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What Makes a Top 10 Team?

Should teams who play cupcakes be among the best in the country?

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason rankings are ridiculous. Remember when 2012 USC was ranked #1, but could only go 7-6 on the season? Even though we had a spectacular implosion of 2012’s top dog, history won’t repeat itself now. Clemson isn’t USC. But also they’ll be skating through much of their schedule. Yes, they play two preseason ranked teams in the first three weeks. But if they get out of week 3 undefeated, they aren’t going to lose. While Stanford is playing Notre Dame in November, Clemson will be dinking around with Wofford.

Outside of Clemson, there are some ranked teams with tough schedules: Ohio State, LSU, and Michigan play a ton of ranked teams. But the difference between them and Stanford is a matter of respect: if any of these three teams were to lose one or fewer games, they’d be a shoo-in for the playoffs. On the other hand, if a Pac-12 team goes 11-1, it might still be left out.

Stanford plays five preseason ranked teams. And even among the unranked teams on Stanford’s schedule, there are still a ton of landmines: a Northwestern team that previously upset Stanford, a road game at USC, an Arizona team led by Heisman dark horse Khalil Tate, a road game against a Colorado team with a first round NFL talent, and a rivalry game against Cal. Even if Stanford went 10-2 against that insanely stiff schedule, every rational argument figures Stanford should be a lock for the playoffs—in the world of College Football, though, Stanford might not make the playoffs at 11-1!

Since we cannot trust the playoff committee to properly account for tough schedules, something must be done to normalize schedules. Imagine if schools like Clemson, Alabama, and Oregon didn’t play junior college teams. How awesome would it be in week 2 if, while Stanford plays USC, Penn State played literally anybody except Buffalo. Imagine if instead of Alabama vs. New Mexico State, we got Alabama vs. Georgia! Some in the media are praising #6 LSU and #10 Texas for being brave enough to play each other. Seriously? You only get credit for bravery if the rest of your out-of-conference slate isn’t complete garbage. In fact, you shouldn’t be a top 10 team in August when you play nobody in September. Even when a top 10 team beats a platter of cupcakes in September, what have they really proved?

Of course, Stanford’s tough schedule comes with a lot of built in excuses—but I don’t want to hear them. I expect at least 10 wins this season. Stanford’s toughest games are at home, where Stanford has enjoyed a 50-8 record this past decade—and scored some of its biggest wins in its history. Coach David Shaw has plenty of motivation this season: he owes Northwestern from 2015, needs to prove he can win a tough road game at UCF, and Mike Leach’s WSU team has beaten him the last three years in a row. K.J. Costello should also be motivated: he is overlooked by fellow QBs like JT Daniels, Justin Herbert, Jacob Eason, and Ian Book.

Against a stiff schedule like this, some may consider 7-5 a good year—but they are wrong. Stanford is a top ten team—and it’s time to view the tough schedule as a blessing, not a curse.