Last week the college football preseason AP Top 25 rankings were released. There was no surprise at the top with Alabama, Ohio State, and Georgia taking the top three spots of the rankings. Four Big Ten teams were included in the rankings, while the SEC placed the most teams in the initial rankings, with six teams among the top 25.
Every year there are teams ranked in the preseason top 25 that underperform and finish the season outside the top 25. There are also a few teams that surprise the “experts” and work their way into the top 25 by the end of the year. Last year, Iowa State started the year ranked seventh in the country before posting a 7-6 season and finishing the year unranked. On the other end of the spectrum, Michigan was in the “others receiving votes” section before going on a run that saw them win the Big Ten and claim a spot in the College Football Playoff.
While we could try and identify which team is going to underperform this year, instead we’ll look for the team we think could surprise and go from unranked at the start of the season to ranked in the final AP Poll. There are plenty of interesting options that are outside the top 25 to start the season.
Today’s question: Which unranked team will finish highest in the final AP college football poll?
We’d love to hear your choices. Either respond to us on Twitter at @Landgrant33 or leave your choice in the comments.
Brett’s answer: Minnesota
The Golden Gophers don’t exactly have a great track record of season-long success, finishing the season ranked just three times since the 1999 season. At least P.J. Fleck does have one strong season in recent memory, with Minnesota’s 11-2 season in 2019 resulting in the Golden Gophers being ranked 10th in the final AP poll.
There are a number of reasons why I am optimistic about Minnesota this year. First is the return of running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who suffered a season-ending injury in the season opener against Ohio State last year. Ibrahim cracked 1,000 yards in 2018, as well as in a seven-game season in 2020. Before suffering the achilles injury against the Buckeyes, Ibrahim had rushed for 163 yards on 30 carries.
Not only do the Golden Gophers have Ibrahim returning, Tanner Morgan is back for his 36th year at quarterback. Morgan will be trying to recapture some of the magic from 2019 when he threw 30 touchdowns. Joining Morgan in returning is wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, as well as stellar center John Michael Schmitz. Fleck hit the transfer market to beef up the offensive line, bringing in Quinn Carroll from Notre Dame and Michigan’s Chuck Filiaga.
Another reason I like Minnesota’s chances to have a strong season is their manageable schedule. The Golden Gophers have a non-conference schedule that consists of New Mexico State, Western Illinois, and Colorado, which should allow Fleck’s squad to head into Big Ten play with a 3-0 record. Minnesota does have tough road games at Michigan State, Penn State, and Wisconsin, but it’s not like those contests aren’t unwinnable. I really could see the Golden Gophers being in contention to win the Big Ten West and finish the season with at least 10 wins.
Meredith’s answer: Air Force
I’m going to step outside of the Big Ten for this one (even though there are plenty of in-conference programs, including Minnesota, who got snubbed by not making it into the preseason AP Poll), and am going to go with the Air Force Falcons.
Air Force is one of just six FBS programs favored to win all their games. The Falcons are in good company, as the other five programs are all ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll (Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Utah and Oklahoma).
Sure, being favored to win all your games is very different from the season over-under, but it’s absolutely an indicator. While it seems unlikely that the Falcons will go undefeated, the favored status shows that the potential is there. In June, the over-under for Air Force was just 8.5 wins, which feels absurdly low.
The Falcons finished last season 10-3 with losses to Mountain West champ Utah State, a ranked San Diego State and rival Army. They also wrapped the season with a bowl game win over Louisville.
I could sit here and regale you with facts about the mental toughness of the Air Force football team (my husband and I have a running bet on when during each game the commentators will share a graphic about the daily schedule of the Air Force cadets), but suffice to say the Falcons will keep things close and the games will be over in about two hours.
Now we all just have to bear watching the triple option.