by Keith Aksel
It’s a national pastime; when preseason college football polls are released, people go up in arms about their absurdity, their baselessness, and their over-reliance on the past to inform the present. Every new edition of the polls brings a new wave of criticism and rebuke. Fans run to internet message boards to weigh in on why “A&M should be ranked outside of the top 15,” and why “UCLA’s schedule is weak, and they aren’t worthy of a top ten ranking yet.” The general fan consensus seems to state that over all, polls are wrong and unhelpful, and that polls should be ignored until the CFP rankings are released later in the season.
Yet there is an odd cycle of hypocrisy at work among fans that actually works against their anti-poll sentiments. While fans claim to think polls are ridiculous and irrelevant, they continue to reify the place of polls in the sports fan world by fixating on them endlessly. And doing so misses the hard truth that in a very real sense, fans are actually right on the irrelevance of polls.
The authority of the polls has been effectively neutered since the College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings began in 2014. Some argue that the polls set a certain tone for the late-season CFP rankings by placing certain teams above others in the season’s early stages. Committee members would then supposedly draw on those impressions first laid out by the polls when writing out their first ballots months later. In other words, these people believe that the committee is conditioned by polls.
But it seems like the opposite is actually coming true; the polls have turned to emulating the movements in the CFP rankings rather than vice-versa. For example, the first edition of the 2015 CFP rankings was released after Week 9. That first ranking placed Clemson, Ohio State, LSU, and Alabama in the top four in order. The AP poll earlier that week had situated Alabama at #7, a ranking the CFP committee apparently completely ignored. The next week, after a two score defeat of LSU, Alabama sprung up to #3 in the AP poll, while they moved up one spot in the CFP rankings. Could the jump have been a result of the genuinely impressive win over the Tigers? Perhaps partially, but a four place leap was no doubt a result of the position the committee had placed the Tide in the week before, setting in the minds of pollsters that the Tide was a better team than pollsters thought.
Alabama would not only keep their place in the top four for the remainder of the season, but also win the national title. In this case, the committee was more correct about Alabama earlier than pollsters, and set a tone for the polls to follow. The same can be said for Baylor. The Bears were slotted at #2 in the Week 10 AP poll, while the committee put them at #6 later that week. The following week, after winning at Kansas State, the AP suddenly dropped Baylor to #4, more closely mirroring the CFP ranking. The CFP rankings may not have been the only force at work shifting teams in the AP poll. But the overall trend is that the AP poll follows the movements of the CFP, not the other way around.
A common counterargument for ignoring polls is that fans genuinely enjoy debating polls, and to remove that aspect of fandom would sterilize the fan experience. The problem with that argument is that we heard the same thing about adding the playoff. Before 2014, anti-playoff voices said that a playoff would remove the ambiguity of shared championships, and barroom debates over superiority would be eliminated. Bar-goers would then be resigned to talking about life’s big, important questions since they couldn’t have arguments about football anymore. Some fans apparently liked the indecisiveness of the poll or Bowl Championship Series process.
In the two years since the playoff began, those voices are nowhere to be found. The last two playoffs provided satisfying outcomes by removing the subjective measure from the process, and no one is lamenting the loss of debate. With the CFP, fans get to see the result play out on the field, eliminating any gray areas regarding what teams truly deserved a shot. The same thing would happen by ignoring polls. I’m willing to bet a lot that ignoring polls would only turn poll debates into CFP ranking debates- but that’s a step in the right direction. By arguing over the truly relevant ranking system, and ignoring the preceding poll releases, fans will begin to take a step toward a more elevated fandom. Plus, given that the CFP rankings aren’t released for weeks after the season begins, fans can have time to debate something else entirely. Wishbone vs. Maryland-I formation, anyone?
The main takeaway is that anti-poll fans need to practice what they preach. If you as a fan truly believe that polls don’t matter, stop making them matter by arguing over them and drawing attention to them. Since polls now award their national championship trophies to the CFP winner, the only authority they have is over the minds of fans. The CFP rankings are now the authoritative ranking in the sport, and if fans don’t start acknowledging that, they’ll continue to debate in circles.
 End of season rankings also clearly indicate this trend. The Week 15 AP poll in 2014 placed Ohio State at #5, while the CFP ranking slotted them at #4. After the playoff, Ohio State finished #1 in the CFP rankings after beating Oregon in the title game. The AP simply followed suit and placed the Buckeyes at #1, even though their week 15 poll disagreed with the CFP top four.
 Another argument for another day is that the CFP rankings are better anyway because there are actual criteria members are supposed to adhere to when evaluating teams. The AP poll is simply filled out by a media member’s personal whims and preferences.