Posted on September 8, 2021
While preseason rankings are absurd in their own way, there’s at least an understanding that preseason rankings are predictions that can be taken with a grain of salt once actual games start.
These rankings are different. We’ve now had a chance to see everyone play, but it hasn’t been nearly the sample size that one needs in order to know what to make of a team.
Take last season as an example when unranked Mississippi State’s K.J. Costello lit up No. 6 LSU for 623 passing yards and five TDs in the season opener.
Pac-12 fans like myself thought this might be an indicator of the wild success Mike Leach would have exploiting big, bad SEC defenses.
Little did we know at the time, LSU just wasn’t very good last year (they finished 5-5). As we would come to find out, Mississippi State wasn’t very good either (they finished 4-7).
In hindsight, we can say the pollsters totally overreacted to Mississippi State’s Week 1 win. They jumped the Bulldogs from the “Others receiving votes” to No. 16 after the LSU win.
Mississippi State responded to this newfound respect by posting a four-game losing streak, which began with losses to SEC bottom-feeders Arkansas and Kentucky.
If I was worried about someone looking back on these rankings three months from now and judging them for their predictive accuracy, I’d play it safe.
Oklahoma shouldn’t be as bad as they were in the second half against Tulane. Ohio State shouldn’t be as bad as they were in the first half against Minnesota. Clemson should be favored in the rest of their games.
Keeping them all in the top five would be totally justified if I was simply aiming to match the season ending rankings.
But where’s the fun in that?
College football has the most volatile regular season of any major sport, and I’d like these weekly rankings to measure that.
So if you’re reading this as a fan who takes the accuracy of these rankings especially seriously when it comes to your own team, I ask you to take a deep breath before reading further.
For the next few weeks, these rankings will be a bit squirrely. In general, I’m trying to default more in favor of actual wins that have been recorded on the field compared to potential wins I might expect a team to accrue.
There are guaranteed to be some wild swings from week to week as we try to figure out exactly where a team fits but the journey itself should be revelatory.
Here’s how I see things after one week of play.
No. 1 — Alabama
No. 2 — Georgia
In the Nick Saban era, Alabama has opened their season on neutral fields against ranked opponents from Clemson, Virginia Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin, USC, and Florida State.
None of those games were particularly close and Alabama treated a few of them like they were Vanderbilt. So it should come as no surprise that Alabama beat No. 14 Miami 44-13. This is what Alabama does.
Georgia has put its stake in the ground as the team most capable of slowing down Alabama after holding Clemson to three points in their highly anticipated non-conference matchup.
Yet Georgia only managed one touchdown themselves in the 10-3 victory and that came on a pick-six, so the Georgia offense didn’t offer much reason for confidence that they could actually score on Alabama.
No. 3 — UCLA
No. 4 — Notre Dame
No. 5 — Iowa
No. 6 — Penn St
No. 7 — Virginia Tech
No. 8 — Texas
Remember when I asked you to take a deep breath because things were about to get squirrely? This was the section I had in mind.
Would I bet my life on Iowa beating Ohio State or Texas beating Oklahoma? I would not. Is it possible that Virginia Tech’s win over North Carolina is just this year’s version of Mississippi State over LSU? Of course it’s possible.
Yet each of these teams had a signature win over one of the best teams on their schedule and that’s something that none of the teams below them can say for now.
If we’re only measuring performance on the field and not trying to predict the future, then these teams are deserving of these rankings. For now.
The biggest winner of this group has to be UCLA, which already turned a few heads with a blowout win over Hawaii in Week 0. But beating a ranked LSU team is a different animal and the Bruins won in convincing fashion.
What was most shocking was how dominant UCLA was at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Those of us who remember Chip Kelly’s time at Oregon also remember how his teams struggled to run the ball against a couple SEC opponents (including LSU) in high profile games.
But the Bruins ran for 210 yards while holding the Tigers to just 49 yards on the ground. With the Pac-12 North in utter chaos, UCLA has gone from trendy sleeper pick to outright favorite to win the Conference.
As mentioned above, Notre Dame didn’t score a win over a ranked team, but that doesn’t do justice to what Notre Dame was up against Sunday night.
They weren’t just playing Florida State on the road. They were playing Florida State on the road on the night the Seminoles were honoring the legacy of the late Bobby Bowden.
Not only that, but Notre Dame also entered the fourth quarter with an 18-point lead, only for Florida State to claw back and tie the game thanks to the heroic efforts of quarterback McKenzie Milton (formerly of UCF), who hadn’t played in a football game in over 1,000 days after a devastating injury and the ensuing complications.
The entire scene in the fourth quarter was straight out of a sports movie—except Notre Dame forgot their role and won the game in overtime. It’s a short list of teams that would have come away with a win under those circumstances.
Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten for the last several years, but the two biggest statements made by Big Ten teams in Week 1 came from other programs.
Iowa absolutely dominated 17th-ranked Indiana, which had entered the season carrying its best preseason ranking in more than 50 years. The Hoosiers ran not one, but two interceptions off Indiana quarterback Michael Penix back for touchdowns.
Next week, the Hawkeyes battle their rivals from Iowa State, who are carrying their best preseason ranking in school history. If Iowa takes home the Cy-Hawk Trophy, it will be coming for the Big Ten West next.
Penn State’s victory over Wisconsin wasn’t pretty, that’s for sure. They missed a 23-yard field goal and an extra point, but they still get credit for going into Camp Randall and coming out with a 16-10 win.
After starting last season 0-5, I’m sure the Nittany Lions are happy to take a win like this regardless of the aesthetics.
I have to admit that when I learned that former Oregon quarterback Braxton Burmeister was now the starter for Virginia Tech, I was less than optimistic about their chances to pull an upset over a top-10 North Carolina team.
Then Burmeister led the Hokies to a quick score on the opening drive and the Hokies kept the lead the rest of night, picking off Heisman candidate Sam Howell three times in the process.
The Longhorns were in a bit of a no-win situation.
If they beat Louisiana in their opener, then of course they were supposed to beat Louisiana. If they lost to Louisiana, nobody in Texas would care that the Ragin’ Cajuns were a top-25 caliber team last year that returned 20 starters.
Had Texas won by a field goal, it would have registered in my mind as a good win to begin the Steve Sarkisian era. But the Longhorns took the drama out of it and won 38-18.
Do I realize that overreacting to early season wins is a near annual tradition with Texas football? Yes I do. Am I placing them in the Top 10 just to make a potential loss to Arkansas this coming week seem even more egregious? No comment.
No. 9 — Ohio State
No. 10 — USC
No. 11 — Oklahoma
No. 12 — Oregon
All of these teams took care of business against decent teams, but will face much tougher tests and will need to play much better in the weeks to come.
Ohio State was trailing Minnesota halfway through the third quarter and they didn’t really put the Gophers away until the final minutes. But they also broke four different touchdowns of 50+ yards from four different offensive players.
When you consider the trouble Oklahoma and Oregon had with feisty mid-majors, USC’s 30-7 win over the defending Mountain West champs from San Jose State looks pretty good.
The next four games for the Trojans (Stanford, Washington State, Oregon State, Colorado) are all against teams that figure to be in the bottom half of the Pac-12.
If they take care of business in those, it would not out of the question that the Trojans could be 5-0 before things get real with Utah and Notre Dame in October.
After taking a 37-14 halftime lead, Oklahoma barely held on against Tulane in a 40-35 win.
The main reason I don’t have Oklahoma lower is that I have a sneaking suspicion that Tulane will exceed expectations over the rest of the season, and this win will grow in value.
I also have the sense that Oklahoma will figure things out and come to look like the national title contender they were expected to be. I’d just like to see them earn that top five ranking with something more substantial than a win over Tulane.
Whereas Oklahoma never actually lost their lead, Oregon had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to pull out a 31-24 win over a good Fresno State team.
The Ducks struggled to get their running game going, which is a concerning sign for a Mario Cristobal coached team.
Yet after seeing the carnage that swallowed up the rest of the Pac-12 North, I think the Ducks should be thrilled to have a win under their belts.
No. 13 — Clemson
No. 14 — Wisconsin
Clemson didn’t manage an offensive touchdown against Georgia, so one might wonder how much they’re missing the dynamic duo of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne.
But I imagine there will be many other teams that will find it hard to score against Georgia.
My main concern with Clemson is their schedule.
They don’t have a regular-season game remaining against a team currently ranked in the Top 25, and with North Carolina and Miami both dropping their openers, their best chance of playing a highly ranked opponent in the ACC Championship Game also took a hit.
Maybe the voters will reward them for a close loss to an elite team like Georgia, but I’d have a hard time moving them higher than this until they find a couple quality wins.
Comparatively, Wisconsin is in a much better position. While they also lost a defensive slugfest (16-10 to Penn State), there are more reasons for optimism.
Chez Mellusi and Isaac Gurendo combined for 176 yards rushing, which suggests Wisconsin still has an offensive identity even if quarterback Graham Mertz struggled and threw two devastating picks in the final minutes.
Wisconsin also has a schedule that will give them more opportunities for big wins, starting in late September with a visit to South Bend.
No. 15 — Cincinnati
No. 16 — Texas A&M
No. 17 — Florida
No. 18 — Michigan
No. 19 — Auburn
No. 20 — Coastal Carolina
No. 21 — Liberty
Cincinnati took care of Miami (OH) with a 49-14 victory. Texas A&M took care of Kent State with a 41-10 victory. Florida took care of Florida Atlantic with a 35-14 victory. Michigan took care of Western Michigan with a 47-14 victory.
Auburn took care of Arkron with a 60-10 victory. Coastal Carolina took care of The Citadel with a 52-14 victory. Liberty took care of Campbell with a 48-7 victory.
It’s hard to do much with any of these results. They’re all the type of wins you would expect from a Top 10 team, but I can’t justify putting any of them in the Top 10 until they at least beat someone of substance.
If I gave this to you as a blind sample, could you pick the three mid-majors from the four power conference teams? I don’t think you could.
Cincinnati had a 42-0 lead in the fourth quarter before they took their foot off the gas. Coastal Carolina had a 31-0 lead at halftime. While they won’t get the same opportunities for landmark wins, the best these teams can do is continue to blow teams out.
To be clear, there’s several other teams that could be included in this group. Boston College beat Colgate 51-0. NC State beat South Florida 45-0.
You get the idea. I don’t care who you’re playing, if you’re winning games 51-0 or 45-0, you’re pretty good. Just how good remains to be seen.
No. 22 — Michigan State
No. 23 — UCF
No. 24 — Maryland
After going 2-5 in Mel Tucker’s first season, which was greatly impacted by COVID, I was very curious to see how Michigan State would handle their season opener at Northwestern.
The Spartans showed up and took care of business in exactly the way we would have expected them to during Mark Dantonio’s heyday.
They took care of the ball. They pounded the running game. They strangled the Northwestern offense for much of the night. Sparty’s looking pretty salty.
Last week I said whoever won between Boise State and UCF would earn a spot in my top 25. Well, UCF persevered through a crazy weather delay and overcame a 21-0 deficit to pull out the win after 1:00 a.m. local time in Orlando.
Let’s plan to check in both teams in a couple weeks after UCF goes to Louisville and Boise hosts Oklahoma State.
Maryland is led by a dynamic quarterback named Taulia Tagovailoa. Yes, that is Tua’s brother. He threw for 332 yard and three TDs against West Virginia.
I’m including Maryland in these rankings over several equally deserving teams because I’d like to start doing a weekly segment titled “Taking the Temperature of Taulia Tagovailoa’s Terrapins.”
No. 25 — Iowa State
There are plenty of other teams more deserving of this final spot. Ole Miss smoked Louisville on Monday night. Kansas State did to Stanford what Stanford used to do to other teams.
Utah was in my Top 25 last week and they didn’t do anything in their game against Weber State that made me question that ranking.
By the measure I’ve used thus far, Iowa State certainly doesn’t deserve a spot in these rankings after they barely survived against FCS foe Northern Iowa.
It’s just that Iowa State has this funny history with Northern Iowa. Just take the last fifteen years as a sample and you’ll see that Northern Iowa has beaten Iowa State in 2007, 2013, and 2016 (in Matt Campbell’s first year as head coach).
Iowa State pulled out one-point wins in 2006 and 2011. When they last met in 2019, the Cyclones needed triple overtime to prevail.
Anybody familiar with the history of this rivalry knows that Northern Iowa is pretty much always going to give Iowa State a game. It doesn’t seem to matter whether Iowa State is coming off a 3-9 season or a 9-3 season. It’s just the way it is.
I offer this piece of trivia as a note of encouragement to my many Husky friends who have spent the last few days in an existential crisis of sorts after watching the Huskies lose their opener to Montana, the “worst loss in program history” as more than one person has called it.
In the past few days, I’ve heard serious discussion about whether the Huskies should fire their offensive coordinator, fire their head coach, fire their entire coaching staff, replace their quarterback, etc.
There is significant concern that a season opening loss spells doom for the rest of the year.
Washington is just the fifth ranked FBS program to lose to an FCS program. To put this situation into context, I took the responsibility of researching the previous four instances.
1. In 2007, No. 5 Michigan lost to Appalachian State in the first and most memorable such upset. That Michigan team got routed by Oregon the following week, but then rallied to win eight straight games.
They ended the season with a bowl win over Heisman-winner Tim Tebow and Florida and they finished ranked 18th in the nation.
2. In 2010, No. 13 Virginia Tech lost to James Madison a week after they lost to Boise State. They rebounded from their 0-2 start to win their next 11 games including a win over Florida State in the ACC Championship.
They finally lost again in the Orange Bowl to a Stanford team led by Andrew Luck and finished ranked 16th in the nation.
3. In 2013, No. 25 Oregon State lost to Eastern Washington. They bounced back to win six straight before hitting a rough patch in the second half of the year.
They finished their season with a 36-35 loss in the Civil War to an Oregon team led by Marcus Mariota and then beat Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl.
4. In 2016, No. 13 Iowa lost to North Dakota State. They still managed to win 8 games including an upset of #2 Michigan and another upset of #17 Nebraska before ending their season against Florida in the Outback Bowl.
The point in listing these examples is to serve as a reminder that whether we’re talking about Washington or Florida State or North Carolina or Tulane; any of these teams could find themselves climbing these rankings within the next few weeks.
It’s a long season, and we’re just getting started.
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