November 6, 2013

The most important rankings of the year

By Christan Shirk

Today the NCAA Division III men’s and women’s soccer committees will release their third and final weekly regional rankings in the build-up to “selection Sunday” and the Monday release of the tournament field and brackets. For those who missed my column about the NCAA regional rankings a couple weeks ago (New criteria debuts in today's NCAA Regional Rankings, October 23, 2013), you might want check that out first as I'm only going to highlight the more relevant points to the forthcoming at-large selections to the NCAA tournaments.

Let's summarize what the NCAA Regional Rankings are.

• First off, the NCAA regional rankings should not be confused with the NSCAA regional rankings (the coaches poll).

• The NCAA rankings are done by the same eight-member NCAA Division III Men's and Women's Soccer Committees which will make the at-large selections for the men's and women's NCAA tournaments.  These national committees are assisted by Regional Advisory Committees in the evaluation of teams.

 • The rankings are done by applying the same criteria which is used for making the at-large selections.

 • The rankings are released on the last three Wednesday's prior to the tournament selections being made, today being the date of the third rankings.

 • 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.

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 by selecting “Regional Rankings” from the “News” pull-down menu above or by clicking on the following links:

Men's Regional Rankings

Women's Regional Rankings

This week's rankings will also be highlighted and linked to on our home page shortly after they are released.

The criteria for both the at-large selections and the regional rankings are found in Section 2.4 of the Pre-Championship Manual (pg. 20). 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 has undergone a significant change for the 2013 season. Previously, only games versus "in-region" opponents were considered as part of the primary criteria, with secondary criteria considering "out-of-region" and non-Division III competition. The in-region/out-of-region distinction has been abandoned with primary criteria now considering 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)

  • Win-loss percentage against Division III opponents
  • Division III head-to-head competition
  • Results versus common Division III opponents
  • Results versus ranked Division III teams
  • Division III Strength-of-schedule

Secondary Criteria (not listed in priority order)

  • Non-Division III win-loss percentage
  • Results versus common non-Division III opponents
  • Non-Division III Strength-of-schedule

Along with the rankings, the NCAA also releases regional data sheets which include the record and winning percentage against Division III opponents, record versus ranked Division III opponents, and Division III strength of schedule for all teams in each region.

The third regional rankings which are being released today are based on results through Sunday, November 3.  That means that this week's results to date and yet to come—mostly important conference tournament matches—will not be taken into account.  However, as part of the at-large tournament selection process, the committees will do final rankings on Sunday evening that include these results. These rankings are not released, so we are left to guess at how the final week's results may have prompted changes in the ranking of teams after the rankings that we'll see later today.

However, we are not left to guess blindly, but rather intelligently.  As I said above, the rankings are deisgned to foreshadow the at-large selections, and they have done that very well ove the last 10 years.  By looking at the rankings released today and the results of this final week, one can have a very good idea about how the teams will stack up in the "secret" final rankings the committees will do Sunday night.  Add in some observance of past at-large selections and a historical comparison of the at-large berths to the final regional rankings, and one has a very good shot at predicting this year's at-large selections.

Here are my observations from following the rankings and at-large selections the past 10 years:

• The regional rankings do very accurately foreshadowed the eventual at-large selections as intended. Since their inception in 2003, there has only been one year (2010) in which there was more than one real head-scratcher on the men's side with many years having none.

•  As such, a team that is not ranked has virtually no shot at an at-large berth. You can get your hopes up, but it's just not going to happen if history is any guide. In the past six years (2007-2012) 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. 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.

 • After taking away all the ranked teams that win their conference's automatic tournament berth, there will still be nearly twice as many ranked teams left as available at-large berths.  So it isn't good enough to simply be ranked to make the NCAA tournament as most regions will have two to three 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 a safe bet for an at-large berth in the tournament.

 • History seems to indicate that the ranking of teams changes little in that last week. That is, rarely does a lower ranked team in the third weekly rankings get selected ahead of a higher ranked team. And that makes sense as one week only represents about 10% of the total schedule. Also remember that most team's needing an at-large berth would have lost (or tied) a game since the third rankings, thus minimizing the chances for one such team to overtake another such team. There has also been a sense that conference tournament results do not have extra weighting 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.

 • Comparison of the regional data sheets with the rankings and the at-large selections has shown in the past that strength of schedule (S-o-S) is very important. The other thing that is important is record against ranked teams. If you do not understand why one team is ranked higher than another or why one team got a tournament berth and another did not, it probably is related to S-o-S and results against ranked teams.

Comments or feedback for the author?  Email Christan Shirk.


Christan Shirk


Christan Shirk is a Messiah College graduate (1993, Civil Engineering) and has been a keen and passionate observer of D-III soccer for over a decade and a half. Never more than a rec-league player himself, Chris brings an analytical approach and nationwide perspective to He loves D-III soccer history, statistical number-crunching, and off-the-radar action, all of which he gladly shares with his readers when he's able to find time to write. [see full bio]

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