There is no more ubiquitous measure of goodness in college sports than the first 25 polls on college football, and yet it is completely arbitrary.
At the time of the game, Ohio State was one spot ahead of Notre Dame and Texas A&M by one. But the difference between the Buckeyes and the Fighting Irish was clearly much greater than between the Irish and the Aggies.
And why did we lower our ranking by 25? The 25th. The team is good and the 26. Not the team? Over the past five seasons, ranked 21-25 teams have outscored their unranked opponents by just 48-56 with a record number of wins.
So what’s the solution?
To quote the great philosopher Cosmo Kramer: Levels. Or, to use a more sporting term, levels.
Instead of a pre-season top 25, we present to you the 130 teams of the FBS divided by rank, from a group of playoff favorites to those waiting for their next participation trophy.
These days, a lot can happen between January and September, so it’s not really an exact science, but we think it makes it easier for us to determine who’s good and who’s not, who’s rising and who’s going the wrong way.
Level 1: Favorite champions
Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma.
Be consistent in college football and you will never look stupid. In the playoffs, four teams won at least 80% of their games: Alabama (.919), Ohio State (.901), Clemson (.899) and Oklahoma (.815). All four won their conference last year, as well as 22 of 28 league titles in the playoff era, and represent 20 of 28 playoff participants.
The joker in the game is Georgia. While the Bulldogs haven’t passed the 80% mark and have only made the playoffs once (2017), they also have the fifth-best record of any Power 5 program of the playoff era (.783) and return with a team that screams Kirby Smart : It’s now or never. QB JT Daniels seems to have finally provided the missing piece in Georgia’s offense. In three of his four starts, he averaged more than 10 yards per attempt – a mark UGA hasn’t achieved against a Power 5 opponent since 2018. Add in receiver George Pickens, a very active corps and a fierce defense, and Georgia will love 2021. But beyond that, we think talent ultimately wins out, and AGU will likely finish in the top 3 scouts for the fifth consecutive year, giving the Bulldogs a list as talented as any in the country.
Level 2: Knocking on the door
Florida, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Oregon, Penn State, Texas A&M.
If talent and opportunity are the ultimate arbiters of a win at a national championship, these teams meet the criteria, but they also face bigger question marks than those in Category 1. All have at least three recruiting classes in the top 20 over the last four seasons. Everyone has been to New Year’s Eve at least once in the past two years. All but Penn State and Oregon have won at least seven games in 2020 (though the Ducks won the Pac-12 and the Nittany Lions ended a four-game winning streak).
Perhaps the most intriguing member of this team is North Carolina. As Texas, A&M, Florida, Notre Dame and Oregon prepare to enter 2021 with the QB questions, UNC has arguably the best quarterback in the country with Sam Howell and Mack Brown has hired some rising stars on defense, including cornerback Tony Grimes. If anyone is going to beat Clemson in the CCA, it’s North Carolina.
It would be easy to look at Penn State’s 0-5 and assume that this team is not capable of making the playoffs, but this period also includes two losses in which the Lions outgained their opponents by 200 yards or more. This team lost two stars for the season (Journey Brown due to injury, Micah Parsons due to exemption) and had serious QB problems. But Sean Clifford’s second move (66% completion rate, 8.2 yards/pass, 7 TD, 1 INT in his last four games) bodes well for 2021, and the bad luck that befell COVID-19 could easily turn into a surprisingly strong 2021 season.
But if there’s a discussion about one team at this level, it’s Texas. How does a team that just fired its coach get on the list of candidates for the title? That’s right, and we’re certainly not going to pretend Texas is back (we’ll have plenty of time for that in the next few months). But the recruiting has been strong under former coach Tom Herman, the bowling game, running back Bijan Robinson letting the people of Austin dream about his potential, and nine of the Longhorns’ 12 defeats over the past three seasons were due to a TD or less. (Incidentally, the UNC recorded 13 such losses during this period).
For Texas and Notre Dame in particular, a change of QB could radically change their careers. Both teams were led by established veterans who won many games and performed well, but neither Sam Ehlinger nor Ian Book were able to take the teams to the championship level as Trevor Lawrence, Joe Barrow, Justin Fields and Mac Jones did. It is entirely possible that replacing it would prove to be a major step in the wrong direction. After the impressive careers of Book and Ehlinger, there’s much more room for the worst than the best. But perhaps the real difference at the quarterback position is the biggest difference between these teams in a throw for the title, and as Burrow and Jones have proven, those differences aren’t always what you expect.
Desmond Ridder returns to Cincinnati after being undefeated for a year. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Level 3: Teams that don’t make the playoffs will spend a lot of time proving they won’t make it.
Cincinnati, Iowa, Miami, Oklahoma, USA, Washington, Wisconsin.
For seven years, the playoffs were a static group with five teams (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Notre Dame) taking 22 of the 28 possible spots. The other six are on the lists of the most talented teams (Florida State and Oregon State in 2014, 2017, Georgia, 2019 LSU) and some veteran teams with a few big stars (2015 Michigan State, 2016 Washington State). The lesson seems simple: Be an elite blue blood or work to remain undefeated in the Power 5 conference. None of the teams at this level are up to the task, but they are all good enough to give us a lot of interesting hypotheses for the 2021 season.
Cincinnati is a perfect example. The Bears finished the regular season undefeated in COVID ’19 but missed the playoffs. The reason was the conference. It doesn’t matter that the CAA was as good as the CAC, which brought two teams into the playoffs. Playing outside the Power 5 is a stigma, and the committee has clearly shown it with its rankings of Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina in 2020 and UCF in previous years. But maybe 2021 really is the year the stigma is overcome – at least for Cincinnati. The Bears have a QB Desmond Ridder return star, have an excellent defense, have a preseason pedigree with Georgia’s near-ascension in the Peach Bowl, and most importantly, can really prove something on the field in 2021 with trips to Indiana and Notre Dame. Do you think that could happen? We doubt it. The committee hasn’t shown a willingness to take a Seed 5 seriously, and while Cincinnati may get some rebounds in 2021, it also needs to avoid getting caught by a CAA underdog, which is hard to do two seasons in a row.
Many will also support the state of Iowa. The Cyclones had a very good 2020 campaign and return QB Brock Purdy and RB Breece Hall, making them one of the best backfield tandems in the country. But look beyond the two big names and consider Iowa State Recruitment: 52nd in 2017, 55th in 2018, 46th in 2019 and 46th in 2020. Of course, recruitment is not the only thing that matters. But this is more important than anything. Just look at the 11 teams that will participate in the playoffs. Except that the 2015 Michigan State team was recruited from outside the elite – and even the Spartans weren’t as advanced as Iowa State is today. (Their four recruiting classes for the playoffs ranked 34th, 37th, 26th and 23rd). That’s not to say the Cyclones can’t make the playoffs. It’s just that they would be pioneers.
The same can be said (to varying degrees) of Iowa, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. None of them are elite recruits, and all of them have shown obvious shortcomings in 2020 that need to be significantly improved to make the 2021 season special. On the other side are Washington, Miami and USC. All three recruit at the elite level, but they have fallen far short of that level in recent seasons. If you bet on any of these level programs to move up, these three programs are safer bets, but it will all be something great.
Level 4: High ceiling, low floor
Arizona State, Auburn, Louisville, LSU, Michigan, Ole Miss, UCLA.
There is a good chance that all the teams in this category will disappoint in 2021, but disappointments are the result of high expectations, and these teams have enough talent to meet those expectations.
Arizona State played just four games in 2020, including two wins, but the Sun Devils belong to the same club as Texas and North Carolina – teams with increasingly strong recruits combined with average records deflated by a string of narrow defeats. According to Herm Edwards, Arizona State has suffered five defeats by one touchdown or less, including three by two points or less. With a Pac-12 victory on the horizon, there is a viable path for the Sun Devils. Of course, it will also be new territory for Arizona State, a program that hasn’t won nine games since 2014 and hasn’t ranked in the top ten nationally since 1996.
Across the state from Arizona is Michigan, a team with an illustrious past that seems to be headed in the wrong direction. Jim Harbaugh’s contract extension is a tepid endorsement after a 2-4 campaign in 2020 that included a loss against Michigan State and a brief overtime victory against lower-ranked Rutgers. Michigan has been recruiting for the playoffs, but it seems to be getting worse.
The USL is just one year away from a national championship, but the NFL’s disastrous losses, coach withdrawals, and promotions have made Team 2020 a shell of the team that won the trophy. Can Ed Orgeron make a difference? He still has a few stars like Derek Stingley Jr. and a new coaching staff to fuel the fire, but there are still more questions than answers in what will likely be the toughest division in college football.
UCLA lost four games in 2020, all by less than a TD. Both defeats came after he lost a quarter lead. But Chip Kelly’s offense finally started to look like what it was in Oregon’s era, when the Bruins scored 34 points five times. UCLA’s explosiveness differential (the difference between their level of play on offense and defense) is 12th in the country. The Bruins were the only team in the top 22 to finish with a defeat. Many readings point to a sharp turn in a better direction in 2021.
Ole Miss added an offensive win probability (WPA) in 2020, and the Rebels gave the Alabama champion all they could handle. But Lane Kiffin has a big job to understand the defense. Louisville’s offense was also excellent in 2020, but unlike Ole Miss, the Cards’ defense has also evolved. The unit lowered its 2019 average by nearly half a yard per game, but a combination of turnarounds and bad luck doomed Louisville to a loss in the 2020 campaign. UCF has had its share of bad luck, too. In his three losses during the regular season, he scored a total of 12 points in each game where the Knights took the lead early in the quarter. QB Dillon Gabriel is a star, but this team also seems far behind the 2017 and 2018 teams as the new year approaches.
This is Auburn. Can Brian Harsin make quarterback Bo Knicks a star? It will be one of the most exciting things to watch in 2021, but recent chess history will overwhelm the Tigers until Harsin proves things have changed.
Level 5: High floor, low ceiling
Boise State, Coastal Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, Northern State, Northwestern State, TCU, Utah, West Virginia.
A team at this level can probably finish in the top 25 more safely than at the highest level, but the chances of qualifying for the playoffs are not that great. It’s a group of good teams, but not great teams that won’t disappoint, but won’t offer too much excitement either.
Coastal was the Cinderella College of 2020, and there’s no reason to expect a big step back in 2021, but it’s hard to fit the glass slipper two years in a row. And as for his group of 5 peers, the schedule doesn’t allow for a serious start to the playoffs.
Northwestern provided some thrills in 2020, and this defense was special (No. 3 in the country in adjusted expected extra points). But a crime? Not that many (#64 in the modified EPA). Northwestern ranks 108th in offensive explosive play (Army is the only team that has done better than .500), but 28th in defense. It’s a recipe for boredom… and eight victories.
The Northwestern model – a solid defense, an offense that doesn’t even have the excitement of dry paint – also suits Indiana, Kentucky, TCU and West Virginia. The Hoosiers were 12th in defensive EPA, but 55th in offensive. The Wildcats were 35 on defense and 71 on offense. Utah ranks 17th in defense and 89th in offense. And the Mountaineers came up with a defense that ranked 20th (according to the EPA) against an offense that ranked 65th.
Of the group, TCU might be the most valuable. The Horned Frogs recorded the 41st EPA violation and the 65th in the blitz. It’s not a particularly good song either, and for much of the year TCU seemed to lack an offensive identity. But Gary Patterson’s team finished the year by winning five of six games, including four by 30 points or more. If the Horned Frogs can find a little spark in 2021, they might have a real chance in the Big 12.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost will be on the hot seat for the 2021 season. AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Level 6: Let’s Get Crazy
Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Tennessee.
We have established one truth about college football: To compete for the national championship, you have to be a blue talent. But first-rate talent is not always synonymous with greatness. All of these teams have recruited well – at least occasionally – over the past five years and they have teams with real stars. But something (or a lot) is missing. None of these five teams finished the 2020 year with a win, and none of them would be in the top 25 in the preseason. But there are enough elements in place to see a big step forward in 2021 if everything goes as it should.
Let’s look at two characteristics of college football: FSU and Nebraska. They’re both in bad shape. FSU has gone 14-20 in scoring over the last three seasons, while Nebraska has gone 12-20. FSU fired its coach in 2019 and experienced a mass exodus in 2020. Nebraska coach Scott Frost will be in the hot seat for the 2021 season, as the gap between expectations and reality is greater at Nebraska than anywhere else in the country.
But dig a little deeper.
FSU had three recruiting classes in the top 25 through 2021. Injuries and COVID-19 have hit Mike Norvell hard in his first season, but by braving the pitfalls, he’s also ironed out some of the team’s cultural problems. And after years without a BQ, FSU may have multiple options in 2021, as departing starter Jordan Travis, a promising prospect named Chubba Purdy and famed transferee McKenzie Milton are all in the running.
In Nebraska, recruiter Frost is a big supporter of a fourth top 25 class in Nebraska in 2021. Despite all the shortcomings on the field, there is every reason to believe that Nebraska enters the season as the most talented team in the Big Ten. And while there were some ugly performances in 2020, the Huskers’ three defeats against them were nothing but DTs.
Then there is the matter of luck. FSU ranks 109th in turnover rate over the last three seasons. Nebraska is ranked 117th. Some of that is bad QB. In part, it’s a matter of luck. If both revolutions happen in 2021, the profit-loss balance sheet could change rapidly.
Similar cases exist for Terps, Spartans and Wolves. No one is suggesting betting big on any of these teams, but if you decide to go far, there is a benefit to each. Prepare to be disappointed.
Level 7: Summary for manufacturers
Air Force, Appalachian State, Arkansas, Baylor, Boston College, Buffalo, BYU, Cal, Colorado, Houston, Kansas State, Kent State, Liberty, Louisiana, Marshall, Memphis, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon State, Pitt, San Diego State, San Jose State, SMU, Stanford, Tulane, Tulsa, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest.
We all recognize a big win when we see one. The first two teams compete, one of them wins and we have a clear candidate for the qualifiers. But these games are actually quite rare. Last season there were only nine regular season games between the top 15 teams, with only Alabama playing more than one game. There were only 17 such games in 2019, and only five teams (including the four that participated in the playoffs) won more than one. That’s why this level of teams is so important. They are strong C-plus students. These teams can help us distribute the hair among the elite.
It’s a mistake to use the first 25 wins for a team’s resumé in the playoffs, because how much better is a win against #24 than a win against #28? It is essential to identify teams outside the top 25 that offer some degree of talent, training, star power or experience, because if they are unlikely to make the playoffs, they create real problems for teams that do. Clemson, Oregon or Oklahoma may yet face an elite opponent in 2021, but a regular regime of teams that aren’t that bad presents its own challenges.
Is there anyone in this group who is going to advocate for something more? Chances are at least one of them does. Who saw Coastal Carolina last year? Or Minnesota in 2019? Or Washington State in 2018? You could argue for Freedom, although the Flames’ 4-1 record in screen-based games is troubling. They were also the only team in the playoff era to finish with an FPI ranking lower than 70th in the PA Top 20. Perhaps the case of App State (#26 in SP+), Virginia Tech (#28) or Minnesota (#34) could be better argued. And then there’s BYU. While the Cougars were not a one-man team in 2020, Zach Wilson’s outstanding performance was so impressive that it’s hard to imagine this team replicating itself with a new QB in 2021.
Somewhere in the mix are one or two true top 20 programs, and the rest are probably cannon fodder for elite teams looking to boost their resume. In short, after leaving the really interesting teams behind, this level represents the rest of the first half of college football.
Level 8: They won’t let us say anything bad about the military.
Army, Central Michigan, Atlantic Florida, Mississippi State, Nevada, Ohio, Purdue, Rutgers, Texas, UAB, UTSA, Virginia, Washington State, Western Michigan, Wyoming.
We’ll steal a joke from Curb Your Enthusiasm for this level, as it best describes these controls. We don’t want to fool anyone. This band… is good. They have good qualities. At the grade 5 level, it’s a strong team. The contenders for the Power 5 are gaining ground, although there is still a long way to go. We like him. Good teams. They won’t force us to say anything bad about them. That’s right.
Can Jedd Fish make a difference in Arizona? Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire
Level 9: Yik
Arizona, Duke, Georgia Tech, Illinois, South Carolina, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and almost all other non-Power 5 states.
We wish everyone here the best. At least one of them will have us called idiots next season. Maybe a team like Arizona, with a new coach, terrible turnover and a comfortable squad. Or Georgia Tech, with a QB who can change the program. Any program can really make a big leap in 2021. But with the playoffs approaching, these guys are starting at the back of the pack.
Level 10: UConn and Kansas
This year we play UConn and Kansas. That’s a first. We hope you enjoyed it.