Do pollsters see the world through crimson-tinted glasses?
The bulk of the complaints about college football these days revolves around the lack of a playoff system. With the exception of the few that actually make the decisions, the entire world agrees that a playoff in any form would be better than the current system. NCAA football is the only major sport that decides its champion so arbitrarily. Fans have digested phrases like ‘Co-national champions’ – a completely absurd concept – and have become numb to anything more than low expectations for a fair season with a clear winner at the end. No other sport in the world aside from college football, not even soccer, would dare leave their championship tournament in a tie. But while fans focus on their singsong playoff complaints, another problem with the structure of the game lurks mostly unnoticed in the underbrush. College football rankings - the human polls - with their subtle flaws in both design and implementation have easily done as much damage to the sport’s integrity as the lack of a playoff has.
The AP and CNN/SI Polls have become the cornerstone of the sport. Their most profound role is in the calculation of the BCS ranking in the latter half of the season that not only determines who will play in the national title game, but also who gets at-large berths in the other major bowls. Millions of dollars can swing because of a poll voter’s whim. And there are ancillary complications that come from the polls as well. A team’s preseason poll ranking is often a direct consequence of its ranking in the previous season’s final poll. (Ask the Auburn Tigers if that matters or not.) Consider also that the human polls – not the BCS rankings - are still the gold standard by which coaches are judged, fired, and paid bonuses.
With so much riding on the human polls, the voters have an enormous responsibility. First and foremost we expect them to be fully informed about each team and the nuances of its recent performance. We also expect them to be fair, judging teams on their gridiron performance and nothing else. Also in the name of fairness the pollsters should treat all teams equally. Since there is no instruction book for the voters, each voter inevitably develops his own rules-of-thumb on how to punish or reward teams in the poll given a loss or win. As long as the voter applies these rules consistently, we can all live with that. But the polls are the fundamental force that separates football’s haves from its have-nots. So for college football to maintain at least a thread of credibility, the integrity of the polls is an absolute imperative.
And here’s where the problem lies. To put it mildly, the polls are broken. And college football, already a semi-farce due to its lack of a playoff system, is a full-on sham because of it. Just by looking at the timing of the polls we see that the need for pollsters to be ‘fully informed’ is out the window. It is physically impossible for voters to give adequate time to each team considering the deadline they are given to fill out their ballots. They have 20-30 three-hour games of significance to evaluate every weekend, and they’ve got less than a day to do it. They have little choice but to rely on the mainstream media for their information as well as their analysis. Not only is this in contradiction with poll voters’ mission, it ensures the polls will pass on the same inconsistencies and biases inherent in the mainstream media. Pollsters are human after all, and they are susceptible to the same prejudices and perceptual biases that we all are.
Over the last five years it has been reputation rather than performance, emotion rather than fact, which has dominated the top of the college football polls. And there is a single primary beneficiary of this phenomenon. It’s a team that has lulled the world to sleep with their greatness and consistency. The Sooners of the University of Oklahoma have been so good they’ve convinced AP voters that it’s not even necessary to watch their games anymore. How else can you explain the poll privileges they receive every single year? OU, while most certainly one of the elite programs in college football, lives a charmed existence enjoyed by no other team. And the consequences of this pro-Sooner bias have been, and will continue to be, far-reaching and deep.
College football pundits have been fascinated with OU ever since the school won its seventh national championship after the 2000 season. The story is familiar to virtually every fan of the game: in only his second year at the helm, Head Coach Bob Stoops assembled a powerhouse team that steamrolled through the opposition en route to a perfect 13-0 record. And unlike other recent national champions, there were no star recruiting classes, no slow accretion of blue chip talent that hinted at success in the near future. It just happened. Stoops turned unheralded players into champions virtually overnight. In Oklahoma, they attributed it to that good old fashioned ‘Sooner Magic’.
After 2000, the sports media embraced the Sooners. Already one of the most successful programs in college football history, their return to glory made for a perfect storyline. The 2000 championship team and its successors have fit right in with the OU legend; they’re mesmerizing to watch, dominant on both sides of the ball, and replete with stars. The press has dutifully gobbled up, amplified, and regurgitated every big play, every heroic come-back, and every stand-out player. When other teams would win, they had earned a victory, but when Oklahoma would win, they were fulfilling their destiny
. Consider that since their championship season, the Sooners have been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated no less than seven times, four more than any other college football team. Ohio State is next with a lowly three. The media hasn’t simply covered the Sooners, they’ve had an ongoing love affair with them.
In the Sooners’ defense, they certainly deserve some of the limelight. After all, they field a championship contender every year. They have one of the best overall records in all of college football over the last several years. But it’s not just about gloss. The Sports Illustrated cover page domination by the Sooners is indicative of a deeper, more sinister phenomenon. Over the last several years the media (and as a direct consequence the AP Poll voters) have lost their objectivity where it concerns OU. Poll voters and media types have spun themselves such a self-reinforcing web of pro-Sooner bias that they’ve apparently lost the ability to watch how the team actually performs on the field. Oklahoma’s reputation and legend, rather than its play, have become the primary factor in how the team is evaluated and, therefore, ranked in the polls.
To be specific, poll voters treat OU differently. They reward OU more for wins and punish them less for losses than they do any other team in college football. And this bias has affected the outcome of the last four seasons, even altering the national championship picture.
The most glaring example of this bias came at the end of the 2003 season. The Sooners took their undefeated record and #1 AP ranking into the Big 12 Championship Game against Kansas State. The Wildcats had won a weak Big 12 North division after spending most of the year out of the top 25. In November they had strung together several impressive wins to reach #13 in the AP Poll. They had steadily improved toward the end of the season, but nobody considered them a threat to Oklahoma. The Sooners were heavy favorites and everyone in their right mind fully expected them to move on to compete for the school’s eighth national championship.
But not only did the Sooners lose the game, they were roundly beaten by a score of 35-7. The Sooners were sloppy and uninspired. Quarterback Jason White was constantly harrassed and threw two costly interceptions. The vaunted OU defense - so solid all year - gave up over 500 yards of offense to the Wildcats. KSU beat OU in every facet of the game. The poll voters now had to decide how to punish the Sooners. On the surface, a case could have been made for either light punishment or
harsh punishment. True, it was a convincing loss, but a loss that came in a conference championship game, a challenge not every team in the country is obligated to face.
But while there is conversation every year about how to treat championship game losers, pollsters have already made up their minds. The short version goes something like this: tough spit, losers.
Using all of the SEC and Big 12 title games over the last five years as a baseline for comparison, poll voters have exhibited some clear and consistent behaviors in how they handle these special contests. On average, the loser of a conference championship game drops 3.5 places in the AP Poll. Another trend is that voters are particularly hard on teams that get upset. The 2001 Texas Longhorns fell all the way from #3 to #10 after losing 39-37 to #9 Colorado in the Big 12 Championship Game. In the SEC Championship Game that same year, the second-ranked Tennessee Volunteers were stunned by upstart LSU by a count of 21-20. For their effort, the Vols lost six places, tumbling to #8. It’s also been the case that voters consistently punish teams that lose big…caliber of the opposition notwithstanding. The perfect example of this occurred in 2003 when fifth-ranked Georgia lost six spots in the AP Poll following a decisive 34-13 defeat at the hands of #3 LSU.
OU was twice guilty against Kansas State; they were blown out, and they were upset. If history is any guide to what the poll voters would do, the stage was set for Oklahoma to plummet in the polls. But even though precedent would indicate a five or six place demotion, the AP voters mysteriously slotted OU at #3 in the next poll, a drop of only two spots. The ramifications of this light punishment were enormous. By staying at #3 in the AP Poll, the Sooners were able to maintain their BCS ranking and therefore qualify for the National Championship game against LSU. Had the pollsters treated OU like any other team, they would have installed the Sooners at #4, #5, or #6. Oklahoma would have then lost their BCS positioning and the national championship game would have taken place between USC (#1 in the actual AP poll) and LSU (#2). The pro-Sooner bias in the polls resulted in the split national championship of 2003.
It may be tempting to dismiss the two-spot drop as being insignificant. So to add some perspective to how unusually light that punishment was for the Sooners after a 28-point upset, consider what is typical for teams that lose by 25 or more points. Not counting OU, there have been 13 instances of a top ten team losing by 25 or more between 2001 and 2004, in both the regular season and the post-season. These teams lost an average of 7 spots in the AP Poll. The minimum punishment given was still four poll slots, which happened twice: Nebraska losing to Colorado in 2001, and Notre Dame losing to USC in 2002.
OU is the only team to suffer such a lopsided loss and only drop 2 slots.
There has, however, been one instance of a team falling only a single rung in the AP ladder after a blowout loss. That team? Guess who. It was the Oklahoma Sooners after the 2005 Orange Bowl when they were beaten by 36 at the hands of USC. After that bloodletting, the Sooners fell only from #2 to #3.
The 2003 storyline doesn’t end with Kansas State’s upset of Oklahoma. After getting off the hook for their loss to the Wildcats the Sooners landed in the Sugar Bowl to theoretically play for the national title. But in New Orleans they proved the KSU game was no fluke, losing this time to LSU. The Tiger defense smothered the Sooners, holding White, with his Heisman Trophy still in his suitcase after his trip to the New York Downtown Athletic Club, to just 56 yards of net offense and the OU ground game under 100 yards. To their credit, the Sooners stayed within striking distance in the midst of a statistical blowout; the final score was 21-14.
Here’s where it gets ridiculous. Once again the pollsters seemingly refused to accept the on-field results. In the final AP poll of the 2003 season the voters bestowed upon the Sooners a unique and unprecedented honor: a complete get-out-of-jail-free card. The 12-2 Sooners held on to the #3 ranking in the AP Poll. After their second convincing loss in a row the Sooners went completely unpunished.
To add some perspective on how unusually light this
punishment was, consider that no other top ten team in the past four seasons has ever
been granted the privilege of staying in its poll slot after losing a game, be it blowout or near-miss, regular season or post-season. Three times a team dropped only one slot after a loss. Who do you think it was? Each instance involved the Sooners. The most recent occurrence was the 2005 Orange Bowl referenced previously. Another instance was in 2001 when OU lost to the Eric Crouch-led Nebraska Cornhuskers by a score of 20-10 and only fell from #2 to #3. And then there was Kansas State’s 38-37 loss to the Sooners in 2001. For their effort the Wildcats fell one slot from #11 to #12. Was KSU forgiven its loss because they came so close to beating the object of the AP voter’s affection? Perhaps, but it’s interesting to note that the same forgiveness given to KSU has not been extended to the only other top ten team to fall to Oklahoma in the same timeframe. Texas has lost five times in the last five years to OU and has sunk an average of six spots in the subsequent AP poll.
Of course movement in a poll does not occur in a vacuum; a team’s win or loss must be viewed in the context of the other nearby teams in the poll. Returning to the 2003 season where Oklahoma lost two games to close out the season, there were in fact two other 2-loss teams that year along with OU: Ohio State & Miami. Each team had one fewer win than the Sooners, but of course neither had an opportunity to play in a conference championship game. Ohio State and Miami both won their bowl games and finished #4 and #5 (respectively) in the AP poll.
At first glance, it would seem that poll voters must have been out of options if they were willing to leave Oklahoma at #3 after two decisive losses. There must have been no other worthy teams to put at #3, right? Wrong. Ohio State and Miami were perfectly viable candidates to overtake the Sooners in the final poll, and had it been any team other than the Sooners that required leapfrogging, one or the other would have found themselves ranked #3 at year’s end. Miami’s season looked similar to OU’s in that their two losses came in back-to-back games against tough opponents, first to #10 Virginia Tech (31-7) in week 8 and then to #7 Tennessee (10-6) in week 9. But where the Sooners fell two spots in the AP Poll after their two game losing streak, Miami fell from #2 to #14. In Ohio State’s case, the Buckeyes had suffered a mid season loss to #23 Wisconsin (17-10) which sent them from #3 to #8. They had climbed back to #4 at the time of their loss to fifth-ranked Michigan (35-21) in the final game of the regular season, but were again demoted to #8. Normally teams with similar records are distinguished in the polls by the timing of their losses; the later the loss, the more damage it does to the ranking. This is a pretty standard college football algorithm, adhered to for decades (although admittedly with a few rare exceptions). But in the case of Oklahoma in 2003, that rule was inexplicably cast aside, to the chagrin of Miami and Ohio State.
A two-game losing streak like Oklahoma’s in 2003 is normally enough to convince voters that a team is not as good as they originally thought. It’s certainly been enough to cause eviction from the top of the AP Poll. In the case of a single loss, voters may opt against a significant demotion because they consider it to have been a fluke or the result of an unlucky break and therefore not indicative of the quality of the losing team. But a second loss in a row always acts to confirm that the team does not belong in the highest tier of the college football polls. All excuses are declared null and void after two straight defeats. Besides Miami in 2003 with their aforementioned 12 spot fall in the poll, there are three other examples of top ten teams losing twice in a row over the past several seasons. In 2003 Virginia Tech lost two in a row mid-season and fell from #3 to #13. In 2002 #4 Florida State dropped to #12 after two mid-season losses. And in 2001 #4 UCLA lost two close games and wound up at #17.
A top ten team losing twice in a row will fall an average of 10 spots in the poll. For its two-game losing streak, Oklahoma fell two spots.
But the Sooners don’t need a certain score, opponent, or situation to reap the benefits of a fawning media and starry-eyed voters. When OU loses, they always win. In four seasons they have lost a total of seven games. On average, the Sooners lost 2.7 slots in the AP Poll after each loss. Taking into account every single time a top ten team lost over the past four seasons, the average poll demotion is nearly 6 slots. The team with the next closest poll ‘resilience’ is Georgia. The Bulldogs have lost six games over the last four seasons in the role of a top ten team. Their average price per loss is 5 places in the AP Poll, nearly double that of the Sooners. Next in line is Michigan at 5.8, then Miami at 6 places, and Virginia Tech with 6.2 places, and upward from there. Ohio State and LSU lose an average of 7.5 places, and the poor Oregon Ducks, who have fallen three times as a top ten team, have forfeited 8 places.
If you’re still not convinced that OU is getting special treatment, there is much more evidence. Three of OU’s seven losses of the past four seasons have come at the hands of unranked opponents: Oklahoma State in 2001 and 2002, and Texas A&M in 2002. When the Sooners fell to OSU in 2001, they dropped from #4 to #11, their low-water mark over the past four seasons. When they lost to unranked Texas A&M in College Station the following year, the Sooners went from #1 in the AP to #4. And the same year saw Oklahoma lose to Oklahoma State again, at which point they fell from #3 to #8. In the 40 instances of a top ten team losing to an unranked opponent, the average poll demotion is nearly 8 slots. Oklahoma, on the other hand, has lost an average of five slots. It goes without saying that no other team is punished less than OU for losing to unranked teams.
Oklahoma has an advantage when losing to ranked opponents as well. Four of their losses have come at the hands of teams in the AP top 25. In 2001 it was #3 Nebraska beating the Sooners 20-10. Then there were the two losses in 2003 to #13 Kansas State and #2 LSU. And finally this year, Oklahoma lost to #1 USC in the Orange Bowl. In the 49 instances of a top ten team losing to an AP top 25 team, the loser gives up an average of 5.7 places in the poll. After its four losses, the Sooners gave up an average of one place in the poll.
Granted, with the exception of Kansas State, the three ranked teams that beat the Sooners were elite teams, which could potentially serve to explain why poll voters were reluctant to punish OU too much for their losses. But once again, the records prove that OU is playing by a different set of rules. There were thirteen cases of a top ten team falling to an ‘elite’, ranked #1, #2, or #3. In those thirteen cases, the loser fell an average of 4.5 slots in the AP Poll. In OU’s three losses, they fell one, zero, and one slots. In case you’re no good at math, that’s an average of .67 slots.
The poll voters are only reflecting a bias also maintained by the general public. Witness Oklahoma’s pointspread record. It’s a window on whether teams overperform or underperform to expectations, or to say it another way, it can indicate whether expectations are set too high or too low. Las Vegas oddsmakers create a pointspread based on where they project public opinion will be evenly divided. Even if their own calculations show that a given team is 7 points better than their opponent one week, they will set the line at -8 or -9 to accommodate the public’s bias. They know people will bet on the big name teams for their name only, regardless of whether they deserve it or not. Since they’re not as good as people believe they are, the team should eventually post a losing record against the spread as reality catches up with legend. And that’s exactly what’s happened with OU. In 2004 the team was 4-9 against the spread. Over the last four years, they’ve compiled a spread record of 24-28, one of the worst in the Big 12. They’ve delivered more pointspread losses to bettors than any team in the conference except Texas A&M. The Aggies, by the way, are a perfect example of the lag that exists while bettors catch up with reality. Between 2001 and 2003 the Aggies went 9-24 against the spread as bettors clung to the notion that A&M still fielded teams that could compete for the Big 12 title as they did in the 1990’s. In other words, bettors bet on the Aggies’ reputation rather than their play. In 2004 the gambling public finally came to terms with the Aggies’ true nature, the bookmakers in turn reduced the lines, and the team posted a 7-5 record against the spread. As long as the Oklahoma hype machine keeps moving along – and the free pass given to OU after the Orange Bowl debacle indicates it will - there is no reason to expect anything other than another losing season against the spread for the Sooners. The wagering public will likely continue to bet on ‘one of the greatest teams of all time’, and will continue to lose.
How did we get to this point? Why does OU consistently pay a smaller price for losing to bad teams than others do for losing to good teams? Much of it has to do with basic human nature. It is natural to give extra weight to any piece of information that supports a theory that we believe in. In the same way, we filter out evidence in contradiction of that theory. We all do it. It’s an intellectual shortcut that has been hardwired inside of us since the dawn of mankind. In politics for example, people read and listen to information sources more likely to re-enforce their pre-existing opinions. People like to be re-assured that they are following the right path, so Republicans listen to Rush, and Democrats listen to NPR. And when contradictory facts are presented, they are subjected to a higher level of analytical rigor that will be more likely to yield a reason to dismiss or discount them. At some point in the last five years, the theory that the Oklahoma Sooners were different than other college football teams became the conventional wisdom. Once the media convinced the public (or was it the other way around?), their treatment of the Sooners became about building up and defending that conclusion. Once the media was aboard, the problem only got worse. It was a competition to see who could heap the most praise on the amazing Sooners. And the result has been a complete loss of integrity in the polling process.
The AP voters, with their limited time and attention spans, inevitably view teams through the distorting lens of the mass media. This presents a conflict; contrary to popular belief the mission of the sports media is to tell compelling stories, not to present a balanced view of a given issue. If it helps that mission to stretch the truth through exaggeration and hyperbole, then so be it. Before the Kansas State loss, pundits spoke with a straight face of the 2003 Sooners as a team for the ages. “The 2003 Oklahoma Sooners are coming dangerously close to being considered among the greatest teams of all time
,” declared a writer from College Football News the day before the fateful Big 12 Championship Game. Earlier that season, ESPN Analyst Trev Alberts claimed that Oklahoma's second
team could win the Big Ten conference. Poll voters cannot help but absorb this ambient love for Oklahoma. They had to make their assumptions and cast their ballots in an atmosphere that featured a chorus of voices declaring that the Sooners were a program that transcended space and time. How could they possibly be immune to that?
When the Kansas State and LSU losses occurred, voters found themselves trapped. The ‘greatest team of all time’ got annihilated by a team not even ranked in the top ten, then got manhandled by an out-of-conference upstart. The oceans of praise stood in direct conflict with the results on the field. But the belief in Oklahoma’s greatness and transcendence was so ingrained that base human nature took over, and the contradictory evidence was simply ignored by the pollsters, leaving the Sooners in the stratosphere of the AP Poll. They fell two little spots for losing two games in a row. One can’t help but wonder: what would it have taken to finally evict OU from the top ten? At the pace they were on, three losses wouldn’t have done it, and maybe not even four.
Oklahoma – the school, the team - has committed no crime. They are an outstanding football program and their return from mediocrity is as compelling a story as there is in college sports. But the Sooners’ meteoric rise is interwoven, and is practically dependent upon, this tainted, broken process called the human polls. Virtually everyone agrees that a playoff system would take away much of the farcical quality of college football’s championship process. But if the playoff is ultimately seeded using human polls, and those polls continue to be dictated by popular media (rather than actual independent analysis by the voters), on-field results will still be exaggerated or ignored, teams will continue to be treated unevenly, and the playoff – college football’s panacea – will be just as flawed as the BCS is today. Teams will make or be left out of the bracket on reputation rather than performance. Today’s love affair happens to be with the Sooners, tomorrow’s may well involve USC or another team. But no matter who the team is, it adds unfairness to a system already racked with inequity.
So the folks in Norman are right; it appears that Sooner magic does indeed exist. But it’s not the kind of magic that manifests itself in a last-second miracle catch, or a fortuitous fumble bounce. Today’s Sooner magic is at work off the field. This magic is in the form of a powerful spell cast over AP voters which acts as a dual potion of love and blindness. It makes them all hum “Boomer Sooner” in their sleep, whether they’re aware of it or not.
It’s time to wake up. College football depends on it.Read Many More Fascinating and Provocative Articles on this Blog