The trouble with polls

I’ve always been a devout follower of college football. In fact, as much as I love NFL Sundays for the multiple-hour pre-game shows, last-minute fantasy moves, parlay sheets and — oh, right — the actual games, nothing could beat waking up from the fog of a hangover and watching College GameDay on a Saturday morning.

As any fan of the college game knows, polls and rankings are what drive the sport. However, I must say that I’ve never really paid much attention to the Associated Press Top 25 or USA Today polls. My ambivalence is most likely due to the computer glitch in Sega’s Bill Walsh College Football ’95 that allowed my Army squad to finish a season 11-0, beat Notre Dame head-to-head and still be ranked only No. 2 at the end of the year. Who finished as the national champion? 1-9-1 Notre Dame. Seriously. And you have complaints about the BCS?

So after that debacle, I tried to put rankings aside and just enjoy the games themselves. After all, I followed the conference standings closely, and I knew which teams were good, bad and average. I watched to see the marching bands, co-eds, great rivalries and pro prospects.

But as it is in every season, there comes a point when I have to realize that polls do indeed matter. Championships and other major bowl games, as we know, are determined by a ranking system, and how can one possibly follow a sport and not recognize its parameters?

So in the last few years, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with the two major polls, as the Bowl Championship Series is partially determined by them (BCS Formula: one-third Harris Interactive, which replaced the AP, plus one-third coaches plus one-third computer rankings).

Why still follow the AP when it doesn’t influence the BCS standings, you ask? For situations like Utah last year, which finished undefeated but was shut out of the title game. The writer in me wanted all of the voting members of the AP to name Utah its champion, thus creating a split-champion situation. What can I say, I thrive on controversy.

Seeing as how controversy and college football go hand in hand, it comes as no surprise that the polls seem to be stirring again halfway through the 2009 campaign. Because we still have yet to see too much separation between programs, many fans lean on the polls for guidance and perspective. However, all I see are question marks.

Now, I understand that several arguments can be made whether a team should be higher or lower in the polls; that’s the case in any type of ranking in any sport or industry. But when the BCS is partially dependent on a poll that seems faulty, it should concern any follower of the college game.

For example, how can a 6-0 Iowa team be ranked lower (No. 12 in USA Today) than a one-loss Miami squad when the Hurricanes were thoroughly handled by one-loss Virginia Tech? One can make the argument that Iowa plays in the lowly Big Ten and that the team barely escaped Northern Iowa and Arkansas State. I would counter that a road win over Penn State and wins over decent Michigan and Arizona squads are more impressive than Virginia Tech losing yet another showcase game (Alabama) and Miami falling to their ACC rival.

I shouldn’t just point a finger at Miami or Virginia Tech, though. USC, Ohio State and LSU all have one loss but are ranked ahead of Iowa. Undefeated Kansas and South Florida? While you haven’t beaten anyone yet, sure, join the conversation. And if Iowa detractors want to keep harping on the Hawkeyes’ close calls, what about Cincinnati at No. 9? I love me some Brian Kelly and Tony Pike, and I give the administration credit for scheduling decent non-conference foes (Oregon State and Fresno State), but what makes them 12 spots better than fellow Big East member South Florida, which won at Florida State? The Seminoles may be underachieving, but do you think USF is more talented? Not a chance, and that’s why they should be rewarded.

I can go on and on, as can you. Such as, how can a two-loss Oklahoma team be ranked No. 18, above a Georgia Tech team whose only loss is against the same Miami team that is apparently better than Iowa? How is Notre Dame only ranked No. 25 when they lost in the last seconds at Michigan? How is BYU ranked ahead of Georgia Tech when the Yellow Jackets beat their common opponent (FSU) and the Cougars were smacked by the ‘Noles? How the heck is Oregon just No. 16 when its only loss was on the road to Boise State? Perhaps some LeGarrette Blount politics involved?

My point is that preseason polls really shouldn’t exist, and that polls being used for the BCS — including USA Today — should not be released until Oct. 18 when the first BCS rankings are announced. Why? Last year’s Utah squad best exemplifies my reasoning. The Utes entered their season opener against Michigan unranked and were only ranked No. 23 after their win the next week. By the time the regular season concluded, they could not move past No. 7 — even though they were undefeated the entire season. We can debate all we want about whether Utah could have taken Florida, Oklahoma or any other “big-name” school in a true title game. But the fact is they were harmed by the preseason poll. And the convenient argument that the “Mountain West isn’t a major conference or a BCS-worthy league” doesn’t hold up anymore after Utah thoroughly beat the mighty Crimson Tide of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Clearly, love them or loathe them, polls define college football. Without the weekly controversy, there’s not a whole lot of drama in the college game. They don’t have diva wideouts, just diva coaches, which isn’t as much fun. As much as I love buying preseason magazines and forecasting teams, the speculation should be left to the fans — not the pollsters. Too much preseason hype for teams that end up being average, and not enough hype for teams that truly end up being great, can adversely affect the outcome of the season. We saw it last year.

So I ask my beloved pollsters — and hence, computer systems — see before you believe.

Dave Miller is the Web Manager of the National Football Post and an unfortunate hopeless romantic. After receiving his Masters in Writing from DePaul University in Chicago, he realized that he would never be John Updike so he returned to a sports career. He enjoys coffee at any time of the day, CW teen dramas and has an appreciation for girls in boots. You can follow him on Twitter at Miller_Dave, where he constantly chronicles every moment of his mundane life.

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