Kolpack: USA Today pollster Sagarin has Bison ranked ahead of Wisconsin

North Dakota State's football team is ranked No. 24 among all Division I schools according to the Sagarin Ratings that appear weekly in USA Today. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — Jeff Sagarin can tell you the day his first ratings column ran in the USA Today newspaper. Jan. 8, 1985. It was a big moment for a young scribe, but the front page that day had something else historic on its mind: celebrating the 50th birthday of Elvis Presley.

Elvis died when he was only 42 years old. The Sagarin Ratings, taking advantage of a healthier lifestyle, are alive and well and will celebrate their 34th birthday this January. There doesn’t appear to be any slowing down for the owner and his mathematical formulas in predicting college football.

This week, his computer spit out North Dakota State as the 24th highest-ranked team in all of Division I football. Sagarin hasn’t changed his ways with the naming of the divisions. He still lists the FBS big boys as Division I-A and the FCS little brothers as Division I-AA.

Those letters stick out with the Bison, who have the only AA tag of the top 58 teams, with No. 58 happening to be the University of Minnesota. So the question is, and always will be, is NDSU the 24th best team in the country?

The answer is, and always will be, one of probability.

“The printout is making that statement,” Sagarin said. “But, in theory, who is the better team, the 24th team listed or the 30th? I’d say the 24th team is better than the team listed 30th. If they played, based on point difference, the team that is 24th has a 57 percent chance of winning. It doesn’t mean they’ll win. The other team has a 43 percent chance of winning.”

Boston College is No. 30 in this week’s Sagarin Ratings. The Bison are situated just ahead of Iowa State, Wisconsin and Florida.

Certainly, it’s not the first time NDSU has been ranked high in Sagarin’s computer. Thanks to going 9-3 against the FBS games and winning six straight against pretty high-major teams like Iowa State, Kansas State, Iowa and the Gophers, it makes sense that its Sagarin rank would fit somewhere in that neighborhood.

What is strange this year is NDSU’s non-conference schedule. Cal Poly is No. 171 and North Alabama is No. 209. Delaware, after faltering earlier in the season, has made a nice rebound and is 123rd. There is no FBS on the schedule to compare resumes.

But 10-0 is 10-0 and that’s what the Bison are heading into Saturday’s Missouri Valley Football Conference game against Southern Illinois at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.

“Basically, no matter what method I might use, it’s hard to keep them out of being pretty high,” Sagarin said. “Not that I would try to.”

Mathematics aside, Sagarin points to NDSU’s record against the FBS and the school’s ability to produce NFL talent like quarterback Carson Wentz.

“It’s not like they have guys that can’t play,” he said.

The Sagarin Ratings have stood the test of time. People who bet on games must believe they’re useful. Remember, it’s not so much a gut feeling of who is better but a mathematical predictability of the game that week.

The exact methodology is like the Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe: nobody knows except the owner. Even if I did know, and based on my high school ACT score, I’m not sure what good it would do.

“I kind of like what I do,” Sagarin said. “It’s real hard to quit.”

The pressure isn’t what it used to be when the Sagarin Ratings were part of the Bowl Championship Series until 2014. Those rankings were part of the national championship game selection.

The hate mail and emails to Sagarin were at times off the charts.

It’s doubtful the rest of the FCS top 25 is emailing Sagarin protesting NDSU being at No. 24.

“I know I can easily spot that ‘AA’ in that column,” he said.