Qualk Talk

What does being ranked No. 2 really mean?

Jul 22, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney speaks with the media during the ACC Football Kickoff at Westin Charlotte. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson has never entered a season ranked as high as number two in the nation. That’s a fact we know. It’s a fact we’ve spent a considerable amount of time exploring in the couple of weeks since the official preseason polls began to be released.

But what does that mean? What can history tell us about the fates—whether positive or negative—of teams that filled that slot in previous polls? How can that inform our expectations for this particular Clemson team?

These are also important questions to ask as we enter into the college football season. Only one team can be crowned the national champion, and it can help us better understand one team’s chances of doing so to examine whether another team has been able to navigate a season from that particular spot previously en route to winning a title.

History doesn’t always inform the present, but sometimes it does. The possibility of learning from history makes it a valuable tool to utilize in conversations like this. It helps bring different aspects into focus that might not appear important to the naked eye.

For example, history tells us this: Since the Bowl Championship Series was implemented in 1998, five out of 18 teams (28 percent) ranked second in the preseason Associated Press poll have gone on to win the national championship. Eight more of them (44 percent) have finished the season inside the top five. Three others have been ranked somewhere between sixth and tenth, and only two have ended the season outside the top ten. None have finished lower than 17th in the final AP poll.

Four teams ranked second in the country during the preseason lost in the title game, meaning exactly half of the 18 teams on this list have played for a national championship. The average number of losses for these teams, including postseason play, is 1.7. Eight teams finished with two losses—the mode of the data set, for you fellow statistics nerds out there—and only two had undefeated seasons. No team finished with more than three losses on its record.

Based on this, it appears likely Clemson will finish the 2016 season inside the top five in the country. The statistics would say the Tigers are destined for a two-loss season, but the relatively simple schedule they enjoy makes one loss statistically feasible. There is a 50-50 shot the Tigers will return to the national title game, and the chances they have to win it are slightly better than that.

All of this is pie-in-the-sky, of course, but trends do tell us a good bit about what to expect when a situation is unfamiliar. These numbers won’t faze fan bases familiar with these circumstances, like Alabama or Ohio State. The Crimson Tide have started the season ranked either first or second in the AP poll in six of the past seven years. The Buckeyes have been either first or second seven times in the past 18 seasons. The same logic applies to blueblood programs like Oklahoma and USC.

Clemson—at least for the moment—isn’t one of those programs. These challenges are new, for all of us, and the unknown keeps stat geeks like me in business.

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