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Is Utah a Preseason Top 10 Team?

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NCAA Football: Rice-Eccles Stadium Views Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We are in the thick of the summer with no college sports happening. Football is about a month and a half away, and we are starting to see some preseason polls. The AP Poll is not out yet (we probably will not see that until August), but people like Phil Steele have released theirs. Steele has the Utah Utes in the top 10, checking in at No. 8. That got me thinking, does Utah warrant that amount of preseason praise? The Utes were ranked for much of last season before falling out of the poll at the end of the year after a devastating second half in the Holiday Bowl. The Utes bring a lot back after winning the Pac-12 South in 2018. They feature one of the best defensive lines in the country with many seniors across the board. There are few questions marks that the Utes have outside of offensive line (plenty of talent just lacking experience) and maybe linebacker. Teams with as few question marks as the Utes often find themselves ranked highly in the preseason.

As you can read in this article from 247Sports, Steele is higher on the Utes than most other publications, which have the Utes anywhere from about 15 to even unranked in some cases. Here is what he had to say:

Higher on Utah than almost all national analysts, the Utes are Steele’s No. 1 surprise team this fall thanks to an impressive list of returners off a squad that reached the Pac-12 title game a season ago. And a favorable schedule doesn’t hurt, he says.

So, is Steele’s lofty praise for the Utes justified? One thing to know is Steele is the most accurate preseason prognosticator (we will delve more into that later). Utah is the only team in Steele’s top 10 that did not play in a New Year’s Six bowl a season ago. The Michigan Wolverines are the only other team featured in Steele’s top 10 (Steele has them third, which I think is way too high) that finished last season outside the top 10 in the AP poll (they finished No. 14 after losing their last two games against the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Florida Gators in the Peach Bowl. We will not know if the preseason top 10 ranking from Steele is justified for Utah until the end of the season. However, I would likely have the Utes lower. Do not get me wrong, I love the praise they are receiving, but I am not sure they deserve it just yet. Like I said, every other team in Steele’s top 10 finished in the top 14 last year and all of them played in a New Year’s Six bowl. Utah has the talent and experience to break into that group, but I am not totally sure I would bank on it. I also do not want this to be a situation where people look back at Utah being overhyped and undeserving of the preseason praise they received.

When we look at the AP Poll dating back to 2002, at least one preseason top 10 team finished unranked every year.

In 2018, three teams finished unranked (Wisconsin Badgers, Miami Hurricanes, and Auburn Tigers). The Washington Huskies and Penn State Nittany Lions both finished the end of the season ranked outside the top 10, meaning a full half of the preseason top 10 teams last season did not finish the season there.

2017 faired better with only the Florida State Seminoles finishing unranked and the USC Trojans, Huskies, and Oklahoma State Cowboys finishing ranked outside the top 10.

2016 had the Tennessee Volunteers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish finish unranked and two other teams finishing ranked but outside the top 10 (LSU and Stanford).

2015 saw both the Auburn Tigers and the USC Trojans finish unranked, and three other teams finish ranked outside the top 10.

In 2014, the Oklahoma Sooners and South Carolina Gamecocks finished unranked and Auburn finished ranked but outside the top 10.

Looking at recent history, a team ranked in the preseason top 10 ranking in the AP Poll only finishes there between 50-70% (average 58%) of the time and falls out of the top 25 completely 10-30% of the time (average 20%).

Steele is more accurate than the AP Poll, so let’s see how he faired in 2014-2018.

In 2018, Steele finished better than the AP Poll because he included the Texas Longhorns instead of the Auburn Tigers. Texas finished in the top 10 and won the Sugar Bowl, Auburn finished unranked. He missed on Wisconsin, Miami, Washington, and Penn State like the AP Poll did.

In 2017, Steele included the Florida Gators in his top 10, which the AP Poll did not, Florida finished unranked (even missing a bowl game). He had Florida in over the Oklahoma State Cowboys, who the AP Poll included, who finished ranked but outside the top 10. Steele finished slightly worse than the AP Poll with two teams finishing unranked and two that finished ranked but outside the top 10.

In 2016, Steele included Washington in his preseason top 10 that the AP Poll missed, but he did not have Michigan, who the AP Poll included. Overall, he missed on the same four teams that the AP Poll missed on (Tennessee, Notre Dame, Stanford, and LSU), so he finished the same as the AP Poll.

In 2015, Steele’s top 10 differed from the AP Poll in a few ways. He included the Stanford Cardinal, who finished No. 3, but he also included the LSU Tigers, who finished ranked No. 16. Steele included USC like the AP Poll did, who finished unranked, but Steele did have Auburn, the other team in the AP top 10 that finished unranked, outside his top 10. Overall, he had one team finish unranked and four finish ranked but outside the top 10, fairing slightly better than the AP Poll.

His 2014 top 10 teams were identical to the 10 in the AP Poll (Steele does deserve credit for TCU ranked though, having them at No. 14 when most had them unranked, TCU finished No. 3).

Overall, Steele was slightly more accurate than the AP Poll with 60% of his top 10 teams finishing there, and only 18% of his preseason top 10 teams finished unranked. In both cases, he was better than the AP Poll by one team.

Given that both Steele and the AP Poll on average have about four top 10 teams not finish there, with about two finishing unranked, I will make my prediction for those teams based on Steele’s top 10. I think that Michigan, LSU, Utah, and Notre Dame will all finish outside the top 10. I think LSU and Utah finished ranked, and Michigan and Notre Dame fall out completely.

My reasoning is LSU never seems to live up to the preseason hype, they also have a tough schedule in the SEC West. LSU is always good but rarely great lately.

With Utah, I think they will be very good, winning the South again, but I am not sold they can win the Pac-12 and/or a NY6 bowl game, two losses to end the year would keep them out of the top 10. Utah also has to manage expectations they have not seen in a long time. The Utes have only been ranked in the preseason AP Poll twice (2004, 2009), they finished ranked both years, but both times they were in the Mountain West, not the Pac-12.

Michigan’s strength last year was their defense, and they lost most of that. I also am not sold on Jim Harbaugh winning the big games at Michigan. Games against Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa and others are also against Michigan (do not be surprised if Army knocks them off in week two as well).

It might seem weird to include Notre Dame, when I list them as a reason Michigan will finish unranked, but how many nonconference games have we seen that look great on paper before the season then both teams disappoint? Notre Dame lost a lot of talent from last year’s team. They also have a tough schedule with trips to Georgia, Michigan, and Stanford. They also have USC and Virginia Tech at home. It is easy to see Notre Dame lose three or four of those games (and maybe slip up somewhere else unexpected) before falling in a bowl game to finish unranked.

While Steele does not have Texas in his top 10, watch them fall out of the top 10 (or very likely even the top 25 completely) this year if they are ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll, which seems likely. Texas lost a ton of talent from last year, and it will be hard for them to replicate the success of last season with so many new faces.