There has been some confusion on this in the past, so I wanted to start with my general philosophy on pre-season rankings.
I do use a formula starting around the beginning of October for ratings, but that has nothing to do with pre-season. Everyone starts fresh in that formula when we get around to it.
What I start with is a subjective evaluation of how good the team was last year and how many good players are coming back. If 17 of 22 offensive and defensive starters are coming back from a top-10 team, that’s probably going to be a good team, at least they’ll be well-positioned. It might not be the best team, but to me that’s a preseason #1 candidate. That team would go ahead of a more talented but unproven team.
I wanted to say a couple of things about returning starters. I know how many returning starters you have in August aren’t always great predictors of how well you do in November, December, and January, but I still think they’re a good place to start. A preseason top 25 should be the teams you expect to be strongest based on what the teams have to start the season.
Likewise, when you get to the end of the season, subjective polls will reflect who’s good at the time and might not count those early-season games (such as the one Ohio St. played against Virginia Tech last year) for much.
I guess the best analogy for my preseason approach is seeding or pole position. It’s an earned status to a degree, but it’s not necessarily a prediction of results. An example from the NCAA basketball tournament a few months ago was Villanova. I didn’t really have a problem with them being a #1 seed, but I still thought there was a good chance they’d lose in an early round and they did. The previous year, that’s how I felt about Wichita St.
When I do talk about returning starters below, I am just referring to Phil Steele’s list of returning starters and not counting kickers… not that I don’t respect kickers, but few championships are decided by having an experienced punter or kicker rather than just having a good one.
Without further ado, here’s my top 10, and I’ll give my reasoning below:
- Ohio St.
- Michigan St.
I have a couple of guidelines for preseason #1. One of these guidelines is that it has to be a team that I’ve previously ranked #1 in my 20 years (this is actually year 21) of ranking college football teams. So while either TCU or Baylor could emerge from the Big XII and win it all, I can’t really pick either one.
I do want to say one other thing about the Big XII upfront. I think there will likely only be one of the two in the playoff (same thought about the Big Ten, by the way), and the likely fourth team I would guess will come from the Pac-12, but I obviously don’t think any Pac-12 team looks good enough for the top four just yet.
Unlike some, I don’t necessarily gravitate toward last year’s #1; but I just don’t see any other good choices. For the record, this is the fourth time I have made the Buckeyes my preseason #1.
ESPN’s #3 is Auburn. I wouldn’t be surprised if Auburn finished #3 (or maybe even #4) in their DIVISION. Alabama, Georgia (who Auburn plays every year despite being in another division), LSU, Arkansas, and Ole Miss are not exactly strolls through the park when you return only 12 starters from a four-loss team.
Alabama has been a safe high pick in recent years, but another new quarterback (and not an experienced veteran new QB like last year) is a concern.
Also, this has happened a few times, but Alabama was lucky it finished with the record it did. Whether you fault LSU or the refs for the outcome, Alabama’s talent did not really win that game. I also felt Auburn played a better game, at least between their own goal line and about the Alabama 10. So I wasn’t shocked when the Tide lost to Ohio St. I didn’t pick Ohio St. to win, but I wasn’t shocked.
The other two teams from the top 4 last year were Oregon and Florida St.
Oregon only returns 12 starters and only 5 on defense. I think defensive returning starters are often underrated in preseason rankings. Offensive returning starters depend a lot more on position and player. A tight end or guard might not be missed, especially if there is someone else there who had significant playing time before; but any weak link in a defense, even if it’s only week for a couple plays in the game, will be noticed.
Florida St.’s offense will be gutted. If the 4 starters were Winston, a couple of linemen and a good wide receiver, that would be one thing, but Winston is gone and the ’Noles replace four linemen. Defensive starters are underrated as I said, but it helps to have a defense less pourous than their was. FSU only had 11 returning starters two years ago, but I think we know enough about Everett Golson at this point to know he’s no Jameis Winston. I haven’t followed the team that closely, but I certainly don’t think the other candidates are clearly better than he is.
There may be a potential top-four team I haven’t mentioned that could surprise and win both games (like Ohio St. did last year), but to go along with what I said earlier I don’t see preseason rankings as the time to make longshot predictions.
ESPN also has USC, Michigan St., and Georgia in the top 10. USC can beat Notre Dame and they can beat Oregon, but I’d be pretty surprised by both, especially given that both are on the road and USC hasn’t won anything major in a while. Also, there is that whole conference championship thing, and UCLA and Arizona St. won’t be cakewalks either.
Michigan St. is interesting. They were a top-4 team a couple of years ago. I don’t think they’ll play anyone overpowering with the possible exceptions of Ohio St. and Oregon; but I don’t know if their QB will have anyone to throw to, and they also fail the #1 test I mentioned above.
Their #10 is Georgia. They play those Alabama and Auburn teams I discussed (pretty tough inter-divisional slate), not to mention that Missouri team that keeps winning their division and an improving Tennessee team (also the man in the visor isn’t a pushover either). They also have 12 returning starters.
Now I think the SEC will have at least five top 25 teams, possibly even two or three more, but I don’t see a team that jumps out much.
If I’m anywhere close to correct about the SEC, it would take the best coaching performance Saban has ever had for Alabama to get through undefeated, so I don’t think that’s going to happen, especially given that game against Georgia. On the other hand, since they found a way to win all but one last year (before the playoff), they can probably do the same this year and end up in the top four. Of course LSU lost two games in 2007 and ended up in the top two, so top four certainly isn’t out of the question with two losses.
Baylor is #2 because look how good they were last year with single-digit returning starters. They have almost twice as many this year. They really are one of the top two teams I wouldn’t want to play, especially early on. The main worry with the Bears is they could get in one too many shootouts, and it could backfire, like that WVU game that got away from them last year. The defense should be improved, but there is a lot of room to improve.
I was going to pick Oregon as my top Pac-12 team again, but Phil Steele convinced me otherwise. I think I jumped the gun by picking USC to do so well last year (#11 was my preseason ranking), but that doesn’t mean they won’t move up this year. They have better pieces in place, it’s just a matter of how quickly the team gels and learns how to be champions. The Trojans may not even beat Oregon (on the road), but even if they don’t, they could get a second chance. Both could easily have out-of-conference losses as well (to Michigan St. and Notre Dame, respectively), so the Pac-12 should be less confident about landing a playoff team than the SEC, Big XII, or Big Ten.
I also don’t think UCLA is far behind. Like with USC, I wonder if they can go from challengers to champions, but I also think the talent and potential are there. The quarterback is a question mark, but he’ll have enough support staff around him that by the time they play the likes of Stanford and especially USC, they could be a very good offense.
Clemson has three tough games: Notre Dame, @Miami, and Florida St. If they win all three and the ACC championship, they should be in the top four. I don’t think they will, but top 10 isn’t too much to ask. The defense (4 returning starters) may have a rough time of things, but I don’t think Florida St. and Miami will have the kind of punishing offenses to take advance of it too badly.
LSU is a good place to end because for one I honestly think they’ll be more competitive in the SEC this year, and because I can finish this blog by talking more about them without detracting from other teams.
I really tried to look for reasons not to put LSU in the top 10, but my main concern with the defense is depth in the secondary, I’m not concerned with the whole unit like I am with Clemson. Clemson may have a more solid offense and a better QB situation, that’s why they’re higher, but I don’t see much distance there. I think LSU is still too young to do something like win the SEC (though to be fair I didn’t see that coming in the preseason in 2001 or 2003), but returning starters are returning starters even if they were freshmen starters last year. As the cliché goes, they weren’t freshmen when last season ended. If they can do something like, I don’t know, beat Alabama, that could be a springboard to something really special in 2016.
I just want to mention something that’s bothering me. People are saying Saban has Les Miles’ number, but two of the past three years, Alabama did not have a good game against LSU. Instead of continuing to run over the defense, LSU played for a field goal in 2012 (which they missed and which started Alabama’s game winning drive).
I touched on last season earlier, but LSU had the ball with goal to go and under two minutes left in a tie game. A little mutual physicality after a play somehow got LSU a personal foul (but not Alabama) and stopped the clock. LSU had little choice but to play for a field goal to take the lead. Then LSU’s squib kick on a kickoff (which they might have kicked deep had there been less time on the clock) was a little too diagonal and bounced out of bounds, eventually setting up the tying field goal. I’m not saying not to give Alabama credit for their respective winning and tying drives, but that’s not Alabama or Nick Saban having LSU’s or Les Miles’ number. Now if by “has his number” they mean he’s been getting the breaks, then absolutely; but that type of thing doesn’t typically last forever. The shoe was on the other foot not too long ago.
Let’s not forget that last year Alabama had a top-four team and LSU didn’t even have a top-25 team. The game this year is at Alabama, but the road team has a consistent historical edge in the series. LSU last won in Tuscaloosa in 2011 before losing to the Tide in the rematch two months later. So the Alabama win in 2013 was the only win by a home team in the series since 2010. LSU could also easily lose a revenge game to Ole Miss or Texas A&M or possibly lose again to one of the teams who beat the Tigers last year. That type of thing is less likely for Alabama even if they finally do lose one to LSU.