Coaches avoided conspiracy, voted their conscience in final poll

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When the American Football Coaches Association announced in May that it planned to stop releasing the results of the final coaches poll of each regular season beginning in 2010, it met with universal scorn. Some wrote angry columns. I filed a bunch of requests using open records laws. The lords of the BCS cringed, knowing total secrecy would only engender more mistrust of their system.

So last month, the AFCA gave in and promised to keep releasing the final ballot. This was wise. When some of the people voting in the poll have so much at stake in the poll's outcome, the situation is ripe for manipulation. Transparency severely discourages any such manipulation. It also allows us to commend the voters when they do the right thing -- as they did this year.

In a situation ripe for a conspiracy either by BCS automatic qualifying conference coaches or by non-AQ coaches to manipulate the matchup in the national title game, it appears most coaches simply voted their conscience. How do we know this? We look at the votes cast for Texas and TCU.

Had the non-AQ coaches wanted to help TCU become the first non-AQ team in the BCS title game, they could have voted the Horned Frogs No. 2 and dropped Texas into the bottom of the top 10. Not one of the 59 coaches who vote ranked Texas lower than No. 4. Meanwhile, AQ coaches could have guaranteed a Texas-Alabama matchup by keeping TCU low. They didn't. No one voted the Frogs lower than No. 5.

Voters in the Harris Interactive Poll -- the other human element of the BCS formula -- generally agreed with the coaches. Of 114 Harris Poll voters, 91 (79.8 percent) voted Texas No. 2, and 45 of 59 coaches' poll voters (76.2 percent) ranked the Longhorns as the nation's second-best team. In the Associated Press poll, which doesn't have a dog in the BCS hunt, 44 of 60 voters (73.3 percent) voted Texas No. 2. I was one of the 44.

In the coaches' poll, four voters actually picked Texas No. 1. They were Idaho's Robb Akey, Minnesota's Tim Brewster, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Nebraska's Bo Pelini. Brewster was a longtime assistant of Texas coach Mack Brown, while Akey and Dantonio have no obvious connection to the Longhorns. With Texas ranked high, Pelini's team looks even better for having more points than the Longhorns when the clock expired for the first time Saturday.

Meanwhile, nine coaches voted Texas No. 3. They were: Troy Calhoun (Air Force), Brian Kelly (Cincinnati), Jim Leavitt (South Florida), Ken Niumatalolo (Navy), Stan Parrish (Ball State), Gary Patterson (TCU), Mike Sanford (UNLV-fired), Greg Schiano (Rutgers) and Kevin Sumlin (Houston). We'll examine Kelly and Patterson's ballots in a bit, but these coaches fell into three categories: those directly affected (Kelly, Patterson), coaches of mid-majors (Calhoun, Niumatalolo, Parrish, Sanford, Sumlin) or coaches showing Big East pride by ranking Cincinnati No. 2 (Leavitt, Schiano).

Only a few voters in either human poll really broke ranks in an attempt to change things at the top. One was Cincinnati coach Kelly, who voted his undefeated team No. 1 ahead of fellow undefeateds (in order) Alabama, Texas, TCU and Boise State. This is completely understandable; Kelly has every right to think his undefeated team is the best undefeated team, and he probably feels a responsibility to put it in the best position.

Another was TCU coach Patterson, who, like Kelly, tried to put his team in a better position. Patterson voted Alabama first, followed by his own team and then Texas. He also voted Cincinnati No. 6 (below one-loss Florida) presumably to help put a little more distance in the human polls between the Frogs and the Bearcats in case his fellow humans decided to punish Texas for its near-disaster in the Big 12 title game. Why did TCU need a cushion from Cincy if most humans believe the Frogs are the better team? Because the Bearcats' computer poll average was No. 2. Of course, this opinion could be considered legitimate. Las Vegas also considers the Gators better than the Bearcats, installing them as 10-point favorites in the Sugar Bowl.

The biggest anarchist on the coaches' poll panel appears to be recently fired Louisiana-Monroe coach Charlie Weatherbie, who seems like a stand-up guy judging by his players' response to his ouster. Weatherbie voted Texas fourth, behind No. 2 TCU and No. 3 Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the only ballot in either human poll that appeared to be an attempt to game the system was cast in the Harris Poll by former San Diego State star Akbar Gbaja-Biamila. He ranked TCU first, followed by Alabama and Cincinnati. He ranked Texas No. 6, behind one-loss Florida.

No voter cast a truly outrageous vote at the top of the poll, but there were a few head-scratchers further down the rankings. For instance, LSU's Les Miles ranked Cincinnati eighth. We also now know 28 coaches apparently missed Iowa's 21-10 win at Penn State on Sept. 26 and never got an update. All ranked Penn State higher in spite of the teams' identical records and Iowa's head-to-head win in State College. The biggest Hawkeye-haters were Stanford's Jim Harbaugh (Penn State 9, Iowa 16) and Washington State's Paul Wulff (Penn State 10, Iowa 18). Fortunately for Iowa, Orange Bowl officials watched that game.

Also, while Missouri coach Gary Pinkel made an obvious effort to curb his mid-major hatred, he still needs a little more enlightenment. Pinkel, who ranked 12-0 Utah, Boise State and TCU Nos. 15-17 last year, ranked TCU fourth, but he ranked undefeated Boise State behind two-loss Ohio State, two-loss Penn State and two-loss Oregon, which lost a head-to-head matchup with the Broncos on Sept. 3.

Maybe someone will eventually clue in Pinkel to the fact that folks actually looks at these ballots. And as long as the coaches' poll remains part of the BCS formula, we're going to keep poring over them like the Dead Sea Scrolls.