press poll, which is selected by a panel of sports writers and broadcasters and therefore absolutely infallible (let’s hope you picked up on the sarcasm there).

Not that anyone could ever accuse the pollsters of being arbitrary and capricious, but — well, actually, that’s exactly what we’re saying.

Exhibit A: BYU. The Cougars, unbeaten in seven games, are ranked No. 9. Nobody seems to care that their strength of schedule is 87th. Fine. It’s a weird season in the Year of COVID and the Cougs have been impressive, even if they are pummeling punching bags. Most teams couldn’t match their offensive output if they scrimmaged air.

Still, you have to wonder why BYU is getting so much more love from the polls than, say, Coastal Carolina (6-0), Marshall (5-0) and Liberty (6-0).

Those schools didn’t crack the top 25 until week 6, when BYU had already climbed to No. 14. They have continued to rise in the polls, but they’re not among the elite in the rankings with BYU. Coastal Carolina is ranked 15th, Marshall 16th and Liberty 25th.

Those schools have all played weak schedules and have all won their games convincingly.

Marshall’s strength of schedule — not that it seems to matter this season — is 84th, three spots better than BYU’s. They’ve even played two of the same opponents as BYU — Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech.

Coastal Carolina has beaten Kansas, Campbell (never heard of ’em) and Arkansas State, among others. Strength of schedule: 99th.

Liberty — bonus points if you can name where the school is located — has beaten Syracuse, Southern Miss, Florida International and Western Kentucky (the same school beaten by BYU and Marshall). Strength of schedule: 116th.

Could the Cougars’ superior ranking simply be due to an earlier start this season? Marshall played its first game Sept. 5, two days before BYU. Coastal Carolina opened the season Sept. 12 and Liberty Sept. 19.

Maybe the Cougars have collected style points, catching the voters’ attention because of their lopsided scores. The Cougars have won by an average score of 44.4 to 13.4 (+31), compared to Marshall’s 27.5 to 9.4 (+15.8), Coastal Carolina’s 39.8 to 18 (+22.4) and Liberty’s 40 to 21.3 (+15.8).

Running up a big margin of victory is supposed to be considered bad form, but voters are only human and big wins undoubtedly make an impression. It’s not enough to win; teams have to look good doing it, especially teams without a name brand. Speaking of which, BYU has a much stronger football brand than Marshall, Coastal Carolina and Liberty, which undoubtedly helped the Cougars crack the top 25 after their first game. Their national TV exposure also plays a huge role in their ascendance in the polls.

The Sagarin computer rankings support the disparity of the AP poll. Sagarin ranks BYU No. 6, Marshall 24, Coastal Carolina 50 and Liberty 76. But their records and their margins of win have swayed the human polls to rank all of them in the top 25. Even the computers don’t care that none of those teams has played a team in the top 30.

The challenges of the pandemic seem to have changed the (unwritten) rules, and the rankings reflect it. It’s difficult to imagine there have ever been so many from college football’s peasant class who have appeared at the same time in the rankings. Another could join the club. Louisiana-Lafayette, 3-1 with a win over then-No. 23-ranked Iowa State but a loser to Coastal Carolina, appears in the “also receiving votes” category at 27th.

The polls make even less sense than usual this season, and that’s saying something. Oregon and USC are included in the rankings, coming in at Nos. 12 and 20, respectively. Why? Strength of schedule? Impressive wins? Actually, they haven’t played a single game yet. This would be acceptable if it were the preseason, but it’s NOVEMBER. Utah also was included in the first poll after playing zero games, but dropped out after playing zero games.

One thing remains the same: There are different rules for Power Five schools, even those from the weak Pac-12. They don’t even have to show up to appear in the rankings.