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Which Top Ten Teams Are Most Likely to Finish Unranked?

It’s very likely that at least one of them will.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The worst method of ranking college football teams that most people have heard of is the Coaches’ Poll, which now has its preseason edition out. In turn, my favorite preseason ritual is to guess which of the top ten teams in the Coaches’ Poll will finish out the year unranked. After all, only twice since 2002 has the entire preseason Coaches’ Poll top ten finished the year ranked: 2004 and 2007.

The way this works is that I order the top ten teams from most to least likely to finish the season unranked. I’ve been doing this since 2010, and here is my track record for where I ordered each of the preseason top ten teams that did finish outside the final 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)
  • 2014: South Carolina (4)
  • 2015: USC (1), Auburn (4)

In every one of these years, at least one of the Coaches’ Poll top ten teams went unranked by the end, and in five out of six of them, I put one of them in my top two teams most likely to do so. Not bad.

In essence, this boils down to whether a team can pick up at least five losses—at least four regular season losses, anyway, since a bowl can always be a loss. The reason is simple: five-loss teams almost never make the final poll.

With my ordering, I put down which games from each team’s schedule I think could potentially end up in the loss column. The losses are ordered by their appearance on the schedules.

Ready?

1. Stanford

The Cardinal have been one of the more consistent teams since the Harbaugh renovation took hold, but it’s emblematic of the Pac-12 this year. It should be good, but how good exactly is uncertain. Replacing Kevin Hogan will be a tougher task than I think most people suspect, and, as always, the team didn’t skimp on the schedule. Christian McCaffrey means they’re always one offensive or return play away from a TD, but if the situation under center doesn’t turn out well, this team could pile on some L’s.

Potential Losses (6): USC, @ UCLA, @ Washington, Washington State, @ Notre Dame, @ Oregon

2. Florida State

Call me a homer over this ranking if you must, but it’s the schedule that puts the Seminoles up this high. FSU is clearly up there with Clemson as the cream of the ACC, but the team gets its customary matchup with Miami (FL) plus UNC from the... let me see... Coastal division whereas the Tigers don’t get either. The season-opening neutral site against Ole Miss could be a loss. The game against a dangerous UNC team comes a week after a total trap game at USF (which I didn’t count as a potential loss, but could have). The season closer with Florida could be a loss too if the Gators’ offense doesn’t fade like it did a year ago. This is a really good team, but its slate is no cakewalk. In this ranking of how bad the worst-case scenarios are, FSU’s worst-case scenario is one of the, well, worst. And let’s not forget that last year’s New Year’s Six team lost to 3-9 Georgia Tech. Because that definitely happened.

Potential Losses (6): Ole Miss (N), @ Louisville, UNC, @ Miami (FL), Clemson, Florida

3. Tennessee

Most everyone is expecting the Vols to finally take the next step forward and win the East this year. They have an excellent chance to do so. But what if they don’t? They should beat a retooling Virginia Tech team at Bristol Motor Speedway, but the weirdness of that setup plus Bud Foster sticking around makes that a potential loss anyway. If they do lose that game—or even if they don’t—and drop the crucial Florida game again, the bottom could fall out. Anyone within reasonable striking distance could take them down.

Potential Losses (5): Virginia Tech (N), Florida, @ Georgia, @ Texas A&M, Alabama

4. Oklahoma

This is the point at which I’ll just go ahead and tell you that I don’t think any team from here on out will finish unranked. Usually that point comes one or two spots down, but the coaches did a decent job with their top ten this year. OU went beefy with its non-con, so it ends up fourth, but Baker Mayfield’s return should put a nice, solid floor under the team. The Sooners should only have four potential losses, but 2015 was a reminder that the rivalry game with Texas is always a potential loss. At least since Mack Brown left Austin, anyway.

Potential Losses (5): Houston (N), Ohio State, @ TCU, Texas (N), Baylor

5. Notre Dame

The Irish have three potential losses in their regular slate of annual opponents, but they only got one from their five-game ACC slate this year. Sometimes ND will have a loaded schedule from top to bottom, but this is not one of those years. I very nearly bumped the team down the list a couple places by not including Texas, but it’s on the road and Charlie Strong has pulled off a bigger upset before (see: 2015 Red River Shootout).

Potential Losses (5): @ Texas, Michigan State, Stanford, Miami (FL), @ USC

6. Ohio State

Yes, I feel comfortable in giving Urban Meyer the benefit of the doubt despite losing so many players. Only one program has out-recruited his, and he seldom squanders talent. I’d have the Buckeyes higher if they weren’t returning 2014 Heisman finalist J.T. Barrett at quarterback, and they could run into some issues if he goes down to injury. However, there’s enough raw material left over to keep OSU afloat.

Potential Losses (4): @ Oklahoma, @ Penn State, @ Michigan State, Michigan

7. Alabama

What? How could the Tide be this high? Well, there is the chance that Cooper Batman Bateman doesn’t pan out under center and those struggles cost the team a game or two it would otherwise win. But really it’s more about the fact that though there are only three SEC teams with a realistic shot at knocking off the Tide, Bama has to go on the road to face all three. And USC does have enough talent to make Alabama work for it and maybe even be one of those aforementioned losses due to quarterbacking issues.

Potential Losses (4): USC (N), @ Ole Miss, @ Tennessee, @ LSU

8. LSU

Relax, Alabama fans. The Tigers being below the Tide here is entirely a reflection of LSU’s neutral site opponent Wisconsin being in a bit of a rebuilding year while Alabama’s neutral site opponent USC being more potent. That’s all.

Potential Losses (3): @ Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama

9. Michigan

Jim Harbaugh is up there near Nick Saban and Meyer for coaches I trust the most, and he doesn’t need too many more seasons with a high-caliber coaching job like last year to join them. With Colorado (at home) being the worst non-conference test and zip to worry about from the Big Ten West—unless you think at Iowa is a scary game—the schedule sets up beautifully for the Wolverines.

Potential Losses (3): Penn State, @ Michigan State, Ohio State

10. Clemson

Look, I know that the Tigers lost some from their defense. However, they also get back their best receiver in Mike Williams who was out all of last year. Deshaun Watson is the country’s best quarterback, Dabo has recruited at a high level, and the team missed the Coastal’s two best teams in its cross-division matchups. These Tigers have the fewest excuses of anyone for ending the year outside the polls.

Potential Losses (2): Louisville, @ Florida State