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Does Last Year Matter?

The first look at how national champs fared in their title defense year immediately triggered two more questions I wanted to answer. First, where did the national champion for a given year finish in the previous year?s Final AP Poll? And second, where was a national title team ranked in the title winning year?s Preseason AP Poll?

We?ll tackle the first of those two questions today.

The table below lists the year, the national champion for that year, and the team?s final poll position in the previous year. (NR indicates the team did not finish ranked in the AP Top 20 the previous year.)

National Champions1
Year National Champ Previous Year
1980 Georgia NR
1981 Clemson NR
1982 Penn State 3
1983 Miami NR
1984 BYU 7
1985 Oklahoma 6
1986 Penn State 3
1987 Miami 2
1988 Notre Dame 17
1989 Miami 2
1990 Colorado 4
1991 Miami 3
1992 Alabama 5
1993 Florida St. 2
1994 Nebraska 3
1995 Nebraska 1
1996 Florida 2
1997 Michigan 20
1998 Tennessee 7
1999 Florida St. 3
2000 Oklahoma NR
2001 Miami 2
2002 Ohio St. NR
2003 USC 4
2004 USC 1
2005 Texas 5

1AP Final Poll Only

Also interesting. A few more quick thoughts:

*Between 1986-96, the national champion for the a given year could be found in the top five of the previous year, except for 1988 with Notre Dame (the exception to many rules).

*If we assign a rank of #21 to Georgia 1980, Clemson 1981, and Miami 1983, as well as a #26 to Oklahoma 2000 and Ohio State 2002 (the AP Final Poll increased from the Top 20 to the Top 25 in between the two groups), we can calculate an average ranking of a national champion the year before. Using those numbers, we get a previous year?s ranking of 8.26. I thought this number might be a little bit lower, actually.

*Teams do sometimes come out of nowhere. It?s happened twice in the BCS era, and came close in 2004 as well (Auburn). However, 73% of national champions since 1980 finished the previous year ranked 7th or better.

*It gets very interesting if you drop the NR teams as outliers. Not counting any NR teams, the average finish the year before nearly drops in half, to 4.8. Barring the occasional perfect storm from a team out of nowhere, you can find next year's champion at or near the top of the final AP Poll for a given year.

*This set of data tells us very little, though it?s fun to look at. What I ?am- interested to see, and what we?ll explore next, is how high each team ranked in the AP Preseason Poll. That, I suspect, will be telling.