How to Predict the Next NCAA National Championship Team: It’s All About Popularity, Predigree and Performance in Key Match-Ups

Unbeaten Teams Don’t Really Count

Copyright © 2012 Ed Bagley

(Note: The preseason AP and Coaches Top 25 Polls have been released for the 2012 season. This post, published last year and updated this year, tells why it is so hard to get into the National Championship Game, even if you are a preseason Top 25 pick. Every college football fan should enjoy the kind of research I am doing here.)

Imagine yourself a member of the TCU Horned Frogs at the end of the regular season in 2010. You are one of only three teams left with an undefeated record. You and the Oregon Ducks are both 12-0 and Auburn is 13-0.

You are waiting for the final BCS Standings to say that you are one of the top two teams that will compete in the national championship game, but the invitation goes to Oregon and Auburn.

You are undefeated and left on the sidelines once again, wondering what else you can do to achieve perfection. You thought 12-0 would be good enough, but apparently it is not good enough. If you are normal, you are upset.

That, however, is how it goes in the BCS Division of the NCAA. Perfection gives way to popularity, pedigree and performance in key match-ups.

Voters in the football polls have rated Auburn and Oregon ahead of you in the standings all year. Your TCU team didn’t even get into the No. 3 spot in the AP Top 25 Poll until the last two weeks of the 2010 regular season. And ditto the Coaches Top 25 Poll; you didn’t get into the same No. 3 ranking until the last two weeks of the regular season.

Yes, it is true that, after Auburn beat Oregon in the national championship game, your TCU team was No. 2 in the final ranking at 13-0 and Oregon slipped to No. 3 at 12-1.

This example of an undefeated team not playing in the national championship game has happened several times since the first BCS game was played 14 years ago in 1998.

But that is just one sticking point in how the teams that play in the national championship game are ultimately decided. The other salient point is that if your team is not ranked in the AP Top 25 Preseason Poll, you chances of playing in the national championship game are nil.

Simply put, no team has ever made it to the BCS national championship game UNLESS they have been ranked in the AP Top 25 Preseason Poll.

Should a non-Top 25 Preseason team go undefeated during its regular season, their chances of being in the national championship game are still zero. This is because they are perceived as not having a popular, pedigree (powerhouse) football program, and having achieved their success playing less competitive teams.

There are plenty of examples of a one-loss powerhouse team going into the national championship game ahead of an undefeated team.

Here, in fact, is the history of the teams involved in the first 14 BCS title games, with their AP Top 25 Preseason Poll rankings listed first and their final ranking listed second.

1998 – Tennessee beat Florida State 23-16

#10 Tennessee (13-0) finished at #1

#2 Florida State (11-2) finished at #3

In that same season, Tulane was undefeated at 12-0 and finished at #7.

There were also 4 teams with only 1 loss–Ohio State (11-1), Arizona (12-1), Wisconsin (11-1) and Air Force (12-1).

1999 – Florida State beat Virginia Tech 46-29

#1 Florida State (12-0) finished at #1 (the Seminoles were No. 1 every week)

#13 Virginia Tech (11-1) finished at #2

In that same season, Marshall was undefeated at 13-0 and finished at #10.

There were also 2 other teams with only 1 loss–Nebraska (12-1) and Kansas State (11-1).

2000 – Oklahoma beat Florida State 13-2

#19 Oklahoma (13-0) finished at #1

#2 Florida State (11-2) finished at #5

There were no other undefeated teams.

There were also 4 teams with only 1 loss—Miami Florida (11-1), Washington (11-1), Oregon State (11-1) and Virginia Tech (11-1).

2001 – Miami (Florida) beat Nebraska 37-14

#2 Miami (12-0) finished at #1

#4 Nebraska (11-2) finished at #8

There were no other undefeated teams.

There was only 1 team with 1 loss–Oregon (11-1), which finished at #2.

2002 – Ohio State beat Miami (Florida) 31-24

#13 Ohio State (14-0) finished at #1

#1 Miami (12-1) finished at #2

There were no other undefeated teams.

There were also 2 other teams with only 1 loss–Georgia (13-1) and Boise State (12-1).

2003 – LSU beat Oklahoma 21-14

#14 LSU (13-1) finished at #2

#1 Oklahoma (12-2) finished at #3

Southern California (12-1) finishes at #1

There were no undefeated teams in 2003.

There were also 2 other teams with 1 loss–Miami of Ohio (13-1) and Boise State (13-1)

2004 – Southern California beat Oklahoma 55-19

(Southern California’s title was later vacated due to infractions.)

#1 Southern Cal (13-0) finished at #1 (the Trojans were No. 1 every week)

#2 Oklahoma (12-1) finished at #3

In that same season, Auburn was undefeated at 13-0 and finished at #2.

There were also 3 other teams with 1 loss–Texas (11-1), Louisville (11-1) and Boise State (11-1).

2005 – Texas beat Southern California 41-38

(Southern California’s runner-up title was later vacated due to infractions.)

#1 Southern Cal (12-1) finished at #2

#2 Texas (13-0) finished at #1

There were no other undefeated teams.

There were also 3 other teams with 1 loss–Penn State (11-1), West Virginia (11-1) and TCU (11-1).

2006 – Florida beat Ohio State 41-14

#7 Florida (13-1) finished at #1

#1 Ohio State (12-1) finished at #2

In that same season, Boise State was undefeated at 13-0 and finished at #5.

There were also 2 other teams with 1 loss–Louisville (12-1) and Wisconsin (12-1).

2007 – LSU beat Ohio State 38-24

#2 LSU (12-2) finished at #12

#11 Ohio State (11-2) finished at #5

There were no undefeated teams in 2007.

There were 2 teams with 1 loss–Kansas (12-1) and Hawaii (12-1).

2008 – Florida beat Oklahoma 24-14

#5 Florida (13-1) finished at #1

#4 Oklahoma (12-2) finished at #5

In that same season, Utah was undefeated at 13-0 and finished at #2.

There were also 3 other teams with 1 loss–USC (12-1), Texas (12-1) and Boise State (12-1).

2009 – Alabama beat Texas 37-21

#5 Alabama (14-0) finished at #1

#2 Texas (13-1) finished at #2

In that same season, Boise State was undefeated at 14-0 and finished at #4.

There were also 3 other teams with 1 loss–Florida (13-1), TCU (12-1) and Cincinnati (12-1).

2010 – Auburn beat Oregon 22-19

#22 Auburn (14-0) finished at #1

#11 Oregon (12-1) finished at #3

In that same season, TCU was undefeated at 13-0 and finished at #2.

There were also 4 other teams with 1 loss–Stanford (12-1), Ohio State (12-1), Boise State (12-1) and Nevada (13-1).

2011 – Alabama beat LSU 21-0

#2 Alabama (12-1) finished at #1

#4 LSU (13-1) finished at #2

There were no undefeated teams.

There were two other teams with 1 loss–Boise State (12-1) and Houston (13-1).

Clearly, if you are not in the AP Top 25 Preseason Poll, you have zero chance of playing in the national championship game, even if you are undefeated, as has happened to 7 teams in the 13-year history of the BCS program.

Looking closely, you can also see that even being among the AP Top 25 Preseason teams does not mean a whole lot, since 21 of the 28 teams to play in the national championship game (75%) were also ranked among the Top 10 in the poll.

In fact, no team in the history of the BCS program that has played in the national championship game has been ranked lower than 22nd, and that was Auburn in 2010. The second lowest ranked team was Oklahoma at 19th in 2000.

If any team in America aspires to be a national championship team, their goal should not be to be to win the national championship.

Their first goal should be to be in the AP Top 25 Preseason Poll consistently, and to do that they need to win a lot of games consistently, and have top flight, well-funded facilities and programs.

Their second goal should be to consistently be among the Top 10 teams in the Top 25.

Their third goal should be to play in the national championship game.

Their fourth goal should be to win the national championship game.

Of course it helps too if the ball bounces your way in those critical situations. But job one is to be consistently ranked in the AP Top 25 Preseason Poll.

It’s kind of like growing up. You have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run, and run fast enough to beat your competitors before you win the race to the top.

Did I mention that winning the national championship is all about popularity, pedigree and performance in key match-ups?

Popularity means having a huge following of fans and media voters. Pedigree means getting enough important people to agree that you have a powerhouse football program. Performance means winning the key games against other powerhouse football teams when it counts. That’s what it takes to win a national championship.

This post and all other posts on college football over the years can be found at Ed Bagley’s College Football (http://ed-bagley-college-football.com) and Ed Bagley’s Blog Archives (http://ed-bagley-blog-archives.com).

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