Sleeper College Football Teams

It happens every year. A team comes out of nowhere and finishes the season in the AP Top Ten Rankings. Last year, we saw Washington make the playoffs as well as Penn State winning the Big Ten and making the Rose Bowl. The most difficult thing is identifying these teams who could make a run into the top ten. Baker and SidneyLooking into final AP poll data from the last 7 years and other similar characteristics helps us identify the potential teams that could finish inside the top ten.

Six out of the seven years since 2010, at least three teams have finished in the AP poll top ten after not finishing in the top 25 the previous year. 2011 was the only exception where USC was the one team that met that criteria. In 2016, there were three teams (USC, Washington and Penn State). In 2012, 2013, and 2015 four teams finished in the top ten despite not being in the top 25 before. The following is the full list of the teams (Rank in Parenthesis):

2010: Auburn (1), Stanford (4), and Wisconsin (7)

2011: USC (6)

2012: Ohio State (3), Notre Dame (4), Texas A&M (6), and Florida (9)

2013: Auburn (2), Michigan State (3), Missouri (5), and Central Florida (10)

2014: TCU (3), Georgia Tech (8), and Georgia (9)

2015: Stanford (3), Oklahoma (5), Houston (8), and Iowa (9)

2016: USC (3), Washington (4), and Penn State (7)

It is an occurence that happens almost every year. So who are the possible teams to do it this year? There are a few key factors that go into determining the potential teams:

The Process

We start with 43 possible Power 5 teams that did not finish in the AP top 25 the previous year. The list gets cut almost in half after the first two rules based on recruiting rankings:

Rule 1- Four year recruiting average must be less than 60 or eliminated from consideration.

Out of all the top ten Power 5 conference teams and the teams that made the jump from unranked to top ten, none have had a Recruiting Ranking Average over 60. 2014 Georgia Tech had the highest recruiting ranking with a 57 average (As you will see later that Georgia Tech team was a major outlier to normal top ten finishers).

Rule 2- Must have a recruiting ranking of less than 35 for the senior class or the senior class ranking must be the highest of the four classes. If neither are the case, must have at least one top 30 class in the last 4 years or else eliminated.

This is where it gets a little complicated, but the explanation is simple. Teams that normally don’t recruit well must have a strong senior class. All of the teams that finished in the top ten after making the top 25 the year before, fit this same mold. 2016 Washington, 2014 TCU and 2013 Michigan State are the best examples of teams who normally didn’t recruit well, but had a strong senior class recruiting ranking. All of these teams not only finished in the top ten, but they finished in the top 4. You can get away with not having a high ranking senior class if you’ve had at least one top 30 class.

The Results so far:

SEC

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

1

Georgia

5

8

5

8

6.5

2

Texas A&M

12

18

11

5

11.5

3

Ole Miss

30

5

17

15

16.75

4

South Carolina

21

25

20

19

21.25

5

Arkansas

27

23

22

29

25.25

6

Mississippi State

24

28

18

35

26.25

7

Kentucky

29

33

38

22

30.5

8

Missouri

42

43

25

39

37.25

9

Vanderbilt

64

54

49

46

53.25

Big Ten

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

1

Michigan State

34

17

22

26

24.75

2

Nebraska

23

26

30

35

28.5

3

Maryland

18

42

47

41

37

4

Northwestern

50

52

54

47

50.75

5

Iowa

41

47

60

59

51.75

6

Indiana

63

53

53

48

54.25

7

Rutgers

43

64

57

56

55

8

Minnesota

58

46

63

57

56

9

Illinois

45

73

48

72

59.5

10

Purdue

72

80

67

70

72.25

ACC

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

1

North Carolina

31

35

28

31

31.25

2

Pittsburgh

37

30

46

44

39.25

3

North Carolina State

52

50

31

34

41.75

4

Duke

48

32

55

60

48.75

5

Virginia

57

63

50

33

50.75

6

Georgia Tech

47

60

44

56

51.75

7

Syracuse

54

62

56

52

56

8

Wake Forest

67

57

51

67

60.5

9

Boston College

66

78

60

51

63.75

Pac-12

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

1

UCLA

20

13

12

18

15.75

2

Oregon

19

27

16

21

20.75

3

Arizona State

35

24

20

23

25.5

4

Arizona

44

48

43

30

41.25

5

Cal

73

31

34

55

48.25

6

Washington State

46

56

42

53

49.25

7

Oregon State

51

58

61

60

57.5

Big 12

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

1

Texas

26

6

10

17

14.75

2

TCU

28

22

42

43

33.75

3

Baylor

40

41

36

26

35.75

4

Texas Tech

49

44

32

40

41.25

5

Iowa State

53

55

64

58

57.5

6

Kansas State

60

72

55

49

59

7

Kansas

69

71

73

50

65.75

IND

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

1

Notre Dame

10

15

13

11

12.25

 

Now we are down to 26 teams… Next is returning starters

Rule 3- Must have at least 13 total starters returning or else eliminated from consideration. (2014 Georgia Tech as the outlier)

You may hear that returning starters is an overrated statistic for a football team. Looking at the Power 5 teams that made a run from unranked to Top 10, there is a correlation:

Team

Offense

Defense

Total

2016 USC

10

6

16

2016 Washington

9

7

16

2016 Penn State

9

6

15

2015 Stanford

11

4

15

2015 Oklahoma

7

6

13

2015 Iowa

7

8

15

2014 TCU

8

8

16

2014 Georgia Tech

5

5

10

2014 Georgia

6

9

15

2013 Auburn

6

9

15

2013 Michigan State

8

7

15

2013 Missouri

8

6

14

2012 Ohio State

9

10

19

2012 Notre Dame

8

7

15

2012 Texas A&M

9

8

17

2012 Florida

8

10

18

2011 USC

6

7

13

2010 Auburn

7

8

15

2010 Stanford

8

6

14

2010 Wisconsin

10

6

16

Average

7.95

7.15

15.10

Out of all the teams, 2014 Georgia Tech was the only team that didn’t return at least 13 starters. We are going to treat that team as them as an outlier.

So out of the teams we have left we can eliminate more from the list:

SEC

Offense

Defense

Total

1

Georgia

5

10

15

2

Texas A&M

5

6

11

3

Ole Miss

5

6

11

4

South Carolina

10

6

16

5

Arkansas

6

6

12

6

Mississippi State

6

6

12

7

Kentucky

8

8

16

8

Vanderbilt

8

7

15

Big Ten

Offense

Defense

Total

1

Michigan State

2

3

5

2

Nebraska

5

7

12

3

Maryland

6

6

12

4

Northwestern

8

7

15

5

Indiana

5

9

14

ACC

Offense

Defense

Total

1

North Carolina

6

6

12

2

North Carolina State

8

8

16

3

Virginia

5

8

13

4

Syracuse

9

10

19

Pac-12

Offense

Defense

Total

1

UCLA

7

5

12

2

Oregon

7

8

16

3

Arizona State

7

8

15

4

Arizona

6

7

13

Big 12

Offense

Defense

Total

1

Texas

5

10

15

2

TCU

8

7

15

3

Baylor

5

5

10

4

Kansas State

7

6

13

IND

Offense

Defense

Total

1

Notre Dame

8

7

15

That leaves us with 16 eligible teams for an average of three spots in the Final AP Top Ten. Here is the list ranking by returning starters and recruiting rankings:

Offense

Defense

Total

1

Syracuse

9

10

19

2

South Carolina

10

6

16

3

Kentucky

8

8

16

4

Oregon

7

8

16

5

North Carolina State

8

8

16

6

Texas

6

10

16

7

Georgia

5

10

15

8

Vanderbilt

8

7

15

9

Arizona State

7

8

15

10

Northwestern

8

7

15

11

Notre Dame

8

7

15

12

TCU

8

7

15

13

Indiana

5

9

14

14

Kansas State

7

6

13

15

Arizona

6

7

13

16

Virginia

5

8

13

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

1

Georgia

5

8

5

8

6.5

2

Notre Dame

10

15

13

11

12.25

3

Texas

26

6

10

17

14.75

4

Oregon

19

27

16

21

20.75

5

South Carolina

21

25

20

19

21.25

6

Arizona State

35

24

20

23

25.5

7

Kentucky

29

33

38

22

30.5

8

TCU

28

22

42

43

33.75

9

Arizona

44

48

43

30

41.25

10

North Carolina State

52

50

31

34

41.75

11

Virginia

57

63

50

33

50.75

12

Northwestern

50

52

54

47

50.75

13

Vanderbilt

64

54

49

46

53.25

14

Indiana

63

53

53

48

54.25

15

Syracuse

54

62

56

52

56

16

Kansas State

60

72

55

49

59

Sleeper Teams

Based on the data and looking at the actual teams, here are my predictions for the three teams to finish in the AP Top Ten after finishing unranked last year:

1. Georgia

I think this is the most obvious of the choices. Georgia Tech v GeorgiaGeorgia showed they were talented last year and return almost their entire defense. Add to that a quarterback returning from a decent Freshman season and you have a top ten team. Look for Georgia to compete for the SEC East and end up finishing in the top ten.

2. North Carolina State

The not so obvious choice. NC StateNorth Carolina State returns 16 starters and has one of the best defensive lines in the nation. This was also a team that lost to Florida State by 4 points and took Clemson into Overtime. Their tough schedule could make it difficult, but North Carolina State has the talent to compete for the ACC Championship Game and could finish the year in the top ten.

3. Kansas State

I know they’re ranked low in the returning starters and recruiting rankings, but this is a talented team. Jess ErtzThis could be one of Bill Snyder’s best offensive teams with Jesse Ertz coming back. The defense needs to replace the linebackers, but are strong upfront and in the secondary. They have an easier non-conference schedule and could upset some teams in the Big 12. This is a darkhorse to win the Big 12 and potential top ten team.

 

Tyler Vesely

Twitter- @nfldraftscout

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