Inside the Harris Poll 

How the Rochester-based ranking system is changing

Poll dancing

Rochester-based Harris poll generates controversy in the college football scene.


There are few machinations in American sports that create as much controversy as the ranking of Division I college football's best teams --- and, in particular, the top two teams.

As public and journalistic demand for the establishment of a season-ending playoff continues to build, the National Collegiate Athletic Association remains committed to the Bowl Championship Series, in which three different ranking systems are used to determine which teams will play in the four prestigious BCS bowls --- Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta --- as well as the national championship game. When the final BCS rankings come out on December 3, the top two teams will be selected to play in the national title game.

One ranking system used by the BCS to select the contenders is a national coaches' poll. Another is a combination of six computer standings. The third is the Harris poll, produced by Rochester-based Harris Interactive, which surveys more than 100 football experts from across the country. The Harris poll was implemented last season, and in August the BCS and Harris inked an agreement that makes the poll part of the BCS rankings for four more years.

Both the BCS and Harris hailed the extension agreement, saying that the Harris poll will allow the BCS to continue to fairly select the two teams that will play for the national crown.

Almost immediately after the unveiling of the Harris poll in 2005, fans and journalists starting howling, arguing that the poll is a non-scientific, subjective ranking system that can't select the top two teams with integrity. The Harris poll, they said, is still fatally subjective and does nothing to quell the controversy that almost annually swirls around the selection of a national champion.

"The new system isn't new at all," wrote Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden. "It's a coat of paint on the old system, nothing more."

Phil Taylor, Layden's colleague at SI, said the Harris poll, like every previous national ranking system, will prove that it "defies common sense." Added Matt James, a columnist for "Can anyone seriously believe for a minute that the 'new BCS' is better?"

Many critics noted that some of the "experts" selected to vote in the Harris poll had little or no connection to big-time college football. The 114 Harris panelists were randomly drawn from a pool of more than 300 candidates submitted by the 11 Division I-A conferences and independent institutions, like Notre Dame.

Harris released the names of this year's panelists last month; the list includes former coaches like John Mackovic, Earle Bruce, Bill McCartney and George Perles, and former players including Boomer Esiason, Sammy Winder, Craig Morton and Tommy Vardell. It also includes media members and athletic administrators like former Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel.

Each week from September 24 to December 3, all the voters submit their weekly top 25. Harris then tabulates all 114 rankings into that week's final Harris poll.

But critics say that because all 114 panelists compose their weekly rankings based on their opinions, the Harris poll remains fundamentally flawed by human bias.

Now, more than a year after the implementation of the Harris poll and following the recent signing of a contract extension, both the BCS and Harris remain committed to the new system, and to the Harris poll. BCS spokesperson Charles Bloom told City that the Harris poll "helps add strength" and "does give credibility" to the BCS standings.

While Bloom acknowledged that any poll produced by human beings (as opposed to computers) will always generate some controversy, he reaffirmed the BCS' commitment to the new system. "It's been very well received," he said. "In terms of the professionalism of the Harris poll, we've had no criticism."

Harris Interactive likewise supports its poll. Company vice president of research Jim Quilty told City that Harris is "very proud to be part of the formula for determining the teams in the national championship game.

"The market is viewing our panel as a very credible, viable poll," he added. "We've received quite a lot of positive comments from panelists, clients and fans around the country who feel like we're doing a good job."

In fact, Harris has established itself as the 12th largest and one of the most respected market-research firms in the world. An employer of roughly 1,000 full-time staffers, it's the creator of the 43-year-old Harris Poll, a nationwide sampling of citizens and their opinions on politics, the economy, foreign affairs, lifestyles and other subjects.

When it comes to the football poll, Quilty disputed the allegation that many Harris voters aren't qualified to rank college football teams. He said the voting panel contains "several extremely credible names ... people who have dedicated their life to college football."

In fact, last season --- the first with the Harris poll --- featured very little controversy when USC and Texas were selected to play in the national title game. But that was largely because the Trojans and the Longhorns were the only two remaining undefeated teams and were logical choices for the marquee match-up.

The real test of the Harris poll will come when there are three or more undefeated teams left. It might get even stickier if there are no undefeated schools remaining, leaving the BCS to choose from a pool of teams with one loss each.

Of course, the vast majority of critics will never be completely satisfied until all such polls are abolished and a playoff is created to determine a national champion. The NCAA features a season-ending playoff or tournament for every other men's and women's sport at all levels, the most famous example being the Division I hoop tourney, popularly called "March Madness."

But the current Division I football system still features major players --- such as the dozens of post-season bowl games, advertisers, and even university administrators --- who adamantly oppose the creation of a playoff. Quite simply, too many people make too much money off the current system for any type of serious change to take place.

So, at least for the foreseeable future, college football fans, coaches, players and journalists have to make do with what they're given --- including the Rochester-based Harris poll, controversial or not.

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