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November 14, 2017

A Visual History of the NCAA XC Championships and What It Tells Us

I few years back I produced a couple of handy documents that give you a visual representation of the top ten teams at every NCAA Cross Country Championships, from the meet’s inception in 1938 until today. Each team is shown in their school colors. I’ve updated them and reproduced them below.

MEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY

Some notes about past formats: the current championship format of 31 teams qualifying via nine regionals is mostly unchanged since 1998. The early years of the men’s championship were nothing like they are today and it’s hard to call it a true “national” championship any time before the late 50s; it was more of a midwestern and eastern competition. Up through 1971 it was an open championship–any team could run if they showed up–but the first western team to compete was Colorado in 1957, and the first west coast teams to come were Oregon State and San Jose State in 1961. I only list the top five teams in the early years because many of those championships didn’t even have ten teams competing.

WOMEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY

The first women’s NCAA Championships were in 1981, but the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women sponsored championships beginning in 1975 and I included those results. The AIAW continued on in 1981 before folding after the spring of 1982 and merging with the NCAA, and so there were two women’s national collegiate cross country championships in 1981. No team ran in both–the races were just two days apart–and the two meets were relatively equal in terms of competitiveness. I listed the NCAA Championships top ten for 1981, but understand that they don’t represent the true top ten women’s college teams that year.

WHAT DOES THE PAST TELL US ABOUT THIS SATURDAY?

The conventional wisdom on this year men’s NCAA Championships is that it is a showdown between Northern Arizona and Brigham Young. Isaac Wood will likely predict BYU as the champion. But the trends of past championships suggest that NAU will win.

The trend among men’s champion teams is that they earned a place on the podium (finishing in the top four) at least once in the two years before winning the title. How strong is the trend? Twenty-five of the last thirty men’s champions did it.

It gets even stronger when we examine those five outlier champion teams: Syracuse ’15, Oregon ’07, Stanford ’96, Arkansas ’90, and Iowa State ’89. Three of them (Syracuse, Stanford, Arkansas) won their championships a year after being fifth, and none of those fifth-place teams were more than 28 points out of fourth (which hapens to be the average difference between fourth and fifth over the last 30 years). The two sixth-place finishes were unusually close to the top four: Iowa State’s sixth-place in 1988 was just ten points from the podium, and Oregon’s sixth-place finish in 2006 was just one point away from fourth!

This trend strongly suggests that the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, the defending champions, will win again. That’s because the BYU Cougars were seventh last year (51 points away from the podium) and tenth two years ago. I’m not saying BYU can’t win, but it would be a definite break from the trend of the last 30 years. My historical analysis has been wrong before: a year ago I pointed out that no team ranked outside the top 4 in the final coaches’ poll had ever won the NCAA cross country championships, and then the #12-ranked women of Oregon upset the apple cart and won the title.

Speaking of the women’s championship, does this podium-finish-in-the-last-two-years trend hold for their side of the championship? In short, no. Lots of champion teams did it without a recent podium finish (although virtually all did it off a top-ten finish in the previous year). I don’t know why there’s a difference but there is. It could be the shorter race distance giving more volatile results, or that freshmen women are closer to physical maturity than are freshmen men, or some other unknown reason.

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