Should UCLA be looking over its shoulder entering this fall?
Rankings are a big part of any college football season, and even in the playoff format, the polls and projections are still an interesting exercise. For example: The AP Poll came out over the weekend, while the USA Today Coaches Poll came out a few weeks ago. And the Athlon Sports Top 25 has been out since May.
With a few small exceptions — Florida ranked in Athlon Sports, Texas being ranked by the Coaches and Nebraska by the AP — all three polls are extremely similar.
This doesn’t mean that all three are correct, however. It doesn’t mean that someone in the top 15 could end up missing a bowl game or that one team ranked No. 43 in the preseason couldn’t sneak into the top 10.
In fact, both are likely. With that in mind, which teams in college football need to lower their expectations in 2014?
Most preseason polls have the Bruins are ranked in the top 10. And Jim Mora's team is a popular pick to win the Pac-12 South. While UCLA should win the division, the concept that the Bruins are deep enough and talented enough to go unbeaten or 11-1 in the regular season seems farfetched. The schedule is nasty and there is little to no support around Brett Hundley on offense. The defense could be excellent, and I’m still picking UCLA to win the South. However, they will head to Levi’s Stadium with two or three losses already in hand.
Before the academic scandal, the Fighting Irish was a preseason top-15 caliber team. One that had an outside shot at pushing for a playoff spot and landing a top 10 ranking. With three starters and another key reserve not practicing or playing (mostly likely all season), the upside for the Irish takes a serious hit. This is now a fringe top 25 team that will struggle to win eight games this year.
The schedule, like most in the Pac-12, is downright nasty. But this team is extremely talented and is buoyed by a new coaching staff. The issues for USC are still about depth. Key defenders Jabari Ruffin and Kenny Bigelow have already been lost for the season and the lack of scholarships is bound to hurt the Trojans once again this fall. There's no question the starting 22 is talented. However, three or four losses is a definite possibility.
This one is sort of a no-brainer since the Cowboys aren’t ranked anywhere on the internet. But this is a program accustomed to competing for Big 12 titles and it won’t be anywhere near the title race this fall. Mike Gundy is eyeing a return to prominence in 2015.
The Aggies are going to be much better at the end of the year than they will be at the beginning. Or in the middle. But preseason Top 20 is way too high for this squad. This team is extremely talented on both sides of the ball, but the defense is still a major work in progress and a brutal final two months should drop TAMU to sixth in the West.
Are the Tar Heels ready to have a breakthrough season? Maybe so. Or it could be a year early for UNC to reach the ACC Championship. Larry Fedora has some serious talent to work with but it is mostly inexperienced and very young. I asked former OC (and current Arkansas State coach) Blake Anderson if this is the year UNC breaks through and wins the Coastal, and he quickly shot that down, pointing to 2015 as the breakout season in Chapel Hill.
The Tigers have an elite collection of players and are accustomed to competing for national championships. But LSU is missing important veteran pieces. There is no experience or proven talent at quarterback or wide receiver on offense and a true freshman (albeit a great one) is the talk of the running game. And LSU has major holes to fill on defense as well. This is still a great roster, but the SEC schedule is downright nasty with games against Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
Charlie Strong is going to be just fine in Austin, but he has a lot of work to do in making over the Texas program from the inside out. David Ash is healthy, for now, and there is still plenty of talent on the roster. But a brutal schedule and very competitive middle portion of the Big 12 makes Texas a fringe Big 12 contender at best. Best case is probably eight wins.
The Cornhuskers are in better shape on defense than they’ve been in years, while the offense has a star in Ameer Abdullah to build around. Despite the optimism about the personnel, expectations need to be lowered in Lincoln due to a tough schedule. Wisconsin and Iowa miss Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan in crossover play, while Nebraska must face Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Fresno State on the road. The schedule is why Nebraska won’t win the West.
The Badgers have an elite offensive line, superstar tailback and excellent head coach. But the entire defensive front is being reworked, the quarterback position is far from settled and it starts the season facing LSU in Houston. This is a team who could easily win the Big Ten West but it’s not a team that should consider itself a playoff contender (or even someone who could win the Big Ten title).