The college football offseason is nearing a close, which means months of analyzing and previewing will soon be validated or … not.
The preseason AP poll was released Sunday, and a clear consensus has been established. Alabama is a near-unanimous No. 1, followed by Clemson in most outlets (not by Athlon, however). In the clarity of July and August, the contenders have separated from the pack.
Then there are other teams, the ones that have been much more difficult to figure out by the college football intelligentsia.
Throughout the summer, Athlon has been tracking the conference picks from major preseason outlets — ourselves, Lindy’s, The Sporting News, Phil Steele, ESPN’s preseason magazine, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, USA Today, the coaches’ poll and AP poll — because it’s always fun to compare and contrast.
We’re not fans of groupthink. Everyone having the same opinions would be boring. Someone has to step out on a limb to be very wrong or very right. It is interesting to see where opinions diverge.
These are the teams that appear to be the most divisive heading into the season.
High: 5 (USA Today)
Low: Not Ranked (Sporting News), 24 (Coaches’ poll)
By the time August rolls around, there’s a bit of consensus in most rankings. Take this year for example: Five teams (Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida State and Ohio State) are in every top 10 we examined. Five more teams (LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Stanford and Tennessee) are in every top 13. In other words, there’s not a ton of deviation among the top 10 or so consensus teams. That’s why it’s strange to see the case of UCLA. The Bruins are a top-10 team in the eyes of some and a fringe top-25 team in the eyes of others. The lack of consensus on UCLA shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Bruins can’t always figure out what they are. In 2015, UCLA was ranked the top 10 for three weeks in September only to be unranked two weeks later and then back in the top 20 by November and then out of the top 25 the next week and the remainder of the season. The same was true in 2014: UCLA was No. 8 in the AP poll on Sept. 28, unranked two weeks later and back in the top 10 by late November. Some of the up-and-down is the product of schedule, but UCLA hasn’t been the portrait of consistency. Given the history, it wouldn’t be a shock to see UCLA in the top 10 and unranked at some point this year.
High: 7 (Sports Illustrated)
Low: 21 (Lindy’s)
When Athlon ranked Washington No. 11 in our preseason top 25 and picked the Huskies to win the Pac-12, we knew it would be a surprise. Washington hasn’t won a Pac-12 title or won more than nine games since 2000. Two other publications that hit newsstands with Athlon had Washington ranked 21st (Lindy’s) and 20th (Sporting News). Then two outlets put the Huskies in the top 10 — Phil Steele at No. 8 and Sports Illustrated at No. 7. Washington’s positives are clear. The Huskies have 17 returning starters, and they’ve been among the Pac-12’s best on defense the last two years. In a 7-6 season, Washington clobbered Washington State, beat USC on the road and three of their losses came by one score (Boise State, Oregon and Cal). The drawbacks are easy to find, too. Washington simply hasn’t been a top 25 program for most of the last 13 years and they’re in a division with Stanford and Oregon, who have accounted for the last seven Pac-12 championships. A lot of people will either look smart by picking Washington or will look foolish.
High: 2 (ESPN)
Low: 9 (Sports Illustrated)
Seven spots between the highest ranking and lowest isn’t particularly alarming. Even with SI ranking Ohio State at No. 9, the Buckeyes are still a consensus top-10 team. The question from the outside is how Ohio State could be a playoff contender despite only six returning starters, fewest among Power 5 schools. The answer, of course, is recruiting. Ohio State has recruited the No. 4, No. 7, No. 3 and No. 5 signing classes in the Big Ten from 2012-16. “The talent disparity in the league between Ohio State and everybody else in the Big Ten is striking,” one Big Ten assistant told Athlon Sports.
High: 4 (Phil Steele, Fox Sports)
Low: 12 (Sporting News)
LSU hasn’t entered a season with this kind of preseason ranking since starting at No. 3 in the AP poll in 2012, the year after losing to Alabama in the BCS title game. It’s been four years since LSU started the season as a top-10 team, hard to believe as it may be. As for 2016, LSU returns eight starters on offense, including running back Leonard Fournette and nine starters on defense (not including defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, out with a torn ACL). LSU’s last four recruiting classes have been ranked third, sixth, second and sixth. Those are all signs of a playoff team. And, yet, there are plenty of reasons to have LSU near the end of the top 10. The Tigers are 20-12 in the SEC the last four years, and LSU has finished the last four seasons No. 16 (2015), unranked (2014) and No. 14 (2012-13).
High: 3 (ESPN)
Low: 12 (Phil Steele)
Here’s the big question: Is Michigan ready? It seems to be a given that Jim Harbaugh-led Michigan will at some point catch up with Ohio State and Michigan State. The pundits, for the most part, say this is the year Michigan overtakes Sparty, but not Ohio State. Michigan is ranked ahead of Michigan State in all the preseason rankings we’re looking at here. Michigan is ahead of Ohio State according to ESPN (UM is No. 3, OSU is No. 10) and Sports Illustrated (UM No. 4, OSU No. 9).
High: 7 (ESPN)
Low: 19 (Sports Illustrated)
Is Ole Miss a top-10 team or not? Buoyed by those two wins over Alabama, the Rebels have spent a total of 12 weeks in the last two seasons in the AP top 10, including a No. 10 finish in 2015. The highs of those two wins over the Crimson Tide are tempered by an 11-5 mark in the SEC the last seasons and a loss to Memphis in October last year, not to mention the ongoing NCAA entanglements. The skepticism is warranted, but the Rebs still have a 4,000-yard passer at quarterback and a standout defense, when healthy.
High: 8 (Sports Illustrated)
Low: 20 (Phil Steele)
Houston’s ceiling will be determined in Week 1. If the Cougars beat Oklahoma, they’re probably a top-10 team until they lose again. If they lose to the Sooners, they’ll hang around the bottom half of the top 25 as long as they look like the class of the American Athletic Conference. Is Athlon’s No. 16 ranking splitting the difference? Sure. Athlon projected Houston as 11-2 overall and 8-0 in the American, meaning we’ve projected the Cougars to win a conference championship but lose its two major non-league tests against Oklahoma and Louisville.
High: 6 (Fox Sports)
Low: Not ranked (ESPN), 25 (Sporting News)
Regardless of the range in TCU’s preseason rankings, it’s clear the Horned Frogs are getting some degree of the benefit of the doubt usually reserved for power programs. Trevone Boykin, the quarterback who propelled the Horned Frogs into a Big 12 contender, is gone, leaving TCU with just one returning starter on offense. Yet the Frogs are a top-15 team according to four of the outlets here. For the first time in a while under Gary Patterson, there’s a degree of trust on both sides of the ball. Patterson’s defense was average thanks to injuries last season, meaning it should return to form this season. And Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have reformed the TCU offense into one that can compete with Big 12 track meets.
Before Briles was fired:
Sporting News: 5
After Briles was fired:
Phil Steele: 18
Sports Illustrated: Not Ranked
CBS Sports: 16
Fox Sports: 12
USA Today: 26
Coaches’ poll: 21
AP poll: 23
“Controversial,” of course, is a loaded word here. Baylor’s rankings are all over the place due to the firing of Art Briles, defections from the freshman class and the transfer of backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Athlon already was skeptical of Baylor with Briles, thanks to rebuilding across both offensive and defensive lines. Post-Briles, there's still not a ton of consenus on Baylor's potential ranging from out of the top 25 to the top 12.