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The Curse of Ranked Iowa State

The Top 25 is like radar: fly under it and you’ll be fine, Cyclones.

Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

On August 24, 2020, Iowa State appeared in the preseason AP Top 25 for the third time in school history. The AP Poll has always been an elusive prize for the Cyclones – Wake Forest, Rutgers, and Vanderbilt are the only Power Five programs with fewer total poll appearances than Iowa State – so this should have been a sign of good things to come, especially in a season where the polls only have about half the usual teams to choose from.

Then the Cyclones went and wasted that preseason ranking, losing to Louisiana at home by 17 and dropping out of the poll. That game left Iowa State with a record of 17-24-2 when playing as a ranked team since 1970. (No, 18-23-2 wouldn’t be much more impressive, but you should always choose “not losing to a Sun Belt squad at home by 17” if that’s on the menu.)

13 of those 24 losses came against other ranked opponents, from Good Oklahoma Teams to Good Texas Teams to Good Missouri Teams. Those stumbles at least adhere to arithmetic sense, as Iowa State had the lower rank in 11 of the losses. But Louisiana didn’t come into the matchup ranked at all, though that has changed after their victory.

Rankings may be inherently subjective measurements of quality. They are, however, very good measurements of expectations. Still, Iowa State’s only 15-11 when they’re ranked and their opponent is not, and the team with a number in parentheses next to it should beat the team that has none. So says The Sneetches, College Football Edition.

That 15-11 made me wonder: what does Iowa State do, historically, when they’re playing with newly-acquired expectations? I call this a team’s RAfA* (Record After Appearance). There are two kinds of games that qualify for the RAfA count:

  1. The first game of the season after appearing in the preseason top 25
  2. The first game after a team makes it into the top 25 after being unranked

If a team bounces in and out of the top 25, it’s possible they can have multiple RAfA games in one season.

The Louisiana loss dropped Iowa State’s RAfA since 1970 to 7-9-1. That only gives us a partial answer, though; if the Cyclones keep getting ranked only to face a top five team immediately thereafter, they’re victims of bad luck, not stage fright. So let’s break that record up into two sets:

Well, it’s not bad luck. If you’re an Iowa State fan, you’d probably like the Cyclones to do better than a coin flip when they face an unranked opponent after themselves getting into the top 25. But to get a sense for whether Iowa State’s really underachieving, we’ll need to compare them to some of their peers. I picked five teams close to Iowa State in overall poll appearances and compared their numbers in total RAfA, RAfA vs. ranked teams, and RAfA vs. unranked teams.

Iowa State’s the shyest school in the spotlight here; Southern Miss is the only other school with a RAfA below .500. Cincinnati’s technically at the bottom in RAfA vs. ranked opponents, though the Bearcats have only played one game that fits that scenario, but Indiana’s a good bit behind the Cyclones as well.

That record against unranked opponents is the concerning part. Iowa State’s tied with Wake Forest and Southern Miss, which is not generally a phrase followed by “and that’s why everything’s looking up for this football program.”

See the paradox? Iowa State wants to have good seasons. Good seasons have lots of wins. Lots of wins gets you ranked, and when Iowa State gets ranked, it usually stops winning. What are the Cyclones to do?

I propose a simple answer: bribery. Pay AP voters to leave Iowa State off the ballot, no matter how many victories they pile up or ranked opponents they beat. Let this be the perpetually disrespected program, ignored not out of malice or neglect but because of love.

Well, love and bribery.

*Look, the French Open’s coming up, and life is not easy in these SEO streets.