The Undefeated 16: Who has the clearest path to perfection?
There are 16 undefeated teams remaining in the FBS, up from 10 at this point last season. Last year, only one team (Florida State) made it through the regular season unbeaten. Yet this season, despite having more candidates at this point, feels like one of those in which no one will survive the gauntlet unscathed. At least one (Florida or LSU) is guaranteed to lose this week, but what about the rest?
Can anyone make it through? And what's the most likely date each team suffers its first loss? Here's a breakdown, with the schools listed alphabetically, of the road ahead for the 16 that are still perfect.
The Bears' starters had their shoulder pads off in the third quarter of Saturday's 66–7 rout at Kansas. Texas Tech is the only decent competition Baylor has played so far, but the Bears crushed the Red Raiders 63–35. This week's visit from West Virginia should provide a better gauge for how good Baylor is at the moment.
Potential first loss: Bill Snyder is a wizard, and Thursday nights are tough for road favorites, so we have to throw the Nov. 5 visit to Kansas State in the mix here. The two weeks after that, Baylor faces Oklahoma (in Waco) and Oklahoma State (in Stillwater) back-to-back. That sets up the potential de facto Big 12 title game on Black Friday at TCU. That's a vicious stretch, and it doesn't even include the Dec. 5 game against Texas. (It's anyone's guess what the Longhorns will look like at that point.) A one-loss Big 12 champ can probably make the College Football Playoff, so this may not be a do-or-die stretch for the Bears. Still, if they do get through it undefeated, they'll have earned their spot in the playoff in the final month.
The Tigers rolled past Georgia Tech 43–24 on Saturday. Now they enter a three-week stretch of playing teams they should beat before hosting Florida State on Nov. 7.
Potential first loss: Of all these teams, the Tigers may have the best potential to stay undefeated. Their schedule is kinder than others, and the out-of-conference game that gave them fits from 2009-13 (South Carolina) looks quite manageable this fall. Clemson just has to beat Florida State. The Tigers haven't done that since '11, but they should be favored this time around.
The Gators learned this week that redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier would be suspended for the rest of this season and the first six games of next season after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug during an NCAA-administered test. That means sophomore Treon Harris will start at LSU. That means … well, we don't know. Florida's offense wasn't supposed to be good with either quarterback under center, and coach Jim McElwain and coordinator Doug Nussmeier worked magic with Grier. They'll have to do it again with Harris, and they'll have to do it mostly on the ground.
Potential first loss: LSU, obviously. But don't assume the Tigers will roll over the Gators. LSU hasn't played a defense as good as Florida's yet, and the Gators certainly have the athletes to play man-to-man on the outside and load the box in an attempt to stop tailback Leonard Fournette. But the odds are that Florida will lose to either LSU, Georgia (Oct. 31) or both. The bright side for the Gators is if they beat one of them, they would only need to beat Vanderbilt and South Carolina to win the SEC East.
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Florida State (5–0)
Sophomore tailback Dalvin Cook, tweaked hamstring and all, rushed for 222 yards to carry the Seminoles to a 29–24 win over Miami on Saturday. If there comes a time that injury keeps Cook from playing, forget the next paragraph and assume every remaining game is a pick 'em.
Potential first loss: Louisville might be 2–3, but the Cardinals only allow 4.8 yards a play, and their offense looked a little more coherent in a 20–13 win at NC State on Oct. 3. Louisville had a bye week to prepare for Saturday's visit to Doak Campbell Stadium, and Florida State is coming off a tough game against Miami. If the Seminoles beat the Cardinals, they should be able to get to the unofficial ACC Atlantic Division title game at Clemson (Nov. 7) undefeated. They'll need to be better than they have been to leave Death Valley with a victory. That's entirely possible given that most of Florida State's starters were inexperienced coming into the season and are learning as they go. If they do win that one, a visit to Florida on Nov. 28 that looked like a sure win in the preseason now looks considerably more challenging than originally expected.
First-year coach Tom Herman will have to mend his banged-up offensive line with some duct tape and keep going. Junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (8 touchdown passes, 11 touchdown runs) is great at finding the end zone, but the path will get tougher.
Potential first loss: Vanderbilt comes to Houston on Oct. 31, and Commodores coach Derek Mason has proven himself quite capable of calling a game that can slow a prolific offense. After that, Houston gets visits from Cincinnati and Memphis in consecutive weeks.
Like Oklahoma State in the Big 12, the Hawkeyes have lived dangerously but remained undefeated. Unlike Oklahoma State, Iowa has a better chance of winning some kind of title—because of the Big Ten's divisional structure—even if its good fortune runs out.
Potential first loss: The Hawkeyes—who don't play Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State this year—can take command of the Big Ten West race by winning at Northwestern on Saturday. But don't be fooled by the Wildcats' lopsided loss to the Wolverines. They have enough firepower to beat Iowa, and they desperately need the tiebreaker against the outfit that may be the other challenger for the West title.
Fournette and the Tigers will get tested by Florida's stingy defense, which allows only 4.4 yards a play. The Gators will likely pack the box for Fournette and try to force sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris to beat them, but that doesn't necessarily mean Fournette won't still carry the Tigers to a win.
Potential first loss: If LSU beats Florida, the Tigers could get a few interesting quarters from Western Kentucky on Oct. 24. Then they have an open date and a trip to Tuscaloosa that could help decide the SEC West. Alabama's defense, which allows 2.6 yards a carry, is naturally suited to slow a player like Fournette and an offense like LSU's. The Crimson Tide may be the only team LSU plays with starting linebackers who all outweigh Fournette.
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The Tigers will get their biggest test of the season this Saturday when Ole Miss comes to the Liberty Bowl.
Potential first loss: Ole Miss has already won at Alabama, so it can definitely win at Memphis. The Tigers hope the Rebels who got creamed at Florida are the ones who show up Saturday. But if Memphis wins this game, the Tigers would become huge Ole Miss fans. Practically the only way a Group of Five school could make the playoff is by going undefeated and knocking off a member of the Power Five elite in the process. If Memphis won and Ole Miss wound up winning the SEC West—or the entire SEC—it would be huge for the Tigers and the Group of Five. Of course, even if Memphis beats Ole Miss, it probably would still have to win at Houston (Nov. 14, a week after a game against Navy) and in the American Athletic Conference title game to have a shot at making the playoff.
Michigan State (6–0)
Editor Ben Glicksman was marveling Saturday at the ever-changing meaning of the Oregon Transitive Property. Here's a quick review.
Sept. 10: Michigan State beat Oregon by three. Michigan State is awesome.
Sept. 26: Wow. Utah just hammered Oregon 62–20 in Eugene. Maybe Michigan State isn't so awesome.
Oct. 10: Washington State just beat Oregon 45–38 in Eugene in double-overtime. Michigan State barely survived at Rutgers when the quarterback spiked the ball to stop the clock—on fourth down. Maybe that Oregon-Michigan State game didn't tell us much of anything. Also, since Portland State beat Washington State 24–17 in the season opener, does the Oregon Transitive Property now make Portland State the best team in Oregon?
Potential first loss: Where's the threat? It certainly appears to be in Ann Arbor. We'll find out this week whether Jim Harbaugh has made that big of a difference at Michigan or whether we'll see a regression to the mean. Dr. Connor Cook seemed to think the Spartans would be healthier for this game after getting gnawed to pieces by the injury bug in recent weeks.
Connor Cook gives an injury report, says he expects Price and Conklin back at U-M (says Jack Allen too though he doesn't know the injury).— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) October 11, 2015
If the Spartans top the Wolverines, the circled-on-the-calendar game reverts to the Nov. 21 trip to Columbus.
Ohio State (6–0)
Urban Meyer seems to have hit upon a workable solution to handing out playing time to his quarterbacks. He hopped in the time machine and headed back to 2006, when his two Florida quarterbacks had defined roles for a national title run. Cardale Jones acts as Chris Leak, starting and handling the majority of the field. J.T. Barrett functions as Tim Tebow, handling the area near the goal line. (Unlike Tebow in '06, who entered in goal-line situations, Barrett comes in when the Buckeyes cross the opponent's 20-yard line.) Now Ohio State just has to stay interested until Nov. 21.
Potential first loss: Though our perception of the Buckeyes has changed through the season's first six weeks, the date to remember hasn't. It's when Michigan State comes to town. With Michigan's improvement, it's probably a good idea to add the Nov. 28 meeting in Ann Arbor to the list of potential traps. That said, only Clemson appears to have a smoother path to an undefeated season than Ohio State.
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Oklahoma State (6–0)
The Cowboys keep finding a way. Saturday, the coaching staff changed the blocking scheme in overtime, leading to a J.W. Walsh touchdown that lifted Oklahoma State to a 33–26 victory over West Virginia. That followed close wins at Texas and against Kansas State. Against the Wildcats, officials gave the Cowboys a phantom first down that prolonged a touchdown drive in a two-point win.
Potential first loss: Oklahoma State is off this week and goes to Kansas next week, so there is no danger until at least Oct. 31 when the Cowboys travel to Texas Tech. The following week, TCU comes to Stillwater. If Oklahoma State squeaks those out, we may have to start a legitimate Team of Destiny conversation.
The Horned Frogs have already survived two close calls (at Texas Tech and at Kansas State), and it seems as if there is a shelf life on how long quarterback Trevone Boykin and receiver Josh Doctson can keep TCU's score higher than an opponent playing against a banged-up Frogs' defense.
Potential first loss: TCU's schedule actually appears manageable through the remainder of the month. November looks brutal, though. The Frogs go to Stillwater on Nov. 7, Norman on Nov. 21 and face Baylor at home on Black Friday. As long as TCU can beat the Bears, it may not even have to go undefeated through that stretch to earn a playoff spot.
The Owls made a splash immediately by beating Penn State 27–10 in the season opener. Now they must navigate a surprisingly deep American Athletic Conference with a really tough out-of-conference game thrown in for good measure.
Potential first loss: Both teams will have shortened preparation time when Temple plays at East Carolina on Oct. 22 (a Thursday). That tends to invite weirdness. Even if the Owls get past the Pirates, they would still have to beat Notre Dame on Halloween. The Fighting Irish will be coming off an open date. If Temple survives that game, it would have to beat Memphis on Nov. 21 and then the American's title game, which would probably be a rematch against Memphis or a game against Houston.
Texas A&M (5–0)
The Aggies are rested, but they'll need every ounce of energy to beat a team that beat them 59–0 last year.
Potential first loss: Alabama hammered Texas A&M last fall, so it stands to reason the Tide could beat the Aggies again this season. The schedule favors Texas A&M, which didn't have to play Georgia and Arkansas in back-to-back weeks, but that may not matter if Alabama quarterback Jake Coker can protect the ball and Alabama's defense flexes. If the Aggies do beat the Tide, they'll head to Oxford the next week. There, Ole Miss All-America left tackle Laremy Tunsil will make his 2015 debut. If the Aggies somehow win both of these games, they should start dreaming very big. Even if they split them, they might still be in the mix for the SEC West title.
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Coach Matt Campbell's Rockets stunned Arkansas 16–12 in September, and there's a good chance they could remain undefeated until November or possibly beyond.
Potential first loss: The biggest challenge left on Toledo's schedule is a Tuesday night visit to Bowling Green on Nov. 17. Mark your calendar now, because that looks like peak MACtion.
The Utes boasted a plus-four turnover differential Saturday—which included five interceptions of Jared Goff—and still only beat Cal by six points. The Pac-12 race will be a slog, but Kyle Whittingham's team might be the best equipped to handle it.
Potential first loss: The next two games could be treacherous. Utah hasn't beaten Arizona State since joining the Pac-12, and the Sun Devils seem to be hitting their stride ahead of Saturday's visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium. If the Utes get past Arizona State, they'll face a USC team that is an absolute mystery after Steve Sarkisian was fired. Win or lose, the Trojans could get pretty beat up by Notre Dame before they face the Utes. But if USC players respond to Sarkisian's firing the way they did to Lane Kiffin's ouster 2013, woe unto the teams remaining on their schedule.