Because things change every single week of the college football season, many conferences have a new favorite at the end of virtually every Saturday—except for the SEC and ACC, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots seems to be getting wider.
This week, the biggest upheaval came in the Big 12, home of the nation’s top four teams in total offense through three weeks (Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State).
TCU’s win at Oklahoma State put the Horned Frogs squarely in the conference race, and thus the playoff picture, but they still face upcoming road tests against Kansas State and Oklahoma that will reveal how they handle the newfound spotlight. The difference has been the defense, which picked off Mason Rudolph three times and rarely gave the Cowboys’ receivers any room to make an impact downfield.
After shutting down Ohio State, Oklahoma’s defensive performance against Baylor can be summed up as nothing less than disconcerting. Sooner cornerbacks constantly played off coverage, and when they didn’t, they let Bears receivers get behind them. On the bright side for first-year coach Lincoln Riley, the running game showed up in Waco, which could take some pressure off of Baker Mayfield going forward.
Now on to this week’s Power Rankings:
1. Alabama (4–0, 1–0 SEC)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: Beat Vanderbilt, 59–0
Next week: vs. Ole Miss
Alabama’s complete and utter destruction of Vanderbilt laid any doubts about who the nation’s best team is to rest. The manhandling spoke volumes: The Crimson Tide ran for 496 yards and honestly could have won by the same score if they did not attempt any passes. The Tide have now won 19 straight games against the SEC East.
2. Oklahoma (4–0, 1–0 Big 12)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: Beat Baylor, 49–41
Next week: Off; next game Oct. 7 vs. Iowa State
The same things that have gotten Oklahoma beat in previous years (bad special teams and an even worse passing defense) could derail the Sooners’ Big 12 and national title aspirations. The reliable efficiency of Baker Mayfield and the 342 yards put up by the running game were both much needed.
3. Clemson (4–0, 2–0 ACC)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat Boston College, 34–7
Next week: at Virginia Tech
Clemson’s lackluster performance through three quarters against Boston College left much to be desired, although the Tigers pulled away late thanks to a commitment to the run game. Travis Etienne’s two touchdown runs in the last five minutes sealed the Tigers’ fourth straight victory over BC, masking a shaky day for Kelly Bryant a week after he shined against Louisville. The junior quarterbackonly threw for 140 yards on 26 attempts and was picked off twice, but he did run for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
4. Penn State (4–0, 1–0 Big 10)
Previous ranking: 6
Last week: Beat Iowa, 21–19
Next week: vs. Indiana
Penn State’s walk-off victory against Iowa ended a thriller that saw the lead change hands twice in the last two minutes. Saquon Barkley improved his already soaring Heisman stock with for 211 yards and a touchdown. The Nittany Lions had 579 yards and ran 99 plays, but the Hawkeyes hung around until the end.
5. USC (4–0, 2–0 Pac–12)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: Beat Cal, 30–20
Next week: at Washington State
Cal is lucky it only lost by 10, as USC failed for most of the day to capitalize on the opportunities in front of them—the Golden Bears committed six turnovers. But the Trojans cashed in when it was needed with two fourth-quarter scores to put the game away. Sam Darnold’s struggles with interceptions continued as he threw his seventh of the season. He threw only nine in all of 2016.
6. Washington (4–0, 1–0 Pac–12)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: Beat Colorado, 37–10
Next week: at Oregon State
Colorado didn’t punt to ace return man Dante Pettis, but Washington didn’t need it to. The Buffaloes offered plenty of help to the defending Pac-12 champs, yielding three interceptions and a blocked punt, which led to another score. Myles Gaskin ran for 202 yards and two touchdowns to offset an off day by Huskies quarterback Jake Browning, who had 160 yards passing.
7. Georgia (4–0, 1–0 SEC)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: Beat Mississippi State, 31–3
Next week: at Tennessee
The battle of the Bulldogs was not a fair fight, as Georgia steamrolled Mississippi State. Jake Fromm didn’t throw the ball much, putting it in the air only 12 times, but those completions added up to 201 yards. Nick Chubb ran for 81 yards and two touchdowns, and Sony Michel carried the ball seven times in limited duty. After another uninspiring Florida escape, the SEC East is now Georgia’s to lose.
8. Ohio State (3–1, 1–0 Big Ten)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: Beat UNLV, 54–21
Next week: at Rutgers
J.T. Barrett threw for five touchdowns to five different receivers as Ohio State opened up a 44–7 halftime lead on its way to an easy victory. Yes, it was against UNLV, whose secondary gave up 474 passing yards. Barrett is close to breaking several school records, including the school’s career passing mark.
9. TCU (4–0, 1-0 Big 12)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: Beat Oklahoma State, 44–31
Next game: Off; next game Oct. 7 vs. West Virginia
TCU got back to its stout defensive ways against Oklahoma State, shutting down what had been the nation’s most explosive offense through three weeks. On the other side of the ball, Darius Anderson ran for 160 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-clinching 42-yard score with 2:37 left. Kenny Hill passed for 228 yards, and the Horned Frogs controlled the clock by running 85 plays.
10. Michigan (4–0, 1–0 Big 10)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat Purdue, 28–10
Next week: Off; next game Oct. 7 vs. Michigan State
Starting quarterback Wilton Speight was injured in the first quarter on Saturday in West Lafayette, and John O’Korn performed admirably in his place, completing 18 of 26 passes for 270 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The question of who is playing quarterback for the Wolverines is irrelevant as long as the defense continues its suffocating ways. Don Brown’s unit registered five sacks and allowed only nine first downs and 30 rushing yards against the Boilermakers.
11. Wisconsin (3–0)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: Off
Next week: vs. Northwestern
The Badgers kick off their conference slate against Northwestern, and the schools have split the last six meetings. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has been playing mistake-free football (eight touchdowns, one interception), and Big Ten rushing leader Jonathan Taylor is averaging 8.3 yards per carry.
12. Virginia Tech (4–0)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: Beat Old Dominion, 38–0
Next week: vs. Clemson
Virginia Tech might want to break its recent tendency for slow starts very soon. The Hokies trailed 17–7 before blowing out East Carolina last week, and they only led Old Dominion 3–0 after the first quarter on Saturday before the offense got cranking. Josh Jackson threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns, while a running back by committee approach helped control the clock by gaining 271 yards on 57 carries.
13. Miami (2–0)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: Beat Toledo, 52–30
Next week: at Duke
After not playing for three weeks, the Hurricanes understandably came out sluggish. Malik Rosier’s three touchdowns and 333 yards through the air along with a career-high 204 yards for running back Mark Walton ultimately lifted Miami past a game Toledo squad. Logan Woodside, who led the NCAA in touchdown passes last season, threw for three scores on the Hurricanes’ secondary.
14. Oklahoma State (3–1, 0–1 Big 12)
Previous ranking: 4
Last week: Lost to TCU, 44–31
Next week: at Texas Tech
Oklahoma State did the one thing it has to avoid in order to stay in the Big 12 race: turn the ball over. Mason Rudolph was intercepted three times and the Cowboys held the ball for only 21 minutes as TCU used a balanced attack (228 yards passing, 238 rushing) to knock one of September’s hottest teams down a peg.
15. Washington State (4–0, 1–0 Pac-12)
Previous ranking: 17
This week: Beat Nevada, 45–7
Next week: vs. USC
The Cougars are 4–0 for the first time since 2001 and have been rolling on offense. Luke Falk had another five-touchdown game and threw for 478 yards. Washington State went through its non-conference schedule with relative ease aside from the triple-overtime win over Boise State and hasn't had to leave Pullman or muster much of a running game to secure those victories. USC visits on Friday, so don’t expect much of a change in offensive philosophy.
16. Florida (2–1, 2–0 SEC)
Previous ranking: 18
This week: Beat Kentucky, 28–27
Next game: vs. Vanderbilt
Florida continues to play with fire and not get burned—it may be the luckiest team in college football through four weeks. The Gators needed a touchdown pass in the final minute to beat Kentucky for the 31st straight time. The Wildcats have no one to blame but themselves, blowing a 13-point fourth quarter lead and squandering a good performance from Stephen Johnson, who threw three touchdown passes. Vanderbilt and LSU may not be so helpful in the next two weeks.
17. Auburn (3–1, 1–0 SEC)
Previous ranking: 20
This week: Beat Missouri, 51–14
Next week: vs. Mississippi State
Missouri remains the cure for the rest of the SEC’s offensive woes after Auburn ran up 482 yards on the conference’s worst defense. Kerryon Johnson scored five rushing touchdowns, the longest being from seven yards out, and Jarrett Stidham threw for 218 yards.
18. Utah (4–0, 1–0 Pac–12)
Previous ranking: 19
This week: Beat Arizona, 30–24
Next game: Off; next game Oct. 7 at Colorado
Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley was injured in the first half of Friday night’s Pac-12 opener and did not return, but there are worse backup options than senior captain and 2016 starter Troy Williams, and the Utes have an off week to heal from any lingering issues. Arizona threw a pick-six, missed two field goals and lost a fumble to kill its last drive for a go-ahead score.
19. South Florida (4–0, 1–0 AAC)
Previous ranking: 21
Last week: Beat Temple, 43–7
Next week: at East Carolina
Forcing four turnovers is a recipe for success at just about any level of football, and South Florida found itself toying with a sloppy Temple team at times in its conference opener. If the Bulls can string together more blowouts like that and have basically the entire top 10 lose twice, then we can talk about the playoff. Until then, a New Year’s Six bowl is well within sight.
20. Louisville (3–1, 1–1 ACC)
Previous ranking: 23
This week: Beat Kent State, 42–3
Next week: vs. Murray State
With a second Heisman Trophy largely out of the picture after the previous weekend’s loss, Lamar Jackson accounted for 333 yards and three touchdowns in three quarters of work. The Cardinals’ defense, which gave up 613 yards to Clemson, needed a confidence-boosting performance, and it got one against the Golden Flashes, allowing just 150 total yards. Another stat-padder should come next week against Murray State before the resumption of ACC play.
21. Kansas State (2–1)
Previous ranking: 22
This week: Off
Next week: vs. Baylor
After a week to recover from an upset loss to Vanderbilt, Kansas State welcomes Baylor, who is 0–4 for the first time since the 1999 season. Baylor had taken four straight in the series before the Wildcats won last season’s contest 42–21.
22. San Diego State (4–0, 1–0 MWC)
Previous ranking: 24
This week: Beat Air Force, 28–24
Next week: vs. Northern Illinois
Rashaad Penny’s 53-yard score with 5:39 remaining lifted San Diego State to a tough conference win over Air Force. Penny, who is second in the nation in rushing, had 128 yards and three touchdowns. Both teams abandoned the pass amid bad weather conditions, combining for 22 attempts all night. The Aztecs lost one fumble and didn’t commit a single penalty.
23. Mississippi State (3–1, 1–1 SEC)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: Lost to Georgia, 31–3
Next week: at Auburn
From being on top of the world to getting hit in the face by reality in the span of a week. Mississippi State’s dream of possibly dethroning Alabama ran into a buzzsaw in Georgia, who simply didn’t allow the visitors to get anything going offensively in its 31–3 destruction. With a trip to Auburn next on the docket, the good vibes of a promising start in Starkville could go sideways quickly.
24. West Virginia (3–1, 1–0 Big 12)
Previous ranking: 25
This week: Beat Kansas, 56–34
Next game: Off; next game Oct. 7 at TCU
West Virginia’s defensive line is going to have serious issues if it continues to allow the likes of Kansas to run roughshod. The Jayhawks ran for 367 yards (Khalil Herbert ran for 291 yards, the most by any FBS running back this season) but were ultimately done in by three turnovers and eight penalties.
25. Notre Dame (3–1)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: Beat Michigan State, 38–18
Next game: vs. Miami, Ohio
The Irish may be finally looking like the team most expected to at least compete for a New Year’s Six spot. While Michigan State outgained the Irish by more than 140 yards and converted 11 of 19 third-down attempts, Notre Dame took advantage of three Spartans turnovers, and quarterback Brandon Wimbush had 225 yards of total offense and scored twice. The Irish should be favored the next two weeks before USC comes to town.
Out: Florida State. Maybe next week: Duke, NC State.