NEW YORK — With each victory on the way to starting 9-0 in 1996, Army's football players and coaches were convinced this would be the one that launched them into the polls.
It took until that ninth win for them to slip into the AP Top 25.
"Week after week, we'd think we were going to get into the rankings, but you'd have some ESPN guy saying, 'West Point, they're playing a powder-puff schedule,'" recalled New Mexico coach Mike Locksley, an assistant on that squad.
Passionate fans will always bristle when they feel the talking heads on TV are disrespecting their favorite team — that's part of the fun of sports. But the topic is especially prickly in college football, where human voters help determine who plays for the national championship.
For fans already fretting that some commentators may hurt their beloved school in the BCS standings, a new wrinkle arrives this season. ESPN, home to endless hours of college football debate, takes over the broadcasts of the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls and the title game.
It's just more fodder for the great American tradition of conspiracy theories: Get ready for insinuations that ESPN is hyping particular teams that it believes would draw higher ratings in the BCS contests.
"Any time you have the human element involved, that's a possibility," ESPN senior coordinating producer Dave Miller said of voters being swayed by the analysts on TV. "But we don't have any directive or any goal of trying to influence that we need to get this team in or that team in."
The BCS games were previously on Fox, which wasn't likely to be accused of conflict of interest because of its lack of other college football programming. ESPN's contract gives it the package for the next four years; it already had the Rose Bowl on partner ABC.
"You always have to be careful," Miller said. "Perception can be reality."
Consider new analyst Mike Bellotti's take on his hire: "I think in some ways they're bringing me on with the intent to even off the perceived East Coast bias," the former Oregon coach and athletic director said.
But to Bellotti and his new colleagues, the difference between perception and reality is simple.
"The No. 1 thing is your credibility," he said, and obvious bias would instantly undermine that.
At New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference, Locksley is at one of those schools that lacks the big-name recognition in the college football perception game. He's also been at the other end of the spectrum as an assistant at BCS conference programs Maryland, Florida and Illinois — and believes those power players get their fair share of coverage: "I'm not a conspiracy theorist."
"I think there is a perception problem, but it's not just ESPN," Locksley said. "Any media that follows conferences and teams has the ability to persuade."
ESPN analyst Ed Cunningham chuckled when asked if fans will howl that the network is trying to manipulate BCS bowl matchups. He figures it's inevitable — and part of the job.
"It has been in the past," he said. "Certainly everyone always says ESPN has too much power and we get blamed for people wining and losing the Heisman."
He wonders if ESPN's ever-expanding coverage of college football, while increasing its overall imprint on the sport, also serves to dilute any one opinion. As Miller said, if you watch seven different analysts on ESPN on a given Saturday, "you'll get seven different opinions."
This season ESPN will air about 25 hours of college football programming in a typical week, with ESPN2 adding another 15-20. And that doesn't count all the coverage on ABC, ESPNU and other outlets.
More hours of debating mean more hours to discuss a wider variety of teams. Cunningham doesn't have any scientific evidence to back up his sense that the network's commentators have chatted about non-BCS conference schools more often the last couple of years.
"But it certainly feels like we talk about them a whole lot more," he said.
"Just so everybody doesn't forget," said Temple coach Al Golden, "ESPN is the one who put college football on the map and made it the second most popular sport to watch behind the NFL."5 comments on this story
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe recalled that an old athletic director of his used to say: "There's no bad beer and no bad TV."
"And I don't know about the first part," he said, laughing.
His Demon Deacons are also the sort of team that may fall behind in the perception game: a BCS conference member that's not a traditional power. But he has no concerns about the coverage they received when they stunned the ACC to win the league in 2006 — and seemed to play in prime time every week as the season went on.
"I don't think they're going to pick a team and say, 'That's our favorite team,' and put them on every week," Grobe said. "I think they're going to put on teams that people want to see, and people want to see winning football teams. So if you're a coach, your focus shouldn't be, 'How big is ESPN getting? And are they picking favorites?' Just start winning and you'll be on."