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How the pandemic messed up my Associated Press top 25 preseason ballot

Matt Baker switched Clemson and Ohio State atop his ballot because of the coronavirus. Then the Big Ten called off the Buckeyes' season.
The coronavirus pandemic is impossible to avoid, whether you're coaching a football team or trying to rank the best 25 in the nation.
The coronavirus pandemic is impossible to avoid, whether you're coaching a football team or trying to rank the best 25 in the nation. [ Courtesy of University Athletic Association ]
Published Aug. 21, 2020

After months of watching the coronavirus overshadow everything in college sports, I figured my preseason Associated Press top 25 ballot and All-America team would give me a temporary reprieve from the pandemic to focus on actual football.

Nope. The pandemic wrecked that plan, too.

The first hiccup came on my All-America team. As I was finalizing it two weeks ago, Yahoo! reported that Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons was opting out of the season. Because the news hadn’t yet been officially announced, I kept Parsons on my ballot but included an alternate (North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt).

Between the time I hit send and the end of that day, two more players (Miami’s Gregory Rousseau and Purdue’s Rondale Moore) had opted out. Another, Pitt’s Jaylen Twyman, was gone a day or two later.

Related: Miami Hurricanes: Top NFL draft prospect Gregory Rousseau opting out because of coronavirus pandemic

I stopped keeping track after that. I didn’t need to. The Associated Press decided its All-America team will include players who opted out or have had their fall seasons canceled. Its preseason Top 25 (set to be released Monday) will include teams who aren’t playing this autumn.

Even so, the pandemic was an unavoidable factor in my thought process, starting at the top.

Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas is expected to be limited this season because of medical issues.
Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas is expected to be limited this season because of medical issues. [ STEVE JACOBS | AP ]

For months, I figured Clemson would begin the season No. 1 on my ballot. But as I researched more, the gap between the Tigers and Ohio State wasn’t as big as I first thought. When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney announced five-star defensive end Xavier Thomas would likely redshirt because of medical reasons (including a previous bout with COVID-19), that was enough for me to slip the Buckeyes ahead of Clemson.

A day later, Ohio State’s fall season was postponed. Six other teams on my preseason top 25 will also be sidelined this fall, including a pair in the top 10 (Oregon and Penn State).

Rosters have been in flux throughout the last few weeks, and I expect the uncertainty to continue during the season because of outbreaks that seem inevitable or additional opt-outs. The teams that withstand attrition the best will be the ones with the most depth, which is why I put a greater premium than usual on recent recruiting rankings, as quantified by 247Sports’ blue-chip ratio.

One tangible result: Georgia (No. 4) is ahead of Florida (No. 6) on my ballot. Although the Gators’ Dan Mullen has recruited pretty well, Kirby Smart has been recruiting at an elite level. That’s enough for me to give the Bulldogs a slight edge right now. It’s also why I was lower on Wisconsin (No. 15) than some preseason predictions. Regardless, the Badgers won’t have a chance to prove me wrong anytime soon.

UCF was the only other state team on my ballot, coming in 19th, just behind another AAC contender, Memphis. Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies are 12th, just ahead of Texas.

Related: A brief history of spring college football: Michigan’s first win, initial Iron Bowl, a pants-less goat

I have never taken schedules into consideration in my preseason rankings, so it didn’t matter that many of them weren’t yet finalized when my ballot was due. Instead, I focused on who would win a hypothetical Week 1 matchup at a neutral field. Under AP guidelines, I cannot and do not treat the teams I cover differently than any other team.

Once the games begin, the teams that aren’t playing will be ineligible for my ballot. That leads to the obvious question: Which teams would be on my preseason Top 25 if I kicked off the Ohio States and Oregons?

I have no idea. Three of the other programs I seriously considered on my first ballot (Iowa, Washington and Boise State) aren’t playing, either. My vote, like everything else, is at the mercy of the virus.

My preseason ballot

1. Ohio State

2. Clemson

3. Alabama

4. Georgia

5. Oklahoma

6. Florida

7. LSU

8. Oregon

9. Penn State

10. Notre Dame

11. Auburn

12. Texas A&M

13. Texas

14. Oklahoma State

15. Wisconsin

16. USC

17. Michigan

18. Memphis

19. UCF

20. North Carolina

21. Minnesota

22. Iowa State

23. Cincinnati

24. Virginia Tech

25. Tennessee

• • •

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