All rise for those in favor of college football rankings making their debut after the first month of the regular season. I’m staying seated for that one, and here’s why — shock value creates discussion, and a campaign littered with early “upsets” has created parity like we’ve never seen before.
Those opinionated rankings over the first four weeks of action has tossed what we thought we knew into a blender and has left several perceived title favorites gasping for air. We’ve already seen 25 ranked teams lose in September, a record in the AP Top 25 era.
Clemson’s streak of 97 weeks inside the top 10 is over, and half of the top eight teams entering Week 5 consists of teams few had tabbed previously as national title contenders this season. Speaking of which, let’s take a look at the weekend’s top games and anything you may have missed from the opening month.
Not all unbeatens are created equal
The overrated teams ranked inside this week’s AP Top 25 stick out like Mike Leach at a Power I instructional meeting. Of the 16 remaining unbeatens within the Power Five ranks, only six fall under the category of what I consider battle-tested with at least one win over a top 20 opponent: Alabama, Georgia, Oregon, Penn State, Iowa and Arkansas. The rest, with varying levels of success, have benefited from generally soft slates and came out unscathed.
This is what makes enduring the gauntlet of conference play so unique. How long can Jim Harbaugh and Michigan keep it up with trips to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State on the schedule? Is the early run from ACC unbeatens Wake Forest and Boston College simply a solid start and nothing more? Are Baylor and Oklahoma State actual contenders at the top of the Big 12?
All of these questions will be answered over the next few games when the sample size increases and teams are tested within their leagues against comparable opponents in terms of talent. Oklahoma is ranked No. 6 right now because coach Lincoln Riley has made the College Football Playoff over three of the past four seasons. Nothing shown on the field thus far from the Sooners screams “championship contender,” but that is the influence a national brand has in polling.
How much do we really know about Ole Miss? The Rebels are averaging 52.6 points per game with quarterback Matt Corral, the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, leading the show but have not faced a challenge just yet. That comes Saturday against top-ranked Alabama, then the following weekend vs. Arkansas. Get through that pair of contests without a blemish, and contender buzz is warranted.
Opportunity awaits Heisman frontrunner
Given some of the jaw-dropping campaigns we’ve seen in recent years from the likes of DeVonta Smith and Kyler Murray over the second half of the season, it’s tough to refer to a game played the first weekend of October a separation chance in the Heisman race. However, Saturday’s performance means more for Corral than it does Alabama first-year starting QB Bryce Young.
Playing Alabama is the grandest of stages on the college football spotlight spectrum, and beating the Crimson Tide takes you to a different stratosphere as a quarterback trying to reach supernova status. Johnny Manziel’s performance in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during the 2012 season made him the poster boy nationally while Joe Burrow’s outing in 2019 at Bryant-Denny Stadium cemented his status as the runaway favorite.
It’s early, yes, but a memorable outing for Corral culminating with Ole Miss snapping Alabama’s 18-game winning streak would be seared in the minds of Heisman voters moving forward this fall. And you know Lane Kiffin would personally ensure Corral’s numbers are inflated over the final eight games if his best player is the favorite after this weekend.
There’s always the other side of the coin, too. Alabama’s defense could take it personal after last season’s game saw the Rebels accumulate 647 yards of total offense and have their way with the Crimson Tide’s linebackers and secondary. Ole Miss may have been in better shape here had Alabama not played Florida down to the wire two weeks ago. That was a focus re-shifter for coach Nick Saban’s group on that side of the football.
College Football Playoff lookahead
We’re still a few weeks away from the first set of College Football Playoff Rankings, but it looks like there’s a good chance we’ll make history this season with a potential newcomer from the Big Ten or a possible Group of Five representative.
The path for unbeaten Cincinnati is clear: keep winning and hope for chaos. The same goes for Iowa and Penn State, who meet in two weeks to determine the October frontrunner in the ultra-competitive Big Ten.
Projections are considerably more gloomy for preseason favorites Clemson and Ohio State, however. No team with two losses has ever reached the playoff, which puts the Tigers on the outside looking in even if they win out, given the fact the ACC is collectively the Power Five’s worst league this fall.
Three of Ohio State’s four CFP appearances have come with a regular-season loss; however, the Buckeyes still have to play three ranked opponents this season and are battling widespread issues defensively (13th in the Big Ten in total defense).