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Is Ohio State Doomed By Preseason Polls?

by Derek Simon
May 31, 2013 2:20 PM EDT



Every year, when the preseason college football polls come out, hopes are heightened or dashed by what they disclose.

While dismissing their importance like NFL fans dismiss the results of preseason games, there is still something about a low poll number — particularly numero uno — that gives folks added confidence that their favorite team is worthy of their love ... as well as the $5 they shelled out for that “We’re #1” foam finger.

But do preseason polls really tell us anything about the upcoming season?

Yes and no.

No, the polls are not very predictive when it comes to precisely determining where a team will be ranked the following year. For example, since preseason polling began in 1950, only 10 teams ranked No. 1 prior to the season were crowned national champions. Not very good.

Yet, as Scott Albrecht of College Football by the Numbers points out, it’s a whole lot better than not being ranked No. 1.

“A team in the top spot in the preseason is 29 times more likely to win the national championship than if they weren't in the top spot,” he wrote in a blog post entitled Rectifying a Stupid Conclusion – Preseason Polls.

Bolstering Mr. Albrecht’s point is the fact that only seven teams not ranked in the top 20 in preseason polling have ascended to No. 1 by the end of the year — and remember how many teams this encompasses. There can only be one team — OK, maybe a couple of teams — ranked first at any given time; there are almost 100 that aren’t ranked.

What’s more, it’s not just the team ranked No. 1 in the preseason that wins national championships. There appears to be an inverse relationship between lower preseason rankings and regular-season success in general, as the chart aptly demonstrates:

Notice that teams ranked in the top 10 in the preseason went on to be voted the No. 1 team in the country by season’s end 47 times in 63 years (74.6 percent). Teams ranked 11-20, on the other hand, topped the polls just nine times over the same period (14.3 percent).

Of course, all of this is interesting, but hardly surprising. Surely there is more to be gleaned from preseason polls than simply “learning” that a top-ranked team typically outperforms a non-ranked one?

Turns out there is.

Based on a study conducted by Daniel F. Stone of John Hopkins University, I discovered — well, confirmed, really — that poll voters tend to overreact and underreact to the performance of ranked teams in fairly predictable ways. For example, Stone noted that a top-10 squad drops, on average, six spots in the polls following a loss, while teams ranked 11-25 fall an average of just four spots.

Now, to me, this suggests that top-ranked teams have — excuse the homonym — more to lose when they lose than lower-ranked teams do. Furthermore, it leads me to believe that teams ranked highly in preseason polls as the result of a stellar campaign the year before are probably at greater risk to sink in the polls than teams coming off a less successful autumn.

The following chart, which includes all of the preseason top-25 teams from 2000 to 2012, appears to confirm this hypothesis:

Teams initially ranked in the top three after going undefeated the year before fell an average of 7.5 positions over the course of the season; teams with one setback last year dropped an average of 4.5 positions. Teams with two or more defeats averaged a mere 3.5-position decline.

So, what does this mean for 2013? Well, if you’re a Buckeyes fan, you’d better hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.

2013 CBS Sports Preseason Poll

1. Ohio State Buckeyes (12-0 last year)

2. Alabama Crimson Tide (13-1)

3. Texas A&M Aggies (11-2)

4. Stanford Cardinal (12-2)

5. Oregon Ducks (12-1)

6. Georgia Bulldogs (12-2)

7. South Carolina Gamecocks (11-2)

8. Florida Gators (11-2)

9. LSU Tigers (10-3)

10. Louisville Cardinals (11-2)

11. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12-1)

12. Clemson Tigers (11-2)

13. Texas Longhorns (9-4)

14. Kansas State Wildcats (11-2)

15. Oklahoma Sooners (10-3)

16. Florida State Seminoles (12-2)

17. Boise State Broncos (11-2)

18. UCLA Bruins (9-5)

19. TCU Horned Frogs (11-2)

20. Northwestern Wildcats (10-3)