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Penn State's Poll Truth: It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish

by on August 03, 2017 8:20 PM

On Thursday, the college football poll season started. And the coaches poll has Penn State No. 6.

Six. 6. Seis.

That's seis, as in seismic.

It's not earth-shattering that Penn State was sixth in the just-released 2017 Amway Coaches Poll.

(So, does Amway go door-to-door, polling coaches as it sells its soap and vitamins?)

After all, the Nittany Lions did finish the 2016 season 11-3 and were ranked No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll (after getting as high as No. 5 entering the bowls and playoffs).

But it is surprising that after six preseasons out of the polls, due mainly to the Sandusky sanctions tsunami, that Penn State — led by James Franklin — has come roaring back so high, so fast. Just a year ago, in the AP's 2016 preseason college football poll, Penn State didn't get a single vote. Not one. The Nittany Lions not only weren't in the Top 25, they didn't receive one mention from the AP's panel of 61 sportswriters and broadcasters from across the country.

In the August 2016 preseason poll, a total of 42 teams got some sort of from voter love, Alabama (1,461 points, 33 first-place votes) to Toledo (1 point, for a 25th-place finish). But not Penn State. And we all know how that turned out.


Penn State's fabulous finish showed that it's not where you start. It's where you finish.

To wit: In 1983, coming off a national championship season, Penn State was ranked No. 4 in the AP preseason poll. Things didn't turn out so well. PSU lost its first three games — including that 14-3 nail-biter to Cincinnati — and finished 8-4-1. And was not to be found in the end-of-the-season AP polls.

The 2005 Nittany Lions did not receive a single preseason vote, yet went 11-1, won the Big Ten championship and the Orange Bowl, and finished the season No. 3 in the AP poll.

The 1982 team started at No. 8. The 1986 team started at No. 6. (Six? Sounds familiar.) Both finished No. 1.

The 1997 team started No. 1 — Penn State's only preseason top ranking ever — and won its first seven games. Then lost three of its next five and finished No. 16.

The granddaddy poll of them all  — the AP poll — won't be out for another two weeks. And when Penn State appears on that list, it will mark the first time that the Nittany Lions were ranked in the AP preseason Top 25 since 2010. (They did receive 20 points in 2015; 5 in 2015; zero in 2012; and 75 in 2011.)

But who's counting?

Actually, Penn Staters are. And no wonder. It's been awhile. The last time the Nittany Lions were ranked in the preseason Top 10 was in 2009, when they were No. 9 coming off an 11-2 season and Rose Bowl appearance in 2008.


Overall, Penn State has gone the past six preseasons (2010-16) without being ranked. The last time PSU went this long without being in an AP preseason poll was...almost never.

A brief AP — for Advanced Placement credits, if you'd like — college football poll history: The Associated Press college football poll was created in 1936, while the preseason poll originated in 1950. The AP included 20 teams in its preseason poll from 1950-61 and 1988. It had only 10 from 1962-67.

Penn State first appeared in the AP preseason poll in 1957, and until its latest scandal-sanctioned drought, never went more than four years (1964-67) without grabbing a spot in the preseason rankings. Not even in the Dark Years, when Penn State was only absent prior to the 2001, '04 and '05 seasons. (And finished No. 3 in 2005.)

Overall, Penn State has been ranked in the AP preseason poll 43 times. A total of 19 times the Nittany Lions bettered their preseason ranking in the final poll and 22 times they have fared worse. Twice, they finished where they started.

The last time Penn State opened at better than No. 6 was way back in 1999, when the LaVar-led Lions started at No. 3 in the preseason, then rose to No. 2 for eight of the next nine weeks before crashing down to 6 and 13 and 13 with consecutive losses to Minnesota, Michigan and at Michigan State. After beating Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl, they finished at No. 11.


In the 17 preseasons since that 1999 collapse, Penn State has been ranked the preseason AP Top 25 only seven times.

Soon, when the AP poll comes out to wash away the Amway voting, the 2017 preseason will make it nine. If the coaches poll is any indication, they'll open at No. 6 — or 5 or 7.

Either way, it will be a very good start. The finish? We won't know until over five months from now, on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. That's the day of the final AP poll for the 2017 season.

In the interim, remember: #pollsh*t happens.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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