How Accurate Are College Football's Preseason Polls?

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How Accurate Are College Football's Preseason Polls?
Doug Benc/Associated Press

There are two contrasting narratives about preseason polls: First, that they're meaningless, or conversely, that they unfairly influence the final regular-season standings. 

Ultimately, though, the preseason polls' influence on college football's postseason lies somewhere in the middle. Technically, the USA Today coaches poll factored into the BCS. But polls are also bound to change—oftentimes dramatically—throughout the year. 

In other words, take the recent preseason Associated Press and USA Today Amway coaches polls with a grain of salt. Neither will officially play a role in deciding a four-team playoff, and they're nothing more than (educated?) guesses. 

But how accurate have those guesses been? A look over the past 10 years shows that, generally speaking, teams which played for the BCS championship began the year ranked in the top 25—often in the top 10. Notre Dame (2012) and Auburn (2013) were the exceptions. 

Twice—in 2004 and '05—the No. 1 and No. 2 teams went wire to wire. 

Each year of the BCS has its own story, but this is how the past 10 years of preseason polls have played out.

 

2004

2004
Preseason AP Top 10 Preseason Coaches Top 10 Final AP Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final Coaches Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final BCS Top 10 (Before Bowls)
1. USC 1. USC 1. USC 1. USC 1. USC
2. Oklahoma 2. Oklahoma 2. Oklahoma 2. Oklahoma 2. Oklahoma
3. Georgia 3. LSU 3. Auburn 3. Auburn 3. Auburn
4. LSU 4. Georgia 4. Cal 4. Cal 4. Texas
5. Florida State 5. Miami (FL) 5. Utah 5. Texas 5. Cal
6. Miami (FL) 6. Florida State 6. Texas 6. Utah 6. Utah
7. Texas 7. Michigan 7. Louisville 7. Georgia 7. Georgia
8. Michigan 8. Texas 8. Georgia 8. Louisville 8. Virginia Tech
9. Ohio State 9. Ohio State 9. Virginia Tech 9. Virginia Tech 9. Boise State
10. West Virginia 10. Florida 10. Boise State 10. Boise State 10. Louisville

ESPN.com, CollegeFootballPoll.com (BCS)

2004 can be an example of revisionist history. What's easy to remember is undefeated Auburn being screwed by the BCS because Oklahoma got destroyed by USC, 55-19, in the Orange Bowl (the BCS championship). Since The Trojans and Sooners went wire to wire at No. 1 and No. 2, the Tigers were victims of starting the season in the middle of the top 25. 

Or were they?

Ralph Russo of the AP tweets an interesting point: The Tigers were perhaps a greater victim of conference perception. There was a time, believe it or not, when the SEC wasn't viewed as the dominant conference it is today. 

Was Auburn destined to be screwed because of where the Tigers were ranked to start the season? It's possible, but there could easily have been other factors at play, like conference perception, that affected the final votes. 

 

2005

2005
Preseason AP Top 10 Preseason Coaches Top 10 Final AP Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final Coaches Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final BCS Top 10 (Before Bowls)
1. USC 1. USC 1. USC 1. USC 1. USC
2. Texas 2. Texas 2. Texas 2. Texas 2. Texas
3. Tennessee 3. Tennessee 3. Penn State 3. Penn State 3. Penn State
4. Michigan 4. Michigan 4. Ohio State 4. Ohio State 4. Ohio State
5. LSU 5. Oklahoma 5. Notre Dame 5. Oregon 5. Oregon
6. Ohio State 6. LSU 6. Oregon 6. Notre Dame 6. Notre Dame
7. Oklahoma 7. Virginia Tech 7. Auburn 7. Auburn 7. Georgia
8. Virginia Tech 8. Miami (FL) 8. Georgia 8. Georgia 8. Miami
9. Miami (FL) 9. Ohio State 9. Miami 9. Miami 9. Auburn
10. Florida 10. Iowa 10. LSU 10. LSU 10. Virginia Tech

ESPN.com, CollegeFootballPoll.com (BCS)

2005 was among the most clear-cut seasons for the BCS. USC and Texas also went wire to wire on their path to the Rose Bowl. There were no other undefeated teams to state their cases. This was an example of pollsters getting it right from the start. 

 

2006

2006
Preseason AP Top 10 Preseason Coaches Top 10 Final AP Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final Coaches Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final BCS Top 10 (Before Bowls)
1. Ohio State 1. Ohio State 1. Ohio State 1. Ohio State 1. Ohio State
2. Notre Dame 2. Texas 2. Florida 2. Florida 2. Florida
3. Texas 3. Notre Dame 3. Michigan 3. Michigan 3. Michigan
4. Auburn 4. USC 4. LSU 4. LSU 4. LSU
5. West Virginia 5. Oklahoma 5. Louisville 5. Wisconsin 5. USC
6. USC 6. Auburn 6. Wisconsin 6. Louisville 6. Louisville
7. Florida 7. West Virginia 7. Oklahoma 7. USC 7. Wisconsin
8. LSU 8. Florida 8. USC 8. Oklahoma 8. Boise State
9. Cal 9. LSU 9. Boise State 9. Boise State 9. Auburn
10. Oklahoma 10. Florida State 10. Auburn 10. Auburn 10. Oklahoma

ESPN.com, CollegeFootballPoll.com (BCS)

2006 began the SEC's string of dominance over the rest of college football. The controversy here, if you will, was over whether Florida or Michigan should have played Ohio State for the national championship—and that was only because USC lost to UCLA 13-9 to end its season. 

The Buckeyes and Wolverines were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, heading into their Nov. 18 game, which Ohio State won 42-39. The Gators were rightfully chosen to play Ohio State in the BCS championship and won 41-14. Michigan lost to the Trojans in the Rose Bowl. And all postseason decisions were validated. 

 

2007

2007
Preseason AP Top 10 Preseason Coaches Top 10 Final AP Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final Coaches Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final BCS Top 10 (Before Bowls)
1. USC 1. USC 1. Ohio State 1. Ohio State 1. Ohio State
2. LSU 2. LSU 2. LSU 2. LSU 2. LSU
3. West Virginia 3. Florida 3. Oklahoma 3. Oklahoma 3. Virginia Tech
4. Texas 4. Texas 4. Georgia 4. Georgia 4. Oklahoma
5. Michigan 5. Michigan 5. Virginia Tech 5. Virginia Tech 5. Georgia
6. Florida 6. West Virginia 6. USC 6. USC 6. Missouri
7. Wisconsin 7. Wisconsin 7. Missouri 7. Missouri 7. USC
8. Oklahoma 8. Oklahoma 8. Kansas 8. Kansas 8. Kansas
9. Virginia Tech 9. Virginia Tech 9. Florida 9. West Virginia 9. West Virginia
10. Louisville 10. Ohio State 10. Hawaii 10. Hawaii 10. Hawaii

ESPN.com

Ah, yes, 2007: The year no one wanted to play for the BCS championship. Besides 2011 (see below), it was the strongest indication that the championship field needed to be expanded. 

The two teams which played for the national title, Ohio State and LSU, began the season ranked in the top five of the major preseason polls. Thanks to late-season losses by Missouri and West Virginia, the Buckeyes and Tigers backed their ways in to the big game. 

 

2008

2008
Preseason AP Top 10 Preseason Coaches Top 10 Final AP Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final Coaches Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final BCS Top 10 (Before Bowls)
1. Georgia 1. Georgia 1. Florida 1. Oklahoma 1. Oklahoma
2. Ohio State 2. USC 2. Oklahoma 2. Florida 2. Florida
3. USC 3. Ohio State 3. Texas 3. Texas 3. Texas
4. Oklahoma 4. Oklahoma 4. Alabama 4. Alabama 4. Alabama
5. Florida 5. Florida 5. USC 5. USC 5. USC
6. Missouri 6. LSU 6. Penn State 6. Penn State 6. Utah
7. LSU 7. Missouri 7. Utah 7. Utah 7. Texas Tech
8. West Virginia 8. West Virginia 8. Texas Tech 8. Texas Tech 8. Penn State
9. Clemson 9. Clemson 9. Boise State 9. Boise State 9. Boise State
10. Auburn 10. Texas 10. Ohio State 10. Ohio State 10. Ohio State

ESPN.com

2008 is otherwise known as the year of the Big 12 tiebreaker. Or heartbreaker, if you're a Texas fan. 

Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech finished atop the Big 12 with identical conference records. The Longhorns beat the Sooners 45-35 but lost on a last-second touchdown to Texas Tech, which then lost to Oklahoma by 44 points three weeks later. 

Since the tiebreaker was decided by BCS standings, Oklahoma got the nod. Was Bob Stoops' team aided by its top-five preseason ranking? Perhaps, but more than anything, this was a result of when a team lost, which in this case favored Oklahoma. 

The Sooners would go on to lose the BCS title to Florida, 24-14. 

 

2009

2009
Preseason AP Top 10 Preseason Coaches Top 10 Final AP Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final Coaches Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final BCS Top 10 (Before Bowls)
1. Florida 1. Florida 1. Alabama 1. Alabama 1. Alabama
2. Texas 2. Texas 2. Texas 2. Texas 2. Texas
3. Oklahoma 3. Oklahoma 3. TCU 3. TCU 3. Cincinnati
4. USC 4. USC 4. Cincinnati 4. Cincinnati 4. TCU
5. Alabama 5. Alabama 5. Florida 5. Florida 5. Florida
6. Ohio State 6. Ohio State 6. Boise State 6. Boise State 6. Boise State
7. Virginia Tech 7. Virginia Tech 7. Oregon 7. Oregon 7. Oregon
8. Ole Miss 8. Penn State 8. Ohio State 8. Ohio State 8. Ohio State
9. Oklahoma State 9. LSU 9. Georgia Tech 9. Penn State 9. Georgia Tech
10. Penn State 10. Ole Miss 10. Iowa 10. Georgia Tech 10. Iowa

ESPN.com

Another clear-cut BCS National Championship Game came in 2009 when Alabama played Texas. Both were preseason top-five teams in the AP and coaches polls. 

There were two other undefeated teams at season's end—Cincinnati and TCU—but neither realistically had a shot to play for it all. 

 

2010

2010
Preseason AP Top 10 Preseason Coaches Top 10 Final AP Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final Coaches Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final BCS Top 10 (Before Bowls)
1. Alabama 1. Alabama 1. Auburn 1. Oregon 1. Auburn
2. Ohio State 2. Ohio State 2. Oregon 2. Auburn 2. Oregon
3. Boise State 3. Florida 3. TCU 3. TCU 3. TCU
4. Florida 4. Texas 4. Wisconsin 4. Wisconsin 4. Stanford
5. Texas 5. Boise State 5. Stanford 5. Stanford 5. Wisconsin
6. TCU 6. Virginia Tech 6. Ohio State 6. Ohio State 6. Ohio State
7. Oklahoma 7. TCU 7. Michigan State 7. Michigan State 7. Oklahoma
8. Nebraska 8. Oklahoma 8. Arkansas 8. Arkansas 8. Arkansas
9. Iowa 9. Nebraska 9. Oklahoma 9. Oklahoma 9. Michigan State
10. Virginia Tech 10. Iowa 10. Boise State 10. Boise State 10. Boise State

ESPN.com

If anything, 2010 proved two things: first, that two teams could climb from outside the top 10—with help, of course—to reach the BCS National Championship Game and, second, that they could easily pass an undefeated non-BCS team along the way. 

Those were the paths taken by Oregon and Auburn, which started outside the top 10 in preseason polls but won every regular-season game. Undefeated TCU, despite beginning the year as a preseason top-10 team, didn't have a chance. 

 

2011

2011
Preseason AP Top 10 Preseason Coaches Top 10 Final AP Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final Coaches Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final BCS Top 10 (Before Bowls)
1. Oklahoma 1. Oklahoma 1. LSU 1. LSU 1. LSU
2. Alabama 2. Alabama 2. Alabama 2. Alabama 2. Alabama
3. Oregon 3. Oregon 3. Oklahoma State 3. Oklahoma State 3. Oklahoma State
4. LSU 4. LSU 4. Stanford 4. Stanford 4. Stanford
5. Boise State 5. Florida State 5. USC* 5. Oregon 5. Oregon
6. Florida State 6. Stanford 6. Oregon 6. Boise State 6. Arkansas
7. Stanford 7. Boise State 7. Arkansas 7. Arkansas 7. Boise State
8. Texas A&M 8. Oklahoma State 8. Boise State 8. Wisconsin 8. Kansas State
9. Oklahoma State 9. Texas A&M 9. Wisconsin 9. South Carolina 9. South Carolina
10. Nebraska 10. Wisconsin 10. South Carolina 10. Kansas State 10. Wisconsin

ESPN.com

2011 was a quandary for voters trying to decide between two teams for one spot. LSU, a preseason top-five team, was an obvious choice for a title-game appearance after going undefeated. The question was whether voters should give the other spot to Alabama, whose sole loss came to the Tigers, or to Oklahoma State, the Big 12 champs.

Ultimately, the Tide were given another chance because of the Cowboys' stunning overtime loss to unranked Iowa State on Nov. 18. Since all three teams began the season ranked in the top 10, this was a case of determining which loss was worse. Alabama won out, and won the BCS title 21-0 in a rematch against LSU. 

 

2012

2012
Preseason AP Top 10 Preseason Coaches Top 10 Final AP Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final Coaches Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final BCS Top 10 (Before Bowls)
1. USC 1. LSU 1. Notre Dame 1. Notre Dame 1. Notre Dame
2. Alabama 2. Alabama 2. Alabama 2. Alabama 2. Alabama
3. LSU 3. USC 3. Ohio State* 3. Oregon 3. Florida
4. Oklahoma 4. Oklahoma 4. Florida 4. Florida 4. Oregon
5. Oregon 5. Oregon 5. Oregon 5. Georgia 5. Kansas State
6. Georgia 6. Georgia 6. Georgia 6. Kansas State 6. Stanford
7. Florida State 7. Florida State 7. Kansas State 7. LSU 7. Georgia
8. Michigan 8. Michigan 8. Stanford 8. Stanford 8. LSU
9. South Carolina 9. South Carolina 9. LSU 9. Texas A&M 9. Texas A&M
10. Arkansas 10. Arkansas 10. Texas A&M 10. South Carolina 10. South Carolina

ESPN.com

In 2012, Notre Dame proved that you didn't have to start the season ranked to end up in the BCS championship. The Irish went undefeated during the regular season but lost to Alabama in the national title. Ohio State, which also went undefeated, did not participate in a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions. 

 

2013

2013
Preseason AP Top 10 Preseason Coaches Top 10 Final AP Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final Coaches Top 10 (Before Bowls) Final BCS Top 10 (Before Bowls)
1. Alabama 1. Alabama 1. Florida State 1. Florida State 1. Florida State
2. Ohio State 2. Ohio State 2. Auburn 2. Auburn 2. Auburn
3. Oregon 3. Oregon 3. Alabama 3. Alabama 3. Alabama
4. Stanford 4. Stanford 4. Michigan State 4. Michigan State 4. Michigan State
5. Georgia 5. Georgia 5. Stanford 5. Baylor 5. Stanford
6. South Carolina 6. Texas A&M 6. Baylor 6. Ohio State 6. Baylor
7. Texas A&M 7. South Carolina 7. Ohio State 7. Stanford 7. Ohio State
8. Clemson 8. Clemson 8. South Carolina 8. South Carolina 8. Missouri
9. Louisville 9. Louisville 9. Missouri 9. Missouri 9. South Carolina
10. Florida 10. Florida 10. Oregon 10. Oklahoma 10. Oregon

ESPN.com

Auburn became the second straight team which began the year unranked to play for a BCS championship. The Tigers won the SEC and, coupled with a loss by undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten championship, played Florida State for the crystal ball.  

 

What Does It Mean?

The accuracy of preseason polls resembles a game of horseshoes: Voters try to get close enough. Obviously, there are bound to be major misses along the way. Arkansas and Florida began the 2012 and '13 seasons, respectively, ranked No. 10. Both finished 4-8. 

The next question is whether those polls will influence the College Football Playoff selection committee even though they're not officially to be considered. In the new postseason format, the selection committee will create its own Top 25 and select the top four teams at year's end. 

Recent BCS history suggests that championship games are more closely tethered to what happens at the end of the year than where things begin. The anomaly was in 2003, when Oklahoma, the preseason No. 1 team in the coaches poll, played for the BCS title even though it had just lost its conference championship game. 

The selection committee must keep a team's entire body of work in mind, not simply what happened in the past few weeks.

If it does that, it will be on the right path to fielding the first four-team playoff. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. *Indicates team was not eligible for postseason play. 

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