Since 1936, the year the Associated Press Poll was introduced to college football, 59 of the 73 teams to finish first in the final writers poll have been part of the AP’s preseason Top-10.
The Cal football team enters the 2009 season ranked No. 12.
And believe it or not, statistically speaking, they’d be better off unranked.
No preseason No. 12 has ever topped the AP’s final poll.
Five teams not mentioned in the preseason rankings have.
At No. 12, the Bears are ranked too high to be underdogs, but too low to be considered serious national championship contenders.
Even a perfect season might not be enough to move the Bears into the top slot.
Consider this—an undefeated year for unranked Washington (humor me) would mean wins against preseason No. 4 USC, No. 11 LSU, No. 12 Cal, No. 16 Oregon, No. 20 BYU and No. 23 Notre Dame.
At No. 12, the Bears face just two ranked opponents in the Trojans and Ducks during the regular season.
What’s more, at No. 12, Cal should be favored in all but one of their games this season—meaning a loss moves them out of contention for the AP’s top billing, while a close win against the Men of Troy might not be enough to move them to the top of the pile.
Especially if, say, one of the three Big 12 South teams ranked in the Top-10 runs the table.
Swap the Bears and No. 26 Beavers, though, and Cal adds three voter-friendly upsets against preseason powers (USC, Oregon and Oregon State) and the aura that comes with an undefeated underdog in a power conference.
With 65 sportswriters and broadcasters making up the AP’s voting panel, a good story goes a long way.
Want proof? In 1984, BYU—the last unranked team to top the final AP poll—defeated just two teams ranked in the preseason Top-25 (No. 3 Pittsburgh to open the season and No. 9 Michigan in the Holiday Bowl) but rode a fairytale season to the AP’s top billing.
Cal has actually been tabbed as a preseason No. 12 on three separate occasions—in 1954, 2004 and 2007. Twice, the Bears finished the season unranked.
Another bit of history working against them: Of the 66 teams ranked as the AP’s preseason No. 12 since 1936, just 18 finished the season in the Top-10, whereas 31 were pushed out of the final AP poll entirely.
Obviously anything’s possible—Cal could very well be the first National Championship No. 12. Since his arrival in 2002, Bears head coach Jeff Tedford is 7-0 when ranked Nos. 11-15. Texas finished No. 2 in 1956 as a No. 12, proving that a BCS title game isn’t out of the question.
But for the Bears, what kept them just outside of the preseason Top-10 could very well keep them from the top spot. As a Top-10 team under Tedford, Cal is a much-less-stellar 14-7. The Bears were ranked No. 9 in the 2006 preseason AP poll and were embarrassed by Tennessee in the season opener.
Voters have learned their lesson.
Even with a Heisman candidate and a friendly home schedule—Cal gets Maryland, USC and Oregon State at Memorial Stadium—they’re ranked below two teams with identical 2008 records (9-4) and 8-5 LSU.
My guess? The nuances of the No. 12 get the best of the Bears, undefeated season or otherwise.
Follow Grant Marek on Twitter: @Grant_Marek