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NEW TGS SPECIAL REPORT...PLAYING THE "POLL GAME"
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


There’s nothing new about coaches going out of their way to run up scores, especially in college football, where the art has been in the process of being perfected ever since Princeton and Rutgers first teed it up back in 1869.

Of course, some mentors have taken the practice to extraordinary levels. From our early years publishing THE GOLD SHEET, we particularly recall Ohio State HC Woody Hayes, whose behavior could be considered sadistic at times, going out of his way to humiliate rival Michigan in the traditional season-ender between the Buckeyes and Wolverines in 1961.

Hayes, further motivated from a loss by Big Ten co-leader Minnesota earlier that day at Wisconsin and desirous of impressing pollsters who were splitting votes between the Bucks and Bear Bryant’s Alabama at the top of the polls, displayed no mercy that afternoon at Ann Arbor, rubbing salt into the Wolverines’ wounds late in the game when OSU already had matters well in hand with a 42-22 lead. Rather than sit on the advantage in the final seconds, Hayes ordered QB Joe Sparma (later to gain renown as a big-league pitcher for the Tigers and Expos) to throw deep in the direction of soph halfback Paul Warfield, who caught the long bomb to set up one final TD that was followed by a 2-point conversion pass from Sparma to end Sam Tidmore. The Buckeyes thus hit the magic 50 mark, and Hayes was offering no apologies afterward.

“We were going for national recognition,” Hayes brusquely admitted after the game, acknowledging the race to curry favor with pollsters who were deciding between the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes as the nation’s top team. “One or two more touchdowns aren’t going to hurt (coach) Bump Elliott or Michigan.”

At least Hayes, never one to disguise his emotions, was forthright enough to admit what he was up to after the game. Neither, for that matter, did Penn State’s Joe Paterno make excuses for running up scores, which he began to do with regularity in the mid ‘90s after believing (perhaps rightfully) that an unnecessary close call while playing Indiana late in the 1994 season caused his Nittany Lions to slip beneath Tom Osborne’s Nebraska in the polls in the days before there was a Bowl Alliance or BCS to attempt to match up the top two teams at the end of the season. We vividly recall Paterno throwing deep in the waning moments of a lopsided win over Rutgers the following year, and how Scarlet Knights coach Doug Graber and “Shades” nearly came to blows during the postgame handshake.

But the legions of coaches who run up scores without admitting as much would fill the pages of this publication, and then some. There might have never been a more cool and calculated bully than Nebraska’s Osborne, who routinely showed no mercy vs. outmanned opposition while rarely changing expression. Or maybe Osborne just didn’t realize what he was doing; his incredulous response to Arizona State HC Bruce Snyder for ordering a late TD pass with the score already 70-28 in Nebraska’s favor in a 1995 game at Lincoln indicated that maybe Dr. Tom was really as cold and mean at heart as Woody Hayes, even though his calm and pleasant demeanor would never be mistaken for the bombastic Woody.

We mention this phenomenon because we are in the midst of a unique 2011 college campaign in which numerous high-rated sides are routinely and unashamedly extending margins in order to help themselves with the pollsters, who eventually have significant say-so in which two teams will meet in the BCS title game. Remember, the BCS formula consists of three equally-weighted components, two of which being "human" polls (USA Today Coaches and Harris Interactive).

This blowout epidemic is a byproduct of the lack of a true playoff system that would likely curtail the desire of coaches to run up scores to gain a few extra “style points” with the pollsters. But it is what it is, and acknowledging that pattern that has become a main storyline in 2011.

Two weeks ago, each of the top nine teams in the national rankings covered pointspreads, many of them of the hefty variety, and the pattern mostly continued again last weekend. Following is a brief overview of the top teams in the polls, their prospects for the BCS title game, and likelihood of continuing to run up scores in the last half of the campaign. Pointspread records included for each.

LSU (PSR 5-2)...Not monkeying around, as Les Miles’ Tigers have done often in recent years, LSU is taking care of business in 2011, matching fellow SEC power Alabama almost point-for-point as it leaves nothing to chance with the pollsters. LSU has won its first seven games, all by double-digit margins, a first in the history of the school, thanks to John Chavis’ stifling defense paced by CB Tyrann Mathieu, who’s getting some peripheral Heisman mention. Miles has also been carefully spotting QB Jordan Jefferson into the lineup since his recent return from suspension, so far maintaining a delicate balance with starter Jarrett Lee. For the Tigers, the season and BCS title bid likely come down to the Alabama showdown November 5 in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama (PSR 6-1)...The Tide is also easily extending margins for HC Nick Saban, who has been covering games at a 70% clip since 2008. The robust Tide “D” hasn’t allowed more than 14 points to anyone all season, while RB Trent Richardson is coming on strong in the Heisman race. All eyes will be on the LSU showdown November 5, but Bama, like the Tigers, will still believe it has a crack at the BCS title even if it loses that November titanic.

Oklahoma (4-2)...The Sooners were one high-ranked team that didn’t quite scale the pointspread peak last week, winning by “only” 30 vs. Kansas. Although Bill Snyder’s surprising Kansas State could offer a challenge October 29 at Manhattan, OU’s ticket to the BCS title game likely rests in its season finale vs. Oklahoma State. Most believe an undefeated OU could not be overtaken by any 1-loss team from the SEC for a spot in the finale, and the Sooners are likely first in the “undefeated queue” among the non-SEC contenders.

Wisconsin (5-1)...Bret Bielema’s Badgers have been covering numbers consistently since midway last season (they’re on a 12-1 spread run) and have nudged ahead of Oklahoma State as the nation’s highest-scoring team at 50.1 ppg. NC State transfer QB Russell Wilson has added a new and exciting dimension, although we’ll find out if Wiscy is really in the BCS title mix if it can win its next two on the road at Michigan State and Ohio State. Not severely tested yet, but consensus opinion seems to be that an unbeaten Badger team is impressing pollsters enough with the big win margins to stay ahead of a one-loss Bama or LSU in BCS title calculations. But even if staying unbeaten, they’ll likely have to leapfrog the winner of an Oklahoma-Ok State showdown to get to the title game.

Oklahoma State (5-1)...The electric Cowboys and their near 50-ppg offense are not having any trouble extending margins, with QB Brandon Weeden now entering a short list of Heisman hopefuls. But the Cowboys started off behind the other contenders in the polls, and most believe even an unbeaten OSU would need some help to reach the BCS title game.

Stanford (6-0)...The Tree’s cover streak is at 9 since late last season, with all wins by 27 or more. Moreover, the Cardinal seems hellbent to get QB Andrew Luck a Heisman before he almost assuredly departs for the NFL next spring, so new HC David Shaw is not missing any chances to help pad Luck’s stats while extending margins each week. Among the unbeatens, however, Stanford still has to hope for some help to reach the title game, although the Cardinal can help its cause immensely by beating Oregon Nov. 12.

Boise State (4-2)...The Broncos seemed to get the message a few weeks ago that ho-hum wins like the ones over Tulsa and Nevada were not going to impress pollsters. So Boise just went out and laid 57 on Fresno and 63 on Colorado State (extending the Broncos’ recent road spread mark to 11-1) as QB Kellen Moore reignited his Heisman campaign. But there aren’t enough potential marquee wins left on Boise’s Mountain West schedule to get to the BCS title game unless the Broncos get lots of help in the next six weeks.

As always, stay tuned.


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