I’ve seen a lot of people in the past couple weeks try to caution people about Georgia’s chances to win the national title. “It’s difficult to go wire-to-wire at number one,” they say, before invariably quoting some sort of stat about how few preseason #1 end up national champions.
Is that really a valid statement? On the face of it, yes; it is indeed difficult to start and end #1. Only one team a year gets the chance to do it. Since the AP Poll has only released preseason rankings since 1950, that means just 58 teams have ever been handed that opportunity.
Georgia became the 59th team this past weekend. In a predictable response, ESPN.com trotted out the old familiar saw. However, let’s engage our brains for a bit and ask the relevant question at hand: if you don’t want to be the #1 team, where do you want to be ranked?
Thanks to the AP Poll Archive, we can look up all of the previous preseason top-ranked teams to find out where they finished. Here is a handy chart that shows the count of times each preseason rank has produced a national title. Ranks that have yet to do so have been omitted.
Hmm… as it turns out, you do want to be preseason #1 because that ranking slot has produced the most national champions at ten. The #2 slot has produced seven champions, while the #4, #8, and #9 spots all tied for third with four.
There are two important things to note about the high number of champions that were unranked in the preseason. Through 1960, the AP Poll only included 20 teams. Two champions, 1958 LSU and 1960 Minnesota, were unranked in those preseasons but presumably could have been between 21-25 in a full poll. From 1961-67, the poll only included ten teams. One champion, 1962 USC, started the season unranked in that era but presumably could have been ranked between 11-25 in a full poll.
Of course, there are some psychological issues that go along with being the preseason #1 team. You have a huge target on you. Your players might get fat and happy on the attention and hype. If you have a young team, it could buckle under the pressure of expectations if faced with early adversity.
There also are advantages. The pollsters by and large think you’re the best team, so you’re likely to get the benefit of a doubt. Polls are sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that way. Plus as long as you win you won’t drop (or at the least you won’t drop below #2). You can ask USC, Oklahoma, and Auburn about the advantages associated with being ranked at the top in regards to the 2004 season.
If you want to say there’s danger with being the preseason #1 team, that’s fine. There’s a case to be made there. However, “history is not on your side” is not that case. If you find someone trying to sell you that, tell them they’re full of it.