The gap from No. 1 Georgia to No. 2 Michigan in the AP Top 25 poll is larger than the gap from the Wolverines to No. 5 Florida State. And yet: Doesn’t it feel like Georgia’s grip on the top of the rankings is tenuous?
Four weeks into the 2023 season, there are signs pointing toward uncertainty at the top that we’ve long been waiting for in an era lacking parity, making this week’s ballot a challenge to fill out. So instead of 10 thoughts about my ballot and historical context for this week’s rankings, let’s make it 10 questions:
1. Why is Georgia No. 1?
Fifty-five of 63 voters still have Georgia ranked No. 1, making it the overwhelming choice, even with one vote as low as fourth. But are the No. 1 votes by default or because Georgia truly is the best team? The back-to-back national champions entered this season as No. 1 until proven otherwise, and even though their resume is thin in terms of quality opponents, nobody else has done quite enough to knock them from their perch.
Yes, other teams have better wins — Florida State’s against LSU, Texas’ at Alabama and Ohio State’s against Notre Dame, to name three — but the teams with the best wins have also shown cracks at other points that leave at least a little bit of doubt. We know Georgia is still supremely talented, and the expectations created by its recruiting success and its back-to-back national titles have raised the bar to a point where any sign of imperfection leads it to face enhanced scrutiny.
All told, Georgia ranks 13th in yards per play differential and eighth in scoring margin, and it’s mostly being dinged for a bad first half against South Carolina. But as the season continues and preseason perceptions are completely filtered out, Georgia will have a hard time holding onto its votes, given the lack of marquee matchups on its schedule.
Others are hovering behind Georgia. One is bound to jump up and snatch No. 1 soon.
2. Who’s actually playing the best football?
Six teams received first-place votes this week. The eight non-Georgia votes went to Michigan (1), Texas (2), Ohio State (1), Florida State (3) and Washington (1). A case could be made for any of those votes. In fact, if you told me any of the current top nine could be the best in the country, I wouldn’t argue.
Though I am hanging onto the belief that Georgia still deserves to be No. 1, if you asked me who is playing the best football right now, I’d say Washington. I moved the Huskies up from sixth to second on my ballot this week after their 59-32 win against Cal, a game they led 45-12 at halftime. With an absurdly efficient and explosive offense, Washington leads the nation in yards per play differential and has blown out Cal, Michigan State, Tulsa and Boise State.
So why isn’t it No. 1? It’s held back a bit by the status of those opponents, none of whom have been impressive. Michigan State followed its loss to Washington by getting blown out by Maryland, and Boise State has clearly not been the Broncos program of old. In the poll, Washington is still fighting against the preseason perceptions of Georgia and Michigan and the quality wins of Texas, Ohio State, Florida State and now Penn State ahead of it.
The Huskies are receiving votes everywhere from No. 1 to No. 10. Their true prove-it moment will come Oct. 14 when Oregon visits Seattle.
3. Is Washington even the best team in the Pac-12?
The Pac-12 no longer has eight ranked teams after Colorado and UCLA fell out, but it still has a solid six, four of which are in the top 10: No. 7 Washington, No. 8 USC, No. 9 Oregon and No. 10 Utah. The Utes’ defense gives them a chance against any of the other three, but the explosive offenses of the Huskies, Trojans and Ducks make their upside appear higher — at least until a healthy Cam Rising returns.
Washington has played the best football thus far, but then again Oregon could have named its score against Colorado and reigning Heisman winner Caleb Williams has thrown 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions for USC.
The Pac-12 has had a problem producing a good enough team to make the Playoff. This year, is it possible it has too many good teams? After playing Oregon in October, Washington gets USC, Utah, Oregon State and Washington State in four consecutive weeks in November.
4. Why is Michigan still No. 2?
Michigan’s best win thus far was Saturday’s game against Rutgers in which it didn’t pull away until a pick six late in the third quarter. The Wolverines also have wins against East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green, and it’s felt like they were sleepwalking through the first few weeks while Jim Harbaugh was suspended.
You could say similar things about Georgia, but Michigan’s start has felt more forgettable and the Wolverines don’t have the built in-benefit of the doubt reserved for a team going for a three-peat. I slid the Wolverines to No. 7 this week — two others voters have them lower — behind Ohio State and Penn State, Big Ten East rivals that have accomplished more thus far. I’ll repeat, however, that I don’t know if I’ve ever voted in a poll in which I perceive the top 10 to be closer.
5. What did the Ohio State-Notre Dame game mean?
Notre Dame came inches — or perhaps an 11th defender — away from beating Ohio State and attaining a victory to help flip its big-game narrative. Instead, the Irish had a coaching meltdown and fell to 4-20 in matchups of two AP top-10 teams since 1994. Ohio State is 23-9 in such games since the 2010 Rose Bowl.
The teams played so evenly that it feels like they should be paired together in the poll, but ultimately the final result matters most. Notre Dame is 4-1, and it feels too early to have a team with a loss in the top 10 — especially this top 10.
Ohio State is hard to pin down, as it had mixed results in its first three wins and didn’t exactly light up Notre Dame. Still, it’s clear the defense is improved, and winning against a very good Notre Dame team on the road is one of the best results anyone has achieved. After being lower than most on Ohio State for a couple of weeks, I jumped the Buckeyes five spots to No. 3 on my ballot. They likely won’t have a chance to rise to No. 1 until they host Penn State on Oct. 21.
6. Is Penn State being underrated?
At No. 6, Penn State is the one team in the top seven that didn’t get a No. 1 vote. In fact, it didn’t get a No. 2 vote either. The Nittany Lions won’t truly be able to turn heads until they play Ohio State, but even without playing perfect football yet, they’ve dominated opponents behind the arm of rising star quarterback Drew Allar and a stingy defense giving up a national-low 219.5 yards per game after a shutout of Iowa in which the Hawkeyes ran 33 plays for 76 yards.
Saturday night felt like the type of result that can often solidify a spot in the top five — even if Iowa shouldn’t have been ranked in the first place — but the competition is too tight around the top. Week 4 was eventful, but all six losses by ranked teams came to fellow ranked teams, making it harder to make a significant move.
7. How should Florida State’s resume be viewed?
On one hand, Florida State has two strong wins away from home. It dominated current No. 13 LSU in Orlando and ended its seven-game losing streak against Clemson. On the other hand, Florida State escaped Boston College — one of the worst Power 5 teams — by two points and Clemson because the opposing kicker missed a chip-shot field goal late in regulation.
An argument can be made that Florida State has the resume to be ranked No. 1 (winning at Clemson is still a noteworthy result, even if Clemson is clearly down). An argument could also be made that Florida State is lucky to not be 2-2 and unranked. I have the Seminoles fourth, a spot ahead of their place in the poll. Given their quarterback, skill position and defensive line talent, they should cruise for a while against a favorable schedule, without the big-game juice to leap to the top of the rankings.
8. Who’s the best one-loss team?
Colorado! I’m kidding.
Notre Dame has the best case. Though its best win is against a so-so NC State team, the Ohio State loss was as close to a toss-up as you can get. The Irish are strong on both lines and have the quarterback in Sam Hartman to give them the edge over, say, Alabama, which relied on dominant defense to get back on track by beating Ole Miss.
Perhaps Alabama or LSU will prove to be the answer in the long run, but Notre Dame has played the best football thus far among the teams with a loss. Now the Irish have to avoid turning one loss into two in facing a tricky game at a ranked Duke squad.
(If you’re wondering about Colorado: The Buffaloes are unranked but appeared on 15 ballots after their demolition at the hands of Oregon. USC could knock them out of the poll picture for good.)
9. Wait, Kansas and Duke are ranked?
They are! It’s the first time the two basketball blue bloods are ranked in the same football poll since the final rankings of the 1960 season.
When No. 24 Kansas visits No. 3 Texas and No. 17 Duke hosts No. 11 Notre Dame on Saturday, it will be the first time ranked Kansas and Duke teams play on the same day since Oct. 29, 1960, when the Blue Devils beat Georgia Tech but the Jayhawks lost to No. 1 Iowa.
In fact, Saturday will be the first time both Kansas and Duke are participating in matchups of two AP-ranked teams on the same day. It’s Duke’s first ranked matchup at home since a 1994 win against Virginia.
Both teams deserve their rankings. Duke dominated Clemson in Week 1 and has blown out overmatched opponents with ease since then. I have the Blue Devils ranked 12th. And Kansas continues to be a tough out under Lance Leipold, especially with Jalon Daniels back at quarterback. The Jayhawks have beaten both Illinois and BYU by double digits.
10. When will Georgia’s run at No. 1 end?
I do think the reign will end soon, even if it’s after a Georgia win. Even after the biggest Saturday of the season thus far, there haven’t been a lot of chances for top teams to score blockbuster wins. Yet.
Barring a Georgia disaster at Auburn, I could see a new No. 1 as soon as Oct. 8, if Georgia wins a close, low-scoring slugfest against Kentucky and Texas decisively wins against fellow unbeaten Oklahoma (assuming the Longhorns take care of Kansas first), the Longhorns could get the nod. Look out for the Oct. 15 poll, too, after Georgia plays at Vanderbilt and Washington gets its biggest chance to make a statement yet against Oregon, or Oct. 22, after Georgia is off and Ohio State and Penn State play each other.
More opportunities for blockbuster wins are around the corner. Who will take advantage?
(Top photo of Michael Penix Jr.: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)