Elite teams pulling away from the pack after Week 7
When someone complains to me about where I've ranked their team on my AP Poll ballot, I usually use the same stock response. We do a new poll every week. Maybe you'll like the next one better.
I don't even like this one. I'm fine with the top, but I'm not particularly thrilled with the bottom. The differences from No. 20 to No. 35 are so negligible at the moment that any combination of those teams in any order would make sense yet still infuriate the fan bases whose teams fall below the arbitrary cutoff after No. 25. Most weeks, I wish we could cut off the rankings beneath the teams that have a legitimate shot at the national title at this point and just ditch the rest. Spencer Hall of EveryDayShouldBeSaturday.com did this on Monday, and he snipped off his ranking at No. 7. Unfortunately for us, we're stuck with 25. Let's slog through together ...
Las week: 1
Alabama Crimson Tide (6-0)Two red zone fumbles in the first quarter against Kentucky should give the Crimson Tide pause, but it certainly seems that unless Johnny Manziel -- or maybe Marcus Mariota -- is the opposing quarterback, Alabama's defense is going to suffocate its opponents. Arkansas has played two excellent defenses the past two weeks (Florida and South Carolina). The cavalcade of pain should continue on Saturday in Tuscaloosa for the Razorbacks.
Last game: Beat Kentucky, 48-7
Next game: Saturday vs. Arkansas
Last week: 2
Oregon Ducks (6-0)Johnny Football may have worked his magic again in Oxford, but the other quarterback who committed to Oregon for the class of 2011 looks like the Heisman Trophy favorite at this point. Mariota appeared unstoppable against Washington, throwing for 366 yards and three touchdowns and running for 88 yards and a score. Even without tailback De'Anthony Thomas (ankle), the Ducks ran for 265 yards and averaged 5.3 yards a carry against a Huskies' defense that entered the game allowing only 3.94 yards a play. Meanwhile, the Oregon defense sacked Keith Price four times.
Last game: Beat Washington, 45-24
Next game: Saturday vs. Washington State
Last week: 3
Clemson Tigers (6-0)Dabo Swinney found a silver lining in a close win over an inferior opponent that should give the Tigers pause with Florida State coming to Death Valley on Saturday. "We missed a lot of opportunities on offense. We had a lot of miscues. We totaled 500 yards of offense and that was the worst we've played all year, but that's very encouraging," Swinney said of the Tigers' victory over Boston College last week. "We had a lot of missed opportunities and have a lot to improve on. We showed resolve and character and won the second half, 21-7. If you want to be a good team, you have to win games like this. We kept fighting and overcame mistakes and it's good to get out with a win."
Guess what? Swinney is correct. In years past, Clemson would have lost a game like this. (There might even be a term for such a loss.) If the Tigers beat Florida State on Saturday night, no one will remember the score of the Boston College game.
Last game: Beat Boston College, 24-14
Next game: Saturday vs. Florida State
Last week: 5
Florida State Seminoles (5-0)I spent a day in Tallahassee last week working on a feature on Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston for this week's issue of the magazine, and I saw a supremely confident team excited about the opportunity it has this week. Florida State seems to be peaking at precisely the correct time, but Death Valley can discombobulate even an experienced group. Coach Jimbo Fisher should find out early this week whether the Seminoles will have center Bryan Stork and defensive tackle Demonte McAllister -- who each missed time because of concussions -- back for the Clemson game. Each is a key veteran, and Stork is especially important because of his role protecting Winston in the redshirt freshman's toughest test to date.
Last game: Beat Maryland, 63-0
Next game: Saturday at Clemson
Last week: 6
Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0)After Michigan's loss at Penn State on Saturday, the remainder of the Buckeyes' schedule looks even worse. Barring an unforeseen calamity, Ohio State should be able to finish the regular season undefeated, but any thought of the Buckeyes overtaking an unbeaten SEC, Pac-12 or ACC team has vanished. The good news for Ohio State? The teams in those leagues seem pretty intent on beating up on one another, and the Buckeyes only need two of the three league champs to have a loss. The other good -- or possibly bad -- news? Michigan State appears to have found a capable quarterback in Connor Cook, and the Spartans may have curated an offense to pair with Pat Narduzzi's relentless three-and-out machine. Meanwhile, Nebraska's defense may have finally turned a corner. If one of these two teams keeps winning and takes the Legends Division, Ohio State could have a decently ranked, sufficiently tough Big Ten title game opponent. A win against such an opponent would help the cause. Unfortunately, it's also quite possible the Buckeyes could lose to such an opponent.
Last game: Beat Northwestern, 40-30
Next game: Saturday vs. Iowa
Last week: 8
LSU Tigers (6-1)Jim Kleinpeter, the LSU beat writer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, was kind enough to transcribe all of Les Miles' response to a reporter's question on Saturday that compared Florida to the hammer and LSU to the nail in LSU's 2012 loss in Gainesville. Miles, whose team had just beaten Florida in a similar slobberknocker, took issue with the comparison. Magic ensued.
"I've got a question for you: It was a 14-6 game. We played our [expletive] off, and how anybody could pick the hammer and the nail, when in fact, that hammer, or that nail, or whatever the hell you got picked, we catch a ball down there, we're fixing to take the lead and we turn it over. I mean explain to me how Kevin Minter, who sets, damn near, the career tackle record in that game, how anybody could ever say 'hammer and nail.'
I can tell you right now, here's what happens: two very quality teams take the field and compete like a son-of-a-[expletive] for victory. And you know what? It's not a hammer and a nail relationship. It's an opportunity for an opponent to be equal, and to raise the level of play in such a fashion that they win.
And that's how this thing works. That, in fact, you respect the opponent, and he's not the hammer and he's not the frickin' nail. OK, he's the opponent. Understand? I'm just letting you know I resent that. I resent the fact that suddenly we were nailed. You got it? I mean, honest to petes.
[Expletive] we were a pretty good team last year. I thought we played like a son-of-a-[expletive] in the stadium. I'm just letting you know, I felt differently than the nail, so you know."
Miles will repeat this speech to his team in Oxford on Saturday. The players will understand approximately 39 percent of the message, but they will be righteously fired up.
Last game: Beat Florida, 17-6
Next game: Saturday at Ole Miss
Last week: 10
Baylor Bears (5-0)I didn't want to move Baylor this high in the rankings after its offense was revealed to be mortal on Saturday in Manhattan. But Stanford and Georgia lost, Louisville looked only slightly above average against Rutgers and Texas A&M once again attempted to play a football game without a defense. In other words, some team had to go here, and Baylor was the best possible candidate. (Besides, I would have had the Bears around nine or 10 anyway.)
In spite of the above admission, allow me to make some excuses for Baylor's placement. The Bears notched their first Big 12 road win since 2011. Playing against a team with a defensive-minded head coach who is in fact a wizard, Baylor still averaged 7.6 yards a play.
On the negative side, the Bears' defense allowed Kansas State quarterback Daniel Sams to run for 199 yards and three touchdowns. So it's entirely possible that Baylor might be Texas with a much more explosive offense. If the Bears are lucky, maybe Oklahoma will forget to run its quarterbacks when it plays them, too.
Last game: Beat Kansas State, 35-25
Next game: Saturday vs. Iowa State
Last week: 9
Texas A&M Aggies (5-1)Here's a crazy stat: Texas A&M scored 42 points against Alabama's defense. Alabama's other five opponents have scored a combined 26 points. Here's another crazy stat: The Aggies' defense is allowing 6.5 yards a play. That's why Manziel had to save Texas A&M's bacon again in Oxford on Saturday.
Ole Miss actually had an excellent game plan to stop Manziel, but the Rebels couldn't hold up after they sustained some injuries and Johnny Football went into full force-of-nature mode. Still, Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was probably taking notes. One of these days, A&M's offense is going to sputter. Eventually, everyone has a bad game. When that happens, will the defense be able to pick up the slack? So far, it hasn't proven it can.
Last game: Beat Ole Miss, 41-38
Next game: Saturday vs. Auburn
Last week: 11
Louisville Cardinals (6-0)Rutgers was probably the most athletically gifted team on Louisville's schedule. UCF is probably the best team on Louisville's schedule. Quarterback Blake Bortles will play in the NFL at some point, and UCF's defense had South Carolina on the ropes on Sept. 28 until running back Mike Davis went into Beast Mode. The Cardinals didn't take advantage of their Thursday showcase last week. With no NFL game on opposite this one, it's possible Louisville will get a bigger audience this week. But will most of the people watching realize that UCF is probably a tougher opponent than the Scarlet Knights?
Last game: Beat Rutgers, 24-10
Next game: Friday vs. UCF
Last week: 12
Miami Hurricanes (5-0)The Hurricanes will get their showcase this week. Thanks to a weak section of their schedule, they've operated under the radar for the past few weeks. North Carolina isn't any better than Georgia Tech -- in fact, the Tar Heels already lost to Georgia Tech -- but the eyes of the college football world will be on Miami because it's playing on Thursday. This is why the ACC plays so many of these games, and conference officials have to hope the 'Canes keep humming. Between Clemson, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech's salty defense, the ACC is beginning to look like the football league its commissioner said it needed to be.
Last game: Beat Georgia Tech, 45-30
Next game: Thursday at North Carolina
Last week: 13
South Carolina Gamecocks (4-1)Thanks to Missouri's win against Georgia, South Carolina now has new life in the SEC East race. With the Bulldogs still reeling from injuries and no longer the same team that beat the Gamecocks in Week 2, South Carolina has a chance to exert some control in the next two weeks, and hammering Arkansas seemed like an appropriate warm-up. Up first is the Tennessee team that nearly upended Georgia. Next is a trip to the other Columbia to face the Tigers, who may or may not still be undefeated at that point but likely will have been softened up by a visit from Florida's defense.
Last game: Beat Arkansas, 52-7
Next game: Saturday at Tennessee
Last week: 14
UCLA Bruins (5-0)Now comes the test for the Bruins. Twice last year -- once in the regular-season finale and once in the Pac-12 title game -- the Cardinal proved their superiority over UCLA. The Bruins had built a program that could win the Pac-12 South -- and not only because USC had to deal with NCAA sanctions -- but they couldn't hang with the best of the Pac-12 North.
This year, UCLA visits Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks. A split would be fine, leaving the Bruins ranked high and firmly in control of the South race. Two losses would be a big setback for a program trying to claw its way into college football's elite, and it would leave UCLA with little margin for error in the division title race. Two wins? Then we might be talking about the Bruins playing one more game in the Rose Bowl than originally scheduled -- and it might be the one scheduled for Jan. 6.
Last game: Beat Cal, 37-10
Next game: Saturday at Stanford
Last week: 4
Stanford Cardinal (5-1)A season that began with huge expectations could turn quickly if the Cardinal don't pick themselves up from Saturday's loss to Utah and prepare for the second visit from an elite conference opponent in three weeks. The Utah game came in a tough spot for Stanford. The Utes were pretty good but had taken tough losses against Oregon State and UCLA. They desperately needed a conference win to keep their season from sliding out of control. Stanford had just survived Washington and had the Bruins on the horizon. But national title contenders are supposed to be able to win games like last Saturday's. Now, Stanford probably must win two tough matchups with UCLA and Oregon State to still be in striking distance when Oregon comes to Palo Alto on Nov. 7. The Ducks don't appear to be slowing down, so the only way for the Cardinal to win the North may be to go 8-1 in conference with the head-to-head win against Oregon. Given what seems to be league-wide improvement, that is asking an awful lot.
Last game: Lost to Utah, 27-21
Next game: Saturday vs. UCLA
Last Week: 22
Missouri Tigers (6-0)The Tigers asserted themselves in the SEC East race with extreme prejudice on Saturday, but now they'll have to stay in that race without quarterback James Franklin. Franklin separated his shoulder late in the win in Athens. Tigers coach Gary Pinkel declared reports that Franklin would miss the rest of the season to be erroneous, but it is a safe bet that Franklin won't be able to play these next two weeks. Florida and South Carolina come to Columbia in succession, and the East picture should clear up following these two weeks. Winning both games would be a tall order, but it would put Missouri in firm control of the division. Splitting them would keep Missouri in the hunt and probably would place a lot of weight on a visit from Texas A&M on Nov. 30. It also would produce a lot of scoreboard watching when Florida plays Georgia on Nov. 2 and South Carolina on Nov. 16. Losing both games wouldn't eliminate the Tigers, but they might need some serious help.
Last game: Beat Georgia, 41-26
Next game: Saturday vs. Florida
Last week: 15
Washington Huskies (4-2)I'm not sure losing to Oregon -- even by 21 points -- is reason to drop any team that isn't ranked in the top 10. We'll learn more as the season goes on, but it appears the Ducks might just be that good. This week should be more telling. Arizona State has a nice (official-assisted) win against Wisconsin, but the Sun Devils got drilled by Stanford and edged by Notre Dame. The Huskies need to win this week to prove they belong in the upper echelon of the Pac-12. The Sun Devils need to win for the same reason, which should make this one fun to watch.
Last game: Lost to Oregon, 45-24
Next game: Saturday at Arizona State
Last week: 7
Georgia Bulldogs (4-2)I realize the Bulldogs have a head-to-head win against South Carolina, but anyone who has watched the past few weeks would admit this simply isn't the same team that beat the Gamecocks in Week 2. Georgia's offense has been wracked by injury, and as we learned on Saturday, quarterback Aaron Murray can't do everything by himself. If Murray can somehow will this team to an SEC East title, he'll deserve the truckload of postseason awards he'll likely take home. The best hope for the Bulldogs is an improvement on defense. The offense still has some punch, but it will not be able to carry the team to victory every game. The defense will have to help. That improvement needs to start this weekend. Much like Stanford visiting Utah last Saturday, Georgia visits a Vanderbilt team in desperate need of a win to keep this season from going off the rails. The Commodores are 0-3 in SEC play with trips to College Station and Gainesville on the horizon. This looks like their best chance for a win, which means the Bulldogs must prepare to get Vandy's best shot.
Last game: Lost to Missouri, 41-26
Next game: Saturday at Vanderbilt
Last week: 19
Texas Tech Red Raiders (6-0)The Red Raiders will have to be on high alert to make sure the cleat isn't on the other foot in 2013. Last year, West Virginia came to Lubbock with a No. 5 ranking and a 5-0 record and got throttled. The Mountaineers never recovered. With the toughest portion of its Big 12 schedule still to come, Texas Tech needs to take wins where it can get them. Morgantown is a place the Red Raiders can win as long as they don't get caught looking ahead to a suddenly intriguing visit to Norman the following week. The Red Raiders have the good fortune of two capable true freshman quarterbacks. With Baker Mayfield (knee) out, backup Davis Webb threw for 415 yards against Iowa State. Another big plus for Texas Tech? Red Raiders sports information guru Blayne Beal reports that the Tech defense leads the nation in forcing three-and-outs with 44 in 97 possessions. That's an especially good trait in a league loaded with hurry-up offenses. Make a hurry-up team go three-and-out two possessions in a row and have even a modicum of success on offense, and the opposing defense is going to be gassed enough to let a true freshman quarterback pile up the yards.
Last game: Beat Iowa State, 42-35
Next game: Saturday at West Virginia
Last week: 18
Florida Gators (4-2)LSU answered the burning question about Florida on Saturday. Did the Gators' offense really improve when quarterback Tyler Murphy took over for injured Jeff Driskel? Not enough. Florida's defense held a team that came in averaging 45.5 points a game to 17, but the Gators didn't move the ball well enough to take advantage of that performance. Florida has arguably the best defense in the country, and that will win most games for the Gators, but it will not win the games they must win to take the SEC East title. The offense will have to get better, and soon.
Last game: Lost to LSU, 17-6
Next game: Saturday at Missouri
Last week: 20
Fresno State Bulldogs (5-0)UNLV, which hadn't won more than two games in a season since 2009, now has won its last four. The opponents (Central Michigan, Western Illinois, New Mexico, Hawaii) aren't the most impressive, but the Bulldogs should consider the Rebels quite dangerous. Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr should be reenergized. He used some time off last week to spend some quality time with his wife and two-month-old son. Never mind. I just remembered how little I slept when my kids were newborns. Block well, Fresno State offensive linemen. Carr may be a little drowsy back there.
Last game: Beat Idaho, 61-14
Next game: Saturday vs. UNLV
Last week: 23
Auburn Tigers (5-1)Now the Tigers get to find out just how quickly Gus Malzahn can bring them back. Win in College Station on Saturday, and it won't be long before Auburn returns to the SEC title discussion. There is no shame in a loss, especially a close one. But the Tigers have to like their chances after watching last week's Ole Miss-Texas A&M game. Sure, the Aggies will score points. But they're going to allow a lot of points as well. Auburn burned the redshirt of backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson against Western Carolina because of Nick Marshall's injured knee, but offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told reporters on Sunday that he expects Marshall back to play at Texas A&M.
Last game: Beat Western Carolina, 62-3
Next game: Saturday at Texas A&M
Last week: 24
Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-1)The Cornhuskers get a bye week before a trip to Minnesota and then a three-week stretch (Northwestern, at Michigan, Michigan State) that likely will decide the Legends Division. After quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s day against the Boilermakers, it should be a fairly quiet bye week. The drums were starting to beat for Taylor Martinez to get Wally Pipped by Armstrong, but as Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel pointed out, the youngster's play on Saturday showed that a healthy Martinez probably remains Nebraska's best option at quarterback. The bye also should give coaches time to figure out their best options after losing All-America guard Spencer Long, who injured his knee on Saturday and, sadly, may have played his final game as a Cornhusker.
Last game: Beat Purdue, 44-7
Next game: Oct. 26 at Minnesota
Last week: NR
Virginia Tech Hokies (6-1)We should have realized Virginia Tech's defense was nasty when it held Alabama's offense to only two offensive touchdowns in their matchup on Aug. 31. This group seems to improve each week, and like Florida, if the offense can give the Hokies anything, this team could have a special season. The schedule is kind. Virginia Tech didn't draw Florida State or Clemson. A Nov. 9 visit to Miami will likely decide the ACC Coastal Division.
Last game: Beat Pittsburgh, 19-9
Next game: Oct. 26 vs. Duke
Last week: 17
Oklahoma Sooners (5-1)The absence of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and linebacker Corey Nelson was obvious against Texas, and that doesn't bode well for the Sooners against other good inside running teams such as Baylor and Oklahoma State. The good news is that cornerback Aaron Colvin, the other guy Oklahoma couldn't afford to lose, should be OK to play against Kansas on Saturday. Offensively, the Sooners need to develop an identity. Blake Bell had a serious case of happy feet against Texas, and his indecision -- as well as the receivers' inability to get open -- hampered the Sooners almost as much as the coaching staffs' curious choice not to employ Bell or backup Trevor Knight in the running game against a Texas defense that had been gashed by quarterback runs earlier this season.
Last game: Lost to Texas, 36-20
Next game: Saturday at Kansas
Last week: 21
Michigan Wolverines (5-1)Michigan coach Brady Hoke told reporters on Monday that he didn't think the play-calling on Saturday against Penn State was too conservative. While Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany -- who played basketball for Dean Smith in the four corners days -- probably agrees with this sentiment, no one else does. When a team has the ball first in overtime, it should at least try to move toward the end zone. The risk of a turnover isn't that much higher than three consecutive handoffs, and the potential reward -- a touchdown or a chip-shot field goal -- is worth it. This week, the Wolverines host the team that pounded Penn State a week before the Nittany Lions beat Michigan. If the Wolverines can't beat the Hoosiers, don't expect to see them back in the rankings this season.
Last game: Lost to Penn State, 43-40 (4OT)
Next game: Saturday vs. Indiana
Last Week: 25
Last game: Beat Arizona State, 37-34
Next game: Saturday vs. USC
Next five: Michigan State, Arizona State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, Northern Illinois
Andy Staples' Power Rankings also serve as his ballot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.