Series of polls decide complex football rankings

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    With the college football season entering its final week, the Bowl Championship Series rankings have gone through a number of changes culminating in a projected national championship between wire-to-wire No. 1 the Ohio State Buckeyes and last season’s national champion runner-up the USC Trojans.But with so many changes resulting from a multitude of factors, the question of the ranking system’s integrity and makeup has seemingly been a subject of national debate since its inception in 1998.

    The BCS polling system is based on three main components: the Harris Interactive Poll, the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, and a computerized system of rankings, said Mark Cohen, director of media relations at TCU.

    “The AP Poll used to factor into the BCS rankings, but the media got together and decided to stop doing that,” Cohen said. “They felt it was their job to report the news, not create it.”

    While Cohen said the AP Poll’s departure from the BCS compilation of rankings is one of the ways in which the BCS rankings are becoming more accurate, former TCU athletic director Frank Windegger said the real problem lies in the treatment of non-BCS teams.

    “There is no bias in how the poll is set up,” Windegger said. “The Harris Interactive Poll is made up 120 individuals in the United States ranging from former coaches, administrators and players. It is a well-diversified group that is pretty well spread out and involves representation from many of the conferences.”

    Although Windegger said the BCS poll isn’t based on biased decisions, Cohen said there is an inherent prejudice against non-BCS teams concerning both overall team strength and even Heisman voting.

    “(LaDainian Tomlinson) didn’t really burst onto the scene until his junior year,” Cohen said. “His success paralleled the team’s. It’s rare to have a (non-BCS) guy finish in the top five for the Heisman.”

    In order to fairly and accurately rank teams, Windegger, who is a voting member of the Harris Interactive Poll, said he watches as many of the games as he can each weekend. His deadline for turning in rankings is noon on Sunday. Although he said he doesn’t always get to see every game, he watches highlights and records them for later viewing so his rankings the next week take into account the teams’ performances all season long.

    Although Windegger said there is not an overt bias against teams such as the Horned Frogs, he said the BCS conference commissioners are in control and can sway support their way when necessary.

    Earlier this decade, this monopolistic ideal of the BCS commissioners was called into question and Congress began an investigation into how college football is run and regulated.

    “They stated that the BCS commissioners held all the cards,” Windegger said. “The extra BCS bowl game this season is an appeasement to Congress and non-BCS teams. It allows a better chance for non-BCS teams to make it into a BCS bowl.”

    Cohen said money and exposure are the main reasons the BCS is under such scrutiny from the public and why those already in BCS conferences don’t want to admit more teams or conferences.

    “I hate to say it’s money right off the bat,” Cohen said. “But, prestige, revenue, visibility and exposure are the benefits of playing in a BCS bowl.”

    Until this year, there were only four BCS bowl games. Non-BCS teams had almost no chance of making it into the financially lucrative BCS bowls. They had to finish in the top 12 in the BCS and place above other teams with guaranteed BCS bowl bids.

    TCU finished No. 14 last year, and Cohen said that, had the new BCS berth rules been in effect last season, the Horned Frogs would have gotten a bid to a BCS bowl, because they finished above the ACC’s automatic qualifier.

    Although the fifth BCS bowl game allows for a better chance for non-BCS teams to make it to a BCS bowl, they are still expected to reach the top 12 and, coming out of a non-BCS conference, an undefeated record and high team prestige is about the only way to do so, Windegger said.

    “Strength of schedule plays a major role in the BCS rankings,” Windegger said. “Notre Dame is the only (non-BCS) team to be treated at the table as almost being a part of the BCS.”

    Notre Dame does not play in any conference, but the history of the team gives it nearly equal footing with BCS teams, a feat Windegger said is something only Notre Dame could achieve. The Fighting Irish are currently ranked No. 10 in the BCS, even with two losses against them.

    Texas felt the sting of the strength of schedule following its Sept. 30 game against the Sam Houston State Bearkats. Although the Longhorns were ranked No. 5 in both the Harris Interactive Poll and the USA Today Poll, they were ranked No. 15 in the computer rankings giving them an overall No. 9 ranking. The reason for the shift in the computer rankings was based on the fact that they played a Division 1-AA school.

    Cohen said teams need to root for their opponents to win all the time, especially when they are playing outside of their conference. By doing so, a fellow conference team could help by making the strength of schedule seem a little bit stronger than first thought.

    “Anytime your league can get out-of-conference victories over BCS teams, it just adds to a team’s credibility,” Cohen said.

    Although non-BCS teams do have this slim chance to make it into the BCS bowls, in recent years, the cries for better BCS involvement by lesser-known schools has culminated in the demand for a college football playoff series, a move Windegger said he enjoys.

    “I was on a special committee to look into it,” Windegger said. “Division 1-A football is the only sport that doesn’t have it. I would love to see a championship because there are about 32 bowls now. That means there are 32 winners.”

    Cohen said the fact that there are so many winners actually takes support away from proponents for a college football playoff.

    “A lot of coaches like the old system, because there are about 30 bowl games and that’s about 60 teams that can say they went to a bowl game,” Cohen said. “It solidifies coaches if they are on shaky ground, the alumni feel happy and the players feel happy.”

    But the enormous monetary benefits of the BCS bowls raises the question of how far will players, coaches, and schools go in order to be the best and make an appearance in a BCS bowl.

    Although recruiting, enhancement drugs and grade inflation have always been widely reported upon and known as problems facing college football, the USA Today Coaches’ Poll relies on honesty to work.

    “At the end of the year, they make the final ballot public,” Cohen said. “For every coach, you could see how they voted. There’s something there to hold the coaches accountable. It’s been an ongoing debate whether to make their (week-to-week) votes public, too.

    Since each individual coach’s rankings are released at the end of the season, there is motivation for the coaches to make sound and fair judgment week to week on their picks, Cohen said. This doesn’t necessarily work out perfectly, though.

    When Texas played Ohio State, Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel said he ranked Texas above the Ohio State Buckeyes, but when it came out, his ballot had Ohio State No. 1. There was a reported mix-up in his office with the person who turned in the ballot, but Cohen said TCU head coach Gary Patterson doesn’t allow for such possible errors in his balloting.

    “Coach Patterson filled out his own ballot, and he takes tremendous pride in it,” Cohen said.

    With the AP Poll gone, the question of media sway is gone, but Windegger said teams that have no concrete place in the BCS deserve their place and have equal footing.

    “Some of your major conferences are holding all the playing cards and keeping (the BCS) at a select number,” Windegger said. “Hopefully conferences like the Mountain West Conference and the (Western Athletic Conference) would become a part and have their seat at the table.”

    And as of right now, the Mountain West Conference’s main goal is to try and get an automatic bid to a BCS bowl within the next two years, Cohen said.

    “Everybody wants to see that non-BCS team crack it,” Cohen said. “It’s just a small margin of error, but you stub your toe once and…?