When voters don't follow scores, polls can have unpredictable results

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- Last year, a sportswriter who voted in the weekly Associated Press college football poll included LSU in his top 25. The Tigers were 1-5. Asked about this voting peculiarity, he replied, "Oh, they're not doing well?" The voter was quickly disenfranchised by the AP.

In the final United Press International coaches poll in 1962, Illinois finished tied for 18th after winning its last two games. Who knows how high the Illini might have climbed had their record not been 2-7?

And over the weekend, two AP voters -- Don Borst of the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune and Tommy Hicks of the Anniston (Ala.) Star -- voted Brigham Young fourth and fifth, respectively, in AP's final regular-season poll. "Fifth?" they were asked. Both checked Saturday's late scores and saw BYU was blown out at Hawaii, 59-28.

Fortunately, both writers called AP and revised their ballots before the votes were tallied. No damage done this time.

This season, though, the polls -- an arbitrary, inexact system of crowning college football's national champion -- has come under intense scrutiny and criticism.

It's not just the revolving-door, who's-No.-1 mess. It's now who's No. 2, and 3, and 4, positioning which could determine the ultimate No. 1 come Jan. 2, when the final poll is released. In part, the spasms in this season's college football rankings reflect not only the fundamental workings of the polls, but some of their fundamental flaws.

"When you think of what's at stake with a national championship -- not only the money, but the prestige, jobs, recruiting -- to have 60 guys from around the country with different prejudices deciding it is ludicrous," said Mark Blaudschun of the Boston Globe, an AP voter from 1983-87.

"Two-thirds of them haven't even seen the No. 1 team play live. The polls are a stupid way to decide the national championship. It makes no sense to leave something that important to that system. Imagine if basketball was done that way."

College basketball has the NCAA Tournament and, thus, a true national champion. Division I-A college football, the only intercollegiate sport not decided on the playing field, has the polls.

The AP poll made its debut in 1936. Alan Gould, then AP's sports editor, had selected his own national champion for several years when another journalist suggested he start a poll. Voting was open to newspapers that subscribed to the AP service, and there was no set panel. One week there were 35 first-place votes cast, another week 44, another 43.

There was also no preseason poll. The first weekly poll wasn't released until Oct. 19, the seventh and last on Nov. 30, when Minnesota was chosen the national champion.

Not until 1965 did AP hold its final poll after the bowls -- and then only for one year. After reverting to a final regular-season poll to determine its 1966 and '67 national champions, AP switched to a post-bowl, final poll in '68.

Currently, there are 60 panelists -- all white males -- in the AP poll and 59 coaches whose names are behind the votes cast in the UPI poll. The UPI poll began in 1950; this year, its panel increased from 50 to 59 when the poll expanded from a top 20 to match AP's top 25.

The AP panel has been 60 since the mid-'70s, when the NCAA split into Divisions I-A and I-AA. There were then 114 teams in I-A. Herschel Nissenson, then AP's college football editor, devised a formula of a half-vote for each I- A team in each state; hence, 57 votes (one in Georgia for Georgia and Georgia Tech). Three additional national voters made it a total of 60.

AP bureaus in each state select the voters. The criteria: "Make sure it's a guy who covers college football regularly," said Nissenson, "and won't object to voting for teams on probation."

Unlike UPI, AP recognizes teams on probation. Not so Tom Luicci of the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. In 1985, Florida, having admitted to numerous violations committed under Charley Pell, was No. 1. "I couldn't vote for Florida No. 1 when everyone else was," said Luicci. "I felt they were the best team but had cheated to get there. I couldn't reward them."

In protest, Luicci voted Florida 20th. Nissenson called (AP and UPI regularly double-check questionable ballots) and asked if Luicci truly thought Florida was No. 20. If not, Luicci had to vote it higher. He refused.

"I didn't like them telling me who to vote for," said Luicci. "And I haven't voted since. The whole system is screwed up. There's obviously [regional] prejudices. And some voters just cover one team."

Said Blaudschun, "One voter says, 'I'd never vote for an ACC team [No. 1]."

ESPN commentator Beano Cook no longer votes. But from 1956-65, as Pitt's sports information director, Cook regularly cast Panthers coach John Michelosen's vote in the UPI poll -- a common practice among publicists, and one that is often criticized.

"The UPI poll is an SID poll until the last one of the year," said Cook. "Coaches are too busy with X's and O's to figure out who should be 10th or ninth. I had an idea what Michelosen wanted. I'd let him know, and if he didn't agree he'd send me a note."

When possible, Cook said, "You'd vote for teams you'd beaten or were about to play."

In mid-October of '88, Florida State curiously dropped in the AP poll. FSU was 6-1 after routing East Carolina, 45-21, its sixth straight win. Yet the Seminoles somehow tumbled from No. 5 to 7 in the AP poll. Why?

Ronnie Christ of the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot News inadvertently left FSU off his ballot, which may have cost the Seminoles a shot at their first national championship. The oversight wasn't caught, so Nebraska and West Virginia passed FSU. In the last regular-season poll, FSU was No. 3 and West Virginia No. 2 and bound for a Fiesta Bowl showdown with No. 1 Notre Dame, the eventual champ.

More poll irregularities:

In 1966, the year of the infamous 10-10 tie between Notre Dame and Michigan State, both teams ended 9-0-1, but Notre Dame was ranked No. 1, the Spartans No. 2 -- and Alabama, the only unbeaten, untied team, No. 3.

In 1977, the Irish jumped from fifth to first in the final poll after upsetting No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

In '83, No. 5 Miami leapfrogged to its first national title after denying No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

AP and UPI haven't had split champions since 1978, when UPI named Southern Cal and AP Alabama -- although the Tide lost to USC earlier that season (the cardinal rule of successful poll climbing: lose early). The most recent No. 1 controversy involved BYU in '84, when the Cougars finished No. 1 amid much skepticism about their schedule.

And now this: Is Colorado No. 1, with its loss, tie and controversial fifth-down win over Missouri? Or is Georgia Tech, 10-0-1 but viewed by some as an ACC interloper? Can Notre Dame jump from No. 5 to No. 1 again?

"I think you'll have the biggest split vote ever," said Blaudschun. "It'll break down into regional biases. And if the combination of the polls and the stupidity of the bowls making the early mistakes doesn't spur a playoff, nothing will."

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