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Polling in August a difficult chore

The Associated Press sports editor recently sent instructions to me and my fellow voters in the wire service’s college football poll.

Any idiot, and I’ve been called worse, could understand the guidelines.

“Avoid regional bias, for or against.” Check. “Pay attention to head-to-head results. … Don’t hesitate to make significant changes in your ballot from week to week.” Check.

“Base your vote on performance, not reputation or preseason speculation.”

Oops. I’ve already violated that one.

The preseason poll is, by definition, speculation. Seventy-four brave media members from across the nation scribble the names of 25 schools on a pad. No matter how much some may pretend otherwise, we’re all guessing, from the fellow at the Honolulu Advertiser to the guy at the Boston Herald.

There’s no science here. If I knew anything about predictions, I’d be sitting by a pool in Las Vegas instead of waiting for the first snowfall here in the scenic Midwest.

This is my ninth year on the panel. For laughs I pulled out all my preseason ballots and compared them with my season-ending ballots.

On average 16 of my preseason Top 25 made my final Top 25. That’s a .640 guessing percentage. Two outta three ain’t bad.

There were some notable hits; I had Ohio State second in the opening and closing polls of 1998 – and some staggering misses. I’m not sure why I ranked Wisconsin third on my 2000 preseason ballot. The Badgers, clearly inspired, lost four games and weren’t in my final Top 25.

In eight years my preseason No. 1 and postseason No. 1 have been the same school only once: Nebraska in 1994.

In 1997 I bestowed my preseason No. 1 on Washington. The Huskies dogged it all the way to No. 17 in my final poll. My final pick for the national title that year was Michigan, which I had 15th in the preseason.

Given this history, my first ballot ought not be written in stone. It probably shouldn’t even be written in ink.

Take my No. 1 team, Oklahoma. Given the history of my preseason No. 1 picks, the Sooners may beg me to drop them. Sorry, fellas. OU has what might turn out to be one of the best defenses in history. The key word there is “might.” That’s speculation.

Many of the Sooners already have won a national title. Coach Bob Stoops has proved he can win the big games. That’s reputation.

We’re not supposed to consider speculation and reputation. But what else am I supposed to go on in August? Heat index?

It took a bit of pondering to put the Sooners and Florida State ahead of Miami (Fla.), defending national champions, although I felt a lot better about the decision when I saw the Hurricanes atop the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ preseason poll.

In general I’d prefer not to agree with the coaches or the people who vote for them. One coach I know orders the staffer who fills out his preseason ballot to include eight of his team’s upcoming opponents.

It’s safe to assume other coaches vote the same way. They’d deny it, of course. But not a single coach has the guts to release his ballot.

I, on the other hand, publish every one of mine. This is gutsy, and also foolish. It presents a weekly opportunity to look dumb in print.

In my Top 25 are some familiar powerhouses; Nebraska No. 11, Florida 13 and Oregon 14 – and some relative no-names. One team I thought about ranking higher: No. 18 Louisville. If the Cardinals beat Florida State on Sept. 26 in Louisville, they’re going to go flying up the list.

By then we’ll all be voting on performance. And the preseason poll may be lining someone’s birdcage.