Originally created 10/06/04

History plays too big a role in polls



ATHENS, Ga. - For the most conscientious college football coach, the scouting starts as soon as the game ends every Saturday night.

He'll print out the relevant statistics. He'll stay up late watching video. Only then is he ready to formulate a game plan.

That's at least how Georgia coach Mark Richt goes about preparing for the national championship. As one of the 61 coaches who votes for the weekly USA Today/ESPN poll that helps decide who plays for the BCS title, Richt doesn't delegate his duties to a sports information director.

"I watch as many games as I can and I watch the highlight shows," Richt said. "I really don't sleep after a game, so I'm up anyway and probably watch TV until maybe 1 o'clock in the morning and then I get on the Internet."

Richt's Bulldogs rank No. 3 with one first-place vote in this week's coaches' poll. No, it is not his vote.

"I'm not sure we are the No. 1 team in the country," said Richt, who like the consensus voted his team No. 3 this week behind Southern Cal and Oklahoma.

Frankly, nobody is sure if Southern Cal is the No. 1 team either. Or Oklahoma. Or Purdue.

That is what is so compelling about college football ... and what is so wrong with it.

Since it's clear that college football is hell-bent against doing the most sensible thing and implementing a postseason playoff system, the least it can do is properly overhaul a ranking system that is too biased toward the traditional heavyweights. It's a system that was pretty sure before the season started that Louisiana State was better than Georgia because it was better than Georgia last year.

As if that was relevant.

Only one simple thing needs to be implemented to make the all-important college football rankings a little more just - patience. A six-week waiting period would do wonders for fairness.

Why not wait until next week to make any initial indication about which teams might or might not be among the 25 best in the nation? Wait until the mostly meaningless preliminaries are

finished. Wait until most teams have played at least five games. Wait until conference play brings some substance. Wait until a few frauds are weeded out and a few unknown quantities are factored in.

Unfortunately, our instant gratification society makes waiting as obsolete as the winged-T formation.

Like fools, we rush in blindly and handicap the entire operation before it even starts so we can have some meaningless numerical prefix attached to teams in August and September.

"I'm a college fan, too," Richt says of his personal preference for full-season polling. "It gives people something to talk about and write about and be excited about. I think in the end ... as the season goes on it kind of all works out."

If only it really did always work out. The voter poll system is inherently unfair to the disenfranchised programs trying to establish themselves as legitimate contenders. We're not talking just non-BCS schools such as Utah, Louisville or Boise State, here. The disenfranchised include less prominent programs in the power conferences trying to climb from under the heels of the historical elite.

This year's potentially underrated upstarts include a gaggle of Big Ten wannabes (Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin) as well as major-conference underlings from the ACC (Virginia), Pac-10 (Cal and Arizona State) and Big 12 (Oklahoma State).

Even Auburn, a traditionally recognized Southeastern Conference contender, had to fight preseason prejudice to get as high as sixth in both the sportswriters and coaches polls thanks to wins against LSU and Tennessee. Auburn ranked 17th and 18th in the preseason polls.

There are four unbeaten teams currently ranked in the top 25 of both polls that weren't considered worthy of inclusion before the season - Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Louisville and Boise State. All of them are still ranked lower than overrated once-beatens Michigan, West Virginia and Ohio State.

And how can Florida State possibly be ranked No. 8? Has anybody seen the Seminoles (and Chris Rix) play?

Waiting until after this upcoming week of games to start polling would have changed the entire tier structure. By the end of this weekend, even Richt might have to vote his Bulldogs No. 1 if they beat No. 17 Tennessee for the fifth consecutive season. No. 1 Southern Cal will have its hands full with No. 7 California, which handed the Trojans their only 2003 defeat. No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 5 Texas meet again in the annual Red River Shootout.

By Oct. 10, coaches, sportswriters and computers could all make a much more informed evaluation. Unheralded unbeatens Minnesota and Wisconsin face Saturday road tests against Michigan and Ohio State. Virginia will finally have played somebody (Clemson) to prep for its first major test at Florida State. By the next week we'll receive litmus tests from Louisville (at Miami) and Arizona State (at Southern Cal).

Too bad for most of them that they had to start already a lap (or more) down. For a team like No. 19/22 Arizona State, that might to too much ground to make up even if it beats the prematurely presumed No. 1 team.

Since we might never get a playoff, a little patience might at least make the payoff more palatable.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.