With one or two exceptions, this year’s Associated Press college-football preseason rankings — heralding the start of the 2017 season this Saturday afternoon — could just as well have come from any old year. The top of the poll features several of the usual suspects — Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, Southern Cal — with a smattering of college football blue bloods sprinkled throughout, including Oklahoma (7), Michigan (11) and Texas (23).
More important than where college football teams start, of course, is where they finish. And as you view the rankings through your own lens, whether you’re a rabid fan or one without a college football team, it’s easy to wonder which programs are commonly over- or underrated in preseason polls.
To shed some light on that, I compared teams’ preseason AP rankings to their final AP rankings from 1997 through 2016. To cast a wider net, I included all instances in which a team received votes in a given poll, even if they ranked outside the top 25. I assigned the team with the next-most vote points outside the top 25 a rank of 26, and so on, through every team that received at least one point.
Over the past two decades, Florida, Florida State, Notre Dame, Penn State and Texas have fallen from their preseason ranking by season’s end with greater frequency than every other program in the nation. From the first AP poll to the last, each of the five teams has underperformed its preseason ranking in 14 of the past 20 seasons, or 70 percent of the time. LSU, Nebraska and Ohio State are right behind, having underperformed expectations 65 percent of the time.1
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But that doesn’t mean all of those teams should be judged the same way. Florida, Florida State, Ohio State, LSU and Texas have generally started from high preseason perches; they own five of the seven best average preseason rankings from 1997 to 2016. When you’re consistently ranked near the top, there’s a lot more room to go down than there is to go up.
Ohio State and Florida State — Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, in Monday’s preseason poll — will face especially high expectations this year. That’s something Florida State has struggled with of late, having fallen in the rankings by season’s end in each of the last nine seasons they made the preseason top 10. They jumped from preseason No. 11 to national champion in 2013.
A team less familiar with high 21st-century expectations is Penn State. At No. 6, the Nittany Lions are back in the preseason top 10 for the first time since 2009, and only the second time in the 2000s. Despite relatively low preseason rankings for most of the past two decades, they were still among the teams most likely to lose ground from the first AP poll to the final one.
To be fair, Penn State’s declines in the rankings were relatively modest, while their gains were big. In fact, the defending Big Ten champions are coming off of one of the biggest single-season poll improvements of the last two decades, having gone from zero votes in last year’s preseason poll to finishing seventh overall. Only the 2013 Auburn Tigers and the 2013 Missouri Tigers have improved more after receiving no votes in the initial poll.
Any conversation of overrated football teams would not be complete without mentioning one team that just missed the top 25 in this year’s first AP ranking: Notre Dame.2 Entrenched in our college football consciousness thanks to numerous national championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners, a couple of famous movies3 and a longstanding national television contract, Notre Dame is one of only nine programs to receive votes in each of the previous 20 preseason polls (1997 to 2016). But unlike the Seminoles or Buckeyes, Notre Dame often finds itself on the fringes of the rankings. With an average preseason rank of 25.1, the Fighting Irish tend to have a much easier starting point from which to try to improve in the rankings.
Nevertheless, in nine of those 20 seasons, Notre Dame failed to receive any votes in the final AP poll. Five other times, they fell in the rankings but still received at least some votes in the final poll, alternately landing inside and outside of the top 25. They equaled their preseason rank in 1998 and 2015, and improved upon it in 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2012.
So, as much as AP voters adore Notre Dame each August, it seems the Fighting Irish usually force them to come to their senses by season’s end. Then again, being overrated in modern-day preseason polls is a small price to pay for a history as rich and successful as Notre Dame’s.