In the preseason, it might be tough to believe that 40 percent of the teams ranked in the initial AP poll will fall out of the rankings by season’s end, but it’s likely to happen.
Maybe it’ll be a few less that fall out of the poll, maybe it’ll be a few more.
But it’s bound to happen — it always does.
For the record, the teams with the worst records that finished the season ranked were Northwestern at 9-5; Texas A&M, Penn State and Iowa at 9-4; and West Virginia at 8-4. That means we’re mostly trying to identify teams that will go 7-5 or worse in the regular season, or maybe 8-4 and then lose their bowl game.
This is often an exercise of which perceived good teams have a schedule that’s tough enough to prevent said good teams from living up to their preseason expectations, which might be inflated due to a big bowl win.
These Teams Are in Danger of Dropping Out of the Poll
No. 8 Florida: The Gators could be the beneficiaries (or potentially, victims) of a bowl bump after their 41-15 trouncing of Michigan in the Peach Bowl. They have to play two preseason top-six teams away from home — No. 6 LSU on the road and No. 3 Georgia in Jacksonville. Florida will also face No. 16 Auburn and seven other teams that can reasonably hope to be bowl teams — Miami (neutral-site), at Kentucky, Tennessee, at South Carolina, Vanderbilt, at Missouri and Florida State.
If you factor in the potential bowl bump voters may have given Florida (the Gators were ranked No. 13 heading into their regular season finale last year against Florida State and No. 15 the week before that), plus a 2019 schedule that could have 8-4 potential, the Gators could be a preseason top-10 team that falls out of the polls by the end of the season.
No. 9 Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish made the College Football Playoff for the first time last season and five of their 12 regular season wins were one-possession games (eight points or less), including victories against Ball State, Vanderbilt and USC, which combined for 15 wins.
If Notre Dame dropped one of those games, the complexion of its entire season changes.
This season the Fighting Irish travel to preseason top-10 opponents Georgia (Week 4) and Michigan (Week 9), plus preseason No. 25 Stanford in Week 14. You can make the case that Virginia is a top-25-caliber team, and USC and Virginia Tech aren’t push-overs. Notre Dame will certainly be underdogs in Athens and Ann Arbor, and if you can find four losses on its schedule, then the Fighting Irish could drop out of the AP Top 25.
No. 12 Texas A&M: Let’s be clear, this is a statement on the Aggies’ brutal schedule, not a reflection of their talent level or general program trajectory. You don’t have to squint to pick out four games in which Texas A&M will be an underdog (and potentially a big one) — at Clemson, Alabama, at Georgia and at LSU.
Assuming Vegas sees things that way by the time of the kickoff in each game, then it wouldn’t be shocking to see Texas A&M go 0-4 in those matchups.
A&M fans may not want to hear it given how much the school is paying Head Coach Jimbo Fisher, but in Year Two there’s no harm in losing games you’re supposed to lose in arguably the toughest division in the sport.
We’ll put it another way: how many A&M fans would take a 1-3 record in those games if offered that guaranteed outcome right now?
You’ll probably see at least a few preseason College Football Playoff projections that include the trio of Clemson, Alabama and Georgia, and almost every one that’s published will include at least two of those three schools.
It doesn’t help that freshman tight end Baylor Cupp, the No. 1 prospect at his position in the country, will likely miss the entire season after suffering an injury in a scrimmage.
Cupp led the Aggies in every receiving category in the Maroon and White Game, according to 247Sports, and he was set to replace the departed Jace Sternberger, who led A&M with 48 receptions, 832 receiving yards and 10 receiving touchdowns last season.
No. 16 Auburn: The result of the Week 1 showdown between No. 11 Oregon and No. 16 Auburn will likely be overstated unless one of the two teams (or both) can go 11-1 or 12-0 in the regular season and truly challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The winner will likely jump into the top 10 of the next week’s AP poll because that’s how this works.
While the rest of Auburn’s non-conference schedule should be a breeze (home games against Tulane, Kent State and Samford), the Tigers play four road games in the span of five games — at No. 12 Texas A&M, Mississippi State, at No. 8 Florida, at Arkansas and at No. 6 LSU — between Sept. 21 and Oct. 26.
They close the regular season at home against No. 3 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama in the final three weeks, which was a scheduling gift Auburn was able to capitalize on two seasons ago en route to winning the SEC West, but that’s still an incredibly daunting November.
This is likely a make-or-break season for Head Coach Gus Malzahn, who showed off his play-calling acumen in the Tigers’ 63-14 Music City Bowl win over Purdue, and their schedule could lead to another seven or eight-win season, like Auburn has had in four of the last five years.
No. 17 UCF: Let’s face it, Group of Five schools have a higher hill to climb in order to get (and stay) ranked. While UCF hasn’t been invited to the College Football Playoff, it has established itself as an AP Top 25 mainstay, having been ranked in every AP poll since Oct. 1, 2017.
But the Knights could have a harder time doing so for the entirety of this year without having injured quarterback McKenzie Milton, who finished sixth in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting.
There are a few potential landmines on their schedule with Stanford coming to Orlando in Week 3 and a trip to Cincinnati on Oct. 4. There are also games at Pittsburgh and Temple, plus home dates with Houston and South Florida.
After back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, UCF is bound to take a step back at some point and the injuries at quarterback combined with the rise of Cincinnati could lead to a changing of the guard in the conference. If the Knights went 9-3 or 10-2, then lost their bowl game, is it a guarantee they’d be ranked?
No. 18 Michigan State: The Spartans were nasty on defense last season (No. 2 in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings) and they should be again with the return of Kenny Willekes, Raequan Williams, Joe Bachie and Josiah Scott.
But defense isn’t the issue in East Lansing.
The “issue” would be Michigan State’s offense, which finished last season ranked 112th in the S&P+ ratings.
The hope for the Spartans is that quarterback Brian Lewerke’s injured throwing shoulder that hindered him last season is completely healthy, leading to a return to his redshirt sophomore year form (59% completion rate, 2,793 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, seven interceptions).
But if the Spartans’ offense struggles, they could go 8-4 or 7-5 against a schedule that includes trips to Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, plus home games against Arizona State and Penn State.
There are also fair questions as to whether Mark Dantonio’s approach to restructuring his offensive coaching staff (last season’s quarterbacks coach is now offensive coordinator, last season’s co-offensive coordinators are now the quarterbacks coach and offensive line coach, respectively, and last season’s offensive line coach is now the special teams and tight ends coach) without firing or hiring anyone will solve the Spartans’ woes on offense.
No. 19 Wisconsin: The Badgers were picked to finish third in the Big Ten West behind Nebraska and Iowa in the unofficial Big Ten preseason media poll conducted by cleveland.com.
They were picked one spot ahead of reigning division champion Northwestern, and if you’ve listened to any Big Ten preview podcasts or read any previews of the conference in the last month, you’ve likely heard some version of the refrain: “It wouldn’t be a huge surprise for any of the top six teams in the Big Ten West to win the division,” which also lends credibility to Purdue and Minnesota.
So while Wisconsin has often been closer to a 10 or 11-win team than the 8-5 version of itself that it was last year, it’s still playing in a competitive division with a brutal cross-division draw (Michigan, Michigan State and at Ohio State), while breaking in a (relatively) new starting quarterback — either Jack Coan, who started four games last season, or freshman Graham Mertz.
The Badgers still have all-world running back Jonathan Taylor, who’s chasing the NCAA’s all-time career rushing record, but their schedule, which is capped off by a challenging November — Iowa, at Nebraska, Purdue and at Minnesota — could limit their ceiling.
No. 21 Iowa State: The future of Iowa State football is bright, as long as Head Coach Matt Campbell is in Ames. The Cyclones could even break through and reach the Big 12 Championship this season.
But they have to replace their two most important skill position players from last season — running back David Montgomery (1,216 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) and wide receiver Hakeem Butler (60 receptions, 1,318 receiving yards, nine touchdowns), who now play for the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals, respectively.
Quarterback Brock Purdy (100 attempts for 308 yards) was the team’s second-leading rusher last season behind Montgomery, and Tarique Milton (34 receptions for 417 yards and one touchdown) was second to Butler in receiving production, so there wasn’t necessarily an heir apparent at either position who can single-handedly replace the production of Montgomery and Butler.
Iowa State hosts No. 20 Iowa in the Cy-Hawk series (the fact that Iowa is ranked one spot ahead of Iowa State in the preseason AP Top 25 is sure to fuel talk radio in the state for the next two weeks), the Cyclones travel to Baylor and Oklahoma, and they host Texas. It’s a challenging, opportunistic schedule for a program that has gone 3-1 against top-10 opponents in the last two seasons.
But if Iowa State can’t maintain that pace of wins against top competition or replace the production of Montgomery and Butler, maybe the Cyclones prove to be a year or two away from truly challenging for the Big 12 Championship.
No. 23 Washington State: Five Pac-12 teams are ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll, including Washington State, and the Cougars play the other four, including the three highest ranked teams in the conference on the road.
They play at No. 14 Utah and at Arizona State in consecutive games (with a bye week in between), at No. 11 Oregon and at California in back-to-back games (also with a bye week in between) and they close the season at No. 13 Washington.
Casual college football fans might forget that Washington State spent a significant portion of last season as the Pac-12’s best hope for a College Football Playoff representative, but without quarterback Gardner Minshew, who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting, can the Cougars maintain their status as a top-15 offense? They finished No. 13 in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings last season.
Mike Leach said Sunday night that he’d start fifth-year senior quarterback Anthony Gordon over transfer Gage Gubrud if Washington State had to play a game that day, according to The Spokesman-Review, and regardless of who wins the starting job, it’ll be a lot to ask him to match the numbers and production of Minshew (70.7% completion rate, 4,779 passing yards, 38 touchdowns, nine interceptions).
Due to Washington State’s schedule and a new face at the most important position in sports, it wouldn’t be a shock for the Cougars to take a step back this season.
No. 24 Nebraska: It sounds cliche, but Nebraska really was better than its 4-8 record last season. The Huskers finished No. 49 nationally in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings — the highest ranking of any four-win team.
The return of potential Heisman Trophy dark horse Adrian Martinez at quarterback means that Nebraska is the team to beat in the Big Ten West (and the “Scott Frost Year Two bump” doesn’t hurt, either), according to the unofficial preseason media poll.
But their defense was just No. 55 in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings last season, and it could still be a big ask for Nebraska to double its win total from last season.
Don’t get me wrong, Nebraska will be better this season and it will have a say in who represents the Big Ten West in the conference’s championship game. The Huskers’ schedule is friendly too, as they drew Indiana and Maryland among their three cross-division games, and they get to host Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa in Lincoln.
But if we’re looking for preseason Top 25 teams that might fall short of that standing by early December, isn’t the team coming off of a 4-8 season a good place to start?
No. 25 Stanford: The Cardinal have a tough non-conference schedule — home-opener against Northwestern, at UCF and home versus Notre Dame — so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Stanford suffers at least one loss outside of Pac-12 play.
A favorable draw in conference play with home games against No. 11 Oregon and No. 13 Washington benefits Stanford, plus the school avoided a cross-division game against No. 14 Utah. But ultimately this feels like an eight or nine-win schedule, which is where the program has been the last two seasons.
Stanford won the Sun Bowl last season and finished the season unranked at 9-4, while it lost the Alamo Bowl two seasons ago and finished at No. 20 with a 9-5 record.