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A Study of Overrated College Football Teams

Last Friday on Sports 180, Josh Ward and Will West brought up this piece from Scott Cushing at The Seattle Post Intelligencer, which ranks the most overrated and underrated college football programs in the last twenty years. Tennessee is the third most overrated team in those rankings; at the time I called that idea absurd.

The piece isn't based on the writer's opinion - he simply took the preseason and final AP polls from each of the last twenty years and tracked each team's movement, and added up the totals. Since 1990, the Vols have finished a total of 70 spots lower in the final AP poll than in in the preseason poll, an average of 3.5 spots per year.

It sounds bad...but when you look at the entire list, you notice a trend that I think throws this system into question.

Of the Top 15 most overrated teams on Cushing's list, 12 have won at least one National Championship in the last 20 years. That Top 15, with a couple of exceptions, really reads like a who's who of traditional college football powerhouses, instead of the group of teams you'd expect to find first on a most overrated list.

There are a couple of flaws in this system: first, one year can really throw the whole thing off. For instance, in 2005 the Vols were #3 in the preseason poll, but finished with only five wins, obviously out of the final poll. That's a 22 point hit. On the other hand, Georgia Tech was unranked at the start of the 1990 season, and finished the year with a split National Championship and a #2 final ranking in the AP poll. While those individual teams were clearly overrated and underrated, respectively, they throw off the entire 20 year study too much.

Second, consider the most overrated program of the last 20 years according to Cushing's list: the Florida State Seminoles. While there's no question the Noles (and the Vols) have been one of the more overrated programs of the last decade, if you're going to go back to 1990, then Florida State is a victim of their own incredible success: when you're ranked in the preseason Top 5 every year from 1990-2000, you've really got nowhere to go but down.

Cushing's piece is a good starting point...but I think it's unfair to penalize teams for one bad year (which in some cases can be attributed to a critical injury) or see them get a huge bump for one surprise year...and much of the reason you see so many powerhouse teams at the top of the overrated list is because they were continually ranked high in the preseason polls because of their past success. Teams like Florida State may be getting the benefit of the doubt from pollsters in August...but to a degree, they earned it.

So instead of looking at just the ebb and flow of the rankings over two decades without any adjustments, is there a better way to determine which programs are truly overrated? Are there teams out there that do get the benefit of the doubt...but haven't done much to earn it?

We'll take a look at several factors after the jump, and then ask you to decide...

Here are the fifteen most overrated teams according to the AP poll season differential:

  1. Florida State
  2. Michigan
  3. Tennessee
  4. USC
  5. Clemson
  6. Notre Dame
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Miami
  9. Nebraska
  10. Texas
  11. Washington
  12. Florida
  13. Texas A&M
  14. LSU
  15. Colorado

A couple of observations: again, 12 of these 15 teams have won National Championships in the last 20 years. That makes the biggest red flags Clemson and Notre Dame, followed by Texas A&M. When I think of a team being overrated, I focus on an imbalance between perception and reality - teams that get plenty of hype, especially early in the year, but ultimately have little or nothing to show for it. Florida State had more tangible success to show for their hype than any other team in the 90s, which carried over into the early parts of the 00s in terms of high preseason rankings.

But Clemson, who hasn't won a National Championship since 1981 and hasn't won a conference title since 1991, also known as "the year before Florida State joined the ACC"? To me, that's an exponentially more overrated program than FSU.

Notre Dame is a team that certainly had plenty of tangible success in the past, but hasn't won a National Championship since 1988, and has finished in the top ten only once since 1993. If you look at the entire history of college football, it's probably impossible to overrate the Irish. But in the last 20 years? Definitely overrated.

There are plenty of cases like Tennessee, an elite program in the 90s that slipped in the 00s (or Texas or Southern Cal, who went the opposite route). If you're looking for the most overrated programs over the entire span of 90-09, I'd look for consistent disappointments - which teams have been overrated the most number of years, without the championships or Top 10 finishes to validate themselves?

Here are four candidates, each with a unique case for the most overrated program of the last twenty years, in alphabetical order - I have no natural disdain for any of these teams (aside from the same general dislike of Notre Dame that every non-Irish fan has). These are just the four that jumped out to me on that original list as the best candidates for most overrated.


(Cal is 17th on the original list)

The Golden Bears are a tougher case to crack because they spent ten years being irrelevant, unranked from 1994-2003. So without a doubt, Jeff Tedford deserves a ton of credit for resurrecting the program once he got there in 2002. But once Cal arrived in 2004 with a 10-2 season, it feels like they stopped making progress.

They did share a Pac-10 title in 2006...but the program hasn't won a conference title outright since 1958. In the last five years, Cal is only 42-22 (.656). They were ranked 12th in the '07 and '09 preseason polls, but have now gone three straight years without being ranked in the final AP poll. When you combine that with their relative lack of history and their ten year unranked streak before 2004, they don't have a ton to stand on.

The Underrated Argument: can you fairly call a team overrated when they've only been "rated" for the last six years?


As mentioned, the Tigers have gotten more love from the polls with fewer championships than any team on that list. Unlike Cal, who may have been underrated for a brief period around 2004, Clemson hasn't had a single year in the last twenty where their preseason ranking was vastly lower than their end result. We mentioned already the championship drought - no ACC titles (or Top 10 finishes) since Florida State joined the league in 1992. And while Clemson has been ranked at some point in the season 9 of the last 10 years, they've been considerably overrated several times in that span: in preseason polls, the Tigers were ranked 19th in 2001, 15th in 2004, and 9th in 2008...and finished the year unranked each time.

Again, plenty of other teams (including the Vols) have had a couple of disappointing years like that...but unlike most of those other teams, Clemson hasn't won the championship(s) it takes to dispel the notion of being overrated. And again, they've somehow convinced the voters that every year might be their year - Clemson has never really made any huge jumps in the Top 25 from preseason to end result. In the last twenty years, I think this is the team that's received the most hype with the least results.

The Underrated Argument: Consistency: Clemson might be overrated, but they're never terrible - the Tigers are in the Top 10 in bowl appearances over the last 25 years.

Notre Dame

Again, we're looking at the last 20 years...which means the Irish have been more disappointing than not. Dr. Lou won a National Championship in 1988, but the cupboard is bare since then. Notre Dame was still a very good team in the early 90s...but since 1993, the Irish have really fallen off - as stated, only one Top 10 finish in the last 16 years.

In fairness, Notre Dame hasn't been overrated every single year since '93 - the Irish finished 15th in 2000, 17th in 2002, and 9th in 2005, despite starting each of those seasons outside the Top 25. But their inability to win a bowl game from '94-'08 definitely hurt their image.

Five times in the last twenty years, the Irish were ranked at least ten spots too high in the preseason AP poll. It seems that any time the Irish have any real chance of being decent, the pollsters give them an extra bump not even for recent success, but because they're Notre Dame. Overall, they're one of the greatest programs in college football history. But in the last twenty years? Notre Dame is overrated.

The Underrated Argument: ...they're Notre Dame.

Texas A&M

A team that was almost great in the early-to-mid-90s, the Aggies haven't won (or played for) a conference championship since Brandon Stewart got it done in the 1998 Big 12 Championship Game. The Aggies made the final AP Top 25 in 1999...and haven't been in since. They were ranked in preseason polls three times in the last decade, but never finished there.

It feels like so much of the luster has been removed from their program, that we'd begin to question if they're even good enough to be considered "overrated". Farmer Fran went 32-28 in five years, and was replaced by Mike Sherman, who is just 10-15 since.

The Underrated Argument: Faced a tougher schedule than any other team on this list, having to play Texas and Oklahoma every year. Very good in the early/mid 90s.

In my opinion, all four of these programs are much more overrated than any of the top four on the original list. We've grouped these four together with the top four on Cushing's list, and we're giving you the chance to vote for the program you think is the most overrated in the last twenty years - if you've got another team in mind, leave it in the comments. And tell us as well what you think makes a team overrated.