Can the AP Preseason Poll Predict a College Football Champion?

Adapted from our 2019 Case Study: Can AP Preseason Rankings Predict a National Champion?

We analyzed AP (Associated Press) Preseason college football rankings from 1998 to 2019. The goal was to determine if these rankings can predict the eventual college football champion.

The following insights will be helpful for college football futures bettors. Payouts are usually higher before a season begins because sportsbooks don’t have enough data to handicap each team. Strong teams losing the first 1-2 games will also get underdog status until they start winning again.

Current College Football Championship Futures

2023 NCAA College Football Championship Odds

Team
BetRivers BetRivers
Alabama
Ohio State
Georgia
Clemson
Texas A&M
USC
Oklahoma
Oregon
Michigan
Texas
Notre Dame
Penn State
Utah
Wisconsin
Florida
Baylor
Oklahoma State
LSU
Miami (FL)
Nebraska
North Carolina
Ole Miss
Arkansas
Mississippi State
Iowa
Kentucky
Minnesota
Cincinnati
Texas Tech
Wake Forest
Auburn
TCU
Boston College
South Carolina
NC State
Michigan State
West Virginia
Iowa State
Tennessee
Washington

Preseason Rank Performance – 1998 to 2019

Read first column as teams ranked N or higher.
RankedChampionship
Wins
Pct
#1314.29%
#2 or higher1047.62%
#3 or higher1152.38%
#4 or higher1152.38%
#5 or higher1466.67%
#6 or higher1466.67%
#7 or higher1571.43%
#8 or higher1571.43%
#9 or higher1571.43%
#10 or higher1676.19%

14.29% of preseason teams ranked #1 eventually won the National Championship. Choosing the #1 team is a bad bet. It’s only happened 3 times since 1998!

Preseason Teams Ranked #1 that Won Championship – 1998 to 2019

Preseason teams ranked #1 to win
SeasonRankTeam
1999#1Florida State
2004#1USC
2017#1Alabama

But 52.38% of teams ranked #3 or #4 or higher did win. That’s a coin flip. Still a risky bet by some measures.
A better bet? 65% of preseason teams ranked 5 or higher went on to win. Now probability is on the future bettor’s side.

Let’s dig into each rank’s performance. Some ranks perform better than others. Eliminating poor performers potentially decreases the cost of our future bet.

Most Common Rank to Win – 1998 to 2019

Most Common Ranks to Win and Percentage
RankWinsPct
#2733.33%
#1314.29%
#5314.29%
#314.76%
#714.76%
#1015.00%
#1114.76%
#1314.76%
#1414.76%
#1914.76%
#2214.76%

Notice #2 teams win more than double the times a #1 wins. Bad news for any #1 and good news for this season’s #2. Interestingly #5 teams have won as much as #1 teams.

No #4 ranked preseason team has ever won the Championship between 1998-2019. The last #4 to win was Florida in 1996. #4 Nebraska also did it in 1994.

Does that mean the #4 team should be removed from our 5 team futures bet? It’s not a bad idea. You’ll save money paying only for 4 teams. Check each team’s historical performance before marching off to your bookie:

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Times Top 5 Preseason Teams Won Championship – Best Records: 1998 to 2019

Win, Loss and Win Percentage for preseason teams ranked 5 or better winning Championship at least once
TeamWonLostTop 5 Seasons WinPct
Clemson21366.67%
Alabama561145.45%
Miami (FL)13425.00%
LSU15616.67%
Florida15616.67%
USC16714.29%
Florida State17812.50%
Texas17812.50%
Ohio State191010.00%

Clemson has the best record of all top 5 teams between 1998-2019, winning the National Championship 66.67% of the time. Keep a top 5 Clemson team in your futures bet!

Alabama and Miami (FL) have won 45% and 25% of the time respectively. Florida and LSU have each won once in their 6 top 5 preseason rankings appearances. These teams are less reliable.

Now let’s check the worst performers.

Times Top 5 Preseason Teams Didn’t Win Championship – Worst Records: 1998 to 2019

Preseason teams ranked 5 or better that have never won the championship
TeamWonLostTop 5 Seasons WinPct
Oklahoma010100.00%
Georgia0440.00%
Michigan0440.00%
Oregon0440.00%
Tennessee0330.00%
Nebraska0330.00%
Boise State0220.00%
Wisconsin0220.00%
West Virginia0220.00%
Stanford0110.00%
Arizona0110.00%
Baylor0110.00%
Notre Dame0110.00%
Penn State0110.00%
TCU0110.00%
Michigan State0110.00%
Auburn0110.00%

The AP ranked the Oklahoma Sooners 10 times in the preseason top 5 between 1998-2019. Each time they failed to win the National Championship. Michigan and Oregon both appeared 4 times and never won, either. Georgia, Tennessee and Nebraska each failed 3 times. Nebraska last won in 1997. Tennessee won in 1998 ranked #10 in the preseason.

Lowest Ranked Preseason Team to Win – 1998 to 2019

Lowest Ranked Pre-Season Team to Win
RankTeamSeason
#22Auburn2010

Teams ranked 11 or Worse to Win – 1998 to 2019

Teams ranked 11 or worse to win
RankTeamSeason
#22Auburn2010
#19Oklahoma2000
#14LSU2003
#13Ohio State2002
#11Florida State2013

BCS & College Football Playoffs Average Stats

BCS & College Football Playoffs Average Stats
StatValue
Average Winner's Preseaon Ranking6.238
Average Finalist's Preseason Ranking13.048

2019-20 College Football Futures Summary Analysis

What does this mean for the 2019-20 National Championship? Which teams are investment-grade contenders?
The following table summarizes our conclusions using the statistical trends identified above.

College Football Futures Analysis: Preseason Top 5 - 1998-Present
Team 2019-20
Preseason Rank
Rank
Win Pct
Historical Team
Record
Rank or higher
Win Pct
#1 Clemson 1 14.29% 2-1 66.67% 14.29%
#2 Alabama 2 33.33% 5-6 45.45% 47.62%
#3 Georgia 3 4.76% 0-3 0.00% 52.38%
#4 Oklahoma 4 0% 0-1 0.00% 52.38%
#5 Ohio State 5 14.29% 1-9 10.00% 66.67%

Our basic analysis leads to at least one important conclusion: don’t exclude Alabama! Here are some possible college football national championship future bets for the 2019-2020 season:

1. Clemson, Alabama, Georgia & Ohio State – Drop unlucky #4 Oklahoma. The Sooners have only been ranked top 5 once and have never won the National Championship when ranked top 5 in the preseason between 1998-2019.

2. Clemson, Alabama & Ohio State – Drop Georgia and Oklahoma. See above #1 why Oklahoma isn’t worth a bet. Georgia hasn’t won a championship despite 3 preseason top 5 appearances between 1998-2019. Also, only 4.76% of teams ranked #3 have won a title.

3. Clemson & Alabama – 47.62% of teams ranked 2 or higher have won the National Championship between 1998-2019. Clemson and Alabama have the best historical records of top 5 teams. Buyer beware: odds are less than a coin flip.

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Is this bet worth it?

Is the expected value of these bets positive? Not based on historical trends.

A 4-teamer with a 65% probability is still risky (#1). Remember, you must divide your wager among 4 teams such that you make a profit if any of them wins. Try playing with an arbitrage calculator. You’ll get a rough idea about how much to bet on each team.

Don’t use arbitrage unless you cover all possibilities

Caution: Arbitrage assumes a fixed number of possibilities. In this case, there are more than 4 teams that could win. These 4 are only the most probable. There’s a 35% chance any other team wins. That means you would lose your entire investment.

If one of the 4 wins, you’ll make a small percentage gain. But if none win you’ll lose 100% of your investment. Futures bets are generally risky unless you can find arbitrage opportunities among small sets of teams, like NFL division futures. Read more here.

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College Football Required Reading

Tables and Reference

College Football Playoff Results 2014-Present

College Football Playoff Results 2014-Present
SeasonWinnerLoserScoreSite
2021#3 Georgia
SEC Runner-up
#1 Alabama
SEC Champions
33-18Lucas Oil Stadium
Indianapolis, Indiana
January 10, 2022
2020#1 Alabama
SEC Champions
#3 Ohio State
Big 10 Champions
52-24Hard Rock Stadium
Miami Gardens, Florida
January 11, 2021
2019#1 LSU
SEC Champions
#3 Clemson
ACC Champions
42-25Mercedes-Benz Superdome
New Orleans, Louisiana
January 13, 2020
2018#2 Clemson
ACC Champions
#1 Alabama
SEC Champions
44-16Levi's Stadium
Santa Clara, California
January 7, 2019
2017#4 Alabama
SEC West Co-Champions
#3 Georgia
SEC Champions
26-23 OTMercedes-Benz Stadium
Atlanta, Georgia
January 8, 2018
2016#2 Clemson
ACC Champions
#1 Alabama
SEC Champions
35-31Raymond James Stadium
Tampa, Florida
January 9, 2017
2015#2 Alabama
SEC Champions
#1 Clemson
ACC Champions
45-40University of Phoenix Stadium
Glendale, Arizona
January 11, 2016
2014#4 Ohio State
Big Ten Champions
#2 Oregon
Pac-12 Champions
42-20AT&T Stadium
Arlington, Texas
January 12, 2015

BCS National Championship Results

BCS National Championship Results
SeasonWinnerLoserScoreSite
2013#1 Florida State
ACC Champs
#2 Auburn
SEC Champs
34-31Rose Bowl
Pasadena, California
January 6, 2014
2012#2 Alabama
SEC Champs
#1 Notre Dame
Independent
42-14Sun Life Stadium
Miami Gardens, Florida
January 7, 2013
2011#2 Alabama
At-large
#1 LSU
SEC Champs
21-0Mercedes-Benz Superdome
New Orleans, Louisiana
January 9, 2012
2010#1 Auburn
SEC Champs
#2 Oregon
Pac-10 Champs
22-19University of Phoenix Stadium
Glendale, Arizona
January 10, 2011
2009#1 Alabama
SEC Champs
#2 Texas
Big 12 Champs
37-21Rose Bowl
Pasadena, California
January 7, 2010
2008#2 Florida
SEC Champs
#1 Oklahoma
Big 12 Champs
24-14Dolphin Stadium
Miami Gardens, Florida
January 8, 2009
2007#2 LSU
SEC Champs
#1 Ohio State
Big Ten Champs
38-24Louisiana Superdome
New Orleans
January 7, 2008
2006#2 Florida
SEC Champs
#1 Ohio State
Big Ten Champs
41-14University of Phoenix Stadium
Glendale, Arizona
January 8, 2007
2005#2 Texas
Big 12 Champs
#1 USC
Pac-10 Champs
41-38Rose Bowl Stadium
Pasadena, California
January 4, 2006
2004#1 USC
Pac-10 Champs
#2 Oklahoma
Big 12 Champs
55-19Pro Player Stadium
Miami Gardens, Florida
January 4, 2005
2003#2 LSU
SEC Champs
#1 Oklahoma
At-large
21-14Louisiana Superdome
New Orleans
January 4, 2004
2002#2 Ohio State
Big Ten Co-Champs
#1 Miami (FL)
Big East Champs
31-24Sun Devil Stadium
Tempe, Arizona
January 3, 2003
2001#1 Miami (FL)
Big East Champs
#2 Nebraska
At-large
37-14Rose Bowl
Pasadena, California
January 3, 2002
2000#1 Oklahoma
Big 12 Champs
#2 Florida State
ACC Champs
13-2Pro Player Stadium
Miami
January 3, 2001
1999#1 Florida State
ACC Champs
#2 Virginia Tech
Big East Champs
46-29Louisiana Superdome
New Orleans
January 4, 2000
1998#1 Tennessee
SEC Champs
#2 Florida State
ACC Co-Champs
23-16Sun Devil Stadium
Tempe, Arizona
January 4, 1999