This is the third year I compiled the Big Eleventy; a comparison of football teams that spent the past 20 years ranked at least half of the time. It's a measurement of poll visibility.
To save myself the leg work, should I continue to do this every year, I decided to place all of the current data in Excel. While doing so, I began to wonder what the data might look like historically. I use the AP poll in the Big Eleventy; fortunately the AP poll began in 1936, and is the longest running poll (still in use today).
Mount Brasky: A Histogram
The 20-year data from 1936 to 1955 accounts for the initial 20-year starting point (leftmost column). I then calculated a running tally of the 20-year average by percent and worked my way through the 2016 season. The final column (to the right) of the histogram is the Big Eleventy from the 2017 season.
The shape of the graph ended up looking like two large mountain peaks. There's an early peak starting in 1955 representing a gigantic Notre Dame presence, and second more massive summit with a towering Nebraska ridgeline.
AP Poll Landmarks
With the data imported in Excel, I realized with the results displayed annually, there would be an incessant amount of "zigzagging" all over the histogram. I ended up breaking the chart into 5-year averages and this removed much of the entropy out of the lines on the graph. I further took in-between averages of these 5-year periods (the columns with the conference logos) and the graphs remained fairly easy to track. (They're biased towards the years ending in 3 and 8).
The conference affiliation seemed like an interesting twist to add to the team trajectories. The logos were largely sourced from Chris Creamer's Sportslogos.net. I started off trying to make the logos historically accurate, but this didn't hold true for various reasons throughout the histogram. (Some logos were hideous, some periods of time don't show a "logo" for some teams or conferences.)
I made an attempt to use colors for teams that don't constantly overlap. Coloring in team colors within the columns was fairly easy to figure out, but many lines criss-cross in between, so I had to develop a thumb rule for shading these in.
Since a mountain theme was already established, I thought back to a short conversation on my last big hike. My wife and I went to New Hampshire last summer and hiked the Franconia Notch loop (Mount Lafayette). We managed to get an early start and pick the "backwards" direction for our hike. On the way back, we stopped at almost every steep and treacherous area to allow those climbing up to make their way past before we descended.
At one spot, we hit an impasse with a pretty steep looking drop and a couple of folks at the bottom waiting for us. Intuitively, we thought we should probably take this one first, and the hikers on the bottom said something to the effect of "descent has the right of way", apparently agreeing with us. While parkouring down towards them, we admitted that we didn't know if there was an etiquette rule for this. They didn't actually know either, so we all laughed and admitted that some things are probably better decided using common sense than a prescribed rule.
This did not appear to be one of those things. I made a determination that a higher rate of ascent should take precedence later in the "in-between" columns where multiple lines crossed.
The far right column, "Summit" shows the largest single percentage of poll share with the year attained. Many of the graphed "peaks" on the histogram lie below the "Summit" value; this is because the graph is made using 5-year combined averages.
The AP poll began in 1936 and ranked the Top 20 college football teams. In general, only about 10-12 teams will remain ranked enough to stay above 50% for a 20-year span under this condition.
Notre Dame rules the early part of the histogram, and I named this peak "Gipper's Rockne". Their reign starts with an impressive peak of 91% in the first year of tabulation (1955), but within a decade drops below the 70% line. The descent of the three early high-climbers; Notre Dame, Michigan, and Duke are colored in lighter tones. This was entirely aesthetic, perhaps indicating the peaks of the early powers in the background.
During World War II in the 1943 and 1944 seasons, many traditional schools were replaced in the AP rankings by Air, Pre-Flight and base-centered teams. While some traditional mainstays such as Duke and Notre Dame remained consistently in the polls, newcomers such as the El Toro Marines, Camp Peary, Randolph Field, Bainbridge and Great Lakes Naval Stations, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Air Force Divisions and Pre-Flight teams from Norman, Del Monte, Iowa, and UNC suddenly took over the AP Poll.
Top Ten Valley
As suddenly as the influx of military teams arrived, they were gone. Military installation and base teams disappeared in '45, leaving only the formerly recognized service scademies (Army, Navy, and Air Force). While West Point and the Navy experienced short term boons, they slowly lost their dominance over traditional football powers, and with that their poll presence.
The major force of decline for the valley featured in this histogram is actually from the AP poll electing to trim their inclusion from a Top 20 to only a Top 10 from 1961-67. No dominant team reigned supreme during this time either. It is much harder to sustain a loss and remain ranked when only ten teams are included in the poll.
Oklahoma briefly managed to pass Notre Dame from 1963-1965 with poll presence around 71% during this lapse.
In the early part of the Top 20 revival (from 1968 onwards), Notre Dame, Texas and Alabama took turns leapfrogging one another. Just as USC seemed poised to jump ahead of Alabama, Nebraska jutted out from nowhere in 1982, and fast approached 90%.
The histogram is dominated by a 30-year run of ubiquitous Nebraska presence in the AP poll. In the early 1960's, Nebraska's football team had only been ranked a handful of times (~3%). From 1969-1989 they had managed a 20-year run at 99.0% ranked in the AP poll. For over a decade this number slowly climbed towards 100%; arriving at this peak of ubiquity at the conclusion of the 2001 season.
The descent of Nebraska's poll presence starts almost as suddenly as it began. After appearing in the AP poll only 1/3 of the 2002 season, Nebraska begins dropping out of the AP poll more consistently. Newer powers from the state of Florida, and traditional powers Michigan and Ohio State protrude above the football landscape.
In 1989, the AP poll began recognizing the top 25 teams. From 2009 onwards, around 20 teams remain ranked more than half the time, which nearly doubles the 10-12 teams present in the earliest Top 20 polls.
Hokies presence in the AP Poll
In 1954 the Virginia Tech Fighting Gobblers managed to make its first AP poll appearance. The Hokies posted a 3-0 mark over ACC opponents N.C. State, Wake Forest, and Clemson prior to making the poll at the No. 16 spot. They managed to stay ranked the rest of the season, climbing to No. 14 before tieing William & Mary (7-7) in a Southern Conference contest. For the season they managed to stay ranked for 9 of the 12 weeks (75% for this exercise).
The Southern Conference at this time had Virginia Tech and West Virginia, but the rest of the 9 teams (Furman, Davidson, VMI, Richmond, William & Mary, George Washington and the Citadel) are currently either FCS schools or have dropped football entirely. Success in the Southern Conference did not guarantee appearances in the AP poll.
The Hokies briefly made it back into the AP poll for 4 weeks in 1956, climbing all the way to No. 15 until a 6-21 loss to No. 13 ranked Clemson knocked them back out.
Virginia Tech's lone Southern Conference championship was not enough to vault them back into the polls in 1963. For one, they lost their opening game against Kentucky, and a second major limitation; for the 8-2 season the AP poll was only determining a top 10. The Fighting Gobblers would leave the conference after the following season, register a mascot name change, and wait until the final poll of Bill Dooley's final season (1986) before earning a ranking again (No. 20 spot after defeating N.C. State on a last second Chris Kinzer FG).
In 1989, the AP Poll changed the ranking scheme to include 25 teams. At the conclusion of the 1990 season, the Virginia Tech Hokies beat then No. 17 ranked UVa 38-13 to earn the consolation No. 25 ranking to close out the final AP poll for the season.
In 1993, Virginia Tech began a 22-year streak of AP poll appearance (they finally missed the poll entirely again in 2015). The Hokies were ranked for the entirety of the 1994, 1999-02 seasons, '05, '07, '09, and 2011 seasons.
The AP poll presence which began during the Frank Beamer regime has stayed on course. Virginia Tech was ranked for half of Justin Fuente's first year at the helm (2016), and most of the second (2017).