The weather is cooling, so for some it's time to rail against college football's postseason – the bowl system itself, the questionable motives and biases of the coaches' poll and the fuzzy math of the computer rankings.
When fans look at the BCS standings, they see some familiar names in the coaches' poll and maybe even in the computer rankings, as with USA Today's Jeff Sagarin. But the other part of the standings – who is this Harris guy and why does he make up one third of the BCS standings?
The coaches' poll and the computer rankings are two components of the BCS standings. While they might not be wholly embraced by coaches, fans or the media, at least they've been part of the college football landscape for a while. The coaches' poll has been around since 1950. It has been a piece of the BCS since its inception in 1998. Computers have been part of the BCS since its inception, with each of the current six computer rankings participating since at least 2001.
The Harris Interactive poll is the third component and the second human element of the BCS. It's also perhaps the least understood and the least-recognized part of the BCS formula. The Harris poll became part of the BCS formula starting in 2005. It replaced The Associated Press poll after AP editors decided they no longer wanted to be part of the BCS.
The Harris poll consists of 114 voters (click here to see who they are and what they do). All have some connection to college football. There are former players, coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners and sports information directors – as well as media members.
When the poll began, each of the 11 FBS (i.e., Division I-A) conferences nominated 30 potential voters. Notre Dame nominated nine and Army and Navy combined nominated three. Harris Interactive then randomly selected 10 from each conference, three from among the Notre Dame nominees and one from among the Army/Navy nominees.
Roughly 20 panelists must be replaced each season for various reasons. For example, former Marshall coach Bob Pruett was a voter until he became the defensive coordinator at Virginia. Two past voters, both print journalists, were hired by ESPN.com, which does not allow its reporters to vote in polls that decide championship game participants. Harris Interactive – a company dedicated to market research and opinion polls – also can remove voters if they do not meet voting requirements.
When a panelist leaves, the conference that originally nominated him is allowed to nominate three others to take his spot, and one is randomly selected.
Before the season, Harris Interactive releases the names of the 114 voters – but does not make public any information that describes the voters' location or even their connection to college football.
Some panelists – such as former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, former Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason, former Oklahoma State running back Thurman Thomas and former coach Jackie Sherrill – are easily identifiable to college football fans. But others aren't quite so easy to pin down. For instance:
• Jack White is a former college assistant who now directs the PGA Tour's "ShotLink" program.
• Denny O'Brien is a reporter for Bonesville.net, a Web site dedicated to East Carolina sports.
• Gene Ponti is a radio host at KMLB-AM in Monroe, La.
• Ron Stephenson was commissioner of the Big Sky Conference from 1981-95.
• Jim Vruggink is a former sports information director at Purdue.
• Mike Grace is the founder of the College Football Radio network.
Harris Interactive hadn't given much consideration to further identifying voters, but it may be something it contemplates in the future. "We never considered it," said Eric Stone, senior research director with Harris Interactive. "It's honestly something we've never done before."
Although conferences nominate the pollsters, the panelists are discouraged from voting in favor of the league that nominated them, BCS administrator Bill Hancock said.
"This is important to us: Once they become panelists, they don't have any conference affiliation," Hancock said. "They're nominated by conference so we have equal geographic representation."
Unlike the coaches' top 25, the first Harris poll isn't conducted until later in the season, allowing a month of the season to play out before the first ranking. This season, the first Harris top 25 was released Sept. 28.
The large panel, nearly twice the size of the coaches' poll, limits the effects of any extreme ballots.
"Each person has less total impact on the results," Stone said. "That type of outlier is minimized by the panel."
As with the coaches' poll, only the final individual ballots are released to the public.
The Harris poll replaced the AP poll in the BCS formula after the 2004 season. Once the AP pulled out, Harris Interactive volunteered to take its place.
"This is what we do every day," Stone said. "We have everything in place, all the infrastructure. We look at this as a 'normal' poll we'd conduct with consumers."
Each week, Harris Interactive sends voters the schedule for the week, standings and records and a list of teams not playing that week. Ballots are due Sunday afternoon and can be submitted online, via fax or by phone.
If there are any suspicious ballots, Harris investigates.
Joe Biddle, a columnist with The Tennessean of Nashville and a former AP voter, now is a Harris voter. He said he inadvertently left Texas Tech off his ballot one week. He received a call from Harris Interactive inquiring about the omission. Biddle realized the mistake and added Texas Tech before the top 25 was released later in the day.
Though the Harris poll does not give voters specific policies or rules for their ballots, Harris and the BCS believe the guidelines are implicit, Hancock said.
"They all have a deep love for college football and they take their job very seriously," Hancock said. "They'll spend eight, 10, 12 hours a week studying, watching games and preparing their ballots. They're very proud to be a part of the Harris panel.
"It's just understood by the panelists to be students of the game and be diligent and professional about it, and they are."