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Originally published Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 5:25 PM

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Bud Withers

Performance vs. perception all-important in AP poll voting

Voting in the football poll isn't as easy as it looks early in the season.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

First, Doug Lesmerises wants to apologize. A writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he's a voter in the AP college football poll, and he inadvertently omitted Washington this week after penciling the UW in at No. 15.

"It's unacceptable for me to have done that," he said by phone the other night. "I'm glad I didn't cost them a spot in the poll."

Ah, the polls — the chronicle of college football. In basketball, they mean next to nothing. In football, they're the gospel according to 60 AP voters, 59 in the coaches poll and however many creaking ex-nose guards are taking part in the Harris Interactive poll.

Late September in the AP poll is always a provocative time, when the vacuous speculation of the preseason vote gets buffeted by, oh yeah, the games. Yet the sample is so small as to be inconclusive.

So the voters differ wildly, to the background music of sites like www.pollspeak.com. The poll watchdog does its own little rankings: a reader-based ballot on the Good and Bad Voters of the Week.

Mostly, the debate breaks cleanly on performance-versus-perception lines. On one side are those who use the preseason poll, or their last week's ballot, as something carved out of granite. On the other are the guys who pitch early perception out with yesterday's tailgate trash and reevaluate each week on results.

Got to go with the results-based folks on this one, especially since AP voting guidelines say to disregard preseason speculation and reputation and concentrate on who won and lost. And against whom.

So you wonder why this week's poll has Mississippi No. 4 and Penn State No. 5. Apparently allergic to scheduling teams that give scholarships, Penn State's early portfolio consists of wins over Akron, Syracuse and Temple.

Lesmerises has already gotten a lot of ride as both a Pollspeak good and bad voter, underscoring the split in belief on how it should be done.

This week, he has Alabama No. 1, Florida fifth, Penn State 15th and Mississippi 24th. He slammed USC for losing to Washington, dropping the Trojans from No. 2 to 25th. He gave UCLA huge credit for its victory at Tennessee, putting the Bruins 12th.

"It's results, results, results," said Lesmerises, describing his philosophy. "It's definitely a reflection of what has happened, not a prediction of what will happen."

Disparities? You bet. John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader has Penn State third and Ole Miss fourth. He saw fit to keep USC high at No. 6, while leaving out Washington.

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Eventually, the over-corrections should take care of themselves. Or, as Lesmerises puts it, "I think my ballot is going to come out like everyone else's. I like to think everyone else is going to vote like me."

Trust me, these folks deserve your respect. In 2006, I voted for the first time in maybe 20 years and was amazed at how it had changed, from a ho-hum exercise in anonymity to the realization that your ballot is out there, being scrutinized by people in Possum Flats, Ark., and they can get testy when you don't treat their team right.

The e-mails crackled in. A Washington fan wrote, "You have an ax to grind with the 'Dub athletic department." Arkansas people howled about the Hogs' omission, conveniently overlooking that USC had schooled them 50-14 in their opener.

A Texas A&M fan aired a beef and added, "I really hope it has nothing to do with how the Seahawks stole a trademark tradition from the Aggies."

Voters play by AP's rules. That means the ballot has to be in by noon Eastern time each Sunday. That's 9 a.m. Pacific. Talk about your East Coast bias.

I recall sitting outside with a cohort — under the stars and over a beer — in Mesa, Ariz., after a night game at Arizona State, mucking through the AP vote at 1 a.m., trying to figure out if Oklahoma had won.

Pay? You get paid in grief from fans. And from a jangling phone from AP in New York five minutes after the Ohio State-Florida title game ends, wondering why your ballot isn't in.

"Yeah, fellas, let me run that by my editors, who want this 20-inch column in 35 minutes. Meanwhile, can we make the assumption that Florida might be national champion, since it won, 41-14?"

But not to whine. I have a great job. It's just that voting in the AP poll has never been part of that.

And What's More . . .

• The two BCS-buster games to watch Saturday are No. 17 Houston hosting Texas Tech and No. 15 TCU traveling to Clemson. Biggest game is ninth-ranked Miami at No. 11 Virginia Tech.

• Offense has returned at least to some precincts of the SEC. Georgia and Arkansas combined for 93 points, 1,015 yards — 783 passing — and 10 touchdown passes.

• If Oregon hopes to keep the ball from California's Jahvid Best, it's going to have to improve on a national-worst 22:34 average time of possession.

• Since 1897, Arizona State has played 906 games. And ASU says the only time it has taken the opening kickoff the distance was when Omar Bolden did it last week against Louisiana-Monroe.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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