College Football's Top Ten, Oh, No! The Curse Of Over-Ranking

Pete MisthaufenAnalyst ISeptember 29, 2009

STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Fans of the Penn State Nittnay Lions look on just prior to losing to the Iowa Hawkeyes 21-10 on September 26, 2009 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Four Top Ten teams lost this weekend, making a total of ten different top 10 teams that already have lost in just the first four weeks of the season. 

Two of the teams, Ole Miss and Penn State, had been completely untested prior to last week's games.

Only three of the original AP preseason top ten remain undefeated (and only four of the USA Today top ten).

Did the experts get it all wrong, or is there something else in play?

We have seen the result of over-ranking teams, or, as I call it, the Curse of the Top Ten.

Being in the Top Ten is a burden.  Expectations soar.  Everyone expects the team to dominate its opponents, when in reality, the program is no better at number nine than it was at number 21.

We need only to look at the last few years to see how this has played out.  Thanks to the AP Poll Archive for maintaining all these records. 





We think of this season as one of the craziest seasons in college football.

But the preseason AP Top 10 actually included five teams from the final AP Top Ten, with the final top three including the preseason top two, LSU and USC.

In Week One we saw one of the biggest drops ever in the history of the AP Poll, as No. 5 Michigan lost at home to FCS National Champion Appalachian State.  Michigan suffered three more losses while bouncing in and out of the Top 25 and would re-enter the final top 25 with a victory over Florida at the Capitol One Bowl. 

No. 9 Louisville lost in Week Three to Kentucky, starting the journey to a 6-6 season.

In Week Four, No. 10 Penn State lost to Michigan in a close battle.  Penn State finished the season with four losses and no spot in the top 25.

After going through its customary cupcake schedule, No. 4 Florida started its path to a four-loss season by losing to Auburn at home in Week Five. 

Florida, always receiving the benefit of the doubt from voters, would hover around the Top 20 the rest of the season and ranked in the AP Top 10 for four additional weeks throughout the season.  However, the Gators never made the Coaches' Poll Top 10 again.

Week Six saw two top tens begin their descent.  No. 5 Wisconsin (who had start the season at No. 7 in the preseason poll) had barely won a number of games before posting its first of four losses to Illinois.  Wisconsin would finish the season at No. 24 for no known reason.

No. 8 Kentucky lost to South Carolina on its way to a five-loss season and finishing unranked.

Week Seven saw No. 2 Cal, needing only a win to take over the No. 1 spot, begin its self-destruction at home against Oregon State.  Cal lost six out of seven games before pulling out a win in its bowl game to have a winning season.

In Week Eight, supremely over-ranked No. 2 South Florida began a three-game skid in Big East play.  South Florida would finish with four losses and out of the AP Top 25.

Week Eight also saw No. 6 South Carolina (6-1) begin its regular trip to self-destruction, as the Cocks lost their final five games and finished the season unranked.

Week Nine saw No. 6 Arizona State start its decline.  The Sun Devils would only drop three places with the loss and would end up in the AP Top 20 even though they lost three of their last five games.

No. 2 Oregon, which had first entered the Top Ten after already having a first loss, began a three-game skid to end the regular season out of the Top 25.

Undefeated Hawaii entered the AP Top Ten at No. 10 on the final poll of the regular season. The Warriors would get man-handled by the Dawgs in the Sugar Bowl, ending the season at No. 19.

These 12 teams all fell apart under the pressure of their undeserved and inflated ranking.  These 12 teams would suffer 48 losses between them and all finish out of the AP Top Ten.




While we do not think of 2008 as a crazy year like 2007, it saw a whole lot of shake up in the top ten over the course of the season.  Some teams like OU, Texas, Florida, and USC survived defeats to end up in the final top ten. 

Nine other schools would rise to the top ten and then crash and burn.  Of those nine, five would finish unranked.

In the very first week of the season, No. 9 Clemson looked to open its bid for a BCS game and a possible BCS title berth with a match up with unranked Alabama, in the second year of a rebuilding program under Nick Saban.  With a tough defense and an explosive offensive, the Tigers would be remarkable.

Instead, Alabama stomped Clemson so badly that Clemson fell out of the AP Top 25 entirely.  Clemson finished the season at 7-6 with a new coach.

Week Four saw No. 10 Auburn lose to No. 6 LSU.  Auburn had looked unimpressive in its first three games.  Auburn fell apart and won only two more games the rest of the season and also ended up with a new coach.

No. 3 Georgia lost to Alabama in Week Five.  Georgia had begun the season at No. 1.  Georgia would go on to lose to Georgia Tech and Florida, getting to a 9-3 record for the regular season during a very down year for the SEC.

Also in Week Five, No. 9 Wisconsin lost a close game to Michigan and would finish the season at 7-6.

In Week Six, No. 10 South Florida lost to Pittsburgh and begun its annual pursuit of oblivion.  The Bulls have never finished in the AP Top Twenty-Five in their entire history.

In Week Seven, undefeated No. 4 LSU lost to Florida.  LSU would go 3-4 the rest of the season and finish unranked.

Also in Week Seven, unbeaten No. 3 Missouri lost to Oklahoma State.  Missouri would go on to lose three more games that season.

In Week Eight, undefeated No. 9 BYU got beaten at TCU.  BYU would go on to lose two more games and finish at No. 25.

In Week Nine, unbeaten No. 7 Oklahoma State lost to No. 1 Texas.  The Pokes only lost two places in the AP Poll, in large part because the next three teams were Boise State, Utah, and TCU.  Oklahoma State would go 2-3 the rest of the way.

Ultimately five teams (Auburn, Clemson, LSU, South Florida, and Wisconsin) had no business being anywhere new the top ten and folded under the pressure.  The other four ended up with a total of 14 losses between them, demonstrating why they were never worthy of Top Ten status.




Even though this season is only four weeks old, we have already seen these same patterns developing. 

So what is the problem?  Too much hype for teams?  That may work for preseason rankings, but other teams that earned their way into the Top Ten have fallen apart too many times.

How about the pressure of the ranking?  Being a Top Ten or Top Five team puts a lot of pressure on a program.  Even if they try to avoid it, it is everywhere the players and coaches go. 

Expectations reach high levels and for some programs, they do not seem to be able to handle it.  I saw more than one comment from an Ole Miss player being happy that the "monkey" of the Top Five ranking was off their back.

Another important factor is injuries, and not just for "skill" players.  Losing important defensive players can transform a top defense into a disaster.  Likewise, losing a key offensive lineman can cause chaos and led to a upset.

The great teams bounce back from theses setbacks.  USC seems to lose one or two every year but has been in the final top four for the last seven years. 

Some teams just have more depth.  Others just have better coaches.  But, ultimately, the fate of the team rests in its ability to bounce back from defeat and try to salvage a season after a devastating loss. 

It is just much easier to bounce back when you were not in the Top Ten.  The pressure is off.  You never lost the BCS bowl crown.  You know that every team loses a game or two, so no big deal.  Just take care of business and all will be OK. 

So, here is my warning to anybody whose team is in the top ten this week:  Watch Out!  Self-destruction may be around the corner and 6-0 can quickly become 6-6.  Just ask Cal, Clemson, Louisville, and South Florida.



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