Spring Blog • April 27, 2015

Phil Steele's Projected AP Top 25

In each of the past six years, during the offseason, I have come up with a projected Top 10 of the preseason AP poll on my website. I do this by taking several different factors into account:

• Most AP voters usually look at a couple of criteria when they evaluate a team for the upcoming season. First, they look at the number of returning starters the team has coming back, particularly at the offensive skill positions. A team that returns its starting quarterback and a combination of its running backs and wide receivers, for example, is often more highly regarded than a team that loses its starting quarterback but returns its entire offensive line. Similarly, a team that returns most of its starters on offense but loses a lot of its defensive playmakers is usually more highly regarded than a team that returns a majority of its defensive starters but loses its skill players on offense. 

• Another factor weighed heavily is the performance of the team in its bowl game, which is undoubtedly the lasting image that voters carry with them during the offseason. A team coming off a huge bowl win is usually more highly thought of than a team that is coming off a bowl loss, regardless of what its schedule looks like for the upcoming season.

• Also heavily considered is where the team finished the previous year. Naturally, those that finished somewhere in the rankings (Top 25) have a much better chance of being preseason Top 10 than a team that finished unranked last year.

Using these factors -- and a few others, such as strength of schedule -- I project the preseason AP Top 10 every year at the start of February, which in most cases is six months in advance of the poll's release. Now, as you all know, a lot can happen between February and August. That includes injuries, suspensions, transfers along with coaching decisions. Over the past six years, I have been very successful using this method, correctly projecting 56 of 60 teams (93.3 percent), including a perfect 10-for-10 again in 2014.

Before I go into the rankings, it is important to make the point that this is NOT my preseason Top 10 for next season, but rather what I am projecting the AP Top 10 will look like to start the season. If you're familiar with my College Football Preview Magazine, you will know that every year I tend to go out on a limb for a couple of teams in my Top 10, and this year will be no different.

Now, let's take a look back at my projected preseason AP Top 10 teams, which was first released as an ESPN Insider article on 2/13/15.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes were thought to be a year away from their best team and a national title, but even down to a QB who was third string at the start of August, they went out and upset Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and upset Oregon in the championship game. I do believe this year's team is even stronger than the 2014 version and, unlike last summer when the QB depth was questioned by many, they now have three quarterbacks who have either been a Heisman contender or led the team to a national title. OSU is the first defending champ since LSU in 2007 to not lose a single underclassmen early to the NFL draft. OSU had a lot of super sophomores last year. Not only do they have 15 returning starters, but the Buckeyes' road games this year are against Virginia Tech, Indiana, Rutgers, Illinois and Michigan, and not a single one of those teams drew a single vote in the AP poll, and they weren't even among the top 38 at the end of last year.


2. TCU Horned Frogs
Every year people ask me for my favorite team, and I always say, "The team I picked higher than everyone else." That team last year was the TCU Horned Frogs, who were coming off a 4-8 season but were my No. 1 Most Improved Team, and the Frogs did not disappoint me, nearly landing in the College Football Playoff. Had Ohio State not defeated Oregon in the manner it did, TCU very well could be the preseason No. 1 team. The Frogs beat their opponents last year by an average of 46.5-19. TCU outgained its foes by 191 yards per game last year and finished No. 1 in my individual game grade category, and in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl they destroyed No. 9 Ole Miss 42-3 with a 423-129 edge in yardage. This year, the Frogs have 14 returning starters, including Trevone Boykin, RB Aaron Green and their top 3 receivers in Josh Doctson, Kolby Listenbee and Deante' Gray. They do have to play Kansas State and Oklahoma on the road, but I'll call for them to land at No. 2 in the AP poll in August.


3. Alabama Crimson Tide
The Tide brought in another No. 1-rated recruiting class. As happens every year, and heading into the playoffs last year, they were the team favored to win it all before getting upset by the Buckeyes. Yes, they have just 11 returning starters including only four back on offense, but the Tide just rolls new players into the key spots each year. The biggest loss on offense is WR Amari Cooper, but they have one of the best sets of running backs in the country, and keep in mind Blake Sims had no starting experience last year, so this year's QB could put up similar stats in the Lane Kiffin offense. With seven starters back from a defense that is always at the top, Alabama will definitely be in the top 5, and I think they land as high as No. 3.


4. Baylor Bears
Baylor finished last year No. 7, and had it not blown a late lead against Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, it would have finished even higher. This year, the Bears have an amazing 17 returning starters, and it seems that no matter who they put at QB, they have outstanding success in this system. Baylor is known for its offense, but it has one of the best defensive lines in the country. The Bears play TCU and Kansas State on the road but will be a determined team after just missing out on the playoff last year.


5. Oregon Ducks
While he's not guaranteed a starting job (see Jake Coker with Alabama last year), bringing in Vernon Adams is huge for Oregon, as he had great success against the two Pac-12 teams he faced the last two years and threw for 10,438 yards with 110 touchdowns and 31 interceptions, while twice being the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award (FCS equivalent to the Heisman) at Eastern Washington. Adams should be a fine replacement for Marcus Mariota, and the Ducks have a great deal of depth at RB and WR with seven offensive starters back. Oregon does play Michigan State, Arizona State and Stanford on the road, but it¹s been pretty much an automatic as the Ducks' preseason ranking has been No. 3, No. 5, No. 3 and No. 3 the past four years.


6. Michigan State Spartans
MSU made my article for the first time last year when I pegged them to be No. 8 in the AP preseason poll, and that is exactly where the Spartans opened up. That comeback win against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl was huge, and they do have 13 returning starters (including QB Connor Cook, which is always a good place to start) and a veteran O-line. The Spartans' defense is always solid and has seven starters back. They have one road game against a team that finished in the AP Top 25, and that¹s a big one (Ohio State). They do get to host Oregon in Week 2 with the Ducks breaking in a new QB.


7. USC Trojans
USC got a nice blowout win over Notre Dame and a bowl win to finish last year at No. 20. This year, the sanctions are gone, the depth returns, they have 14 returning starters and two key things happened in the postseason. QB Cody Kessler opted to stay, and he was the best QB you never heard of last year, throwing for 3,826 yards (69.7 percent, 39 touchdowns, five interceptions), and they also brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Their starting 22 can match up with almost every other team in the country, and those final 2 factors put the Trojans into the top 10.


8. Florida State Seminoles
One game. FSU has lost a grand total of one game the past two years. In fact, the Seminoles are 39-3 the past three years. Jimbo Fisher brings in an elite recruiting class year in and year out. Yes, there are some losses for the Seminoles, as just 11 startersreturn, and they lose 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Still, talent abounds, and their defense this year will more resemble 2013 (281 ypg) than last year's numbers (397 ypg) with seven starters back. They have just five road games this year with Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida the trickiest, but they will likely be favored in all three.


9. Auburn Tigers
Just two years ago, Auburn was in the national title game despite not even being ranked in the preseason. Last year, the Tigers underachieved as they opened up preseason No. 6 and finished No. 22, including an Outback Bowl loss to Wisconsin. While they lose their QB, Jeremy Johnson looked great taking over for Nick Marshall and has a lot of talent to work with. Defense has not been a strong suit for Auburn in recent years, but with eight returning starters and Will Muschamp as the defensive coordinator, it will be this year. Auburn has just four true road games, and none of the four teams finished 2014 ranked. With another great recruiting class coming in, Auburn should make the preseason top 10.


10. Georgia Bulldogs
Last year seemed like a very disappointing year for Georgia and yet it still finished at No. 9. I don¹t think the AP voters will put three teams from the SEC West in the top 10, as they will knock each other off, but UGA is the clear-cut front-runner to win the SEC East. At times last season, the Bulldogs looked like the best team in college football, and they return their star-studded backfield led by Nick Chubb and bring in another tremendous recruiting class. With Florida at a neutral site, they have just three true SEC road games this year, and while they do play both Alabama and Georgia Tech, I think UGA will be the No. 10 team in the preseason AP poll.


In February, I took an early look at predicting the preseason AP Top 10 for 2015. Below, I've continued the predictions with Nos. 11-25, taking into account -- among other factors -- returning starters, bowl game performance and 2014 postseason ranking.

Before I get to the rankings, it's important to make the point that this is not my preseason 11-25 for 2014, but rather what I am projecting the AP poll's 11-25 will look like to start the season.


11. UCLA Bruins

The first thing that comes to mind as to why UCLA belongs here is coach Jim Mora. Prior to his arrival, the Bruins went through a stretch of six seasons in which they averaged 5.7 wins per season. Since taking over the Bruins, he has averaged 9.7 wins per year, including back-to-back 10-win seasons. While the Bruins lose quarterback Brett Hundley, they return 18 starters including a 1,500-yard rusher, seven of their top eight receivers and 13 of their top 17 tacklers.

12. Ole Miss Rebels

Ole Miss finished No. 17 last season, and while half of the Magnolia State was disappointed in the Rebels' finish, they finished higher than they were ranked in the preseason (No. 18). The Rebels must find a new QB -- departing QB Bo Wallace threw an SEC-high 14 interceptions -- but they do return 16 starters. It takes a special coach to take over a 2-10 team and improve immediately to 7-6 in his first season. Fortunately for Ole Miss fans, Hugh Freeze not only accomplished that feat, but he has continued to build the program by getting the Rebels to eight wins in 2013 and nine wins last season. Lastly, while Ole Miss was beaten handily in two games, it had a lead in its other two losses -- at No. 24 LSU and vs. No. 4 Auburn -- in the fourth quarter.


13. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

After losing their final four regular-season games last season, the injury-depleted Fighting Irish got healthier for their bowl game and beat LSU. This is now coach Brian Kelly's sixth season and, in his third season, he returned 14 starters and took Notre Dame to the national title game. In the past two seasons, the Irish returned only 12 and 10 starters and had nine and eight wins, respectively. Well, this season the Irish return 19 starters. Whoever wins the QB battle will be leading a veteran team.


14. LSU Tigers

Since 2001, LSU has been ranked in every preseason AP poll, beginning the season in the top eight seven times and in the top 14 every season but 2010. In addition, only three LSU underclassmen declared for the 2015 NFL draft, compared to 10 in 2013 (plus star Tyrann Mathieu, who was dismissed in 2012) and seven in 2014. LSU returns rising star running back Leonard Fournette along with 14 other starters, and the Tigers will be fired up for a bounce-back season. Last season's bowl loss kept them out of the final AP top 25 for the second time in 12 years.


15. Clemson Tigers

The Tigers return an abundance of skill players including QB Deshaun Watson, who had 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions a season ago, their top four rushers and their top three receivers. Clemson's defense, which ranked No. 1 in 2014, has a few holes to fill but is still talented. The trend line is good as well: After an upset win over No. 9 LSU in 2012, Clemson went on to finish No. 11 in the final rankings, and in 2013, the Tigers beat No. 7 Ohio State in their bowl to finish No. 8. After last season's 40-6 lambasting of Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl to boost their final ranking to No. 15, you can expect the momentum to continue in Death Valley this season.


16. Arizona State Sun Devils

There is a new mentality when your program goes 16 years without topping 17 wins in back-to-back seasons and a new coach wins 18 games in his first two years, including 10 wins in his second season. Todd Graham accomplished that feat at Arizona State, then added another 10-win season in his third season despite returning only eight starters, which is the first time that ASU has won 10 games in back-to-back seasons since Frank Kush did it in 1970 and 1971. ASU returns 16 starters this season, combined with a significant 79 percent of returning lettermen. Expect the Sun Devils to be in the top 20.


17. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

The Yellow Jackets finished the season as hot as any team, winning six of seven games down the stretch, including matchups vs. No. 18 Clemson, No. 8 Georgia, No. 2 Florida State and No. 8 Mississippi State as their final four. Georgia Tech's impressive stretch run showed just how difficult it is to prepare for the option offense with only one week of practice, especially late in the year when teams are physically and mentally fatigued. Although Tech returns only 13 starters, in the Yellow Jackets' previous five seasons they returned only 14 starters in 2010 followed by 12, 13, 14 and a mere 10 last season, so coach Paul Johnson is well versed in dealing with roster turnover.


18. Wisconsin Badgers

While the Badgers have to deal with a third coaching change in four years, they still return some talent and are one of the favorites in the Big Ten West. New coach Paul Chryst is a Badger through and through, as he coached there in 2002 and from 2005 to 2011, played QB there from 1986 to 1988 and was even born in Madison, Wisconsin. This program, like Georgia Tech, has only 13 starters back, but the Badgers do have 70 percent of their lettermen returning. From 2011 to 2014, the Badgers returned only 14, 11, 13 and 10 starters, yet they won 11, eight, nine and 11 games, respectively.


19. Missouri Tigers

What is more impressive than winning back-to-back SEC East titles? How about winning the first one in your second SEC season while playing road games at brand-new venues, then winning the second one with just eight returning starters? The Tigers have clearly been stellar in SEC road games, with an amazing 8 straight wins on the road in conference (10 straight overall on the road). Mizzou's run of conference road wins is easily tops in the SEC, with Alabama running a distant second at three straight. To make matters even better, the SEC schedule sets up favorably for the Tigers, as it did in 2012.


20. Arkansas Razorbacks

When Bret Bielema took over the Badgers in 2006, he preached defense and running the ball in leading Wisconsin to top 25 AP finishes five of six seasons. Since taking over at Arkansas, the Razorbacks have improved their rushing attack by 99 yards per game and 1.2 yards per carry, while the defense has improved by 11.2 points per game and 87 yards per game. Arkansas returned only 10 and 14 starters his first two seasons, but 15 are back for 2015. At home last season, the defense held four of its six FBS foes to a season low on offense, including LSU and Alabama, while the other two teams had their third-lowest offensive performance of the season. The Hogs' 31-7 bowl win over Texas showed what they are capable of, as they held the Longhorns to a mere 59 yards of offense.


21. Mississippi State Bulldogs

The Bulldogs have a case to be ranked higher. It is not often, if ever, that an SEC team that was ranked No. 1 during the season and finished as high as No. 11 -- yet also has a Heisman favorite returning (QB Dak Prescott) -- starts the season ranked outside the top 20. Mississippi State returns just nine starters, but last season's losses were at No. 4 Alabama, at No. 18 Ole Miss and vs. red-hot No. 10 Georgia Tech in the Capital One Orange Bowl.


22. Oklahoma Sooners

One thing that is certain in life is that Bob Stoops' Sooners will be ranked in the preseason AP top 25. After Stoops' first season as OU coach, the Sooners have been ranked all 15 seasons, including 13 times among the top 10. In only one other season did Oklahoma not finish ranked (2009) and the following year it won the Fiesta Bowl and finished No. 6. We also have yet another team returning only 13 starters, and in the past seven seasons OU has had more than 13 returning starters only once, which was in 2011 (15 were back). In the two seasons that Stoops' Sooners were ranked outside of the preseason top 10, they went from No. 19 to No. 1 (winning a title in 2000) and from No. 16 to No. 6 in 2013, which was topped off with a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.


23. Boise State Broncos

The Broncos not only enter this season as the defending Fiesta Bowl champs but do so with a nine-game winning streak, which is second only to Ohio State. Boise State has shown it is worthy as it has been ranked in the preseason poll seven of the past 11 years. The four times they weren't ranked, including last year, the Broncos finished the season ranked No. 12, No. 5, No. 11 and No. 16. They were the top Group of 5 team last season and will be the Mountain West favorite in 2015. With 16 starters back, you can expect Boise to be in the preseason AP top 20 again.


24. Tennessee Volunteers

There's excitement brewing in Tennessee as the Volunteers are on the rise. They will be picked by some to win their division and for good reason, as after returning only 10 starters in 2014, coach Butch Jones' team has 18 back this season. In addition, of their five SEC losses, two came vs. the SEC division winners, one was to Florida by a single point and another was at No. 12 Georgia by three points. There's no better feeling for a team going into the offseason than dominating a bowl opponent, and the Vols did just that against Iowa.


25. Stanford Cardinal

Many were expecting a collapse of Cardinal football after the departure of Jim Harbaugh. In his last three years at Stanford, the Cardinal had a record of 25-13. His replacement, David Shaw, has a record of 31-10 in the past three seasons. Stanford returns its QB, four of its top five rushers and seven of its top eight receivers. The defense has only four starters returning, but it's difficult to find a more consistent unit, as in the 36 games the Cardinal's defense has allowed an average of 17 points per game and has allowed more than 28 points only once (at last season's top-scoring team, Oregon).

Teams that just missed the cut: Utah Utes, Texas A&M Aggies, Arizona Wildcats