Blog Entry

What's to be done about 'rogue' AP voters?

Posted on: January 5, 2012 4:51 am

Posted by Adam Jacobi

A report came out Wednesday night that some AP voters were prepared to vote LSU as the national champion even if Alabama beats the Tigers at the BCS Championship on January 12. There are conditions, of course; if 'Bama wins handily, there's not going to be much doubt who the deserving national champion is. But still, if the title game is another close, unconvincing affair that this time tilts in favor of Alabama, there are people on record who are at the very least open to the prospect of sticking with LSU.

"Awarding a championship to a team that loses its final game is beyond counterintuitive and may be un-American," said David Teel of the Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Va. "But if LSU loses narrowly, I will absolutely consider (voting the Tigers No. 1). That's how good the Tigers' regular season -- five wins over the top 25, four away from Death Valley, including at Alabama -- was." Another voter in Albuquerque told's Dennis Dodd that Alabama's win "would have to be like 63-0 or something" before he'd consider voting for the Tide over LSU.

[Doyel: Splitting BCS national championship 'stupidest idea ever']

The conundrum Teel raises along with his supposedly "rogue" compatriots is a real one, and one that cuts to the core of polling as a college football institution. At the end of the day, though, Teel is not only well within his right to wonder aloud about this game's effect on his final ballot -- if the conditions are right, he should follow his gut and go with LSU to win the title.

First, it's important to understand why polling even needs to exist in college football (which it does!) in the first place. The validity of determining a Top 25 in college football is dramatically hindered by two factors:

1) We just don't have much data to work with. Assuming one of the central maxims of college football and the BCS is correct -- that the most important determinant in whether one team is better than the other is what happens when they play each other -- then in order to justify a two-team playoff out of a 120-team league, we would likely need way more than 12 or 13 data points for each team (especially with two-thirds of nearly every schedule dedicated to common games with a highly consolidated group of conference opponents). Baseball uses 162 games in a 32-game league, and this year, it needed all 162 just to determine an 8-team playoff setup.

Now, the point can be made that MLB didn't actually need all 162 games to determine its playoff participants -- nobody was screaming about major league baseball's illegitimacy when the season was 154 games long (or less) for the first 85 years of the league's existence, after all -- but if we extrapolate college football's rate of missing opponents to the MLB, the season would be four games long, three of the games would be dedicated to intra-division play, and the fourth game would be for one non-division opponent. And then two title game participants are chosen. If MLB commissioner Bud Selig proposed this, he would be fired. He would be quadruple-fired. Then the riots would begin.

2) The data we do have is highly contradictory anyway. Even if we had a season with dozens upon dozens of games, upsets are so prevalent that the rankings would still be a relatively poor predictor of future games. We all like to believe that if one team beats the other, it's better than the other team, but here's the full list of the Associated Press Top 25* teams that have not lost to a team ranked below them: LSU, Alabama, Oregon, Arkansas, Virginia Tech, Georgia, and Penn State. In other words, even among what voters have determined to be the best 25 teams, 76% are ranked ahead of a different team that beat them during the season, and it took only 12-13 games to get to that point. For the next 25 teams, the ones with even more losses than 1-3 on the year, there would be utter carnage in trying to only rank teams ahead of the ones they beat. Consider that the next time somebody makes the all-too-prevalent argument of "How can Team X be behind Team Y in the rankings when Team X beat Team Y?" 

Now, even though college football is filled with game-changing factors that hinge on chance (weather, injuries, fumbles) this pattern of teams routinely losing to worse teams is not a phenomenon unique to the sport. Going back to baseball, losses are so prevalent that even the best teams rarely win more than two-thirds of their games. In professional football, the teams with the best regular-season record are barely more likely to make the Super Bowl than the average playoff-bound team. But those two leagues (and every other professional team sport) feature multi-round playoffs, so the contradictions are rendered meaningless through the process of the playoffs -- even as said playoffs routinely eliminate teams that would take a BCS Championship bid if such a system existed in the league.  

College football does not have the luxury of expanding its schedule to adequately address either of the the above factors, especially in light of the FBS' mammoth number of programs -- football is debilitatingly brutal as it is, plus the prospect of trying to turn a profit in the postseason is prohibitively difficult for athletic departments even with a one-week schedule -- so it has to make do with its small, weak set of data in order to determine championship participants. In must step pollsters to interpret that data in their own way, and generally, those pollsters do a very good job of contextualizing the data and putting together a (temporarily) coherent Top 25 -- at least in the poll's weekly aggregations. So given the limitations of college football scheduling, there's really no other way to delineate between specific programs than by subjective ranking.

The rankings are each pollster's individual interpretation of the entire season, and if there's any doubt about that, regard the amount of teams that find themselves ranked second in the season's very final poll without playing in the BCS Championship because they won their bowl games while ranked third while the BCS Championship loser was thumped so soundly it couldn't hang onto the second-ranked spot. Those votes as No. 2 aren't protest votes to suggest that the BCS took the wrong team to challenge the top-ranked team or that a plus-one needs to be enacted immediately, they're reflections of each team's work on the season as a whole.

So given that, it's particularly backwards of the BCS and Coaches Poll to require that the winner of the BCS Championship be voted as national champion while allowing the loser to be ranked lower than second if need be. The season as a whole is what it is, and if AP voters determine that a potential slim Alabama victory over LSU at a (semi-) neutral site in the BCS Championship doesn't constitute enough of a reason to like Alabama's season more than LSU's, those voters should absolutely rank LSU first in their final ballots. They should be prepared to defend the decision, of course, but they should do it; otherwise, what's the point of being granted a vote in the first place?

*The AP Top 25 was chosen because the Coaches Poll and BCS exclude Southern California for reasons that are not germane to this particular topic.

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Since: Apr 21, 2008
Posted on: January 5, 2012 10:07 am

What's to be done about 'rogue' AP voters?

Rare to see a thoughtful defense of polling, so I give Jacobi credit.  But he's still wrong.  All we need to do is fix the conferences so the divisions are a true round robin (say, 8 conferences of 16 teams), then those eight conference winners square off in a mini-NCAA tournament, with NO at-large teams. That way it's decided on the field, and only on the field, and thus finally becomes an actual sport.  And we get rid of polls and, with them, the politics: stupid stuff like 'conference superiority' (the SEC's campaign is a parody of itself at this point), schools who work on their 'brand' more than their team, morons like Craig James who get their pre-game picks wrong and then turn around and tell us who's 'definitely the best team', and coaches who obscenely grovel for poll votes.  The not-enough-data argument is flawed - not every team has to play every other team to crown a champion.  In college basketball, no one says there is 'not enough data' just because Duke didn't beat every single I-A school like Siena, Rider, Stetson, etc.  It's ridiculous.  The olympics find a way to take 100+ countries and get a legitimate champion in two weeks.  Ironically, with all those countries involved you have far fewer politics wrenching the process.

Since: Jun 25, 2010
Posted on: January 5, 2012 9:43 am

What's to be done about 'rogue' AP voters?

It's OK. Calm down. That's why it's a VOTE. The outcome does not have to be unanimous. We elect a President every four year's based on a majority (well - there's the electoral college, but let's ignore that for now), the Heisman is not unanimous and nobody wants to have a recount to verify that RGIII, Hall of Famers are virtually never elected unanimously - but, once they get in, they are in - period. So, why is this even an issue? So, it might not be unanimous - so what? These are obviously two great teams and they are also very likely the two best teams in the country and they will play each other head-to-head for a second time, so there will be plenty of evidence on which to make an informed vote. So go ahead AP voters and vote for who you thought was best. The winner of the majority of the vote will be a very valid selection.

Since: Sep 17, 2010
Posted on: January 5, 2012 9:42 am

What's to be done about 'rogue' AP voters?

Dude, you are wrong!
Coach Saban was one of 6 coaches that did not give in to the media hype of Oklahoma St and jump them over Stanford for no reason.
Why should he have dropped Stanford who won their final game with ease???   It was wierd to me that Okla State jumped Stanford on the weekend when Okla St was idle, and Stanford beat Notre Dame.   Explain that one please.
So, Coach Saban was man enough to stick by his vote and not give in to media hype.  So, get over it.
The SEC proposed a plus one idea 4 years ago and the other conferences voted it down because they were worried you would have two SEC teams in the finals.  Well, guess what!    I mean it is about getting the best two teams isn't it.
Roll Tide

Since: Apr 4, 2011
Posted on: January 5, 2012 9:36 am

What's to be done about 'rogue' AP voters?

I am so shocked. I NEVER expected this "story" to come to light given that the two teams have already played each other. It is as if you had this sitting in the file for 3 weeks. Personally, I hope Bama wins, and we split national champs. Then, I hope, retroactively, they allow Michigan to play OSU in the Nat Champ, as, at the time, they were the two teams with the best records (again. Not the BEST teams, but that is what gets you into this thing. Not the "best at the time.") Years from now, we will look back at this as the beginning of the end for the BCS.

Since: Nov 16, 2008
Posted on: January 5, 2012 8:04 am

What's to be done about 'rogue' AP voters?

You forgot one IMPORTANT thing regarding the polls...

Many people vote for teams based upon 'name recognition', not actual on-field achievement.  There is that one sportswriter (bully for him) who actually casts HIS votes based upon who teams actually play and beat, not what their names is (so Ohio State, ranked highly by many pollsters early on, wasnt on his ballot at all after merely beating Akron, one of the worst I-A teams the last few years)

That would be interesting concept to adopt nation-wide. Once the season starts, rank treams according to the actual opponents played rather than name-factor....if the pollsters actually took THAT approach rather than the lazy glamour approach, it may actually bring back the old days of the good teams actually PLAYING each other, instead of ducking each other behind rows of tomato cans called opponents...hear THAT, SEC fans?  I will never be convinced of your confernece's alleged superiority until you actually play GOOD about ON THE ROAD...before your conference schedule starts!   in that instance i will give LSU and Georgia some props, they actually played some good non-conference competition (Oregon and Boise St)!

Since: Jan 1, 2007
Posted on: January 5, 2012 7:43 am

What's to be done about 'rogue' AP voters?

I didn't read the story just because the title says rogue. The AP has no affiliation with the BCS and it's voters can do anything they want. The rogue voters are the ones in the coaches poll like Nick Saban who voted Oklahoma State 4th strictly to help his own cause. At least in gymnastics they throw out the lows and the highs and keep the averages. Hard to believe a great sport like football can crown it's champion using style points instead of the scoreboard but even with the BCS that is exactly what has happened. I would have crowned LSU the national champs weeks ago and not even made them play a bowl game weeks ago based on being the last team standing with no opponents worthy.

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