Each Saturday night throughout the season, I’ll rank the 10 best teams in the country. The order will fluctuate week to week based on new results, player availability and whatever else impacts this chaotic sport. This is obviously a subjective process, and I look forward to the arguments. The final spot each week will go to a team that may not actually be the 10th best team in the country but still deserves a little shine.
The Wolverines are sliding up to No. 1 not just because of Saturday’s 49-0 win over Michigan State but because last week’s top dog looked mighty shaky for more than three quarters. Washington’s performance in a 15-7 win over Arizona State on Saturday makes a great argument for rewarding Michigan for yet another routine-but-very-lopsided win. The Wolverines do this week-in and week-out, and there’s no drama about the outcome. For just about everyone else, there’s doubt. There are near upsets. There’s inconsistency.
But Michigan is remarkably consistent, even against inferior competition, which is something its peers cannot necessarily say. The Wolverines don’t get too high or too low, and they certainly didn’t seem distracted or bothered by a new (second) NCAA investigation into their program, made public this past week. They smother opposing offenses, and they move the ball methodically down the field when they have it. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy threw a career-high four touchdowns on Saturday, and it still didn’t seem all that impressive because it looked so easy. And because he exited the game in the third quarter. At this point, head coach Jim Harbaugh’s favorite thing to do in a game is sub out his starters. No other title contender will have the type of experienced depth that the Wolverines will by the end of the regular season.
2. Washington (7-0)
The Huskies have timed their poorest performances of the season well; their struggles against first Arizona and now Arizona State have both happened in that late-night time slot. They will hope most of the country slept through their sleepwalking — and perhaps that some East Coast Heisman Trophy voters missed a mostly forgettable performance by frontrunner Michael Penix Jr. The veteran quarterback threw two interceptions and lost a fumble all in the first half, and Washington was bailed out by the pick-up of a defensive pass interference flag followed by a terrific 89-yard pick six by Mishael Powell. Penix did produce some of those spectacular throws late in the game that we’re used to seeing from him. But it was far from an aesthetically pleasing win, and it’s one that the Huskies would surely wish we don’t hold against them.
Is Washington as good as it’s been at its top end? Or are the struggles against the Arizona schools a sign that the Huskies are ripe to be knocked off? We may not know the answer until November, when Washington looks set to face at least three ranked opponents to close out the regular season.
Saturday Superlatives: Another Utah-USC classic, upsets and scares galore
The Bulldogs were idle this weekend, so the jury’s still out on what Georgia looks like without Brock Bowers. Head coach Kirby Smart said that “there is no timeline” for the star tight end to return and that the most important thing is to get him healthy. He is correct, but at the same time, Bowers is the best player Georgia puts out on the field. He has singlehandedly won at least one game this season, and no matter how many blue-chip players the Bulldogs have waiting in the wings, this team will look different without him. We’re still waiting to see just how much.
The Buckeyes’ defense is legitimately great. I’ve held out on saying anything this definitive for a while now, even though Ohio State has been statistically one of the best defensive units in the country and looked the part. Notre Dame has had its offensive struggles. Indiana isn’t very good. The excuses have been somewhat ready-made all along … until now. Penn State hadn’t been explosive, but Drew Allar and company had been efficient and weren’t making mistakes. Then Allar looked like a deer in headlights against this Buckeye defense, finishing a dreadful day 18 of 42 for 191 yards in a 20-12 loss. Penn State converted just one of 16 third-down attempts, a stat that pretty much told the whole story of the game.
Oh, and Ohio State has Marvin Harrison Jr., who caught 11 passes for 162 yards and a late touchdown. The team that has Harrison is going to have a chance against anyone in the country, at any time.
Ohio State believes it has nation’s best defense. It backed it up against Penn State.
Dillon Gabriel’s new team beat his old team 31-29 in the Dillon Gabriel Bowl. And Gabriel himself did what he needed to do to secure the victory, finishing the day 25 of 38 for 253 yards to help Oklahoma come back from a six-point third-quarter deficit. The Sooners got a stop on UCF’s game-tying two-pointer in the game’s final minutes and survived a scare to stay unbeaten.
Ultimately, Oklahoma played the way that led a lot of folks to pick Texas to win ahead of the Red River rivalry game. The Sooners’ receivers might be just OK. Oklahoma’s offense can look quite disjointed. Its opponents tend to be the ones to make the splashier, bigger plays. But the Sooners did enough to get the job done, and that’s the important thing on a day that saw close calls and shocking upsets elsewhere. These Sooners had the former but avoided the latter, and they can breathe a sigh of relief.
6. Texas (6-1)
Saturday’s game did not go the way the Longhorns drew it up. They certainly did not want to eke out a win at Houston after blowing a big lead thanks to a much-needed fourth-and-inches stop in the game’s final minute, and they definitely did not want to see starting quarterback Quinn Ewers go down with a shoulder injury after taking a hit he really did not need to take. Obviously, head coach Steve Sarkisian was happy with a 31-24 win and praised his team’s resilience. But Ewers’ uncertain status moving forward is crucial to the trajectory of this team. He was seen with his right arm in a sling after he exited the game in the third quarter (Maalik Murphy played the rest of the game) and all Sark said afterward was that Ewers’ shoulder was “hurt” and he’d know more Sunday. Much like Georgia dealing with the Bowers injury, this has the potential to affect the CFP race in a significant way. But first the Longhorns would need to win out and make it matter.
Ducks coach Dan Lanning said after Oregon’s 38-24 win over Washington State that his team took the Cougs’ best punch and responded. That’s a fair, albeit optimistic way to view a sluggish start that Oregon overcame to rebound from last week’s loss at Washington. Bo Nix was his usual self, throwing for 293 yards and two touchdowns in his 54th career start. The Ducks still might be one of the four best teams in the country, but Saturday’s game was a good reminder of how close the margins can be in the Pac-12 and how hard it is to avoid a letdown after The Game of The Year.
College football Week 8 takeaways: Alabama rebounds, USC’s defense doesn’t
Unexpectedly — or maybe sort-of-expectedly, after they beat Clemson in September? — the Seminoles are the last unbeaten team in the ACC after Saturday night. It took a big comeback against Duke, which brought back starting quarterback Riley Leonard only to watch him leave with an injury again. FSU quarterback Jordan Travis scored three touchdowns himself, including the first go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, to keep a remarkable run alive. The ACC is still Florida State’s for the taking. The path to the CFP is still relatively clear. At this point, the Nov. 11 game against Miami is probably the toughest left on the schedule, but that may be a must-win. If the ACC starts cannibalizing itself as it did with Virginia’s stunning upset of North Carolina … well, the champion may need to be unblemished to secure a spot in the four-team field. Might not want to risk it!
The Crimson Tide have now won five in a row, making what at one point seemed unlikely actually quite possible. The Alabama team that looked dead in the water against USF is now very much in the driver’s seat in the SEC West. Yes, we could definitely see Alabama in Atlanta again. Like usual. Control-Alt-Delete those Alabama obituaries now.
After falling behind early against Tennessee and staring down a second consecutive loss in the Third Saturday in October rivalry, Alabama scored 27 unanswered points in the second half, and cigar smoke wafted throughout Bryant-Denny Stadium. Jalen Milroe is not Bryce Young, but he sure is fun to watch. Note to James Franklin: The “chuck-it” offense can be a total delight. Plus, Milroe can run, and he can set Alabama up well to rely on its defense to stifle an opponent. I don’t know how good Alabama is, but I know that it’s hard to win the way that this team does. And the Tide keep rolling.
10. Air Force (7-0)
If you have not yet been paying attention to the Falcons, now’s the time. Air Force is unbeaten and well-positioned to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for a second consecutive year, having won 17-6 at Navy and just needing to beat Army in two weeks. But there may be even greater accomplishments within reach. The Falcons have a great chance to end the season as the Group of 5’s highest-ranked conference champion, which would mean a New Year’s Six bowl berth. A service academy! In the New Year’s Six! It’s such a crazy idea it just might happen, and it would be well-deserved. Air Force boasts, unsurprisingly, the nation’s best rushing offense and one of its best rushing defenses. Quarterback Zac Larrier, whose status for the Navy game was left in doubt by coach Troy Calhoun this week, threw the longest touchdown pass in program history, a 94-yard score that proved to be enough against Midshipmen. Something’s in the water.
Calhoun has a good thing going, and with unbeaten Sun Belt power James Madison ineligible for the postseason, it’s basically a battle between Air Force and Tulane for that coveted New Year’s Six spot. This is a race you’ll want to track.
(Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)