The Coaches’ Poll is only reliable in one way: it almost always has at least one team in its preseason top ten finish outside the final poll. Last year it had three, No. 7 Wisconsin, No. 8 Miami, and No. 10 Auburn. Those teams ended up 8-5, 7-6, and 8-5, respectively.
Back on a different site I used to write for, every year I’d try to order the preseason Coaches Poll top ten teams in order of likelihood of ending the year unranked. I’m going to do the same thing for you here.
Keep in mind that this exercise is not predicting which teams will finish unranked. I have to put all ten teams down, and as happens in some seasons, none of them may finish unranked. The point is to put them in order of their chances of finishing unranked.
How does a power conference team end up unranked? Primarily by accumulating five losses. This could be in the regular season or four losses plus a bowl loss. If I can’t come up with four potential regular season losses for a team, it means I don’t think there’s any realistic chance of it finishing the year unranked.
A final point on formatting: the teams are ordered from most to least likely. The numbers I put next to their names are their ranks in the preseason Coaches’ Poll.
The first one up is Texas. I think the Longhorns are the most likely to finish the year unranked, hence them going first, and they’re notated as “No. 10 Texas” because of their tenth-place rank in the poll. Potential losses are ordered as they come on the team’s schedule. Oklahoma State comes before Oklahoma in Texas’s potential losses because UT plays the Cowboys before the Sooners.
No. 10 Texas
When it comes to the preseason top ten, one of the teams is not like the others. That team is Texas, which is nowhere near the top ten in the preseason advanced analytics rankings. The early S&P+ rankings had the Longhorns at No. 35, while ESPN’s FPI has them 24th.
UT did beat Georgia in its bowl and returns quarterback Sam Ehlinger, but it lost a lot on defense along with its best receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey. This is Tom Herman’s scheduled down year, so pump the brakes on this team for now and watch for a pop in 2020.
Potential losses: LSU, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma (neutral site), @ TCU, @ Iowa State, @ Baylor
No. 9 Notre Dame
The Irish were lucky to go undefeated in the regular season a year ago and were exposed in the playoff. If luck turns the other way for them, there are enough decent teams on the slate to sink their season. Getting swing games against the Virginia schools at home helps, but if UGA wallops them in their third game, it could lead to a sinking feeling. This team, like a surprising number of top ten teams, is also dependent on its starting quarterback staying healthy. There’s nothing proven behind Ian Book, so him going down would be one way 2018’s good luck goes bad.
Potential losses: @ Georgia, Virginia, USC, @ Michigan, Virginia Tech, @ Stanford
No. 7 Michigan
Pro-style guy Jim Harbaugh is trying a spread offense transplant with new OC Josh Gattis. Sometimes that sort of thing works. Sometimes, like in 2008 with Auburn and Tennessee, it goes horribly bad. Shea Patterson is at least a fit at quarterback, but if the offense lays an egg early — say, in Madison in Week 3 — will Harbaugh remain patient or meddle?
Potential losses: @ Wisconsin, Iowa, @ Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State
No. 6 LSU
LSU is also doing the, “we’re totally a spread team now, we promise” thing. It also plays in a rough division. Its outlook is essentially the same as Michigan’s.
Potential losses: @ Texas, Florida, @ Mississippi State, Auburn, @ Alabama, Texas A&M
No. 8 Florida
It wouldn’t take many offensive line injuries, or further hits to the secondary, to put UF in a precarious position. The Gators will be fine as long as no one critical gets hurt, and they might have the best backup quarterback situation in the top ten with Emory Jones and Kyle Trask. But seriously: they can’t absorb more than one offensive line injury and not face big consequences, and one of its starters in Brett Heggie already has a bad history with staying healthy.
Potential losses: Miami (N), Auburn, @ LSU, Georgia (N), @ Missouri
No. 5 Ohio State
Ryan Day is a brand new head coach, but he inherits about as good a situation as is possible this side of Lincoln Riley. The defensive side even upgraded with Greg Mattison (UF’s co-DC with Charlie Strong in 2006) replacing Greg Schiano. Still, they’re betting everything on Justin Fields without much of a safety net. He can run. Can he throw? There should be enough talent to keep the team from falling off too far, but there is a lot of turnover in leadership positions.
Potential losses: @ Nebraska, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State, @ Michigan
No. 3 Georgia
This is the last team where I could find four potential regular season losses, and it’s only due to a big non-conference game and a rough West draw. It’d need a lot to happen too. One of the more likely factors would be James Coley turning out to be a mediocre play caller. He hasn’t done it a lot, and his reputation is more of being an energetic recruiter than a tactician. Another big one would be Jake Fromm going down to injury early, since there’s nothing behind him. It’s in the realm of possibility, but not anywhere close to likely.
Potential losses: Notre Dame, Florida (N), Auburn, Texas A&M
No. 4 Oklahoma
There are reasons why OU might not be playoff-caliber again. Number one with a bullet is Jalen Hurts’s good but not great passing ability. Recall that in the 2018 offseason, Nick Saban made a surprisingly public run at ECU grad transfer QB Gardner Minshew, who ended up leading Washington State to a top ten finish. That’s what he thought of his options behind Tua. The Sooners are so far ahead of the non-Longhorn Big 12 that they should be fine, but Hurts is a very different animal for what Lincoln Riley likes to do.
Potential losses: Texas (N), Iowa State, @ Oklahoma State
No. 2 Alabama
Bama will be just fine and should cruise to a playoff bid, but the rules say it has to go on here somewhere. Mostly it gets the nine spot because the SEC is tougher than the ACC right now and there has been a lot of coaching turnover. It shouldn’t matter since Saban is in charge, but there you have it. There is also QB risk if Tua gets hurt again, but at that point they just pound opponents into submission with their ridiculous running back stable.
Potential losses: @ Texas A&M, LSU, @ Auburn
No. 1 Clemson
If the Tigers were playing someone like Texas Tech instead of Texas A&M in the non-conference, the annual puzzler against Syracuse would be the only potential loss on the schedule. They are yet another team with little behind the starting quarterback, but Chase Brice has at least had a modicum of real action when Trevor Lawrence was knocked out of last year’s squeaker over the Orange. It would be a true shock if Clemson lost more than one regular season game in 2019, much less four.
Potential losses: Texas A&M, @ Syracuse