Can an unranked team finish the season inside the AP Top 10? If so, how often does it happen? Last season, preseason unranked teams in Michigan, Michigan State and Baylor all finished inside in the AP Top 10 by season’s end.
Basically, there’s always at least one team that comes into the season under the radar. So, which teams could potentially find themselves as an AP Top 10 team by season’s end?
This is kind of a cop out. The Associated Press had the Volunteers just on the outside looking in as the de facto 26th team in the country. However, there’s a couple reasons why Tennessee has AP Top 10 potential.
Eight of their 11 offensive starters return this fall; including QB Hendon Hooker, leading rusher Jabari Small, and top WR Cedric Tillman. The Volunteers finished ninth in total offense and seventh in scoring offense. They have a good shot at doing it again with their returning stars. Their 90th ranked scoring defense is an issue, but their offense makes them a threat to surprise many teams.
Also, their schedule is loaded with preseason Top 25 teams: Top-ranked Alabama, No. 3 Georgia, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 17 Pittsburgh, No. 20 Kentucky and No. 21 Ole Miss. Yes, it’s unlikely they win all of these contests, but there’s a chance they can win at least four of them. Again, it is a brutal schedule, but there’s a lot of potential here for the Volunteers sneak inside the Top 10 by season’s end.
Penn State Nittany Lions
For the first time since 2016, the AP Top 25 poll did not feature the Nittany Lions. That was James Franklin’s third season as head coach, and his squad finished 7th in the AP Poll that season. So, history’s on their side.
Penn State started last season with five straight wins but lost six of their final eight games to finish with a 7-6 record. Their Top 10 scoring defense is what saved them in plenty of games last year, and it’s likely they will be a solid group again. The main concern is quarterback. Sixth-year senior Sean Clifford is back, but there doesn’t seem to be much excitement surrounding that. The Nittany Lions finished 90th in scoring offense. If they can get into the Top 50 in that category, they will be on their way back to being an upper tier Big Ten.
Penn State only has three Preseason Top 25 teams on their schedule: No. 2 Ohio State, at No. 8 Michigan & No. 15 Michigan State. Those three opponents are tough. However, they avoid tough foes like Iowa and Wisconsin. The pathway to the AP Top 10 is there. If they steal one of these games and take care of business elsewhere (like against Purdue and Auburn), they’ll be an AP Top 10 team.
The Hawkeyes were the AP’s No. 2 in the country entering Week 7 last season. Then, back-to-back losses to Purdue and Wisconsin bumped them out of the Top 10. They were very similar in style to the Nittany Lions last season. Their 13th ranked scoring defense made up for their 99th scoring offense.
Iowa’s defense led college football with 25 interceptions last season. The defense should be stout and experienced once again this season. In order to have staying power in the Top 10, the offense has to be better, specifically in the passing game. Having returners like QB Spencer Petras, TE Sam LaPorta and WR Nico Ragaini should improve the Hawkeyes’ passing game, which ranked 109th last season.
They’ve only got three Preseason Top 25 teams on the schedule: vs Michigan, at Ohio State and vs Wisconsin. If they find a way past Iowa State in Week 2, they could be 4-0 and ranked when Michigan rolls into their building a few weeks later. There’s definitely enough talent and a pathway for Iowa to hover around the AP Top 10.
Even though they went 5-7 in Steve Sarkisian’s first season, it’s hard to ignore the Longhorns coming into 2022. While they missed out on a Preseason Top 25 ranking from the Associated Press, the AFCA Coaches Poll listed them at 18th. Clearly, there’s a combination of hype and unknown involved with Texas.
The Longhorns hype comes from their offense. They have two explosive weapons in RB Bijan Robinson and WR Xavier Worthy. Plus, they added Wyoming WR Isaiah Neyor and TE Jahleel Billingsly through the Transfer Portal. Texas just needs a QB (Quinn Ewers or Hudson Card) to get the ball to these weapons without turning the ball over.
Defense is the where the unknown is. It finished 99th in scoring defense and 100th in total defense. There needs to be a major uptick defensively. Maybe, the addition of former Buckeye DB Ryan Watts to the squad and former TCU HC Gary Patterson to the coaching staff helps.
Texas does have a Week 2 meeting with Alabama that will be tough. However, they can make up ground with games against No. 9 Oklahoma, No. 10 Baylor and No. 12 Oklahoma State. While it is a long shot, there’s pathway for the Longhorns to finish inside the AP Top 10.