When the new AP Top 25 is released on Sunday, it will be a set of college football rankings unlike any other in the sport's history. In the wake of the Big Ten, Pac-12, MAC and Mountain West announcing their decisions to not play this fall, the AP decided to keep those schools on the ballot for their preseason poll -- but only the preseason poll. Voters will be asked to rank the top 25 teams in the country on Sunday morning, but the collection of teams to choose from has been cut from 130 to the 76 remaining.
Suddenly, a top 25 ranking seems much more attainable for midtier teams in the ACC, Big 12 and SEC, not to mention the opportunity that's ahead for the AAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA.
This first set of regular-season rankings, and the next one for that matter, will be unique in that SEC teams will remain in the rankings without having played their first games. The Sept. 26 start date for the SEC will represent the first test for a league that will see its top 25 footprint expand and a clustering of conference representation in the top 10 once Ohio State, Penn State, Oregon and Wisconsin are removed from consideration.
As for conferences that did play this weekend, none saw its stock soar quite like the Sun Belt. Louisiana's 31-14 win at Iowa State was the program's first-ever road victory over a ranked opponent, and we're projecting that it will result in the program's first poll ranking since 1943. According to the Washington Post's Patrick Stevens, Louisiana's streak of 1,109 consecutive polls without a ranking is the longest drought for a team that has been ranked before. The win at Iowa State not only snaps that streak but opens the door for the Ragin' Cajuns to be one of three Sun Belt teams in the top 25 at once. Arkansas State could see a spot in the 20s open up after taking down Kansas State, and Appalachian State will likely be in the rankings as well after being one of the top vote-getters among active teams finishing just outside the 25 in the preseason poll.
With nine ranked teams getting pulled rankings consideration and another handful receiving a significant number of votes but falling just outside the preseason top 25, it will be a bit of a free for all when it comes to filling those spots in the high-teens and twenties.
We're predicting that teams who have played will have an edge over teams yet to make their debuts. Army, for example, did not show up on any ballots in the preseason poll but stands at 2-0 with a combined score of 79-7 in those wins. That's going to get rewarded in a way that an 0-0 team won't be able to match.
So with all the moving pieces in mind, here's how we think the new AP Top 25 will look on Sunday.
1. Clemson (Preseason -- 1): Never a doubt for the five-time ACC champions as they opened up their conference schedule with a 12th straight win against Wake Forest. This series has been particularly lopsided in recent years, as the Tigers have outscored the Demon Deacons 152-19 across the last three meetings. Trevor Lawrence didn't have the interceptions or mistakes that brought negative attention at the start of 2019, and even with several new starters, the team looked as crisp as you could expect given the unusual offseason.
2. Alabama (3): The Crimson Tide start their season in Week 4 against Missouri.
3. Georgia (4): The Bulldogs start their season in Week 4 against Arkansas.
4. Oklahoma (5): I don't expect all of the AP voters to have purchased the pay-per-view nonconference tilt against Bobby Petrino and Missouri State, but the scoreboard watching will be enough to know that Spencer Rattler has lived up to the hype (so far) and the Sooners are still the team to beat in the Big 12.
5. LSU (6): The Tigers start their season in Week 4 against Mississippi State in the SEC on CBS Game of the Week.
6. Florida (8): The Gators start their season in Week 4 against Mississippi.
7. Notre Dame (10): There was nothing flashy about the 27-13 win against Duke on Saturday in South Bend, Indiana. The offense brought little to the table in terms of explosiveness early, and after halftime offensive coordinator Tommy Rees rode was working best and let the offensive line and ground game take over. Already for a rise based on the absence of Big Ten and Pac-12 teams, Notre Dame didn't give voters many reasons to give an extra boost in the rankings.
9. Texas (14): Will thrashing UTEP be enough for the Longhorns to jump ahead of the SEC teams right above them in the rankings? I'm sure there will be some recency bias in their favor, but we're guessing that Auburn holds its slight vote advantage while the Texas gets enough of a boost to jump ahead of Texas A&M. There's no "back" conversation for running it up on the Miners, but there's also not enough built-in confidence in the Aggies to guarantee they stay in front of their hated former rivals.
10. Texas A&M (13): The Aggies start their season in Week 4 against Vanderbilt.
11. Oklahoma State (15): The Cowboys' Week 2 opener against Tulsa was postponed to Week 3.
12. North Carolina (18): It was somewhat of a mixed bag from North Carolina. Sam Howell forced the issue a little bit through the air, tossing two interceptions in the 31-6 win, but the Tar Heels offense was able to make the final score look better than the game felt thanks to a strong second half performance by running back Javonte Williams. Penalties, special teams miscues and other mistakes leave plenty of room for improvement for a team that will move up, but probably not jump anyone in the pecking order.
13. Cincinnati (20): The Bearcats start their 2020 season in Week 3 against Austin Peay.
14. UCF (21): The Knights' season opener against FIU was postponed, so they will now open at Georgia Tech in Week 3.
15. Tennessee (25): The Volunteers start their season in Week 4 against South Carolina.
16. Miami (NR): After a couple years of offensive struggles, the Miami offense might have found its calling with Rhett Lashlee and an up-tempo, run-heavy attack led by D'Eriq King. The Hurricanes totaled 337 rushing yards on 52 carries against a solid UAB defensive front, but the offensive line has to play better, especially in pass protection, if it's going to replicate that success against the likes of Clemson, Florida State and Pitt -- all opponents Miami will face in the first six weeks of the season.
17. Memphis (NR): The Tigers weren't in action in Week 2 but got off to a 1-0 start with a 37-24 win against Arkansas State last weekend. Memphis' return to action, however, is unknown after the program paused all football activities following a "significant number of individuals" going into COVID-related quarantine.
18. Louisiana (NR): The Ragin' Cajuns were part of the game of the day and the upset of the week, not only proving that they remain in the Sun Belt championship discussion with Appalachian State but are also as a team in the mix for a New Year's Six bowl game. A road win against Power Five opponent will go a long way in the eyes of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, and I think it will result in a statement from the AP voters as well.
19. Louisville (NR): Maybe a little bit more fight from Western Kentucky than some might have thought, but the Cardinals were strong enough in victory to see their preseason poll vote count increase and make it into the rankings.
20. Appalachian State (NR): There were moments where the Mountaineers were clearly a little slow to start in an unusual season in the first game with a first-year coach, but Shawn Clark has to be happy with the way his team settled in and controlled the contest against an in-state rival in a 35-20 win against Charlotte.
21. Army West Point (NR): The Black Knights are the only 2-0 FBS team in the country and have absolutely dominated most of their on-field action during this 2020 fall season. Louisiana-Monroe put up more of a fight than Middle Tennessee did a week ago, but the Army defense locked in during a second half shutout and the Black Knights pulled away for a 30-point win.
22. BYU (NR): The Cougars aren't going to play a full schedule, but the statement that was made in 55-3 Labor Day night win against Navy is going to resound through this week into Sunday's balloting.
23. Arkansas State (NR): While Kansas State wasn't ranked heading into the game like Iowa State, I do think the recency bias of a road win against a Power Five opponent gets the Red Wolves into the top 25. Last week's loss to Memphis puts a cap on where Arkansas State could land, but if voters are willing to put 0-0 teams in the rankings, then there's no reason 1-1 should be eliminated from consideration.
24. Virginia Tech (NR): The Hokies original season-opener against NC State was pushed back to Sept. 26, and now next week's game against Virginia has been postponed as well. The Hokies were were the second team on the outside of the preseason top 25, so I think they'll end up ranked after the reshuffle, but the lack of action will get them jumped in the pecking order by other teams with less votes in the preseason poll.
25. Kentucky (NR): The Wildcats start their season in Week 4 against Auburn.
Guaranteed to drop from the rankings: Ohio State (2), Penn State (7), Oregon (9), Wisconsin (12), Michigan (16), USC (17), Minnesota (19), Utah (22), Iowa (24)
Projected to drop from the rankings: Iowa State (23)