Coming Wednesday: the rankings that matter
On Wednesday, October 18, the NCAA Division III men's and women's soccer committees will release the first of their four weekly regional rankings—the first three leading up to and the the last one being the basis for the at-large tournament selections. These rankings are based on the same primary and secondary criteria that will be used for awarding at-large tournament berths. But before getting into that, a more general introduction to the rankings is in order for those new to D-III soccer or those still not clear on the distinction and significance of the different rankings that exist.
By this point in the season, even new fans should be aware of the NSCAAoops! USC regional and national rankings and the D3soccer.com national Top 25, but some might be confused when hearing about the NCAA regional rankings and have questions such as: Are these yet another set of rankings? Why haven't I seen these rankings yet this season? Are they important? Do they matter? Adding to the potential confusion, the NCAA includes the NSCAAoops, I did it again! USC national rankings on their website even though they are not NCAA rankings but rather rankings done by the United Soccer Coaches (the new name for the National Soccer Coaches Association of America). You may think or have heard others say that the USC and D3soccer.com rankings don't mean anything; it's the NCAA rankings that matter. And that is correct in that the USC and D3soccer.com rankings do not play any part in the process of selecting teams for the NCAA championship tournaments; the NCAA's own rankings do as will be explained below.
However, I think it’s unfair to say that the USC and D3soccer.com rankings don't mean anything. They are useful for acknowledging the most successful teams and for fans to discover what schools outside their conference and their region are having great seasons. If done well, they can also give fans a feel for the relative strength of the teams they have seen when put in the national context. That is, they can be educational and informative. But equally they have entertainment value and can spark conversation and debate among fans. D-I basketball fans can banter and argue over the rankings while knowing they do not decide tournament berths, and there's no reason D-III soccer fans shouldn’t as well. Those who pooh-pooh these rankings as meaningless and chose to ignore them miss the point and miss the fun.
That said, it is the NCAA regional rankings that are a critical piece of the pre-tournament puzzle, so let’s first have a look at how they work and why they matter. Then, at the end of this column, I will share some comments and observations rooted in my experience of closely following and analyzing the regional rankings and at-large tournament selections for over a decade.
NCAA REGIONAL RANKINGS
The NCAA regional rankings are done by the same regional and national committees which will make the at-large selections for the men's and women's NCAA tournaments and the rankings are done by applying the same criteria which is used for making the at-large selections. The rankings are released following the fourth last, third last, and second last weeks prior to the tournament selections being made. Therefore, by design, these rankings are a direct foreshadowing of the at-large selections providing a certain level of transparency to the at-large selection process. It is for this reason that these rankings are so important and meaningful.
All information about the regional rankings is found in the Division III Soccer Pre-Championship Manual. Much of what follows highlights, summarizes, or quotes the manual.
The NCAA regional rankings are done by the eight-member NCAA Division III Men's and Women's Soccer Committees which are each composed of the chairs of their respective regional advisory committees. The Regional Advisory Committees assist the national committee in evaluating teams. These are the same national and regional committees which will make the Pool B and Pool C at-large selections for the men's and women's NCAA tournaments. The members of these committees can be found on pages 9-13 of the Pre-Championship Manual.
As per the Pre-Championship Manual (pgs. 13, 18 and 19), the rankings will be released on the following dates which correspond to the last three Wednesdays prior to the tournament selections being made and the Monday that the at-large selections and tournament fields are announced:
• Wednesday, October 18
• Wednesday, October 25
• Wednesday, November 1
• Monday, November 6
Like the USC and D3Soccer.com rankings, they are based on results through the Sunday prior to their release.
Where to find the Rankings
The rankings are posted by the NCAA on their Division III men's and women's soccer webpages under "Rankings" where you must select the "Regional Rankings" option from the pull-down menu. They are also conveniently available here on our site from the “Rankings” pull-down menu above or by clicking on the following links:
Size of the Rankings
The number of teams ranked differs from region to region and from men to women based on the number of eligible teams in each region. The top 16 percent of eligible teams (or a minimum of four) are ranked by the committees (that is an increase of 1% over previous seasons). As per the Pre-Championship Manual (pgs. 18-19), the number of teams to be ranked in 2017 is as follows:
New England Region—12
South Atlantic Region—8
Great Lakes Region—8
New England Region—12
South Atlantic Region—9
Great Lakes Region—8
The changes from last year, due to the increase to 16%, are that one more men's team will be ranked in the Mid-Atlantic, North and West regions, and one more women's team will be ranked in the East region. The regional alignments, school sponsorship, and eligibility by region can be found in Appendices B and C (“Men's Sponsorship” and "Women's Sponsorship, respectively) of the Pre-Championship Manual (pgs. 29-44).
The rankings are done by applying the same criteria which is used for making the at-large tournament selections. The at-large selection criteria are found in Section 2.4 of the Pre-Championship Manual (pgs. 21-22). The criteria is divided between primary and secondary criteria, the latter only being considered if the former does not enable a distinction to be made between schools. The criteria underwent a significant change prior to the 2013 season when the in-region/out-of-region distinction was abandoned. Previously only games versus "in-region" opponents were consider as part of the primary criteria with secondary criteria considering out-of-region and non-Division III competition. Now, primary criteria considers all Division III opponents while results versus non-Division III opponents (NAIA, NCCAA, Division II, Division I) are considered secondary criteria.
Primary Criteria (not listed in priority order)
Secondary Criteria (not listed in priority order)
Regular season and conference postseason matches are considered. See the sections that follow for an explanation/clarification of the results versus ranked teams and strength of schedule.
Results versus Ranked Teams
For the purposes of at-large selections, "ranked teams" are now (starting this season) those teams ranked in either the final rankings or the third weekly rankings. However, for the purposes of the weekly regional rankings, it is not clear if "ranked teams" will include all teams ranked in either of the previous two weeks or just the previous week as in the past. For example, will the results versus ranked teams used to evaluate the teams for the third weekly ranking be based on teams ranked in either the first or second ranking, or just the second ranking? D3soccer.com is seeking clarification from the Championship Committee concerning this.
Strength of Schedule
The Strength of Schedule (SOS) used by the Division III soccer committees is based on Opponents' Average Winning Percentage (OWP) and Opponents' Opponents' Average Winning Percentage (OOWP). No home and away multipliers will be applied this season as was done from 2011 to 2016 for the men and last year for the women. An explanation with an example of these calculations is found in Appendix D (pg. 45) of the Pre-Championship Manual.
Opponents' Winning Percentage (OWP):
The winning percentage of opponents' cumulative
Opponents' Opponents' Winning Percentage (OOWP):
The winning percentage of the cumulative win-loss-tie
Strength of Schedule (SOS):
Composed of OWP and OOWP weighted as follows:
Note: The calculations changed starting last year. Previously OWP was the average of each opponent's winning percentage and OOWP was the average of the OWP's of all opponents.
Regional Data Sheets
Along with the rankings, data sheets for each region are made available. These data sheets, which include all teams in each region, provide some (but not all) of the data that was considered by the ranking committee. The following data is listed: record and winning percentage against Division III opponents, results versus ranked Division III opponents, Division III SOS (all primary criteria), and non-Division III winning percentage (secondary criteria). These sheets allow for a look at the numbers the committees had in front of them and therefore insight into why some teams are ranked and others not. The NCAA provides links to this data below the rankings. Direct links to the latest released data sheets are given below:
Men's Data Sheets
Women's Data Sheets
The data sheets can also be accessed by clicking the links on our regional rankings pages.
Published Final Rankings
As part of the at-large tournament selection process, the committees do final rankings that include the results from the final week prior to the tournament, usually the completion of conference tournaments. After five years in which they were not released, these final rankings were once again published last year following the announcement of the tournament fields, and that will continue this year after overwhelming positive feedback. The final rankings answer many questions about why certain teams were at-large selections and others not.
FORESHADOWING THE AT-LARGE SELECTIONS:
SOME COMMENTS AND OBSERVATIONS
• As just mentioned above, we now get to see the fourth and final rankings that are the basis for the committee's at-large selections. These final rankings take into account the final week of games (usually conference tournaments). However, they will only be released after the tournament field—and thus at-large berths—are announced. Therefore, we will still only have the first three regional rankings in order to anticipate which teams will be selected.
• Because these rankings are done by the same committees that make the at-large selections, using the same criteria as for at-large selections, they (as intended) have in the past very accurately foreshadowed the eventual at-large selections. From 2003, the year of their inception through to 2013, there was only one year (2010) in which there was more than one real head-scratcher on the men's side with many years having none. 2014 was another year in which there were two or three very hard (impossible?) to predict selections, but predictability was restored in 2015. Last year saw two hard-to-predict—but not unreasonable—selections that made more sense once we saw the final rankings.
• As such, a team that is not ranked in the third weekly rankings has virtually no shot at a Pool C berth. You can get your hopes up, but it's just not going to happen if history is any guide. In the past ten years (2007-2016) no men's team that was unranked in the third weekly rankings (those released the Wednesday before the selections) got selected for the post-season tournament. Way back in 2005 and 2006 it happened once each year, and at least in one of those cases the results of the final week easily explained the unranked team having improved their standing.
• There will probably be twice as many Pool C candidates in the rankings as available berths. For example, last year there were 41 Pool C men's teams in the third rankings but only 19 Pool C berths available. In the five years before that, the ratio was 39/18, 38/18, 44/19, 38/20 and 40/19. So it isn't good enough to simply be ranked to make the NCAA tournament as most regions will have three to five ranked teams not selected. Even the strongest regions do not have all their ranked teams selected. A team typically needs to be in the top half of their regional rankings to be selected. Depending on how little separates teams, being in the top third of the third weekly rankings may not even make a team a safe bet for an at-large berth as results in the final week could see them fall in the final rankings and land on the bubble or outside of real contention for selection.
• History indicates that the ranking of teams changes little in that last week (between the third weekly rankings and the at-large selections being made). That is, rarely does a lower ranked team in the third weekly rankings get selected ahead of a higher ranked team. Last year Dubuque got selected ahead of Macalester and Loras in the North Region, having moved from #6 to #5 in the final rankings while Loras slipped from #3 to #6 and Macalester dropped out from #4. In the South Atlantic Region, Kean was selected after flip-flopping positions with Emory in the #7 and #8 spots. So, out of 19 Pool C at-large selections, just two instances of a lower ranked team in the third weekly rankings getting pick because they moved ahead of another Pool C candidate. Both cases are explained by changes in teams' records versus ranked teams as teams fell out of or entered the final rankings. 2015 had an unusually high number of examples of this—four out of eighteen men's selections—but in 2014 there were only two examples of this and most years there has been just one instance of this. There's no reason to expect much change from the third to the final rankings as one week only represents about 10% of the total schedule. And there is no evidence that conference tournament results carry any extra extra weight because they are the most recent results nor because they may be considered "big" games, which is consistent with the established selection criteria. So do not expect big jumps or falls due to the final week's results, but one to four flip-flops is likely.
• The 2013 change in the definition of a ranked opponent from "once ranked, always ranked" to "ranked at the time of selection" increased the potential for more movement from week to week than previously, but the change for this year to "as established by the final ranking and the ranking preceeding the final ranking" should make the at-large selections a little more predictable again.
• Comparison of the regional data sheets with the rankings (and the eventual at-large selections) has shown over the past decade that the committee highly values strength of schedule. The other criteria that can be deduced to be very important is record against ranked teams, and especially wins over ranked opponents. Losses to ranked teams don't seem to be penalized so much as wins are rewarded. In other words, the committee wants teams to play challenging schedules and doesn't mind if a team drops some of their toughest games as long as they demonstrate in other games that they also can win against top opposition. So if you do not understand why one team isn't ranked and another team is, or why one team is ranked higher than another, it probably is related to SOS and results against ranked teams.
Comments or feedback for the author? Email Christan Shirk.