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This College Football Season’s Cinderellas Aren’t Cinderellas at All

Welcome to the 2017 campaign, where blue bloods like Notre Dame, Texas, Miami, and Georgia qualify as sleepers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

College football is not a sport that trifles with notions of parity. Unlike in the pro ranks, the greatest teams add the greatest incoming talent each year and perpetuate their greatness; unlike in college basketball, those players must stay in school and mature and develop their talents for at least three years.

The results of this plutocratic system bear out on the field, where the long-term results are striking. The two most recent first-time national champions are Florida and Florida State, and both won their inaugural titles before 2017 Heisman favorite Sam Darnold was born. Through three years of the new postseason system, all 11 of 12 playoff slots have gone to programs with at least one national trophy already in their cases. And this season, it’s difficult to concoct a scenario in which that trend breaks.

As Rodger Sherman wrote for The Ringer earlier this week, beyond the usual suspects—the Alabamas and Florida States—the likeliest national contenders this season are Auburn, Michigan, and advanced-stats darling LSU—none of whom could be considered a classic underdog. Further back, the imbalance continues: The most likely candidates to rise from mediocrity to the top of the polls are all blue bloods: Notre Dame, Texas, Miami, Georgia, and more of the same. This season’s Cinderellas aren’t Cinderellas at all.

You might have heard that the first school on that list went 4-8 last season, marking the program’s second-worst record in any season since 1963. But as enjoyable as Brian Kelly’s violet visage and the team’s loss to NC State in a monsoon were for Notre Dame haters, the team is a good bet to improve its record by a substantial margin this year. The Fighting Irish still boast a talented roster. More than half of their players were four- or five-star recruits, and new starter Brandon Wimbush has the makings of college football’s next great dual-threat quarterback.

Moreover, Notre Dame wasn’t nearly as bad last season as its 4-8 record indicates. The Fighting Irish went 1-7 in one-score games last year and tied for the worst winning percentage in one-possession games in the 21st century (minimum seven such games in a season, comprising a sample of 242 teams). Notre Dame likely won’t do so poorly in this split next year. The team it tied for last place (2015 Army) finished with a winning record in one-score games the following season.

Notre Dame’s failures in close games were tied to larger issues with converting solid underlying play into points and victories. The team underperformed its second-order record—which uses underlying statistics to predict how many points a team should have scored and allowed, and therefore how many games it should have won and lost—by 3.2 wins last year, making it a historical outlier in this area as well. Again, teams that experience such dissonance typically don’t repeat it. In 2013, TCU went 4-8 in underperforming its second-order record by 3.2 wins. The next year, Gary Patterson engineered a turnaround that took the Horned Frogs to the precipice of the playoff, and an ultimate 12-1 record and no. 3 finish in the AP poll.

Texas last year was a less extreme version of Notre Dame. The Longhorns were also one of the nation’s largest underperformers by second-order record last year (minus-1.8 wins), and five of their losses came by a single score. There’s also ample reason to expect them to play better even beyond regression to the statistical norm.

They have the benefit of returning Heisman dark horse Shane Buechele for his sophomore season. The Texas native impressed until injuries hampered the back end of his freshman year. They also have a new coach with a history of quick improvement while working with less talent than he now has in Austin. In Tom Herman’s first year with Houston, the Cougars improved from 8-5 to 13-1 with wins against Louisville, three ranked conference opponents, and a heavily favored Florida State squad in the Peach Bowl. Last year, Houston pantsed Oklahoma and Louisville on national TV when both opponents were ranked third in the country.

After Oklahoma—which might have its own problems, after the sudden departure of longtime coach Bob Stoops in June—the Big 12 race is as wide open as the average receiver in conference play. By the all-encompassing advanced metric S&P+, Texas projects as the conference’s second-best team, so a Longhorn renaissance could come quicker than expected.

Because college football employs a static hierarchy, last year’s results double as a fair approximation of how teams project to finish this season. Among the 64 Power Five schools plus Notre Dame, there is a 0.75 correlation between teams’ 2016 winning percentage and 2017 preseason S&P+ rating, on a scale in which 0 signifies no connection and 1 a perfect relationship. Building off this relationship, a basic model constructed to calculate teams’ projected S&P+ rank based on their 2016 record reveals that the two largest deviants from the predictive pattern are Notre Dame and Texas. Obviously, these are outliers in part because they were better last year than simple winning percentage shows, but national success from those teams this season would still register as surprises to college football followers.

Beyond Notre Dame and Texas, other former national contenders are also poised to return to that stage. One point against Texas ascending so suddenly is that Herman is just in his first year with the program, and he might find it more difficult to instill his own philosophies while coaching players he didn’t recruit. That potential issue doesn’t affect Miami or Georgia. Both programs have coaches entering their second seasons, which is when new bosses typically make the biggest impact.

Miami hasn’t finished better than 5-3 in conference play since 2005, nor has it won double-digit games since joining the ACC. Remember: Duke has reached more ACC title games than Miami. Excluding Pitt, which didn’t join the conference until 2013, the Hurricanes arguably have been the least accomplished ACC Coastal team (besides Virginia)—in a division whose geography was aligned in part so that Miami could make routine trips to the title game to face Florida State.

ACC Coastal Division, Since 2005

School Conf. Winning % ACC Title Games
School Conf. Winning % ACC Title Games
Virginia Tech .708 6
Georgia Tech .604 4
Pitt .563 0
Miami .531 0
North Carolina .521 1
Virginia .344 0
Duke .260 1

Yet the Hurricanes in Mark Richt’s second season are a popular sleeper pick this year after finishing the 2016 season on a five-game winning streak with an average 18.6-point margin of victory. Miami’s quarterback situation is unsettled with Brad Kaaya gone, but the rest of last year’s core is intact, and the defense has the potential to dominate. If the Canes can avoid their annual post-Florida State loss malaise, they could win not only their first ACC division title, but make a run at the playoff.

Georgia, the program that fired Richt in 2015, could take the same leap. The numbers say the Bulldogs have at least a 40 percent chance to win 11-plus games, and they are one of just 10 teams in the country with at least half of the roster comprised of blue-chip recruits. Nick Chubb is somehow still in college, and is part of the most dynamic running back duo in the country along with Sony Michel. The defense is one of the nation’s most experienced units, and the Bulldogs avoid Alabama and LSU in conference play. Yet Georgia stumbled to an 8-5 finish last year and hasn’t reached the SEC championship game since 2012 or a major bowl since 2007.

Such is the state of college football: A program ranked in the AP top 10 at some point in each of the last five seasons qualifies as a potential sleeper. If the Bulldogs escape an early-September clash with fellow dark horse Notre Dame, they could be the season’s best false Cinderella.