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As summer approaches, the 2013 Stanford Cardinal are second to the Sporting News, third to SI's Andy Staples, fourth in Phil Steele's projection of the AP Top 25, fifth to ESPN's Mark Schlabach and seventh to Athlon. That jives with my intuition, which is that while Alabama will rightfully start at No. 1, the Cardinal will check in somewhere in the top five, beating 2011 (7th) for their highest start ever. If that all sounds too good to be true, it kind of is: The name of the game, of course, is where you finish.
Thus, I looked at the 40 teams which started second through fifth in the preseason AP poll over the last ten years (2003-2012). Here's what I found:
The average team with a No. 2 through No. 5 preseason ranking lost 2.4 games. The number inches up to 2.5 if you look only at power conference teams, and you should probably adjust it upwards another fraction of a game with the advent of conference championship contests. Stanford also will have a ninth conference game and an out-of-league tussle with Notre Dame, unlike most teams in the pool. On the other hand, a few really bad seasons (2010 Texas finishing 5-7, 2005 Tennessee finishing 5-6) skew the average, as you can see that most of the 40 teams did get through the season with two or fewer losses. So this guidepost would suggest Stanford loses two or three games.
Of note is that only two of the 40 comparable teams ran the table. Of course, teams do win national titles without a perfect record, which brings us to our next metric.
National Title Games
Ten (25%) of the 40 comparable teams made the national title, with six (15%) winning. For what it's worth, VegasInsider.com currently has Stanford with the ninth-best odds of winning the national title, at 18/1, or just over five percent. That's probably fair for No. 9, but if Stanford does start in the preseason top five, perhaps those odds will (or should) shorten.
The average comparable team finished ranked No. 12, but some really big numbers (No. 64 Texas and No. 47 Tennessee, with Sagarin ranks used for teams finishing outside the AP top 25) pull that down. Instead, a more encouraging note is that only six of the 40 teams (15%) finished unranked, while 24 (60%) finished in the top 10. Those figures suggests Stanford has four times the odds of finishing in the top 10 as they do outside the top 25, which seems a touch optimistic to me, but no complaints.
Recent History's Final Prediction
One caveat is that second-place teams have fared better than the third, fourth and fifth place teams. (Given how much heat early-season polls take, this trend is a remarkable testament to accuracy.) Preseason No. 2s accounted for four of the six national titles, six of the 10 title game appearances and six of the 13 zero- or one-loss seasons, despite obviously representing only 25% of the sample. My sense is that the preseason No. 2 slot will go to Ohio State or Oregon or the SEC team du jour (Texas A&M?), but not Stanford, so I'm going to shade Stanford's numbers down a touch.
Average it all together then, and history suggests something
like 10-3 and a No. 10 final ranking as a baseline expectation
for a top-five, but not No. 1 (or probably No. 2) team. With
one or two bad breaks, Stanford will finish at the bottom of the
top 25, but with one or two good breaks, the Cardinal could very
well play for it all.
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