The college football season is less than two weeks away and that means the sport has entered into a phase of its offseason that engenders passion, anger and discussion (even though it's mostly inconsequential in the end). That's right, it's preseason poll season. The Coaches Poll was released Aug. 10 and the AP Poll followed Aug. 16.
For the fourth season in a row, I am a voter in the latter poll and I have reproduced my full rankings here:
4. Ohio State
6. Iowa State
7. Notre Dame
8. Texas A&M
12. Miami (Florida)
15. Penn State
16. North Carolina
22. Coastal Carolina
23. Oklahoma State
25. Ball State
As I've written before*, preseason rankings are generally just educated guesswork, even for the most well-informed of college football writers. Most of those who call themselves beat writers, as I do, have a deep knowledge of one or two teams (in my case, three: Notre Dame, Indiana and Purdue) and cursory information on most of the rest, gleaned from reading what other beat writers have written during preseason camp as well as memories of what took place the previous season.
Still, the preseason polls are not without use. First and foremost, they are a reason for excitement, a signifier that the season is close. They also provide a glimpse into the national consensus on each team as the season begins, even if it's difficult to call the rankings a "consensus" on some teams (Notre Dame, for example, was ranked anywhere from fifth to 20th, Cincinnati was anywhere from fifth to 22nd).
My personal philosophy is not to put too much stock in the preseason rankings, even my own. After watching the first week of games, I generally throw out most of what I thought – and was probably wrong about – prior to the season. There are just so many variables and unknowns going into a season that it's likely the perceptions of some teams are incorrect. Once a pollster sees teams on the field, it's their job, in my opinion, to adjust their perception accordingly. I'll probably have some significant shifts between my preseason rankings and my poll following Week 1.
With that said, here are some explanations of some of the rankings I feel most strongly about:
- Notre Dame: Rumors of Notre Dame's demise have been greatly exaggerated. When I say "demise," I mostly mean the general perception that this team is more likely to go 9-4 than it is to match the double-digit win campaigns of the last four years. I think Notre Dame will be better than most people think for one main reason: the obvious holes the team had coming into the season (quarterback, offensive line, linebacker) have mostly been filled. Notre Dame went out and got a competent quarterback in the transfer portal in Jack Coan and added an All-American along the offensive line in Cain Madden. At linebacker, no one will match what Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah did last season, but Jack Kiser is a perfectly capable replacement and there is a world of depth at the position. This all not to mention that the Irish have a pair of terrific running backs in Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, making the offense (supposedly the team's weakness) a high-floor proposition. The Irish checked in at No. 9 and I had them two spots higher at seventh. Everyone below them has very serious question marks.
- Indiana: I am lower on my alma mater than most pollsters. The Hoosiers checked in at No. 17 overall and I have them 20th, which might itself end up being too high. IU is coming off one of its best campaigns in a half-century, a 6-2 finish that saw the Hoosiers climb into the top 10 of the AP Poll for the first time since 1969. The question: how much of that success was the product of Indiana taking a leap forward and how much of it was other teams in the Big Ten being down because of coronavirus attrition? Two of Indiana's biggest wins (against Penn State and Michigan) came in games where the opposing team was missing some of its most important players after opt-outs. In the Outback Bowl against a mediocre Ole Miss team, Indiana looked out-classed athletically. Sure, the Hoosiers were missing superstar quarterback Michael Penix Jr. against the Rebels, but that's the point: Indiana's success rests (in large part, though not entirely) on the health of a player who has had season-ending injuries three straight years. Penix is a star and there are very good players elsewhere on the roster (Tiawan Mullen is one of the country's best corners, to name one), but I'm not fully buying the idea that Indiana is significantly better program-wide than it was in 2019, when it was a fringe top 25 team. I think that's where they'll be again this season.
- Wisconsin: The Badgers are once again the favorites to win the Big Ten West Division after going 4-3 a season ago and losing to Northwestern, Indiana at home and Iowa, the latter a 28-7 defeat in which quarterback Graham Mertz averaged 4.4 yards per pass attempt. Wisconsin is 12th in the preseason poll and I have them 18th. It seems to me that much of the expectation that the Badgers will rebound and once again rule the West is premised on the idea that Mertz will take a big leap forward in Year 2 running the show. To me, that's assuming a lot. Mertz, despite his top recruit pedigree, was not particularly impressive last year, outside of one huge game against an awful Illinois defense. The Badgers failed to find the end zone at home against Indiana (which, again, is not loaded with athletes on the defensive side) and got outgained 518-266 in the Duke's Mayo Bowl against Wake Forest (somehow the Badgers won the game 42-28). The Wisconsin defense seems like a good bet to be very good again, but its offense will need to take a significant step forward for the team to reach the heights most people seem to expect. With an unproven Mertz at quarterback and no game-breaking tailback like Jonathan Taylor in the backfield, that breakout is far from a sure thing.
Dylan's Bold Prediction, Week 1: No. 5 Georgia 30, No. 3 Clemson 17
The Tigers have been one of the premiere teams in college football for a half-decade, while Georgia always feels like it's a half-step away from joining that group, despite recruiting as well as anyone in the country. With Trevor Lawrence departed from Clemson, give me the Dawgs to get a signature win to start the season, making things difficult on talented but inexperienced D.J. Uiagalelei. Here's the really bold part: Georgia makes it look easy.
*For more of my thoughts on the topic, follow this link: https://www.journalgazette.net/sports/colleges/20200825/voting-in-ap-poll-exercise-in-futility