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What The Past Tells Us About Saturday's NCAA Championships

What The Past Tells Us About Saturday’s NCAA Championships

| On 17, Nov 2016

The NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships will be held at Indiana State’s Lavern Gibson Championship Course on Saturday in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the Daily Relay will be there to cover it.

The race will be webcast live at Flotrack (subscription required) starting with the women’s race at 11:00am (Eastern time). Everything else you need to know can be accessed at the host website.

Who is going to win?

Flotrack has posted an interesting statistical analysis that predicts the team champions will be Colorado’s women and Arkansas’ men. Those are the #1 and #6 teams in the most recent coaches’ polls. The Colorado Buffaloes are considered almost unbeatable in the women’s competition, but if Arkansas pulls off the win in the men’s race it would be an upset of extreme proportions. How extreme? Take a look.

Via the USTFCCCA, we have historic data on the coaches’ polls for men since 1997 and women since 1995. That’s 19 men’s seasons and 21 women’s seasons. Since those polls began, no championship-winning team has ever been ranked below #4 in the final pre-championship poll.

Rank in final poll   Men’s Winners   Women’s Winners
#1   12   11
#2   5   8
#3   1   1
#4   1   1

Another way to interpret the data above is that, since the origin of the polls, 90% of the champion teams were either ranked #1 or #2. That means we should expect the women’s race to be Colorado vs NC State and the men’s race to be Northern Arizona vs Colorado. And we can say that a successful title defense by Syracuse’s men or New Mexico’s women would be unprecedented due to their positions in the polls (#5 and #6 respectively). If the Arkansas Razorbacks win the men’s title, it would definitely be the biggest upset in 20 years (and probably more like 50 years).

Who is going to get on the podium?

While it is true that anyone on the starting line has a chance to win, most teams’ chances approach zero. If you can’t win, then the goal is getting on the awards podium with a top-four finish and the trophy that comes with it. Again, there is a pretty clear relationship between position in the poll and finishing in the top four.

Rank in final poll   Men’s Podium   Women’s Podium
#1   18   19
#2   14   19
#3   11   9
#4   10   8
#5   3   7
#6   4   8
#7   5   2
#8   2   6
#9   3   3
#10   3   2
#11   1   0
#12   0   0
#13   2   1

Again, a summary of the data above would be that in 40 championship races (19 men, 21 women), 90% of the podium winners were ranked in the top 8 in the final pre-championship poll.

Who will finish in the top ten?

No official award is given to the top ten teams at the NCAA Championships but it is a significant accomplishment, far above that of qualifying to the meet. Again, it follows a predictable pattern based on poll position.

Rank in final poll   Men’s top tens   Women’s top tens
#1   19   21
#2   18   21
#3   18   17
#4   17   18
#5   14   20
#6   16   14
#7   13   14
#8   11   17
#9   8   11
#10   10   8
#11   10   9
#12   8   6
#13   8   10
#14   6   9
#15   2   3
#16   3   1
#17   2   2
#18   2   1
#19   3   3
#20   0   2
#21   1   1
#22   0   1
#23   0   0
#24   1   0

Since we have 19 years of men’s poll data and 21 for women’s polls, you can see that no #1-ranked team has ever failed to finish in the top ten. Only four times ever has a team outside the top 20 in the final poll ended up in the championship’s top ten. 90% of top ten finishes were earned by teams ranked in the top 13 of the final poll. That is remarkable predictive power.

All of this should come with a caveat: past performance is no guarantee of future results. Statisticians of all stripes were reminded of this a little over a week ago. On the other hand, months ago we all knew the 2016 presidential race was significantly different than those of the past, whereas that doesn’t seem to be the case for the 2016 NCAA Cross Country Championships.

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