College Football National Champions: Do Preseason Rankings Matter?

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Athlon Sports takes a look at how each college football champ has ranked in the preseason.

<p> College Football National Champions: Do Preseason Rankings Matter?</p>

Who is the sleeper team to watch in 2012? Who is a national title darkhorse? Who can come out of nowhere and shock the college football world?

Every year, college football analysts and experts at Athlon Sports rank all 124 teams and project how we feel the final standings will look. This year, the USC Trojans are our pick to beat the LSU Tigers for the 2012 BCS National Championship.

We also compile our list of potential national championship sleepers each year. Teams who are built to potentially run the table and surprise the preseason pollsters.

But when trying to pick your national title winner — or pinpoint those capable of making a historic run — there are a few figures to consider. Preseason rankings may seem arbitrary to some of you, but every BCS National Champion has been ranked in the preseason AP Top 25. And it has been nearly three decades since an unranked team won the AP national title.

Be Ranked In the Preseason Top 20
Only one team ranked outside of the AP Top 20 has ever won a BCS National Championship. The Auburn Tigers of 2010, behind junior college transfer and relative unknown commodity Cam Newton, began the year ranked No. 22 in the nation. The Tigers are the lowest ranked preseason team in the BCS era to win the title and are the first team outside of the top since 1990 to even clinch a share of the title. Additionally, Oregon began 2010 outside of the top 10 at No. 11 — making the 2010 BCS National Championship game the only national title contest in the last 30+ years to features two teams that began outside of the top 10 in the preseason polls.

Really Though, Be Ranked In The Top 10
Four times in 14 years has the national champ come from outside the preseason Top 10. In addition to Auburn, Oklahoma in 2000 was ranked 19th, LSU in 2003 was ranked 15th and Ohio State was ranked 13th. Only three additional teams since 1984, Notre Dame in 1988 (13th) and Michigan in 1997 (14th) and Georgia Tech in 1990 (UR), have won the national title starting outside of the top 10. And Tech didn’t claim the AP title in 1990.

Unranked Champions Don't Happen
Since 1982, the year I was born, only twice has a team unranked in the preseason gone on to win the AP/BCS national championship. The 1984 BYU Cougars and the 1983 Miami Hurricanes are the only champs to start the year outside of the Top 25 and finish on top since 1982. Technically, Georgia Tech claimed a share of the national title in 1990 after beginning the season unranked. However, it didn’t claim the AP title that year, preseason No. 5 Colorado did.

The Top 5 Is the Place To Be
Four of the last five national champions were ranked in the top five in the AP preseason poll. Alabama in 2009 and Florida in 2008 were No. 5 — although, it should be noted that Athlon Sports had the Gators No. 1 in 2008 — while LSU in 2007 and Alabama in 2011 both began No. 2.

In fact, 16 times in the last 32 seasons has the national champion begun the year in the top five. This means, according to Athlon Sports’ rankings, that there is a 50% chance that Alabama, LSU, USC, Oregon and Oklahoma will win the title. It also means there is only a 50% chance that the champion comes from the other 119 teams. Both the 2003 and 1997 split champs were outside of the top five and both the 1991 champs were inside the preseason top five. The 1990 championship featured one unranked team (Georgia Tech) and one top five team (Colorado).

No. 1 Is Good, But Not That Good
So where is No. 1 in all of this you ask? The USC Trojans in 2004 were the last AP preseason No. 1 team to claim the national championship. In fact, since 1982, only three preseason No. 1 teams have gone on to win the title. Florida State in 1999 and 1993 were the only two other teams to match the ’04 Trojans of wire-to-wire dominance. In fact, the preseason No. 1 team in the AP poll hasn't even played in the national title game since 2006 when Ohio State lost to Florida. More teams have lost the national title game as preseason No. 1's than have won it in the BCS era. Yes, six trips (of 14) to the BCS title game is extremely accurate — and obviously most fanbases would take a guarenteed trip to the title game — but more times than not that team loses (2-4). Which, frankly, is all that matters.

No. 2 Is the Spot
Four of the last 12 national champions began the season ranked No. 2 in the preseason, more than any other preseason rankings by a wide margin. Eight times has the No. 2 team played in the BCS National Championship game, more than any other slot. Of the 28 total BCS title game teams, nearly 30% have started the season as the No. 2 team in the AP poll. And who is likely to be preseason No. 2 this fall? Either LSU or Alabama is a pretty good guess. And yes, that would give the SEC a seventh straight championship as well as a second

Where Not To Be?
The preseason number you don’t want your team to be? Third or fourth. No team in the BCS era has won a title beginning the year ranked No. 3 or No. 4. Florida in 1996 was the last preseason No. 4 team to claim the title and Miami in 1991 was the last team ranked No. 3 in the preseason to win the big prize. So for Athlon, this knocks out Alabama (No. 3) and Oregon (No. 4). Elsewhere inside the top 10, sixth hasn't won a title since 1997 and ninth hasn't clinched the championship since 1992. For good measure, eleventh hasn't won a title in the last 32 seasons.

What do all these numbers mean for college football in 2012? Maybe not much. But the stats do indicate that preseason polls are extremely accurate measuring sticks when attempting to pinpoint the quest for the Crystal Ball. So buy your Athlon Sports College Football preview magazine here!

Here is a quick list of how each of the national champs have ranked in the preseason:

Year Team AP Rank BCS Runner-Up AP Rank
2011 Alabama No. 2 LSU No. 4
2010 Auburn No. 22 Oregon No. 11
2009 Alabama No. 5 Texas No. 2
2008 Florida No. 5 Oklahoma No. 4
2007 LSU No. 2 Ohio State No. 10
2006 Florida No. 7 Ohio State No. 1
2005 Texas No. 2 USC No. 1
2004 USC No. 1 Oklahoma No. 2
2003* LSU No. 15 Oklahoma No. 1
2003* USC (AP) No. 8 -- --
2002 Ohio State No. 13 Miami No. 1
2001 Miami No. 2 Nebraska No. 4
2000 Oklahoma No. 19 Florida State No. 2
1999 Florida State No. 1 Virginia Tech No. 11
1998 Tennessee No. 10 Florida State No. 2
1997* Michigan (AP) No. 14 -- --
1997* Nebraska No. 6 -- --
1996 Florida No. 4 -- --
1995 Nebraska No. 2 -- --
1994 Nebraska No. 4 -- --
1993 Florida State No. 1 -- --
1992 Alabama No. 9 -- --
1991* Miami (AP) No. 3 -- --
1991* Washington No. 4 -- --
1990* Colorado (AP) No. 5 -- --
1990* Georgia Tech Unranked -- --
1989 Miami No. 3 -- --
1988 Notre Dame No. 13 -- --
1987 Miami No. 10 -- --
1986 Penn State No. 6 -- --
1985 Oklahoma No. 2 -- --
1984 BYU Unranked -- --
1983 Miami Unranked -- --
1982 Penn State No. 8 -- --

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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