Preseason polls are hard, but they’re usually pretty close to right. Every year, though, the polls whiff hard on at least a couple teams.
So let’s have some fun! Here’s a list of the most overrated team from every year of the preseason AP Poll, and what follows is the underrated version. We’re looking for teams that started lowly ranked or unranked, but soared into the top 10 or so. If a team that started outside the top 10 won the national title, even better!
We’re going back to the very first season with a preseason AP Poll: 1950. I’ll make note of each team’s updated appearance total as we go, and at the end, present the full tally.
2019: Baylor went from no votes to final #13, but I lean toward final #10 Minnesota, which lost only two games and beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl after starting the equivalent of #39 in the “Also Receiving Votes” category. (Based on Big 12 preseason predictions, Baylor ranked right around there in the general public mindset as well.)
2018: Florida went from unranked to #7, but we’re going Washington State, which wasn’t ranked until Week 7 and finished #10.
2017: UCF went from zero preseason votes to declaring itself national champ (not unfairly, based on historical precedent).
2016: Penn State was on no preseason ballots, then nearly won one of the greatest Rose Bowls ever.
2015: Tom Herman’s first Houston started with no votes, but beat Florida State in the Peach.
2014: A team with votes! TCU started #35, but hammered Ole Miss in Atlanta after barely missing the Playoff.
2013: Auburn was picked to finish fifth in the SEC West ... and came a play or two away from winning the BCS. (A crossover theme with the overrated version of this post: Auburn is impossible to predict.)
2012: #36 Texas A&M. Notre Dame reached the title game after starting #26, but it was clear even before the Bama beatdown that those Irish were smoke and mirrors. Johnny Manziel’s Aggies beat those Tide and won the Cotton.
2011: Baylor went from zero preseason votes to Robert Griffin III’s Heisman.
2010: Auburn (x2) again, already! Going from preseason #22 to final #1 is technically the biggest jump by any AP champ ever. You’ll see what I mean by “technically.” (Cam Newton might’ve had the most impactful season of any player ever, and Michael Dyer wasn’t down.)
2009: #33 Cincinnati went unblemished ... until about 10 minutes into the Sugar Bowl against Florida.
2008: Utah, which could fairly declare itself the champ, if it wanted to, started #29.
2007: An answer befitting the weirdest season in football history: a split between rivals. One started #26. The other wouldn’t be ranked until Week 7. And yet they met in a #1 contender’s match. Missouri won the Border War, but Kansas won the Orange Bowl.
2006: Boise State, another unbeaten mid-major that never got a title shot, started #30.
2005: #37 Penn State finished 11-1, but West Virginia pulled off the same record despite starting tied for #44, with only one voter ranking the ‘Eers at all after an 8-4 2004 and QB change to, eventually, Pat White.
2004: Louisville and Boise State have cases, but #17 Auburn (again!) and #20 Utah (again!) went unbeaten and BCS-snubbed. The Tigers’ significant lead in the computers and the AP’s final first-place votes give the nod to Auburn (x3). (Combined with the overrated list, this makes six times from 2003 to 2015 that Auburn was arguably the country’s hardest team to predict. That’s only 13 years!)
2003: Ben Roethlisberger’s Miami (Ohio) started #42 and smoked everything on the schedule other than final #8 Iowa ... which means it’s Iowa, who started #41.
2002: National champ Ohio State started pretty low at #12, but Iowa (x2) topped its 2002 by going from no votes to #8. (In 2004, Iowa would make it three straight climbs to #8.)
2001: Coming off three straight losing seasons, Mike Price’s Washington State (x2) got zero votes and again wasn’t ranked until Week 7, but finished 10-2.
2000: Chad Johnson’s Oregon State was on only one preseason ballot, then fell three points shy of 12-0. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was one of the unlikeliest undefeated champs ever, starting #19 in Bob Stoops’ second year.
1999: I’ll take Nick Saban’s Michigan State over undefeated Marshall due to a vastly harder schedule, but both started right outside the top 25 and finished right inside the top 10. (The numbers prefer MSU.)
1998: Arizona finished #4 after starting #24, but Tulane went 12-0 after receiving zero votes. Unlike 1999, there wasn’t a humongous SOS difference.
1997: A tangled one. #14 Michigan made a nice climb to a title claim, but UCLA, Washington State, and Georgia went 10-2 after starting with no votes. WSU beat UCLA, got screwed in the Rose against Michigan, and finished four spots behind the Bruins, a team that didn’t nearly beat any national co-champs, so let’s correct history: Washington State (x3).
1996: BYU and North Carolina went from no votes to the final top 10, with the Cougars going 14-1 well before the 15-game slog was really a thing. (On top of a regular schedule, they beat Texas A&M in a Week Zero game and won the WAC’s first-ever title game.)
1995: Bill Snyder’s ascendant Kansas State ended at #7 after starting #28. More surprising was Glen Mason’s Kansas (x1.5) going from zero votes to final #9, KU’s first 10-win season in 90 years.
1994: Utah (x2), preseason-voteless and unranked until Week 6, finished two scores in road games away from undefeated.
1993: I’m sorry, but it’s Auburn (x4) again. New coach Terry Bowden’s bowl-banned Tigers went 11-0 after starting without any votes.
1992: Washington State (x4), Ole Miss, and UNC rose from votelessness to 9-3.
1991: Bill Lewis’ East Carolina justified voters by losing in Week 1, but didn’t lose after that, beating ranked Syracuse and NC State squads.
1990: Georgia Tech doesn’t count as the lowest-ranked team to ever win the AP, since Colorado took the AP side of the split title, but the Jackets still rose from a tie for #34 to the only unbeaten record.
1989: The voteless Tennessee won the SEC and beat future conference rival Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, all in future overthrower/head coach/outcast/prodigal/re-overthrower/galactic emperor/etc. Philip Fulmer’s first year as OC.
1988: Oklahoma State jumped from votelessness to #11, thanks to Barry Sanders cracking open the greatest season in football history.
1987: Syracuse started in a tie for #33. The ties would continue, as Pat Dye’s Auburn went for one in the Sugar Bowl, robbing ‘Cuse of a shot at 12-0.
1986: The only Rose Bowl win in Arizona State history came after zero preseason votes.
1985: MICHIGAN IS ALWAYS OVERRATED people, this one’s for you. Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines tromped through a really hard schedule, only losing to Big Ten champ Iowa and tying a middling Illinois, all after starting unranked.
1984: Thanks to the third-strangest season in college football history, the Steve Young-less BYU (x2) jumped from unranked to final #1. It’s hard to say whether that’s a bigger jump than 2010 Auburn’s from #22, since the polls in the ‘80s only went to 20 teams, and “Also Receiving Votes” appears to have not been a thing back then, either.
1983: Same as BYU: Miami jumped from somewhere outside the top 20 to #1 at the buzzer.
1982: How about UCLA, which went from #20 to four points short of unblemished?
1981: We’ve hit a run of teams starting outside the top 20 and winning it all. Clemson’s up.
1980: Georgia jumped from #16 to #1.
1979: Earle Bruce’s Ohio State came one USC drive away from yet another national title by a preseason-unranked team.
1978: Finally, some calm. I guess it’s SWC champ Houston (x2), which finished #10 after being unranked until Week 5.
1977: In Lou Holtz’s first year, Arkansas stormed from unranked to a fourth-quarter Texas touchdown away from a natty. (Holtz was also a prominent figure in the overrated post.)
1976: Houston’s (x3) now on here twice under Bill Yeoman. These Cougars leapt from unranked to #4.
1975: Arizona State (x2) was sort of the original Boise State, constantly making voters look silly and winning Fiesta Bowls. These unranked Sun Devils would’ve won it all, if Oklahoma had slipped up in one of its four close games.
1974: I’m really not trying to do this, I swear. Shug Jordan’s Auburn (x5) jumped from unranked to final #8, though you could pick a 10-0-1 Miami (Ohio) that tied a pretty bad Purdue and only beat two teams that won more than six games.
1973: After two snubs on this list, Miami (Ohio) takes it, completing the unranked-to-undefeated challenge with a Tangerine Bowl win over Florida.
1972: This was already ridiculous, and I apologize, but only one final top-11 team started unranked: 10-1, #5 Auburn (x6).
1971: Frank Lauterbur’s Toledo deserves something for barely being ranked at all during its three-year win streak, but we’ll have to go with Colorado, which went from unranked to 10-2 against a hellacious schedule.
1970: Tennessee jumped from unranked to #4, but Lifetime Achivement to Toledo (since the Vols’ schedule wasn’t quite as rough as ‘71 Colorado’s). Also, Dartmouth vaporized the Ivy League, and that was technically still an AP Poll concern at the time.
1969: If not for Archie Manning, LSU would’ve gone from unranked to 10-0 in the regular season, meaning a much better shot at a national title game against Texas (otherwise wrecked by Notre Dame changing its mind about the Cotton Bowl).
1968: Arkansas (x2) jumped from unranked to finish 10-1, one of only three power-conference teams with one or fewer blemishes.
1967: These are easier now, because the poll only went to 10 teams, but also harder now, because there was no post-bowl update. Oklahoma (x2) went from somewhere outside the top 10 to what would’ve been final #2, though Wyoming came a Sugar Bowl touchdown away from giving us a much more interesting answer.
1966: It could be Georgia, though the Dawgs probably would’ve started in the teens in a full poll. Give it to 10-1 Sun Bowl champ Wyoming.
1965: Michigan State and UCLA started unranked, probably wouldn’t have been very ranked even in the 25-team era, went 1-1 against each other, and would’ve both finished in the top five. Ummm ... SRS gives it to Michigan State (x2), so sure.
1964: Actual national champion Arkansas (x3) (Bama lost its bowl) takes it, going from outside the top 10 to 11-0.
1963: Rose Bowl champ Illinois went 2-7 the year prior and would’ve started unranked in a poll of any conceivable size.
1962: 11-0 national champ USC started outside the top 10 after a 4-5-1 1961.
1961: Rose Bowl champ Minnesota (x2) wasn’t in the 10-team poll until November.
1960: Back to 20-team polls! Minnesota was nearly the easy answer two years in a row, but lost its bowl. I think it’s Missouri (x1.5), even though the Tigers were only unbeaten due to retroactive Kansas forfeit.
1959: Whenever the 11-0 national champ starts #20, there’s your easy answer. Syracuse (x2).
1958: Same as 1959, but unranked. LSU (x2).
1957: Lmao it’s Auburn (x7) again, which started #15 and suffocated everything in its path, albeit while bowl-banned (again). Your other option is Arizona State, which went unranked until Nov. 18 and finished 10-0 against a really light schedule.
1956: Forest Evashevski’s Rose Bowl champ Iowa (x3) started unranked.
1955: Duffy Daugherty’s second Michigan State (x3) team chased a 3-6 record with a 9-1 Rose Bowl title.
1954: Ohio State (x2) went from #20 to a split national title, but shoutout to the AP voter who had the Buckeyes #1 to begin with.
1953: Illinois (x2), though I’d rather give it to Iowa for laying low all year, tripping up #1 Notre Dame outta nowhere, and finishing #9 at a glorious 5-3-1. Notre Dame should still claim this year, fwiw.
1952: Look, everyone! Alabama was underrated! The Tide have only been unranked in 17 out of 70 preseason AP polls ever, this time going 10-2 and splattering Syracuse by 55 points in the Orange Bowl.
1951: Five teams finished unbeaten. Georgia Tech (x2) was the one that entered unranked.
1950: “It all comes down to either Princeton or Wyoming” is the most college football shit I’ve ever typed in my life. Neither faced much of a schedule, but Wyoming (x2) had the decency to participate in a bowl game.
Final count: which team has been the preseason AP Poll’s most underrated team most frequently?
- Auburn: 7 times
- Washington State: 4 times
- Arkansas, Houston, Iowa, Michigan State: 3 times
- Arizona State, BYU, Georgia Tech, Illinois, LSU, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Syracuse Utah, Wyoming: 2 times
- Kansas, Missouri: 1.5 times
- Various: 1 time each
Summarized in a photo: