Some weeks, I wish I could be Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. Yes, for the paycheck. But also because I -- like Dantonio last month -- could make liberal use of the word "OR." When Dantonio released his depth chart earlier this fall, he listed four players as potential starters at quarterback. I wish I could use at least that many ORs with the No. 1 spot on my AP Poll ballot this week.
Alabama looks far less perfect than it did at this point last year, and those imperfections have significantly thinned the margins between No. 1 and the next few teams. In fact, if I could Dantonio my poll ballot this week, it would look like this:
Either because of weak early schedules or because of perceptible flaws, none of these teams has been able to separate from the pack. Here's hoping for more clarity after this weekend.
Las week: 1
Alabama Crimson Tide (3-0)This terse interview from Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron after the Colorado State win makes one thing clear: Offensive communication was an issue on Saturday. This is the second time in three games that Alabama has had problems in this area.
What can we take away from Alabama's sluggish win? That's unclear, though there are a few possibilities.
• Texas A&M's defense was epically bad, and that's why the Tide scored so easily on the Aggies the previous Saturday.
• Former Alabama offensive coordinator and current Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain, who coached and/or helped recruit almost all of Alabama's offensive players, offered some very good advice to his defensive staff about how to disrupt the Tide.
• Alabama had a hangover from the Texas A&M win. From the emotion, not from the pickle juice-and-vodka shots that I learned are an actual thing in College Station.
• Alabama was holding back to keep from showing Ole Miss too much.
• Alabama's offense, while very good, is not as good as we previously thought.
The answer is probably a mix of all of these factors. We'll know a lot more next week after Ole Miss visits Tuscaloosa. The Rebels have started hot, and they run the hurry-up, no-huddle offense that Nick Saban loves so much. What's interesting about this Alabama team is that so far it has played to the level of its competition. That violates every tenet of the Process -- which essentially dictates that a player should compete against a standard set by his own personal ceiling -- and it probably means this team is driving Saban crazy. The three Alabama teams that won national titles in the past four seasons did not play to the level of their competition. They played against their own lofty standard, which is why the only two losses they incurred (LSU in 2011 and Texas A&M in 2012) were to excellent teams playing above their heads. Good teams that play to their own standards never truly get upset. Teams that play to their competition do. If Alabama smacks down the Rebels, then the Crimson Tide should stay here. If the flaws that have revealed themselves in Alabama's first three games remain apparent, it might be time to find a different No. 1 -- even if 'Bama wins.
Last game: Beat Colorado State, 31-6
Next game: Saturday vs. Ole Miss
Last week: 2
Oregon Ducks (3-0)The Ducks have shown no flaws to date, but it's unclear if they've played anyone capable of exposing flaws in an elite program. That will change this week when Oregon enters Pac-12 play. Cal is struggling in its first season under Sonny Dykes, but the Bears should provide an interesting measuring stick. After all, two other ranked teams (Ohio State and Northwestern) have already beaten Cal in Berkeley. This game should give us a better basis for comparison between Oregon and the other teams near the top of the polls.
Last game: Beat Tennessee, 59-14
Next game: Saturday vs. Cal
Last week: 3
Ohio State Buckeyes (4-0)Last week's Florida A&M game didn't tell anyone anything about the Buckeyes. But this Saturday's Wisconsin game will. The Badgers' offensive line and the backfield combo of Melvin Gordon and James White will challenge Ohio State's front seven in ways it hasn't seen this season. It surprised no one that quarterback Braxton Miller (knee) sat out against the Rattlers. It will surprise no one if Miller starts against the Badgers.
For the Buckeyes, the next two weeks should be the toughest of the season. Beat Wisconsin and Northwestern, and there isn't much challenge left in the regular-season schedule unless Michigan can improve upon its past two weeks.
Last game: Beat Florida A&M, 76-0
Next game: Saturday vs. Wisconsin
Last week: 4
Clemson Tigers (3-0)The Tigers didn't exactly dominate NC State, but they survived being a road favorite on Thursday night by a fairly comfortable margin. That's about the best a team can hope for in that situation. The Tigers' next three games (vs. Wake Forest, at Syracuse, vs. Boston College) shouldn't prove challenging. After that, it's the game of the year in the ACC when Florida State comes to Death Valley.
Last game: Beat NC State, 26-14
Next game: Saturday vs. Wake Forest
Last week: 5
Stanford Cardinal (3-0)Yes, coach David Shaw took his foot off the pedal against Arizona State. That may have cost the Cardinal a few ranking points this week, but it could have long-term benefits. How often do backups get snaps against a (potential) Top 25 team? That experience could come in handy later in the year. The polls only matter for the national title picture, and Shaw knows Stanford's national title candidacy will be judged solely on whether or not the Cardinal beat Oregon on Nov. 7. As long as that happens, it doesn't matter if Stanford wins the rest of its games by one point or 100.
Last game: Beat Arizona State, 42-28
Next game: Saturday vs. Washington State in Seattle
Last week: 6
Texas A&M Aggies (3-1)The Aggies' defense will get a nice, winnable preview for an important game later this season when they visit Fayetteville this week. Clearly, Texas A&M's defense has plenty of room for improvement based on what it showed against Alabama. If the Aggies hope to remain in the national title race, they'll have to beat LSU in November. While their offenses aren't identical, the overriding philosophies of the Alabama, Arkansas and LSU are the same: Smash teams up the middle to set up easy play-action passes. Texas A&M's defense failed the first of those tests, but if it can solidify up the middle, the offense should score enough to keep the Aggies ahead in most cases.
Last game: Beat SMU, 42-13
Next game: Saturday at Arkansas
Last week: 7
Florida State Seminoles (3-0)Back in the waning days of the Bobby Bowden era, a trip to Chestnut Hill was reason for dread. But the Eagles are so beaten down that the Seminoles shouldn't have much trouble on Saturday. Still, the upgrade in competition from Bethune-Cookman should ramp things up nicely to prepare Florida State for the suddenly hot Maryland team that will visit Tallahassee on Oct. 5.
Last game: Beat Bethune-Cookman, 54-6
Next game: Saturday at Boston College
Last week: 8
LSU Tigers (4-0)Les Miles led the charge this offseason for a change in SEC scheduling, and fans are about to see why. While Texas A&M (Vanderbilt and Missouri) and Alabama (Kentucky and Tennessee) get to enjoy the lower reaches of the SEC East, the Tigers get to go to Athens and then, two weeks later, get a visit from Florida. The way LSU is playing, that might not matter. The Tigers, who for years deflated the ball on offense and let their defense do the heavy lifting, rank third in the SEC in scoring at 43.2 points a game. The difference is that LSU averages 63.8 plays a game, while Texas A&M (No. 1 in that category) averages 76.8 and Missouri (No. 2) averages 85.3. Meanwhile, LSU is second in the league behind Georgia in passing efficiency. In 2011, Tigers quarterback Jarrett Lee led the SEC in passing efficiency just before he was benched in favor of Jordan Jefferson, but he was averaging only 17.2 attempts a game at the time. LSU battered defenses with its run game and then threw after they packed the box and left man coverage on the outside. LSU is still pounding defenses with the run game, but Zach Mettenberger looks like a legitimate weapon in first-year coordinator Cam Cameron's offense. So Cameron is running an efficient, potent offense as a companion to a typically stingy John Chavis defense. That's a terrifying combination, and it's one that might be able to survive the gauntlet the SEC has forced LSU to run unscathed.
Last game: Beat Auburn, 35-21
Next game: Saturday at Georgia
Last week: 9
Georgia Bulldogs (2-1)Longtime Georgia administrative assistant Tammy Mettenberger has this week off for obvious reasons. If her name looks familiar, read what I just wrote about LSU again. Tammy is Zach Mettenberger's mom, and blood is thicker than direct deposit. "She loves her son," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Obviously it'd be awkward for her to be hanging around. So she won't be in this week. I told her to enjoy it. Go have fun and enjoy some things you normally couldn't do this of year and enjoy it. We've been knowing Zach since he was a very young kid. We all really like Zach and want the best for him. We just don't want him to win this weekend."
Zach Mettenberger is the first of two opposing quarterbacks the Bulldogs will face who were dismissed from Georgia for bad behavior. Mettenberger was tossed in 2010 after he was arrested and charged with groping a woman against her will at a bar in Remerton, Ga. (The other is Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who played cornerback for the Bulldogs in 2011 but was dismissed along with another player following an incident involving the theft of cash from a teammate's dorm room.) Even if he hadn't made the mistake, Mettenberger may have had to transfer to get out of the shadow of Aaron Murray, who won the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and who threw his 100th collegiate touchdown pass against North Texas on Saturday.
Because Georgia beat South Carolina, the Bulldogs could drop this one and still control their destiny in the SEC East. But if they want to win the national title, they'll have to beat the Tigers.
Last game: Beat North Texas, 45-21
Next game: Saturday vs. LSU
Last week: 10
Louisville Cardinals (4-0)The Cardinals did all they could against probably the worst team in the FBS. Now they get a week off before they open American Athletic Conference play against Temple. Remember all that stuff in the Alabama section about playing against your own standard? No one has to do that more than the Cardinals this season. The schedule gives them no choice.
Last game: Beat Florida International, 72-0
Next game: Oct. 5 at Temple
Last week: 11
Baylor Bears (3-0)No, Baylor hasn't played anyone of consequence yet. Yes, the opposing defenses will get better. Still, these numbers would look out of place in a video game set on easy.
• Baylor is the only team since 1996 in the FBS or FCS to score 28 or more points in the first quarter of its first three games.
• Baylor has scored 41 or more points in nine consecutive games.
• Baylor has scored in two minutes or less on 24 of its 25 touchdown drives this season.
• The Bears have scored in less than a minute on 11 of their 25 touchdown drives this season.
• Baylor's defense has scored four touchdowns. It has allowed three touchdowns.
Last year, Baylor stumbled out of the gate before turning into a buzzsaw at midseason. This year, the schedule plays out perfectly for Baylor to get tuned up before it hits the meat of its schedule. The Bears get a week off before hosting West Virginia. Then they face Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas before Oklahoma comes to Waco on Nov. 7. The schedule gets very tough at that point, but Baylor should be pretty finely tuned.
Last game: Beat Louisiana-Monroe, 70-7
Next game: Oct. 5 vs. West Virginia
Last week: 12
Miami Hurricanes (3-0)The Hurricanes get another warm-up game before opening ACC play against Georgia Tech on Oct. 5. Miami quarterback Stephen Morris injured his right leg in the first quarter of Saturday's win against Savannah State, but coach Al Golden told reporters he expects Morris to play against USF. Even if Morris can't go, the Hurricanes should be able to easily overpower the rebuilding Bulls.
Last game: Beat Savannah State, 77-7
Next game: Saturday at South Florida
Last week: 13
Oklahoma State Cowboys (3-0)West Virginia is definitely getting some new-guy hazing from the Big 12 schedule this year. The Mountaineers are the opponent in the Big 12 openers for the league's three best teams (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor). The Cowboys haven't faced any real competition since Mississippi State on Aug. 31, so it will be educational to see if their defense is as good as it looked against the Bulldogs. Of course, given what West Virginia showed against Maryland last Saturday, this might not be much of a test, either.
Last game: Beat Lamar, 59-3
Next game: Saturday at West Virginia
Last week: 14
South Carolina Gamecocks (2-1)Had South Carolina beaten Georgia in Week 2, this week's visit to UCF would have the giant, flashing "trap game" sign hanging high above the stadium. A national title contender visiting a program that yearns for bigger things. A noon kickoff. A home underdog with an excellent quarterback and better athletes than its place in the college football hierarchy would suggest. But since the Gamecocks have already learned of their own mortality, they're less likely to overlook the Knights and ultra-efficient quarterback Blake Bortles. That still doesn't mean a win will be easy. Looking for drama in the early window on Saturday? You'll probably find it here.
Last game: Beat Vanderbilt, 35-25
Next game: Saturday at UCF
Last week: 15
UCLA Bruins (3-0)The Bruins will take their second bye week of the season ahead of a Thursday night visit to Utah that should have UCLA on high alert. As good as the Bruins have been this season, that Thursday slot seems to be worth at least 10 points to a home underdog. This will be the game in which the still-young Bruins will have to prove their maturity.
Last game: Beat New Mexico State, 59-13
Next game: Oct. 3 at Utah
Last week: 17
Washington Huskies (3-0)Washington tailback Bishop Sankey should be fine despite leaving the Idaho State game early with a bruised shoulder. That's good for viewers, because a run-off between Sankey and Arizona tailback Ka'Deem Carey should make for excellent television. The Huskies must make sure they don't look past the Wildcats to a visit to Stanford next week. If they do, Arizona might render that matchup in Palo Alto a lot less meaningful.
Last game: Beat Idaho State, 56-0
Next game: Saturday vs. Arizona
Last week: 16
Northwestern Wildcats (4-0)Forget the two-touchdown margin of victory. No one in Evanston was happy with the ugly win against Maine. After two games (Cal and Maine) in which the defense scored two touchdowns, the Wildcats know their supply of free points isn't endless. The offense will have to look more like it did against Syracuse and less like it did against Maine. Ohio State probably won't be in such a giving mood when it comes to Ryan Field on Oct. 5. Still, Northwestern has an extra week to prepare for the Buckeyes, who likely will get challenged -- and probably beaten up -- by Wisconsin. If the Wildcats can fix their offensive sloppiness, they might be able to shock Ohio State.
Last game: Beat Maine, 35-21
Next game: Oct. 5 vs. Ohio State
Last week: NR
Maryland Terrapins (4-0)Sorry, but we're plum out of Randy Edsall jokes at the moment. Maybe he knew what he was doing all along in stripping down the Terrapins and rebuilding them to suit his specifications. We'll find out in the next few weeks. Maryland could play a key role in the ACC Atlantic race as well as the national title race. The Terps are Florida State's final opponent before Clemson, and they are Clemson's first opponent after Florida State. Split those games, and it might be a three-way race for the Atlantic title.
Last game: Beat West Virginia, 37-0
Next game: Oct. 5 at Florida State
Last week: 20
Florida Gators (2-1)The Gators continue their tour of the 2013 Summer Recruiting Champs before they hit the teeth of their SEC schedule. Quarterback Tyler Murphy looked quite competent on Saturday against Tennessee after he replaced Jeff Driskel, who will miss the remainder of the season after breaking his leg. That's especially impressive considering that while Murphy had taken first-team reps in camp following Driskel's case of appendicitis, Murphy had no significant game experience prior to stepping in against the Vols. Murphy now will have a full week of practice at the helm of the offense before facing the Wildcats, who played well on defense against Louisville two weeks ago. Florida's defense should make Kentucky miserable, though. That should make Murphy's transition to starter a bit easier.
Last game: Beat Tennessee, 31-17
Next game: Saturday at Kentucky
Last week: 21
Oklahoma Sooners (3-0)This week, we'll find out how much Oklahoma's defense has really improved. The Sooners faltered late last year against Notre Dame, and the shredding only got worse in Big 12 play. Notre Dame scored just 17 points against Michigan State on Saturday, but the Spartans have one of the best defenses in the country. (And possibly one of the worst offenses.) Oklahoma's 3-3-5 has looked solid this season, and after a disastrous experiment last year that minimized the linebackers, that group has been excellent. But with Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell making his first career road start against a team with two likely first-rounders on the defensive line, Oklahoma's defense will have to play its best game. "This will be the biggest game and the most important game of the season thus far," Sooners linebacker Corey Nelson told The Oklahoman. "It'll show what our defense is really made of."
Last game: Beat Tulsa, 51-20
Next game: Saturday at Notre Dame
Last week: 22
Ole Miss Rebels (3-0)Forget the big recruiting haul in February. Forget the win against a floundering Texas team in Austin. If Ole Miss wants to prove it belongs in college football's top echelon, it must win a game like Saturday's. Fortunately -- or unfortunately -- for the Rebels, they'll play three such games over the next four weekends. Two weeks after Alabama, Ole Miss hosts Texas A&M. The following week, LSU comes to Oxford. (The visit to Auburn next weekend won't be easy, either.) Because the wear from such tough games tends to have a cumulative effect, this might be the Rebels' best chance to win one of these. After watching Texas A&M's Mike Evans abuse Alabama's corners in man coverage, Ole Miss offensive coaches probably spent the bye week seeking ways to isolate receivers Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell. Neither is as big as the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Evans, but those two are big enough that they should be able to win their share of one-on-one matchups.
Last game: Beat Texas, 44-23
Next game: Saturday at Alabama
Last week: NR
Fresno State Bulldogs (3-0)Could the Bulldogs be the final BCS buster? The remainder of the schedule suggests it's a possibility. If Fresno State keeps winning, it likely would have to face Utah State or play a rematch against Boise State for the Mountain West title. Playing in the Mountain West title game would make it impossible to reschedule the postponed game against Colorado, which could hurt Fresno a little in the polls. (But not much unless Colorado can somehow elevate itself above doormat status.) But if Rutgers keeps winning, voters will appreciate the Bulldogs' season-opening win over the Scarlet Knights even more.
Last game: Beat Boise State, 41-40
Next game: Saturday at Hawaii
Last week: NR
Texas Tech Red Raiders (4-0)This should be an interesting bye week in Lubbock, because Kliff Kingsbury and his staff must decide which true freshman quarterback will lead the Red Raiders back into Big 12 play when they visit Lawrence on Oct. 5. Will it be Davis Webb, who finished the victories against TCU and Texas State? Or will it be walk-on Baker Mayfield, who started both games? Both players have been prone to freshman mistakes, and both have shown flashes of brilliance. "We feel like Davis can lead us at any point, and they're both going to be playing, so Davis went in and made a couple good throws and had some bad ones, but overall that position has to get better, and they will," Kingsbury said after the Texas State win. "We've got a bye week to get a bunch of reps in and then a road game. We'll see where we're at."
Last game: Beat Texas State, 33-7
Next game: Oct. 5 at Kansas
Last Week: 24
Arizona State Sun Devils (2-1)The Sun Devils learned in the first half at Stanford exactly how far they have to go if they want to compete for the Pac-12 or national title. But they kept fighting and made it close in the second half. That's an excellent trait. If Arizona State wants another shot at Stanford -- though it might get Oregon -- in the Pac-12 title game, then the Sun Devils need to win divisional matchups such as the one this Saturday in Tempe. USC's offense has looked horrendous, and its defense has looked stellar. Arizona State's disruptive defensive line can make the offense's job much easier by forcing some turnovers and keeping field position in the Sun Devils' favor.
Last game: Lost to Stanford, 42-28
Next game: Saturday vs. USC
Last Week: 25
Wisconsin Badgers (3-1)The Badgers' offensive line is mauling opponents and tailback Gordon is averaging an absurd 11.8 yards a carry. Remember how we were all just handing the Big Ten Leaders division title -- as well as the Big Ten title in general -- to Ohio State? The Badgers weren't listening. This might be the toughest opponent the Buckeyes face all season.
Last game: Beat Purdue, 41-10
Next game: Saturday at Ohio State
Next five: Michigan, Notre Dame, Auburn, Michigan State, UCF
Andy Staples' Power Rankings also serve as his ballot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.