College Football Rankings 2018: Projecting the AP Preseason Poll Top 25
Things can change in a few short weeks.
Players get hurt, mindsets change and Urban Meyer gets put on administrative leave.
You know, simple things.
I say that because a couple short weeks ago, I projected what the preseason Coaches Poll Top 25 would look like. It was decent, though not perfect. There were plenty of mistakes (most notably forgetting to put in TCU), but for the most part, it was respectable. Most teams were within a couple spots of where they ended up.
On Monday, the preseason Associated Press Top 25 will be released. Consider this my second attempt at guessing what a poll will look like this preseason:
I don’t think anyone in the media is sleeping on Lane Kiffin. And if they are, someone should awake them from their year-long slumber when they missed Kiffin rattle off 10 consecutive wins to close 2017. A surprising Coaches Poll omission, Kiffin’s squad cracks the media poll.
With a preseason Heisman Trophy contender in McKenzie Milton — FWAA members got a special Milton Heisman campaign package already — nobody will be lost on the potential of UCF. A spot in the back end of the Top 25 is more of a “let’s see if you can double down” ranking.
Would I have LSU in my preseason Top 25? No because I think the offense is too big of a mystery.
It’s OK to believe that while also believing in the promise of Joe Burrow. Clearly, LSU is more worried about quality of quarterbacks than quantity of quarterbacks. But with that defense, LSU gets another starting spot in the Top 25, regardless of the offensive question marks.
22. Oklahoma State
Considering I had them at No. 16, I was surprised to see the Cowboys barely crack the Coaches Poll. It was almost like people forgot about OSU and some just tucked Mike Gundy’s squad in the very end of the Top 25. Perhaps I overlooked how much people would downgrade the Cowboys for losing Mason Rudolph. I’ll hedge at No. 22.
Fun fact: In 3 of the past 5 seasons, Texas was a Top 25 team within the first 2 weeks of the season … only to not finish the season in the Top 25. I’m not saying Tom Herman is going to have Charlie Strong-like disappointment, but starting in the Top 25 seems like a brand recognition deal for Texas these days.
20. West Virginia
Bruce Feldman told me that he thinks West Virginia could be the surprise team in college football by season’s end. For now, though, the Mountaineers are in the back end of the Top 25 because it’s hard to get too fired up about 7-6 team with a coach who has yet to finish better than third in the Big 12. But with a preseason Heisman candidate in Will Grier, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Mountaineers started closer to No. 15 for some pollsters.
19. Florida State
Some believe that Willie Taggart will immediately flip the script on last year’s disastrous season under Jimbo Fisher while others believe that there were deeper problems than Deondre Francois’ injury. With questions still surrounding Francois — though for different reasons — FSU starts off the post-Fisher era with perhaps a loftier ranking than it deserves.
Egg, meet face. I’m not sure why I forgot the Horned Frogs in my Coaches Poll projection. Honest mistake. It won’t happen again. TCU does get a slight downgrade after the Coaches Poll because of the loss of standout defensive tackle Ross Blacklock.
17. Mississippi State
This is a good place to remind everyone that I am much higher on MSU than the general masses. I’d probably have MSU somewhere in the 12-13 range, but it’s not my poll. And not to brag, but I accurately predicted that MSU would claim the No. 18 spot in the Coaches Poll.
An MSU team with one winning season in conference play in the past 15 years might not be a safe bet to crack the top 12 to start the year. But I love that Joe Moorhead came out and said in response to the No. 18 Coaches Poll ranking that “MSU’s goal is to be first.” Nobody has to tell him to swing for the fences.
16. Virginia Tech
It feels like there’s a growing sentiment that Justin Fuente is pretty good at this whole coaching thing. He and the Hokies get the most preseason love than the program has had in recent memory.
Teams who lose a first-round quarterback often get a noticeable knock in the preseason, and understandably so. Let’s not forget that in addition to filling Sam Darnold’s shoes, the Trojans are in their first year without new Tennessee offensive coordinator Tyson Helton. But Clay Helton has been recruiting extremely well the past couple years and a unit that returns plenty of defensive talent will keep USC from any perceived massive drop-off.
14. Michigan State
Get ready for Michigan State fans to get upset when Michigan starts the year with a higher ranking, despite the fact that nobody returns a higher percentage of its production than Mark Dantonio’s squad. But given where MSU was at about 15 months ago — on and off the field — starting in the top 15 wouldn’t be anything to scoff at.
Before last year, Jim Harbaugh had 3 consecutive seasons (in college) of finishing with a top 11 spot in the Coaches Poll. Some will point out the fact that he’s yet to get past third place in his own division at Michigan. Still, the hype of Shea Patterson and the massive amount of defensive talent he returns will yield a top 15 ranking.
12. Notre Dame
I had the Irish slighted in my Coaches Poll prediction. That’s because I’m not crazy high on a Notre Dame team that has major questions at quarterback and has to replace the best defensive coordinator it had in recent memory in Mike Elko. Still, an Irish team that finished No. 11 now looks like a safe bet to start off somewhere close to that.
Nationally, it feels like there’s skepticism about Auburn’s running game and that schedule, though not about Jarrett Stidham or the defense.
The Tigers started ranked between 6 and 12 in 3 of the past 4 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if that trend continued in 2018.
I thought Stanford would get a bit more love in the Coaches Poll. No. 13 definitely wasn’t high enough, considering the Cardinal return Bryce Love, who should be a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite. I’ll double down and say the media get it right with a top 10 starting spot.
9. Penn State
The Lions are a difficult team to project because while the loss of Saquon Barkley is big in itself, he was far from the only valuable piece of the offense lost. Possession receiver DaeSean Hamilton is gone, as is uber-athletic tight end Mike Gesicki. Most important, the Lions will try and stay afloat as one of college football’s best offensive minds without Joe Moorhead. But having a household name like Trace McSorley will certainly squash the notion that Penn State is due for a significant regression.
Entering Year 3 of the Mark Richt era, I’d be stunned if the Canes started outside of the top 10. What a sentence that is. Miami has talent galore on the back end of its defense and despite the poor finish, Richt should improve that offense. Last year’s 10-0 start was no fluke, and starting at No. 8 in both polls reflects the confidence in that notion.
I couldn’t believe that Oklahoma, after losing Baker Mayfield, started off at No. 5 in the Coaches Poll. Never mind the fact that the Sooners rank No. 111 in percentage of returning production. The Sooners finished at No. 5 with arguably their best quarterback ever. He’s gone. Even with Ohio State sliding back, I think we see Oklahoma back around No. 7 in the AP.
6. Ohio State
Oy vey. What a difficult team to rank. Preseason turmoil doesn’t necessarily put a cap on in-season success. Aforementioned Oklahoma overcame a summer coaching change and nearly made it to the national championship. I think the Urban Meyer situation bumps Ohio State out of the top 3 and more people put Wisconsin as the top Big Ten team.
Yes, I think Wisconsin will be underrated to start the season. No, I don’t think No. 5 is high enough for the Badgers. They return their entire offensive line with a Heisman Trophy candidate tailback in Jonathan Taylor. That’s from a team that won 13 games despite Alex Hornibrook throwing 15 interceptions. And as long as Jim Leonhard is leading that defense, the Badgers are a lock for one of the nation’s top units. Wisconsin has been my favorite to win the conference since February, but now, I think voters will recognize that they should’ve been the top Big Ten team all along.
Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin back in a Chris Petersen offense seems unfair. It seems especially unfair that Washington still has all sorts of talent from a defense that finished fifth in scoring last year. Not only will Washington start the season as an obvious favorite to win the Pac-12, but it’ll also be a clear national title contender … as long as it gets past Auburn in the opener. The Ohio State slide moves the Huskies up a spot.
It’ll be interesting to see what kind of preseason treatment Georgia gets after losing all of those playmakers on both sides of the ball. The assumption is that they’ll just reload in Alabama fashion, but that obviously remains to be seen in Year 3 of the Kirby Smart era.
Having a returning starting quarterback from a national runner-up team always helps, as does putting together the top class in the recruiting rankings era. A top 5 ranking feels all but a given already with Georgia, especially after Ohio State’s preseason turmoil.
With that defensive line, it’s awfully tempting to put the Tigers at No. 1 to start the year. When the Playoff system began, there’s no way I thought we’d be talking about a Clemson team with 3 consecutive CFP berths entering 2018. By season’s end, we could be talking about Dabo Swinney’s second national title in 3 years. But it’s hard to just dismiss what we saw in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. We saw what happens when a 1-dimensional offense meets an elite defense. For now, the Tigers are still behind the Tide.
Here’s a fun exercise. If Nick Saban came out and said that Jalen Hurts was his starter, how many people do you think would have Clemson at No. 1 and not Alabama? I bet a lot. But I also bet that Saban is going with Tua Tagovailoa, and I’m obviously not alone in thinking that the potential is through the roof with him as the starter. Hence, yet another No. 1 ranking to start the season for the Tide.