Each of the past two years, I've attempted to guess which teams in the Coaches' Poll preseason top ten will finish the year unranked. It's fairly rare that the coaches don't wildly over-rank a team in the preseason, so it's a fun offseason guessing game to go through. Two years ago I did quite well; last year, not so much. In my defense, only one team from that preseason top ten finished unranked (Texas A&M), and I put that one as the second most likely to do so. The other team that came close, which was FSU at No. 23 in the postseason poll, was also in my top five.
Anyway, here is my guess for the likelihood of each team finishing unranked. It's based on how likely I think each team is to hit five losses, a threshold at which almost no team ever makes the final poll. Bear in mind that the format dictates that I list all ten teams; even looking at history, it's not particularly likely that any one given team among them will finish unranked.
Let me know in the comments where I've gone wrong.
You probably could see this coming. For one thing, the Razorbacks are No. 10, so they're seen as the weakest team anyway. On top of that, they famously lost the head coach who built the team up to where it is now and replaced him with a guy who, by his own admission, is known for screwing up games. I'm worried about more than that, though. Easily the two best players from last year's defense, Jake Bequette and Jerry Franklin, are gone, and the defense wasn't all that good anyway.
The Week 3 game is against Alabama could end up in a blowout. If it does, it will be very easy for John L. Smith to go from interim head coach to lame duck head coach. If that happens, it opens the door to possible losses to anyone left on the SEC schedule except Ole Miss.
The Wolverines were one of the big surprise teams from last season, but they had their fair share of good fortune. They won all three close games they were in, and they recovered a that-can't-be-right 80% of opponent fumbles. Also, the offense is still largely dependent on Denard Robinson shouldering the load, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing in a vacuum, it does mean that there's more risk for UM than for more diversified attacks.
The opener in Dallas at Alabama is not only a likely loss, but it's also likely that Nick Saban will give the Big Ten a blueprint for beating this team. Dangerous road games at Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State are all on the slate, and Michigan State and Iowa aren't pushovers. I wouldn't bet on it, but I also wouldn't bat an eye at five losses for this team.
3. South Carolina
This pick here is all about the schedule. With the old Chicken Curse culture gone and Marcus Lattimore back healthy, South Carolina shouldn't flop to a 7-5 finish. In all likelihood it won't. However, take a peek at that schedule again. The team gets two of the best three West teams in LSU (on the road) and Arkansas (who has its number), and it has road games at defending ACC Champ Clemson and Florida (which will be better; how much, no one knows). Toss in division favorite Georgia, a decent Mizzou team, and an Arkansas-lite Tennessee team, and there are plenty of pitfalls out there. That's life in the SEC.
4. Florida State
They're back, baby. Back in the top five of this list, I mean. All of the pieces should be there for this team, but how many times have we said that before in the past decade? The defense alone should keep this team from falling out of the poll, but hey, Auburn had an excellent defense in 2008. Plus, E.J. Manuel has been a bit unlucky with injuries. If he gets dinged up badly, that could spell trouble.
So where are the potential five losses? Well, Wake Forest is far from a guaranteed win these days for God knows what reason, and road games at USF, Miami, and VT could go the wrong way. The Florida game is a tossup if the Gators' offense isn't a net negative as it was last year. It could happen.
I guess this is where I report that Mark Richt has lost control of this list, huh? Anyway, Georgia doesn't rate higher because Auburn is the best team it drew from the West division. It doesn't rate lower because I don't know if the team will have a real running game to speak of with Isaiah Crowell gone. The team is also nowhere close to having a full roster of 85 scholarship players, so depth could be an issue if the injury bug bites them badly.
The Week 2 game at Missouri is a death trap, what with the big hoopla over the school's first SEC game and the missing pieces from the secondary. Games at South Carolina and at big rival Auburn are potential losses, and the Cocktail Party is never a sure thing for the Bulldogs. Tennessee or Georgia Tech could cause problems too if they play at the high end of their potential.
The Trojans are a preseason darling thanks to having a golden boy quarterback and finishing last year strongly. That big finish might not mean anything though, and Monte Kiffin's defenses haven't been anything special. Plus, that golden boy has the SI curse on him now. Depth is an issue with this team too thanks to sanctions, and when you read things like "all three first-string linebackers for the USC Trojans are out of practice", it really hits home.
The team doesn't rank higher because I think finding five losses is harder for it given the slate. At Stanford and at Washington immediately jump out, and thanks to the conference title game, the team could take on two losses to Oregon. Notre Dame could defeat them at the end if they're all beat up and the depth just isn't there. There are plenty of potential losses if things break poorly for them.
With Mike Stoops back in the fold, Dominque Whaley back healthy, and a revamped receiving corps, things are looking up for the Sooners. It's hard to ignore, though, that the offense struggled mightily without Ryan Broyles last year. Landry Jones puts up great numbers, but he just seems to lack the certain je ne sais quoi that previous big winning slingers at the school have had.
You can pencil in all six home games as wins. Texas Tech did win in Norman last year, but that was only Bob Stoops' third home loss ever. He's money at home. Of those away from home, UTEP is a certain win and Iowa State and Texas Tech, though dangerous, won't be favored in those games. Texas in Dallas and road games at West Virginia and at TCU are the best chances for losses, but that's only three.
The Tigers rate ahead of Alabama here largely due to the conference schedule. They do get the Tide at home, but they have South Carolina and Florida out of the East while Bama probably has it a bit easier with Missouri and Tennessee. Starting a quarterback with zero experience outside of JUCO is a risk that Bama isn't taking either. Really though, you could flip a coin; none of the teams from here on down are losing more than two or three games barring a catastrophic development that can't be predicted right now.
In a non-catastrophic worst-case scenario, I could see LSU losing at Florida (where it very nearly lost in 2010), against South Carolina, against Alabama, and at Arkansas. That's only four losses though, and its high perch in the preseason poll will mean they'll still be there in the end.
Saban has quite the system rolling in Tuscaloosa, but there's really one big concern I have: Doug Nussmeier. I realize that since Saban had his pick of anyone in the country and picked him, he's probably pretty good. However, I don't think Jim McElwain gets enough credit for the Tide's run over the past few years. Replacing him is more than just a task of finding a warm body. Additionally Nussmeier didn't even have control of the offense at Washington where he came from (head coach Steve Sarkisian did), meaning he's had only a single year of running an offense by himself -- in 2008 at Fresno State. Inexperience doesn't preclude him from being good, but it does mean it's a more risky choice than someone who is a known quantity.
With all of that said, the defense should keep this team from ever being in danger against anyone other than LSU and maybe Michigan (if the Wolverines are better than I think they are). Arkansas and probably Tennessee have enough fire power to make them sweat a bit, but they're probably not going to beat the Tide.
Don't get confused; I don't think Oregon is the best team in the country. I just have complete faith in Chip Kelly's ability to continue to lay waste to his conference. Saban's 20-4 and Les Miles' 19-5 regular season SEC records over the past three years are impressive; Kelly is 25-2 in the same span against the Pac-12. With his non-confernence games being Tennessee Tech, Fresno State, and Arkansas State, you do the math about how likely it is that he'll pick up five losses this year. It just ain't happening.
With this off season's influx of good coaching into the league, Kelly should find it more difficult to dominate in the future. For now though, it's still his conference to rule over.