The Coaches' Poll has an impressive track record of putting at least one team into its preseason top ten that ends up unranked in the final poll. Every year since 2010, I've tried to put that preseason top ten into order of who is the most to the least likely to end up unranked in that final poll.
This is harder than it sounds, because pollsters never seem to let go of their preseason expectations. As I noted the first time I did this, 2004 saw the mediocre team that got Ron Zook fired somehow make the final poll. Five-loss Auburn made the bottom of last year's poll at No. 23, which is a rare occurrence. In the last 13 seasons, only in 2004 and 2007 did the entire preseason Coaches' Poll top ten manage to be ranked in the final poll.
Here is my track record of where I rated the teams that did finish unranked in my order of likelihood:
- 2010: Iowa (1), Texas (5), Florida (7)
- 2011: Texas A&M (2)
- 2012: Arkansas (1), Michigan (2), USC (6)
- 2013: Florida (1), Georgia (3)
- 2014: South Carolina (4)
I think that's fairly good, although I slipped last year by not putting the team that did finish unranked in my top two. In my defense, I had Auburn second, and the method I use for this is essentially predicting who is the most likely to hit five losses. And again, the Tigers finished with five losses.
Anyway, here comes the standard disclaimer: 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.
Maybe my standards for what counts as a potential loss have changed, but I found a lot more this year than I have in past years. Partly it's that previously bulletproof teams have big questions, like Alabama with replacing Blake Sims and Amari Cooper. Partly it's due to some beefier schedules than teams have had in the past, whether it be big non-conference showdowns like Oregon-Michigan State or the unprecedented top-to-bottom quality of the SEC West.
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.
I can think of a few reasons why USC might not have a great season. Losing Nelson Agholor, the team's leading receiver by a mile, and Buck Allen, the team's leading rusher by a mile and its third-leading receiver, comes to mind. Relatedly, Cody Kessler had a passing efficiency over 160 last year as a junior, and guys who do that nearly always have a regression in their passing efficiency as seniors. I'm not sure how much I can trust Steve Sarkisian as a coach either. Toss in the rough Pac-12 South—the only division that approaches the SEC West in overall quality, at least until you hit Colorado—a bad draw in cross-division games, and a resurgent Notre Dame in the non-con, and there are land mines aplenty.
Potential losses (7): Stanford, at Arizona State, at Notre Dame, Utah, Arizona, at Oregon, UCLA
As you'll find out when I do my picks, I like the cut of Georgia's jib this season. But man, the schedule is just brutal. Yes, Mark Richt tends get one or two inexplicable losses a year, but falling to Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia Tech would be entirely explicable. So would losing to whichever of Tennessee or Missouri turns out to be a for-real divisional contender. Now, tell me you think UGA is guaranteed to sweep the games against the other of UT/MU, South Carolina, and Florida. You can't. The Bulldogs should sweep them, but recent history doesn't push the likelihood of it towards 100%. There are potentially five losses right there with only one of them being a head scratcher. If having three quarterbacks turns out to mean having no quarterbacks, is it so out of the question?
Potential losses (7): South Carolina, Alabama, at Tennessee, Missouri, Florida, at Auburn, Georgia Tech
3. Florida State
Jameis Winston might have acted like a knucklehead off the field at times, but the guy is really smart. He had an offer from Stanford as a recruit, and he had the intellect to run all of Jimbo Fisher's crazy complex offense at a high level. Everett Golson might too, but he just doesn't have the time to learn it all like Winston did during his redshirt season. Golson has also been known to turn the ball over a bit, and he might not even start. Sean Maguire didn't suggest that he's potentially elite in his time on the field last year, and the team famously put a ton of guys in the NFL Draft this year. Toss in the fact that Dalvin Cook's status is in the air, and there are real potential problems. If the defense takes a couple steps back due to the talent drain and the offense doesn't click, we could see a nasty mean reversion after all the close wins that helped make 2014 FSU the luckiest team since 1998 by one measure.
Potential losses (6): at Boston College, Louisville, at Georgia Tech, at Clemson, NC State, Florida
Hey, Tigers. Your defense was the easily the best of the SEC teams that fired their coordinators last year—and that was without Carl Lawson or Michigan grad transfer Blake Countess—and you had arguably the best hire of any team with a new DC. Jeremy Johnson might turn into a defense destroying monster. Here's the thing: you're in the SEC West, and that means you've got a lot of potential losses. More than FSU, in fact, but I think the Seminoles' issues are bigger than yours are. Another five-loss season would be a surprise, but it wouldn't be a shock given what we saw from the team last year and the brutal slate.
Potential losses (7): Louisville (N), at LSU, at Arkansas, Ole Miss, at Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama
This is far and away the highest I've put the Tide on any of these lists (previous high: eight). But again, that's the 2015 SEC West effect happening. Bama's crazy good front seven keeps the team behind Auburn in these standings, as that defense will obliterate a few offenses this year. Still though, I'm not sure it has a quarterback, and I don't know what it has at receiver to replace Cooper. Those two facts bode poorly for a team with an offensive coordinator known to forget the run and throw too much. Add in one of the worst possible East draws—and I'm not even counting Tennessee in the potential loss category—and there are some pitfalls out there. The defense's quality should prevent the team from losing five, but Alabama having a 10-3 campaign like in 2010 has has a non-zero probability.
Potential losses (6): Wisconsin (N), Ole Miss, at Georgia, Arkansas, LSU, at Auburn
The Horned Frogs' 4-8 season in 2013 was an aberration, and they bounced back to 12-1 last year. That might have been too far of a bounce back, and some reversion wouldn't be a surprise—especially since the team loses about half its defense. And yes, Trevor Boykin was pretty great at times last year, but his passing efficiencies against good teams weren't actually stellar. If Big 12 defenses catch up to him some with the tape they now have on him and the defense steps back some, TCU won't be a playoff contender. I'd put the Frogs higher on this list, but Gary Patterson is a pretty reliable defensive coach and the schedule isn't a murder's row.
Potential losses (5): at Minnesota, West Virginia, at Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma, Baylor
The system has been in place for long enough at Oregon that the Ducks are always one of the least likely teams to hit five losses. Being in the weaker Pac-12 North helps with that, but they just have everything rolling. I've got them at seven in part because the presumptive starting quarterback is a transfer from Eastern Washington who won't even make it to fall camp on time, but Oregon has earned the benefit of the doubt. It'll be fine.
Potential losses (4): at Michigan State, at Arizona State, at Stanford, USC
8. Michigan State
What I just said about Oregon essentially applies here too, but MSU's road schedule isn't as bad. Plus, it returns starting quarterback Connor Cook. It also might be a stretch for one more year to say Penn State might beat the Spartans.
Potential losses (4): Oregon, at Nebraska, at Ohio State, Penn State
The Bears return nearly everyone from last year's excellent team except Bryce Petty, but Art Briles will have a quarterback ready to go. There's nothing to worry about here.
Potential losses (3): West Virginia, Oklahoma, at TCU
10. Ohio State
The Buckeyes are moving a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year quarterback to a different position because they don't need him to play quarterback. Yeah, they're doing OK.
Potential losses (2): at Virginia Tech, Michigan State