When it comes to polls in college football, I get the early appeal. Fans want something to get excited about before the season starts and it gives people an idea of interesting teams to watch over the course of the season.
But what some fans and even media members seem to overlook is the fact that it inherently creates a sense of bias towards certain teams.
I don’t know about all Tech fans, but I know that I am personally tired of the SEC/National powerhouses lovefest that occurs starting the day after the national championship game each season. People release their super early preseason rankings, which are slightly adjusted along the way until they turn into the AP and Coaches’ preseason polls at some point in August.
Last season, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach ranked four SEC teams —along with four other teams people consider national powerhouses—in the top-10 of his “Way too early” poll.
While the teams that were ranked are generally solid teams, it doesn’t necessarily mean the season is going to unfold in that manner. For instance, USC and Oregon were ranked in this poll at No. 2 and No. 4, respectively in January. Since the season kicked off, USC lost to Stanford, while Oregon has looked suspect on defense at times.
Another example that pops out in my mind is when Oklahoma was ranked third in 2009 in both major preseason polls. In their season opener against BYU, the Sooners lost their star quarterback Sam Bradford to injury and lost the game.
Then pollsters immediately overreacted to BYU’s win without accounting for the injury, sticking them in the top-10 with a 2-0 start against the depleted Oklahoma squad and Tulane. BYU proceeded to get completely flattened by a Florida State ranked No. 18 in the preseason (and lost their season opener). The polls then ranked Florida State—who wound up 7-6 in 2009—prematurely, making the voters look silly for overranking several teams.
Fans can get equally as pumped about the season knowing that they have a solid team and debating with their own personal power rankings, but having the media polls released so early really just gives people a template that they continue to use throughout the season.
These bias issues could all be avoided by making the earliest official college football poll released midway through the season. I am of the opinion that if polls were not released until at least four or five weeks into the season, that we would see voters really sit back and analyze teams deeper in their ranking system.
The main issue that is seen through the polls is that a team is generally rewarded just for not losing, regardless of the opponent. Georgia started the season at No. 6 in the polls, and despite a fairly weak schedule, has moved into the top-five because No. 2 USC lost to Stanford. Meanwhile, Stanford has the same record as the Bulldogs and is somehow ranked below them.
Sure, Georgia may wind up being the better team, but if both teams figuratively finished the season undefeated, I can almost guarantee that Georgia would finish in the polls above Stanford purely based on their preseason position.
Another issue of note in early polls is unclear measures by which voters make their votes. This past weekend, despite Tech’s 56-20 blowout of Virginia, Tech managed to lose votes to other teams that had far weaker credentials. The Jackets moved from No. 35 to No. 40 in the polls, with teams like Northwestern and Iowa State going from being tied at No. 39 to No. 28 and 32, respectively. For the record, Northwestern beat a 1-2 Boston College team 22-13 this past week, while 3-0 Iowa State’s best win has been a 9-6 victory over an Iowa team that has the 105th ranked offense in the country.
Personally, I would not have Tech ranked if I had a vote in this poll, but I also would never rank these two teams ahead of the Jackets.
There are always going to be inherent flaws no matter what system is used for polling. For example, Tech’s 6-0 start in 2011 is seen by many to be a result of weak competition through the first half of the year.
A large chunk of bias and error could be completely avoided, though, if fans and pollsters alike were more patient and let the season unfold some before giving out official rankings. Like the saying goes, that’s why they play the games.