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Stadium and Main: Attention College Football Poll Voters

Monday, August 20, 2007

Attention College Football Poll Voters

This needs to stop. As a fan of the game who devotes hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars per year to my team and the sport as a whole, I just can’t deal with this crap anymore.

Somewhere along the way, between the 8,000 preview magazines, the talking heads on ESPN, and the trash-talkers on the message boards, something really bad happened: voters forgot how to vote. For some reason, people started questioning what their votes should be based on, or how they should rank teams in the preseason. It has come to this:
“I take a different approach to the preseason poll. It’s not a ranking of the best teams right now. Who cares about the best team in the middle of August? My preseason ballot is a projection of how I think the teams will end up in January.

(And where teams end up is a function of their schedules. For instance, Texas and West Virginia are threats to go undefeated in large part because of who they play and who they don’t play. Schedules aren’t everything in college football, but they are close to everything.)”
Those words were written here, by Associated Press college football poll voter Jon Wilmer. I have many problems with this, but I’ll focus on two major issues:

(1) Rankings are about which team is better

As a “consumer” of the Associated Press poll, I want actual rankings, not “projections.” “Who cares about the best team in the middle of August?” Me, along with millions of other fans! That’s why they have the poll! That being established, how should we rank the teams? Well, you’ve probably seen those US News Rankings for colleges, law schools, et cetera. Like college football rankings, they are subjective, but they are also based on a simple premise: The top-ranked school is better than the school ranked #2, and so on. You’ll notice that they don’t rank Vanderbilt ahead of Harvard because “Harvard has to compete with Princeton, Penn, and other Ivy League powers,” while “Vanderbilt is the class of the academically average SEC” or some garbage like that. They rank Harvard ahead of Vanderbilt because Harvard is a better school than Vanderbilt. That’s it. Likewise, they don’t project where schools will be ranked down the road; they rank the best schools, in order, based on the data available at that time. It’s a pretty simple concept.

As one commenter put it:
“If you believe that this is the FINAL order at the end of the season, why should you be allowed to vote all season long? Voting in this manner at the beginning of the season (what you think will be the order at the END of the season), makes about as much sense as keeping it that way ALL season… Your vote will be suspect all season long now because you have exposed your prejudices….”
Word. And you know it’s bad when Wolverines and Buckeyes are agreeing:
The AP Top 25 is supposed to be a ranking of the best 25 teams in Division I-A in order of 1-25. This means you’re saying there are 25 teams in the country that are better than Ohio State? The fact that the AP allows you to vote in this poll destroys its credibility.”
Now, I don’t mind if someone really believe that Team X isn’t a top 25 team (even if Team X happens to be a traditional power). But check out Wilmer’s rationale for omitting OSU:
“Because I think the Buckeyes will finish with a handful of losses, they are not in my preseason top-25. Again, they might be one of the 25 best teams right now, but I don’t think they’ll deserve to be ranked in January, and that’s what I’m interested in here.”
I’m glad that that’s what you’re “interested in here,” Jon. But that’s not what these rankings are for. The rankings are about who is better than who, whether it be on August 17th, October 7th, or January 9th. So if you think the Buckeyes are a top 25 team now, take a minute and figure out where you would rank them instead of saying “forget it, they’re gonna end the season on a losing streak anyway.”

And it’s a bit unsettling that Jon thinks the Buckeyes won’t “deserve to be ranked in January” based on possible losses to Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I fear that Jon falls into the category of voters who seem to think that it doesn’t matter which team is better, all that matters is who lost more recently (and junk like that). In fact, Jon basically admits to a related notion when he states, “Schedules aren’t everything in college football, but they are close to everything.” No, Jon, you’ve got it wrong. Your job is to cut through the B.S., compare the teams (based on their schedules and results, yes), and tell us which teams you think are better than others. You should not have the wool pulled over your eyes by an average team with a weak schedule. You’re supposed to be smarter than that.

I understand that teams generally should fall in the polls if they lose, but people need to understand and accept this: A five-loss team Ohio State team can be better than a one-loss TCU team. Rank the teams based on which team you honestly think is better. All other factors are irrelevant.

(2) Perception becomes reality

Why does one measly ballot in a preseason poll matter so much in the grand scheme of things? Well, in my opinion (and I think there’s a fair amount of truth to this), these polls become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you see something enough, or state something repeatedly, it magically becomes true. See, Mr. Wilmer might think that he’s doing no harm with his rankings. In fact, he might drop West Virginia from #3 to #8, or Texas from #2 to #10 after the first week of games (assuming he follows through on his promise to start voting based on the quality of teams, not the ease of schedules). But the damage has already been done. Mr. Wilmer is contributing to the perception that these teams with weak schedules actually are deserving of high rankings. When Team X is ranked between 3rd and 6th in every preseason poll simply because they have an easy road to a BCS game, the general public (and the average voter?) starts to believe that Team X is a Top 5 team. And why wouldn’t they? The polls say they are, so they must be, right? It’s your basic Psych 111 experiment, minus all of the sorority girls. Mr. Wilmer might believe that Florida would definitely beat West Virginia, or that LSU would handle Texas, but he’s telling the public, including his ballot-holding colleagues, a different story. Sure, he explains his “logic” on the website I linked, but how many people actually read that? All that Joe Fan sees is “West Virginia, #3,” and that’s that.

And while many of the premises and conclusions of this recent ESPN analysis are inherently flawed (like the fact that they completely ignore that “power programs” are more likely to be “overrated” since they have nowhere to go in the polls but down), the bottom line is that if you start out ranked high, you have a much better chance to win the national championship:
“Evidence A: Since 1991, college football's national championship has come from outside the top 10 of the preseason Associated Press top 25 poll only four times -- Michigan was 14th in 1997, Oklahoma was 19th in 2000, Ohio State was 13th in 2002 and LSU was 14th in 2003.

Evidence B: During the last 20 seasons, 13 teams have lost a game and still managed to finish the regular season ranked in the top two in the BCS standings or either poll of record. But only one of those teams -- LSU in 2003 -- was ranked lower than eighth in the preseason poll.

So if your favorite team is beginning the 2007 season outside the top 10 in the AP or ESPN/USA Today coaches' polls, you'd better hope for an undefeated season. Otherwise, your team has a very small chance of winning the national championship.”
The fact that Mr. Wilmer decides to “take a different approach” to his ballot is unbelievably frustrating. He’s like the kid who ruins gym class for everybody else because he’s too selfish and aloof to play by the rules. His actions have an impact on many other people, but he’s too obtuse to recognize it, Shawshank style. Now, I understand that it’s not the end of the world here, but when you’re an AP voter you’re supposed to rank the teams, not try to see the future in your crystal ball. It’s a responsibility, and it’s one that Jon Wilmer apparently doesn’t take too seriously.


“If you have a beef with my ballot, fine … bring it on. Just come with facts and logic.”
OK, Jon, here you go... You stated:
“Once the games begin, my ballot will reflect up-to-date performance. But there’s nothing substantive for the preseason poll, so I turn mine into an end-of-year projection.”
I love it, Jon. You tell us that there is no substantive information available to make a preseason ranking, then you go on to make projections based on… you guessed it, substantive information!! “Substantive,” as in “real or actual” information. Stuff like returning starters, coaching changes, experienced QBs, and whatnot. Some examples:
“#3 WVU: Arguably the best QB/TB combo in the country in Pat White/Steve Slaton.

#6 Michigan: Defense won’t be what it was in ‘06, but it doesn’t have to be with Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Mario Manningham.

#10 Penn State: Bevy of returning starters, veteran QB (Anthony Morelli).

#12 Florida State: With Jimbo Fisher taking over the playcalling duties from the overmatched Jeff Bowden, the Noles should finally play to their potential.

#17 UCLA: With 20 returning starters, Coach Karl Dorrell had better get it done, or he might be done.

#23 Southern Miss: My sleeper pick, the Golden Eagles return 16 starters from a nine-win team.

#25 Purdue: Looking for a BCS sleeper? The Boilermakers have 20 returning starters.”
So Jon, if there’s no “substantive” information on which to base your rankings, then why even submit a preseason ballot at all? Just because you haven’t seen a game this year doesn’t mean you don’t have some idea of what to expect from players like Chad Henne and Steve Slaton, or coaches like Jimbo Fisher. You seem to love this “returning starters” statistic, yet you think that’s not “substantive?” If Michigan returned zero starters, would you really have them ranked so highly? I think you get my point. Or maybe you don’t.

It seems like Jon is trying to run before he learns to walk. He’s telling us that he doesn’t have enough information to rank teams in August, but that he has enough information to predict where they will finish the season in January?! You can’t have it both ways, Jon. I think you missed a few steps there.

And this is a man that is determining national championships, folks.

All of you voters out there need to start using your heads. You don’t rank teams based on where you think they will finish, who has the easier (or tougher) schedule, or who has the prettiest cheerleaders. “Which team is better?” That’s all you’ve gotta ask yourself. And please take some time to figure it out. It is part of your job, in case you forgot.


Blogger Andrew said...

damn good post.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

and incidentally, i see that rakes of mallow just did the exact same thing in his preseason blogpoll ballot! go figger...

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Pollspeak said...

There's an on-line petition you can "sign" trying to get the Coaches' Poll and Harris Interactive Poll ballots made public (like the AP Poll). It also asks the BCS to only use polls that have public ballots. This is a good cause, so please spread the word (on other boards or wherever). (Click the Petition tab)

12:10 AM  

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