The Oklahoma Sooners might be number one in the both the Coaches' and AP poll, but the Crimson Tide are at the top of the list of Sports Illustrated's preseason rankings. Just like at the end of the year occasionally, not everyone always agrees on who the best team in the land is. With all the hype that surrounds these preseason polls and rankings, the final rankings in January often look much different than they did back in August. Most times the No. 1 team heading in to the regular season is often a defending national champions that can't sustain their previous level of play or a traditional powerhouse returning most of their squad after successful season. Fans may dream about their school repeating or ending a title drought, but more often than not the No. 1 preseason ranking is rarely retained. Only once in the last 15 years has the number one team in the preseason Sports Illustrated poll remained at that spot when the season concluded.
Three years removed from a perfect season and after coming off an 11-2 Fiesta Bowl winning season, many were expecting Joe Paterno to win his first national title of the 1990s. The Nittany Lions were well on their way to another perfect season until a 34-8 home loss to the eventual national champion Michigan Wolverines. Their chances for a share of any title were denied when they lost in East Lansing 49-14 three weeks later. Joe Jurevicius and the Nittany Lions season ended after a 21-6 loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl.
Like Penn State the year before, John Cooper's Buckeyes were off to a perfect start in the Big Ten, until the month of November. At the Horseshoe, Ohio State led Michigan State 24-18 in the fourth quarter, but surrendered ten points in what would be their only blemish of the season.The Buckeyes did manage to finish No. 2 rankings after a Sugar Bowl in over Texas A&M. The Tennessee Volunteers won the first national title of the BCS era after a 23-16 Fiesta Bowl win over Bobby Bowden's Seminoles.
Although the Florida State went "wire to wire" as the top ranked team in the preseason polls, Sports Illustrated once again had the Nittany Lions at the top of their list. Their choice seemed justified at first. Penn State started out 9-0 with a defense that had arguably the two best defensive players in the nation with Lavar Arrington and Courtney Brown. Then they got to November and finished the regular season with three consecutive losses, decided by a total of 12 points. Penn State would go on to beat Texas A&M 24-0 in the Alamo Bowl.
The defending Big 12 champions had championship ambitions after coming off back-to-back double digit win seasons. The Cornhuskers got off to a great start by beginning the year with a 7-0 mark, with the only close call at being a 27-24 overtime win over #22 Notre Dame. Their trip Norman put a dimmer on their national title hopes after an embarrassing 31-14 loss at the hands of the eventual national champion Sooners. However, Erich Crouch and the Cornhuskers would be the national title runner-ups the following season.
The 2001 Miami Hurricanes are one of the greatest teams in college football history, but they weren't seen as the cream of the crop at the beginning of the season. Rex Grossman and the Florida Gators were atop of the AP Poll. Sports Illustrated ranked Dennis Erickson’s Oregon State team number one. The Beavers weren't even the best team in the Beaver State that year. Oregon State quickly fell off the national radar and finished the season with a 5-6 record. Meanwhile, Heisman candidate Joey Harrington led the Oregon Ducks to an 11-1 record and a Fiesta Bowl triumph.
How did Sport Illustrated not have the Miami Hurricanes at number one in their preseason rankings? Oklahoma entered the AP Poll at No. 2, while the defending champion Hurricanes were at the top spot. After posting an 11-2 record after a national title winning season, Tommie Harris and the Sooners were eager to bring another title to Norman. Oklahoma may very well have been in Arizona playing for the national championship that season had they not suffered losses to Texas A&M and their in-state rivals down in Stillwater. Ohio State would go on to win the national title after a controversial finish over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Meanwhile, the Sooners beat Washington State in the Rose Bowl and would appear in the next two national title games (both losing efforts).
Once again, Sports Illustrated and the polls had a difference of opinion. Oklahoma was a popular preseason choice by many fans as the best team in the nation. However, the renowned magazine put the defending national champions atop of their rankings, despite the dismissal of star sophomore running back and Heisman hopeful Maurice Clarret. The Buckeyes would finish the season with an 11-2 record. The only championship that the Sooners earned that season was for the Big 12 South. Kansas State routed Oklahoma in the conference championship game 35-7 and the Sooners played at the national title game over the USC Trojans. LSU won 21-14 and the Trojans revenge had yet not to come.
After finishing first in the final AP Poll, Matt Leinart and the Trojans were out to win the BCS denied to them in the previous season. College football was about to meet its next superpower. Fifty-three players on this team would go on to the NFL, that's enough to fill up an entire roster. Leinart and Reggie Bush were the main attractions, but the 2004 Trojans had other notable players including LenDale White, Mike Williams, Lofa Tatupu, Sam Baker and Shaun Cody. Despite the team's immense talent the road to a BCS National Championship was not an easy one. The Trojans had a tough game with Virginia Tech in their season opener, narrowly escaped a win over #7 California and Aaron Rodgers, and had a close call in the regular season finale against UCLA. In the national title game, the Oklahoma Sooners proved to be no match as the Trojans got their revenge in 55-19 beat down in Miami. This was the last time the number one team in Sports Illustrated's preseason rankings went on to win it all.
According to the NCAA the 2005 USC Trojans never occured.
Matt Leinart, the reigning Heisman winner skipped the NFL Draft for a chance to lead the Trojans to a third consecutive national title. He also took a one credit hours ball room dancing class in order to finish his degree. Before the season began, many were already proclaiming the 2005 Trojans as the greatest team in college football history. ESPN couldn't seem to get enough of covering this team and comparing them to other historic teams. Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy, becoming the third USC player to win it in four years. The Trojans easily rolled to a 12-0 regular season mark and met No. 2 Texas in one what became one of the greatest games in college football history. Vince Young had 467 yards of total offense and carried the Longhorns to a 41-38 triumph in a back and fourth scoring fest. The Longhorns won their first national title since 1970. The Trojans joined the likes of the 1998 Minnesota Vikings and 2001 Seattle Mariners on the list of greatest teams never to win it all. Years later the legacy of Pete Caroll's Trojan teams has now been tarnished as a result of the Reggie Bush scandal.
The Buckeyes were an easy choice for preseason number one after coming off a Fiesta Bowl win the previous season. Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy and led the Buckeyes to an unbeaten regular season record. All, but two of those games were decided by less than 17 points. After a 42-39 win over Michigan, Ohio State met the Florida Gators in the BCS National Title Game. The matchup was the beginning of Jim Tressel's struggles against the SEC, after his Buckeyes embarrassed by the Gators 41-14. It also marked the beginning of the SEC's reign as the undisputed best conference in college football.
Even after Leinart and Bush left Los Angeles, the Pete Caroll Trojans were always in the national title hunt. 2007 was no different as USC was ranked number one in the preseason for the third time in four years. However, the Trojans national title hopes took early hits. Stanford upset USC 24-23 at the Coliseum and championship hopes were all but over after a 24-17 loss to Oregon. 2007 was the year of parody in college football. No school finished the year unbeaten and it was anyone's guess at would the top 5 would look like the following week. Eventually, A two loss LSU toppled Ohio State in the national title game. SEC: 2, Ohio State: 0.
It took five years, but the Ohio State/USC top spot duopoly in the Sports Illustrated preseason rankings was finally over. After narrowly missing the SEC Championship Game and a possible BCS Championship Game appearance the previous season, Georgia was the top dog heading into the 2008 season. Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno were the star players on what was arguably Mark Richt's most talented team during his tenure in Athens. The preseason hype quickly faded. Georgia held the top preseason ranking for only one week and barely escaped from Columbia in a 14-7 win in their conference opener. Two weeks later, the Bulldogs were embarrassed in Athens by Alabama 41-30, after trailing 31-0 at halftime. Their national title hopes were completed tarnished after a 49-10 rout to the eventual national champion Florida Gators in Jacksonville.
The Florida Gators entered the 2009 season as heavy favorites to repeat as national champions and win it all for the third time in four years. Tim Tebow was returning for his senior year and the defense was returning all of their first and second-string players. After a few close calls in the regular season, the Gators were once again on their way to Atlanta to face unbeaten Alabama for a spot in the BCS National Championship Game (and the conference championship). The 2009 SEC Championship Game was seen by many as the de facto national championship game for the season. It was also the first time the matchup featured two unbeaten teams. The expectations of this game did not fulfill the hype. The Crimson Tide trounced the Gators 32-13, on their way to beating Texas in the national title game. Florida ended the season with a Sugar Bowl win over Cincinnati.
After winning their first national championship in 17 years, the Crimson Tide were expected to keep the national title in the Yellowhammer State. Alabama started off with a five game winning streak that included dominate wins over both Penn State and Florida. Losses to South Carolina and LSU ended their chances of winning a national championship. To make matters worse, the regular season ended with Auburn's come from behind win at Byrant-Denney Stadium. Auburn would go on to win the BCS National Championship. Once again, the best team in college football was from the Yellowhammer State, just not from Tuscaloosa.
Alabama is once again atop of the Sports Illustrated preseason rankings. In the last 15 years, only once has the top ranked team in their preseason rankings gone on to win the national title. The Crimson Tide's 2011 campaign will be not be an easy task. They play in college football's toughest division and have road trips to State College and The Swamp this season. If Alabama manages to win the conference with no more than one loss and there are not a multitude of other unbeaten teams across the nation, the SEC's championship streak has a great chance to reach six.