Looking Back At The College Football Season Through The Final Rankings

Just two weeks ago we were all enjoying the College Football National Championship, which served as the ripe fruits of a season filled with hard labor. It was the year that gave us the journey of the Turnover Chain, the annual faux Pac-12 front-runner, the Mayfield Mayhem, etc…

But when it was all Saban and done, it turned out the Tide didn’t have to roll too far for its second title in the College Football Playoff era with a 26-23 overtime victory over fellow SEC squad Georgia. In fact, Alabama was one of only two teams who started the season (Week 2) and finished it in the exact same place. Name the other team…go ahead, I’ll wait…

Before you Google it, I’ll just tell you: South Florida. The Bulls debuted in the preseason poll at No. 19 and fell to No. 21 in Week 2 despite going 2-0 in the first two weeks of play with wins over San Jose State and Stony Brook. But Charlie Strong’s steadfast squad finished the season in the exact same No. 21 spot with a solid 10-2 record and key wins over Houston and Texas Tech in the Birmingham Bowl.

The Bulls keep good company: Alabama also started the season the way they finished it – in that number one spot. In fact, the Crimson Tide only fell out of the top spot in Week 11, Week 14 and Week 15, which were probably an unpleasant 21 days for Nick Saban’s players.

A lot of things can happen to a top-25 team between Week 2 and the postseason. Here is how it all shook out.

Movin' On Up

Let’s start with the happy shall we, the seven teams that climbed the Associated Press’ mountain instead of tumbled down or off of it. First and foremost, Georgia. The Bulldogs literally started from the bottom (well, ok, the middle) at No. 15 in Week 2 and climbed all the way to No. 2. They finished with a near perfect 13-1 record and put up a hell of a fight against Alabama in the championship game. TCU and Notre Dame both had big climbs as well – the Horned Frogs rose 14 spots from No. 23 in Week 2 to No. 9 and the Fighting Irish moved up 13 spots from No. 24 in Week 2 to No. 11. Notre Dame (10-3) was haunted by that harrowing 41-8 loss at Miami and TCU (11-3) was defeated twice by Oklahoma.

Speaking of the Sooners, 12-2 Oklahoma moved up two spots from #5 in Week 2 to #3 thanks to that Baker Mayfield magic. The Hurricanes did more than redefine jewelry and beat up the Irish – they upped their ranking game from No. 16 in Week 2 to No. 13. But a trio of losses (Pittsburgh, Clemson, Wisconsin) surely left a sour taste in fans' mouths. That just leaves Wisconsin’s rise from ninth in Week 2 to seventh, and Auburn’s climb from 13th to the #10 spot. The Badgers lost street cred with their “weak” schedule, but 13 wins is 13 wins. Conversely, Auburn’s wins over Georgia and Alabama will earn the Tigers some well-deserved respect in the SEC.

Down But Not Out

This list is a little longer and slightly more depressing. Nine teams dropped down, some only one spot but others as much as nine. Leading the charge was Washington, who fell from No. 7 in that second week all the way to No. 16 by the end of the season. The Huskies appeared to be the Pac-12’s best chance at a CFP team, but losses at Arizona State and Stanford foiled those championship dreams. Washington went on to lose, 35-28, to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Nittany Lions also fell in the final rankings, dropping down four spots from their No. 4 perch on Week 2. Despite the success of Saquon Barkley, Penn State dropped back-to-back games at Ohio State and Michigan State, ending the playoff speculation.

USC, LSU, Stanford and Virginia Tech all dropped six spots in the final rankings, with the Trojans making the most surprising missteps – losses at Washington State and Notre Dame and close games against Texas and UCLA. Perhaps the most disappointing showing for USC was against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl – QB Sam Darnold threw zero touchdowns and was sacked eight times in the 24-7 loss.

Stanford’s spiral was easier to map: early losses to USC and San Diego State coupled with Bryce Love’s injury spelled out trouble for the Cardinal. But Love will be back next season, so David Shaw’s squad will be a contender once again. As for Virginia Tech, the ACC was tough this year and their non-conference didn’t exactly aid them in prepartion. And LSU’s 24-21 Homecoming loss to Troy speaks volumes and it's only going to be harder next season as the Tigers look to replace 93% of their passing yardage and 92.4% of their rushing yardage as well as a starting center and right tackle.

Then there are those teams who just tripped themselves up a little bit – Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Clemson. The Cowboys and Buckeyes both fell three spots and were just victims of tough conference play and politics. Both finished the season with solid bowl game wins, with Oklahoma State’s James Washington ending up with the most receiving yards (1,549) and receiving yards per game (119.2) as the Cowboys, as a whole, led the nation in passing offense with 389.2 yards per game.

And then there was Clemson, down only one measly spot from their No. 3 Week 2 ranking. The Tigers finished the season 12-2 – and luckily for them, the 27-24 loss to Syracuse didn’t keep them from the Playoff. But facing Alabama in the Sugar Bowl/Playoff Semifinal proved difficult as the Tigers only managed 188 total yards of offense against the Tide, not to mention their only points came from two field goals. Luckily for Dabo, there is always next year – assuming his QBs stop transferring out…

Welcome to the Party

And lastly, the newbies – the fresh-faced additions to the most exclusive college football party. There were seven total teams this year that didn’t appear in the Week 2 rankings, but managed to make it on the final list, one even climbed in the top-10.

For reference, last year we saw 12 new editions (two in the top-10) and in 2015 we saw 11 (with three in the top-10). In both 2014 and 2013, there were also seven teams in the final rankings that were not ranked in Week 2, with three and four in the top-10, respectively.

So was this year a stronger field or are we just getting better at ranking teams?

Let's start with the sixth-ranked UCF Knights, who were the most fun to watch this season. They finished a perfect 13-0 with key wins over Memphis (twice), South Florida and Auburn. After the Knights' 34-27 Peach Bowl victory, athletic director Danny white declared UCF national champions by virtue of their undefeated season. And it stuck. Twitter proclamations were made, banners have been hung and now the Knights get to walk out for a celebration after the first quarter of the NFL Pro Bowl.

Next we have #15 Michigan State, #17 Northwestern and #19 Mississippi State. The Spartans hung tough in the Big Ten, defeating Iowa, Michigan, and even Penn State. MSU finished with its sixth 10-win season under head coach Mark Dantonio in the past eight years. The Northwestern Wildcats finished on an eight-game win streak, earning their second 10-win season in three years and back-to-back bowl victories for the first time ever. Mississippi State struggled early with losses at Georgia and Auburn, but bounced back with six wins to finish out the year. Plus, next year, former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will be bringing with him an offensive scheme that the SEC has never seen. StarkVegas is going to be LIT.

That brings us to #22 Boise State, #23 NC State and #25 Memphis. I have to applaud the Broncos for playing some solid teams outside the Mountain West, even though it ended with losses to Washington State and Virginia. (They did lay the smackdown on Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl, however.) With quarterback Brett Rypien and all but one defensive starter coming back next season, expect Boise State to be a 2018 preseason darling. The Wolfpack had an impressive showing this year with wins over Florida State, Louisville and Pittsburgh and a close game against Clemson. As for the Memphis Tigers, they were one of my favorite teams to watch, mostly because Riley Ferguson is fantastic. Ferguson, who was the school's first 4,000-yard passer, will be gone next year, but leading rusher Darrell Henderson (who we wrote about last season), explosive playmaker Tony Pollard (who we also wrote about) and most importantly head coach Mike Norvell all return for what is sure to be another great year for the Tigers.

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