How often do ranked teams flop?

The first college football poll of the 2021 season has been released, leading to the age-old question: Which teams are not long for prosperity this year?

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August 17, 2021 - 8:02 AM

University of Miami receiver Jacolby George and his Hurricane teammates will take on Alabama in their season-opener Sept. 4. Photo by Michael Laughlin / TNS

The preseason AP Top 25 is all about hope and optimism. 

Reality Check is all about, well, being realistic. Sometimes the truth can be painful.

As has become tradition, the first AP Top 25 Reality Check of the season is a reminder that your promising college football team, newly minted with a cool ranking as it heads into the season, might turn out to be not as good as you and the poll voters thought.

Alabama is No. 1, followed by Oklahoma, Clemson and Ohio State in the poll presented by Regions Bank and released Monday.

From 2010-2020, on average, 9.5 teams that appeared in the preseason Top 25 finished the season unranked — about 38% of the picks. During that time, the fewest preseason ranked teams to finish outside the final Top 25 was seven in 2011; the most was 12, in 2010.

Even in an anything-but-normal 2020 season played through the pandemic, the number of teams that started the season ranked only to finish unranked was a typical 10.

What was unusual about last season was the number of flameouts that came from the upper half of the preseason Top 25.

Over the last 11 seasons, 17 teams that started the season ranked in the top 10 finished unranked, just 1.5 per season. But last year, three top 10 teams — and five among the top 12 in the preseason rankings — did not finish the season ranked, led by 2019 national champion LSU, which was No. 6 going into last season.

As expected, most of the preseason ranked teams that fail to make the final Top 25 come from the bottom of the rankings. Teams ranked 21-25 in the preseason make up 27% of the teams (28 total) that finished unranked. 

To put it another way, a little more than half the teams that started the season ranked between 21-25 from 2010-20, finished unranked.

At the top of the poll? Only seven preseason top-five teams over that span have failed to be ranked somewhere in the final Top 25. 

How likely is your team to be one of the disappointments? 

No. 1 Alabama (13-0 last year)

Opener: vs. Miami in Atlanta, Sept. 4.

Reality check: The Crimson Tide have not finished ranked lower than 10th the last 13 seasons. There is no reason to believe this season’s defending champion is vulnerable to an LSU-type tumble.

No. 2 Oklahoma (9-2)

Opener: at Tulane, Sept. 4.

Reality check: The Sooners have their most balanced team in years, with a quality defense to go with Lincoln Riley’s usual potent offense. For whatever it’s worth: Twice in the last 12 seasons (2009 and ’14) Oklahoma has been a preseason top five team and finished unranked.

No. 3 Clemson (10-2)

Opener: vs. No. 5 Georgia in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 4.

Reality check: The Tigers are on a six-year run of top four finishes and haven’t finished unranked since 2010. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team has lost one ACC game since October 2017 and it’s to a team (Notre Dame) that is not in the conference this season.

No. 4 Ohio State (8-1)

Opener: at Minnesota, Sept. 2.

Reality check: The Buckeyes have finished unranked just once since winning the national title in 2002, and have 16 top-10 finishes over that span. Coach Ryan Day has yet to lose to a Big Ten opponent in 16 games.

No. 5 Georgia (8-2)

Opener: vs. No. 3 Clemson, Sept. 4.

Reality check: The Bulldogs have been recruiting like the perennial playoff teams ranked in front of them and have four straight top-seven finishes under Kirby Smart. Georgia is a better bet to break its four-decade national title drought than to tank and finish unranked.

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