We’re all grateful that Thanksgiving is here, if only because we can turn from one heated discussion that divides America to another equally controversial but seemingly less consequential dinner table topic. Let’s talk NCAA College Football Playoff Rankings.
At your Thanksgiving table, someone—brother or sister, aunt or uncle, grandma or grandpa—will have a vehement opinion about how well the playoff rankings represent, or do not represent, the true competitive position of each team. You know how the argument goes: some conferences are stronger than others, some team schedules are tougher, and some teams are untested or underrated.
If your team isn’t performing well on the field this year, we’d like to offer you this consolation. What matters most for all of these schools is not their football performance but their performance in preparing students for success. That is the consequential discussion.
Fortunately, when it comes to academics, we’ve developed a method at Eduventures that takes into consideration “strength of conference,” “tough schedules,” and “underrated teams.” Our Student Success Ratings assess institutions based on their performance given both institutional characteristics and actual performance over time. In other words, we don’t look for top performers in absolute terms, but for institutions that are doing well given their circumstances. We believe this provides better guidance for the task of improving institutions from the inside out.
Now let’s get to the scores. In the spirit of the NCAA Playoff Rankings, here is how top-ranked public research doctoral universities representing five powerful football conferences perform on student success. Scores vary between 35 and 70 out of a possible 100. The “hash marks” on the chart below represent each institution’s student success score. (For more on the Student Success Ratings Methodology, click here.)
Top 25 Football Schools Ranked by Student Success
Note: Private institutions Stanford, USC, Boise State, and Western Michigan are excluded from the chart.
Four playoff contenders tied for the top spot in Eduventures Student Success Ratings, scoring 70 out of a possible 100 points and exceeding the national average of 55 in their category. That ties them all for 10th position among all 159 public research/doctoral institutions we rated—more than respectable. Ohio State takes the top spot combining its solid student success score with a #2 NCAA Playoff Ranking. University of Utah, Florida State, and University of Florida are right on the Buckeyes’ heels.
ACC – Top Conference on Student Success
Among the powerhouse football conferences, the ACC takes the lead in student success with Florida State (70) as the conference leader. On average, the public research/doctoral institutions in the ACC rate a 64, which outpaces all publics in this category by a full ten points. Notably, all ACC public institutions surpass the national average of 55 with even the lowest scorer, NC State (59), cruising past by four points.
Big 10 – Solid Performance, with Room for Improvement
In the Big 10, only University of Minnesota boasts a higher student success score (74) than Ohio State. Public institutions in the Big 10 as a whole (59) best the national average by five points in our Student Success Ratings, but no Big 10 institution truly falls by the wayside. Michigan (52), Illinois (53), Indiana (54), and Iowa (56) are all within striking distance of the overall national average.
Big 12 – Not Making the Grade
The Big 12, as a whole (45), scores well below the national average of 55. With a score of 57, Oklahoma is the overall Big 12 conference leader, although it barely exceeds the national average. While Oklahoma sets a low bar atop the conference, West Virginia sets a far lower one, scoring just 37 at the bottom of the conference. This is a conference with a mismatch in football performance and student success performance.
PAC 12 – Where All the Teams are Above Average
Okay, not quite, but close. Colorado may blow the conference curve with a dismal student success score of 38, but every other team in the PAC 12 is near or better than average. Overall, PAC 12 public institutions (58) beat the national average, while Washington (64), UCLA (63), and Oregon (63) turn in solid performances. Utah leads the conference in student success with a score of 70, while also holding the #12 spot in the NCAA Playoff Rankings.
SEC – Great Disparity
Finally, the SEC story is … complicated. The SEC is home to Florida (70), one of the four highest scorers, but it is also home to Alabama, which trails all playoff contenders, with a score of 35. While the SEC conference average of 52 sits just below the national average, this outcome belies the fact that the distribution of scores for the SEC is all over the place. Some teams, like Georgia (66) and Tennessee (65), are right behind Florida. Others, like Ole Miss (56), Auburn (55), and South Carolina (55) are just mediocre, and some, Texas A&M (45), Mississippi State (45), and Kentucky (43), are struggling to come near the national average.
What does it all mean?
While it’s all well and good to have fun with rankings and ratings, we also believe that when it comes to improving student success, you should focus less on the external competition and more on the internal fight to improve. Any good football coach would tell you the same. External rankings and ratings might spur you to action, but you can only truly improve by working within your team. Having said this, every institution needs support and advice from their larger community.
Athletic conferences are unifying entities not only in sport but in the total self-concept of their member institutions. The way these universities share student success practices and interact off the field can influence a conference identity that has consequences beyond what happens on the football field.
At Eduventures we are here to help spark and inform those conversations and collaborations within your institutions or within your conference cohorts. In the meantime, if you want to decompress this Thanksgiving, sit down with your turkey leftovers this weekend, hide from the Black Friday shoppers, then read our recently published report on student success top performers (Improving Student Success: Is Your Institution Really Ready?). But first, enjoy your family and friends this Thanksgiving.