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Why Georgia topped our preseason top 25 and where Gators, Miami and UCF landed

Our AP voter, Matt Baker, is an outlier on the Bulldogs and has UF and Miami outside the top 10.
Kirby Smart's Bulldogs start the season atop Matt Baker's AP Top 25 ballot. Will they be there in January?
Kirby Smart's Bulldogs start the season atop Matt Baker's AP Top 25 ballot. Will they be there in January? [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2020) ]
Published Aug. 16
Updated Aug. 16

When I submitted my preseason AP top 25 ballot last week, I doubled down on my SEC championship predictions: I put Georgia at No. 1 in the country.

Related: Will Alabama slip this year? Gators, Miami will decide that.

Yes, I am aware of the fact that the Bulldogs have not won it all in four decades and have underachieved under Kirby Smart. Yes, I know that Florida, not Georgia, won the SEC East last year. But the questions surrounding Georgia aren’t as daunting as the questions surrounding the other four teams in the top tier (Oklahoma, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State). Three of them lost great quarterbacks (’Bama, Clemson and Ohio State). Oklahoma returns All-American candidate Spencer Rattler, but I’m still not sold on its defense.

Which left me with Georgia. JT Daniels is an experienced, talented passer. I think former Bucs assistant Todd Monken will do well with Georgia’s array of offensive playmakers, and I think Smart will fix Georgia’s glaring weakness (departures on defense). That was enough for me to put Georgia atop my preseason rankings.

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Florida and Miami are a couple tiers down; I’ve got the Hurricanes 11th and the Gators 13th. I gave Miami the edge under the assumption that star quarterback D’Eriq King will be healthy after injuring his knee in the bowl game and because I trust Manny Diaz to fix a defense that struggled late.

How good will Gators quarterback Emory Jones be as Florida's starter?
How good will Gators quarterback Emory Jones be as Florida's starter? [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2019) ]

I’m also in wait-and-see mode on UF quarterback Emory Jones. His previous action didn’t give me enough of a sample size to form a strong opinion on where he can take the Gators. The same thing goes with UF’s defense. I think it will be better —it almost has to be — but how much better? I don’t know yet.

UCF barely cracked my rankings at No. 25. I, perhaps stubbornly, still believe in Gus Malzahn’s offensive mind. Give him one of the best quarterbacks in the country (Dillon Gabriel) and some talented running backs (like Northwestern transfer Isaiah Bowser and Auburn transfer Mark Antony-Richards), and I felt compelled to put the Knights ahead of Mississippi, Michigan, Oklahoma State and Arizona State.

UCF star Dillon Gabriel is one of the best returning quarterbacks in the country.
UCF star Dillon Gabriel is one of the best returning quarterbacks in the country.

Teams I’m a little higher on than some other rankings and pollsters: No. 8 Oregon (edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux would be my preseason player of the year); No. 12 Wisconsin (ESPN’s SP+ analytics pushed the Badgers up my ballot, compared to the coaches’ poll); and No. 15 Washington (same).

Teams I’m a little lower on than some other rankings and pollsters: No. 14 Notre Dame (a new defensive coordinator plus the loss of Ian Book, the winningest quarterback in program history); No. 23 Texas (I think it’ll take time for first-year coach Steve Sarkisian to figure things out there); and unranked Oklahoma State (the Cowboys have slipped the past three seasons, giving me questions about where things are headed in Stillwater).

As always, I do not consider schedules for my preseason ballot and instead rank teams based on who I think would win at a neutral site. Teams I cover do not “deserve any special handling,” according to AP guidelines, so I cannot and do not treat them differently than any other team.

Here’s the top 25 ballot I submitted last week:

1. Georgia

2. Oklahoma

3. Alabama

4. Clemson

5. Ohio State

6. Iowa State

7. Texas A&M

8. Oregon

9. Cincinnati

10. North Carolina

11. Miami

12. Wisconsin

13. Florida

14. Notre Dame

15. Washington

16. USC

17. LSU

18. Indiana

19. Penn State

20. Iowa

21. Louisiana Lafayette

22. Coastal Carolina

23. Texas

24. Utah

25. UCF

Related: We ranked all 78 Florida college football games from worst to first

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