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Walter Bingham
September 18, 1978
Ignorance, prejudice and politicking help to decide who will be ranked No. 1 in the AP and UPI football polls
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September 18, 1978

Going To The Polls, Weakly

Ignorance, prejudice and politicking help to decide who will be ranked No. 1 in the AP and UPI football polls

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The Notre Dame schedule (Rule 3) was no softer than that of most of the other contenders, but it contained a number of patsies interspersed among the toughies, namely, the three service academies and Miami (Fla.). Miami, by the way, is Exhibit A for how not to be a national champion. If you ever find yourself with a pretty fair football team and for some bizarre reason you're afraid it might crack the Top 20, play Miami's schedule. Last year it opened with Ohio State, closed with Notre Dame and had Penn State and Alabama in between. That is (and was) a quick 0-4 before you even get around to looking at the rest of the schedule. (Miami wound up 3-8.)

Oklahoma and Ohio State violated Rule 3 last year, scheduling each other, as did Alabama and Nebraska. The Buckeyes and Sooners were a classic matchup, good for the game, thrilling for the spectators and disastrous for the loser—Ohio State, in this case. In either case, the loser was virtually sealed off from the national championship, while the winner has earned no guarantee. Two weeks later Oklahoma was beaten by Texas. Who can tell how much, in terms of preparation and effort, the Ohio State game took out of the Sooners? Texas, meanwhile, was warming up with Boston College, Virginia and Rice. Which leads us to Rule 4.

Pollsters deplore it individually, but their eyes pop when they see a big score and they vote accordingly. After the Buckeyes were beaten by Oklahoma, they dropped from third to seventh, but were still ranked higher than Texas, which was eighth with a 2-0 record. The following week Ohio State crushed SMU 35-7, but suddenly found itself two spots behind Texas, which was obliterating Rice 72-15.

That Texas laugher over Rice obviously impressed the coaches. So did Oklahoma 62 Utah 24, Texas 68 Virginia 0, Alabama 55 Louisville 6. Notre Dame obeyed Rule 4 with a 69-14 licking of Georgia Tech. Notre Dame also let Air Force have it 49-0. If the polls hurt the game in any way, it is here. Because voters are impressed by big scores, teams in contention for the national title will whip a dying horse, an act which is rationalized by the winning coach in a number of ways: "What am I supposed to do, tell our fourth-stringers they can't score?" Or, "Look, it's a funny game. I've seen teams leading 34-0 in the fourth quarter lose 35-34. Those guys were tougher than the score [66-0] indicates."

Paying close attention to Rule 5 is what really put Notre Dame on top. Come bowl time, always play the highest-ranked team you can find. As an independent, Notre Dame is fortunate not to be locked in contractually to a bowl. Michigan, with its one loss in midseason to Minnesota, had no chance at the national championship on Jan. 2, even though it was ranked ahead of Notre Dame at the time. The reason is that in the Rose Bowl the Wolverines found themselves playing a Washington team with four losses. Even had Michigan won big—the Wolverines lost—the pollsters would have been unimpressed. It was Michigan's misfortune that its opponent was not undefeated No. 1-ranked USC, although in such a case Michigan surely would have lost. But it at least would have had a shot at being No. 1.

Notre Dame went for the jugular when it chose the Cotton Bowl and top-ranked Texas, and in doing so it gave itself a chance. Two years earlier, Alabama had been upset by Missouri in its first game: it won the rest to wind up the regular season ranked behind Oklahoma. An Alabama-Oklahoma game in the Orange Bowl was in order, but Bear Bryant, having been cuffed about in recent bowl games, chose the Sugar Bowl on the guarantee that the Tide's opponent would be Penn State, tough defensively that year but weak on offense. Bryant won the game but lost his gamble when Oklahoma beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl. By not playing the highest-ranked team available, Bryant did not give himself every chance.

Last season Dan Devine did. And when the Irish dumped Texas, they were in. In the AP poll, 37 voters picked Notre Dame, 19 picked Alabama, five Arkansas, two Texas and one, in a Solomonic gesture, shared his first-place ballot among Notre Dame, Alabama and Arkansas. The UPI coaches awarded Notre Dame 23 first-place votes, Alabama 13, Arkansas two and Texas one.

Exactly who are these 111 men with the power to name national champions? Among them, the 69 voters in the AP poll cover every section of the country, but they are not evenly distributed. Every state is allotted one voter for every two NCAA Division I teams within its borders. For example, the state of Alabama, which has two such teams—Auburn and Alabama—gets one vote.

The bureau chiefs around the country select the voters. Associated Press sports editor Wick Temple estimates that about half of them are new every season. The voters phone in their ballots—this year for 20 places, up five from last year—to the bureau chiefs, who relay them to New York. The deadline depends on whether the poll is for a.m. or p.m. release, which the AP alternates each week. In New York, Herschel Nissenson, the college football editor, tabulates the ballots: a first-place vote is worth 20 points, second 19, third 18 and on down to 20, which is worth one point.

Ballots are almost always tardy. The AP generally sends out a "give us votes" message at midday Monday, followed by a "give us votes NOW" and finally "the kitchen is closed." Rarely will all 69 men get their votes in. "There's always someone off on a boat somewhere," says Temple. For instance, only 64 men participated in last year's final poll. "One guy [Ray Christensen, a Minnesota radioman] refused to vote because he doesn't believe in post-bowl game polls," says Temple. "We didn't know that when we selected him."

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