What exactly can the preseason rankings tell us about how the season will transpire?
We took a look at the preseason and final AP Top 25 Polls for the last 10 years – from 2007 to 2016 – and charted the results, including average wins per season and national championship game appearances. Here are the results:
The preseason No. 2 team averages one more win than No. 1
In the last 10 years, the preseason No. 2 team has averaged 12.1 wins per season, which is one more win than the preseason No. 1 team, which has averaged 11.1 wins per season. The biggest single-season difference was in 2012, when preseason No. 2 Alabama won 13 games to preseason No. 1 USC’s seven. The preseason No. 2 team also won more games than the preseason No. 1 team in 2013, 2011, 2010 and 2007.
The second-ranked team in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll has finished better than the preseason No. 1 team in the AP Poll in eight of the last 10 seasons, including four years in which the No. 2-ranked team won the national championship and finished the season ranked No. 1. In the last decade, there hasn’t been a team that was ranked No. 1 in both the preseason and final AP Top 25 Polls.
Alabama was ranked No. 1 from the start of the season until the championship game last year, when they fell to Clemson, and dropped to No. 2 for the final poll.
As a reminder, Alabama is ranked No. 1 this year and Ohio State is No. 2.
Click on the graphic below to expand.
Looking for a national champion? Don’t look outside the top 5 (normally)
In the last 10 years, the eventual national champion has had an average preseason ranking of 5.9. In eight of those years, the national champion was ranked in the top five during the preseason. In five of the last 10 seasons, the national champion has come from a school ranked in the preseason top three. The two major outliers are Florida State in 2013 (preseason No. 11) and Auburn in 2010 (preseason No. 22).
There’s more variance amongst the national runners-up. In 2012 and 2013, the national runners-up weren’t ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll – Notre Dame and Auburn, respectively. Ohio State, Oregon and Clemson appeared in the title game despite being ranked outside of the preseason top 10 in 2007, 2010 and 2015, respectively. However, in five of the last 10 years, the national runner-up was ranked in the top four of the preseason AP Top 25 Poll.
Unlucky No. 13
For whatever reason – superstitions or simply poor play compared to preseason expectations (we’ll assume the latter) – the preseason No. 13 team has arguably had, on average, the worst season of any single ranking in the AP Top 25 Poll when considering preseason rankings and expectations. In seven of the last 10 seasons, the preseason No. 13 team hasn’t been ranked in the final poll. Only the preseason No. 23 team has fallen out of the rankings more often (eight times). The preseason No. 13 team has averaged 8.33 wins per season, which is the second-lowest among teams ranked in the top 15 during the preseason.
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) August 21, 2017
In an effort to measure the average finish of preseason top 25 teams, while also accounting for schools that fall out of the AP Top 25 Poll by the time the final AP Poll is released, we used a point system where the No. 1 team in the final poll earns 25 points, the No. 2 team earns 24 points, all the way down to the No. 25 team, which earns one point. A team does not earn any points if it began the season ranked in the Top 25 but is not ranked at the end of the season. In the last 10 seasons, teams ranked No. 13 in the preseason have the second-lowest cumulative point total (38), ahead of only teams ranked preseason No. 23 (21 points).
Other notable underperformers are teams ranked preseason No. 4 (10.1 avg. wins; 111 ranking points – 109 points below the expected value if the preseason No. 4 team finished the season ranked No. 4 every year; ranked outside of the top 10 in the final poll six times), No. 10 (7.5 avg. wins; 100 points below expected value; not ranked in five of the last 10 final AP Top 25 Polls), No. 16 (7.7 avg. wins; 53 points below expected value; not ranked six times).
|Preseason ranking||Cumulative point total||Expected point total||Difference|
Looking for a team that’s ranked outside of the top five or top 10 that could outperform expectations and make some noise this season? Based on the average finish of teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll over the last 10 seasons, the preseason No. 11 team could be your best bet. The preseason No. 11 team has played in the national championship game in three of the last 10 years, averaged 9.9 wins per season – almost 2.5 more wins than the preseason No. 10 team, on average – and maintained or improved its ranking from the preseason to the final poll in six of the last 10 seasons.
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) August 21, 2017
The preseason No. 12 (9.3 wins on average), No. 14 (9.9 avg. wins), No. 17 (9.5 avg. wins), and No. 21 (9.7 avg. wins) are other options, if past performance is any indication of future results.
The most accurate, inaccurate yearly preseason polls
In half of the last 10 preseason AP Top 25 Polls, at least 10 ranked teams were no longer ranked by the end of the season. In 2007 and 2010, 12 of the 25 teams dropped from the poll by the publishing of the final poll. In 2010, No. 4 Florida, No. 5 Texas and No. 9 Iowa weren’t ranked by the end of the season. In 2007, every team ranked No. 16 through No. 25, besides No. 18 Auburn, fell out of the poll.
In terms of accuracy – simply the number of teams ranked in both the preseason and final polls – 2011 was the pollsters’ best year in the last decade. Eighteen of the 25 schools ranked in the preseason were ranked in the final poll, including 14 of the preseason top-15 teams.
The biggest single whiff in the last decade of the preseason AP Poll was No. 1 USC in 2012. The Trojans finished 7-6 and weren’t ranked in the final poll.