Whoa, Nellie! Empirical Tests of College Football's Conventional Wisdom
College football fans, coaches, and observers have adopted a set of beliefs about how college football poll voters behave. I document three pieces of conventional wisdom in college football regarding the timing of wins and losses, the value of playing strong opponents, and the value of winning by wide margins. Using a unique data set with 25 years of AP poll results, I test college football's conventional wisdom. In particular, I test (1) whether it is better to lose early or late in the season, (2) whether teams benefit from playing stronger opponents, and (3) whether teams are rewarded for winning by large margins. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I find that (1) it is better to lose later in the season than earlier, (2) AP voters do not pay attention to the strength of a defeated opponent, and (3) the benefit of winning by a large margin is negligible. I conclude by noting how these results inform debates about a potential playoff in college football.
I thank Rodney Andrews, Lisa D. Cook, Travis D. Logan, Thomas Logan, Jr., Anthony T. Logan, Vu Nguyen, Michael Sinkey and Michael Stengel for numerous helpful conversations. Paul J. Healy, Dan Levin, Matthew S. Lewis and James Peck provided helpful suggestions. I am greatly indebted to my team of superb undergraduate research assistants who did the heavy lifting of raw data collection: Gregory Barson, Donald Butler, Mark Byrnes, Megan Collins, Collin Davis, Matthew Dodovich, Ashley Higgins, Michael Kuch, Patrick Sprinkle, and John Taylor. Jun Nakabayashi provided excellent assistance in auditing the data based upon an algorithm suggested by Travis D. Logan. The usual disclaimer applies. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.