Preseason polls are not worth the trouble

November 13, 2010 

Over the years I have expressed my distaste, more than once on these pages, for preseason college football ratings.

The voters favor the traditional powers, and too often this results in some worthy teams -- with perhaps unreported potential -- slipping to the bottom of the Top 25. And some, like Auburn this year, don't even get rated at all.

That's right, undefeated Auburn, now either No. 1 or 2 in everybody's poll, didn't make Sports Illustrated's Top 25 in August. And that is not the only mistake by the so-called experts.

Here's a comparison of SI's preseason Top 10 and this week's Bowl Championship Series (BCS) standings:

SI August

1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. Boise State, 4. Texas, 5. TCU, 6. Iowa, 7. Florida, 8. Oregon, 9. Nebraska, 10. Virginia Tech

BCS November

1. Oregon, 2. Auburn, 3. TCU, 4. Boise State, 5. LSU, 6. Stanford, 7. Wisconsin, 8. Nebraska, 9. Ohio State, 10. Oklahoma State

Of course there is still a lot of football to be played. The BCS standings will be somewhat different on Dec. 5 when the bowl pairings are announced and we find out which two teams will be playing for the national title Jan. 10.

One thing we know for sure, it won't be Alabama and Ohio State. And SI's No. 5 team, Texas, currently with more losses than victories, may not even make it to a bowl game.

On the other side, LSU (8-1), originally ranked No. 21 by SI, still is a contender for the national championship. And Stanford (8-1), preseason No. 24, is in the driver's seat for a Rose Bowl berth.

I shouldn't single out Sports Illustrated. The coaches and writers who vote in the USA Today and Associated Press polls, respectively, came in with pretty much the same preseason ratings as SI.

My point is that preseason ratings are a guessing game and should not be taken seriously. If I had my way, the first ratings would come out around Nov. 1.

I don't often write anything good about the BCS system, but there are two things I do like; Their first rankings don't appear until mid-October, and the computer-generated portion of the ratings factor in strength of schedule.

I believe the most accurate rankings are produced by Jeff Sagarin, a 1970 MIT mathematics graduate. They appear throughout the season in USA Today.

Sagarin's ratings, which are part of the BCS formula, take into consideration quality of opponents as well as such things as home-field advantage. A diminishing-returns principle exists to prevent teams from boosting their rating by running up victory margins against weak teams. Instead, it rewards teams that do well against good opponents.

As of this week, Sagarin's top five teams in order are: Oregon, TCU, Stanford, Auburn and Boise State. Of those five, Stanford's schedule is rated toughest (No. 16 in the nation). Boise State, as might be expected, is downgraded because its schedule is ranked No. 72.

Interestingly, the two Big Ten colleges in the BCS Top 10 -- Wisconsin and Ohio State -- are rated 17th and 13th, respectively, by Sagarin. Both are penalized for weak schedules -- Wisconsin's is rated No. 70 and Ohio State's No. 87. I suspect the Badgers' 70-3 victory over Austin Peay and the Buckeyes' 73-20 win over Eastern Michigan are a factor.

But in the end, the BCS is as flawed as preseason ratings. College football needs a playoff of some kind.

Right now, this season begs for a four-team playoff that would match the four teams still unbeaten. Either TCU or Boise State, each likely to end the season with a perfect record, is going to get the short end of the stick. Maybe both, if Oregon and Auburn keep winning.

In the long run, an eight-team playoff makes the most sense. It would add only two weeks to the college schedule in December. Then, after a two-week break over Christmas and New Year's, a title game could still be played in early January.

This week's Sports Illustrated addresses the subject of a playoff and claims that the bowls are blocking it "because they are profiting from the problem." But the article also points out that the BCS might be facing possible anti-trust violations and members could lose some tax exemptions if they don't go to a playoff system.

We can only hope.

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