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Poll With October Start Could Stop Rush to Judgment

September 04, 1997|CHRIS DUFRESNE

A few words about preseason polls:

Two words, actually: "They" and "stink."

With the Pacific 10 and Big Ten set to join the super alliance next season, the chance of matching No. 1 and No. 2 in a semi-legitimate title game becomes a virtual lock.

Yet, there remains a fundamental flaw in the system: Why should the national championship game potentially be determined by preseason polls conducted in August before any of the teams have played?

Was it North Carolina's fault last season writers and coaches didn't know how good the Tar Heels were and did not rank them in their preseason top 25 polls?

North Carolina ended up 10-2 and finished No. 10 but literally had to claw up the poll ladder while more familiar powers enjoyed the luxury of their customary top-10 preseason positions.

"Most of the time preseason ratings are based on tradition," North Carolina Coach Mack Brown complains. "It's last year's success, or some friend who says 'That team's going to be really, really, good.' "

Was it Arizona State's fault last year no one knew it was a potential national championship team? Bruce Snyder's school started the season ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press writers' poll and unranked in the coaches'. It took a stunning defeat of Nebraska to get the voters' attention, vaulting the Sun Devils from 17th to sixth in the AP poll.

Good thing Arizona State scheduled Nebraska. Despite wins over Washington, USC and Stanford, it's difficult to imagine the Sun Devils otherwise being in position to play for the national title.

"If you start low, you have to pray you play a Nebraska, a Miami," Snyder says. "We could have gone 11-0 without Nebraska and could have not been in the top 10."

There is a touch of irony to Penn State being ranked No. 1 in this year's preseason AP poll for the first time in school history.

Although Penn State has won two national titles under Joe Paterno, in 1982 and 1986, the Nittany Lions had undefeated seasons in 1968, 1969, 1973 and 1994 and did not win national crowns.

Which means, apparently, that Paterno might have four more rings if only the AP had voted his team No. 1 in the preseason poll in each of those seasons.

Is this any way to run a national title program, where so much money and honor is at stake?

"I think preseason polls should not be an issue," Brown says. "I think the polls should start in October. Then you'll know who the best teams are based on the start of the season. I think it's been really unfair. There's no way a writer on the East Coast can determine how good UCLA or USC are going to be."

Snyder agrees: "I do believe it's more legitimate to put a ban on all polls until Oct. 1."

With that in mind, the Football Writers Assn. of America is trying to level the playing field somewhat this season with its poll, which makes its debut Oct. 5.

The format combines the current AP writers' and ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll with a computer component designed by 1970 MIT mathematics graduate Jeff Sagarin.

The computer rankings will take into account such factors as strength of schedule and will give no weight to point differentials, meaning Nebraska does not get extra credit for clobbering Akron.

The new poll also will not be influenced by history of the teams or conferences.

Unlike college basketball rankings, which are meaningless because a national playoff ultimately determines a champion, college football polls play a critical element in pairing the top teams in alliance bowls that pay more than $8 million per participating team.

The writers' association, a nonprofit organization comprising more than 800 writers and university sports information directors, is on the right track here.

The super alliance has said it will take a serious look at the new poll and has not ruled out using it next year in the new title-game format.

Of course, no poll replaces a playoff system. Even a poll that kicks off in October does not fully account for schools loading up on patsies in September.

But the football writers' experiment is a start.

More important, it's a start that doesn't start in August.


What, no telegram?

"No," Hawaii Coach Fred vonAppen said. "I haven't heard anything from him."

"Him" is Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, who found time during his state's economic crisis last week to rip VonAppen for the coach's well-worn public complaints regarding the lack of financial support for the football program.

The spat began last fall when Cayetano reportedly became angered at VonAppen for not attending a private gala at the governor's house after Cayetano raised $450,000 for the football program.

The tiff made headlines again last week when VonAppen reiterated his complaints in the local press.

Cayetano responded by saying he would not seek further donations for Hawaii football this season.

Among VonAppen's beefs is that Hawaii's high cost of living has made it difficult to pay assistant coaches enough to live on the islands.

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