High school national rankings both an art and science

Grayson players run onto the field before their opening game against Collins Hill at Grayson High School Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in Loganville. Grayson is ranked in the five major national high school polls: No. 4 by the USA Today Sports Super 25, No. 6 by MaxPreps, No. 7 by High School Football America, No. 12 by the Massey Ratings and No. 54 by CalPreps.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

5 polls — 3 computer, 2 subjective — form general consensus of top teams

In 1982, start-up national newspaper USA Today began publishing subjective rankings of what its sports staff believed to be the top 25 teams in the country, a poll named the Super 25. Georgia’s own Valdosta Wildcats, which went 15-0 and won the Class 4A championship, finished No. 2 in the final rankings behind Cincinnati Moeller.

The USA Today Sports Super 25 still runs weekly during football season, and it has been joined by a handful of other national polls — CalPreps, High School Football America, Massey Ratings and MaxPreps — that form a consensus of which teams are the country’s best. And those polls have become more accurate over time, with a lot less guess work, thanks to readily available scores and information on the internet, streamed broadcasts of games and teams traveling to play national schedules.

Georgia teams are sprinkled throughout the five major national polls, with Lowndes ranked the highest at No. 3 by HSFA. Grayson is No. 4 in the Super 25. Brookwood, Cedar Grove, Norcross, North Gwinnett and Parkview, among others, also can be found in at least one of the polls.

Inherently, the task of whittling 16,000-or-so football playing high schools down to the finite number of 25 or 100 teams involves imperfect strategy, and each of the major polls take their own path to getting there. Pollsters at USA Today and MaxPreps use a subjective approach, evaluating what they see from attending games, watching film and conducting extensive research. CalPreps, HSFA and Massey Ratings take the objective route, using proprietary algorithms to crunch numbers, calculating factors that in some cases include strength of schedule or margin of victory.

Ken Massey, creator of the Massey Ratings system that most notably was central to determining college football’s BCS rankings, said objective computer rankings work much like an interstate highway system.

“Imagine a map where every city has a road to it and to a neighboring city,” said Massey, who first applied his ratings system to a high school national poll in 2008. “So from Atlanta to Chattanooga to Nashville to Indianapolis, you could find roads that connect all of those towns. It’s the same thing with schools. It’s a big network that’s pushed and pulled by who wins and loses, so you can compare California to Tennessee to Georgia pretty well if you have years of data.”

CalPreps founder Ned Freeman, who with the assistance of cofounder Eric Maddy, began applying his Freeman Ratings on a national level in 2003, acknowledged that sometimes there are roadblocks in Massey’s analogy.

“You run into issues like self-contained units,” said Freeman, who developed his first ratings at age 7 using NFL scores. “Some parts of the country, like Long Island, don’t play off the island. Illinois has parts like that, too. They’ll play within their league but not against anyone else. That’s the kiss of death for a power ratings guy.”

Where instances like the one Freeman described can limit ratings, subjective pollsters can take them into account.

At USA Today, Indianapolis Star sports editor Matt Glenesk is in his first football season in charge of the Super 25. As the Gannett-owned paper continues to downsize, the poll is no longer done on the national level, but instead divvied out to a network of regional editors, led by Glenesk, who sorts out the rankings through conference calls, his team’s regional rankings and feedback from local reporters on the ground.

“There’s no formulas or mathematics,” Glenesk said. “Just local expertise with an eye test. My reporters at the Austin American-Statesman know Texas better than anyone else. We’ve got 15 (Gannett-owned) papers in Florida that know the best teams in the state better than any formula would. So we lean on our localized expertise and build out the rankings from there.”

Steve Montoya, who heads the national rankings for MaxPreps, along with Zack Poff, run something close to a hybrid subjective/computer model. While their top-50 national poll is subjective and formed mostly through game coverage, watching NFHS Network broadcasts and Hudl, MaxPreps utilizes an algorithm-based ratings system to determine state rankings, and they sometimes use those as a reference when considering the national rankings.

“We’re ranking 50 teams, but we’re keeping an eye on an additional 50 that could jump in any week,” Montoya said. “Say there’s a team that moved into the top five in one of our state rankings. For example, Norcross was off to a 3-0 start, so let’s take a look at them. Or there’s another team that just smoked a team we were looking at, so who is this team?”

When it comes to the effectiveness of subjective polling over objective, a case can be made for both.

“It’s not like the college level where everyone in the country is playing each other, so it’s always a fun argument to have as far as which state is the best,” Montoya said. “Our rankings give that perspective.”

Said Freeman: “The two approaches validate and learn from each other. People look at the power ratings, and if a team is emerging that isn’t in the subjective rankings, they’ll keep an eye on that team. In most cases, we both end up at the same place, so it’s hard to find too much of a difference.”

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