CBSSports.com National Columnist

Media follows logic to wrong poll position

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Good thing I type for a living, because I'm stunned speechless. I just found out why college football is plagued by a preseason coaches poll, a poll that sets the tone for the entire season and is probably going to lead -- four months later -- to Boise State riding its Holiday Bowl resume into the national championship game.

What did I find out? I found out that it's the media's fault.

More to the point, it's USA Today's fault.

The coaches wanted to eliminate the preseason poll last year. USA Today, which operates the poll, talked them out of it.

This is not a guess. This is a fact. I just hung up with USA Today deputy managing editor Jim Welch, who relayed that story to me. Last year the American Football Coaches Association commissioned the Gallup World Poll to study its poll and to make recommendations for improving it. One of those recommendations, Welch said, was to do away with the preseason poll -- and to not release its first poll until a month into the season.

"The coaches seemed to agree with that," Welch said.

So why didn't it happen?

"We don't view that as a good idea," Welch said.

Oh.

Now, listen. In the interest of fairness, I understand USA Today's position and even agree with it journalistically. USA Today's position, Welch told me, is that college football is a year-round conversation piece, and that a preseason poll is a road map not only for fans but also for news organizations like USA Today.

Sound reasoning, and AP sports editor Terry Taylor gave that same reasoning when she told me the AP has "never considered" doing away with the preseason poll.

"Our members like it," Taylor said, referring to news outlets that subscribe to the AP. "They call ahead of time because they want to plan pages around it."

Like I said, I agree journalistically. But the thing is, I don't care about it journalistically. The preseason poll is an infectious illness that lingers for months. It's the flu. It's not killing college football, no, but it's weakening it. And the cure is more than doable.

The cure is easy.

"Operationally, [eliminating the preseason poll] wouldn't be a problem at all," Welch said. "If it ever comes down to doing that ... that's a tough one. We value that relationship [with the AFCA], but at the same time feel we strongly that [a Top 25] is something that should be out there sooner. It helps shape our coverage, and it helps fans size up the field."

But the potential cost is high, and the solution is so simple that it comes from the other poll in the BCS formula -- the Harris Interactive. And the Harris poll is a complete joke.

If my feet were cold, I wouldn't steal a pair of socks from the Harris poll. If my stomach was grumbling, I wouldn't steal a sandwich from those folks because the Harris people probably would screw it up. There would be salmonella in there, or maybe there would be Boise State ranked first. There would be something noxious on that bread, so screw it. I'd eat my own arm and take my chances.

But anyway, the Harris folks got one thing right: They don't release their first poll until late September. Problem is, Harris voters are mostly former players and coaches who don't think for themselves, so their poll basically mirrors the coaches and AP polls that have been coming out since late summer. In other words, the Harris folks had a great idea -- and screwed it up. They should run for Congress.

When the first Harris poll was released four weeks into the 2006 season, it was almost identical to the coaches poll. There was literally one difference between the polls in the slots from 1-to-25, Welch told me. The same thing happened in 2007, Welch said. One difference. Why? Because Harris voters are too scared to form an original ballot, or too ignorant to create such a ballot. So they build on the foundation set by existing polls.

Which is like building a house on a marshmallow.

Look at last season. Five teams finished the regular season undefeated, so how did the coaches poll break the tie? You know how. Alabama and Texas were ranked higher than Boise State, TCU and Cincinnati in the preseason, and in early December, when all five teams were 12-0 or 13-0, Alabama and Texas were still ranked higher than Boise State, TCU and Cincinnati. The poll is a conveyor belt -- if you never fall off, you never lose your place.

Look at this season. Boise State is headed to the national championship game for one reason -- because the coaches and the AP preseason polls guessed that Boise State was a top-five team, and that Virginia Tech belonged in the Top 10.

In hindsight, Virginia Tech was -- and is -- lousy. Don't ask me why. The Hokies have fabulous talent at quarterback and running back. They have a great coach. They have experience on the offensive line. And with all that, they scored one touchdown in a 21-16 loss Saturday to Division I-AA James Madison. The Hokies are 0-2 and unranked.

And last week, Boise State needed a touchdown in the final 70 seconds to beat them.

That's the only game Boise State has played, a last-minute victory against a team that lost to James Madison -- and for that, Boise State has moved up in the coaches poll from fifth to third. That's where Boise State will remain unless a team ahead of it loses. Those teams are Alabama and Ohio State, and they play some brutal games in some brutal venues. It's a safe bet that one of them will lose, possibly both, while Boise State is beating WAC teams in WAC venues.

WAC? The onomatopoeia is beautiful.

But the system sucks.

Texas is fourth in the coaches poll, where it started in the preseason, despite two unimpressive wins against two unimpressive teams, Rice and Wyoming.

Only two teams in the country have victories against two BCS teams. And those teams, LSU and Michigan, are ranked 15th and 20th in the coaches poll. Why? Well, LSU was 21st in the preseason, and Michigan was unranked. So both of them remain behind preseason No. 17 Arkansas, which has beaten Division I-AA Tennessee Tech and winless Louisiana-Monroe. And because of those victories, Arkansas has risen five spots to No. 12.

This is a problem. The preseason poll is a conversation piece, all right -- sort of like the whooping cough. And for a change, you can go ahead and blame the media.

Because it's our fault.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. More importantly, he is 4-0 as an amateur boxer, with three knockouts. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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