Here at Steel City Blitz we are happy to provide the best independent coverage of Western Pennsylvania High School Football that you can find. Three years ago, when the PIAA made the move from four to six classifications, we began tracking results and using them to comparatively rank WPIAL teams. We developed a WPIAL ELO Ranking system using a similar formula to the one used by FIFA to rank soccer teams.
What Is ELO?
ELO is a ranking system that was developed to rank international chess players. From there, it was adapted for other rankings systems. FIFA just moved to an ELO-based formula to rank soccer teams. Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight uses ELO to rank professional sports teams as well as to make their predictive models for postseason odds. ELO formulas can also be used to predict the point spreads of games. The ELO formula factors in the ranking of the two teams and the margin of victory in their game. Based on those factors, a certain number of points are assigned to that result. The winning team has that many points added to their ELO ranking and the losing team has that many points subtracted from their ranking. Therefore, beating a team with a better ranking will give a team a lot of points while beating a team with a much lower ranking will result in fewer points being earned.
How Do You Account for Classification Differences?
When the PIAA moved to six classifications in 2016, it was difficult to project just how different two classes would be. To determine this, I looked at all the 2015 results between teams that were now split between classifications. For instance, there were 65 games in 2015 between teams that were split into 6A and 5A. There were 37 games between teams that would be 5A and 4A, 39 games between teams that would be 4A and 3A, 62 games between teams that would be 3A and 2A, and 80 games between 2A and 1A teams. Using the average margin of victory for these games, I determined the initial starting values for each classification.
I chose 1600 to be the midpoint of the ELO formula. At the beginning of the 2016 season, each 6A team started with an ELO Ranking of 2200, each 5A team started at 2150, each 4A team at 1900, each 3A team at 1600, each 2A team at 1300, and each 1A team at 1000. As results happened and teams won and lost games, their scores either increased or decreased. Playoff and Championship Games were given a higher weight than regular season games.
How Accurate are the Rankings?
In 2018, when the WPIAL was realigned based on the new enrollment numbers, I did not reset the team rankings if they moved up or down to a new classification. This resulted in some teams that moved up (such as Mars in 5A) being under-rated all season and some teams that moved down (such as Uniontown in 3A) being over-rated all season. Other than those few outliers, the majority of teams have mostly accurate placement as of the end of the 2018 season.
Since the 2016 playoffs, teams with a higher ELO ranking have won 75.4% of their games. Some of the 25% miss rate comes from non-classification games. That said, the more results that are entered over time, the more accurate the Rankings become. For example, Aliquippa is currently the highest-ranked 3A team with a rating of 1984 (after starting at 1600 with the rest of the 3A teams three years ago). This puts the Quips ahead of all but 3 4A teams and ahead of 4 5A squads.
The WPIAL ELO Rankings
These are the WPIAL ELO Rankings through the end of the 2018 season. We will update them each week with the results of games. Unlike subjective rankings that other sites may put out, the ELO Rankings are slower to respond to change, so a team that loses a game may not automatically drop out of the top spot like other WPIAL rankings would do.
Not surprisingly, Pine-Richland comes in as the highest ranked 6A team after winning back-to-back WPIAL titles. When I started tracking results, there was not much separation between the 6A starting point (ELO 2200) and the 5A starting point (ELO 2150) so there is a lot of mingling between teams at the top of the overall WPIAL Rankings. This played out on the field last year as 6A teams went 6-3 against 5A opponents.
Penn Hills‘ undefeated run to the WPIAL title landed them on top of the 5A rankings and as the 2nd overall team in the WPIAL. Given the amount of parity we have seen in 5A over the last 3 seasons (8 different teams have reached the semifinals), it is not surprising to see a lot of teams grouped closely together near the top. Additionally, 2018 saw 4 teams move down from 6A to 5A. Additionally, Mars moved up from 4A and went 9-2 last season so their ranking may still be a little on the low end. At the bottom end of the spectrum, Connellsville is falling close to the original median point for 4A teams (ELO 1900).
Thomas Jefferson won three straight WPIAL titles before falling to South Fayette in the Championship Game last year. South Fayette has not lost a conference game since 2011. These two have clearly been the class of 4A since 2016 and the rankings reflect that. Belle Vernon has reached the semifinals each of the last two years and has been consistently in the top three seeds in the playoffs. Beyond those three, the middle of the 4A ranks are very close together with the original midpoint of 1900 still holding strong. Beaver moved up from 3A to 4A last year so the Bobcats are a bit under-ranked given that they made the playoffs.
How good is Aliquippa? The Quips are a 1A-sized school by enrollment measures that plays up in 3A and has reached the WPIAL final in 11 straight seasons. According to these rankings, the Quips rank higher than all but 3 teams in 4A. The on-field results reflect this as the Quips smashed Montour 62-0 last year and beat New Castle 24-0 in 2017. Quaker Valley and Beaver Falls, who won the 2017 and 2016 WPIAL and PIAA titles in 3A, come in the Top 4. Derry reached the WPIAL Championship Game last year and sits second in the classification, but with a large gap between the Trojans and the Quips. North Catholic moved up from 2A last year but their ranking might be a little low after close wins over Central Valley and Quaker Valley last season. Uniontown has the WPIAL’s longest losing streak (22 games) but their ranking remains a little inflated after dropping down from 4A last year.
Similar to Aliquippa ranking higher than nearly every 4A team, Steel Valley ranks above every 3A team except for the Quips. The Ironmen have won 2 of the last 3 WPIAL titles and reached 3 straight WPIAL Championship Games. Washington (who won the 2017 WPIAL title) sits in second place. The Prexies defeated 4A Laurel Highlands in Week 0 last year, so the rankings slotting them among the middle of the 3A pack carries weight. Last year, 7 teams dropped from 3A to 2A including Shady Side Academy, McGuffey, Seton LaSalle, and Valley.
OLSH won their first WPIAL title in school history, defeating Rochester in the Championship Game last season. Prior to that, Jeannette had reached 3 straight WPIAL Championships, winning the crown in 2017. Clairton has reached at least the semifinals in 13 straight seasons. Laurel lost the Wild Card to Imani Christian last year, and their ranking may be slightly inflated due to the Spartans moving down from 2A. Bentworth and Chartiers-Houston also moved down from 2A last year, which kept them in the Top 10 of the rankings despite missing the playoffs.
Stay tuned throughout the season to see how the rankings progress! As we said at the outset, these are rankings based on past results and are not as sensitive to singular wins and losses as subjective rankings published by media outlets.