Predicting Underachieving College Football Teams

Since 1989, when the rankings expanded to a top 25, there have been an average of just over 9 teams ranked in the preseason poll to end the year unranked, including usually 3 or 4 of the top 15 that tend to slip out of the rankings by year’s end. So while it would be disappointing, and possibly considered underachieving, for Alabama or Clemson to miss the playoff, that’s not what we’re talking about. Instead, we’re going to try to predict what teams that are starting the year ranked are going to fail to end the year there. This was harder than I expected, but I looked for teams with a hard schedule, a glaring weakness, or something else that could be an issue lurking below the surface.

Top 15 Teams

This group looks strong. These are the teams that look like they’ll be in the championship hunt in November. But that’s true every year, and yet over the past 30 years the average is 3 2/3 of the top 15 teams in the preseason finished the year unranked, including 6 last year, tied for the most in that time span, and 5 each in 2014,’15, and ’16 (there were only 2 in 2017). But we picked three that *might* do it in 2019.

#11 Oregon Ducks

OregonFirst of all, what happens if star QB Justin Herbert gets hurt? Secondly, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), they have a less than 60% chance to win three of their games (vs Auburn in Dallas, at Washington, at USC) and less than 70% in two others (at Arizona State, at Stanford). I don’t think a 4-loss Pac-12 team would be ranked, so they need to win either two of those five and all their others, or three of them if they get upset by a lesser team. Head coach Mario Cristobal looked good in year one, going 9-4 with some big wins over teams like Washington and Michigan State in their bowl game. They return 10 starters on offense, headlined by Herbert and two preseason All-Pac-12 offensive lineman in Shane Lemieux and Calvin Throckmorton. Cristobal also brought in a great recruiting class that ranked #7 overall according to 247sports. The Ducks could just as easily be competing for the Pac-12 title and possibly even a playoff birth, but they’re a team I could see struggling and falling out.

#12 Texas A&M Aggies


Texas A&M

Welcome to the brutal schedule portion of this article. The Aggies play 4 of the top 6 teams in the preseason top 25, and 3 of them on the road. It feels impossible to have a schedule that difficult. Of those 4 games, their best chance of winning (according to FPI) is 26.6% at LSU. Their games at Georgia and vs Alabama are also around 25% and at Clemson, they’re given just a 12% chance of victory. Fortunately, they’re given at least 65% odds in every other game except hosting Auburn, where they’re only slightly favored, but if they lose those four games one more loss might have them out, and two certainly would, including a bowl game. They’re committed to winning even in the incredibly competitive SEC West, proving so when they hired Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State, and he did a great job in bringing in the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the nation this year. That put them third in the SEC, second in the state of Texas, and only one spot ahead of third place in their division LSU. It’s a tough place to be, and they lost 5 of their starting front 7 on defense. They also lost running back Trayveon Williams, who ran for a school-record 1760 yards last year. Anyone up this high that I’m confident won’t be contending for the national championship has to go on the list of teams that could drop.

#14 Utah Utes

UtahThis was actually tougher than the top two for me, in spite of the lower ranking heading into the year for Utah. The Utes have one of the best defensive lines in the country, returning all 4 starters from a group that stopped 28% of opponent runs at or behind the line last year. They’re favored in 11 of 12 games. But they’re only “safe” (better than 85% win probability per FPI) in 3 of them (85% in FPI is also roughly where the projected margin of victory turns to 3 scores). They’re going to play great defense. The question is on offense, where they hired an offensive coordinator who’s known for pass-happy, usually spread offenses, which isn’t what Utah’s offensive identity usually is. They’ll be on upset alert in week one, when they travel to BYU, a pseudo-rival that they beat by 8 points at home last year and is looking like one of the best small-conference teams in the country going into 2019. Traveling to USC and Washington will be tough, and as I mentioned with Oregon a 4-loss Pac-12 team could very well be unranked, which leaves Utah needing to win 10 of their other 11 games (including a bowl game) to be safe if they lose those two. BYU, Washington State, Arizona, etc. could put a scare into the Utes if their offense can’t put teams away, and one or two bad breaks could kill them.

Lower-Tier Teams

For teams that start the year ranked 16-25, life isn’t nearly as good as the top 15. Roughly half of them (56% to be exact) have ended the year outside the top 25 since the polls were expanded in 1989. So in this group, it’s basically a toss-up, and is just as easy or just as hard, to predict who stays as it is to guess who goes. Here’s my best shot.

#16 Auburn Tigers

AuburnBeing in the SEC West sucks. I’m putting two of their 7 teams in this list of teams to fall out of the top 25 because of the strength of their top two teams, along with tough draws from other portions of their schedule. Auburn could beat Oregon and Texas A&M and still end up unranked. That’s because they’re underdogs in 4 other games, add in an upset and a bowl loss and they’re 7-6. If they lose one of those two early tests, it becomes hard to show why they should be ranked if they’re 1-5 against the best teams they played, with wins over “quality opponents” like Samford, Kent State, and Tulane. Gus Malzahn has been living in dangerous waters for a while now because that’s life when you’re anyone in the SEC other than Alabama. There are so many great teams around that your AD is gonna ask, “why can’t you do that?” after every great season by your neighbor, and they never stop coming. Any team that could lose 6 games without it being a big surprise belongs here. If it happens, it likely costs Malzahn his job.

#19 Wisconsin Badgers

WisconsinLast year should have gone better in Madison. They were better than their 8-5 record suggested, but this year’s team likely isn’t as good. Alex Hornibrook wasn’t a great QB, but after he transferred they likely don’t have an immediate replacement who’s better. Jonathon Taylor is back, and that’s a big deal, but how will 4 new starters on the offensive line do in blocking for him? The Badgers allowed more yards per game than they had since 2007 a year ago, and it’s more hope than logic to think they’ll be significantly better. They drew Michigan, Michigan State, and at Ohio State as their Big Ten East slate, and it doesn’t get much worse than that. Playing at South Florida, while it still should be a win, is no pushover to start the year either. Wisconsin likely disappoints again in Taylor’s final season, failing to take advantage of another great running back to pass through their campus.

#20 Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa.pngIowa is a black hole of a recruiting state. They do well enough in recruiting because Kirk Ferentz, while he’s not a household name, has been there for a long time and has steadily produced good teams. But can they replace two first-round tight ends in one year? Iowa might be the best school for tight end talent, but even they are going to have a tough time with that one. They also lose 7 starters on defense, though Iowa is used to having underclassmen play fairly major roles as backups and then become starters as they develop, so they’ll be prepared for that. The Hawkeyes play 5 teams ranked in the preseason, and 4 of them on the road. That includes trips to the Big House at Michigan and playing at cross-state rival Iowa State early on. They’re underdogs in 4 games (per FPI) and have a less than 65% chance in 3 others, and 5 losses in the Big Ten West is sure to have you on the outside looking in. Another 8-5ish year for Ferentz and the Hawkeyes, but good not great doesn’t always pay off.

#21 Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa StateThe biggest question surrounding the Cyclones is the running back position, where they have to replace David Montgomery. However, they may have a bigger issue replacing the big-play capability of Hakeem Butler, because they have some running backs ready and are returning all 5 offensive lineman, which helps the run game more than it helps a receiver to average 22 yards a catch like Butler did last year en route to a 1318 yard, 9 TD season. They do return much of the defensive group that was arguably the best defense in the Big 12 last year, but need replacements at corner that won’t be easy. They have a sneaky difficult schedule that led to them only being underdogs in two games but projected to go roughly 8-4 by FPI. That’s because they have 7 games between 50% and 70% win probability including 3 where they’re very slight favorites (<60%). If the run game is less consistent without Montgomery, that makes it harder on the defense to hold their opponents, which will make that group look worse than a year ago, which will make Iowa State struggle.

#22 Syracuse Orange

SyracuseThe ACC isn’t going to be as bad as it was last year, when only Clemson and Syracuse ended the year ranked. Syracuse is losing quarterback Eric Dungey, a great runner and leader with an OK arm, and they turn the offense over to Tommy DeVito after some up and down performances partly in garbage time and partly when Dungey got banged up. The out-of-conference schedule is easier, with Marland being the Power 5 team they’re playing instead of Notre Dame, but road games at Florida State and NC State won’t be as easy as facing those teams at home last year. They also have 4 games in which they’re favored, but given a less than 60% chance to win. Getting 3 wins in those games would be a big difference as opposed to 2, but three of them are on the road and in college football home teams as slight underdogs can ride the support of that home crowd to victory more often than you’d think. The week after Clemson game, that got them last year in the form of Pitt, is Western Michigan, a small conference team not to be overlooked if new defensive coordinator Lou Esposito can clean up that side of the ball for the Broncos. This is a time when getting beat handily by Clemson could be better than nearly pulling the upset, as it creates less of an emotional fall for their next week. I think there’s a good chance Syracuse loses 5 games this year, which will easily leave them outside the postseason rankings.

#25 Stanford Cardinal

StanfordStanford is considered underdogs in 7 games by FPI and 6 by S&P+ (they disagree wildly on UCLA, who’s FPS’ 20th ranked team but just 63rd according to S&P+) and are projected to win between 6 and 7 games by both systems. That’s simply not going to get it done. If quarterback KJ Costello can take another step forward now that Bryce Love is gone, likely shifting the offensive focus away from the running game, then the Cardinal offense can avoid another slide like the ten-spot drop in S&P+ offense rank they saw last year. If they do that, they may be able to fight off what looks like might be a schedule-induced tough year for Stanford. They have tough home games, facing Oregon, Washington, and Notre Dame (they’re currently listed as underdogs against all three), without getting the benefit of easy road trips, with tough road tests such as at Washington State, at UCF, and at USC. Their overall strength of schedule remaining is ranked third by FPI, and a defense that didn’t make a lot of big plays last year doesn’t look like it will create many opportunities to flip a game, so I don’t see Stanford going better than 7-5, which likely won’t get them ranked.


So there you have it. 9 teams, including 5 of the bottom 7, to end the year out of the top 25. I didn’t pick any top 10 teams, because as they do every year, they look really good. But 2006 was the last year every top 10 preseason team ended the year ranked, and last year three top 10 teams fell out (Wisconsin, 4; Miami, 8; Auburn, 9). To be fair, this doesn’t look too far off from what 2017 had, with 9 total teams dropping out but only two coming from the top 15 preseason squads. I also picked three of the five Pac-12 teams that the AP Poll put in their top 25 to drop out, which seems harsh but I’d probably pick USC to fill one of the spots that would be left behind, and some people and metrics like Arizona State or UCLA to perform well this year, so I don’t think the Pac-12 is just going to be bad, but I think much like last year a lot of teams are going to win 6-8 games and there won’t be many great teams. Sometimes college football is just a mess like that, and that’s part of what makes it fun. That’s better than the predictability of more Clemson vs Alabama with a national championship on the line, again, which is a difficult problem for the NCAA to solve. Time usually works itself out in those situations though, with new coaches and players cycling through schools, whether the powerhouses getting weaker or someone else coming up to challenge them, to break up dynasties. 2019 doesn’t look like it will be that year, but there’s a lot else to be looking forward to the college football season for.

Stats and info courtesy of ESPN and SBNation

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