Rankings are subjective, sometimes irrational

Updated: July 26, 2007, 11:35 AM ET
By Bill Curry | Special to ESPN.com

Our recent ESPN.com assignment was to rate the Division I-A football programs from No. 1 to No. 119, based on the last 10 years of performance on the field, in the classroom and with NCAA compliance.

It was a worthy project, and forced me to concentrate. We were informed in passing that our top 25 would be publicized. Being the daring sort, I decided to take the easy way out -- I rated the top 25 and punched the send button. Almost as fast as I got it off, I was gently reminded that we were to evaluate all 119.

A fancy word from my college days popped into my mind. Let's see, "What does permutation mean? It figures in here somewhere."

According to Wikipedia:

"A permutation is the rearrangement of objects or symbols into distinguishable sequences. Each unique ordering is called a permutation. For example, with the numerals one to six, each possible ordering consists of a complete list of the numerals, without repetitions. There are 720 total permutations of these numerals, one of which is: '4,5,6,1,2,3.'"

Computing the total permutations in the numerals one through 119, there would be exactly 55,745,857,612,076,058,813,234,317,117,319,771,556,272,886,109,483,581,752,
463,927,935,846,946,310,374,691,578,057,284,710,599,874,844,234,646,982,443,450,754,
604,453,404,911,734,348,832,487,342,619,913,750,049,708,004,343,808,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000.

Mike Golic
Andy Altenburger/Icon SMIEveryone -- even broadcasters -- has certain biases that are hard to overcome.

Math teachers will tell you that number is better known as 119!

(In fairness, I should tell you I asked for assistance from our Baylor School Math department in computing the number. If you do not believe me, check my math.)

Anyhow, we Americans are way too serious about numbers, and I had a hard time doing the computations to rate the teams in exactly the right order. Being a citizen of the United States, a sports enthusiast all my life, and a football analyst, I am expected to do things by the numbers, and we were dealing with too many.

Besides, the process was far too rational for these zany times. It's football time. We are not supposed to think. We are supposed to emote!

So I decided to use some tried and true methods employed by fans, broadcasters and moms through the years.

If we're honest with ourselves, most people rate teams based on geography or matriculation. If fans went to a particular school or come from the area, they know precisely how to rank that team. SEC fans know their guys are better than the surfer dude West Coast teams and the corn-fed Big Ten scholars.

Never mind the numbers. They don't matter, so why look at them?

My sister likes the teams with the cutest coaches. I had a buddy once who detested Tennessee and wasn't quiet about expressing his views. When I asked about his vendetta, he shouted, "I hate that shade of orange! And I never did like 'Rocky Top' neither!"

My broadcast buddies, especially play-by-play men and women, don't like certain schools based on the broadcast booths. "Too tight!" they complain, or "Too high! I can't make out the numbers," they say, squinting.

Mike Golic once said he liked the schools with the most food. Not the best food, but the most food. He once ate an entire turkey leg on camera, sneaking behind Dave Barnett and me while we were doing a two-shot. The now svelte Golic will have to devise a new ranking system, I suppose.

My favorite group is the moms. I was once accosted by a player's mother who was sure we were intentionally keeping her son from being an All-American. Our doctors were disturbed by her linebacker's propensity to be knocked unconscious every time he hit a ball carrier. The mom, however, was not concerned by that triviality. She wanted that young man to be a star. She ranked the teams based on which one would let that child get knocked out most often.

But the Hall of Fame selection mother was the one who called and said, "Coach, I don't like the number my son is wearing at homecoming!" After I came to the startling conclusion that she was serious, I tried to explain that he was wearing the only one we had at his position. She was inconsolable, and would not have ranked us very high that week.

Here's the point: Rankings are subjective. We all have our biases and eccentricities. When you see rankings having to do with more than pure wins and losses, your computation methods might be funnier than that which normally passes for humor in our sport.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is the executive director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.

Bill Curry

College Football
Former coach Bill Curry joined ESPN in 1997 as a college football game analyst. His primary assignment is the ESPN2 College Football Saturday Night telecast, along with selected bowl games. His knowledge and easy-going manner have translated quite effectively into the broadcast booth, where he's been well-received by fans and media alike.