Spring Blog • February 20, 2015


Predicting the preseason AP top 10


By Phil Steele
as Published on ESPN Insider Friday, February 13, 2015



Sugar Bowl

Both coaches will start next season with a team inside the top 10. Where? Well...


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-position players on offense. 

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

• Also weighed heavily is where the teams finished the previous year. Naturally, teams 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, including injuries, suspensions and transfers. But 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.


Predicting the AP preseason top 10 football poll


A look back at last year when Phil Steele accurately projected the AP top 10 in February.


February 2014 projection

Actual August 2014 rank

1. Florida State

1. Florida State

2. Alabama

2. Alabama

3. Oregon

3. Oregon

4. Auburn

4. Oklahoma

5. Oklahoma

5. Ohio State

6. Ohio State

6. Auburn



8. Michigan State

8. Michigan State

9. Baylor

9. South Carolina

10. South Carolina

10. Baylor


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 at this year¹s projected preseason AP top 10 teams.

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.


Next week, I will release a couple of more teams on Twitter (@philsteele042) as well as online at philsteele.com. After hitting on 93.3 percent of these preseason AP top 10 projections last year, hopefully I'll go 10-for-10 again this year.