5 teams that aren't getting enough national love in the post-spring Top 25 rankings
Spring ball is over, which means we’re all sippin’ the Kool-Aid.
But not everyone is sipping the same Kool-Aid as it relates to preseason rankings in college football. It’s one of the best offseason/preseason topics to debate, despite the fact that we can all but throw away rankings a week into the season, especially when a team pukes on its shoes and loses to Maryland (sup, Texas).
Rankings are just that. Discussion. They shape narratives and expectations for a given season.
Some teams get more love than others. On Sunday, I focused on 5 teams that are getting a bit too much buzz in the preseason. Today, let’s get to the teams that aren’t getting enough love in the preseason polls.
I understand that many people are expecting Kentucky to be this 1-year wonder and after losing guys like Josh Allen and Benny Snell, they’ll go back to being mediocre. But you know who’s still in Lexington? Mark Stoops. He’s the guy who turned a roster full of 2- and 3-star recruits into the No. 12 team in America.
After 3 consecutive winning seasons at Kentucky and delivering the program’s best season in 4 decades, I think Stoops is worthy of getting some somewhat unconditional preseason love.
And it’s not like the Cats lost their entire roster. They have a second-year starting quarterback in Terry Wilson — someone who has room to grow but showed promise as a redshirt sophomore — along with an All-SEC caliber receiver in Lynn Bowden Jr. and the backfield tandem of Asim Rose and Kavosiey Smoke will make up for the production loss of Benny Snell.
I’ll put my faith in Stoops and Kash Daniel to lead a defense that has plenty of holes to fill after losing 4 defensive players to the draft. That’s what Stoops has been doing each of the past 3 years, all of which were winning seasons at Kentucky. After what he did without any preseason buzz last year, I think he’s earned the right to at least start in the Top 25 this year.
Surely I’m not the only one who thinks that. Or, well, I guess I am according to these polls.
2. Michigan State
Rankings: No. 23 (Sports Illustrated)
Only one of the 5 publications I looked at had Michigan State as a Top 25 team, which surprised me. So much of the Spartans’ identity hinged on Brian Lewerke’s health last year. Clearly, Lewerke’s shoulder wasn’t right and the Spartans couldn’t do a thing offensively once teams figured that out. If he’s back to his 2017 self — which it looks like can be based on how spring went — the Spartans are easily a Top 25 team.
They lost Justin Layne and Khari Willis from that secondary, but returning lockdown corner Josiah Scott after he spent most of 2018 injured will be huge, as is bringing back All-American defensive end Kenny Willekes (he’s expected to make a full return from his broken leg). With the return of Joe Bachie, the Spartans should again be one of the nation’s best against the run.
Plus, we’re talking about Mark Dantonio here. Last year, despite all the injury issues MSU had, Dantonio salvaged a winning record in the second-toughest division in America. It baffles me that CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd ranked 8 B1G teams and MSU wasn’t one of them. The Spartans will regain their top-25 status soon enough.
Rankings: No. 18 (The Athletic), No. 18 (Sports Illustrated), No. 25 (CBS Sports)
I included Iowa on this list because the Hawkeyes should be a consensus Top 25 team, and there’s no way they should start the season ranked behind Nebraska, which they were in the majority of publications I looked at. Yeah, they lose one of the great college tight end duos ever in T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, but that’s just one position group.
Iowa actually ranks in the top 40 nationally in percentage of returning offensive production, in large part because third-year starter Nate Stanley is back, as are most of his receivers. Defensively, Iowa has an All-America candidate in A.J. Epenesa, who will take over games from the defensive end position.
Do the Hawkeyes have a couple holes on each side of the ball? Yeah, but not enough to warrant unranked status after a 9-win season in which they were one of 9 Power 5 teams who were +100 in conference play (the Hawkeyes also saw their division title hopes crumble in a 3-game losing streak with an average margin of defeat of 4 points).
I’d have Iowa as my favorite to win the improving Big Ten West in 2019.
Rankings: No. 12 (Sports Illustrated), No. 12 (USA Today), No. 14 (Sporting News), No. 15 (CBS Sports), No. 17 (The Athletic)
In my opinion, Washington deserves to start at about No. 10. That’s obviously not a consensus opinion about a team that just lost an extremely prolific quarterback/running back duo in Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin. The uncertainty surrounding Jacob Eason’s development coupled with the massive defensive overhaul are probably why the Huskies will likely start outside the top 10.
But you know what I like? Or rather, who I like? Chris Petersen, AKA the guy with 3 consecutive seasons of double-digit wins and a New Year’s 6 Bowl. Petersen is the guy who went 22-5 against the Pac-12 with conference titles in 2 of the past 3 seasons. Quietly, he also finished with a pair of top 16 recruiting classes the past 2 years, during which he signed 13 defensive players rated 4-stars or better.
So despite all the defensive talent Washington lost to the NFL in the past 2 years, I like the odds of the Huskies continuing their streak of having the top-ranked defense in the Pac-12 (it sits at 4 years). I also like the odds of Salvon Ahmed not just replacing Gaskin, but becoming the next star in that offense.
Petersen is going to have this offense lighting up the scoreboard even if Eason doesn’t quite live up to his 5-star billing. But I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Eason is leading a Playoff contender into November.
Rankings: No. 19 (Sporting News), No. 21 (The Athletic), No. 23 (USA Today)
Syracuse should be a consensus Top 25 team. It’s as simple as that. A lot of that is based on Dino Babers and the job he did leading the Orange to its best season in 17 years, but it’s not like there was some catastrophic loss to that team. Syracuse ranks No. 64 nationally in returning production (basically right in the middle of FBS programs) after watching just 1 player get drafted.
Yes, there’s a new starting quarterback with Tommy DeVito, but he’ll have a bevy of experienced skill players around him, including Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams. The Syracuse defense should also improve with one of the country’s better defensive line tandems back in Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, both of whom totaled double-digit sacks in 2018.
It seemed like last year, a lot of people wrote Syracuse off after the Notre Dame blowout, despite the fact that to that point, the Orange had an 8-2 record with nail-biter road losses to Clemson and Pitt. Nationally, some might not have given Babers the credit he deserved for responding with a pair of blowout wins at Boston College and against West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl.
I’m not saying Syracuse should start at No. 15 like the team finished at last year, but I’d go closer to that than the unranked spots multiple publications gave them.