It didn’t make sense.
Hillsboro was a heavy favorite to rout Whites Creek last week. The Burros featured two of Nashville’s most dynamic high school players in quarterback Matt Arent and running back Jacquese Stewart. Hillsboro was 5-1 and ranked No. 5 in the state. Whites Creek was winless at 0-8.
When the score hit the internet that Whites Creek had sprung the upset, Earl Nall was immediately skeptical. The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association statistician checked a Nashville newspaper’s Web site to verify the score.
“They even had a (game) summary” with Whites Creek winning, the Kingston native said.
Nall’s suspicions had been aroused when he’d tried to enter the score in his Prep Performance Ratings, a computer program he authored 15 years ago to rank the state’s high school football teams.
It generally takes only a matter of minutes for the program to digest a night’s scores and the rank the teams, Nall said, unless there’s a problem.
Whites Creek beating Hillsboro was a problem.
“My ratings showed Whites Creek was going to lose by 40 points,” Nall said.
With the score confirmed on the Tennessean’s Web site, Nall entered the 28-20 Whites Creek victory into the program and let it rip. Two hours later, it returned the same answer: ‘No way.’
It was as if the computer was asking, “‘How could that have happened?’” Nall said. “‘It just doesn’t fit.’”
Later Friday night, Nall got a phone call from a Tennessean sportswriter. The score had been reversed on the site. Hillsboro had held on, 28-20.
The scrutiny of Nall’s ratings took on special significance for Blount County this week as Alcoa, Maryville and William Blount each sat atop their respective classifications.
The three-time defending Class 4A champion Rebels (8-0), winners of their last 53 games, have been there all season. The three-time defending 2A champion Tornadoes (7-1), previously ranked second, ascended to the top spot with former No. 1 Goodpasture taking its first loss.
It’s the 6-2 Governors that are causing a stir. Ranked fifth in the most recent state media poll, William Blount sits atop Nall’s Class 5A ratings ahead of three unbeaten teams — White Station (8-0), Riverdale (8-0) and Millington (8-0). The Governors are ranked six spots ahead of Farragut (7-1), a Region 2-5A foe which handed William Blount one of its two losses.
“I think it’s a credit to who we’ve played and the results of the games,” William Blount coach Scott Meadows said. “I think we’re a dang good football team.”
The computer agrees.
William Blount’s ranking is not a glitch, said Nall, who was in attendance as the Governors upset second-ranked Oak Ridge two weeks ago.
“I wouldn’t have a problem seeing (the Governors) win a state championship,” he said. “They were impressive to me.”
The computer isn’t swayed by T.J. Walker’s speed in rushing the passer, though. The program isn’t much interested in how many yards Darrin Garner runs for on a given night or how big a game Tyler Burstrom has at quarterback.
No statistics of any kind are used in compiling the ratings, Nall said. All that matters is who a team plays and the margin of victory, with a cap imposed to prevent redundancy.
“After a while, it becomes a matter of diminishing returns,” Nall said.
All of it is why the Governors, whose losses to Farragut and top-ranked Maryville both came by a single point, are a deserving No. 1.
The key, at least as far as the Admirals are concerned, lies with common William Blount and Farragut opponents.
The Admirals fell, 24-21, to McMinn County in Week 5. William Blount crushed the Cherokees, 34-7, only a week ago. Farragut edged the Governors, 36-35, earlier this month. The Admirals held off Ooltewah, 44-41, in a thriller last week. William Blount shut out the Owls, 32-0, in Week 5.
Beating the Wildcats then vaulted the Governors to the top.
“They went to No. 1 because they beat Oak Ridge,” Nall said.
Through the first three weeks of the season, the rankings can vary wildly.
The program “learns” each week, Nall said.
By Week 7, it’s almost dead on, picking the winner in games across the state at an 84 percent success rate.
“Quite frankly, it amazes me when I see the accuracy,” Nall said. “It’s not an ego thing. I just put them (the ratings) out there for people to enjoy.”
Nall said he learned from the best when it came to designing his program. An Oak Ridge High School graduate, he majored in math and physics at Lincoln Memorial University, where one of his math professors was Herman Matthews. The Matthews/Scripps Howard computer poll was one of several used in college football’s Bowl Championship Series until 2003.
Matthews designed his first program while still at LMU.
“He used to rate our intramural teams,” Nall said.
The student was soon pursuing his own ratings system. After college, Nall worked for 30 years as a statistician and programmer in his native Oak Ridge, all the while perfecting the program he’d begun he’d begun in college. In 1993, Nall put his ratings through a trial by fire, pitting the program in a man vs. machine duel with the Commercial Appeal’s Gary Parish, one of the state’s most respected sportswriters.
Three weeks into the season, both parties ranking only a top 10, Parish was eating Nall’s lunch.
“He got a big early lead on me,” Nall said. “Computer ratings early are worthless.”
Much in keeping with members of the print and electronic media when it comes to rating teams, Nall relies on the previous season’s results in compiling his initial ranking. After that, the computer begins playing itself, growing all the more accurate each week.
“It starts making adjustments,” Nall said. “What it does is replay the season — thousands and thousands of times.”
By Week 7 of the duel with Parish, Nall was closing in.
“My ratings went 24-0 (that week),” Nall said.
Parish, for the good of human kind, was left with little choice.
“The last week, Gary (intentionally) picked the same teams as the ratings,” Nall said.
The accuracy of the ratings is best reflected during postseason play. There have been 70 state championship games contested in the various classifications since Nall first powered up. Only once — Livingston Academy in 2005 — has a team won a state crown without being ranked in Nall’s top 10 at the end of the regular season.
Nowhere was that more vividly on display than Maryville’s miracle run to a state title in 2000.
The Rebels, with head coach George Quarles in only his second season at the helm, opened the year 0-4. By the end of the regular season, Maryville, then 6-4, wasn’t ranked in anyone’s poll — all except one.
“At the end of the year, Maryville had jumped into the (performance ratings) top 10,” Nall said, “even though they had four losses.”
Nall is insistent his ratings are “a labor of love” and just for fun.
“No coach ever puts any stock in them,” he said. “They shouldn’t. That’s why they have a playoff.”
There’s a dark side to his ratings, Nall said. Only once since their inception have they not been published. It was the week following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I just didn’t feel like it,” Nall said.
Within days, Nall’s home computer was bombarded with e-mails to get the ratings back up.
“People were using them to bet,” he said, “and that’s just disturbing. It’s just out there to have fun.”
Of the five public school champions a year ago, each was ranked either first or second in the ratings the final week of the regular season, at which point Nall pulls the plug until the following season. Blount County celebrating not two but three state titlists come December is not a stretch.
“I think the 5A class is wide open,” Nall said. “It’s as wide open as anything I’ve seen in the last 10 years.”