Every year there is a top 5 team that falls significantly short of expectations. Last year it was LSU, who slumped to 8-4 after opening the season ranked 5th. The year before, Baylor began at #4 and was a favorite to reach the College Football Playoff, yet they ultimately finished outside of the top 10. Ohio State, meanwhile, was a nearly unanimous pick to win the national title after opening the 2015 season at number one. They failed to make the CFP altogether.
If we extend this discussion to top 10 teams, we’ll find that the same is true: there are always a few preseason darlings that dramatically disappoint. In fact, in each of the past five years, there have been at least two preseason top 10 teams that finish outside of the year-end top 20.
2017 will be no different. Here are three highly-ranked teams that will underachieve.
1) Clemson Tigers
Preseason Ranking: 5th Record in ’16: 14-1
Last season was truly an incredible one for Clemson. At every turn, they seemed to dodge what could’ve been devastating blows to their national title hopes. For instance, the Tigers needed a last-minute defensive stand to beat Auburn 19-13 in Week one. They then barely escaped Troy University, of all teams, 30-24 in their hope opener a week later.
In addition, Clemson barely squeaked by both Louisville and Florida State in two barn-burners during the month of October, and were unbelievably lucky to avoid an upset at the hands of N.C. State, whose kicker missed a 33-yard field goal at the end of regulation that would’ve won the game for the Wolfpack. And, of course, the Tigers played a dramatic National Championship that wasn’t decided until literally the final second.
In all, Clemson was a remarkable 7-1 in one-score games last season. That mark is unsustainable: teams tend to regress to the mean (.500) in close contests after significantly over-performing in these situations. The same will happen to the defending champs, particularly after losing so many impactful players to the NFL draft, namely quarterback Deshaun Watson.
The Tigers project to start junior Kelly Bryant under center. He should do fine: after all, he just beat out not one, but two five-star recruits for the job. However, many teams in recent memory have had trouble replacing legendary starting QB’s. A quick recap:
- Oregon, one year after losing Marcus Mariota: 9-4
- Florida State, after Jameis Winston went pro: 10-3
- Texas A&M, sans Johnny Manziel: 8-5
- Baylor, one year after losing Robert Griffin: 8-5
- Auburn, after losing Cam Newton: 8-5
- Florida, without Tim Tebow: 8-5
Most of these programs were clearly still successful. But given that they collectively won an average of 12 games the year prior, the following seasons were obviously disappointing. Unfortunately for Dabo Swinney and Clemson, they’ll know the feeling by year’s end.
Prediction: The Tigers will fail to win the ACC
2) Washington Huskies
Preseason Ranking: 7th Record in ’16: 12-2
The Huskies were one of last year’s biggest surprises. Despite being ranked 14th in the preseason Top 25, Washington greatly surpassed expectations, winning the Pac-12 and appearing in the College Football Playoff.
Their magic will run out in 2017, however. Washington was able to surprise because they were one of the nation’s best teams at controlling the turnover margin, posting the third-best mark (+1.2) in the country. Similar to performance in one-score games, turnover rates tend to vary wildly on a yearly basis. The Houston Cougars, for instance, led the nation in turnover margin in 2015. Last season…they finished 105th. In fact, the ten programs that finished in the top ten in TO margin in ’15 saw their margin’s decrease from an average of +1.13 to +0.23. That’s like going from 5th in the nation to 45th.
The good news, in theory, for Washington is that quarterback Jake Browning returns after finishing 6th in the Heisman voting last season. But his presence alone might actually be another reason to sell Huskies stock. The public tends to favor teams with returning starters. Call it an availability bias, as the roster turnover in college football creates enough uncertainty that pundits tend to have more confidence in the players they know. Take LSU last season. They were ranked 5th in the preseason poll largely because of Leonard Fournette. But the Tigers finished just 8-4–Fournette alone clearly wasn’t enough. Two even better examples are the ’12 USC Trojans and the ’08 Georgia Bulldogs, preseason darlings with star returning quarterbacks (Matt Barkley and Matthew Stafford, respectively) that underachieved greatly after opening the year at number one.
The Huskies may not be expected to compete for a national title, but the bar is still high for Chris Petersen’s squad. Petersen’s main challenge will be to replace half of his defensive starters and find ways to continue winning the turnover battle. History says this is a long-shot, though, so it’s inevitable that Washington fails to reach last season’s heights.
Prediction: The Huskies will go 8-4 and fail to reach a New Year’s Six bowl
3) Wisconsin Badgers
Preseason Ranking: 10th Record in ’16: 11-3
Similar to Washington, the Badgers were also one of the best teams at forcing turnovers in 2016. Wisconsin posted the fifth best interception percentage and had the ninth best turnover margin in the country. However, they’re unlikely to be quite as good at snagging INT’s simply due to statistical regression.
What’s most disconcerting, though, is their quarterback situation. Sophomore Alex Hornibrook, their starter last season and projected starter in 2017, has a lot of work to do. He completed under 60% of his passes and threw just 9 touchdowns compared to 7 interceptions. With Hornibrook at the helm, Wisconsin’s offense was anemic last season, averaging only 5.3 yards per play (77th in the nation).
As a result, the Badgers played in a lot of one-possession games last season, going 5-3. Just because they finished over .500 in those contests doesn’t mean I think Wisconsin is in for a decline. However, since I think their offense will be mediocre once again, I bet they’ll find themselves in plenty of tight fourth quarters. And that’s likely to lead to at least a few losses, particularly in a strong Big Ten.
Prediction: Wisconsin will finish the regular season 9-3, but they’ll end the year outside the Top 20