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What the history of preseason polls means for Wisconsin after beating LSU

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A loose examination of preseason rankings and what they mean for the Badgers.

Abigail Buchta

After the euphoria of Saturday, Sunday headache and Monday laboring, questions rolled through my mind like an ESPN bottom line. How often has a preseason top-five team lost to an unranked opponent? How good is the media at picking preseason top-five teams? What about those teams that end up beating preseason top-five teams? What happens to them and what, if anything, does this mean for the Badgers? And what is the current state of Deflategate or Peyton Manning’s wife’s HGH prescription?

Because making digital tables full of information is cool, I examined the internet’s most reliable sources of information, Google and Wikipedia, to answer those questions and arrange that information logically in rows and columns like any normal red-blooded American man. The table notes the preseason top-five for the last six years, where those teams ended up in the AP rankings, if those teams lost in Week 1 and how they fared during the rest of the season.

Much like the prepubescent boys that hang signs reading "boys only, girls forbidden" outside of their ramshackle tree house, I would like to preface the information within these paragraphs by issuing a warning: If you don’t like considering historical trends and applying those lessons to current seasons, read no further. Go back home to your comfortable bed and dream of Bucky, Blowouts, and Brats.

It should also be noted that correlation doesn’t equal causation, and just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean it will happen in the future. While statistics and results tell an objective story, they do not tell the whole story. Seasons, games and player performances don’t happen in a vacuum, and there are always extenuating circumstances, and just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean it will happen in the future.

A final note before looking at the table: The number next to the teams in the "Did they lose Week 1, and how did the rest of their season shake out?" column indicates how those teams were ranked when they played the "preseason top-five team." That is why in the 2015 row you will see Ohio State ranked sixth when they play Alabama, fifth when they play Oregon and first at the end of the year. I also included the week the teams played each other instead of the date so it would be easier to compare when those preseason top-five teams started losing to other football foes. Below the table are some questions I considered while looking at the data, answers to those questions and a hypothesis of what that could mean for the 2016 Badgers in the wake of their win over LSU.

Year Preseason Top 5 Final Ranking Record Did they lose Week 1, and how did the rest of their season shake out?
2015 1 Ohio State 4 12-1 No- Lost to #9 Michigan State week 11
2 TCU 7 11-2 No- Lost to #12 Oklahoma State week 9 and #7 Oklahoma week 11
3 Alabama 1 14-1 No- Lost to #15 Ole Miss week 3
4 Baylor 13 10-3 No- Lost to #12 Oklahoma week 9, #15 TCU week 11, and UR Texas week 12
5 Michigan State 6 12-2 No- Lost to UR Nebraska week 9 and #2 Alabama week 14
2014 1 Florida State 6 13-1 No- Lost to #3 Oregon week 14
2 Alabama 3 12-2 No- Lost to #11 Ole Miss week 5 and #6 Ohio State week 14
3 Oregon 2 13-2 No- Lost to UR Arizona week 5 and #5 Ohio State week 15
4 Oklahoma UR 8-5 No- Lost to #25 TCU week 5, #14 Kansas State week 7, #10 Baylor week 9, UR Oklahoma State week 12, and #18 week 13 (Baylor and Clemson were blowout losses, others were 1 score games)
5 Ohio State 1 14-1 No- Lost to UR Virginia Tech week 2
2013 1 Alabama 7 11-2 No- Lost to #4 Auburn week 13 and #11 Oklahoma week 14
2 Ohio State 12 12-2 No- Lost to #10 Michigan State week 13 and #12 Clemson week 14
3 Oregon 9 11-2 No- Lost to #6 Stanford week 9 and UR Arizona week 11
4 Stanford 11 11-3 No- Lost to UR Utah week 6, UR USC week 10 and #4 Michigan State week 14
5 Georgia UR 8-5 Yes- Lost to #8 Clemson (Went on to Beat Ohio State in Orange Bowl). Then lost to #25 Missouri week 6, UR Vanderbilt week 7, #7 Auburn week 10, and UR Nebraska week 13 (Note only lost to Missouri was a blowout)
2012 1 USC UR 7-6 No- Lost to #31 Stanford week 3, UR Arizona week 9, #2 Oregon week 10, #17 UCLA week 11, #1 Notre Dame week 12, and UR Georgia Tech week 13 (all losses by no more than 2 TDs)
2 Alabama 1 13-1 No- Lost to #15 Texas A&M week 9
3 LSU 14 10-3 No- Lost to #10 Florida week 6, #1 Alabama week 9, and #15 Clemson week 13
4 Oklahoma 15 10-3 No- Lost to #15 Kansas State week 3, #5 Notre Dame week 7, and #10 Texas A&M week 13
5 Oregon 2 12-1 No- Lost to #14 Stanford week 11
2011 1 Oklahoma 16 10-3 No- Lost to #25 Baylor, #3 OK State, and UR  Texas Tech in Conf Play
2 Alabama 1 12-1 No- Lost to #1 ranked LSU week 9
3 Oregon 4 12-2 Yes- Lost to #4 LSU and #18 USC week 11
4 LSU 2 13-1 No- Lost to #2 ranked Alabama in BCS Championship
5 Boise State 8 12-1 No- Lost to #24 TCU week 9
2010 1 Alabama 10 10-3 No- Lost to #19 South Carolina week 6, #10 LSU week 9, and #2 Auburn week 12
2 Ohio State 5 12-1 No- Lost to #18 Wisconsin week 7- and technically every other game since they're dirty cheaters
3 Boise State 10 11-1 No- Lost to #19 Nevada week 10
4 Florida UR 8-5 No- Lost to #1 Alabama, #12 Louisiana State, and UR Mississippi State weeks 5-7, #22 South Carolina week 9, and #22 Florida State week 11
5 Texas UR 5-7 No-Lost to UR UCLA week 4, #8 Oklahoma week 5, and then UR Iowa State, #25 Baylor, UR Kansas State, and 12 Oklahoma State weeks 7-10 and #17 Texas A&M week 12

How often does a preseason top-five team lose to its first opponent?

  • 2 of 30 teams (7 percent) of teams ranked in the preseason top five lost to their first opponent.

More fun facts...

Both of those losses came against teams that ended the year ranked in the top 10.

These preseason top-five teams play a variety of teams during Week 1, ranging from fellow top-10 teams to the Appalachian States of the world (ask Michigan fans how that works out).

First of all, it would be irresponsible to suggest that just because the last two teams to beat a preseason top-five opponent during Week 1 went on to finish the year ranked in the top 10, Wisconsin’s season will follow a similar trajectory, but it's sure fun to hope. More than anything, this speaks to the rarity of what Wisconsin accomplished. Because I like the outdoors, I didn’t go back any further, but it is well known that Appalachian State trounced the Wolverines in 2007, and before that, who knows. Hopefully the story of this game becomes an ESPN 30 for 30 some day, and we can have some fun with the tag lines for that great fictional work in the comments.

How good is the media at picking top-five teams?

  • 11 of 30 (37 percent) teams ranked in the preseason top five end the year ranked in the top five.
  • 19 of 30 (63 percent) teams ranked in the preseason top five end the year ranked in the top 10.
  • 25 of 30 (83 percent) teams ranked in the preseason top five end the year ranked in the top 20.
  • 5 of 30 (17 percent) teams ranked in the preseason top five end the year unranked.

This would seem to indicate that this Wisconsin win doesn’t come against a team that will experience a free fall during the season. While a Leonard Fournette injury would certainly move the Tigers closer the unranked teams on the list, it is safe to assume that at the end of the year, this win will stand as a nice feather in the Badger cap when it comes to determining end-of-the-season rankings and whatnot.

I would also say that for those of you worried about the sustainability of the hype train, this should engender some confidence. The Badgers beat a team that will likely end the year ranked in the top 10 and will very likely be ranked in the top 20. No small feat for this young bunch, especially before the new starters have a chance to get acclimated to their roles. Trial by fire, baby!

When these preseason top-five lose, what types of teams do they lose to?

  • · 55 of 73 (75 percent) losses sustained by these team came to ranked opponents.

This further reinforces the notion that Wisconsin should end up being pretty good this year. While the schedule is demanding, the numbers indicate that teams that beat the preseason top-five team end up being pretty good themselves, and this should come as no surprise since it usually takes a good team to beat a good team.

You may be saying to yourself, "So I just read about 1,500 words and I learned that the Badgers have a solid chance of being pretty good this year, the preseason top five is hit or miss, but generally those teams end up being pretty good, and Wisconsin’s win was a rarity? I already knew all of that."

You’re right. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but now when you gather around the water cooler, fire pit or grill with some knucklehead Minnesota fan yammering away about how it is only one game and you shouldn’t get your hopes up, you can shove some statistics into their polite, hot-dish loving mouth.