No. 2 Penn State (13-1-1) has been one of the best teams in the country throughout the first half of the college hockey season. The program, in just its fifth season competing as a division-one hockey team, is off the the best start in its short history. The team is currently on a long break that started following its series sweep of Michigan last week and will continue until it travels to No. 6 Ohio State on Jan 6.
You may notice that Penn State is listed as the second-best team in the country in the previous paragraph. That is due to the fact that the team currently holds the second spot in the only rankings that impact the field of 16 for the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season, the PairWise rankings.
There are three commonly-reported rankings used by the media in college hockey. The most widely-used ranking, one that is considered the standard-bearer for most hockey media, is the USCHO.com poll. Penn State received the highest ranking in program history just a couple of hours ago when the newest poll was released. The 50-person panel that votes on the poll, mostly made up of hockey reporters that do not see the games of the teams that it includes in the poll each week, has given Penn State a No. 3 ranking.
When Penn State hosted Michigan on Thursday night ESPNU covered the game nationwide. ESPN labeled Penn State as the No. 6 team in the country during its broadcast, which represents the ranking bestowed upon it by the USA Today/Hockey Magazine poll. The Lions have a No. 4 ranking in this week’s poll, the highest it has ever reached in the USA Today/Hockey Magazine poll.
The lack of a unified, agreed upon ranking throughout the college hockey media has caused a little bit of confusion, and also some controversy and blog-shaming in recent weeks. There is pressure in the community, among the reporters and readers, to ignore the PairWise until later in the season.
Last week 80 percent of the hockey media (rough estimate) assigned Penn State a No. 7 ranking in its reporting due to its current position on the USCHO.com poll. ESPN and roughly all of the remaining college hockey media gave PSU a 6 ranking, representing the USA Today/Hockey Magazine number. The Black Shoe Diaries reports the PairWise Ranking to represent the standings, so we gave PSU the No. 2 ranking in our coverage, which is where the team remains until games are played later this week. It is unlikely that the PairWise ranking will fluctuate much in the next month due to the fact that PSU does not have any games scheduled.
The reason BSD chooses to report the PairWise ranking is due to its significance. The two voter polls have no impact on the final placement of the teams for the NCAA tournament. The PairWise mimics the exact process that the selection committee will use to determine the field and since it has been around, the PairWise has never been inaccurate in its final tally.
That distinction is the cause of the confusion. After every game in all of college hockey is completed, the PairWise will be stagnant for the first and only time, and the rankings will be final. Until that day, the rankings are adjusted after the completion of every game in college hockey, and remain in motion on an hourly basis on nights that hockey games are scheduled and the results are coming in.
Much like NCAA football, the polls have unique characteristics. The USA Today Coaches poll for college football is commonly regarded as the least-accurate, least-respected way to hand out rankings for college football of those reported by the media. The same is true for college hockey. The USA Today/Hockey Magazine poll is the third-most trustworthy ranking. The AP football poll is similar to the USCHO.com voter poll, in that it is the most widely-reported ranking for the majority of the season, but toward the end of the season, is replaced by the College Football Playoff Ranking and the PairWise, respectively.
The argument can easily be made that the PairWise Rankings are inaccurate until a couple of months of the college hockey season has been completed. The argument that typically isn’t made by media, the one that is being made here, is that the voter polls are widely inaccurate early in the season as well. All one has to do is take a look at the initial few football or hockey voter polls and see the inaccuracies when compared to the current status.
Penn State was not given a ranking in either of the initial voter polls for football or hockey. Now each team is universally agreed to being in the top-5 in both voter polls. The hockey team’s No. 2 PairWise Ranking is still one spot ahead of its ranking in the USCHO.com poll and two ahead of the USA Today/Hockey Magazine poll, but it is expected that the voter polls will more closely mimic the PairWise as the season continues.
That is the opposing point for going with the PairWise ranking instead of the voter polls. The voters know that the PairWise is the final number, and as the season goes on, they simply take a look at the PairWise and assign their votes based on that number. While some voters may claim to ignore the PairWise when making their votes, which would be hard to do, the results are that the two numbers merge at the very end of the season for the most part.
It Is Hard To Rank A Team That You Have Never Seen Play
The Coaches Poll in football is typically criticized due to the knowledge that most of those who vote in the poll are too busy to watch many, if any, games of the teams that they are voting on. The same applies to both polls in college hockey. While sports reporters, which make up a portion of the USCHO.com poll voters, are more likely to watch games than coaches, it is nearly impossible to do so in college hockey.
As a reporter who has covered every Penn State hockey game for the past three years, I can say that I have seen every game that the team has played in that time. It sounds like a gimme statement, but it is more difficult than is the case for other NCAA sports that have thorough television and stream coverage. Over a dozen of the games that PSU has played in the past three years were not available in any form, television or online video stream, and so only those in attendance for the game laid eyes on the action. The series that Penn State played in Alaska two years ago was only available via live video stream, so only those who were there, or those who remained awake and watching at 1:30 a.m. eastern time, were able to see the games.
These are illustrations of the lengths one must go just to see the games of the team that it follows closely. Now imagine how hard it would be to see the games of other teams. It’s not like football or basketball, where you can flip the remote control, DVR, or watch previously played games on video stream. Less than 10 percent of all college hockey games are televised, and roughly 75 percent are available in some form of video stream online.
Very few of the USCHO.com poll voters are able to see the games that are played each week. It’s not a knock on them, it’s a difficult task, but it makes them less likely to notice a team that is new to the top of the rankings. The voters are more likely to give a team with a reputation for being successful more credit than one that does not have a positive recent record. That bias does not exist in the PairWise rankings.
Neither Penn State or Ohio State hockey were ranked in the top ten of the voter polls in the November 7 tally. Each team was in the top ten of the PairWise at the time and hasn’t dipped outside the top ten since. The voter polls slowly have acknowledged the success of the two teams, moving each up the rankings to more closely match the PairWise as the weeks have passed. OSU has a current PairWise ranking of 6 and a USCHO.com poll ranking of 10.
When the two meet in a month, it will be a match-up of top-ten teams, possibly top-5. It will be a series that will set the tone in the early-going of the Big Ten season. In the first series of the conference season, Penn State swept traditional B1G juggernaut Michigan and OSU split with Minnesota on the road. Michigan is looking like it is ‘naut’ a jugger at this moment, struggling in the early-going this season. Minnesota remains a solid squad, made up of many future-NHL players, but OSU and PSU have closed the gap, rising in status to join the Gophers. A shift of power from the normal top teams in the recent Big Ten standings to the lessor-regarded programs of PSU and OSU is underway.
The PairWise rankings indicated this shift well in advance of the voter polls. Today the voter polls have finally caught up to speed.