College Football: Are Polls Biased?

Lisa Horne@LisaHornePac-12 and Big 12 Lead WriterOctober 21, 2008

Have you taken a gander at some of the football polls in the last three weeks? Think some of these pollsters are nuts for ranking a team highly when no logical reason can explain it? Wondering why this happens?

What really is going on here? Posturing, positioning, what?

We have three polls that are used to rank college football teams: The AP, Harris Interactive, and USA Today. Interestingly, the USA Today poll is the coaches poll.

Now why isn't it officially called the Coaches Poll?

Kind of like the same reason why Kentucky Fried Chicken changed their name to KFC- when America started watching their fat intake, the word "Fried" wasn't exactly a great choice to appeal to dieters. Call it brilliant marketing and removing unhealthy words from a chain's name- they didn't want anyone getting negative reminders about fried chicken.

Having a coaches poll seems a little like a Good Ol' Boys Club, doesn't it? A bunch of coaches in a clubhouse, smoking cigars, having a few bourbons, and eventually deciding on who they are going to vote for to help their teams out. 

Am I suggesting they practice this? Of course not. Do I think it happens? Maybe.

Coaches, for all their wealth of knowledge, can be extremely biased. In fact, they may have ulterior motives for ranking a team highly, when no one else seems to think the team deserves it.

Playing Northwestern or Minnesota in the next few weeks? If you are a Big Ten coach, and know your conference is perceived as "a little down this year", by golly, put them in the top 25 to help bolster your teams' quality wins.

Besides the bias they may or may not have, there is another point in considering how accurate the coaches' poll is—do they actually fill these things out?

Just how many coaches come racing home to fill out their ballot boxes on a Saturday night or Sunday morning? Do you honestly think the coaches have had time to review 25 games? Would you bet your mortgage that a head coach on the East Coast stayed up late into the wee hours to watch a Boise State or Utah game? Or is he starting to prepare for next week's game?

Are these coaches watching feeds from games, or game film of next week's opponent? Are they really voting with logic, or their agenda?

Howard Schnellenberger, whose Owls got blasted by the Florida Gators last year, created quite a stir in his final votes for last year's final top 25. Click here to see his votes. (click on his name and see how he, and others voted.)

Schnellenberger placed Florida at No. 21, while other coaches had them no lower than No. 15. Agenda? You be the judge.

But there's more. Forty-six coaches had Ohio State as the No. 1 pick, but two coaches voted for Oklahoma. Bob Stoops was one of them.

Hal Mumme, New Mexico State head coach, voted Hawai'i as No. 1. He's a WAC coach and voted for a WAC team. Of course.

Virginia Tech received one No. 2 vote, its highest, from you guessed it, Frank Beamer. Georgia received seven No. 2 votes, one of them being by Mark Richt.

USC landed all of its votes in the top ten, except from one- Howard Schnellenberger.

Biased voting? Uh, it looks that way, doesn't it?

The AP, on the other hand, is comprised of 65 sportswriters/broadcasters who cast their vote for the top 25 teams. These are people who study the games, write about various teams and for many, have absolutely no ties to a particular program that is highly ranked.

They may work for the Boston Herald, or The Buffalo News, and have no local "interest" in the rankings. But there is a more detailed reason why the AP is more unbiased than the coaches poll—it's their job to get it right. It's their profession to report what they honestly see. It's their job to watch all the games or highlights, or use other information to gather facts.

Oh sure, many of you don't like sportswriters, but why is that?

Go ahead, call a sportswriter a hack, but realistically, that name-calling is a result of a fan who can't stand the fact that perhaps his team or coach has been put in a poor spotlight.

Most sportswriters, if they are legit, will back up their opinions with fact to support their case. Disgruntled fans will overlook that, and instead, resort to name-calling, ad hominem arguments and off-topic remarks.

While many aspiring sportswriters would love to be able to write professionally so they can "get paid to watch a game," the reality is quite different from their fun perception of sportswriting.

It's all about fact-checking, getting the quotes right and getting the right stats. It's hard work- it's no fun day at the game.

Life in a press box is not nearly as exciting as you think it is—it's hours typing on a laptop, looking at every player's stats, time of possession, etc... it's not about cheering on your team. If '"your" team is playing, rarely do you think of them as "your" team, but rather, one of two teams on a field. Ask any reporter.

For sportswriters, attention to detail and accurately writing about the game is paramount to their reputations. It is their job, and while they may have slight biases, it is usually kept to a very low minimum.

They rank based on facts. They are objective, not subjective.

Finally, there is the Harris Interactive poll. This is the only poll that does a public opinion poll. Its pollsters include "former players, coaches, administrators, and current and former media members."

This poll is also very well-balanced and has a good mix of sports personalities that take this job seriously. The Harris Interactive Poll was used to replace the AP several years ago in the BCS rankings.

That's right, the AP is not used in the BCS rankings. Part of the reason why the AP removed itself from the polls was because its votes were made public in 2004, while the Coaches Poll was not.

While that doesn't seem like a big deal, it was—Cal was ranked No. 4 by both the AP and coaches, but Texas coach Mack Brown made a last minute lobbying effort for his team which changed some coaches' votes. While the AP votes were made public, the coaches' weren't, and the public directed their anger at the AP when the BCS rankings had Texas jumping Cal.

The AP poll, for all of its criticisms, is the oldest of all the polls, having its roots begin in 1934 by an SEC Assistant Director of Media Relations, Charles Woodroof. 

The AP has withstood WWII, The Korean War, The Vietnam War, The Cold War, The Cuban Missile Crisis, Gulf War I, Gulf War II and will probably remain a constant as long as sportswriters are willing to watch the beautiful game of college football, and try to accurately rank the top 25 teams.

Without bias, posturing, nor positioning.

It is a poll that is conducted by writers who have worked hard to perfect their craft, and have to remain objective as possible. If they aren't, they could lose their job.

The AP. Respect it. It deserves nothing less.

It is the truest poll college football has.


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