The end of the year is a time of reflection, a time to make promises to ourselves to do better in the next year.
For us at Athlon Sports, we like to take stock of the predictions we made back in May and June to see how they panned out. Which teams did we get right? Which teams did we get wrong? Which teams repaid or betrayed our faith in them this season?
In looking at the results, we try to get better for future seasons and maybe find some warning signs or predictors for success. Did we not put enough stock in teams with returning linemen or more depth than we realized? Did we put too much trust in untested quarterbacks?
One tool we track closely is Stassen.com. The site is not only a wealth of historical information, but it also grades preseason accuracy. Stassen grades accuracy based on predictions within a conference or a division.
In this year’s Stassen evaluation, Athlon Sports ranked second among preseason magazines and tied for fourth among the 21 preseason rankings Stassen tracks. Here’s how Athlon ranked among preseason magazines:
Stassen's 2015 Preseason Accuracy Rankings
1. Phil Steele
2. Athlon Sports
T3. Sports Illustrated
6. Conference media polls
7. USA Today
8. The Sporting News
Beyond the conference picks, we also like to check in with the top 25. Of Athlon’s preseason top 14 teams, 11 were ranked in the final College Football Playoff top 25. Each of the semifinal teams was ranked in our top 17.
Clearly, there’s a flip side in all of this. Iowa, ranked 53rd, was our biggest top 25 miss, and our No. 4 team Auburn finished 6–6. If there’s any silver lining those rankings, everyone missed on Auburn and Iowa in one degree or another.
Athlon would never claim to have perfect rankings, though that’s certainly our goal. In fact, a season that lined up completely with our expectations would probably be pretty boring.
Nevertheless, it’s still fun to look back on all the picks that panned out and the ones that fizzled.
So let’s get this over with and start with the picks we got wrong, followed by the fun part of looking at the teams we got right:
Preseason picks Athlon (and everyone else) got wrong
• Ohio State as the unanimous No. 1. The Buckeyes were No. 7 in the final CFP rankings but didn’t even make the Big Ten title game. This is perhaps the easiest mistake to make in the preseason rankings: A defending national champion with loads of returning starters (Ohio State returned 14).
We’d look like we’re making a statement if we didn’t put Ohio State at No. 1. Maybe one day we won’t fall in the trap of picking a repeat national champion. Unless it’s Alabama.
• Auburn at No. 4. Every preseason magazine and both polls had Auburn in the top 10, so at least Athlon isn’t alone in buying the Tigers’ Kool-Aid. Heck, even coach Gus Malzahn sent his green starting quarterback, Jeremy Johnson, to represent Auburn at SEC Media Days. Let that be a lesson that defenses don’t get fixed overnight and we need to tread lightly around new starting quarterbacks.
• Georgia at No. 10 and No. 1 in the SEC East. Another SEC pick everyone missed. The injury bug hit the running position back again. The defensive staff never seemed to be on the same page with the head coach. And a Virginia quarterback castoff didn’t turn into Matthew Stafford or Aaron Murray overnight.
• Oklahoma winning the Big 12. Everyone loved either TCU or Baylor (mostly TCU) in the Big 12. OU was a preseason top 25 team — No. 17 in Athlon — but almost no one had the Sooners toppling last year’s Big 12 co-champs. OU was coming off its worst season since 1999 and lost in a bowl rout to Clemson. Clearly, we should have put more stock in the marriage of new coordinator Lincoln Riley and quarterback Baker Mayfield — both Air Raid guys — making over the OU offense.
• The ACC Coastal race. The ACC Coastal was considered in the preseason to be one of the tightest division races in the country. Then how come everyone got it so wrong? Georgia Tech was a consensus top 25 team. Most everyone picked the Yellow Jackets or Virginia Tech to win the Coastal, which was eventually won by North Carolina. Georgia Tech (3–9) was out of the race by October and had its worst season since 1994. Oops.
• Iowa, North Carolina and the rise of the American Athletic Conference. Iowa and North Carolina played for conference titles and perhaps spots in the College Football Playoff in the last week of the season. They were nowhere to be found in any preseason top 25. Neither was the American Athletic Conference, and yet by September and October, it was clear the AAC champ would grab a major bowl bid. Houston, Navy, Temple and Memphis all spent time in the top 25.
Athlon rolled the dice… and was wrong
• Clemson at No. 14. Consider this: At press time, Clemson returned only six starters, had a quarterback coming off an injury and had lost arguably the game’s top offensive coordinator to a head coaching job. A No. 14 ranking would seem generous for other teams. For this year's Clemson team, a No. 14 ranking and second-place finish in the ACC Atlantic was also quite wrong. Watson recovered just fine, and Clemson had built enough depth to absorb all those personnel losses.
• Overall SEC strength. Athlon ranked the entire SEC West in the preseason, not to mention Georgia and Tennessee from the East. With all those SEC teams, we still missed Florida in the top 25 (in fairness, Florida was No. 26 and was in our top 25 until shortly before press time). Only No. 2 Alabama, No. 12 Ole Miss, No. 19 Florida and No. 22 Tennessee actually finished the season ranked. Athlon underestimated the quarterback woes in the league for teams like Auburn, Georgia, Texas A&M and LSU and overestimated the impact of new coordinators at Auburn and Texas A&M.
Oddly enough, the team that had the best coordinator hire in 2015 may have been the one that got the least traction: Dan Enos at Arkansas effectively turned a run-first and run-second offense into a unit with one of the top three passers in the league in Brandon Allen.
• Stanford at No. 24 and No. 2 in the Pac-12 North. Few tabbed Stanford as a top 10 team, but Athlon was on the lower end of the spectrum for the Pac-12 champs. That’s partly because Oregon wasn’t nearly good as expected, especially when Vernon Adams was hurt. We didn’t put enough stock in Christian McCaffrey’s breakout season, Kevin Hogan’s improved play at the end of 2014 or the four returning offensive linemen.
• Arizona State at No. 13. The Sun Devils finished 6-6. Why we didn’t consider that possibility when the Sun Devils lost every impact defensive player and a starting quarterback is a mystery.
Athlon rolled the dice … and was right
• Alabama at No. 2. While we picked Auburn in our top four, we still picked Alabama at No. 2 and the champion of the West. No one else had Alabama this high in the preseason. The Tide have stacked top recruiting classes for years, and Lane Kiffin had worked wonders with Blake Sims last season. We expected the same with Jake Coker in 2015.
• A Big 12 champion not named TCU. The Horned Frogs were a near-unanimous pick to win the Big 12 with Athlon as the only holdout. The Frogs also were ranked No. 2 in a number of preseason rankings. We were skeptical of TCU’s luck with turnovers in 2014 and the possibility that the rest of the Big 12 would catch up to the Frogs’ offense in 2015. Injuries limited TCU’s ceiling more than anything, but we’ll take the correct prediction anyway. We still picked TCU at No. 5 and second behind Baylor in the Big 12.
• We were more skeptical of preseason No. 25 Boise State and No. 26 Missouri than others … but not skeptical enough, it seems.
• We nailed Conference USA East. How about that?
If you're really interested how we did, here's how each of our preseason rankings lined up with the actual results.
*indicates conference champion/actual champion