Marshall: A Look at the Football Polls

Phillip Marshall writes about the role of polls in major college football.

Polls have a unique place in college football. They create conversation, which is a good thing. They make some fans ecstatic and some angry. That's OK, too.

In other sports, polls really don't matter. The basketball polls are meaningless. Same for baseball.

What makes polls unique in college football is that, at season's end, three of them actually matter. The coaches' poll and Harris poll are 2/3 of the formula that decides who plays in the BCS Championship Game. If a team other than those other two finishes No. 1 in the AP poll (see USC in 2003), that team is also widely recognized as a national champion.

For that reason, football polls and those who vote in them deserve some scrutiny. After the controversy of 2004, the only season in which three BCS conference teams finished with perfect records, some newspapers, mine included, decided they no longer wanted to participate in the AP poll. The AP decided it no longer wanted to be part of the BCS process.

The polls are obviously a flawed way of deciding anything, but they are better than the bogus computer rankings that are the other 1/3 of the BCS system.

I have voted in the Associated Press poll several times. It has never been easy. It's harder now because there are more teams that have to be considered. Twenty years ago, teams like South Florida or Boise State would have been pretty much ignored. You can't do that now.

It would really have been a challenge to be a voter the past two weeks. Upsets have changed the landscape dramatically the past two Saturdays.

Each voter has to decide whether he or she gives more weight to big wins or stunning losses. Take Auburn, for instance. Do you give more weight to a road win over Florida or a home loss to Mississippi State? There's no easy answer.

Every week, polls produce some strange results. Tennessee crushed Georgia 35-14 in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicated and has an identical record to Georgia's. Yet, Georgia is still ranked higher than Tennessee in the polls. Does anyone believe Georgia actually has the better team?

USC has no wins of significance this season. Its biggest was over Nebraska, the same team that was routed 41-6 by Missouri on Saturday and rallied to beat Ball State by a single point. The Trojans lost at home Saturday to Stanford, a woebegone team that had given up an average of almost 50 points in three previous Pact-10 games and did not have its starting quarterback.

Yet USC is still No. 7 in the coaches' poll and No. 10 in the AP poll. ESPN talking heads still predict it will play in the national championship game. Why? Because it's USC. There is no other reason. Most any other team that had done the same thing against the same schedule wouldn't be ranked at all.

It would be nice if voters could eliminate biases and preconceived notions. It's not going to happen. Certain teams are going to be given more credit than others, even when they do less (see Oklahoma and USC in 2004).

And then there are the loveable underdogs, who also tend to get disproportionate credit for what they accomplish. Does anyone seriously believe South Florida is one of the five best college football teams in America, that Hawaii is better than Texas, that Cincinnati would be favored over Florida State?

It's not just a media thing, either. USC was penalized more by the media members who vote in the AP poll than by the coaches or their surrogate voters.

It's too bad the football polls can't be like those in other sports, good for conversation but not part of deciding who actually wins championships. That's not going to happen. Even if there was a playoff in Division I-A, the polls would still be part of the process. The controversy would just be about who got in at the bottom instead of who was at the top.

Unfortunately, there is no other way. There are too many teams to identify on the field who really is the best. That's why most coaches will tell you winning a conference championship is a much more logical goal than winning a national championship.

Conference championships are won on the field. Though the final game is played on the field, national championships are won in the hearts and minds of voters who might or might not have a clue.


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