Predicting what the weird preseason AP Top 25 will look like
So in case you haven’t seen, the Associated Press Top 25 is set to be released Monday, Aug. 24. It’s going to be weird. Really weird.
Why? Well, it will still include teams that had their fall seasons canceled. It won’t be until action starts that those teams are removed from poll consideration. That means teams like Ohio State, Penn State and Oregon will all likely be in the preseason poll, but no poll after that.
Weird, I know. I don’t make the rules.
Voters are supposed to treat the preseason poll as if everyone is playing. How realistic is that? I’d say not very realistic because many of them do far too much projecting end-of-season rankings and they factor in strength of schedule instead of ranking where a team should be ranked based on if it played tomorrow.
That means I think teams with canceled seasons are destined to get slighted a bit. Is that fair? I don’t know. What’s fair anymore?
What I’ll do is try to predict that. Again, this is not necessarily how I’d rank these teams. It’s simply about trying to get into the minds of a voter … as difficult as that might be:
Man, this is tricky. A whole bunch of voters probably went from having Minnesota in the 15-20 range to dropping P.J. Fleck’s squad out of the Top 25 altogether after Rashod Bateman opted out. But I’ll give the Gophers the benefit of the doubt and say that the return of Tanner Morgan and that veteran offensive line will net the program its first preseason Top 25 ranking since 2004.
A strange offseason in Iowa City shouldn’t prevent the Hawkeyes from a preseason Top 25 ranking. An underrated group of receivers was set to return from a 10-win team. Believe it or not, Iowa only earned 2 preseason Top 25 rankings in the past 9 years. Will a canceled season drop Kirk Ferentz’s squad out of the Top 25 in favor of a team like Memphis or Kentucky? It’s certainly possible, but it’s not often you see a Power 5 team with double-digit wins start the following season unranked.
23. Virginia Tech
Caleb Farley’s opt-out could hurt, as could the defensive questions in the post-Bud Foster era. Still, though. Justin Fuente’s midseason turnaround will help, as will the fact that the Hokies entered the spring ranked No. 6 nationally in percentage of returning production. That’s always key for someone who’s perceived as a fringe-Top 25 squad.
I was surprised the Vols didn’t get preseason Top 25 love in the Coaches Poll. Will the Cade Mays decision prevent them getting that love in the AP Top 25? My guess is no. A team with a fall season to play figures to get the benefit of the doubt, especially after last year’s midseason turnaround. If the Vols actually had the quarterback situation figured out, there’d be plenty of voters flirting with the idea of putting them in the top 15.
Honestly, I wouldn’t rank Utah in my Top 25 to start the year. The Utes rank dead last in FBS in percentage of returning production after such a disappointing finish to 2019. Jake Bentley didn’t exactly inspire confidence that this team was in better position to compete nationally, either. But Kyle Whittingham’s reputation as one of the nation’s most underrated coaches probably could help Utah earn consecutive preseason Top 25 berths for the first time since, um, ever.
If voters knew that McKenzie Milton was healthy and looking like his old self, I don’t think there’s any doubt that UCF would be the highest-ranked Group of 5 team. That’s not the case, but the Knights should still safely have a spot in the Top 25, especially with all of that defensive production back from a group that quietly finished in the top 1/3 of the country for the 2nd consecutive season. Three consecutive Top 25 finishes should be worthy of a preseason ranking, regardless of Milton’s immediate future.
Luke Fickell said that his team getting ranked No. 22 in the Coaches Poll was “still disrespectful.” So what does that translate to? More respect. Perhaps voters will take a step back and realize that Fickell’s defense is loaded with proven playmakers, and his team wasn’t very far from earning a New Year’s 6 Bowl bid last year. Even without Michael Warren, the Bearcats should be the highest-ranked Group of 5 team.
18. Oklahoma State
Household names are big for voters, and few of them are bigger than Chuba Hubbard. The nation’s leading returning rusher had an eventful offseason, as did Mike Gundy. Still, the Cowboys are loaded with returning production after a couple of disappointing seasons in Stillwater. A team that actually has a season to play is a pretty safe bet to earn its first preseason Top 25 ranking in 3 years.
Will the campus shutdown and halt of fall camp impact this ranking? My guess is it won’t really be a major factor. Mack Brown has built hype around his program. The way he recruited this offseason only helped the growing belief that his team has a legitimate shot to claim the No. 2 spot in the ACC. Sam Howell is the real deal already, which will give UNC an edge with voters.
I have no idea how the Jalen Mayfield opt-out impacts this ranking, but it probably should? Michigan was a borderline top-15 team to begin with because of the turnover on the offensive side of the ball. I was selling myself on the belief that Dylan McCaffrey could be the best Jim Harbaugh era quarterback yet. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. For the first time since Year 1 of the Harbaugh era, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Wolverines started outside the top 15 of the preseason poll.
I think the Badgers take a hit for the inevitable bump for teams that actually have a season. They should still be ranked ahead of Michigan even with the well-documented loss of Jonathan Taylor. That defense was still in position to be one of the nation’s best. That, plus the consistency of Paul Chryst, would have kept Wisconsin in the top 15.
What do you get when you return a promising true freshman quarterback at a traditional power? An inflated preseason ranking. That’s what I believe USC will get, even with the canceled fall season and those defensive discipline issues. There are a bunch of teams with canceled seasons that fall in that 15-25 range that will give USC a bump. It’s amazing to think that the Trojans started off ranked in the top 15 in 6 of the 10 seasons during the 2010s. Add another top-15 start in to start the 2020s.
13. Texas A&M
Remember when everyone was in love with the Aggies’ schedule and inexplicably ranking them way too high in preseason polls? So do I. Fun times. Now that A&M actually has a more balanced schedule, I expect voters to take a step back and realize that they shouldn’t have been so quick to crown a team that led for 7 minutes and 42 seconds of the 300 minutes of football it played against teams that finished in the top 15 last year. Improvement is coming with how well Jimbo Fisher recruited, but how much?
This surprised me. In 3 of the past 4 years, Auburn finished better than its preseason AP Top 25 ranking. Go figure. That’ll be extremely difficult this year. I know the average voter is higher on Bo Nix than I am. That’ll shape perception, especially as a team who is actually playing … even if there are major questions about how Auburn stacks up in the trenches after some serious turnover.
Voters love them some Texas. The Longhorns started No. 10 in the country last year despite the fact that they had a complete defensive overhaul. Isn’t it crazy that in the past 10 years, Texas only finished better than its preseason AP Top 25 ranking once? Nonetheless, I expect the Sam Ehlinger-led Horns to get far too much preseason love once again.
10. Penn State
Here’s where it gets tricky. You have to account for the loss of Micah Parsons. He was on the short list for most valuable defensive players in the country, so him opting out before the canceled season has to be part of the conversation. But that loaded Penn State ground game with Journey Brown and Noah Cain would have had a good chance to put up a bunch of points with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca at the controls. My guess is that would have kept them in the top 10. Barely.
There were questions about how the Ducks would fare without Justin Herbert, and understandably so. But there were still plenty of household names in Eugene like Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell, former No. 1 recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux and veteran tailback C.J. Verdell. Coming off the Rose Bowl win, I still expect a Herbert-less Ducks squad to be top-10 worthy.
8. Notre Dame
The Irish will benefit from Oregon and Penn State getting subconsciously dropped by voters, though maybe there’s a case to be made that Brian Kelly’s squad is better than we think. Three consecutive double-digit win seasons in South Bend isn’t easy. Getting 4 as a member of the ACC won’t be easy, either, but an experienced defense to complement ageless Ian Book will help.
There’s worthy hype in Gainesville, but I expect the polls will reflect a bit of a “let’s see it before we believe it” attitude as it relates to the other SEC contenders, despite the fact that the Gators are the only team of that group with a returning starting quarterback. Florida is obviously trying to end the Georgia losing streak and until it does that, preseason top 5 love is probably expecting too much.
Inexperience will give some voters pause on putting LSU in the top 5. Perhaps it’ll only take a week or 2 of seeing what the offense looks like in the post-Joe Burrow/Joe Brady era. Who knows. I expect the Tigers to somehow be ranked behind Oklahoma, despite the fact that the Tigers’ second-stringers ran it up on the Sooners the last time we saw Lincoln Riley’s team.
Would I have Oklahoma ranked this high? No, especially after the Kennedy Brooks opt out. I also wouldn’t put the Sooners ahead of any of the SEC contenders after 3 consecutive years of Playoff semifinal losses to 3 different SEC teams. But this is about projecting what voters will do, and for whatever reason, voters always talk themselves into the Sooners being a more complete team than they really are. The overwhelming Big 12 favorite has a strong chance of creeping into the top 5.
It’s safe to put Georgia in the top 4, even if there are a ton of unknowns about the offense. The Dawgs’ top-ranked scoring defense from a year ago returns a ton of production and figures to be as good as any that Kirby Smart has had to work with in Athens. A team with 3 consecutive top-7 finishes will likely start in the top 5.
3. Ohio State
This is because I think at least a few voters will subconsciously drop Ohio State because the Big Ten isn’t playing this fall. Is that right? No. The Buckeyes, who were set to return Justin Fields and a loaded offensive line, deserve to start off the year at No. 1 or No. 2. But that would rely on voters actually sticking to the guidelines and not coming up with their own weird projection parameters.
Yeah, I think Alabama gets a little bump for the aforementioned Ohio State point I made. Voters project too much. Still, this is a loaded Alabama defense and an offense that still has plenty of proven skill players in the post-Tua Tagovailoa era. Alabama will undoubtedly be the top-ranked SEC team.
This is a no-brainer at this point, especially with Ohio State having a canceled season. That was really the only threat to Clemson starting at No. 1. With Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne both good to go, the Tigers should have this spot locked up. The only question is how many first-place votes they’ll get.