Preseason rankings are meaningless in college football, considering how little they resemble the final poll when the dust settles. But what can we actually learn from them?
Since it began in 2014-15, the College Football Playoff has featured just five teams that started the season ranked outside the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
The list is made up of Clemson (preseason No. 12) and Oklahoma (No. 19) in 2015, Washington (No. 14) in 2016, Georgia (No. 15) in 2017 and Notre Dame (No. 12) in 2018. Only the first playoff — featuring Ohio State, Alabama, Oregon and Florida State — had four teams with preseason top-10 rankings.
So, generally speaking, the AP voters do a fairly good job at identifying college football’s top tier.
But, the chalky inaugural playoff aside, at least one team has far exceeded preseason expectations each year to land in the final four. Here’s a look at which team that might be in 2019:
The Pac-12 contenders
No. 11 Oregon
The recipe is simple. Quarterback Justin Herbert is a projected top-10 draft pick. The offensive line is among the nation’s best, featuring preseason All-Americans in guard Shane Lemieux and tackle Calvin Throckmorton. The defense, led by linebacker Troy Dye, is expected to improve after allowing 25.4 points per game last season. The Ducks’ playoff fate could be decided in Week 1, with an opener against No. 16 Auburn in Arlington, Texas. Win that game, and Oregon could be on its way to ending the Pac-12’s four-year playoff drought. Lose, and the conference will face even more questions about its ability to contend with the nation’s elite.
No. 13 Washington
The biggest question for the Huskies is quarterback Jacob Eason, the transfer from Georgia. The former five-star recruit flashed his potential with the Bulldogs as a true freshman in 2016, throwing for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns in 13 games (12 starts). Though the defense loses key starters, including four in the secondary, from a unit that finished fifth in the nation last season (allowing 16.4 points per game), the schedule is favorable. Washington gets to face three of its toughest conference opponents — Oregon, Utah and Washington State — at home. Back-to-back games vs. Southern California and Stanford in Weeks 5 and 6 will be an interesting measuring stick for a potential playoff run.
Since taking over in 2005, Kyle Whittingham has quietly built the Utes into a perennial contender. This season, they’re the favorites to win the Pac-12, something the program hasn’t done since joining the league in 2011. According to S&P+ data from ESPN’s Bill Connelly (formerly of SB Nation), the Utes are projected favorites in 11 games, and only one of those wins has a projected margin under seven points (2.1 points at Southern California). They return 15 starters, including quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, and can get after the quarterback. They’re a threat to go 12-1 or 13-0, and that puts them in the conversation.
The Big Ten contenders
No. 15 Penn State
Just what will the Nittany Lions offense look like without quarterback Trace McSorley? With their former star taking preseason snaps for the Ravens, Sean Clifford is the favorite to emerge as the starter. The former four-star recruit was nearly perfect in limited action last season, completing five of seven passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns in mop-up duty. He’ll face stiffer competition this time around, but with dynamic receiver K.J. Hamler and standout tight end Pat Freiermuth leading the way, paired with highly touted prospects Justin Shorter and Jahan Dotson on the outside and plenty of talented runners in the backfield, Penn State’s offense can return to the explosive heights it reached under McSorley, Saquon Barkley and Joe Moorhead. That, combined with a talented young defense, could be enough to propel the Lions to a Big Ten title and a playoff berth.
No. 20 Iowa
Apologies to No. 18 Michigan State, No, 19 Wisconsin and Northwestern, but the Hawkeyes are the real threat to emerge with a stunning playoff berth. The Spartans and Badgers might have more talent — Iowa lost two tight ends to the NFL and its leading receiver — but you need solid quarterback play to be in title contention, and the bet here is Nate Stanley will be better than Brian Lewerke and Jack Coan, respectively. (In Northwestern’s case, facing six ranked opponents seems insurmountable.) An improved year from Stanley and a 2009 Ndamukong Suh-type performance from star defensive end A.J. Epenesa — who’s already getting top-10 NFL draft pick buzz — could put Iowa over the top in a winnable Big Ten West, and an upset over the East champion could force the committee’s hand. Early trips to Ames against in-state rival Iowa State and Ann Arbor to face Michigan will signal just how good the Hawkeyes are.
Will Scott Frost really go from 4-8 to a playoff berth in his second season at his alma mater? Unlikely. But could it happen? Yes, and here’s why: Adrian Martinez. Before his freshman season ended prematurely with a knee injury, Martinez was an explosive dual threat, throwing 17 touchdown passes and rushing for another eight while completing 64.6% of his passes and averaging a school-record 295.1 yards per game. He deserves to be on every Heisman Trophy short list. Even if the Cornhuskers lose their toughest game, at home against Ohio State in Week 5, they can still win the West and avenge their loss to the Buckeyes or a different East champ in the Big Ten title game. And need we remind you that Frost has done this before? After going 6-7 his first year at UCF, he led the Knights to a 13-0 season and a “national championship.” At least that’s what the school declared, anyway.
The ACC contenders
No. 22 Syracuse
That’s not a typo. The Orange are ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time since 1998, when Donovan McNabb was still slinging it in the Carrier Dome. Now, there’s a big road block on their quest to the 12 wins they almost certainly need to get into a playoff conversation, and that’s No. 1 and reigning national champion Clemson. But did you know that Syracuse upset the Tigers in 2017 and nearly did it again last season, with Clemson needing a late touchdown drive — including a fourth-down conversion — from third-string quarterback Chase Brice to win, 27-23, after Trevor Lawrence was knocked out and Kelly Bryant had already left the team? Sure, record-setting quarterback Eric Dungey is gone, but former four-star prospect Tommy DeVito steps in. It sounds crazy, but that Week 3 prime-time matchup against Clemson could have playoff implications.
We’ll find out real quickly what the Hurricanes are made of when they face No. 8 Florida on Saturday in Orlando. Upset the Gators, and “Is The U back!?” talk will begin again in earnest, because after that game, the schedule shapes up nicely. The Canes don’t face another ranked opponent in a weak ACC Coastal, meaning a potential ACC title game showdown against Clemson is all that’s standing in the way of a playoff berth in Manny Diaz’s first season. But that’s if — and it’s a big if, with redshirt freshman quarterback Jarren Williams taking his first college snaps this weekend — they get past Florida.
The SEC contender
Apologies to No. 16 Auburn, which will have an extremely hard time avoiding two losses (Cue 2007 LSU jokes). The real reason to bet on Missouri is Kelly Bryant, the graduate transfer from Clemson who could become an immediate star at quarterback. Bryant led Clemson to the 2017 playoff and probably could have done it again were it not for wunderkind freshman Trevor Lawrence forcing him out. The Tigers have a favorable early schedule and could be 8-0 heading into a road game against Georgia on Nov. 9. Win that game, and beat Florida the following week at home and all of the sudden Mizzou is the SEC East champ (assuming it takes care of business against Tennessee and Arkansas). Would the Tigers still get in with a loss to, let’s say, Alabama in the SEC title game? It’s in play.
If they go undefeated ... maybe?
There has yet to be a true party crasher in the CFP era, with undefeated UCF being left out each of the past two seasons and no true Group of 5 contender emerging unscathed. But this very well could be the year.
(For round number counting purposes, I’m bunching these teams into one. Just go with it.)
Easy. The Knights go undefeated again, with their best win coming over *squints* a possibly ranked Stanford at home? OK, so maybe that won’t be enough to sway the committee. But if Cincinnati turns into a contender (say, with an upset over Ohio State in Week 2?), UCF could add another signature win to its resume. The same goes for the Bearcats, who get a shot against UCLA and the Buckeyes early in the season to build their resume before heading into American Athletic Conference play.
The schedule is set up to impress the committee. All the Cougars have to do is win, and that starts with a Week 1 meeting with Utah in Provo. Easier said than done, with Tennessee, Southern California and Washington following over the next three weeks. But BYU gets the Trojans and Huskies at home, and if they escape that grueling start 3-1 or 4-0, Boise State might be the only team standing in the Cougars’ way from an 11-win season.
Once again, there isn’t much meat on the bone in the Broncos’ schedule, with a Week 1 game in Jacksonville against unranked Florida State the only real chance to gain any credibility. An undefeated Boise State will conjure memories of Kellen Moore, Doug Martin, Titus Young and Austin Pettis, but the Mountain West schedule is too weak for any playoff discussion.
Imagine a world in which every other team in the country loses at least one game. Now imagine an undefeated App State, with wins over Power 5 foes North Carolina and South Carolina, tears through the Sun Belt, scoring over 35 points per game and winning each game by at least three touchdowns. Does the committee put them in? Probably not, but it’s fun to imagine what live shots from Boone would look like on selection night.