Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Straw Poll

“Vote: The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.”
-Ambrose Bierce

“You can milk a cow the wrong way once and still be a farmer, but vote the wrong way… and you can be in trouble.”
-John F. Kennedy

It started innocently enough for me with a brief conversation in the press box of Delaware Stadium before Delaware’s semi-final playoff game against Georgia Southern during the 2000 season. Tony Moss, then the head of I-AA Football for the website The Sports Network asked me prior to the kickoff if I wanted to be a voter in the I-AA Top 25 poll the following year. I told him that outside of Delaware and their A-10 Conference brethren, I wasn’t that much of an authority on I-AA football adding that he could probably find many a Delaware fan to question my credentials regarding even the Hens and the A-10. Moss didn’t seem to care stating that few people who did vote in the poll paid a whole lot of attention to what went on outside of their own little piece of the I-AA world and to that regard I would fit right in.

So, since the start of the 2001 season, I have been an active voter in the poll. I receive an e-mail every Sunday afternoon with the results and records of the current Top 25 from Matt Dougherty who took over for Tony Moss a couple of years ago at The Sports Network. I examine the results, “re-shuffle” the deck, and submit my new Top 25 by noon the following day. Easy enough, right?

While I will freely admit that my methods are far from scientific and sometimes not always completely logical, I do have a system that I try to adhere to when casting my vote. One thing I always just assumed (insert joke here about assuming) was that my vote was privileged information and up to me to decide whether to disclose to others either privately or publicly, but more on that later.

I have never been issued a handbook on how to vote, but typically, I try to take into account a team’s record, head-to-head competition with other teams vying for spots in the Top 25, and strength of schedule, which is not always easy. Quick, who has a tougher schedule: Tennessee-Martin or Cal Poly? Portland State or Stephen F. Austin? Coastal Carolina or Eastern Washington? I also try and give more weight to teams that I have actually seen or teams that have at least played teams that I have seen.

Since it is my job to cover Delaware, I tend take special note of the Blue Hens and their A-10 opponents, although this has not always translated well for Delaware. Their have been plenty of times when the rest of the voters around the country have rated Delaware much higher than I have based on Delaware’s reputation as opposed to their actual play. An example of this would be earlier this year when Delaware lost to Albany in the second game of the year they were still ranked 18th in the country even though I did not have them in my Top 25 poll at all.

There have been times when outside forces having nothing to do with a team’s merits on the field of play have influenced my judgment. For example, back in 2003 Wofford College, (the tiny team that could!) was having one of their best seasons ever. After losing their opener to I-A opponent Air Force, who if I remember correctly spent some time in the big boy Top 25 that year, Wofford reeled off ten consecutive regular season victories including impressive wins at home over Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, and on the road at Furman. They finished the regular season 10-1 and received an automatic bid to the I-AA playoffs where their season ended at Delaware Stadium with a 24-9 semi-final loss to the eventual National Champion Blue Hens.

About mid-way through the season, I started receiving “propaganda” e-mails each week from Wofford’s Ministry of Information “encouraging” me to include them as high as possible in my Top 25 implying that they were somehow more deserving than others were. It seemed to me too much like a lawyer who advertises, “Been injured in an accident? Then call the firm of Sleazy, Sleazy, and Sleazy!” So as a result, I penalized Wofford and did not vote them as high as perhaps I should have.

In retrospect, I admit that I did not handle the situation well. I should have ignored Wofford’s spam and just voted them where I thought they really belonged. Live and learn.

The biggest flaw with the Top 25, other than having grudge holding clods like me vote, is the carry-over effect. The first Top 25 of the season comes out before the first games and inevitably is a rehash of the previous season’s final Top 25. This is completely ridiculous. For example, there is no way that anyone will convince me that at the start of the 2004 season Delaware, minus Andy Hall, Germaine Bennett, Sean Johnson et al, was the best team in the country, but there they were ranked number one based solely on their National Championship from the previous year. It should be an even playing field at the start of each season. Teams that had success the previous year get an unfair advantage. It would be better to wait until after three or four games before releasing the first poll of the season. But that wouldn’t sell papers or more accurately generate web hits.

So there I was earlier this week on Monday sitting at my desk doing some work and enjoying an afternoon coffee when I receive the e-mail with the new Top 25, which includes the total points accrued and the exact number of first place votes for each team. I was not surprised to see that New Hampshire had dropped out of the number one slot after losing at home to James Madison over the weekend but I was a bit surprised to see that they fell all the way down to number seven. It was after all still only their first loss and no team ahead of them was undefeated. It was also obvious that I was the only one in the whole country that thought New Hampshire still deserved to be number one since they only received one first place vote and I knew that it was from me.

About ten minutes after getting the poll, I received a call from Mike Barber who is a reporter for the Daily News Record in Harrisonburg, Virginia the hometown paper of James Madison University. He demanded that I justify my top vote for New Hampshire adding that it was my vote that kept James Madison, who moved up from thirteen to eight, from leapfrogging over New Hampshire.

My first reaction, of course, was, “Who are you? How did you get my number? And more importantly how the hell did you know how I voted?”

He told me that when he saw there was still one first place vote for New Hampshire, he called up Matt Dougherty at The Sports Network who like a dime-bag holding skel being pressed by Detective Andy Sipowitz from TV's NYPD Blue immediately flipped and gave me up.

So much for the sanctity of the ballot box.

The good news is that all this is just fodder for newspapers, message boards, and blogs. Thank goodness that there is a playoff system in I-AA football and the polls, if you believe the selection committee, have no bearing.

If only everything in college football was so sensible.

Bill Komissaroff

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