None of us who follow Auburn closely will soon forget just how much a low preseason ranking can hurt a team in its quest for a BCS championship. In 2004, Auburn crawled up the polls from 18th position, reaching as high as No. 2 for one week before the Tigers eventually watched Southern Cal crush Oklahoma to win the BCS national championship.
There is the frequent assumption Auburn has struggled when ranked very high in preseason polls and perhaps there is some truth to this statement. With this in mind, I decided to look back over the past several decades to recall some of the worst falls from grace. Certainly other programs have crumbled under the pressure of a high preseason ranking. I've always felt college football polls should not be published until the third or fourth week into the season because there is always one program over hyped and ranked too high.
Looking back to 1970, here are some of the biggest disasters in preseason rankings over the past 36 seasons. It should be noted that a few teams have made it coast to coast by starting the season at No. 1 and finishing the season at No. 1 in the Associated Press Poll. Oklahoma has accomplished this feat three times--1974, 1975 and 1985. Florida State did it in 1993 and 1999. Alabama (1978) and Southern Cal (2004) made the short list on one occasion.
There is excitement about being the preseason No. 1 team in the country, but the majority of teams are destined to fail because there is nowhere to go but down. We often forget these teams consist of teen-agers and how difficult it must be for the head coach to keep their teams focused week after week. A preseason No. 1 ranking is basically a target on your back and every team on your schedule will be pumped at the opportunity to knock you off the hill.
Obviously, preseason rankings are not an exact science, but 23 of the last 36 preseason No. 1 teams have finished the season ranked in the top five of the AP poll. Of the 36 teams, 31 did finish the season ranked in the Top 10, making them worthy of the preseason hype. Based on each team's final win percentage, here is the Top 10 falls from being preseason No. 1 and their final record.
1. 1984 Auburn Tigers…………..… 9-4-0 (14th)
2. 1976 Nebraska Cornhuskers…….. 9-3-1 (9th)
3. 1980 Ohio State Buckeyes………. 9-3-0 (15th)
4. 1981 Michigan Wolverines……… 9-3-0 (12th)
5. 1982 Pittsburgh Panthers………… 9-3-0 (10th)
6. 1997 Penn State Nittany Lions….. 9-3-0 (16th)
7. 1972 Nebraska Cornhuskers……. 9-2-1 (4th)
8. 1973 Southern Cal Trojans……... 9-2-1 (8th)
9. 1971 Notre Dame Fighting Irish... 8-2-0 (13th)
10. 1994 Florida Gators……………. 10-2-1 (7th)
Auburn's drop in 1984 was due in part to the change at quarterback. Randy Campbell wasn't a flashy option quarterback, but he was extremely efficient and made very few mistakes. No matter the type of offense, the quarterback is the heart and soul of any offense and Auburn lacked a championship quarterback in 1984.
Just looking back at the preseason No. 1 teams, the worst setback was a 9-4 Auburn team, which did finish No. 14 in the country. For the real disappointing seasons, one would have to look at the preseason top five teams. Once again, based on each teams final win percentage, here is the Top 10 failures from 1970-2005.
1. 2000 Alabama Crimson Tide / No. 3 …………..3-8-0
2. 1984 Pittsburgh Panthers / No. 3 ……………… 3-7-1
3. 1976 Arizona State / No. 3 ……………………. 4-7-0
4. 1981 Notre Dame Fighting Irish / No. 3 ……… 5-6-0
5. 2005 Tennessee Volunteers / No. 3 …………... 5-6-0
6. 1999 Arizona Wildcats / No. 4 ……………….. 6-6-0
7. 1972 Arkansas Razorbacks / No. 4 …………… 6-5-0
8. 1983 Penn State Nittany Lions / No. 4 ……….. 6-5-0
9. 1985 SMU Mustangs / No. 3 …………………. 6-5-0
10. 2005 Michigan Wolverines / No. 4 …………... 7-5-0
Alabama returned eight starters on offense and nine on defense in 2000, but fell flat on its face coming out of the gate. The Tide was coming off a Southeastern Conference Championship, but also proved you cannot win on talent alone. Alabama lacked continuity on their coaching staff, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
There was one season since 1970 when the majority of sports writers were on their game. In 1974, the preseason top five (Oklahoma, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Alabama and Southern Cal) almost finished in the final top five. Four of the five teams selected in the preseason top five finished three. Notre Dame only fell from No. 3 to No. 6 and all five teams finished the season with at least 10 victories. Michigan began the season at No. 6, finishing third on the season.
Since 1970, Auburn has begun the season ranked in the Top 10 of the AP poll 11 times. During those 11 seasons, Auburn's average movement in the AP poll was minus eight. Only three of the teams moved up in the AP poll--the 1971 Auburn Tigers (7 to 5), the 1983 Auburn Tigers (4 to 3) and the 1989 Auburn Tigers (8 to 6). Four of the eleven teams dropped out of the Top 20 all together (1975, 1985, 1995 and 2003).
Since 1951, 16 Auburn teams have finished the season ranked in the Top 10. Of those 16 teams, ten of them were not in the preseason Top 10 and seven were not even in the Top 20. The 1957 squad was not even ranked to start the season and the 2004 team was 18th in the AP poll.
Pat Dye's tenure at Auburn was the most consistent during the modern era of Auburn football. From 1982 through 1990, Auburn's average preseason ranking was No. 8 and AU's average finish was No. 11. With the current coaching staff, talent and depth, there is no reason to believe Auburn can't perform at the same level under Coach Tommy Tuberville.
Two of the most successful programs during the last three decades have been Florida State and the University of Nebraska. The Seminoles had an impressive 14-year run from 1987 through 2000 when their average preseason ranking was No. 3 and their average final ranking was No. 3 in the country.
Florida State finished no lower than fourth in the country during that time period. A total of 104 of their 172 opponents (60.4 percent) had a winning record and FSU posted a 57-16-1 record against opponents with at least eight wins. It's easy to see why Florida State was feared during its prime and respected for living up to their hype.
Since the departure of Mark Richt, Florida State has not been the same over the past five years. The Seminoles lost 20 games in the past five years compared to the 19 they dropped from 1987 through 2000 (14 years). The Seminoles are 15-13-0 against opponents with at least eight wins over the last five years.
Coach Tom Osborne had one of the strongest programs in the country during his 25-year tenure at Nebraska. Nebraska's average preseason ranking under Osborne was No. 6 and its average finish in the AP poll was No. 8. Nebraska finished ranked in the Top 10 in 17 of Osborne's 25 years and made eight finishes in the top five. The Cornhuskers only finished lower than 15th in the AP poll on one occasion under Tom Osborne.
Much like Florida State, Nebraska is no longer the perennial power it once was. From 1973-1997, Nebraska had the best win percentage in the nation, but has dropped to 28th over the past five years. The Big XII and ACC are much stronger and both programs are now the "hunters" rather than the "hunted."
Over the past five years, the preseason No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll had an average finish of No. 2 in the country and four of the five preseason No. 1 teams have played in the BCS championship game.