Every week during the season, those of us who are obsessed with college football have one primary focus on Sunday, and it's not the NFL. No, we sit and wait for lunchtime, when during the space of a couple of hours two press releases which we deem utterly vital to our very existence hit the street: the AP and Coaches' Polls.
Tuesday, one little detail didn't register when we were compiling the Unboxing the Polls post for this week. Mississippi, after knocking off Alabama, received no first place votes in the coaches' poll... and 11 in the AP poll. And that kicked into motion our usual complaints about how the polls even operate, only today someone replaced the 40-watt incandescent with a 120-watt halogen.
Why did this happen?
It's pretty easy to figure out once you really think about the entire poll process. During the overnight hours on Sunday morning, the voters are required to submit their ballots. In the case of the media, we can probably concede that the voters put a lot of effort into the act. One might argue otherwise, but the fact that nearly every AP voter releases not only their ballot itself but an explanation of the thinking that went into most of their decision-making indicates that they take the task seriously.
The coaches? Not so much, and it's now mostly an accepted trope that many coaches who are voters don't actually vote. They leave the task to their sports information directors, who are really sharp folks most of the time but actually suffer from the same problem the coaches themselves do, as well as the writers:
On Saturdays, when everyone is playing football, they're desperately busy doing their actual jobs.
Let's stop and think about this, and how it plays out, and not only will we understand how Ohio State nabbed 61 of 64 first-place votes in the coaches' poll while Mississippi somehow stole 11 from them in the eyes of the writers.
Every coach, SID, and writer works on Saturday as a general rule. Some AP voters do not have a specific beat, so they can pay a little more attention to what's going on nationally, but in the main they are covering a team. Coaches are coaching a team. SIDs are preparing information related to their team's game. They're all very, very busy on Saturdays, and in each case one of four situations applies:
- The team is idle or played a weeknight game, affording the voter a chance to relax a bit and actually watch some danged football.
- The team played early on Saturday. Whether coach, SID, or writer, the voter will actually see absolutely nothing that happens until after dinner; the game ends at 2:30-3:00 Central, and then they have things they have to do after the game, not least of which is post-game press conferences. After that, SIDs and writers have to prepare their post-game content. Coaches have a team to attend to. Coaches and SIDs playing on the road then have to deal with travel.
- The team played mid-day on Saturday. I'm sorry, but any coach or SID whose team is playing a 2:30 game, or writer covering such a team, doesn't see doodly squat on Saturday. Nada. They have work to do before the game; their post-game work eliminates any hope of actually watching the evening games. A mid-afternoon kickoff means working through the entire day's window. And naturally, the mid-afternoon window is the busiest of them all.
- The team played in the evening. The voter might have caught some of the 11am game action, but even then they've still got pre-game preparations to deal with. And by the time they're done with the game and any post-game obligations, it's already time to turn in those ballots.
So with that information in hand, ask yourself: how the heck do they even decide who to vote for? This week's polling is fairly instructive, and while this is just speculation it's hard to ignore the implication.
The coaches and SIDs just look at who won and who lost and to whom, maybe taking into account the score, and possibly factoring in any truly big news that filtered through over the course of the day. This is probably also true of the beat writers covering teams, although they have a little more time to actually try and catch highlights and read game stories. But in both cases, something is lacking.
The writers who don't have beats? They're doing just like you are: watching games on TV... and watching wrap-up shows. The coaches weren't exposed to the media frenzy surrounding Mississippi-Alabama. The national writers were drowning in it.
Most of the voters are not qualified to vote because they don't even see the games; the remainder aren't qualified because they're allowing those involved with the actual promotion of the games themselves to tell them what's important. This can't be stressed enough; a voter has no business getting their information about football games from entities who have their own agendas. ESPN, FOX, CBS... they all have games to sell, and their studio coverage reflects this.
If you have even the slightest doubt about this, watch ESPN GoalLine one Saturday. It's understandable that GoalLine isn't cutting away to games being carried on other networks. This is not something for which we can call them to account, levying accusations of nefarious agendas; FOX isn't going to give them the rights to do live cut-ins to their coverage. But there's another subtle and insidious angle at play on Saturdays during GoalLine's presentation: those games they aren't showing also don't really even get talked about. Periodically, GoalLine puts up a graphic with the scores of eight games; almost never is any of those games one which is being or was shown on another network.
Chris Fowler famously raged at people last year for accusing ESPN of an SEC bias, and while a part of that was sort of true -- after all, ESPN does have some stake in every conference (or at least a team from same) save Conference USA. But those accusations didn't come out of nowhere. Perhaps even those accusation are tied to a less nefarious reality; after all, highlights from other networks also require negotiation, and there's every incentive for networks to withhold the highlights of their games. If you're watching the FOX late-night show, you won't see a ton of SEC footage, either.
The thing is, whether it's nefarious or not isn't the point. How many of you actually channel-surf at midnight on Saturday, bouncing back and forth between CBS Sports Network, ESPN, and FOX Sports 1?
Yeah, didn't think so. You pick one show and stick with it, because you like the presentation and jumping around may cause you to miss what you're actually waiting for. And as a result, your perceptions of the day's events -- at least those you didn't witness yourself during the course of the football Saturday -- are skewed by the biases of the network providing you analysis and highlights. Bias need not be underhanded or corrupt. Sometimes it just is, even with the best of intentions.
All of this to make the very simple and now-obvious observation that the poll system is stupid. It's like asking your next-door neighbor who doesn't even have a passport to rank his top 25 most awesome countries. The ideal solution is to absolutely scrap it, but that will never happen. Even finding a different set of voters who have nothing better to do than watch football all day Saturday wouldn't help, because you can only watch so much football on Saturday. Even if you've got a Wall of Video with nine screens pumping out beautiful American Gridiron from 11am to midnight, you're still only going to see half the games, and you'll miss half everything that happens in the games you can watch. Scary thought, huh?
The only hope of salvaging this mess is to push the ballot day forward. For a dedicated voter who actually cares about doing the job right, posting a ballot on Monday night would adequately address most of these issues. You don't actually have to try and watch every single game played on Saturday, after all. The only games you really have to devote your attention to are those involving the teams which you had ranked and which you didn't rank but had on your radar.
That's still going to be at least 20-25 games per week in mid-season, and could be as many as 70 games in September, but you can trim that down pretty easily. Nobody cares about Georgia State at Idaho. If TCU beats Kansas 64-3 you've learned all you need to from the score. But you still need two or three days to really dig into the games that matter and whose results might need further edification.
Would the system fall apart if we couldn't have the instant gratification of early Sunday rankings? Maybe, but if so that speaks more to our obsession and reflects badly on all of us than anything else. Would it really hurt us one bit to get a poll reveal on Monday night?
Wait. We already get that in November, don't we? Why, they even do a two-hour broadcast to dissect it. What a thought.
Scrap it, or revamp it. One or the other. Right now, even giving everyone involved the benefit of the doubt as to their intentions and dedication to the process, it's still a farce.