Fickleness can be a word that explains many things in life: the commitment level of a top recruit, a high school relationship, or most politicians. It also does a great job as a one-word summary of the AP and Coaches Top 25 polls this early in the season.
The very nature of polls this time of year make it very hard for Mississippi State fans (any fans really) to understand the post from Orley Hood on the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame website. In what could only be described as a backhanded compliment, Hood talks about the Bulldogs rise to No. 23 in both polls only to tear it down.
Hood missed the mark two ways in his post. Everyone knows that some teams shoot up the rankings early or start high because of their reputation, but Mississippi State does not fit that description. The fact that Mississippi State worked its way into the rankings this week shocked many Mississippi State fans, even if there does not look to be 23 teams better than the Bulldogs. Either way, a simple look back at the history of the fourth poll of the year proves that Hood and detractors stand on shaky ground when criticizing the pollsters this week.
In the week four polls of 2008, the No. 23 spot in both polls caught two teams on the rebound. Clemson, which started the season at No. 9, tumbled out of the polls after an opening 34-10 loss to Alabama to open the season. The Tigers bounced back, knocking off The Citadel and North Carolina State to move up their current spot in the poll. Any support of the Tigers from the previous season in which they finished No. 21 had eroded by that point. The Tigers went on to finish the season at 7-6 and out of the polls.
That same year, Illinois started as the preseason No. 19 in all the land, but an opening 52-42 loss to Missouri knocked them from the rankings. The Illini rebounded by knocking of East Illinois 47-21 to move back to No. 25, and they topped UL-Lafayette to move to the No. 23 ranking. Even though Illinois enjoyed finishing 2007 as the No. 18 team, they finished 2008 at 5-7.
2009 featured two teams working their way up the ladder at the No. 23 spot in the fourth poll of the season. Michigan, who stood at 3-0, had started the season unranked, but had moved to No. 25 on the strength of wins over Western Michigan (31-7) and Notre Dame (38-34). The next week, the Wolverines stomped Eastern Michigan 45-17 to move to the No. 23 spot without leaving the state. As it would turn out, the Wolverines did not do so well when forced to leave home, finishing the season at 5-7.
Over in the Coaches' Poll, Houston stood at 2-0 and held the No. 23 spot in the fourth poll of the year. The Cougars made it there by knocking off Northwestern State 55-7 and winning at Oklahoma State 45-35. The Cougars eventually finished 10-4, but finished the season outside of the rankings.
The 2010 season saw a Penn State team falling in the rankings at the No. 23 spot in the fourth AP poll of the season. The Nittany Lions had ended the 2009 season as a top ten team, and they stood at No. 18 after defeating Youngstown State 44-14 to open up play. After dropping a 24-3 decision in Tuscaloosa, Penn State fell to No. 22, and despite knocking off Kent State 24-0, Penn State dropped to No. 23. The squad kept falling and finished the season unranked.
In the counterpart poll, Michigan State stood at 3-0 in what would be a run to start the season 8-0 and reach the No. 5 ranking. The Spartans, who had been unranked at the end of the 2009 season, opened play by knocking off Western Michigan 38-14 and Florida Atlantic 30-17. Those wins, both in East Lansing, did not convince enough voters to put them into the Coaches' poll, but a home win over Notre Dame in overtime (34-31) sent Sparty to No. 23.
Michigan State bucked the trend of the teams previously mentioned, finishing the season ranked No. 14. The Spartans kept that trend alive in 2011, finishing No. 10 at the end of the season. However, Michigan State had to work for that position, only sitting at No. 23 in the fourth edition of the Coaches' poll in 2011. The Spartans had defeated Youngstown 28-6, Florida Atlantic 44-0, and won at Notre Dame 31-13.
Southern California went from unranked to end 2010 to No. 6 to end 2011, but they stopped off at No. 23 in the fourth AP poll of the year. The Trojans, the only team on this list to play all BCS schools through their first three games of the year knocked off Minnesota (19-17), Utah (23-14), and Syracuse (38-17).
From a historic standpoint, the No. 23 spot has been a crapshoot and not worthy of much criticism. If anything, the spot has been a landing spot for teams plunging down the poll or for teams that may deserve a spot. To think that the Bulldogs are unworthy of the spot because of a difficult road win is ridiculous.
Perhaps Hood should have taken a look at a historical composite of these teams. The AP poll, boosted by Southern Cal's three BCS foes saw the spot take on an average of 1.7 BCS foes by this point. Each of the teams in the Coaches' poll had played one BCS foe each, with three picking up victories. Two of the victories in the Coaches' poll came from Michigan State knocking off Notre Dame. If one removes Southern Call from the equation, and they are the best team on this list, teams ranked 23rd batted .750 against their BCS foes.
With a further look, it could be argued that only three of the eight teams in question, Southern Cal (2011), Penn State (2010) and Clemson (2008) had played significantly tougher schedules to this point in the season. No matter how someone looks at this, the historical data proves that the pollsters did not reach ranking Mississippi State at No. 23.
Finally, who would Hood move above Mississippi State? The AP voters have No. 24 Boise eleven points behind Mississippi State, and No. 25 Nebraska trails by 26 points. Oregon State and Baylor, the first two out, do not fall near even Nebraska in the points. In the Coaches' poll, Nebraska trails the Bulldogs by two points, and it would not have been a stretch to put the Cornhuskers above the Bulldogs. Oklahoma State, at No. 25, finished 26 points behind Mississippi State. That type of situation at the bottom of the poll represents a significant gap.
No one knows where this Mississippi State team will wind up, but it is hard to argue that they do not deserve to be a Top 25 in this poll, even if they had to fight to win in a place no BCS team had succeeded before.