THOUGH THE FIRST college football games won't be played until Aug. 30, the 2007 season effectively began last Saturday—the day the Associated Press released its preseason poll. If you haven't heard, No. 1 USC will be playing No. 2 LSU for the national title on Jan. 7, but No. 3 West Virginia is also a strong contender; No. 10 Louisville has serious catching up to do; and No. 20 Nebraska might as well throw in the towel now.
For more than 70 years the opinions of these writers and broadcasters have held as much influence over college football as Simon Cowell now does over wannabe pop stars. Because there is still no playoff in Division I, the poll serves as the sport's ultimate arbiter. (One of them, anyway. The USA Today coaches poll released its preseason edition on Aug. 3, and the first BCS rankings will be out on Oct. 14.) The AP poll, which is no longer part of the BCS formula, can still bestow national champion status. Thus college football is the only sport in which teams are seeded before they play.
It's time to start fixing this very flawed system. As one of 65 AP voters, I know that evaluating teams that don't face the same opponents, whose rosters turn over significantly each off-season and whose performance will be affected by injuries, suspensions and other variables, is an exercise in educated guesswork. Using last season's final rankings as a starting point, I dutifully assessed which teams returned key players and which were gutted by graduation and NFL defections. That does not mean I was immune to the traps that voters often fall into.
For starters, pollees often give too much credence to traditional powers and undersell upstart programs. Louisville and No. 16 Rutgers will both start this season ranked lower than they finished 2006 ( Louisville was sixth, Rutgers was 12th) even though they return many top players. Meanwhile Florida State, which finished 7--6 and lost 30--0 to ACC champ Wake Forest, is No. 19, while the Demon Deacons are buried in the "others receiving votes" category.
Voters are also easily seduced by teams with offensive star power, while lousy defenses are often overlooked (see last year's preseason No. 2, Notre Dame). I fear my fellow voters and I are making this mistake with West Virginia. Yes, the Mountaineers have the ultraexciting tandem of quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton, but their defense is still unproven.
For most of the 20th century this harebrained exercise was basically harmless because the national championship was mythical. Since the advent of the BCS, however, preseason polls can no longer be viewed as merely water-cooler fodder. They shape the course of the season and can affect a team's chances of reaching the title game or another BCS bowl. Auburn found this out in 2004, which it began at No. 17 in the AP poll. Despite finishing 12--0, the Tigers couldn't eclipse USC or Oklahoma, both of which also went undefeated but had started Nos. 1 and 2.
With so much now riding on these rankings—not only bragging rights but the $17 million paycheck for reaching a BCS bowl—an increasing number of coaches and fans have been calling for a change. "If you're going to have this system, then [polls] should start around the first of October," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. "People will have a little bit of an idea on how [teams] are doing rather than guessing."
The reality is that there will always be preseason rankings of various sorts. Magazines and websites (like SI and SI.com) know that late-summer previews are extremely popular with college-football-starved fans. But it's time for the sport's two national championship selectors, AP and USA Today, to pull the plug on their preseason polls. They should let the national-title race begin when the first team puts toe to leather—not when the first sportswriter e-mails his ballot to New York.
Stewart Mandel's Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls, published by John Wiley & Sons, goes on sale this Friday.