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Which College Football Teams Are Always Overrated in August?

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

Preseason darlings that fail to live up to hype

Teams that received votes* in either the preseason or final AP Top 25 Poll in at least 16 seasons, 1997-2016

FINAL VS. PRESEASON RANK
TEAM
AVG. PRESEASON RANK
SAME
BETTER
WORSE
Notre Dame 25.1 10% 20% 70%
Texas 13.4 10 20 70
Florida State 9.4 10 20 70
Penn State 25.2 5 25 70
Florida 12.0 0 30 70
Ohio State 8.0 5 30 65
Nebraska 19.1 0 35 65
LSU 12.2 0 35 65
Miami (Fla.) 17.7 15 25 60
Tennessee 15.9 15 25 60
Oklahoma 6.6 15 25 60
Michigan 15.0 10 30 60
Southern California 13.2 10 30 60
Virginia Tech 17.6 5 35 60
West Virginia 25.9 10 35 55
Texas A&M 25.2 10 35 55
Alabama 15.1 5 40 55
BYU 33.0 15 35 50
Georgia Tech 27.3 10 40 50
Georgia 13.8 5 45 50
South Carolina 26.9 20 35 45
Oklahoma State 26.3 20 35 45
Michigan State 22.7 20 35 45
Arkansas 31.1 10 45 45
Auburn 20.6 5 50 45
Wisconsin 19.1 0 55 45
Mississippi 29.2 20 40 40
TCU 22.2 20 40 40
Utah 30.5 5 55 40
Oregon 18.9 0 60 40
Boise State 25.3 15 50 35
Clemson 21.1 15 50 35

* Even if the team ranked outside the top 25. Seasons in which a team didn’t receive votes in either poll count as “same.” Average preseason ranks only include polls in which the team received votes.

Source: College Poll Archive

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.

Florida State is consistently overrated

Florida State’s preseason and final rankings in the AP Top 25 Poll

RANKING
SEASON PRESEASON FINAL CHANGE
2017 3 ?
2016 4 8
2015 10 14
2014 1 5
2013 11 1
2012 7 10
2011 6 23
2010 20 17
2009 18 34
2008 31 21
2007 19 No votes
2006 11 No votes
2005 14 23
2004 5 15
2003 13 11
2002 3 21
2001 6 15
2000 2 5
1999 1 1
1998 2 3
1997 3 3

Includes seasons when Florida State didn’t make the top 25 but still received votes. Seasons with votes in preseason but no votes in final poll count as declines.

Source: College Poll Archive

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.

Misplaced hope for the Fighting Irish

Notre Dame’s preseason and final rankings in the AP Top 25 Poll

RANKING
SEASON PRESEASON FINAL CHANGE
2017 28 ?
2016 10 No votes
2015 11 11
2014 17 26
2013 14 20
2012 26 4
2011 16 No votes
2010 32 33
2009 23 No votes
2008 46 No votes
2007 39 No votes
2006 2 17
2005 44 9
2004 52 No votes
2003 20 No votes
2002 46 17
2001 18 No votes
2000 34 15
1999 18 No votes
1998 22 22
1997 11 38

Includes seasons when Notre Dame didn’t make the top 25 but still received votes. Seasons with votes in preseason but no votes in final poll count as declines.

Source: College Poll Archive

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.

Footnotes

  1. For purposes of this analysis, if a team received votes in the preseason poll but did not receive any votes in the final poll, they are said to have underperformed their preseason ranking, and vice-versa.

  2. Notre Dame had the 28th-most votes in the preseason AP poll.

  3. Hell, every time I watch the “Rudy” Football Tryouts montage, I kind of feel like overrating Notre Dame, too.

Greg Guglielmo researches and writes about sports and other topics under the name ELDORADO.

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