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2019 Preseason Top 25

In College Football, Preview, Rankings, Rankings Commentary on August 28, 2019 at 2:29 PM

This could probably be a little shorter, but I don’t have the energy to edit it down today; and I don’t want to be in a rush to get it out before the games start tomorrow (if you didn’t know, I have a day job and live on the West Coast).  I made all the preliminary comments as well as comments about teams that didn’t make the list in the last blog.

Key: CB = cornerback(s), DL = defensive lineman(/men), HC = head coach, OL = offensive lineman(/men), QB = quarterback, RS = returning starter(s), RB = running back(s), SECCG = SEC championship game, TE = tight end(s), WR= wide receiver(s).

The Top 15

(# 1) Clemson – This is not a pick of Clemson to beat Alabama if they are to play again. Last year the Tigers had a big advantage in returning starters, and once they got their QB situation sorted out, I don’t think anyone could have beaten them in hindsight. These are without question the top two programs, so I just assume they can overcome losses in personnel. The tiebreaker went to the Tigers due to last season.

Trevor Lawrence will attempt to lead the Tigers to a repeat.

(# 2) Alabama – The Tide looked unbeatable most of the time last season with 10 returning starters. A season of wear and tear exposed a few vulnerabilities in the last two games, but they increase to 12 returning starters this season.

(# 3) Georgia – The Bulldogs were one of the teams to expose those vulnerabilities before the Tide pulled away late in the SECCG. I don’t hold the Texas loss against them since the goal was playoff and national championship, and the bowl prep and motivation may have been relatively lackluster. The Longhorns were excited to be in a big game and would have gotten the same bowl had they won the Big XII. For them, the playoff was likely off the table in September.

(# 4) LSU – I didn’t want to pick another SEC team so soon, but there is a very poor correlation this season between success last year and experience this year. A top-10 finish and NY6 bowl win with 16 returning starters (RS), 8 on each side, made it impossible to pass up the Tigers. LSU does lose a bit more from the defense than this indicates as they lose more of the tackles than Georgia (who has 14 RS, 7 each side) and have a less proven secondary in my opinion. But as I’ll explain, the other teams that seem like good candidates to make a playoff run have much less obvious talent coming back. Someone may go undefeated while LSU will most likely lose to someone, but if that does happen I think that other team will be exposed by Clemson or an SEC team.

(# 5) Michigan – I’m not sure I’ve ever been less excited about a #5 team.  I’ve always liked Shea Patterson, and he’s a senior who will be leading an offense with 8 returning starters.  That gives me slightly more confidence than another inexperienced Ohio St. team (albeit with the same number of RS).  This could be the year the Wolverines finally beat the Buckeyes, although they were favored last year and didn’t come close.  It’s also possible that Michigan will lose that game and Ohio St. will drop more games to lesser teams, which seems to be a recurring issue for the Buckeyes.  I wouldn’t necessarily trust the Wolverine defense though, especially not against one of the better Big Ten offenses or in an elite bowl game.

(# 6) Ohio St. – See above, but it’s worth noting that the majority of the Ohio St. RS will be on defense instead of offense.  This may be more of a rushing Ohio St. team since the Buckeyes do not return their quarterback.  I’m also not sure if the nine returning starters on defense are a good thing unless they learned how to tackle a lot better.  We’re only to #6, and it already sounds like I’m talking about #20.

(# 7) Notre Dame – The Irish also have 13 RS, but they lose their top RB, WR, and TE.  The defense has one fewer RS than the offense and also loses some of the top playmakers.  HC Kelley has shown some resiliency and ability to recruit depth over the years though.  It seems extraordinarily unlikely that the Irish will go undefeated (both Georgia and Michigan are road games); but if they win one of those and suffer no other losses, a return to the playoff would not be surprising.

(# 8) Florida – The Gators also have 13 RS (that’s four teams in a row if you’re keeping track).  Imagine LSU didn’t have to play Alabama or Texas A&M last year.  I can see Florida having a similar year.  The Miami win was too close for comfort (I’m not factoring that in); but if they can pull a couple of upsets like LSU did without the close losses, the playoff isn’t out of the realm of possibility.  He’s not outstanding, but QB Feleipe Franks seems capable of leading such a team. 

(# 9) Auburn – The Tigers (who break the trend with 14 RS) are often better when they can sneak up on people.  2004 (which followed Tommy Tuberville nearly getting fired) and 2013 (which followed the apparent end of Gene Chizik’s head coaching career) come to mind, although this wouldn’t be as dramatic as 2013. The schedule (they get Florida along with the yearly Georgia game) may make representing the West in the SECCG nearly impossible, but I’m only picking them third in the division after all.

(# 10) Washington St. – Although the Cougars have a lower ceiling (the Rose Bowl is the best realistic outcome), I see them as similar to LSU.  If they were able to do what they did last year with a relatively weak team on paper, I see no reason they can’t at least be about as good (if not better) this season.  It’s another team with 13 RS, but a couple of notable transfers (at QB and DL) make that misleading.  Wazzu won 11 games last year, so they may be even better than some of the teams above with 13.

(# 11) Oklahoma – A lot of people see the Sooners as a playoff team – and I do begrudgingly consider them most likely to win the Big XII – but they’re just too inexperienced for me to believe that.  Alabama transfer Hurts is a good QB, but he’s going to be playing behind 4 new OL and will only have four RS on that side of the ball overall.  The Sooners have a total of 12 RS, which isn’t terrible, but when you look more in depth they’re not even in the top 100 in terms of experience.  I’m not sure the 8 RS on defense are a good thing given how porous the unit was last year.

(# 12) Texas A&M – The Aggies have 11 RS.  HC Fisher got away with that type of team at Florida St. before Clemson got so good, but I think that’s a lot harder to do in the SEC West (and this year he has to face Clemson as well).  Since it’s only Fisher’s second year, he didn’t recruit most of the starters.  If Sumlin were still the BC they wouldn’t even be ranked, so I think making them 12th (a lucky number for the Aggies) is giving Fisher the credit he’s due.  Maybe even too much given what happened at Florida St.in 2017, when the Seminoles barely became bowl-eligible.

(# 13) Utah – The Utes are not the most experienced team in the Pac-12 – UCLA and Oregon have more experience – but I had Utah as the better team last year, and I think with a typically solid defense (3 first-team all-conference players) and experienced seniors at QB and RB (though both were injured late last season), Utah may even have an outside shot at the playoff.  They will have 14 RS, 7 on each side.

Utah QB Tyler Huntley is a running and throwing threat who can keep defenses off-balance.

(# 14) Washington – The Huskies are widely picked to win the Pac-12 again, but after losing their QB, their RB, and all but two defensive starters, let’s just say I’m skeptical. Another strong Pac-12 season still wouldn’t be shocking given that the Huskies have won 14 straight conference home games though.

(# 15) Texas – Tom Herman enters his third year, but I would not be surprised if the team took a step back given only 8 RS.  I couldn’t find another team in the Big XII to challenge Oklahoma though. Maybe someone will be a surprise. The Longhorns do have a pretty good quarterback and a couple of good WR from last season. 

Numbers 16 to 25

I like many teams toward the bottom of the top 25 more than #5 to #15, but these are programs that I don’t trust as much to produce a good team even though the potential is there.  Sometimes an unranked team (in particular) that has a lot of players back stays an unranked team, but some of these could also be in NY6 bowls.

(# 16) Oregon – As I mentioned under Utah, the Ducks are one of the most experienced teams in the Pac-12 and with Washington vulnerable, they may have a reasonable shot at taking their place.  17 starters are back, 10 on offense.  Oregon does lose 3 of its best tacklers on defense though.  QB Justin Herbert should lead the best offense in the conference, but WSU HC Mike Leach may have something to say about that..

(# 17) Central Florida – Like many of those above, the Knights have 13 RS, mostly on offense.  Surprisingly, UCF is only slightly less experienced than last season, so another top-11 finish (it would be the fourth since 2013) is not out of the question.  UCF has a new QB, and I’m not sure Wimbush, the Notre Dame transfer will keep the offense going as well.  The defense will probably have holes having lost 5 of the front 7 and 4 of the top 6 tacklers.

(# 18) Michigan St. – Like Oregon, the Spartans have a lot of experience (17 RS), but the experience is from a team that was barely in the top 50 last season.  Two years ago, State won 7 conference games, so if things go well they could return to that level.

(# 19) Iowa St. – The Cyclones have been a pest for the top teams in the Big XII the last few years.  With 16 returning starters, ISU may have a chance to compete for the conference title.  Brock Purdy returns after leading the offense to over 30 points per game in his 9 games.  The Cyclones still haven’t won a conference title since 1912 (they only played two conference games that year), although they did tie for the Big XII North in 2004.  Even a conference-championship game would be a first for Iowa St.

(# 20) Syracuse – The Orange will likely improve defensively (with 7 RS there) but may take a step back on offense.  Six starters return on offense, but that does not include the quarterback, and part of the reason for the proficiency last year was the experience.  I wouldn’t bet on anyone challenging Clemson in the ACC this year, but if Syracuse competes in years like this that will be a good sign for the future where maybe Clemson isn’t a defending national champion and there is a clear advantage in RS.

(# 21) Penn St. – The Nittany Lions barely snuck into the top 20 last season and with fewer RS (12, evenly split) than the vast majority of the top 25, I don’t think predicting them to be about the same is an insult.  They will have a new QB and a new primary RB, although the OL look good.  The defense had the same or fewer RS the last two years and was very good nonetheless, allowing 16.5 and 20.5 points per game in the last two years respectively. 

(# 22) Florida St. – It’s weird that this was one of the last teams I even thought to add to consideration.  The Seminoles had the third toughest schedule last season, and that’s just not a good situation to try to implement a new system that hasn’t been really established at the major-conference level.  Not to mention that HC Fisher (see Texas A&M) didn’t leave on a very good note.  FSU should have beaten Miami and does deserve some credit for beating Boston College when they were getting beaten up against a ranked team every week at the end.  There were some games that should have been closer, but I think reports of the program’s demise are greatly exaggerated.  Anyway, they have EIGHT starters back on both sides of the ball.  I’m taking the mediocre couple of years into account or they would be in the top 10, but I think top 25 is warranted.

Florida St. RB Cam Akers ran for over 1000 yards as a freshman in 2017 and, with an improved offensive line and possibly more carries, will look to do so again.

(# 23) Appalachian St. – The second team in a row with 16 RS.  Nearly the whole offense is back from a team that scored over 37 points per game last season.  The major area of concern on defense is CB, so there may be a few more points allowed.  It’s hard to do much better than last year’s mark of 15.5 points per game.  I know the schedule hasn’t been great, but if you win 11 games and have that many guys back, you can beat some people.  The only conference loss last season was to Georgia Southern in a game where the QB was injured and the backup was turnover-prone, so they could be undefeated in conference.  The only nonconference loss was to Penn St. in overtime, so the Mountaineers could go undefeated overall too.

(# 24) Cincinnati – The Bearcats also suffered only two losses last year, and one was also in overtime.  The more substantial loss (by 25) was to UCF, so that’s hardly disqualifying.  That game may be closer this year.  Cincy has 7 RS on each side of the ball.  Three of the 4 major passing targets along with last year’s QB and RB are returners.   OL and DL are the only two areas that seem weaker.

(# 25) South Carolina – The Gamecocks are by far the biggest impediment to Appalachian St. possibly having an undefeated run. HC Muschamp says this is his best team at South Carolina, but I’m not sure that’s saying a whole lot.  Carolina had a decent year last year, but going the last 6 quarters without a point wasn’t a good look.  They also have 7 RS on each side of the ball.  The Cocks aren’t picked in some top 25s due to schedule (Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Florida), but like I said in the intro, I don’t factor that in.  They need to figure out how to beat ranked teams (0 wins in the last 10 attempts) to justify being widely ranked regardless.

Changes in Rankings

Finally, I made a chart of the teams that are ranked above as well as the teams that are not on the list above but were in the top 25 at the end of last season. I use two different ratings systems, one that essentially gives bonus points for quality opponents (“weighted” toward better schedules) and another that treats every game equally (which I call unweighted). That’s what W and UW stand for below. The overall ranking is determined by averaging the two (adjusting for how different the range in numbers is); therefore it is in the column under “Avg.”


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2019 Preseason Rankings Intro

In College Football, Preview, Rankings Commentary on August 26, 2019 at 5:27 PM

I’ll publish the top 25 in a couple of days, but I’m going to keep you in suspense while I talk about my philosophy and some of the turnover that you may notice from the end of last season.

There are a few things I want to say about my philosophy when it comes to preseason rankings.  Although I do pride myself on a team having a good season after I started them unusually high or a bad season after I start them unusually low, I’m not trying to have the exact top 25 that will be in place at the end of the year. 

I’m also not trying to have the exact top 25 that will be in place before the bowls.  It sounds strange, but a lot of people will make the top 4 the teams they think will be in the playoff.  If there is a close call at #4 and #4 loses to #1 by 40 while #5 wins a big bowl, #4 going into the playoff is not going to stay #4.  There could even be a #6 or #7 that pass them up.  But if I were still on a site with a lot of comments, people would show up and tell me I’m crazy for thinking three SEC teams will be in the Playoff.  I wouldn’t even want that to happen if I honestly believed the best three teams were in the SEC.

Anyway, what I do believe in is a best guess as to who is going into the season with the toughest team.  So with that in mind, I don’t care how easy your schedule is.  Some people seem to think rankings are a list of most likely teams to go undefeated.  For instance, I read something that touted Nebraska as a potential ranked team since they don’t play any of the best teams in the Big Ten.  That tells me nothing about how good Nebraska is, so I don’t care.  Maybe they’ll get fewer injuries that way and will therefore be harder to beat in the bowl than they would have been otherwise.  But that’s one reason this isn’t as much about who’s good later in the year. 

Nebraska didn’t win its first game last year until October 20 (pictured). The Huskers finished the year 4-8 (a couple of plays from 6-6), but I’m still skeptical of a drastic improvement.

However, I do expect some correlation between the best teams going into the season and the best teams at the end of the season.  And by going into, I mean those with the best prospects on paper, not necessarily the teams who will have the most successful first few weeks.

For a while I focused just on returning starters and how good a team was last year, but I’ve been led astray too many times recently and decided to look more in depth.  If Alabama only had 9 returning starters (RS), for instance, I’d still have them in the top 5.  In past years I may have expected a team like that to fall from 14-1 to 10-4, but I don’t know if any number of returning starters no matter how small would cause Alabama or Clemson to lose four games this season.  Last year, the Tide only had 10 RS.

Tua Tagovailoa (pictured during the 2018 national championship) may feel spoiled as Alabama increases to 12 returning starters from 10 last season.

Such programs just get too many great recruits, and their coaches are attentive and hardworking enough to make even recent high-school players elite college players in just a few months. Teams like that seem most vulnerable early in the year (which I maintain is why Alabama has lost to Ole Miss recently but not LSU), so I guess that’s one caveat to what I said about who’s best going in, but Alabama has also lined up against some decent teams in the first game and blown them out.

Conversely, the two teams with the most RS are UCLA and Texas St.  If you put all of their returning starters on the same team, I still wouldn’t put that team in my top 25.  UCLA could be in the top 25 at the end of the year for all I know, but it would take a lot of improvement that I’ve seen no evidence is forthcoming from that particular program.  I had the Bruins 95th at the end of last season, so even if they improve 65 spots (jumping over half the teams in FBS football), they still wouldn’t be in the top 25.

The worst team last year that I’m ranking here is Florida St. (whom I had #61 in the final ratings), but since their schedule was so tough last year, their record wasn’t very indicative of talent level.  The Seminoles finished the year against five consecutive ranked opponents (beating one). The only loss to an unranked opponent was to Syracuse, which finished ranked #15 in both major polls and which nearly beat Clemson.  I decided that was as low as I was willing to go though.  I had Virginia Tech many spots lower and after some consideration opted to leave the Hokies unranked despite 16 returning starters.

Florida St.’s one-point loss to Miami, in hindsight, resulted in the Noles’ first season without a bowl game since 1982.

There were three other teams I considered moving into the rankings now despite not finishing last year ranked, but I’ll wait and see for now (last year’s final ranking), Mississippi St. (30), Baylor (47), and Wisconsin (48).

The only ranked teams from last season that I ruled out immediately were in the Mountain West. Boise St. has lacked consistency in recent years and only returns 13 starters, which do not include last year’s quarterback.  Fresno St. and Utah St. return only 9 starters apiece.  The “mid-major” teams can have difficulty with continuity even with a large number of returning starters.  I did decide to give Appalachian St., which returns 16 starters, the benefit of the doubt though.  By the way, RS numbers do not include kickers. 

Other ranked teams that fell out between the final ratings of last season and now are Kentucky (#12, 8 RS), Army (#14, 11 RS), Stanford (#24, 9 RS), and Iowa (#25, 10 RS).  Kentucky has improved or maintained its record from the previous season every year since 2014, but all good things must come to an end.  I considered keeping Army as the Black Knights have responded well in the past to personnel turnover, but there were too many talented major programs that have more potential to reach major bowls.

I’ve given you a few hints, but check back for the preseason top 25 in the coming days.