Posted on September 15, 2021
Teams that looked great against lesser opponents can get exposed against better competition. Teams that looked half asleep in home openers they were favored to win can suddenly look energized as road underdogs.
Some people thought I was out of my mind for putting Notre Dame in the top five after an overtime win over a Florida State team whose recent track record suggests they aren’t very good. By some people, I mean my father.
My father thought I was out of my mind and he wasn’t really convinced that the spirit of the late Bobby Bowden should have played a role in my rankings.
To prove my father’s point, Notre Dame had to scramble to pull out a win in the final minute against Toledo. Then Florida State lost on a crazy last second touchdown pass to Jacksonville State.
If the spirit of the late Bobby Bowden was capable of forcing overtime against Notre Dame, you’d think it would be capable of holding off Jacksonville State.
So, what I thought was a pretty good road win for the Irish to start the season is now completely devoid of value. As a result, you won’t find Notre Dame in this week’s rankings.
Don’t feel too bad for Notre Dame. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to get themselves back in these rankings beginning this week with a game against a 2-0 Purdue team.
Then they have Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC, and North Carolina. We should have a very clear read on the Irish by the end of October but for now they just seem like a team that plays with fire against mediocre competition.
As I mentioned last week, these rankings will have some wild swings week to week for the first month of the season or so.
At this point, most of the emphasis is placed on what a team has already done on the field, not what they’re expected to do in future games.
If your favorite team is off to a 2-0 start and you’re wondering why you don’t see them higher, just give it some time.
All of the teams in Tier 1 have done something thus far to establish themselves as playoff contenders. You’ll notice a few teams missing from this tier: Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma.
Barring a major upset, I would expect all of those teams to enter Tier 1 in the near future. It just doesn’t make sense to rank any of them that high yet when their best collective win was against Tulane or Minnesota.
No. 1 — Alabama
Alabama had about as much trouble with Mercer as they had against Miami last week, which is not saying much for Miami (but maybe says something for Mercer?).
Alabama plays at Florida this week and there’s a good chance the Tide will roll them in the same fashion.
No. 2 — Georgia
I figured that after seeing Georgia completely shut down Clemson last weekend that they wouldn’t have any trouble shutting down a decent UAB team.
What I didn’t expect was for Georgia to lose their starting QB and still cruise to a 56-7 win over the defending Conference USA champs. Georgia now prepares to host their neighbors from South Carolina who struggled to put away their own neighbors from East Carolina.
The Bulldogs should make life miserable for the Gamecocks.
No. 3 — Oregon
Oregon went into Columbus without the best pass rusher in the country in Kayvon Thibodeaux AND without their leading tackler from last week in Justin Flowe, and they still managed to score first against No. 3 Ohio State and then hold the lead the rest of the way in a 35-28 win.
It’s the biggest win of the Mario Cristobal Era and former Oregon coach Rich Brooks suggested it was the biggest non-conference win in school history.
As with UCLA’s win over LSU last week, the big story was how Oregon dominated the trenches. The Ducks out-rushed the Buckeyes 269-128.
The Oregon offensive line also gave quarterback Anthony Brown a clean pocket all day while Oregon’s shorthanded defensive front was able to break through and get a couple big sacks of Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud in the final minutes.
All of the teams in Tier 2 have a signature win over a ranked opponent, which separates them from the teams in Tier 3.
Again, let me say that I expect several of those Tier 3 teams to leapfrog the teams in Tier 2 but I’m waiting for some on field results to dictate that move up the rankings.
No. 4 — Iowa
Last week, Iowa crushed the dreams of Indiana. This week Iowa crushed the dreams of their arch rivals from Iowa State in the biggest game in Cy-Hawk history. The final score of 27-17 doesn’t really do justice to how this game felt.
The Hawkeyes forced turnovers on three second half possessions in a row, which gave them a 27-10 lead and sent Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy to the bench.
It was a dominant performance on the road against a top 10 team a week after starting the season with a dominant performance against a top 20 team. Nobody has a better pair of wins in college football right now.
No. 5 — UCLA
Since UCLA started in Week 0 and was idle this week, let’s just pretend they started the season last week with an upset of LSU and then followed that up by throttling Hawaii.
The Bruins host Fresno State this coming week. With how well Fresno played Oregon last week, they should have UCLA’s full attention.
No. 6 — Penn State
It’s not surprising that Penn State cruised to an easy win over Ball State, but keep in mind they had just recorded a huge win in their season-opener at Wisconsin and this week they host Auburn.
Also keep in mind that Ball State is the defending champs from the MAC. This had “trap game” written all over it, but the Nittany Lions sidestepped the trap without any trouble.
No. 7 — Arkansas
Remember last week when I elevated Texas in these rankings based on their impressive season opening win over what I considered to be a pretty good Louisiana team?
Well, that Louisiana team struggled to beat Nicholls State. As for that Texas team, they got thoroughly dominated by an Arkansas team that should probably finish sixth or seventy in the SEC West this year.
If I’m expecting Arkansas to finish sixth or seventh in their division, why do I have them seventh in these rankings? Because they just handled a top 15 team and there’s only a few teams that can say that right now.
If Arkansas is overrated, we’ll know it soon enough as they play Texas A&M in two weeks. Texas A&M will surely be favored in that game, but did anyone watch the Aggies on Saturday and think they looked better than the Razorbacks?
No. 8 — Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech beat Middle Tennessee 35-14 which is perfectly acceptable after a top 10 win over North Carolina last week.
Next week they’ll have to go to Morgantown and face West Virginia so it will be interesting to see what the Hokies can do when they’re away from Lane Stadium.
No. 9 — BYU
In the same week that it was announced BYU would be joining the Big 12, they beat Utah in the Holy War for the first time since 2009. It’s a good time to be a BYU fan.
After also opening their season with a win over Arizona, the Cougars will try to make it three in a row over the Pac-12 in a matchup against a talented Arizona State team.
While the Sun Devils have been ranked in the AP Poll since the preseason, I’ve held off including them in my rankings as they’ve rolled to easy wins over Southern Utah and UNLV.
Should Arizona State go on the road and beat a ranked BYU team, they’ll make up some ground pretty quickly.
Teams in Tier 3 are teams that I’m assuming are really good, but have either lost to the best team they’ve played or haven’t played a ranked opponent yet.
In other words, these are the fan bases most likely to be horrified by being ranked outside the top 10 (and I will delight in keeping them outside the top 10 as long as I can objectively defend it).
No. 10 — Oklahoma
Oklahoma beat Western Carolina 76-0. So we know Oklahoma is really good. But with Texas and Iowa State both losing over the weekend, one wonders how much of a test they’re going to get in the Big 12 this year.
The Sooners have the clearest path to an undefeated season of any team in the country.
No. 11 — Ohio State
Ohio State freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for 484 yards in his second career start, but the Buckeyes lost at home to Oregon in part because they failed to convert three different fourth downs.
I’m not overly concerned about their offense, but I would be very concerned about their defense if I was a Buckeyes fan.
Both Minnesota and Oregon have rushed for over 200 yards against them, and they play in the Big Ten, where every team seems to take special pride in running the ball down your throat.
No. 12 — Clemson
Clemson annihilated South Carolina State in a game which told us nothing.
Next week they’ll host Georgia Tech in their ACC opener. Considering Georgia Tech lost their first game to Northern Illinois, I’m not expecting to learn much about Clemson in that game either.
No. 13 — Wisconsin
In a nice bounce-back from their loss to Penn State, Wisconsin beat Eastern Michigan 34-7 in a game that was not as close as the final score indicates.
The Badgers ran for 352 yards, the Eagles ran for 16. The Badgers had 26 first downs. The Eagles had three. Now Wisconsin will enjoy an early-season bye before meeting Notre Dame at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Tier 4 teams have given us some confirmation that they’re pretty good but still need to play and beat some better teams in order move up the rankings further.
No. 14 — Michigan
At the beginning of the season, Michigan fans circled their Week 2 meeting with what was expected to be a top 20 Washington tam as an opportunity for a major non-conference win over a ranked team.
Then Washington pulled a no-show against Montana and the air was taken out of the balloon.
Even with Washington’s terrible start to the season, I figured the Huskies would bounce back and give the Wolverines a game.
I figured their anemic offense would demonstrate more creativity and physicality, and I figured their defense would show itself as an elite unit capable of keeping them in any game.
Then the Washington offense opened the game with a delay of a game and a run up the middle that was stuffed for a yard loss. It was clear from that point forward that the offense would not hold up their end of the bargain.
The Washington defense followed suit by giving up 343 rushing yards in a 31-10 route.
While this game confirmed the fears of many Washington fans about this year’s team, I’m not sure it told us too much about Michigan.
No. 15 — Cincinnati
Cincinnati was actually tied with Murray State at halftime before pulling away for a 42-7 win. Their two biggest games of the season occur in the next three weeks against Indiana and Notre Dame.
Yet, as I pointed out in my preseason rankings, the Bearcats really needed both of these teams to play up to their preseason rankings in order for Cincinnati to collect a couple quality wins. Neither the Hoosiers nor the Fighting Irish have done so thus far.
No. 16 — Auburn
A week after beating Akron 60-10, Auburn beat Alabama State 62-0. Back to back 60s is no small feat, but they’ll be lucky to score half that much next week when they visit Penn State.
No. 17 — Coastal Carolina
Vegas made Coastal Carolina 26.5 point favorites against Kansas, which is absolutely insane for a Sun Belt team playing against a Big 12 team.
Considering this Kansas team entered the contest having lost 41 straight games against ranked opponents by an average of 31 points per game, I guess the spread made sense.
Nevertheless, it felt a bit like a lose-lose situation for the Chanticleers.
Had Coastal snuck out a 50-48 thriller (like No. 15 Texas did against Kansas in 2019) or a 34-30 thriller (like #5 TCU did against Kansas in 2014), the haters would have pointed to the close score as proof that this team wasn’t deserving of their ranking.
The Chanticleers don’t have time for the haters. They beat Kansas by 27.
I point out the margin of victory only because it’s one of the few reference points we have in evaluating a team like Coastal. I dropped Liberty from these rankings in part because their 21-13 win over Troy didn’t suggest they were a Top 25 team.
No. 18 — UCF
UCF beat Bethune-Cookman 63-14, so they did what they needed to do against an overmatched opponent. If UCF is really going to justify this ranking, they’ll need to win against Louisville on the road next week.
No. 19 — Florida
I guess Florida is good. A week after beating Florida Atlantic 35-14, they beat South Florida 42-20. Those wins are fine. Not great, but fine. The Gators host Alabama this coming week so they’ll need to be better than fine.
No. 20 – Michigan State
I really enjoyed Michigan State’s win against Northwestern in Week 1 and there was nothing in their convincing win over Youngstown State to make me question this ranking.
I’m just waiting to see how MSU handles a trip to Miami this week. The Hurricanes followed up their loss to Alabama with a very close win over a scrappy Appalachian State team, but a win over Sparty would be more substantial.
No. 21 — Maryland
In this week’s episode of “Taking the Temperature of Taulia Tagovailoa’s Terrapins,” I’m told that the Terrapins tormented Howard 62-0 thanks to a trio of touchdown tosses by Taulia Tagovailoa. Terrific!
No. 22 — Ole Miss
I probably should have included Ole Miss in my rankings last week after they throttled Louisville on Labor Day, so I’ll rectify that now. They crushed Austin Peay over the weekend, which is not noteworthy.
What is noteworthy is that next week they host the same Tulane team that gave Oklahoma all they could handle in Week 1.
No. 23 — Texas A&M
Texas A&M entered this season as a consensus top five team in the preseason polls. When I put them 16th in my rankings after Week 1, it was mainly a reflection of them having played Kent State.
I figured I would move them up if they looked really good against Colorado.
They didn’t look good against Colorado. They trailed almost the entire game and were lucky to survive with a 10-7 win. I almost dropped them out of my rankings completely, but I’m leaving them here out of respect to Colorado.
This is where things start to get complicated.
In these rankings, I’m going to honor head-to-head rankings as much as possible, but that will prove more and more difficult as the season goes on. These last two teams illustrate the type of conundrum that poll voters have to reconcile.
No. 24 — Kansas St
Kansas State had an uninspiring 31-23 win over Southern Illinois. So why am I moving them into the rankings now? Because their 24-7 win over Stanford the previous week now looks a lot stronger than it did in Week 1.
A big factor in Kansas State’s struggles against Southern Illinois was the loss of senior quarterback Skylar Thompson to a knee injury. Thompson has now been ruled out indefinitely so the Wildcats will lean on sophomore Will Howard instead.
Next week, the Wildcats host a Nevada team that already has claimed a win over Cal, so that should be a good litmus test of whether the Stanford win or the Southern Illinois win is a better representation of this team.
No. 25 — Stanford
The ranking of Kansas State leads us to the ranking of Stanford. As bad as Stanford looked against Kansas State was as good as Stanford looked against USC. They beat USC so badly that Clay Helton was fired on Monday.
While Kansas State’s fortunes may have shifted due to the injury of their quarterback, much of Stanford’s improvement week to week seems to be centered on the decision to give sophomore Tanner McKee the reins at quarterback after starting the season with senior Jack West.
I have a feeling that if this new version of Stanford had a rematch with Kansas State, it would go quite differently. But until Kansas State loses, I can’t justify moving Stanford ahead of them.
(NOTE: I can’t end this portion without pointing out that in my ranking of USC last week, I pointed to their upcoming schedule of Stanford, Washington State, Oregon State, and Colorado and basically predicted that they’d be 5-0 before facing the tough portion of their schedule.
This is part of the reason I base these rankings on what has already happened, not what I expect to happen. I have absolutely no idea what to expect from USC the rest of the way.)
Teams on the radar: TCU, Nevada, Arizona State, Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Rutgers, Mississippi State, Purdue
Each of the teams above have a couple wins and no losses, which is a great feeling after two weeks. I’ll be curious to see how many of these teams are still undefeated at the end of September.
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