Column: Don’t fret over first coaches poll, it’s sure to change a bunch by the end
The first coaches poll for 2016 is out and we’re picking up right where we left off in January, with national title game foes Alabama and Clemson still ranked 1-2. That’s not much of a surprise.
The rest of the Top 10 is a laundry list of the sport’s blue-bloods, which isn’t all that surprising either. You’ve got Oklahoma, Florida State, Ohio State, LSU, Stanford, Michigan, Notre Dame and Tennessee. You may dicker over the order – and because you’re college football fans, you surely will – but when the final poll rolls around in January, it will look a lot like this list, with just a little shuffling.
Or not right?
If there’s anything we’ve learned through the years, it’s that no one really knows what the heck they’re talking about in August. Alabama must hate being tabbed preseason No. 1, because only Florida State back in the day (1993 and 1999) and USC (2004) claimed titles in wire-to-wire fashion. Ohio State was a prohibitive preseason No. 1 last year, and we know how that turned out. It’s tough to do.
Here are few things we know for sure about preseason polls, with 2015 once again providing us a great reminder:
At least two of the Top 10 teams won’t even be ranked in the Top 25 by the end: That’s always hard to believe in August, but it happens all the time and it did in 2015, too. Auburn (No. 7) and USC (No. 10) both finished the season with six losses and out of the Top 25. There are always a couple of top teams that will crash and burn, and it’s sure to happen again this year. More on that in a minute.
Less than half of the Top 10 teams will still be that high at the end: This might be even more amazing, but it’s true. Last year, only four of the preseason Top 10 teams finished in the top 10. Four! Only No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 TCU, No. 3 Alabama and No. 6 Michigan State were still around at the end, finishing fourth, seventh, first and sixth, respectively. Auburn and USC weren’t around, and neither were No. 4 Baylor, No. 5 Oregon, No. 8 Florida State and No. 9 Georgia, who ended up 13th, 20th, 14th and 24th, respectively.
At least two currently unranked teams will finish in the Top 10: You’d think it would be hard to come out of nowhere during a college football season but this too happens every year. Last year was no different. Unranked Houston and Iowa finished in the top 10 at the end of the year, coming in at No. 8 and No. 10. It helped that Houston won its first 10 games, and Iowa won its first 12.
Someone not in the Top 10 will make the playoffs: One? Or two. Last year, Clemson started the season ranked No. 12 and Oklahoma was No. 19. They were two of the four at the end, and met in one of the national semifinals. Who’s No. 12 and No. 19 this year? That would be Ole Miss and Oklahoma State. Seem unlikely? Of course it does, but we said the same thing last year. The only thing that surprises us is that we remain surprised.
More than a third of the final Top 25 aren’t even ranked right now: Last year, nine teams that weren’t ranked in the preseason finished in the top 25, a whopping 36 percent. After Houston and Iowa, unranked teams Michigan (No. 11), North Carolina (No. 15), Utah (No. 16), Navy (No. 18), Oklahoma State (No. 19), Northwestern (No. 22) and Florida (No. 25) were there at the end.
And now, looking ahead into the crystal ball
So those are the nuts and bolts on how last year played out. If this is a trend – and it surely is – then what about this year?
Let’s take a quick look:
Which two of this year’s Top 10 teams won’t be there at the end? Even though my Land of 10 colleague Jay Clemons is on record for picking No. 6 LSU to win it all, they could be due for another fall because I’m not all-in on coach Les Miles and I’m definitely not in on QB Brandon Harris. Great defense, sure, but I think another three SEC losses are possible. And if No. 8 Michigan loses two of three in that late stretch against Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State and then loses a bowl game, they might be out too. The same might be said of Ohio State if they lose a lot late – and early to Oklahoma in the non-conference game of the year – but Michigan still has to prove it on the field in big games.
Will only 40 percent of the Top 10 be there at the end? I find that harder to believe this year because teams like Oklahoma, Stanford, Clemson and Florida State are the clear class of their respective conferences and I don’t see big falls. But we say that every year. Right now, I guess that seven of these 10 are still around at the end. But, fair warning. I thought the same thing last year, too.
Two long shots who are unranked now that might finish in the Top 10? Now, this is tough. When you look at current unranked teams that might make a move, you have to look at the league they’re in and if it’s possible they can get hot against a lukewarm schedule. Utah fits that bill in the Pac-12, because that’s a league with a bunch of good – but not great – teams outside of Stanford. I can see Utah making a run. And close to home, here’s an interesting thought. In the Big Ten West, only Iowa is ranked. So what if someone else makes a run in this competitive division that isn’t really loaded with star power? Say Nebraska can get past Oregon in a September game and then runs the table through the Big Ten West. They do that, and win a bowl game, and they could land in the top 10. So could Northwestern in the same position, but I like Nebraska’s chances better in Year 2 of Mike Riley, especially if they can pull off the high-profile win against Oregon in September. Wisconsin has a lot to prove to me still, so I’ll leave them out for now.
Someone not in the top 10 will make the playoffs: I’ll be honest, no one is really jumping out at me. Best candidate might be No. 14 TCU. If the Horned Frogs can knock off an SEC team early (Arkansas on Sept. 10) and find a way to upset Oklahoma (Oct. 1), they’ll zoom up the rankings. And if they can keep winning in the average Big 12, they could do it. I was on the No. 12 Ole Miss bandwagon earlier in the year, and I won’t rule them out either, although I’ve cooled a bit on them.
Nine unranked teams in the final 25 teams? Sure, why not? Give me Nebraska and Northwestern in the Big Ten, plus Utah, Miami, Washington State, Texas, Arkansas, Pittsburgh and Duke. Major long shot: Indiana, if the Hoosiers can win all three crossover games with Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue.