I am a big believer in AP Top 25 ballot flexibility. College football rankings should be fluid, and it’s OK for opinions about how to unscientifically rank teams to evolve over the course of a season. Especially this year — which is why I have another new No. 1 team.
1. Putting Washington atop my ballot felt like the right thing to do last week. I nearly moved the Huskies to No. 1 a few weeks earlier, and when they got a signature win against rival Oregon, I didn’t hesitate to lift them to No. 1. They passed both the eye test and the resume test, and had as strong of a case as anyone.
And then Saturday night happened. Yes, Washington won and is still undefeated, but its vaunted offense failed to score a touchdown in a 15-7 victory against 1-6 Arizona State, a letdown game that teetered on the brink of disaster. So I’ll pull back on the hype: I can’t vote for Washington at No. 1 this week. In fact, I slid the Huskies down to No. 4.
Which leads us back to a familiar question in a season in which nobody has distinguished themselves in terms of consistent dominance and strength of resume: Who should be No. 1?
2. I voted for Michigan. I expect plenty of backlash, and that’s fine. But I’m not alone: I’m one of 19 voters to pick the Wolverines.
It’s true that the Wolverines haven’t beaten anyone of note — their best win is a debate between Rutgers, Nebraska, Minnesota and 6-1 UNLV — but when I don’t have a clear answer, I go back to the simple question at the heart of this entire exercise: Who has played the best football?
The answer is Michigan. That wasn’t necessarily the case in the first few weeks, when the Wolverines won easily but sleepwalked through a forgettable nonconference schedule. But in Big Ten play, they have been utterly dominant, like a No. 1 team should be, including Saturday’s 49-0 shutout of Michigan State.
Michigan is 13th in yards per play on offense and fourth on defense. It hasn’t allowed more than 10 points in a game, outscoring opponents 325 to 47. Remember, it’s not just who you played; it’s how you play. And Michigan is a complete team with a more proven quarterback than familiar contenders like Georgia and Ohio State and a more complete roster than teams like Washington, Florida State and Oklahoma. And while top teams like Georgia (remember Auburn?), Florida State (Boston College) and Washington (Arizona State) have barely escaped possible disasters, Michigan hasn’t blinked.
Nobody has a foolproof No. 1 case, including Georgia. So I’ll go with the team I picked to win the national championship in the preseason and again at midseason.
3. Moving Michigan to No. 1 now, shortly after the revelation of an NCAA investigation into sign-stealing/in-person scouting allegations, might seem like strange timing. But there’s no reason to preemptively punish the Wolverines. We don’t know all the facts, and it’s unclear if rules were actually violated this season. All we can do is vote based on what we know now.
And all I know now is Michigan has played as well as or better than any team in the country.
Michigan investigation: Explaining CFB’s sign-stealing rules, what’s next for Harbaugh
4. A case can be made for Ohio State based on resume and a defense that is in the discussion with Michigan for best in the country. Having Marvin Harrison Jr. — arguably the best player at any position — helps too. Ohio State may have a mediocre offense by its own lofty standards, but it also has an individual matchup advantage against every team it plays.
I can’t say that Ohio State looked like the nation’s best team during Saturday’s 20-12 win against Penn State, but in a season in which everyone is flawed and/or has a flawed resume, the Buckeyes are at least in the conversation for No. 1. With wins against Notre Dame and Penn State, both of whom are in my top 16, I placed Ohio State No. 2 on my ballot. We know it has College Football Playoff talent with national championship upside. Will the offense come together in time to upend Michigan and actually make a run?
5. Penn State may also be in the discussion for the title of nation’s best defense, but Saturday made it abundantly clear that it doesn’t have a Marvin Harrison Jr. And so the Nittany Lions are left where they’ve typically been: Very good — possibly top-10 and New Year’s Six good — but not great enough to topple the nation’s best.
Snyder: It was time for Penn State and James Franklin to take next step, and they punted
Penn State last won a road game against an AP top-10 team on Oct. 25, 2008, at Ohio State. Fifty-two FBS teams have won a top-10 road game more recently. All told, life could be a lot worse for a program that has finished in the top 10 in four of the past seven seasons and could do so again (I voted Penn State 10th, matching its poll position), but the big-game shortcomings jump off the page, given that the Nittany Lions are 3-16 against top-10 opponents under James Franklin.
Go back further, and Penn State has only six top-10 wins in the 21st century, tying it with Purdue, Iowa State and Pitt for 39th most since 2000. Ohio State now has 33, trailing only Alabama and LSU.
Wins vs. AP top-10 teams since 2000
6. I wrote last Sunday that the season has lacked chaotic upsets. Duke beating what turned out to be a mediocre Clemson team was the only win by an unranked team against a top-10 foe in the first seven weeks.
We finally got our second such win on Saturday: Virginia stunned No. 10 North Carolina 31-27. It was the Cavaliers’ first win against a top-10 team since Oct. 15, 2005, against Florida State, ending a 17-game losing streak to top-10 opponents. Among Power 5 teams, only Wake Forest (Oct. 26, 1946) had a longer active top-10 win drought.
Longest Power 5 top-10 win droughts
|Team||Last T10 win|
Oct. 26, 1946
Sept. 29, 2007
Oct. 18, 2007
Oct. 20, 2007
Nov. 10, 2007
Jan. 3, 2008
Sept. 25, 2010
It was also the Cavaliers’ first road win against a top-10 team in school history, leaving Rutgers and Louisville as the only Power 5 teams without a top-10 road win.
North Carolina, meanwhile, has played six games as a top-10 team since 1998 (all since 2015). It has lost five of them, including each of the past three to unranked opponents.
7. North Carolina is the team that can’t stay in the top 10 once it gets there. Alabama is the opposite.
After a five-week run on the outside, the Crimson Tide are back, thanks to a 27-0 second half to beat Tennessee 34-20. Alabama is back up to No. 9 and has been ranked in the top 10 a staggering 94.9 percent of the time since 2008, per College Poll Archive. Alabama has finished in the top 10 in 15 consecutive seasons, and Saturday’s comeback showed that the Crimson Tide can’t be counted out to extend that remarkable run to 16.
8. Tennessee is the team I don’t know what to do with. On one hand, it’s 5-2 and was good enough to jump out to a 13-point halftime lead against Alabama. On the other hand, it was outscored shut out in the second half and doesn’t have a great argument for being ranked ahead of 5-2 Florida, which it lost to by 13 and is unranked (and 5-2 Kentucky, for that matter, given that the Wildcats blew out Florida). I’m not alone, as I’m one of six voters to leave the Vols off their ballot. Head-to-head isn’t everything — I do have Notre Dame ahead of Louisville — but I haven’t seen a compelling enough reason to ignore it in the jumbled middle of the SEC East. The dance will continue, with Kentucky, Missouri and Georgia three of Tennessee’s next four games. Again, there are plenty of chances to prove it belongs.
9. Shout out to James Madison, which is ranked 25th (I have the unbeaten Dukes 18th). It’s the second year in a row JMU has appeared in the poll, in only its second year of FBS play. It’s a deserved honor for a school dealing with postseason ineligibility because of NCAA rules about transitioning from FCS to FBS. Nineteen of 133 FBS teams have never appeared in the poll, making JMU’s successful jump all the more impressive.
Now the challenge is staying ranked. Last year’s No. 25 ranking lasted a week, as the Dukes abruptly lost to Georgia Southern. This time, JMU draws Old Dominion.
10. JMU gives the Sun Belt its first ranked team of the season. The SEC and Pac-12 lead with six teams apiece in this week’s poll, followed by four for the ACC, three for the Big Ten, two for the Big 12 and one each for the American, Mountain West and Sun Belt (plus independent Notre Dame). Thirty-eight FBS teams have now been ranked for at least one week this season, a long way off last year’s 51 and the record of 54 set in 2018.
(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)