Analyzing 10 Years of Preseason AP Football Poll Data

The Associated Press released its 2011 preseason football poll this weekend, ranking Virginia Tech No. 13. The concept of the preseason poll is an interesting one because of how much change there is in college football from year to year.

The preseason poll is a complete crapshoot, but its effect can felt through a good part of the season. Often we'll see teams have their preseason perceptions bolster or limit their place in the Top 25 even deep into the year. I'd love to see how the Week 6 poll would look if no prior poll was taken.

All the preseason poll is good for is water cooler discussion. Most of the time it's a strange formula of (Previous Season * Returning Starters) + (Recruiting Ranking / Strength of Schedule) * (Speed of Light ^ 2) + (Mysterious Notre Dame Factor). Plug in the numbers and whaddaya know, OU's No. 1, Virginia Tech's No. 13 and Notre Dame is No. 16.

How much does the preseason poll equate to end of season rankings? Very little, unless you're No. 1 or No. 2. Teams ranked No. 10 and No. 22 in the preseason had almost an equal chance of finishing unranked the last 10 years. In fact, take a good look at that preseason poll linked above. Ten of those teams will be unranked at the end of the year.

Want more numbers? Follow me after the jump.

Below is analysis of how teams ranked 1-25 in the preseason AP poll fared in final AP poll in the last 10 seasons (2001-2010). For teams that finished unranked, I flushed out the final poll to include teams also receiving votes (courtesy of this site right here). If a team received no votes, they were assigned the number after the last team receiving votes (this ranged from 34 in 2006 to 43 in 2005). It's not perfect, but that's the best way I could think of doing it.

One more note: In 2009, Oklahoma State and Penn State tied for ninth in the preseason poll. Both counted toward teams ranked No. 9 in the preseason, so No. 9 has 11 teams factored in and No. 10 has nine. In 2009, Penn State finished No. 9 and OSU No. 30. You follow? Good.

And why the AP poll? One, it was the easiest data to find. Two, how many coaches really watch more than one or two games a week and how many head coaches actually fill out their own ballot? So, the AP poll it is.


(Rank - preseason rank; AVG - average finish in the final AP poll; UR - number of times the team in that spot was unranked in the final AP poll; Best - best finish by a team in that spot in the final AP poll; Worst - worst finish by a team in that spot in the final AP poll.)

Rank AVG UR Best Worst
1 4.2 0 1 13
2 4.8 0 1 17
3 13.9 2 3 NV
4 14.1 2 5 31
5 15.2 2 1 NV
6 12.9 2 2 30
7 13.2 1 1 28
8 10.3 0 1 23
9 23.5 5 9 NV
10 27.1 5 11 NV
11 17.8 4 3 NV
12 20.6 3 7 NV
13 22.0 5 1 NV
14 20.5 3 3 NV
15 28.4 5 12 NV
16 27.6 5 11 NV
17 23.8 6 2 NV
18 31.1 7 9 NV
19 28.6 5 8 NV
20 25.7 6 4 NV
21 22.3 4 8 NV
22 25.2 5 1 NV
23 33.2 7 19 NV
24 27.1 7 6 NV
25 33.6 9 25 NV
  • The most surprising spot in the preseason poll is No. 8, which is one of three spots not to finish unranked at some point the last ten years and has the third-best postseason rank. This year, its Texas A&M at No. 8. Also, watch out for No. 21, which has the 13th-best average finish. This year's No. 21 is Mizzou.
  • Meanwhile, the team at No. 10 has an averaged an unranked finish the last 10 years and five of the nine (remember the note above) teams have finished outside of the Top 25. This year, Nebraska is No. 10 in the AP poll. No. 15 has also struggled the last 10 years, with the 21st-best average. Arkansas is this year's No. 15.
  • An average of 9.9 teams in the preseason AP poll finish unranked. Really, it's remarkable how close that number always comes to being 10. There's almost no differentiation.
  • The average start for the eventual national champion is 6.7. Toss out the best and worst start (No. 1 and No. 22) and that shrinks to 5.5.
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