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How Accurate Is the Preseason AP Poll's No. 1 Team?

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The AP Poll released this past weekend, and an extended voting period allowed the twin events of Silas Redd's transfer and Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal to push USC over LSU for the top spot. It was a bit of an overreaction.

The preseason AP Poll, by virtue of being one of the last to drop, should be one of the more accurate ones. The SIDs' Coaches' Poll voting occurs in July, and the magazines all go to print in May. Also, as writers are supposed to be impartial and anyway don't have any potential bonuses riding on the poll's eventual outcome, the voting should be more pure. The poll might have dropped out of the BCS a few years back, but it still is relevant because I'm sure a lot of Harris Poll voters check it every week before casting their ballots.

Given the controversial switch at the top, I decided to see just how good the preseason AP Poll has been with its top teams over the past 20 years. It's somewhat of a mixed bag.

Only three preseason No. 1 teams over the last two decades sealed the deal by becoming national champion: USC in 2004 and Florida State in 1999 and 1993. However, the preseason No. 1 in the AP Poll usually does end up ranked highly even if it doesn't wear the crown.

Only three times in the past 20 years has the preseason top team finished outside the top ten, but two of those three have come within the last four seasons. The 1997 poll was its worst overall. The preseason No. 1 was Penn State, which finished at 16, and eventual champ Michigan was at 12. Nine different teams gained at least one first place vote, but UM wasn't one of them. It was the start of a six-year run in which two thirds of the time, the eventual national champion was ranked outside the preseason top ten.

In all, 13 of the last 20 AP preseason No. 1 teams finished the year in the top five. Similarly, 12 of the last 20 national champions were ranked in the preseason top five. The biggest misses were 2000 Oklahoma, ranked No. 19, and 2010 Auburn, ranked No. 22. Both were among the biggest surprise champions. Others outside the preseason top 10 included the 2002 Luckeyes (another surprise team) and the aforementioned Wolverines.

So, overall, the AP Poll isn't bad with its preseason No. 1 pick as long as your standard isn't judging whether it got it right on or not. I will make one other note against it, though, that I can't help but make. The generally accepted best teams of each of those past two decades—1995 Nebraska for the '90s and 2001 Miami (FL) for the '00s—were not picked as the No. 1 team of their years in the preseason. You win some, you lose some.