Should Virginia be the No. 1 ranked team in the land? That seems to be the most frequently asked question in college football today. That and, where does Lou Holtz get those pants?
Speaking of Holtz, raise your hand if you think he ought to put a sock in it, already. How much longer are we going to have to listen to his sanctimony? Here's a guy coaching the American University of Football -- a place where every year 90 of the best 100 high school players want to go, a place so synonymous with college football superiority that it has its own national TV network -- and he tries to tell you he shouldn't even be in the top 50. Then, by accident I guess, he goes out and beats people, 56-13.
Holtz says it's always a miracle when he wins. Other schools give you the wishbone, Holtz gives you Lourdes. He beats Rice by 53 points, it's a miracle. Why? Was he laying 52? Last weekend, Holtz said beating Miami was "a miracle." Granted, Miami is a terrific team; going in it's ranked No. 2 in the country. But Notre Dame is terrific too. It has one loss, same as Miami. Before that loss it was ranked No. 1. And Notre Dame's playing at home, where for the three previous years it was 18-0. This is a miracle? Why does Lou Holtz stay in college coaching. If he's this prone to miracles, shouldn't he be at the Mayo Clinic?
Okay, should Virginia be No. 1?
Should be? Easy. Yes.
Is? That's not so easy.
College football polls are, by and large, idiotic. They invariably compare apples and chewing gum. How are you supposed to know what to make of the facts that Tennessee beat Florida, Florida beat Alabama, and Alabama beat Tennessee? Even if you gained a perspective on that, what would it mean relative to Washington and Illinois?
How many polls does it take to screw up a ranking?
Five. AP, UPI, USA Today/CNN, The National and The New York Times.
That's a pollish joke.
Take the Times poll. Please. It's done strictly by computer. No humans are consulted. One week it had Notre Dame No. 1. Then, Notre Dame lost to Stanford, 36-31, in one of the freak games of the last 40 years, and dropped off the Times chart completely. Vanished. Poof. No trace. Like Stalinist Russia. The Times prints a Top 20. There was accompanying text explaining that Notre Dame had submarined to 30! From 1 to 30? Where would Notre Dame have landed if the margin was 10 points, in Division I-AA? The Times then lifted an ACC team to No. 1, scooping all the other polls by one week. Curiously, it wasn't Virginia, it was Georgia Tech. At the time Georgia Tech was No. 15 in UPI, No. 18 in both AP and USA Today/CNN, and not even ranked in The National. Univac, you're beautiful, babe, ciao.
I like the Times poll because it's not afraid to take an extreme position. Extremism in the defense of ranking is no vice. That old swivel-hipped Arizona halfback Barry Goldwater said that. The other polls are tentative and self-policing. They wouldn't vaporize Notre Dame. Are you kidding? That would be an admission they were idiots for putting Notre Dame No. 1 to begin with. Typically, if a highly ranked team loses, say a No. 4, it will drop to 10 or 11 in the human polls. If it loses the next week, it might drop to 18. For an acknowledged power like Michigan, it takes as many as three losses to go over the falls in a barrel. Voters are loath to publicly admit their mistakes. Nor will they admit that 90 percent of their votes are based on watching 10-second highlight clips on ESPN's Sports Center. What does a computer care about sentiment? You think Mr. Brainiac wants to co-host The Pat Dye Show?
The computer boots Holtz off the bus; poetic justice, I say. What is Holtz going to do, grab it by the modem and toss it out of the locker room? This week the computer apparently decided the woodshedding worked, that Notre Dame now is a vastly superior team than it was three weeks ago, and bounced it up to No. 8. Sure, the Irish are 2, 3 or 4 in the human polls, but did they learn a lesson there?
The Washington Post has no poll. I was asked to start one, but I'm no good with computers. It's like the Jackie Mason routine: A guy starts bragging about his VCR; it's got four heads, and it can tape 16 shows at a time, and it has a stereo, a microwave and a built-in speakerphone. His friend is very impressed, and asks the man to demonstrate it. "I'll have to call my son," the man says. "He knows how to turn it on. I don't."
Anyway, what would I feed into the computer? Everybody cares about strength of schedule. I don't want to copy the others, so my poll would depend on length of schedule. If you play 16 or more games, you're in my top 10. The others care about average margin of victory. I think that rewards running it up. Last week Florida beat Akron, 59-0. and advanced in all the polls. Florida has no business scheduling Akron. That's like hunting in a corral.
The emphasis on polls is warping college football. Teams covet the highest ranking to assure bids to the bowls with the richest payout.
However, over the last 10 years the No. 1 team going into the bowls has regularly been beaten, sometimes crushed, like West Virginia. Virginia is a legitimate No. 1 now, but its conference isn't nearly as strong as the SEC, its schedule not nearly as taxing as Notre Dame's. Because late losses weigh heavier than early losses, should Virginia sink on New Year's it will have no chance for the title, even though there may well be no team with a finer record. College football is the only sport that doesn't crown its champion on the field, but in a ballot box. All this argues for a national tournament, and that's another column, isn't it?