Monday, December 5, 2011

Mining the USA Today Coaches Poll and discerning secret agendas

image In 2005, USA Today and the American Football Coaches Association (reluctantly) agreed to begin making coaches’ final ballots public. Since then, mining the poll and implying that coaches are voting based on their own agenda has become almost as much fun as arguing over which of the teams in the running for the No. 1 and No. 2 spots have the best resume’ for the big dance.

In fact, a couple of econometricians developed statistical models showing bias in the coaches poll.

Unlike the Harris Poll, the Coaches Poll is fraught with the opportunity for some coaches to operate in their own interests rather than cast ballots that make sense. Or, as some would argue, some of these coaches may actually know what they’re doing and are voting based on knowledge of the teams’ play. Or, as a third argument goes, the ballots are filled in by someone in the Sports Information Department and the coach doesn’t know or care much about how his final ballot looks. The exercise never disappoints. 

Here is a rundown of some of the more interesting ballots. The whole slate of 25 teams isn’t presented here—it’s just the spots that matter the most. Short of cornering some of these guys and making them explain why they voted the way they did, we’ll never know for sure why their ballots went this way. Let the speculation, finger-pointing and conspiracy theorizing begin, y’all!

Click here for a graphic representation and full release of all coaches’ ballots in the final BCS poll.

Nick Saban, Alabama. 1. LSU, 2. Alabama, 3. Stanford, 4. Oklahoma State, 5. Oregon, 11. Boise State. Clearly, Saban voted in his team’s best interest by putting the Tide at No. 2. But did he attempt to submarine BCS competitor Okie State by putting them No. 4? After all, who could ever consider 11-1 Stanford—a team that lost only to two-loss Oregon and has the best QB in the country not the legitimate No. 3 team in the country? They didn’t play last Saturday so they didn’t lose. Do you punish a team that doesn’t lose by jumping them? And what’s up with the Boise State vote at No. 11? That’s technically getting them into BCS eligibility and he wasn’t the only one, either. Four other coaches had Boise at No. 11 and Louisiana – Monroe’s Todd Berry had them at No. 13.

Gene Chizik, Auburn. 1. LSU, 2. Alabama, 3. Oklahoma State. This ballot is of course completely logical and makes perfect sense. Except for the fact that a lot of Auburn fans think Chizik blew an opportunity to stick it their hated rival. In fact, there are multi-page threads on Auburn message boards raging right now, with fans’ berating their coach for sticking to what he’s said before and after the Iron Bowl.

Troy Calhoun, Air Force. 1. LSU, 2. Alabama, 3. Stanford. 4. Arkansas, 5. Oklahoma State. That’s not a typo. Air Force’s head coach is an Oregon native who has no apparent connections to either the SEC or the Big 12. He played for Air Force and has coached at Ohio University, Wake Forest and in the NFL. So why’s he trolling the Pokes? And why put Arkansas at No. 3? Could it be because he thinks the best three teams in the SEC are the best three teams in the country? One beat two and three, two beat three but lost to one, three beat everyone else except one and two. And there you go.

Gary Pinkel, Missouri. 1. LSU, 2. Alabama, 1. LSU, 2. Alabama, 3. Stanford, 4. Oklahoma State, 5. Oregon. Yep. Pinkel’s Top 5 are a mirror image of Saban’s picks. Does Pinkel really believe that his former Big 12 foe is one spot behind Stanford, or is this a final Screw You to the Big 12 as he and his Tigers move to the SEC for the 2012 season?

Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech. 1. LSU, 2. Oklahoma State, 3. Alabama. Tub spent a dozen years in the SEC coaching against Nick Saban and Les Miles. Knowing what he does about how the sport of college football is played in the SEC, does he really think that Oklahoma State is the second best team in the country? Or, was he trying to stick it to the guy who hung a 36-0 shutout on him in his last Iron Bowl? Or, maybe he’s just toeing the Big 12 company line. And speaking of conference company line-toers…

James Franklin, Vanderbilt. 1. LSU, 2. Alabama, 3. Oklahoma State, 6. Arkansas, 9. Georgia, 10. South Carolina. That’s five SEC teams in his top ten, which lends some credence to the Wall Street Journal story linked above. That is, if you believe agendas drive bias in voting. Let’s not consider the fact that Franklin’s Commodores lost four of their six games to this group. Maybe he knows something about the quality of football played in the SEC.

There are several other interesting ballot selections out there. LSU’s Les Miles had Southern Miss as the No. 13 team. Only one other coach had them that high—Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, whose Houston Cougars were smashed by the Golden Eagles on Saturday, ruining their undefeated season and a shot at the millions in BCS bowl cash.

Mark Richt was the only SEC coach to rank Boise State higher than its final No. 6 spot. He had them at No. 5. Boise took Richt’s Bulldogs to the woodshed in the season opener, 35-14, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.

Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo also had five SEC teams in the Top 10, though in a slightly different order than Vandy’s Franklin.

Message boards are lighting up all over the college football landscape today, with all sorts of suggestions of agendas, stupid balloting and conspiracies. These are some of the most delightfully entertaining days in the college football season. But the most entertaining aspect of watching the meltdowns over the next few days will be reading and hearing the venom spewed by media members who didn’t like the outcome of the BCS selection. They’re gonna find black helicopters all over the place the next few days.


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Adam said...

Two Harris Poll voters had Alabama #4, the only two to vote them below third. They were Todd Husak, former Stanford QB, who had Oklahoma State #2 and Stanford #3, and Jim Walden, former player and coach, who last coached at ... wait for it ... Iowa State.

Talk about agendas. --@adamhose