Imagine the Top 25 rankings coming out three weeks into the 2018 season.
Predicting which teams will be there – for sure – is simple…Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, etc. Even if one of these big boys was to get upset early, they’d hang around until, at the very least, their second loss.
What’s more difficult is selecting which teams might surprise us by breaking into the Top 25 after making a perfect 3-0 start. These are the programs who will be labeled “better than expected” or “improved” or even “primed to make a run.”
While we don’t have a crystal ball, what we do have is a blueprint of each team’s season in the form of their schedule. In the case of the programs listed here, it’s not that the entire body of their 2018 slate isn’t difficult…it’s that it’s easy, in some cases very easy, at the beginning.
First three opponents: Eastern Illinois, at Colorado State, and North Texas
Arkansas hasn’t been ranked in the AP Top 25 since Oct. 22, 2016 when, at No. 17, it traveled to (21) Auburn and lost 56-3. The Razorbacks have posted a 6-11 record since, including a 4-8-mark last season.
The good news for new head coach Chad Morris is a super-easy start to 2018. Arkansas hasn’t lost to an FCS opponent since 1992, its first as an SEC member, when it opened with a shocking 10-3 defeat to The Citadel. It was so painful that third-year head coach Jack Crowe stepped down after the game.
The Hogs are a combined 12-0 all-time against Colorado State (3-0) and North Texas (9-0).
First three opponents: Charleston Southern, Kentucky, and Colorado State
Another new head coach with an easy transition into his new role, Dan Mullen ought to look like the right choice for the Gators early. Florida was ranked as recently as last season, when it hit No. 21 before losing to LSU by one point in mid-October. It was the first of five-straight SEC losses and a 4-7 finish, the lowest mark since 2013.
Speaking of 2013, that was also the last time the Gators fell to an FCS foe, losing 26-20 to Georgia Southern, who has since moved up to the FBS ranks via the Sun Belt. It was the first time Florida had fallen to a team considered a “non-major” at game time since 1947, when it hosted North Texas and lost 20-12.
The Gators have never played Colorado State in football but are a perfect 7-0 against the current Mountain West. As for Kentucky, it’s one of only two Power opponents a team on our list will face in the first three weeks. Though this means a bigger test for the Gators, keep in mind that they’ve won 31 straight vs. the Wildcats and haven’t lost in Gainesville since 1979.
First three opponents: New Mexico State, Fresno State, and Miami (Ohio)
Minnesota has only been ranked in the AP once in the last nine years. It was late in the 2014 season and the Gophers had upset (21) Nebraska 28-24 in Lincoln. Freshly adorned at No. 22, they traveled to (14) Wisconsin the next week for the season finale, falling 34-24 and dropping from the polls.
Minnesota is 1-1 all-time against New Mexico State, losing in 2013 in Las Cruces and winning in 2011 in Minneapolis. It’s never played Fresno State in football but is 12-3 all-time vs. the Mountain West. That leaves Miami (Ohio) who the Gophers hold a 3-0 advantage over. They are 31-4-1 vs. the MAC.
First three opponents: Akron, Colorado, and Troy
Scott Frost, who takes over at Nebraska after blazing a trail at UCF, is another new head coach with an easier path to a 3-0 record. The Cornhuskers haven’t been ranked since the end of the 2016 season when they were No. 24 coming into a loss to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
The Huskers are 1-0 vs. Akron and 5-1 all-time against the MAC, the only-ever loss coming last season vs. Northern Illinois. Even more favorable, they own a 4-0 mark against Troy and are 13-0 all-time against the Sun Belt. That leaves Colorado, the second of only two Power opponents on our list. Though, as in the case of Florida-Kentucky, this presents a bigger test for Nebraska, the Buffs haven’t won a non-conference game against a Power team since 2010 when they edged Georgia 29-27.
First three opponents: Missouri State, South Alabama, and Boise State
As opposed to many of the other teams listed here, Oklahoma State has been ranked consistently since the middle of the 2016 season. That said, the Cowboys aren’t a part of ESPN’s post-signing-day Way-Too-Early Top 25, so while their appearance in the AP Top 25 in Week 3 wouldn’t shock anyone, they’ve got a clear path to get there.
Oklahoma State hasn’t fallen to a “non-major” since 1980 when it opened with a 20-19 loss to West Texas State (now D-II West Texas A&M). It’s 1-0 vs. South Alabama and 17-1 all-time vs. the current Sun Belt, the only-ever loss at Troy in 2007. That leaves Boise State, who, while not a Power team, certainly has the potency of one. The Cowboys have never faced the Broncos in football and are 13-5-1 vs. the Mountain West. Like Florida-Kentucky, this won’t be a cake walk, but it’s not exactly USC (Texas’ Week 3 opponent) either.
First three opponents: Bowling Green, Portland State, and San Jose State
Yet another head coach with a tiptoe through the tulips, Mario Cristobal has a legitimate shot at having the Ducks ranked by Week 3. The last time Oregon received mention in the AP was briefly in 2017, a one-week stint at No. 24 sandwiched between a 49-13 win over Wyoming and a 37-35 loss at Arizona State.
The Ducks have never, ever squared off with a current MAC member in football. They are 12-6 all-time against San Jose State but haven’t lost to the Spartans since 1983. The last time the fell to a “non-major” was 89 years ago, in 1929, when they traveled to St. Mary’s (of Moraga, Calif.) and lost 31-6.
First three opponents: at Wyoming, San Jose State, and Eastern Washington
Washington State was ranked in the AP throughout last season only to fall out after getting squashed 42-17 by (18) Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl.
The Cougars are 4-2 all-time vs. Wyoming but have never lost to the Cowboys in Laramie. Though they’ve split the last four with San Jose State, the two haven’t met since 1996. That leaves Eastern Washington, which is also the last FCS team the Cougars lost to, something that happened as recently as the 2016 season opener.
First three opponents: Western Kentucky, New Mexico, and BYU
Wisconsin is the only team on our list to receive mention in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early rankings, coming it at No. 7. That’s also where they finished last season in the final AP. The Badgers’ gentle beginning will give them a shot at the Top 5 by mid-September, a scenario that becomes more likely if somebody big gets upset.
Wisconsin and Western Kentucky have never met in football, but the Badgers are a perfect 6-0 against the current Conference USA membership. They’ve also never faced New Mexico and are 30-7 all-time vs. the Mountain West. They are 2-1 vs. BYU but haven’t fallen to the Cougars since 1980.