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Why USF football still isn’t ranked on my AP Top 25 ballot

The Bulls aren't doing enough against a weak schedule to justify putting them in the top 25, Matt Baker writes.
OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 
USF Bulls cornerback Ronnie Hoggins (19) tackles East Carolina Pirates wide receiver Deondre Farrier (1) for a short gain during the fourth quarter of the game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Saturday, September 22, 2018.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times USF Bulls cornerback Ronnie Hoggins (19) tackles East Carolina Pirates wide receiver Deondre Farrier (1) for a short gain during the fourth quarter of the game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Saturday, September 22, 2018.
Published Oct. 8, 2018

USF cracked the AP Top 25 this week at No. 23. The Bulls remain unranked on my ballot, as they have been all season.

Many USF fans are unhappy about my decision (which is fine). Some are accusing me of bias and having some sort of anti-Bulls grudge (which is false).

So let's discuss.

The pro-USF arguments I hear most often are simple: USF (5-0) is one of only 11 undefeated teams remaining, it has won 26 of its last 30 games and it has two Power Five wins.

Those points are all correct, but they're not that simple.

The Power Five wins metric isn't a good one for USF. That number isn't going up, but it will increase for Auburn, North Carolina State and so on. Even if that argument helps the Bulls now, it will hurt them later. More importantly from my perspective, it implies that all Power Five wins are the same, and that's not true. Oregon State isn't on par with Alabama. Beating USF would be much more of an accomplishment for a team than beating Rutgers. You only get credit for playing the team on your schedule, not its affiliation.

USF is one of the best Group of Five programs, but its previous success over the last few years is irrelevant. Results that happened before August are excluded from my thought process. Last year's 10-win season has nothing to do with how good the current team is.

Winning is the most important factor, but it's not the only one I consider. If victories were all that mattered, USF would be tied for first with Alabama, Clemson and the other perfect teams, and all the one-loss teams would be tied for 12th. That's not the point of the AP poll. The point is to rank the top 25 teams, as I see them based on records, strength of schedule, advanced metrics, the eye test and anything else.

And I don't think the Bulls' performance against their schedule has made them one of the top 25 teams in the country this season.

USF's schedule is, unquestionably, soft. It's No. 103 nationally, according to the Sagarin ratings. We have no way of knowing, but I think if Texas A&M or Auburn or Mississippi State played that slate, they'd all be undefeated, too.

My thinking on strength of schedule has evolved a little. SBNation's Bill Connelly has convinced me that you can learn something from every game if you look hard enough. So let's look beyond USF's schedule and into the performances.

Throw out the opener against Division I-AA Elon (and do the same for every other team's I-AA win). USF's best victory is a 49-38 home win over a decent Georgia Tech team that's ranked 41st by Sagarin and 56th in S&P+. That's a fine win.

Now look at the rest.

USF beat Illinois (92nd in Sagarin, 100th in S&P+) by six thanks to a fourth-quarter rally and a touchdown in the closing minutes. Penn State beat Illinois 63-24. Lovie Smith's Illini's only two Division I-A wins are against 1-5 Rutgers and 1-5 Kent State (by a touchdown).

USF beat East Carolina (126th in Sagarin, 112th in S&P+) by seven thanks to an explosive fourth-quarter touchdown run. ECU's resume also includes a five-point loss to North Carolina A&T and a 43-point loss to Temple.

USF beat UMass (146th in Sagarin, 108th in S&P+) 58-42 and was in control for the entire second half. So was Ohio the week before when it beat the Minutemen by the same score. Boston College, Georgia Southern and Florida International all beat UMass by more.

I apply this same thought process consistently. I felt similarly about USF last year (when many Bulls fans were also unhappy with me). I felt the Bulls would slip up if they kept playing the way they were, and they did against Houston. I didn't rank Colorado last week (while other voters did), and I ranked the Buffaloes lower this week than my peers. Unbeaten Cincinnati is No. 25 in the poll but unranked on my ballot for the same reasons.

I do, however, have one notable team ranked in my top 12 despite a poor schedule: UCF. That's because the Knights are doing what USF is not. They're dominating those lackluster opponents.

All four of UCF's I-A wins have been by at least 20 points, including Saturday's 48-20 win over SMU and a 45-14 win over Pitt (in which UCF doubled the Panthers' yardage). I also saw both teams in person on back-to-back days and thought UCF is a much better team, but I can't quantify that.

Don't take this as a shot against USF. It isn't. I think the Bulls are a good program and a good team. But based on the unspectacular performances against poor opponents, I simply don't think they're among the top 25 teams in the country yet.