Twenty-five teams, four noteworthy nuggets and one data point as we enter ballot season …
*** One data point:
Eleven teams ranked in the 2018 AP preseason poll did not appear in the AP end-of-season poll.
If you’re curious (with preseason position and final record):
No. 4 Wisconsin (8-5)
No. 8 Miami (7-6)
No. 9 Auburn (8-5)
No. 11 Michigan State (7-6)
No. 13 Stanford (9-4)
No. 15 USC (5-7)
No. 16 TCU (7-6)
No. 18 Mississippi State (8-5)
No. 19 Florida State (5-7)
No. 20 Virginia Tech (6-7)
No. 24 Oregon (9-4)
The one constant is the lack of guarantees (except maybe Alabama and Clemson).
The trick, of course, is identifying the right sleepers and surprises.
Four noteworthy nuggets:
1. The AP preseason poll will be released Aug. 19.
2. Voting guidelines include the following from the AP: “Don’t hesitate to make significant changes in your ballot from week to week. There’s no rule against jumping a 16th-ranked team over the eighth-ranked team if No. 16 is coming off a big victory and No. 8 squeaked by an unranked team.”
(You’ll see plenty of significant changes in the Hotline’s ballot from week to week.)
3. The ballot below is a general projection of where I believe each team will end the season, so the schedule plays an important role in the evaluation. Once results roll in, we’ll adjust accordingly.
(While the AP provides a set of voting guidelines and ethics for in-season ballots, it purposefully leaves the process vague for the preseason poll.)
4. My ballot will be published on the Hotline every Sunday at (approximately) 9 a.m. Pacific, with the exception of Labor Day weekend (game on Sunday and Monday).
(Also considered: Auburn, Boise State, Florida State, Iowa, Kentucky, Miami, Mississippi State, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue, San Diego State, TCU, UCF, UCLA, USC, Virginia and Wisconsin)
25. Texas A&M: Plenty to like about the Aggies in Jimbo Fisher’s second season, but four things to dislike when assessing their prospects: at Clemson, vs. Alabama, at Georgia and at LSU. (The last two are back-to-back to end the season. Hellacious.)
24. Washington State: The Cougars have spent more weeks ranked than unranked over the past three seasons despite losing assistants, quarterbacks and high-level linemen. Maybe … just maybe … Mike Leach knows what he’s doing.
23. Cincinnati: The Bearcats have two early opportunities to prove their ballot worthiness: They host UCLA on opening day, then visit Ohio State in Week Two. Another 11-win season feels like a stretch for Luke Fickell and Co., but nine or 10 victories seems doable given the state of the AAC.
22. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are a trendy selection (here and elsewhere) based on improved play in the second half of Scott Frost’s first season and the return of quarterback Adrian Martinez. Also: The Big Ten West is wide open.
21. Fresno State: Few teams in any conference were hit as hard by attrition, but coach Jeff Tedford hasn’t budged from his alma mater, and FSU’s biggest question is the position he knows best (quarterback). The Bulldogs open at USC, so offseason focus surely hasn’t been a problem.
20. Virginia Tech: We pegged the Hokies for a spot on the ballot before defensive coordinator Bud Foster announced his retirement at the end of what will be his 33rd season with VaTech. His looming exit should provide additional motivation for a unit that returns 10 starters.
19. Washington: Nine starters must be replaced on defense, and the presumptive starting quarterback (Jacob Eason) hasn’t actually been a starting quarterback since the first game of the 2017 season. On the bright side for UW: All but one of the toughest games are at home.
18. Syracuse: When it comes to Dino Babers, we’re buyers. The Orange improved from four to 10 wins year-over-year and have enough experience on both side of scrimmage to maintain that momentum, if they get solid play from new quarterback Tommy DeVito.
17. Stanford: The non-conference schedule could be the toughest in the country (UCF, Northwestern and Notre Dame). But the more pressing concerns for the Cardinal are solidifying the offensive front and igniting the power running game … and doing it without Bryce Love.
16. Army: Sleeper No. 1 is an easy call and potentially slotted too low: The Black Knights return seven starters on offense from an 11-win team that took Oklahoma to overtime. The defense needs rebuilding but will be just fine if the triple option works as expected.
15. Missouri: Sleeper pick No. 2 is placed here because of a transfer quarterback who has won big games (Clemson’s Kelly Bryant), a mediocre division (SEC East) and a ridiculously manageable schedule. If the Tigers aren’t 7-0 heading to Kentucky in late October, something has gone wrong.
14. Florida: Dan Mullen wasted no time getting the Gators turned around in his first season, with 10 wins and a blowout of Michigan in the Peach Bowl. Quarterback Feleipe Franks is back (24 TDs/6 INTs last year), as are eight returning starters on defense.
13. Michigan State: We considered slotting the Spartans and their 17 returning starters in the bottom half of the top 10, then reconsidered upon examining the road schedule: MSU visits Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan. Holy Lewerke.
12. Ohio State: The East division could break any number of ways — the Buckeyes, for instance, might pick up where they left off under Urban Meyer. But we need to see that dominance from coach Ryan Day’s program, especially with a new quarterback (Justin Fields), before we expect it.
11. Notre Dame: With quarterback Ian Book and four offensive line starters returning from a 12-1 team, the backslide should be limited. But there will be a backslide. The schedule’s too tough (at Georgia, at Michigan, at Stanford), and the front seven lost too much.
10. Texas: No shortage of hype for a team that returns just eight starters and faces a challenging schedule. We think the attention is justified, at least until the Week Two visit from LSU.
9. Oregon: The combination of quarterback and offensive line is first class, and the Ducks’ weakest position, receiver, was partially filled with the addition of Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson. But to reach its potential, a program that has struggled on the road in recent years must manage trips to Washington and Stanford.
8. Iowa State: Our third sleeper pick — more because of the Cyclones’ top-10 position than their ballot inclusion. They won eight games last year, return 16 starters (including quarterback Brock Purdy) and have one of the top coaches in the country (Matt Campbell).
7. LSU: The Tigers were slotted No. 3 in the Hotline’s January projections, but we hadn’t examined the schedule at that point. Ed Orgeron will need stellar play from all 16 returning starters to navigate collisions with Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Texas. Seventh-best in the country, but third-best in the SEC.
6. Utah: Our pick to win the Pac-12 based on sound quarterback play (Tyler Huntley) and overpowering lines. The soft non-conference schedule (BYU, Northern Illinois and Idaho State) and cross-division misses (no Oregon or Stanford) provide the framework for 10+ wins.
5. Georgia: The Dawgs are worthy of being placed as high as No. 3. They miss LSU and Alabama and get Notre Dame at home, quarterback Jake Fromm is back, and the offensive line might be the best in the country. But until proven otherwise, this is the No. 2 team in its own conference.
4. Michigan: We’ll admit to being less than fully comfortable with this projection, in part because of a schedule that features the Big Ten heavyweights, plus Notre Dame and Army. But a retirement in Columbus has cleared the stage for Michigan, which returns quarterback Shea Patterson, a first-class line and talent on every level of defense.
3. Oklahoma: Assessment of the Sooners is guided by the belief that their limited decline in efficiency on offense (from Kyler Murray to Jalen Hurts) will be offset by a marked rise in efficiency on defense (eight returning starters, including star linebacker Kenneth Murray). Also, their conference road schedule is soft.
2. Clemson: The defending champs are loaded on offense (Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, a veteran line, enough receivers for four teams). But the Tigers are replacing a defensive front for the ages and have a sneaky-tough September schedule. Get them early, or good luck.
1. Alabama: Yes, we considered Clemson (very, very seriously), and yes, the Crimson Tide suffered heavy losses on both lines. But Tua Tagovailoa’s back, Jerry Jeudy’s back, the Tide has upgraded at defensive coordinator (Pete Golding), and the schedule, while not quite soft, is hardly grueling.