AP Top 25 Heat Check: Handling preseason expectations

Acting Ohio State University football coach Ryan Day, center, is seen during NCAA college football practice in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

By RALPH D. RUSSO, AP College Football Writer
Broadly speaking, a team that starts the season in the Top 25 and finishes it unranked has had a disappointing season, failing to meet expectations. The converse is likely to be true as well.
Critics of preseason polls complain about setting artificial expectations, but it could be argued polls merely reflect expectations determined by factors such as the previous year’s record, recent recruiting and returning talent.
The AP preseason Top 25 is out, and for the third straight year Alabama is No. 1. Nobody in Tucsaloosa needed a panel of 61 media members from around the country to tell them the Crimson Tide is expected to contend for a second straight national championship, and sixth under coach Nick Saban.
Same goes for fans of No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 5 Ohio State and a bunch of other teams for whom the preseason rankings simply validate what they already know: “My team should be good this year.”
Heat Check was curious to find out how the teams in the preseason poll have done during the BCS/CFP era (1998-2017) when it comes to producing surprisingly good seasons (start unranked, finished ranked) and surprisingly bad ones (start ranked, finished unranked). Are some teams prone to unpredictability? Which are chronically underrated? Which tend to be overrated?
What we learned:
No. 1 Alabama
Open: vs. Louisville in Orlando, Florida, Sept. 1
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 2 (avg. rank: 14).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 2 (avg. rank: 9.5)
Heat check: Those four seasons above came during the volatile pre-Nick Saban era. The Process does not allow for volatility.
No. 2 Clemson
Open: vs. Furman, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 4 (avg. rank: 15.3)
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 5 (avg. rank: 22).
Heat check: Clemsoning is dead for sure, but it was very much a real thing. From 2000-11, the Tigers would alternate between seasons in which they would:
A) Modestly exceed expectations.
B) Build hope for a breakout the following year.
C) Fail to fulfill those hopes.
Since 2012, however, Clemson’s final ranking has been better than its preseason ranking every year, which is kind of amazing.
No. 3 Georgia
Open: vs. Austin Peay, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 5 (avg. rank 13.6).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 1 (22).
Heat check: Four of those disappointing seasons came from 2009-15, and followed a 2008 season in which Georgia started No. 1 and finished No. 13. That’s why Mark Richt is no longer Georgia’s coach. The next challenge for Kirby Smart is meeting raised expectations.
No. 4 Wisconsin
Open: vs. Western Kentucky, Aug. 31.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 5 (avg. rank 18.6).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 3 (avg. rank 10.3).
Heat check: The perception of the Badgers as overachievers is built more on recruiting rankings than the polls. But when the Badgers do exceed expectations they tend to do it in a big way, with three top-15 finishes after starting the season unranked.
No. 5 Ohio State
Open: vs. Oregon State, Sept. 1
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 4 (avg. rank 16.5).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 0.
Heat check: Hard to exceed expectations when they are always high. The Buckeyes are the only team to appear in the preseason poll every season during the BCS/CFP era. The overall streak of preseason Top 25 appearances is 30.
No. 6 Washington
Open: vs. No. 9 Auburn at Atlanta, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 4 (avg. rank 17.3).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 1 (25).
Heat check: Hard to disappoint when little is expected. That was the case most of the time for the Huskies since 1998. From 2002-15, Washington finished a season ranked just once. Enter Chris Petersen. Problem solved.
No. 7 Oklahoma
Open: vs. FAU, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 2 (avg. rank 3.5).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 0.
Heat check: The Sooners have been a model of consistency since Bob Stoops led them to their last national title in 2000, but they have had two of the most spectacular flameouts in recent years. In 2014, they started fourth and finished unranked, and in 2009 they went from No. 3 to unranked. Both of those teams had unexpected quarterback issues. OU is replacing Baker Mayfield this year. Just saying.
No. 8 Miami
Open: vs. LSU at Arlington, Texas, Sept. 2.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 2 (avg. rank 12.5).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 2 (avg. rank 19.5).
Heat check: The U. has not been ranked preseason top 10 since 2005 so if nothing else the expectations are back.
No. 9 Auburn
Open: vs. Washington in Atlanta, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 5 (avg. rank 14).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 4 (avg. rank 14.5).
Heat check: Legendary Alabama football player Forrest Gump once compared life to a box of chocolates because “You never know what you’re gonna get.” He could have been describing Auburn football. The Tigers have come from nowhere to contend for championships and three times started the season in the top 10 only to finish unranked.
No. 10 Penn State
Open: vs. Appalachian State, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 3 (avg. rank 19.3).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 2 (avg. rank 5).
Heat check: Penn State has re-established itself as a program with a national championship-contender ceiling under coach James Franklin. This season is about sustainability.
No. 11 Michigan State
Open: vs. Utah State, Aug. 31.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 5 (avg. rank 18.2).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 4 (avg. rank 12.6).
Heat check: During coach Mark Dantonio’s 11-year tenure, the Spartans have more often than not been underestimated by poll voters. There have also been two seasons in which Michigan State started in the top 15 and finished unranked. Such is the nature of a program that does not recruit at an elite level. Every once in while there is not enough sheer talent to mask problems.
No. 12 Notre Dame
Open: vs. Michigan, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 7 (avg. rank 18.2).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 5 (avg. rank 11.2).
Heat check: There are two types of fans in college football: Those that believe the media loves to overhype and over-rank Notre Dame and those that believe the media has an inherent bias against Notre Dame. It turns out everybody can claim to be right. Only Arizona State has had as many seasons in the BCS/CFP era where it has been ranked in the preseason but unranked at the end. The Irish have also had more unranked-to-top 20 seasons (five) than any team in the country. (Amazingly, Arizona State made the preseason Top 25 eight times from 1998-2017 and only in one of those seasons (2014) did the Sun Devils finish in the rankings.)
No. 13 Stanford
Open: vs. San Diego State, Aug. 31.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 1 (11).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 2 (avg. rank 10).
Heat check: The Cardinal have been about as steady as David Shaw’s temperament.
No. 14 Michigan
Open: at No. 11 Notre Dame, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 3 (avg. rank 10.7).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 2 (avg. rank 12).
Heat check: In three seasons as coach, Jim Harbaugh has produced one unranked-to-ranked season and one ranked-to-unranked. And no victories against Ohio State, which is really the problem.
No. 15 USC
Open: vs. UNLV, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 5 (avg. rank 11.4).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 0.
Heat check: Two of those five ranked-to-unranked seasons were pre-Pete Carroll. But the post-Carroll dynasty Trojans make a case for being the most consistently over-ranked team in the country. Since 2009, USC has been in every preseason poll and only twice finished better than it started. Most infamously, No. 1 to unranked in 2012.
No. 16 TCU
Open: vs. Southern, Sept. 1
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 4 (avg. rank 18.8).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 5 (avg. rank 10.6)
Heat check: Beware an overlooked Gary Patterson team. Four times the Horned Frogs have gone from unranked to top 11 under Coach P.
No. 17 West Virginia
Open: vs. Tennessee at Charlotte, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 5 (avg. rank 15.8).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 4 (avg. rank 18.3)
Heat check: The Mountaineers had a good run of top-10 finishes right before leaving the Big East, but since arriving in the Big 12 they have been more likely to come up short of expectations.
No. 18 Mississippi State
Open: vs. Stephen F. Austin, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 2 (avg. rank 20).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 5 (avg. rank 16.4)
Heat check: The Bulldogs clearly prefer being off the radar. All five times they have finished ranked since 1998 they started unranked and both times they were in the preseason poll they tanked.
No. 19 Florida State
Open: vs. No. 20 Virginia Tech, Sept. 3.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 4 (avg. rank 12.8).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 1 (21).
Heat check: Last season’s most disappointing team — started No. 3 and finished unranked — looks to get back to normal.
No. 20 Virginia Tech
Open: at No. 19 Florida State, Sept. 3.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 2 (avg. rank 12.5).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 3 (avg. rank 16.3).
Heat check: The Hokies have mostly delivered as expected, but this year’s ranking seems overly optimistic.
No. 21 UCF
Open: at UConn, Aug. 30
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 0.
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 3 (avg. rank 12.3).
Heat check: The Knights are ranked in the preseason for the first time. Certainly not as high as their fans believe they should be, but, hey, it’s better than not being ranked at all.
No. 22 Boise State
Open: at Troy, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 4 (avg. rank 21).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 7 (avg. rank 13.9).
Heat check: In their BCS-busting heyday, the Broncos set the standard for overlooked teams. From 2002-08, Boise State started unranked five times and finished no worse than 16, with a high of No. 5 in 2006.
No. 23 Texas
Open: vs. Maryland at Landover, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 3 (avg. rank 14.3).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 1 (15).
Heat check: Voters seemed determined to be ahead of the curve for the Longhorns’ long-awaited revival. Texas hasn’t finished a season ranked since 2012, but for the second straight season it will start at No. 23.
No. 24 Oregon
Open: vs. Bowling Green, Sept. 1.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 4 (avg. rank 20.8).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 4 (avg. rank 15.3).
Heat check: These fringy preseason rankings have not worked out too well for the Ducks, three times failing to finish ranked when they started in the 20s.
No. 25 LSU
Open: vs. No. 8 Miami at Arlington, Texas, Sept. 2.
Seasons started ranked, finished unranked: 4 (avg. rank 20.8).
Seasons started unranked, finished ranked: 4 (avg. rank 15.3).
Heat check: There was a perception the Tigers were big underachievers toward the end of Les Miles’ tenure, but his teams were preseason ranked every season from 2005-16 and only twice did they finish unranked. Underachieving this year’s relatively modest expectation could be a problem for coach Ed Orgeron.
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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://www.podcastone.com/AP-Top-25-College-Football-Podcast
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