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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, especially when we have such few data points early in the year. 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.
Welcome to the top, Seminoles. It’s time to celebrate Florida State for both what this team has done so far and how I think the College Football Playoff selection committee would see it: A dominant win against a top-15 opponent (LSU) at a neutral site, and now a thrilling overtime win over a good Power 5 team (Clemson) on the road.
FSU’s resume will be affected by the Tigers’ performance from here on out — and now, with two league losses, they’ll need quite a bit of help to even get an opportunity to play for an ACC title — but that 31-24 victory over Clemson will hold up as a good one regardless of that team’s current (lack of) standing. The Seminoles’ two best wins are better than anyone else’s so far, and they’ve passed the eye test in both games. Florida State underwhelmed a week ago against Boston College, but every top team this year has had some hiccups. And the gutsy performance by a clearly not-100-percent-healthy Jordan Travis on Saturday coupled with the throttling of LSU is more than enough for me to make this case.
There are concerns. Clemson cut its way through the defense way too easily and often, beating the Seminoles with its scheme and taking advantage of a defense that didn’t make the necessary adjustments. But the Seminoles’ offense was terrific when it needed to be, and Keon Coleman continues to build a strong early Biletnikoff case. There’s just so much to like about this roster and the way this program is taking its next step forward.
We’re not out of September yet, but already I feel comfortable saying the path to the Playoff has cleared out for FSU. The Seminoles should be favored in every remaining game, and it’s possible they could even survive a loss and make the CFP.
Florida State isn’t perfect, but a perfect season is not out of the question
Nobody is playing better than the Huskies. No one is hotter. And I’m pretty confident that there will not be an offense as prolific and genuinely enjoyable as this one anywhere else in the sport all season. You could honestly make a case for Washington to be the No. 1 team in the country, and I wouldn’t argue. They’ve looked that good from the very first snap of the season. A week ago, the Huskies piled up 713 (!) yards of offense in a 41-7 win at Michigan State. On Saturday, star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for 215 yards and helped Washington put 45 points on the board … all in the first half. The Huskies score frequently and fast, and they are going to be a nightmare for every defense they face.
I hope Lou Holtz reads this blurb! I mean it! I will speak loudly and seem angry, just like Ryan Day! Just kidding.
As much as I do hope Holtz is an avid reader of this prestigious poll, I don’t want to give him too much credit for the Buckeyes’ big 17-14 win in South Bend. That credit goes to a team that genuinely did want (and need) to prove its grit. There were so many things I loved about Ohio State’s final drive — like Kyle McCord’s composure and his huge completions (on fourth-and-7, and then on third-and-19 after the intentional grounding call).
But the best part of all was the play call at the end. Three seconds remained, and Day wanted to run the damn ball. He wanted these Buckeyes to show the world (and Holtz, apparently) that they could get one yard when they needed it most by running it up the gut. That their offensive line could create the necessary space. That this team could will itself across the finish line — and that’s what Chip Trayanum did. It of course helped that Notre Dame didn’t have the right number of defensive linemen on the field, but let’s focus on the positives! This was a massive win for Day, whose Buckeyes have famously struggled in top-10 matchups. And it was a huge moment for McCord, who is growing up and into his new role.
Wasserman: Ohio State had been here before. This time, the ‘soft’ Buckeyes won
Before Georgia fans jump on me in the comment section — oh wait, that’s probably already happened since I started typing this sentence — I’m going to ask you to think of this not as Georgia moving down in the rankings, but rather a team getting jumped. Florida State played Clemson this weekend. Ohio State played Notre Dame. Washington bulldozed yet another Power 5 opponent. Georgia did not either 1) play one of the best programs in college football; or 2) crush a Power 5 foe. The Bulldogs dawdled yet again, leading by just seven late in the second quarter. Yes, Carson Beck got going. Yes, Brock Bowers is spectacular. But it’s just hard to be as impressed by this team as I am by the teams ranked ahead, and I’m not going to apologize for that.
Jim Harbaugh is back, and so is his favorite style of play. Michigan plodded its way to a 31-7 win over Rutgers, led by Blake Corum’s 201 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. Most football coaches and fan bases wouldn’t be overly thrilled with a win like Saturday’s over an unranked team like Rutgers, but most people are not Harbaugh.
Some of his joy, surely, was due to the fact that he was allowed back on the sidelines after serving a three-week, self-imposed suspension. But he also genuinely loves football a lot of us would describe as ugly — heavy on the ground game, highlighted by solid offensive line play and leaning into the feeling of suffocating the life out of your opponent. We still don’t know much about these Wolverines and we probably won’t for a while — the toughest three games left are the final ones on the calendar — but it was still good to see a turnover-free performance from J.J. McCarthy and a nice pick-six from Mike Sainristil, the leader of this Michigan defense.
It took the Longhorns about a quarter and a half to create separation from Baylor, but they took care of business quite handily by the final whistle. Quinn Ewers threw for 293 yards and a score (and ran for another), and running back Jonathon Brooks found the end zone twice. That was more than enough scoring against an offense that struggled the way Baylor’s did. The Bears’ passing game was OK at times, but a rushing attack that averaged 1.9 yards per carry is never going to cut it in conference play. The Longhorns are about to hit the toughest remaining stretch of their season — against unbeaten Kansas next Saturday, and against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry the following week. These next two weeks could not only cement Texas as the team to beat in the Big 12 in their final season in the league but could also go a long way toward solidifying a strong CFP resume.
7. Utah (4-0)
Utah has quietly cobbled together one of the nation’s most impressive 4-0 starts, with wins against Florida and UCLA. It feels like we, collectively, are sleeping on the Utes — perhaps it’s because veteran quarterback Cam Rising has been out with an injury and we’ve all just put a pin in this team until he returns? They won the Pac-12 last year! Their defense remains suffocating and impenetrable! (Just ask Dante Moore.) And yet, I think we just take this for granted from Kyle Whittingham. Utah is so consistent. I don’t think people realize that this is one of the very best teams in the country in what feels, early on, like a rather wide-open CFP race.
I came out of the Nittany Lions’ 31-0 win over Iowa with questions about one team involved … and it wasn’t Penn State. But that’s a topic for another day and another nepo baby. Ultimately, I still feel really good about the Nittany Lions. Drew Allar has had his ups and downs, which is to be expected from a brand-new starter less than a month into the season. He bounced back nicely from a performance against Illinois in which he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes by going 25-of-37 for 166 yards and four touchdowns. It’s a weird stat line and a fitting summation of a performance that had its highlight-reel moments and also underwhelmed at times. It’s fine! I’m not going to nitpick a shutout in the rain all that much.
9. USC (4-0)
The Trojans can be such a frustrating viewing experience. One moment, we’re dazzled as we watch Caleb Williams scramble and loft some incredible catch that only he can throw. And the next, it’s past midnight and we’re wondering if USC even had any interest in winning its game against Arizona State. The Sun Devils should not have been as close as they were for as long as they were, even with the Trojans coming off of an idle week and even if you believe that this could have been a trap game. ASU has been hit hard by injuries and was starting its third-string quarterback.
Come on! This is supposed to be the preseason pick to win the Pac-12! This isn’t supposed to be this hard. USC’s defense was, for most of the game, a real bright spot. The Trojans held the Sun Devils to just 2.8 yards per carry. They tallied three sacks and forced two turnovers. There was a lot to like … except for all of the offensive drives that stalled out in and around the red zone. And the penalties. The Trojans are only three weeks away from a road date with Notre Dame, and they’ll need to clean up in quite a few areas if they expect to walk out of South Bend with a win.
The nation learned more about Dan Lanning on Saturday than I think he even wanted us to. From the fiery pregame speech to a halftime mic-drop, Lanning was must-see TV — a slightly ironic compliment considering the context. Oregon was must-see TV, too, and Saturday’s trouncing of Colorado served as a good reminder in case anyone had been overlooking the Ducks that this is a damn good football team.
Vannini: Deion won’t take it personally. Oregon’s Dan Lanning did his job in blowout win
Bo Nix already has his billboards up, so it’s not like his Heisman candidacy should come as a surprise. He threw three touchdowns and ran for another, leading the Ducks to an emphatic 42-6 win over Colorado. It was as clear as day that one of the two teams on the field is an improved team coming off of a one-win season and the other is a serious Pac-12 contender — and maybe even a team capable of playing in the CFP.
Now typically, this last spot in the ranking goes to a team that is not actually worthy of a top-10 designation. I usually use it to celebrate a team that doesn’t get a lot of shine, but in this case it’s serving a dual purpose. We’re celebrating the team that was tired of hearing about an opponent that got too much shine and received too much fawning, and we’re celebrating a team that rightfully belongs among the nation’s best. It’s a win-win.
(Top photo: John Byrum / Icon Sportswire via Getty)