5 Thoughts (10/10) - The Poll Problem

Posted Oct 11, 2010

Allegedly, South Carolina beat Alabama. Did the pollsters see the game? According to the rankings, no. The biggest flaw in the system, the rise of the Big Red, the resurgence of North Carolina, the rush to crown a Heisman winner, and more, in the Week 6 Five Thoughts.

CFN Analysis 

5 Thoughts, Week 6

- 5 Thoughts Week 1 - Is TCU Deserving?  | Week 2 - The bad, bad ACC 
- Week 3 - Uhhh ... Texas & Florida? | Week 4 - Ohio State's Schedule 
- Week 5 - Boise State's Poll Slide 

1. Poll Dancing.

E-mail Pete Fiutak

Of all the aspects of college football that make me ticked off as a pure, unabashed fan, it's the way the polls and rankings are done that's the most offensive. The Coaches' Poll means EVERYTHING, and yet every year, there's gaffe after gaffe as inflexibility and lack of thought ruins the integrity of the season.

This wasn't a big deal last year. It was cut and dry with the SEC champion and Texas, as long as they were unbeaten, playing for the national title no matter what. There wasn't any real argument for anyone else, unless the Longhorns lost the Big 12 title game, and there was no mess. This season, using the brain is required to arrange the teams accordingly.

Coaches, it's okay to adapt and adjust as you go along, but in the absence of any other factors, you have to go by what has happened on the field. Yeah, you can't always go with a Team A beat Team B, and Team C beat Team B thing, because you could probably find a way to argue that Utah State has a claim to the No. 1 spot. But this one's easy, coaches (and the supposedly knowledgeable, but irrelevant, APers), and you blew it.

In case you missed it, it was in all the papers, South Carolina beat Alabama on Saturday. The Gamecocks' only loss so far was to Auburn, who has yet to lose. So for right now, not tomorrow, not after breakfast, now, the three teams must be ranked in this order: Auburn, South Carolina, Alabama. You can argue that Alabama is the best team of the three, but until there's another variable introduced, opinions don't matter. In this case, for right now, you have to go by the facts.

So, of course, the coaches pull the equivalent of a Derek Dooley vs. LSU ranking Auburn No. 7 (fine), Alabama No. 8 (huh?), and South Carolina 12th. 12th?! After beating the supposedly No. 1 team in the nation, and losing one game on the road in a battle at Auburn, putting South Carolina four spots lower than Alabama doesn't make any sense. (The AP isn't much better with Auburn 7, Alabama 8, and South Carolina 10.)

The ignorance doesn't stop there. Iowa lost to Arizona, Arizona lost to Oregon State, Oregon State's two losses are to Boise State and TCU teams ranked in the top five. I think Iowa is the best team of the lot, but at the moment, again, in the absence of any other variables, the pecking order MUST be Boise State or TCU, Oregon State, Arizona, Iowa. Instead, it's Boise State (3), TCU (5), Iowa (14), Arizona (20), Oregon State (29).

Meanwhile, it might offend your sensibilities, but you can't vote for Texas ahead of UCLA. UCLA was just blasted by Cal, which means you have to go Cal, UCLA, Texas in the pecking order, but Texas still got 31 votes in the Coaches' Poll, and is 28th, while UCLA and Cal didn't get any votes.

Yes, I know, I too would probably take Alabama over everyone on a neutral field, but that's not the point. If we're all forced to use the "every week is a playoff" cliché, then you have to go by the results. The coaches aren't, the AP isn't, and I'm guessing the Harris voters, whoever they are, will fall in line.

What's the solution? As I've mentioned before, 1) come out with the poll on Thursday. Let the coaches have some time to put some thought into it. The last thing any coach wants to do after a tough Saturday, and all the obligations that follow, is put in more than ten minutes of work in to get the poll done for Sunday morning. 2) Make every coach write at least one sentence after each pick explaining the position.

This is the way our national title, and the millions of BCS dollars, are determined. It deserves to be better.

2. Yes, Steve Pederson, you can run and win at Nebraska

By Richard Cirminiello

South Carolina was dominant. Michigan State is weaving a special season. Florida State is building a bridge to the glory days. And yet, in terms of the national championship race, Nebraska is the one program that seemed to make the loudest statement of Week 6.

Yeah, yeah, Kansas State was on the opposite side of the field last Thursday night, but the opponent really wasn't the issue. Big Red has begun to impose its will on the other team, regardless of who it may be. If the game was in Austin or Norman, you get the feeling that the Huskers would still be swarm tackling and running the ball as if the Big 8 was still in vogue. Nebraska is dismantling the competition in systematic fashion. Give a ton of credit on offense to coordinator Shawn Watson, who has deftly adapted to his personnel, crafting a power system that accentuates the attributes of QB Taylor Martinez and RB Roy Helu. The Huskers are averaging 337 yards a game and a mind-blowing 7.7 yards a carry. Who needs to pass with those kinds of numbers? The defense has been stout under the guidance of Carl Pelini, holding opponents to 12 points a game. The line is getting penetration, the secondary is among the best in the country, and LB Lavonte David is evolving into an All-American in his first year out of Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College. Through five games, what's not to like about this school?

To the detractors guffawing about the schedule, sure, it hasn't been too thorny, but it's not as if the Huskers have been pressed by the likes of Washington or Kansas State. They won each of those games by five touchdowns. Going forward, who won't they be heavily favored to beat? Texas and Missouri are in Lincoln. Oklahoma State and Texas A&M won't have nearly enough defensive talent to keep this juggernaut from racking up a ton of yards on the ground.

As always, there were plenty of impressive moments throughout the past weekend. None, though, moved me more than what's taking place under Bo Pelini at Nebraska. The Huskers are beginning to roll, picking up a head of steam as the season unfolds. More than Ohio State and more than Oregon, I'm beginning to feel that this might be the most complete, championship-ready program in America, especially now that ‘Bama has vacated the poll position.

3. And then he'll leave for Buffalo.

Richard Cirminiello

Is Butch Davis about to make the most improbable trek of his life, traveling from pariah to messiah in a matter of a couple of months?

While it's not going to get nearly as much attention as the jobs being done by, say, Steve Spurrier, Gene Chizik, or Chip Kelly, Davis has quietly been remarkable. Faced with more than a dozen suspensions to start the year, and as many distractions as a sitting senator, the coach has somehow kept North Carolina from veering off the tracks. The Tar Heels could easily be 0-5 right now, with dissention tearing the program apart at the seams. Instead, they're 3-2 and two well-placed touchdowns away from being perfect. Imagine if this team, dismissed given up for dead before the opener with LSU, actually worked its way back into the Top 25? It's not as far fetched as it seemed before it reeled off consecutive wins over Rutgers, East Carolina, and Clemson.

Throughout all of the tumult and increased roles for underclassmen, Carolina has continued to play hard and play particularly well on defense. Out of the storm clouds have come unexpected producers, such as RB Johnny White, QB T.J. Yates, LB Zach Brown, and DT Quinton Coples. The Tar Heels could have packed it in over a month ago. These guys wouldn't allow it to happen. For that matter, neither would Davis or his staff.

Does Butch Davis survive the current NCAA mess he's facing? Who knows? However, wouldn't that be a story if he ends up winning the ACC Coach of the Year posthumously?

4. This week's spread quarterback to win the Heisman is ...

By Matt Zemek

I've been quite the grouchy contrarian in a lot of interactions with other football fans and writers over the past few days. I want to be clear in saying that these other fans and writers aren't being inappropriate or even uncivil. They're voicing understandable and thoughtful insights, but they're still unsettling me. Maybe that's more of a commentary on my own self and my emotional state than anything else. There's something to be said for that. After all, when a person does react strongly to outside commentary, it's often true that the nature of the reaction is connected to an awareness that one has violated the principle s/he is so vigorously trying to protect.

What does this all mean? Plainly put, I've been trying to get other football people - smart, informed, astute people armed with layers of statistics - to cool their jets when analyzing certain teams and, especially, players. I've been telling other college football bloggers and fans to rein in premature verdicts, especially on the matter of the Heisman Trophy race.

Over the first five weeks of the season, the doings of Denard Robinson - which were certainly impressive - received the kind of reaction one would expect from Sally Draper when she learned that her father scored Beatles tickets in 1965. Multiple voices in the college football blogosphere were quickly moved to pronounce that Denard was a once-in-a-generation talent, a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. It was as though an epic fable or a Roman legend had been born.

The orgy of hyperventilation was over the top. Yes, the astute commentators who made such pronouncements pointed to statistics which showed how ridiculously good Mr. Robinson had in fact been. It's not as though they didn't have the information needed to back up their claims. I respect that. If you can point to information which supports an out-on-a-limb claim, you do deserve a considerable share of props. Again, I'm not dealing with knee-jerk foolishness here; I'm dealing with a sincere attempt to identify unique players in the life and ever-unfolding history of college football. There was indeed a pool of raw statistical material which supported the Denard Robinson "once-in-a-generation" chorus. There was a certain rational basis for making such claims.

What was lacking, though? Perspective, which - for me - trumps statistics every time. Robinson might have established video-game numbers, but he did so against four really lousy defenses (Connecticut, UMass, Bowling Green, Indiana) and one okay defense (Notre Dame). As soon as he ran into a decent gang of 11 on the other side of the line of scrimmage, he failed to generate a modest 18 points. Michigan hit only 17 against Michigan State on Saturday, and with more heavies left on UM's schedule, the Wolverines will have to dig deep if they want a decent bowl bid.

Is Denard Robinson still an elite player? Yes - he's done too many spectacular things to retract that label. However, the singularity of his talents has been placed in its proper context.

But with Denard having been put in his place, there's another player who received more of that breathlessly premature prose: Taylor Martinez.

Hey, Martinez established single-game Nebraska records on Thursday night. The kid is fast, and he is indeed a great runner. Notice how I didn't say "running quarterback," just "runner." A quarterback is a lot more than just a runner. Unless he's Jamelle Holieway or Dee Dowis or some other classic wishbone/option/veer operator, he has to throw a little bit. A quarterback also has to stand up to big-league pressure against worthy opponents. A quarterback should also be able to perform against South Dakota State on home turf. Martinez definitely lit up a crummy and oh............ so.......... slllllllllllllllloooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwww Kansas State defense on Thursday, but one game against a lead-footed defense does not a 2011 Heisman Trophy candidate make. Yet, those comments were flying around on Thursday night, because Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch never did what Martinez did. I again appreciate the stats and the awareness of history, but one has to account for the opponent and other contextual elements when making such a bold claim.

It's important to reiterate something: These are not knocks on Robinson or Martinez. They might certainly seem like criticisms, but the instructive point is that they're cautionary statements designed to ensure that bold comments - which are needed in a world of opinions (commentators necessarily have to call shots and stick their necks out from time to time; that's what we do in this business) - have a substantial core of legitimacy. If you think that these paragraphs are meant to say that "Denard Robinson sucks" or "Taylor Martinez is a phony," you're wrong and misguided. The point of these paragraphs is to say that Robinson and Martinez have not yet earned the level of praise they've received in many quarters.

Could Robinson still emerge as a once-in-a-generation talent? YES, he could! Could Martinez become - and be remembered as - an elite quarterback and a 2011 Heisman Trophy candidate? YES, he could! It's just that we haven't yet arrived at those moments, folks!

Joseph Campbell - the philosopher-writer whom Bill Moyers interviewed in a seminal 1988 PBS program - often talked about the wisdom of ancient tribal societies in Africa and in other rural parts of the planet. Campbell frequently stressed how the initiation rituals of those societies associated pain with adolescence and the trials of growing up to become a man. Campbell emphasized how those ancient cultures didn't just bestow manhood and respect on young people; it demanded that they suffer and endure trials that stripped them of their innocence and made them aware of what manhood really meant. There was no free ticket to adult status and all its privileges; becoming a man - an autonomous adult and a master of one's own soul - had to be earned. It wasn't just decreed or handed down. It wasn't just given in the form of an entitlement benefit, a free lunch, or daddy's inheritance.

So it is for the likes of Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez. I find them to be two terrifically talented young men who have done a lot of good things and deserve to be lauded for what they've done. My problem lies not with those two quarterbacks; my problem is with the level of hype and the nature of the praise being thrown their way. If we are to follow the wisdom of the ancients, we should wait until Denard smokes Ohio State for 300 passing yards and 200 rushing yards. Then we can all agree that he's a once-in-a-generation figure in the history of a 141-year-old sport. If we are to allow manhood to be earned, let's wait for Martinez to punk Texas this weekend as a starting point, and then roll through the rest of the Big 12 before coming up with a credible performance against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game, followed by a worthy bowl effort against - perhaps - a fire-breathing SEC defense in a BCS bowl. THEN we can all KNOW that Taylor Martinez really is a top-shelf, next-level quarterback. Right now, he's earned nothing. Once more and with feeling, that's not Martinez's deficiency; it's the deficiency of commentators who want to hand him something before he's earned it.

5. But it's still fun to look ahead, anyway

By Matt Zemek

Why am I so insistent in stressing the need to let seasons unfold? Quite simply, I've been guilty of violating that principle in the past.

I thought that Kentucky had arrived as an ELITE program when it defeated LSU in 2007. I also thought LSU had been eliminated from the national title race. Heck, I thought LSU had been eliminated from the national title race when the Bayou Bengals lost to Arkansas on Thanksgiving Friday, and I was STILL premature in that regard.

I wrote off Oregon after the loss to Boise State last year... and that was after spending all of the 2009 offseason picking Oregon to win the Pac-10.

I thought Tate Forcier - after defeating Notre Dame last season - was one of the most special quarterbacks I had seen in quite some time. See, I laid on the hype way too thick; it turned out that smoking Notre Dame's defense wasn't all that special an achievement.

In a sport with 120 teams and 11 conferences plus gamedays that involve 55 games (not the NFL's 12-15 games), the proliferation of weekly storylines begs each and every commentator to offer a bold take on a team, player, conference, coach, referee, BCS executive, or some other aspect of an endlessly-layered ecosystem. It is necessary to offer opinions, and it's human nature to wonder about the future; ergo, a lot of pronouncements will be made that are not just wrong, but premature. I've been burned by this dynamic too many times to count; the above sample offers just a small taste of the analytical errancy I've displayed over the years.

This is why the matter of letting seasons unfold is so important. This is why there should be precious little talk about how the BCS National Championship Game will shape up under various scenarios.

How about we play another solid month of football? How about we wait until after Saturday, November 13, to begin to dissect the race for Glendale in all its detail? Much ink should be spilled and much bandwidth should be used in the attempt to analyze the race for the national title, but let's begin those expenditures in mid-November. Until then, the vast majority of poll-gauging and crystal-ball-assessing is just idle speculation.

I know what it's like to be guilty of such sins. (Moreover, I will probably still be guilty of such sins in the future. Call me out when I go too far.)