This is part one of a two-part look at the assumed worthlessness of the pre-season poll.
It's fashionable these days to decry the terribleness of the pre-season poll. After all, it is a travesty that young men like those on Auburn's 2004 team can best every challenge laid before them, and then be denied the right to play for the national championship because, before they had even stepped on the field, some voters didn't think they were going to be very good.
It's an easy argument to make. So easy, in fact, that most folks don't give the other side of it any thought at all. Unfortunately, the challenges encountered by Auburn in 2004 are present every year, and while it's easy to point the finger at early polling, it's really just a symptom of a much larger problem with the whole polling system.
There are a few distinct problems with the polls as they currently exist, and they all contribute to the problems with the BCS. The first is the fact that the folks filling out ballots often did not watch the teams play that they are voting for (or against). The second is that the aims of the polls are poorly defined making the habits of voters patently ridiculous.
There are well over 100 football teams in Division I-A ("FBS" moniker be damned). Every week sees the vast, vast majority of them take the field. Who could possibly make time to watch all of those games? Even watching the games sans-commercials and on fast-forward would be a daunting task... add to that the complexity of actually evaluating the games you've watched and you're talking about something that no human short of, say, Stephen Hawking could actually do.
And that's talking about someone dedicated to doing nothing but watching football. The actual voters have day jobs. They're beat writers. They're football coaches. They have better things to do than watch every single football game, ever. In short, these people aren't doing the work necessary to provide a decent Top 25 -- they just don't have time.
The second issue, though, is probably the bigger one. What are the polls ranking, exactly? Are these guys supposed to be ranking the team who has had the best season to date? The team most likely to win the national championship? The team who is the best right this moment? Some would argue, and I would agree, that the ideal would be to tell the pollsters "If Team A, playing today on a neutral field, would beat Team B, then you must rank Team A more highly than Team B." Really, though, there's lots of room for reasonable people to disagree on the details, but it doesn't matter so much what the rules are, just that there needs to be a standard.
Giving the voters a blank canvas doesn't force or even suggest critical thinking (or any other kind of thinking, for that matter) and is quite prone to influence by preconceived notions and "feelings". Ask them to answer a specific question with their poll, and all of a sudden they're having to think about who they're putting at 15th as opposed to just recycling last week's poll and dropping teams that lost.
Which brings about another issue: the movement in the polls from week to week makes no sense. Consider this example: Team A is ranked #4 in the country. They play Team X, who is ranked #22. In a close game, Team A squeezes out a win in the waning seconds. What happens in the polls?
90% of the time (fake, but accurate, statistics courtesy of Dan Rather Statistics, Inc.) Team A retains their #4 ranking (or even moves up) and Team X falls out of the polls. But why? Had those rankings been accurate, we should have expected a more lop-sided game. Team X over-performed and/or Team A under-performed based on their original rankings. Why punish Team X or reward Team A for that?
From week to week, the pollsters hardly have the brain-power or attention to absorb and analyze the new information, let alone re-evaluate the whole season anew. Would forcing them to start a few weeks later really make things any different? If so, would it make them better?
Tomorrow we'll take a look at some of the possible unexpected consequences of eliminating early season polls and consider whether or not fixing the two core problems with the polls in general would be a better solution.