Saturday, August 03, 2019

The Preseason Consensus: Unanimous First Place Teams

The college football season is less than one month away and as the season draws near, major sporting news outlets and computer models will be releasing their predictions. While each entity will be higher or lower on certain teams, occasionally a unanimous consensus will develop around a few teams. This year, those teams are Alabama, Appalachian State, Boise State, Clemson, and Georgia. According to preliminary results from the Stassen Preseason Consensus, all those teams are unanimous choices to win their respective divisions. How accurate have previous unanimous selections been? Is this an example of preseason Groupthink or have previous teams been in a different class than their conference or division rivals? Using the Stassen site, I went back and looked at fourteen years worth of preseason data (2005-2018) to determine how these unanimous selections performed. I also divided the unanimous selections into BCS/Power Five and non-BCS/Group of Five to see if there was any difference in how they performed. My thoughts behind separating P5 and G5 are that certain G5 teams (Boise State for example) might be a unanimous selection more because of the quality of their conference rather than their underlying strength whereas a P5 team (like Alabama) might be a unanimous selection because they are supposed to be really, really good. Anyway, we’ll start with the G5. Between 2005 and 2018, twelve G5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to win their respective conference or division. They are listed below.
Boise is the only G5 team to appear multiple times, with the Broncos being a unanimous preseason choice on four occasions. All six ‘mid-major’ conferences that have suited up since 2005 (American, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, and the now defunct WAC) have seen at least one preseason unanimous selection (Louisiana-Lafayette really shocked me). So how did those unanimous selections do?
Only two teams won their respective conference or division title outright. Bowling Green and Marshall both did so in 2014, although Bowling Green’s victory was by default as the Falcons finished 5-3 in a division where no other team was better than 4-4. Four other teams finished tied for first, and for reasons that I’ll discuss more in the P5 section, I thought it was important to separate outright and tied finishes. Five teams finished second in their division or conference and the worst finish by any of these unanimous selections was third place (Houston in 2016). That’s a decent showing, with fully half of the unanimous selections winning at least a share of their conference or division title. Now let’s check in on the big boys. Between 2005 and 2018, nineteen P5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to win their conference or division title.
Surprisingly, the most dominant program of the past decade plus, Alabama, has never been a unanimous selection (until this season). Of course, that speaks more to the strength of the SEC West than to any shortcoming in Tuscaloosa. Southern Cal has the most unanimous selections with four, including three before the conference split into divisions. Ohio State is second with three and Florida State, Oregon, and Virginia Tech are the only other schools with multiple unanimous selections. So how did these P5 teams do?
Ten teams won their conference or division title outright with another seven capturing at least a share of the conference or division crown. Speaking of shared titles, Ohio State in 2015 was the main reason I differentiated between outright and shared titles. The Buckeyes entered 2015 as the defending national champion, ranked first in the AP Poll, and were a prohibitive favorite to win their half of the Big 10. The Buckeyes stumbled just once all season, but unfortunately for them, it was to Michigan State, a team that finished with the exact same conference record. The Spartans won the tiebreaker and advanced to the Big 10 Championship Game where they dispatched Iowa in an entertaining low-scoring affair. Big 10 title in hand, the Spartans were selected for the College Football Playoff where they have still yet to score against Alabama. Despite being arguably one of the top-four teams in the country, Ohio State was forced to settle for a New Year’s Six Bowl Game instead of a playoff appearance. The worst finish for these unanimous selections was second place. Louisville in 2005 and Florida State in 2011 were the only teams to not win at least a share of their division or conference title.

So what can we take away from this exercise? Preseason publications and computer models have a much better track record when they tab P5 teams as unanimous selections to win their conference or division. Nearly 90% of those teams won at least a share of their conference or division title versus just half of the unanimous G5 five selections. Why is this? Are the creators of these publications and models going out for drinks instead of scouting the backup linebackers for G5 teams? Possibly, but I think the more likely reason is there is simply more volatility at the G5 level. Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia are unanimous selections in 2019 because they recruit at such a high level. Appalachian State and Boise State recruit well for G5 programs, but their raw talent levels are not in the same stratosphere as those at the top of the P5. Thus in the small sample size that is the college football conference season, they are more likely to be upset and fail to live up to their lofty preseason expectations. Based on recent history, Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia will likely live up to their lofty preseason expectations, while some as of yet unidentified usurpers have a good shot at derailing Appalachian State and Boise State in their respective division races.

Check back next week when we look at how unanimous preseason last place teams have performed and see if we can offer any hope to Kansas.

*Update* 08/04/19
Stassen has updated its preseason consensus page and Alabama and Clemson now stand as the lone unanimous selections.

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