Sometime this month the annual preseason AP poll will come out and, for the first time since 1999, Florida State will be first name listed. The Seminoles have already been tabbed the preseason No. 1 by the Coaches’ Poll.
Whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate. One thing that isn’t debatable is how rarely the top team from the preseason rankings actually finishes in that position. Only four times in the past thirty years has the AP preseason No. 1 finished the year as national champions. It was only slightly more frequent in the earlier years of the poll with six teams starting and finishing No. 1 between 1950 and 1983. The good news for Florida State is that the Seminoles account for two of the four teams that have been able to do it, including the 1999 team that went wire-to-wire for the first time in history.
Why then is it so hard for teams to go through an entire season at the top? Conventional wisdom says it’s because teams that start at the top get every team’s best shot. Every team wants to be the team that knocks off No. 1. Players theoretically give their full effort in every game, but there is something about playing in big games, or against big name teams, that seems to bring out a little more in players. Florida State, however, should be used to that as the ACC’s marquee program. Every team in the ACC wants to beat Florida State and take down the giant every year, regardless of whether they’re ranked at the top or not. Likewise, the Seminoles will always get the University of Florida’s best shot no matter their record.
Another reason often offered is that a team may become overconfident and start “reading their press clippings,” leading to the predictable fall from glory. Head coach Jimbo Fisher addressed that in his press conference before camp began:
“We’ll have clips or brief things that we didn’t do well when those moments came that we thought we could overcome,” Fisher said. “Or we had a disappointing loss, which is part of sports. It’s all a part of growing. We’ll throw those flashes up there to remind them that you’re either going to walk off that podium or you’re going to stay on that podium.”
While that alone may not work, the Seminole players Unity Council has instituted another season long social media ban to “eliminate the clutter.”
A final (and perhaps more probable) factor is that it is quite simply really difficult even for great teams to win every game. Consistent dominance requires good health, reasonable luck, and most of all an almost pathological focus on the tasks necessary to sustain success. It’s very difficult to keep 105 young men between 18–23 so focused for so long while also keeping things loose and free enough to sustain excellence. Factor in that most teams start at the top because of a successful campaign the previous year and you’re looking at multiple years of sustained focus, health, and luck.
In that light, what does the preseason No. 1 ranking actually mean for the Seminoles? Absolutely nothing. No team has ever won a national championship in August. It is an fun talking point for fans, but in reality neither of the polls means much anymore. The AP poll hasn’t been a factor in naming college football’s national champion for a decade now after splitting from the BCS. The Coaches’ Poll stayed a part of the BCS formula until the end of that era in January. Now the Coaches’ Poll will not affect the final outcome much either with the new playoff committee deciding the final four teams. (That said, it’s hard to imagine the polls will not have at least some impact on the thinking of the various committee members.) Either way, Florida State will still have to play every game with the kind of single-minded focus they featured last year, including the new semifinal game and championship game, if they want to stay No. 1 and repeat as national champions.