The guessing game: problems with the AP poll

By: Brent Raines ~Sports Editor~

Imagine the moment you walk into a class for the first time and the professor is forced to assign you a grade based on how well they think you will do. They have no information other than your appearance and they have to grade on a curve. Suddenly you are forced to start from either ahead or behind, based wholly upon a guess at how well you will do. That would not seem to be very fair, but the preseason rankings, compiled in the same manner, are a time-honored tradition in college football.

With nearly a quarter of the college football season already behind us, we are just now reaching a point where we can accurately gauge how good each team is. Most teams have played a real opponent and have gone on the road. Some have even started conference play. You would think that the rankings would reflect what we know, which is the information that we have gained from the field through the first three weeks. Unfortunately, they are clouded by our preseason judgements and voters’ resistance to drastically change their rankings week to week.

If you ask any college football fan about the most impressive team so far, you will get a variety of answers. Notre Dame might be the only team to have beaten three quality opponents, while Ole Miss might have the most impressive win after last week’s showdown at Alabama. Georgia, Michigan State, UCLA and LSU could all make reasonable arguments as to why they deserve to be number one.

Yet, Ohio State is still No. 1, primarily because that’s where we thought that they would be prior to the season. After a decent win at Virginia Tech (pulling away only after the Hokies’ starting quarterback was knocked out of the game), they muddled through games against lower-class opponents Hawaii and Northern Illinois. Neither one of their supposed Heisman-quality quarterbacks has looked any better than Todd Boeckman.

Auburn is another example of a team whose preseason hype did not translate to success on the field. After opening with an ugly win against a still-winless Louisville team in Atlanta, it took a late comeback and overtime for the Tigers to knock off lowly FCS opponent Jacksonville State. The then-No. 6 Tigers would have been only the second top-ten team to lose to an FCS team, yet they still appeared at No. 18 in next week’s rankings. A blowout loss to LSU likely knocked them out for good, but they stayed ranked longer than necessary simply because it’s where they started.

It would be one thing if this were a harmless exercise akin to ranking the best McDonald’s in Cincinnati, but with the new playoff system solely determined by a human committee, these rankings could potentially alter the committee’s opinions of certain teams. Teams that started low in the preseason rankings might be hurt just due to the fact that they started low and the voters resisted moving them up.

There’s still time for the voters to change their minds, but the preseason rankings present a huge advantage to the teams ranked highly. Utah has given no indications that it is not championship worthy, but low preseason expectations might prevent it from rising quickly enough in the polls to sustain a loss and still remain in the playoff picture. If it comes down to a one-loss Utah and a one-loss Ohio State, it would not be surprising to see the Buckeyes earn the bid due to the inflated perception that comes with the better starting position.

The AP poll, conducted since 1936, has become a useless relic that could potentially influence the playoff race. Voters need to stop letting preconceived opinions about teams that have not played a down cloud their judgement, and just rank the best teams first.