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Zach Pekale | | November 8, 2020

Before the AP poll, the Dickinson System ruled college football rankings

The 1940 Fifth-Down Game: Dartmouth vs. Cornell

Frank Dickinson never played a down of college football, yet the former Illinois economics professor might be the school's most influential figure in the sport.

While Hall of Famers Red Grange and Robert Zuppke were among the Fighting Illini revered on the gridiron, Dickinson preferred the crunching of numbers to shoulder pads. In 1926, the Dickinson System — college football's first widely accepted rankings — made its debut.

If you've ever taken an economics course, then you probably know about the concept of supply and demand. The Dickinson System came out 10 years before the AP poll. Dickinson's formula was one of the first accepted ways for college football to find out who its best teams were. Understandably, the demand for rankings has only grown over time into what it has become today.

The Dickinson System: How it works

Dickinson's statistical background helped him devise a formula that would reveal the top college football teams, including the national champion at the end of each season. We found a breakdown of the different point allocations from a 1925 copy of the Sheboygan Press, a year before Dickinson's formula was put to the test.

Here's how it works:

  • Teams are grouped into two divisions.
    • The first division is designated for teams with winning percentages above .500.
    • The second is reserved for programs whose winning percentages are exactly .500 or below.
  • For games between two opponents in the first division:
    • The winner receives 30 points while the loser gets 15.
    • Each team would receive 22.5 points in the event of a tie.
  • For games between two teams from the second division:
    • The winner earns 20 points and the loser receives 10.
    • Both teams would get 15 points for a tie.
  • For games between a team from each division:
    • First division teams would receive 20 points for a win, 15 for a tie and 10 for a loss against a second division team.
    • Second division teams would earn 30 points with a win, 20 for a tie and 10 for a loss against a first division team.
  • Rankings are determined by dividing an individual team's cumulative score by the number of games played.

As you examine the various criteria and point totals, it's clear that the system favors teams playing more difficult schedules. Dickinson backed that claim after the 1926 Big Ten rankings were released. That year, the Dickinson System graded Michigan as the conference's top team with Northwestern in second place.

Both teams went 5-0, but Michigan's strength of schedule averaged out to a higher score. Here's what Dickinson told the Indianapolis Star:

"Just because a team has completed its schedule undefeated, it is not entitled to a Big Ten championship ... Any Big Ten school that omits Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota from its schedule can scarcely lay claim to the Conference title merely on the ground of being undefeated. If such were true, a championship could be scheduled instead of earned."

The Wolverines finished fourth overall in 1926 as the Dickinson System preferred Stanford as its first national championship pick. In the 10 years before the AP poll began, Dickinson accurately picked college football's top team in seven of those seasons.* It's worth noting the formula doesn't account for ties in the final standings — the NCAA's championship history lists co-champions in 1926, 1927 and 1930.

*Note — Refers to champions recognized by the NCAA record book.

Here's a look at every college football national champion under the Dickinson System.

1940 Minnesota
1939 Southern California
1938 Notre Dame
1937 Pittsburgh
1936 Minnesota
1935 SMU
1934 Minnesota
1933 Michigan
1932 Michigan
1931 Southern California
1930 Notre Dame
1929 Notre Dame
1928 Southern California
1927 Illinois
1926 Stanford

Now, the moment you've all been waiting for. The Dickinson System has been obsolete since 1940, but I'm going to bring it back ... sort of.

To test the Dickinson System against modern-day rankings, I compiled the 2019 FBS regular-season scores for all teams ranked in the College Football Playoff poll on Dec. 3, 2019. The significance of this particular poll is that it's the rankings published at the conclusion of the regular season. 

We used the Dickinson System to grade the teams in that poll using the exact steps listed above. Here's how our top 10 compares to the CFP rankings. 

CFP Rank Team Record   Dickinson System Rank Team Points
1 Ohio State 12-0   T-1 Ohio State 25.8
2 LSU 12-0   T-1 LSU 25.8
3 Clemson 12-0   2 Georgia 25
4 Georgia 11-1   3 Boise State 23.8
5 Utah 11-1   T-4 Clemson 23.3
6 Oklahoma 11-1   T-4 Florida 23.3
7 Baylor 11-1   T-4 Notre Dame 23.3
8 Wisconsin 10-2   T-4 Penn State 23.3
9 Florida 10-2   T-9 Baylor 22.9
10 Penn State 10-2   T-9 Memphis 22.9
        T-9 Oklahoma 22.9
        T-9 Utah 22.9

As you can see, the two have some similarities but are not quite the same. The Dickinson System calculates points based on win-loss totals and who each team played. It doesn't factor in other variables such as game location, injuries or conferences.

Unbeaten teams Ohio State and LSU remained on top in the Dickinson System while Clemson didn't fare as well, dropping two spots below its CFP ranking. In this case, the formula preferred Georgia and Boise State to Clemson. In the 2019 regular season, the Bulldogs beat seven teams with winning records while the Broncos beat five.

Clemson had a better record than Boise State and Georgia, but the Tigers only won four regular season games against opponents with winning records — though they nearly doubled that total during college football's 2019-20 postseason.

Fear not, Tigers' fans. Clemson hasn't missed the Playoff since 2014 and the Dickinson System is officially re-retired.

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