As any SEC fan is aware, one of the rallying cries for a D-1 football playoff is “Remember Auburn (2004)!” I agree it’s an example worth remembering, but for a different reason.
Skipping over the points that (1) I’m not necessarily choked up about Auburn getting screwed over in something; (2) it’s not a given that Auburn would have been particularly successful in a playoff setting that year (remember that the Tigers just got by Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl that season); (3) Auburn still would have had to play for the MNC against a Southern Cal team that would have had a month to prepare; and (4) given all of the above, not playing in the BCS title game was the best thing that could have happened to Tubs and Auburn’s players and fans, who can all go to their graves playing the “what if” game (and Auburn supporters, you can spare me the “we had just as good a backfield as USC did” line – it wasn’t, as Auburn managed to go 8-5 the year before with the same stellar backfield, Exhibit #1 in the argument against labelling Tubs a coaching genius), I do think there’s a valid argument to make that the system wasn’t, and still isn’t, set up to treat schools fairly in making sure that we see the best teams in place by season’s end.
But while I agree that a problem existed (and still does), I don’t think playoff advocates are looking for a cure in the right place, at least initially. The problem for Auburn in 2004 didn’t start with the absence of a playoff, it started with the preseason polls.
In 2004, USC and Oklahoma ran 1 and 2 wire to wire, from the first polls to the MNC game. Auburn was ranked 17 in the first AP poll and 18 in the first USA Today poll. That’s an enormous obstacle to overcome. And as good a season as they enjoyed, the Tigers never could.
Here’s how Auburn rose through the polls, week by week:
- 17 AP; 18 USA Today
- 18 AP; 19 USA Today (Auburn won its opener against Louisiana Monroe and dropped in the polls)
- 14 AP; 15 USA Today (Auburn beat MSU)
- 9 AP; 10 USA Today (Auburn beat #4 LSU)
- 8 AP; 9 USA Today (Auburn beat The Citadel)
- 6 AP; 6 USA Today (Auburn beat #8 Tennessee)
- 4 AP; 4 USA Today (Auburn beat Louisiana Tech)
- 3 AP; 4 USA Today (Auburn beat
Kentucky Arkansas; gets its first first place votes from pollsters)
- 3 AP; 4 USA Today (Auburn beat Kentucky)
- 3 AP; 3 USA Today (Auburn beat Mississippi)
Auburn obviously started out in the polls woefully underrated. No doubt some of that was the result of the Tigers being serious underachievers in the prior season (they were The Sporting News’ preseason #1 in 2003). But that’s the result of perception, not the reality of the quality of the team in 2004.
Waiting to start the polls until week 6 or 7 of the season would have allowed the voters to form a much more objective – at least objective for them – picture of the relative merits of all of the top teams, uncolored by preseason expectations. Going into the seventh week of 2004, Auburn had knocked off the #4 and #8 schools in the country. To that point, I don’t think another team could make a similar claim.
Certainly Oklahoma couldn’t. One of the great myths about why Auburn didn’t get the higher ranking in the end was because of alleged shortcomings of its schedule. But if you compare its schedule with that of Oklahoma’s, it’s hard to see why that’s a compelling argument. By season’s end, Auburn beat three teams ranked in the top 10 at the time the games were played. Oklahoma beat one such team.
Here’s Oklahoma’s early schedule from 2004: Bowling Green, Houston, Oregon (down year for the Ducks), off week, Texas Tech (unranked) and Texas (#5, but to that point, Stoops had owned Mack Brown). It’s not the worst schedule I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly not superior to Auburn’s from that year. Given the fact that through week 7, Auburn had those two wins against top 10 opponents, isn’t it likely that if the first polls had come out then, there would have been a lot of buildup in the media towards ranking the Tigers more highly than they actually were – higher than Oklahoma?
I’ve never really understood the point to releasing an official poll before the college football season starts. Look at a school like Florida this year. The defending national champs lose nine defensive starters and their starting quarterback, yet they’re likely to start off ranked in the top 10. This isn’t to say they’ll be a lousy team, or that they’re highly overrated, but simply how in the hell does anyone have a clue how good the Gators are compared to other schools right now?
If it’s just a game that we let the media play, that’s stupid. In fact, it’s more than stupid, since the polls are a significant factor in the BCS rankings. It shouldn’t be handled that way. And holding the polls back until after the sixth or seventh weeks of the season wouldn’t stop the media from having a good time speculating on where everyone would be ranked in the first polls. That’s already what happens with the BCS rankings.
In short, the lesson I take from ‘04 is that preseason polls aren’t helpful to sorting out the best teams in a given season. And since every post season proposal I’ve seen considered recently would continue to rely on the polls (through the BCS rankings) to pick and seed the teams in the playoffs, any new format, “plus one” or otherwise, isn’t going to fix that flaw.
Personally, I’d wait until mid-October to publish the first polls. By then, every top 25 school should have played at least one significant opponent, which would give the voters a better handle on the relative merits of the top teams. It’s a problem that invites a pretty simple solution. Where’s Bernie Machen when I need him?