College Football: Why Preseason Polls Matter

Justin HokansonSenior Writer IJuly 16, 2008

A lot of people have the opinion that preseason polls don't matter.

Well this is a look at preseason polls and just how much they do matter in winning a national title.  Overcoming a low, or even non-ranking in a preseason poll is the most difficult obstacle for an undefeated team to overcome on the road to the national championship.  With the addition of the BCS, this has become even more important since if you aren't number one or number two, you have no shot at a title. Strength of schedule also has become more important in winning a title.

With the help of my buddy Stuart Carter, let's take a look at the importance of preseason polls in college football, using Auburn's 2004 season as a reference.

Preseason to No. 1

Always a popular debate among college football fans is the current system of ranking the teams, which includes preseason polls. For Auburn fans, this topic became a primary issue when the 2004 Auburn Tigers were left out of the BCS National Championship game. By the end of the 2004 regular season, the so-called experts in an attempt to justify the matchup of Oklahoma and Southern Cal questioned Auburn’s strength of schedule.

We could debate all day long who deserved to be in the BCS Championship Game in 2004, but in the end a worthy team was going to be left out. This is why under the current BCS system preseason rankings are sometimes the first major step toward being crowned No. 1 at the end of the season. Being ranked in the top five to start the season won’t always get you there but it can increase your odds.

History of preseason rankings...

From 1960-2007 there were 57 teams crowned No. 1 by the AP, UPI or BCS. Of those 57 teams, 27 (47.3 percent) began the season ranked in the top five of the Associated Press Poll. More than 75 percent (43) began the season ranked in the top 10 and 84 percent (48) were ranked in the preseason top 15. Only six teams started the season unranked and three of those teams were from the decade of the 1960s. This included Minnesota in 1960, USC in 1962, Michigan State in 1965, Clemson in 1981, BYU in 1984 and Georgia Tech in 1990.

Broken down by decade, here are the average preseason rankings of the eventual national champion.

1960-1969 10.0

1970-1979 4.7

1980-1989 11.7

1990-1999 6.3

2000-2007 7.4

When you consider that nearly half of the national championship teams were ranked in the preseason top five and 75 percent were ranked in the top 10, it’s indicative that preseason rankings play a major role in deciding the eventual champion. This is the very reason why Auburn was left out during the 2004 season. Auburn began the season ranked No. 17 in the AP Poll while Oklahoma and Southern Cal held the top two spots. Auburn was able to climb the polls but unfortunately for the Tigers, they finished the regular season third in the polls.

Preseason No.1 and No. 2

From 1960 through 2004 there have only been two seasons that the preseason No. 1 and No. 2 stayed in the top two slots before the bowl games. It happened during the 1970 season when Ohio State and Texas started the season No. 1 and No. 2 and remained in the top two slots by time the last regular season game was played. It did not happen again until 2004. For Auburn, it was simply bad timing to go 12-0 before the bowl games. Any other season other than 1970 or 2004 and Auburn plays for the national championship.

Strength of Schedule...

In terms of strength of schedule, the 2004 Auburn Tigers had it tougher than more than 70 percent of the eventual teams crowned No. 1 from 1960-2007. Of the 16 teams that had a greater strength of schedule, only four of them finished the season undefeated and untied. Thirteen teams actually had a strength of schedule below .500, which was a primary reason those 13 teams combined for a record of 149-0-1. The 1980 Georgia Bulldogs had the weakest strength of schedule followed by Brigham Young in 1984.

A primary factor in winning it all is the schedule. The 1983 Auburn Tigers proved it was not worth the risk of playing a difficult schedule being snubbed by the voters with Miami ’s Orange Bowl victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. What Auburn accomplished during the entire 1983 season did not carry the same weight as Miami’s bowl win. The 2006 Florida Gators had the greatest strength of schedule among the other mythical national champions but it was Southern Cal’s loss during the last week of the regular season that gave the Gators a shot at Ohio State in the BCS Championship.


Get more college football talk at my blog, Gridiron Guru.