Which Power 5 conference is the most overrated?
After a handful of games were played last weekend, the 2017-18 college football season kicks off in earnest this weekend. The most anticipated games for this weekend include three games featuring two AP Top 25 teams playing each other: #1 Alabama vs. #3 Florida State; #11 Michigan vs. #17 Florida; and #21 Virginia Tech vs. #22 West Virginia.
On August 21, the AP released its pre-season Top 25 poll. Not surprisingly, Alabama grabbed top honors. The crimson tide is the only team to feature in each and every College Football Playoff, and their 64-7 record over the last five seasons is the best in college football. The AP top five were rounded out by: #2 Ohio State, #3 Florida State, #4 USC and #5 Clemson.
Some college football pundits claim that pre-season polls are meaningless; so, I decided to compare the Power 5 conferences to see how many teams are normally ranked in the pre-season AP Top 25 poll compared with how many actually end up in the final AP Top 25 poll.
Over the last five seasons, the SEC has averaged seven teams in the pre-season AP Top 25 poll, but usually finish with only six teams in the final poll. However, the Big 12 has been the most overrated of the Power 5 conferences in the AP Top 25, averaging four teams in the pre-season AP Top 25 vs. three in the final AP Top 25 poll. Over that same period, the ACC has been the most underrated Power 5 conference averaging only three teams in the pre-season AP Top 25 poll and four in the final poll. The Big Ten is the only Power 5 conference that averages four teams in both the pre-season and final AP Top 25 polls. See the graph in the gallery above.
Looking at this year's AP Top 25 pre-season poll, the SEC has six teams, one less than its five-year average while the Big 12 has five teams in the pre-season poll, one more than its five-year average. AP poll voters have taken note of the ACC and its consistent performance over the last few years, and this year, the ACC has five teams in the pre-season poll, which matches the number of ACC teams that finished in last year's final AP Top 25 poll.
Taking into account the Big 12 has been the most overrated in pre-season AP Top 25 polls, the question now turns to which teams might be overrated and which teams were left out of the pre-season AP Top 25 and have the most likelihood of playing their way into the final poll.
West Virginia - Dana Holgorsen's Mountaineers had an amazing run in 2016, finishing 10-3 and ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in five years. That said, West Virginia will need to replace its starting quarterback, Skyler Howard, with Florida transfer Will Grier. The Mountaineers also lost five offensive linemen, two top receivers, and almost half their starters on defense. West Virginia will rely on a youth movement for 2017. With road games at TCU, at Baylor, at Kansas State and at Oklahoma, Hologersen's team will do well to post seven wins this fall. Looking at this year's pre-season AP Top 25, the Mountaineers take the spot for the most likely to end up outside the top 25 in the final poll.
Texas - The Longhorns posted three straight losing seasons under former head coach Charlie Strong. There is optimism in Austin with the hiring of Tom Herman, who was arguably the most sought-after head coach, after successful stints leading Houston to national prominence and as an assistant to Urban Meyer at Ohio State. One of the problems in Austin has been recruiting. This past year, Texas finished outside the Top 25 in recruiting, according to both Rivals and Scout. The cupboard for Herman isn't completely bare, but Texas needs to begin the process of rebuilding its recruiting efforts and re-establishing itself as the leader for players in Texas. On paper, this Longhorn team has a defense that could keep Texas in the Top 25; however, they have yet to live up to those expectations. The Longhorns may spend this season in transition and finish just outside the Top 25 in the final poll.
Utah - For college football fans outside the Pac-12, the Utes have quietly been building a solid program. Over the last three seasons, Utah has posted a 28-11 record, and has been arguably the Pac-12 South's most consistent team over that period. The Utes are over-shadowed by top-rated USC, but coach Kyle Whittingham has built this program into a consistent winner, using defense and a power-running game. 2017 should be no different. Utah will have a new offensive coordinator, Troy Taylor, who was hired from Eastern Washington. The Utes want to bolster their running game with a fast-pace, better passing attack. Utah has an experienced defensive line that anchors their defense, and all three starting linebackers return. If there are holes in the Utes defense, it's in the secondary where they are inexperienced. Utah has a secret weapon in punter Mitch Wishnowsky, who located 17 punts last year inside the opponents 10 yard line. That is special teams at its best, backing up opposing offenses with the Utes staunch defense. Look for Utah to once again be ranked in the AP Top 25 final poll.
Northwestern - The Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald opens his 12th season coaching Northwestern. Last year, the Wildcats got off to an inauspicious start, losing to Western Michigan and Illinois State. Northwestern bounced back and capped off 2016 with a convincing 31-24 win over Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl. In 2016, Fitzgerald and the Wildcats were 10-3. Northwestern returns experience in the backfield, with three-year starting quarterback Clayton Thorson and senior running back Justin Jackson. On defense, the Wildcats must replace their 2016 sack leader Ifeadi Odenigbo, but Joe Gaziano and Xavier Washington both had 4.5 sacks each. The tone-setting game for Northwestern is on September 30th, when the Wildcats open Big Ten play at Wisconsin. If Fitzgerald and Northwestern can win in Madison and make a run in the Big Ten West, the Wildcats could easily end up in the final AP Top 25 poll.