Just as Everett Golson’s heave on fourth and 18 sailed out of the end zone and into the arms of a Florida State defender, something about this college football season suddenly became obvious to me: there isn’t a “best” team this year. There are several really good football teams, but there isn’t a favorite. The three major undefeated teams – Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Florida State – are all vulnerable. Behind those undefeated teams are a plethora of one-loss teams, and there’s minimal separation between them.
A lot of these one-loss teams will sort themselves out as the season progresses. Auburn plays both Alabama and Georgia. Michigan State and Ohio State – yes, the Buckeyes are still alive – will play an elimination game in a few weeks.
The Big 12 is a beautiful mess, and the league’s depth has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. TCU looks like the best team in the league right now, but Kansas State and Baylor are very much alive in the conference title race. Oklahoma’s chances of winning the Big 12 are slim now, but they can play spoiler the rest of the year. And West Virginia proved it can play with anyone in the league after dominating Baylor.
Oregon is the class of the Pac-12, which makes its loss to Arizona even more confusing. Utah, Arizona State, and Arizona all have one loss, although that’s unlikely to remain the case over the next few weeks.
Then there’s Notre Dame. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Irish before the Florida State game. A weak schedule and unconvincing wins over North Carolina and Purdue left me unsure of how good they really were. Two years ago, Notre Dame played an average schedule, squeaked by several games, and then was exposed against Alabama. Was this team built the same way?
Notre Dame lost to Florida State, 31-27, in Tallahassee. However, I came away more impressed with the Irish than I did with the Seminoles. Golson outplayed Jameis Winston throughout most of the game, although Winston’s second half was phenomenal (more on that later).
The controversial play at the end of the game will be debated for the rest of the season. The Irish ran a pick play, and Golson hit a wide-open Corey Robinson in the end zone. Notre Dame had scored on a similar play earlier in the game, but this time they were called for offensive pass interference. The two blocking receivers made no effort to run a route; they were clearly just blocking the defensive backs. Ironically, the FSU secondary looked so confused that Notre Dame probably would’ve scored anyway.
Initially, I thought it was a bad call. I typically hate it when officials make calls like that at the end of big games. This was the right call. Had the receivers engaged with the defensive backs and continued to run their routes, the play would’ve counted. It was an unfortunate ending to a spectacular game, and this Notre Dame team can play with anyone.
The Big 10
Trying to sort through and rank these one-loss teams is like trying to pick your favorite Friends episode.
Just Missed the Cut: Utah, Arizona State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, West Virginia
14. Arizona I have Arizona behind Oregon although the Wildcats beat the Ducks in Eugene. I realize that. Oregon was missing several key linemen, including starting left tackle Jake Fisher. Fisher played the last two games, and the Ducks blew out UCLA and Washington. You can’t take anything away from Arizona’s win, but the Wildcats followed that up with a home loss to USC. The Wildcats still have a chance to win the Pac-12 South.
13. Baylor Baylor’s loss to West Virginia was alarming on several levels. The Bears’ potent offense was held in check by a mediocre Mountaineer defense. The Bears only had 318 yards on offense, and defensively they couldn’t stop Kevin White. Baylor looks like a completely different team on the road, which is especially concerning considering that they still have a road game at Oklahoma.
12. Ohio State 11. Michigan State Everything in the Big 10 is setting up for a huge showdown between Ohio State and Michigan State on Nov. 8. Left for dead after an embarrassing loss to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes are now back in the playoff mix. J.T. Barrett has been one of the best quarterbacks in the country the last four games, and Ohio State has scored at least 50 points in each of those games. The loss to the Hokies will be hard to ignore for the playoff committee though.
Michigan State’s loss to Oregon wouldn’t look so bad if the Ducks ran the table. If Oregon loses or doesn’t win the Pac-12, it would be hard for a one-loss Michigan State team to make the playoffs over a one-loss team from the SEC or Big 12.
10. Oregon As I hinted at earlier, the return of Jake Fisher has helped this Oregon offense exponentially. If Oregon can run between the tackles successfully, they’re going to win the game. After back-to-back dominating performances, the Ducks have two upcoming games that should be wins against California and Stanford. The next possible loss for the Ducks is at Utah on Nov. 8.
9. Kansas State Kansas State’s win at Oklahoma was similar to Auburn’s win at Kansas State earlier in the season. The home team made several critical mistakes, and the road team took advantage of them and made fewer mistakes. Unfortunately, the schedule only gets tougher from here. The Wildcats still play at TCU, at West Virginia and at Baylor. They’re not navigating through that unscathed.
8. Georgia No team in the country has been as impressive the past two weeks as Georgia. The Bulldogs, minus their best player, have dominated two straight SEC teams on the road. I thought Georgia would lose at Arkansas without Todd Gurley, yet they easily handled the Hogs. The Bulldogs play Florida and Kentucky after a bye this week, followed by a huge showdown in Athens against Auburn.
7. Notre Dame If Notre Dame is 11-1 at the end of the season, they’re making the playoffs. The last half of the schedule isn’t easy – road games at Arizona State and USC, and a home game against Louisville – and that would give them the strength of schedule at 11-1 to earn a playoff bid.
6. Alabama Alabama’s resounding beatdown of Texas A&M was an official notice to the rest of the country that the Crimson Tide are still very much alive this year. Texas A&M isn’t good at all, but I’m not sure if any other team in the country could beat them 59-0. Alabama’s best is as good as anyone’s, but the previous two weeks can’t be ignored. Alabama looked pedestrian against Ole Miss and Arkansas. Alabama’s not as bad as they looked in those two games, and they’re not as good as they looked against the Aggies. This is a very good football team, and its toughest two remaining games – Mississippi State (Nov. 15) and Auburn (Nov. 29) – are both at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
5. Auburn Auburn’s win at Kansas State looks better and better each week. Unfortunately, the loss at Mississippi State revealed an alarming trend for the Tigers: they’ve been very average on the road. That problem can easily be fixed, but the remaining road schedule is the toughest in college football. Auburn is at Ole Miss (Nov. 1), at Georgia (Nov. 15), and at Alabama (Nov. 29). There’s at least one more loss there, and maybe two if the Tigers can’t correct their road woes.
4. TCU After eight weeks, the one-loss leader in college football is TCU. The Horned Frogs’ best three wins – Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Minnesota – are as good as any other one-loss team’s best three wins. TCU should probably be 6-0, but blowing a 21-point lead isn’t going to get any sympathy from me. If the Horned Frogs can win their next two games at West Virginia and at home against Kansas State, they have a good chance of finishing the year 11-1.
3. Ole Miss The Rebels have the best defense in college football, and it gets better and better each week. Ole Miss held Tennessee to only three points last week, and they’re only allowing 10.6 points per game. The offense is still questionable, but Bo Wallace hasn’t thrown an interception in an SEC game this year. The running game is the biggest issue for the Rebels’ offense. The Rebs average 151 yards per game on the ground, which is 84th in the country. The next two games – at LSU (Oct. 25) and a home game against Auburn (Nov. 1) – will be huge games in determining whether Ole Miss can make the playoffs.
2. Mississippi State The Bulldogs had a bye week after their impressive showing against Auburn, and they have three favorable upcoming games. Dak Prescott is on the shortlist of Heisman candidates and he should have a great opportunity to improve his resume against Kentucky on Saturday.
1. Florida State Florida State has won 23 consecutive games. Jameis Winston is 20-0 as a starter. Winston’s antics off the field have been heavily scrutinized and for good reason. His abilities on the field, however, haven’t been talked about enough. Everett Golson outplayed Winston for most of the game on Saturday, but Winston outshined him and the Irish in the second half. Winston was 15-16 in the second half with no turnovers. He’s won 20 straight games to start his career, which is something that no quarterback in college football history has accomplished. Any criticism of Winston’s behavior off the field is warranted; however, at this point it must be accompanied with praise of his performances each Saturday.
Extra Points • After another embarrassing loss, it’s time for Will Muschamp to go. Florida is one of the best jobs in the country. It’s been the most consistent football team in the SEC for the past two decades. Muschamp just isn’t getting the job done. They’re only 3-3, but it feels a lot worse than that.
• I’m getting ahead of myself, but here’s a list of candidates Florida AD Jeremy Foley should consider when he inevitably fires Muschamp: Chip Kelly, who would be the perfect fit in Gainesville; Jim Harbaugh; Bob Stoops; Mike Gundy; Rich Rodriguez; Dan Mullen; Gary Patterson.
• I made the claim recently that the SEC is overrated, and I still think that’s true despite four teams from the SEC West being ranked in the top 5. It can be overrated and still be the best conference. Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Auburn, Alabama, and Georgia are all really good teams. But after that, the SEC is average. LSU might end up being good, but they aren’t right now. Texas A&M is the seventh best team in the league, and they are not good at all. The conference is a little overrated, but it is still the best in college football.
• Is Kenny Trill still a thing? No? Oh well.