AP Top 25 rankings: Predicting what preseason poll says about college football in 2023

I voted Georgia No. 1 on my preseason AP Top 25 college football ballot, and I am prepared to be wrong. So it goes for teams ranked No. 1 in August and teams pursuing three-peats.

Nobody has ever pulled off a three-peat of poll championships, at least not since Minnesota won the 1934-36 titles — the last coming in the first year of the AP rankings. And only eight of the past 50 national champions started No. 1, including just two (2017 Alabama and 2004 USC) in the 21st century.

Preseason polls are good debate fodder and serve as historical markers, but we can’t possibly get everything right. In fact, we usually get a whole lot wrong — something I fully understand as a voter in my seventh year on the AP poll panel. Every year in this preseason space, I like to look at historical trends from the AP poll and use what we know about the past to try to predict what we’ll get right and what we’ll get wrong, even if it defies my preseason rankings:

Let’s start right at the top. Georgia is No. 1 on my ballot, and it’s No. 1 on 59 other ballots. The only other No. 1 votes went to Michigan (two) and Ohio State (one). I had a hard time considering anyone but Georgia for No. 1. It’s 29-1 over the past two seasons, and despite the question mark at quarterback, it has arguably more talent than any team in the country. It’s at the top of my ballot until proven otherwise.

Still, history says Georgia faces an uphill battle.

Prediction: Georgia won’t win the national championship. Michigan will. Forgive me, Georgia fans (hey, I did accurately predict the 2021 national title). This doesn’t mean the Bulldogs won’t be one of the best teams in the country; every preseason No. 1 team has finished in the AP top five in the nine years of the College Football Playoff. Seven of the nine preseason No. 1s have made the Playoff (all but 2015 Ohio State and 2022 Alabama), even if only one (2017 Alabama) has won it. Georgia is going to be very, very good.

But I’ll go with Michigan to get over the hump. Since 1989, twice as many preseason No. 2 teams (eight) have won the national title as No. 1s (four). Michigan brings back the experience, physical line play and quarterback upside with J.J. McCarthy to make it three CFP trips in a row and capitalize when it gets there this time.

Most recent 3-peat attempts

Team Year Preseason Final Record





























Who will make the College Football Playoff?

The preseason consensus is never accurate. In 25 years of the BCS and CFP, the top four teams in the preseason AP poll have never finished as the top four teams in the BCS or CFP standings, in any order. Only twice (2014 and 2020) have three preseason top-four teams been in the top four at the end of the regular season. In 22 of 25 seasons, one or two have been there at the end.

It’s safe to say that the Playoff field will not consist of all four of Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama.

The final BCS/CFP top four has been made up of an average of 1.52 teams that started in the preseason top four, 1.16 teams that started ranked from No. 5 to No. 9 and 1.33 teams ranked 10th or worse. In other words, a decent bet for a CFP prediction is two teams in the preseason top four, another team from the next five and one wild card that starts 10th or worse. That’s exactly what happened last year, with Georgia (preseason No. 3), Michigan (No. 8), TCU (unranked) and Ohio State (No. 2). In fact, that’s what has happened in three of the past five seasons.

Prediction: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 6 USC and No. 11 Texas make the CFP. I’ll go the safe route with the first two. After all, I did rank Georgia and Michigan first and second on my ballot. The preseason top two have both made the Playoff five times in nine seasons, and it’s not hard to see that happening again, unless Michigan loses to both Ohio State and Penn State. It’s also easy to make the case for USC, given that I ranked the Trojans third, three spots ahead of the poll consensus, believing that an influx of transfers will provide a semblance of tackling ability to the defense to support Caleb Williams.

Picking someone 10th or worse is harder. I don’t believe anyone ranked that low should be in the top four, or else I would have done it. So I’ve settled on a prediction that everyone will despise: Texas, which has Playoff-caliber talent but has a nasty habit of failing to capitalize on it. Predictions of Texas breakthroughs are an annual punch line, but that will only be the case until it actually does it. Could this finally be the year?

Nobody thought TCU would make the CFP in 2022 or Michigan would do so in 2021. Even if it’s not Texas, history says a team like the Longhorns will be there: Eight teams ranked 10th or worse have made the Playoff in nine years. Finish what they started against Alabama last year, and the Longhorns will have a path. (Put Notre Dame among the possibilities, too, if it upsets Ohio State.)

Which top-10 team(s) will flop?

An average of 1.7 preseason top-10 teams have finished unranked since the AP poll expanded to 25 teams. Last year, Texas A&M (No. 6), Oklahoma (No. 9) and Baylor (No. 10) met that fate, the fourth time in the past five years that three teams went from preseason top 10 to unranked (zero teams did in 2019). In fact, the Aggies, Sooners and Bears all finished with a losing record, the first time since 1957 that three preseason top-10 teams ended up below .500.

Prediction: The loser of the Florida State–LSU game and Washington finish unranked. Both FSU and LSU exceeded expectations last year after the Seminoles’ dramatic Week 1 win. Still, it wouldn’t be a shock to see one of them stumble. Florida State goes to Clemson on Sept. 23, making a 2-2 start plausible. LSU has tricky trips to Mississippi State and Ole Miss on top of Alabama, plus the season finale against Texas A&M, which it lost to last year.

If I have to pick a second team, I’ll say Washington: Teams ranked 10th in the preseason have finished in the top 10 only 18.2 percent of the time since 1989 while finishing unranked 33.3 percent of the time. I have the Huskies eighth, but a loss in the opener to Boise State (or at Michigan State two weeks later) isn’t impossible to put them in an early hole. The Pac-12 will offer some tricky trap games this fall, too.

Which unranked team(s) will crash the top 10?

None of the first seven College Football Playoff fields included a team that started the season unranked. That changed in each of the past two seasons thanks to Michigan and TCU.

Even if another CFP appearance from an unranked team is unlikely, expect a couple of unranked teams to upend expectations and surge into the top 10. Since 1989, an average of 2.1 teams have done it — including four in 2021 and a record five in 2022 (Penn State, Tennessee, Tulane and Washington joined TCU). At least one team has done it in 32 of the past 34 seasons.

Us voters were especially inaccurate in 2022, but I’ll side with history and say two top-10 surges seem like a safer bet.

Prediction: UCLA and UTSA finish in the top 10. I have both the Bruins (No. 19) and Roadrunners (No. 22) on my ballot, but they’re just outside the actual poll. UCLA’s fate may be in the hands of freshman QB Dante Moore and Ball State transfer RB Carson Steele. Otherwise, the Bruins have the makings of a salty defense led by Laiatu Latu and should have a stellar O-line.

Picking UTSA may require the Roadrunners to run the table in their new conference, beat Houston and perhaps lose only to Tennessee en route to a surprise New Year’s Six bowl win. Hey, Tulane just did the latter from the AAC, so don’t rule it out with QB Frank Harris back to lead an experienced team that went 11-3 last year.

How many preseason ranked teams will finish in the poll?

Again, last year set records for unpredictability despite Georgia repeating as national champion. Only 10 teams that started the season ranked in the AP poll actually finished ranked, topping the record low of 11 set in … 2021.

Whether it’ll be an ongoing trend is anyone’s guess, but why have we been especially inaccurate the past couple of years? A combination of increased player movement thanks to the transfer portal — and instant eligibility — and the lingering effects of the extra season because of the pandemic are as good of explanations as any. Much has been made of the consolidation of blue-chip talent and lack of parity among the top teams in the sport, but that has coincided with a lot of unpredictability among programs ranked from, say, 11th through 40th.

Since 1989, an average of 15.5 preseason ranked teams have finished in the Top 25. You can safely bet that around 10 teams will tumble out, starting with those at the bottom of the poll. Teams ranked Nos. 21-25 in the preseason finish ranked far less than half the time — just 21.2 percent for No. 25, which has finished unranked in five of the past six seasons. Good luck, Iowa.

Prediction: Kansas State, TCU, Oregon State, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Ole Miss, Tulane and Iowa finish unranked. They would join the aforementioned loser of Florida State-LSU and Washington. Unranked teams I’ll predict finish ranked, in addition to UCLA and UTSA: South Alabama, Texas Tech, Boise State, Pitt, Kentucky, Toledo, NC State and Baylor.

More preseason poll nuggets

• Alabama started in the AP top two in 11 of the past 14 years. The three times — 2009, 2015 and 2020 —  it didn’t in that span? It won the national championship. No. 4 is Alabama’s lowest preseason ranking since it started fifth in 2009. I’m partially to blame, putting the Crimson Tide seventh on my ballot — the lowest of any voter. I’ve referenced historical precedents a lot in this article, so I’m fully prepared to be wrong about my skepticism of Alabama’s quarterback situation and lack of proven playmakers at wide receiver. I can feel Nick Saban smiling at me now.

• Florida State, which is ranked No. 8, started in the AP top eight in 16 consecutive seasons from 1987 to 2002. This is its first preseason ranking, period, since 2018 and first time in the top 10 since 2017, when it opened at No. 3 and flopped to 7-6 in Jimbo Fisher’s final season.

• This is the first time Clemson started a season outside the AP top five since 2015, when it lost in the national championship game to Alabama.

• At No. 17, TCU is the lowest-ranked team coming off a national championship game appearance since post-Cam Newton Auburn started 23rd in 2011.

• After finishing ranked for the first time since 2012, No. 18 Oregon State starts a season ranked for the first time since 2013. That year, it stumbled from No. 25 to a 7-6 record. This is the Beavers’ highest preseason ranking since they opened at No. 11 in 2001 following a Fiesta Bowl win the previous fall; they finished 5-6 that year. Oregon State has been ranked in the preseason six times prior to this season but ended up ranked in the final poll only once in those instances (1968).

• Despite finishing 6-7 last year, Oklahoma is ranked in the preseason for the 24th consecutive season — the second-longest active streak behind Ohio State (35), per College Poll Archive. This is only the fourth time in that streak that it started outside of the top 10.

• After finishing ranked for only the second time in the past 50 years, Tulane appears in the poll before the season for the first time since the AP began preseason rankings in 1950.

• Three of Jimbo Fisher’s past six teams have finished unranked in the AP poll after starting the season in the top 10. This year’s Aggies have a more modest preseason ranking at No. 23. I went back and forth on Texas A&M’s case for being ranked a lot. The potential of its talent won out in the end, but nothing from 5-7 to 11-1 would totally shock me.

• Michigan is ranked in the preseason AP top five for the first time since 2007, when it immediately lost to Appalachian State. The No. 2 preseason ranking is the Wolverines’ highest since they opened the 1991 season ranked second and finished sixth.

• The only other time Georgia topped the preseason AP poll was 2008. It’s now the 12th school to be voted No. 1 before the season at least twice. Oklahoma has the record as the preseason No. 1 on 10 occasions.

• Texas Tech hasn’t appeared in the AP poll since Sept. 23, 2018, tied for the fifth-longest active Power 5 drought. The Red Raiders are 24th in the coaches poll but just missed the AP poll cut as the first team out.

• It’s a lackluster Week 1, at least according to the poll. The only matchup of two AP-ranked teams on opening weekend is No. 8 Florida State vs. No. 5 LSU on Sunday, Sept. 3. It’s the first regular-season Saturday (Week 0 excluded) without a ranked matchup since Oct. 23, 2021, when top-10 Penn State (Illinois) and Oklahoma State (Iowa State) teams lost to unranked opponents. There are almost always surprises when we complain about a lack of high-stakes matchups.

(Photo of Blake Corum: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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