Tuesday October 20th, 2009

I finally caved. Much like its running game has done to every opposing defense this season, Alabama wore me down and left me no choice but to leap the Crimson Tide over the Gators and into the No. 1 spot.

After Boise State narrowly escaped Tulsa last week, mid-major fans warned me on Twitter not to apply the transitive property to college football games. Frankly, I considered this an excuse because Boise State had beaten Tulsa by a touchdown while soon-to-be 3-3 Oklahoma had beaten the Golden Hurricane by 45, but I understood the sentiment. Things change from week to week in college football. Still, that doesn't mean we can't find some truths when comparing two teams' common opponents.

In the case of Alabama and Florida, Arkansas is that common opponent. (Yes, the Tide and Gators also both played Kentucky, but while the Gators were more dominant early, each squad beat the Wildcats soundly.) Since each team ranks among the nation's elite in defense, we'll concentrate on that side of the ball. On Sept. 25 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama's defense dominated the Razorbacks despite losing a dynamic linebacker (Dont'a Hightower) to injury. The Crimson Tide held Hogs quarterback Ryan Mallett to 180 passing yards, sacked him three times and harassed him to the tune of 25 incomplete passes. Arkansas' longest play from scrimmage was a 25-yard pass from Mallett to Joe Adams, a receiver who didn't play against Florida because he suffered a mild stroke a few weeks ago. Also, the Crimson Tide had to face Arkansas starting tailback Michael Smith, who didn't play against the Gators.

On Oct. 17 in Gainesville, Florida's defense also lost a dynamic linebacker (Brandon Spikes) to injury -- though not for the season, as was the case with Hightower. Against the Gators, Mallett still completed less than 50 percent of his passes (12-of-27) and threw for 224 yards. He was sacked four times. The difference was the big plays. Florida allowed a 75-yard touchdown pass to Greg Childs, a 42-yard run by Dennis Johnson and a 26-yard completion from Mallett to London Crawford.

This all may sound nitpicky, but when you're dealing with the nation's two best teams, you have to pick a few small things to assess which one is better at a given moment. Fortunately for us, if Alabama and Florida keep winning, they'll get to settle the argument on the field.

As we move down the rankings, we come to our first iron triangle of the season. What's an iron triangle? Think Oklahoma-Texas-Texas Tech in 2008. In this case Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia Tech are the points of the triangle. Miami beat Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech beat Miami and Georgia Tech beat Virginia Tech. So what's a sportswriter to do? I decided to keep the three together with Miami ahead of Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Under any other circumstances, the two-loss Hokies would have fallen more, but since that other loss came against Alabama, they get a pass. I may change the order based on performance, but until one of the three loses, I'll do my best to keep the ACC Coastal Division foes together.

After No. 19, the rankings get messy. I bumped up two teams (Wisconsin and Notre Dame) that played impressive opponents tough but lost. I brought in a WAC team (Idaho) that is having a great season but may or may not be good enough to beat some of the middling SEC and Big 12 teams ranked below it. With so few teams really distinguishing themselves, it's tough to choose those final five or six teams.

So don't be surprised if I make wholesale changes next week at the bottom of the poll. And depending on how the Gators and Crimson Tide perform in the coming weeks, don't be shocked if you see another change at the top.

NCAA Football Power Rankings
1Alabama Crimson Tide
Last Week: 2
The Tide looked slightly less invincible against South Carolina. Tennessee could make its season with a win in Tuscaloosa. This one could be dangerous, especially if Volunteers quarterback Jonathan Crompton reprises the second-coming-of-Dan Marino role he played against Georgia.
Last game: Beat South Carolina, 20-6
Next game: Saturday vs. Tennessee
 
2Florida Gators
Last Week: 1
A week after looking vulnerable in every phase, the Gators go on the road to face a team coached by Dan Mullen, the guy who ran their offense from 2005-08. Florida's last trip to Starkville cost Ron Zook his job. All of this sounds ominous, which means Florida probably will buck conventional wisdom and crush the Bulldogs.
Last game: Beat Arkansas, 23-20
Next game: Saturday at Mississippi State
 
3Texas Longhorns
Last Week: 3
The Longhorns still lead the Everyone Else bracket, so no matter where morons like me rank them, they're still headed to the BCS title game if they go undefeated. Then again, that's a pretty big if.
Last game: Beat Oklahoma, 16-13
Next game: at Missouri
 
4Cincinnati Bearcats
Last Week: 5
Bearcats quarterback Tony Pike returned to practice Monday after spraining his left wrist last Thursday at South Florida. It's not clear whether Pike will play against Louisville, but Cincinnati should roll whether Pike, Zach Collaros or Chazz Anderson starts.
Last game: Beat South Florida, 34-17
Next game: Saturday vs. Louisville
 
5USC Trojans
Last Week: 6
The Trojans will overtake any of the undefeated teams should they slip. Quarterback Matt Barkley gets better every week, and USC already has its mystifying Pac-10 loss in the rearview mirror. Plus, the Trojans have a chance Saturday to avenge last season's mystifying Pac-10 loss.
Last game: Beat Notre Dame, 34-27
Next game: Saturday vs. Oregon State
 
6Iowa Hawkeyes
Last Week: 13
Like Alabama, the Hawkeyes aren't flashy, but they get the job done. Still, it seems Iowa's toughest games are on the road, so it's tough to feel confident they can survive the gauntlet unscathed.
Last game: Beat Wisconsin, 20-10
Next game: Saturday at Michigan State
 
7TCU Horned Frogs
Last Week: 9
TCU and BYU have won three of the past four Mountain West titles. It's a good bet the winner of Saturday's game will make it four of five. But this is bigger for the Horned Frogs, whose BCS title aspirations remain intact. How realistic those aspirations are remains to be seen, but the Frogs have to beat the Cougars to have even a remote shot.
Last game: Beat Colorado State, 44-6
Next game: Saturday at BYU
 
8LSU Tigers
Last Week: 8
Auburn was exposed in the past two weeks, but that doesn't mean the Bayou Bengals should expect to blow out the Tigers on the Plains. Each of the last five meetings has been decided by less than a touchdown.
Last game: Lost to Florida, 13-3
Next game: Saturday vs. Auburn
 
9Penn St. Nittany Lions
Last Week: 16
I adjusted the Nittany Lions' ranking so dramatically for two reasons. First, Penn State pounded a pretty good Minnesota team last weekend. Second, Iowa's success has softened the perception of Penn State's loss to the Hawkeyes. The Nittany Lions can validate that ranking by winning in Ann Arbor this week.
Last game: Beat Minnesota, 20-0
Next game: Saturday at Michigan
 
10Boise St. Broncos
Last Week: 10
The Broncos escaped Tulsa with a win last week, but the national perception of Boise State slipped considerably. With this schedule, the Broncos are better off playing in a media vacuum if they can't win every game by 35. Every time they show even the slightest sign of duress against an inferior opponent in a televised game, that perception will slip more.
Last game: Beat Tulsa, 28-21
Next game: Saturday at Hawaii
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