Matt Baker’s final AP Top 25 ballot: Clemson, Alabama, then … who?

The Florida Gators and UCF both finished in our top 10.
Spoiler: Clemson was No. 1 on Matt Baker's final AP Top 25 ballot. [ AP Photo/David J. Phillip ]
Spoiler: Clemson was No. 1 on Matt Baker's final AP Top 25 ballot. [ AP Photo/David J. Phillip ]
Published Jan. 8, 2019|Updated Jan. 8, 2019

Here's a sentence I didn't expect to write in August:

The Gators finished the season in the top 10 of my final AP Top 25 ballot.

Not just in the top 10 — comfortably so.

I put Florida eighth in my final rankings, which I submitted after Monday's College Football Playoff national championship. UF is also ahead of UCF (ninth), in a back-and-forth decision. The gap wasn't big, but the tie here went to the common opponent. UCF lost to a depleted LSU team; UF beat the Tigers when they were healthy.

I did, however, rank LSU one spot ahead of the Gators. UF had the head-to-head win, but LSU had the better resume. The Tigers beat Mississippi State more handily than UF did and beat a Georgia team that throttled UF. LSU also had more quality wins (four compared to three, by my count), and I gave the Tigers a little extra credit for beating a good UCF team without, roughly, a zillion of its players. All of those factors were enough to override UF's head-to-head advantage.

Clemson, of course, finished No. 1 after crushing Alabama. I thought the Tigers could win. I did not expect them to win so handily. I, clearly, was wrong.

Other quick thoughts on my final ballot:

•  I agreed with the CFP committee's decision to put Notre Dame and Oklahoma into the semifinals ahead of Ohio State and Georgia, but the bowl games caused them to move in my rankings. Urban Meyer's impressive win over Washington in the Rose Bowl put the Buckeyes at No. 3, one spot ahead of Oklahoma.

• Notre Dame was an unexpected beneficiary of Clemson's rout Monday night. I had the Irish at sixth Monday afternoon but moved Notre Dame ahead of Georgia after watching the Tigers blow out 'Bama. The Irish's big loss to Clemson in the semifinal was bad, but it looks much better now after watching the Tigers do the same thing to Nick Saban.

• Georgia was probably the hardest team to figure out. Advanced metrics consider the Bulldogs a top-four team. But I could justify putting them lower, behind Texas and LSU (two teams that defeated Georgia). I settled on sixth as sort of a compromise.

• Georgia also forced me to answer one of the week's biggest questions: How should I treat teams that had players skip the bowl games to get ready for the NFL? For some reason, those absences feel different than suspensions or injuries, which virtually every team encounters throughout the season. I didn't come up with a satisfying, all-encompassing answer; I considered the absences but didn't excuse losses because of them. I'm looking at you, Michigan (which fell to No. 10). You, too, West Virginia (which dropped to No. 19 after the Will Grier-less Mountaineers lost to Syracuse).

• Kentucky was one of the biggest risers on my ballot, finishing at No. 12, in the same blob as No. 11 Washington and No. 13 Texas. Advanced metrics don't love the Wildcats — S&P+ has them at No. 41 — but Kentucky has wins over five teams in my final top 25. That's impressive.

• Utah and Stanford fell off my ballot to make room for Appalachian State and Iowa. Among the other teams I considered: Army, Auburn, Oregon and Cincinnati.

Here's my final AP Top 25 ballot of the season:

1.       Clemson (15-0)

2.       Alabama (14-1)

3.       Ohio State (13-1)

4.       Oklahoma (12-2)

5.      Notre Dame (12-1)

6.      Georgia (11-3)

7.       LSU (10-3)

8.       Florida (10-3)

9.       UCF (12-1)

10.   Michigan (10-3)

11.   Washington (10-4)

12.   Kentucky (10-3)

13.   Texas (10-4)

14.   Washington State (11-2)

15.   Fresno State (12-2)

16.   Penn State (9-4)

17.   Syracuse (10-3)

18.   Boise State (10-3)

19.   West Virginia (8-4)

20.   Texas A&M (9-4)

21.   Missouri (8-5)

22.   Northwestern (9-5)

23.   Appalachian State (11-2)

24.   Iowa (9-4)

25.   Mississippi State (8-5)