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In the playoff era, it may be harder to overcome slow starts

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Reality already is setting in for a few teams that opened the season with playoff aspirations.

No. 23 Mississippi, No. 25 Oklahoma and Notre Dame have dropped two of their first three games after each was ranked 11th or higher in the preseason Top 25 . It's the first time in nearly two decades that three teams ranked in the top 15 before the season were below .500 three games into the year.

The ultimate goal's likely out of reach. How will they stay motivated?

''If we start focusing on what happened in the last three weeks, we're probably going to hit a pretty big wall here in the next nine games,'' Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey said.

CBS Sports analyst Rick Neuheisel knows how challenging it is to recover.

Neuheisel coached a Colorado team in 1997 that was coming off two straight top-10 finishes and opened the year ranked eighth. The Buffaloes started 2-3 that season and finished 5-6.

''You've got to get up in the morning, be ready to go and put a look on your face - not that you're angry at your team, not that you're going to punish them because they haven't met expectations - but that we're resetting our expectations, we're recalibrating and we're going to find our way back,'' Neuheisel said.

The last time three preseason top-15 teams were below .500 this early was 1998, when Michigan and Arizona State started 0-2 and North Carolina lost its first three games. Michigan was fifth, Arizona State eighth and North Carolina 12th in the preseason Top 25.

These types of starts could become more common in the playoff era, as teams strengthen their nonconference schedules to impress the selection committee.

Oklahoma's two losses came against No. 9 Houston and No. 2 Ohio State . Notre Dame lost at Texas and at home to No. 8 Michigan State . Ole Miss fell to No. 13 Florida State and No. 1 Alabama after leading by three touchdowns in both games .

''Becoming and being relevant, I think it creates an expectation, and that expectation results in winning celebrations or disappointing losses,'' Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. ''That's the two things you're going to get. We've had our share of both, and this year in September we've had the disappointing losses.''

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The difficulty of bouncing back when a preseason top-15 team has fallen out of playoff contention is one reason why ESPN analyst and former Texas coach Mack Brown would rather see no polls released until mid-October.

''As a coach, I've always been against early polls, because I think they're very unfair,'' Brown said. ''We just don't know about the chemistry. You don't know who's going to be healthy through preseason camp.''

Brown said regrouping in this era is even tougher than before because so much focus is on which teams remain in the playoff hunt. Brown said bowl games that aren't part of the playoff don't get as much attention as they received in the BCS era.

''You try to win your conference championship. ... That hope is still there,'' Brown said. ''There are great things that can still happen in the end if you win your conference championship.''

Of course, Notre Dame can't use that as incentive due to its independent status. They'll need to find something else.

''We can still finish the regular season 10-2,'' Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. said. ''That's a great season. We finished the (regular) season 10-2 last year.''

For now, all three teams aren't dwelling on their postseason possibilities and instead are focused on correcting the mistakes that got them to this point.

There's always the long-shot possibility they could get back in the playoff chase.

Citing the 2007 LSU team that won the national title after losing two regular-season games, Neuheisel said somebody eventually will reach the playoff with more than one loss.

''There will be a day when a two-loss team will get there, (so they can say), `Why not us? Given the way we're going to attack our preparation for the remainder of the season, who knows what can happen?'" Neuheisel said. ''You hold it out there as hope.''


AP Sports Writers David Brandt in Oxford, Mississippi, and Tom Coyne in South Bend, Indiana, contributed to this report.