Overrated is an ugly word in college football. It’s what fans chant when a top-ranked team is about to lose and causes coaches such as Nick Saban to call the hype surrounding a team “rat poison.”
But we love upsets. They’re one of the great things about the game, especially because they happen every Saturday. As soon as word starts to spread that a top team may be in trouble, fans switch over to watch.
It’s around this time that someone, somewhere, always says, “That team is always overrated. They have no business being ranked so high.”
So this series has been the ultimate test, culminating with the most overrated programs since the poll era began in 1936.
Specifically, the following top-10 list was compiled by using the preseason and postseason Associated Press Polls each year. The difference from where a team was initially projected to where it finished was measured in points, so if a team was preseason No. 5 and postseason No. 2 it scored plus-3.
The scores for every team, every year were subsequently added up, with the following programs having the most negative points:
10. Florida State: The Seminoles can take solace in knowing that rival Florida was very close to occupying this space. They also could claim that it was mostly one decade, the 2000s, that put them here if it wasn’t for last season as well. FSU was the preseason No. 3 team and predicted by many to play in the National Championship Game, only to end up needing a win against Southern Miss in the Independence Bowl to finish above .500.
9. Texas A&M: For years, the Aggies were one of those programs that always seemed to look good on paper, but just couldn’t quite get out of the shadow of rival Texas. Homer Norton guided the program’s lone consensus national title in 1939, and Paul “Bear” Bryant had Texas A&M on the doorstep before “Mama called” at Alabama. However, since 2000, the program has had just three teams finish ranked, and only one above No. 18.
8. Pittsburgh: Pitt is one of those programs that causes people throughout the rest of the nation to wonder, “Why aren’t the Panthers better?” Since 1984, the program has had just four teams finish with a ranking, and none better than No. 15 (2009). The 1939 setback is especially why the Panthers are on this list. They went from No. 1 in the first poll taken on Oct. 16, when Pitt was 3-0, to finishing 5-4.
7. Michigan: The Wolverines only had one decade, the 1960s, when they were in the black as far as meeting expectations. In every other one, their combined finish was worse than their preseason rankings. It’s a trend that continues today. Only three times since 2000 has Michigan been ranked higher at the end of the season (2007, 2011 and 2015), while in 2005 it went from No. 4 to unranked.
6. Nebraska: The last four decades just haven’t been good to the Cornhuskers when it comes to meeting expectations, and, yes, that includes the Tom Osborne era. Before he broke through and won back-to-back titles in 1994-95, the coach had a reputation for not being able to win big games. However, every one of his Nebraska teams finished with a ranking, and not even Saban can claim that.
5. Texas: Darrell Royal had a remarkable run in which from 1960-73 the Longhorns were in the top 5 of the preseason AP poll 12 times. But even those seasons included two in which Texas plummeted from No. 4 to unranked (1960 and 1967), and one it did a nosedive from No. 2 (1965). The season that arguably did in Mack Brown was 2010, when Texas went from preseason No. 5 to a five-win season.
4. Ohio State: With it comes to meeting expectations, the Buckeyes have been pretty steady the last three decades. It’s when you look at the previous years that the glaring setbacks really stick out. Among them was 1987 when Earl Bruce’s team went from preseason No. 4 to 6-4-1 and out of the rankings. As great of a coach Woody Hayes was, he had eight teams that followed suit, including the 1962 team that started at No. 1 and the 1951 Buckeyes who began at No. 3.
3. Oklahoma: During the 16 years Barry Switzer coached the Sooners, only once did he have a team go up the rankings, 1973, his first year. He had five teams finish at the same place (of which three began at No. 1 and won the national title), but all of the rest slid including the 1983 team that went from No. 2 to unranked. A victim of unfair expectations? Perhaps. But it’s something Oklahoma still has problems with as the 2014 Sooners went from No. 4 to unranked and the 2009 team dropped out all the way from No. 3.
2. Notre Dame: Even when Notre Dame isn’t even ranked, you’ll still hear fans grousing about how the Fighting Irish are overrated. Brian Kelly’s 2016 team going from No. 10 to unranked with a 5-8 record doesn’t come close to the program’s biggest disappointments. Among them were 1981 when Gerry Faust’s team started at No. 3 and moved up to No. 1 before finishing 5-6, 1994 when Lou Holtz couldn’t stop Notre Dame from dropping from No. 2 to unranked, and Frank Leahy in 1950. After having not suffered a loss in four seasons, fans were shocked when No. 1 Notre Dame went 4-4-1 that season.
1. Southern California: The Trojans have been ranked in the AP preseason poll 57 times, 17 of which they finished unranked. Some were considered big-time setbacks like 2012, when Lane Kiffin’s team finished 7-6 after being tabbed preseason No. 1. John McKay also had a team go from No. 1 to unranked in 1963, but that’s when the AP only ranked 10 teams. The decade it was overrated the most, the 1990s, USC was ranked at some point of each season but only three finished in the AP Top 25.
Finally, if you go back to the first story in this series, the all-time Associated Press Poll’s Top 25, seven of the top eight teams were listed in his article — reinforcing that it’s incredibly difficult to maintain such success on a regular basis.
However, while none of the 173 teams to be ranked in a preseason or final poll finished exactly at +0, there’s one in the all-time Top 25 that was within plus or minus 3, which makes it clearly the most consistent winning program in college football.
It’s none other than Alabama.
This is the final story in a five-part series.