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Which Top Ten Teams Are Most Likely to Finish Unranked?

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It's that time of year again.

Stephen Dunn

Something I like to do every year is order the preseason Coaches' Poll top ten by who is most likely to finish the season unranked. Predicting the future is hard, so nearly every season someone from the top of the poll falls out.

I've done this exercise every year since 2010, and here is where I ranked the teams that finished outside the final Coaches' Poll:

  • 2010: Iowa (1), Texas (5), Florida (7)
  • 2011: Texas A&M (2)
  • 2012: Arkansas (1), Michigan (2), USC (6)
  • 2013: Florida (1), Georgia (3)

Overall, I think that's a pretty good track record.

To be clear, this is not my ranking of the quality of the teams. A good team that plays a weak schedule will be lower on the list than a great team that plays a tough schedule. Ultimately, this boils down to whether a team can pick up five losses or not, as five-loss teams almost never appear in a final poll.

I think the collective top ten is pretty solid this year. There's not a 2012 Arkansas in the bunch. It wouldn't surprise me at all if every one of these teams ended the year ranked.

As always, let me know in the comments where I've screwed up. Potential losses are listed in the order in which they appear on the schedule.

1. UCLA

I feel like doing this is inviting a bunch of accusations of SEC bias, hating on the Pac-12, not knowing who Brett Hundley is, and so on. However, I don't feel bad about being hesitant towards a team with an iffy offensive line and a brutal schedule. Consider this a bet on the strength of the Pac-12 rather than a swipe at one of its teams. Seriously: the Bruins drew Oregon, Stanford, and Washington from the North division. Ouch. Not even counting a potential loss in a road game at UW, which I am thinking will have some standard year-one transitional issues, UCLA comes up with the most possible losses of anyone. That puts it in the top slot. And should Hundley go down to injury, things will get ugly with a quickness.

Potential losses (6): at Texas, at Arizona State, Oregon, Arizona, USC, Stanford

2. Auburn

Whenever a team makes an enormous upward leap, a step back the next year is more likely than not. With AU's tendency to play a lot of close games, merely reverting to neutral luck will trigger a few losses. As with UCLA, this is as much a schedule pick as anything. The West is going to be pretty tough this year, and the Tigers drew the East division's two best teams. An early-season visit to Manhattan, KS won't be a cakewalk either, and I'm not even counting a road game against a potentially dangerous Ole Miss team. No one is better at making doubters look foolish than Gus Malzahn, but that doesn't change the fact that there are plenty of pitfalls here.

Potential losses (5): at Kansas State, LSU, South Carolina, at Georgia, at Alabama

3. Michigan State

The same thing about a big pop with Auburn applies here, albeit not quite to the same degree. The biggest thing pushing MSU down below the Plainsmen is the Big Ten's, um, competitive restructuring that's been going on. Both here and for Ohio State I am counting James Franklin's Penn State as a real threat, but if it's not, then push the Spartans down even further.

Potential losses (4): Oregon, Nebraska, Ohio State, at Penn State

4. South Carolina

Non-Alabama SEC teams are generally going to find their way into the top half of this list provided their cross-division games aren't a joke. The thing with the Gamecocks is that they've not lost a home game since October 1, 2011, so this is mainly an exercise in checking the road games. Well, games at Auburn and at Clemson jump off the page, and at Florida could be tough if the Gators re-find what they had two years ago. A&M would be tougher if it was later in the season or on the road, but right off the bat, the Aggies probably won't be ready to beat a team this good away from College Station yet. If there is a home game to be lost, it's Georgia.

Potential losses (4): Georgia, at Auburn, at Florida, at Clemson

5. Oregon

For the first time in four opportunities, the Ducks hit the top half of my listing. I placed them last on the list in 2011-12 thanks to Chip Kelly, but I edged them up to seventh in Mark Helfrich's first year. It was a good move, considering the air of invulnerability that Kelly put off is dissipating after an uneven year under Helfrich. Marcus Mariota should keep the team afloat another year, but this might be like Kellen Moore's last year in Boise: the final one before the dynasty begins to unravel.

Potential losses (4): Michigan State, Arizona, at UCLA, Stanford

We're now at the point where I can't find five potential losses even with a bowl loss. It's largely the same from here.

6. Baylor

The Big 12 has two really great teams, one pretty good one, and one that has a chance to be good. With Baylor playing its typically horrendous non-conference schedule, they're all set. A fourth loss requires imagining a road loss to Iowa State, a team the Bears beat 71-7 last year. Yup.

Potential losses (3): at Texas, at Oklahoma, Kansas State

7. Oklahoma

After Bob Stoops won the 2000 national title, guess how many times he's finished the year unranked. The answer is once, after 2009's injury plague. OU will not finish unranked. It gets to be below Baylor because it has a more complete team and faces all three of its potential loss teams in a neutral site or at home.

Potential losses (3): Texas (N), Kansas State, Baylor

8. Alabama

The only reason why I am rating Bama as having three potential losses is that Kevin Sumlin seems to have Nick Saban's number. But still. Even if a cosmic typo puts Nick Sagan in charge of this team, it's not losing five.

Potential losses (3): Texas A&M, at LSU, Auburn

9. Ohio State

The Big Ten should be better this year, but OSU is still way out in front.

Potential losses (2): at Penn State, at Michigan State

10. Florida State

And as far out in front of its conference Ohio State is, FSU is even more so. It's the most complete team in the country and it has the best player. One of its potential losses is a team it beat 51-14 last year despite easing up fairly early in the game. Oh, and both potential loss games are at home.

Potential losses (2): Clemson, Notre Dame