The college football games that attract the most attention every Saturday tend to have the highest competitive stakes. It’s only natural for media outlets to spend the most time promoting the matchups with the most on the line and, in turn, for a large segment of the sport’s impartial observers to tune into them. Since the advent of the College Football Playoff, that has meant an increased emphasis on contests involving the top teams in each of the Power 5 conferences, and a consequent disregard for bouts pitting mediocre squads tracking towards consolation bowls.
These tilts can get pretty boring if they’re lopsided, though, and they’re even less enjoyable if the winning side doesn’t score many points or feature any players of national renown. Through four weeks of the 2017 season, college football has made good on its reputation for thrilling the masses, and that reputation has come into sharper focus amid the NFL’s ongoing aesthetic crisis.
But there’s no denying that even the college game produces its share of duds. Our goal, with the first edition of the College Football League Pass Rankings, is to help you avoid them. Zach Lowe’s annual column sorting the NBA from its most to least watchable squads was the motivation for this endeavor. The guiding criterion is inexact but simple: We’re highlighting the 10 teams that you’ll have the most fun watching. Roster and scheme were the biggest considerations, and there’s an undeniable skew toward the top of the polls, but everything from stadium atmosphere to uniform combinations to, of course, a dash of subjectivity factored into this exercise. If your favorite team did not make the list, the exclusion should not be interpreted as a recommendation to ignore it. We simply think that, if given the choice, you’re better off checking out one of the 10 teams listed below.
1. Penn State
Saturday night’s win at Iowa provided a deceptive primetime glimpse of the most entertaining team in the country. The Hawkeyes mucked things up against the Nittany Lions, containing offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s pace-pushing attack and managing to take a four-point lead with under two minutes remaining despite being outgained by 306 yards and holding the ball for nearly 20 fewer minutes than Penn State. (The Nittany Lions eked out a two-point win after junior quarterback Trace McSorley threw a walk-off touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Juwan Johnson to punctuate a 12-play, 80-yard drive.)
When it’s really rolling, Penn State is transfixing in the way it efficiently makes its way down the field while spreading the ball around to a group of electric playmakers. Sometimes Penn State’s entire offensive operation takes a backseat to one of those playmakers, junior running back Saquon Barkley, whose blend of power, speed and lateral quickness is unmatched across the Football Bowl Subdivision. Barkley can run over defenders, juke would-be tacklers to the turf or, if neither of those options makes sense at the time, hop right over them and pick up a few more yards.
Moorhead’s offense may not always be operating at full tilt, but Barkley can make up for that. Any cries of recency bias fall on deaf ears; Barkley was great before he put his Superman cape on against Iowa, and he should be great the rest of this season.
2. Oklahoma State
Like Penn State, Oklahoma State is coming off a performance that was unrepresentative of its typical form. Cowboys games are the closest thing college football has to NASCAR races. To put it simply, they score, they score quickly and they score a lot. Oklahoma State rarely hesitates to take deep shots, and for good reason. Senior quarterback Mason Rudolph and senior wide receiver James Washington are almost always on the same wavelength, and that’s borne out in the numbers: Only Oklahoma senior quarterback Baker Mayfield has registered more passing yards on a per-attempt basis (13.2) than Rudolph’s 11.4 this season, and no player with more than 10 receptions tops Washington’s average of 27.4 yards per reception.
Washington is Rudolph’s most lethal target, but if he’s covered downfield, Rudolph can pivot to senior Marcell Ateman or junior Jalen McCleskey or LSU transfer Tyron Johnson or freshman Dillon Stoner. You can’t put enough defensive backs on the field to lock down all of them without compromising coverage along the line of scrimmage, and running back tandem Justice Hill and J.D. King are more than capable of taking advantage, having combined to average 5.9 yards per carry so far).
Another part of the Cowboys’ appeal is the hairstyle of head coach Mike Gundy, a thick party-in-the-back job that, in spite of a recent internet rumor suggesting the contrary, remains intact. A glorious mullet and a lot of points: What else could you possibly want from a college football game?
3. Texas A&M
The Aggies are not the best team in the FBS, or in their own conference, or even in their own state. (TCU snatched the latter title by beating Oklahoma State on Saturday.) Through four weeks, however, Texas A&M has played two of the most riveting games of the season. The Aggies came out on the wrong end of the first one, a 45–44 loss at UCLA in which their dominating first-half performance gave way to Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen masterfully conducting one of the largest comebacks ever, a jaw-dropping reversal that sent so many fans into a fit of rage that the website TexAgs.com temporarily crashed. The second one happened only a few days ago, against Arkansas at AT&T Stadium, and Texas A&M won this time after true freshman quarterback Kellen Mond found junior wide receiver Christian Kirk for a 10-yard touchdown in overtime.
There’s no reason the Aggies’ high-wire act can’t continue over the course of SEC play, and head coach Kevin Sumlin’s status on the hot seat will make every nail-biter even more compelling. Knowing his future could ride on the outcome of one series, play or Daniel LaCamera kick could make Texas A&M’s this season’s must-watch weekly TV drama. Beyond their apparent propensity for living on the edge, the Aggies’ case is bolstered by two of the most exciting playmakers in the SEC, sophomore running back Trayveon Williams and Kirk, who posted three total touchdowns (two receiving, one on a kick return) against the Razorbacks on Saturday.
No FBS program is led by a player as breathtaking as Lamar Jackson. He may have blown his chance at becoming the first repeat Heisman Trophy winner in more than four decades during a Week 3 loss to Clemson, but Jackson deserves a pass for that. The Tigers’ front seven will probably asphyxiate every offense it faces this season. Louisville was plainly outmatched in that phase of the game, Jackson couldn’t do anything about it and his gross statistical output (317 passing yards, three passing touchdowns, 64 rushing yards) obscures the fact that Clemson had him bottled up most of the night.
When not facing defenses of that caliber, Jackson is engrossing—a dazzling blend of searing runs, ankle-shattering body feints, nimble get-away moves in the pocket and frozen-rope passes. For opposing defensive coordinators, Jackson is a bewilderingly challenging math problem for which no formula exists to find a solution. There are ways to limit the damage he inflicts on the opposition, as the Tigers showed a couple of weeks ago, but trying to shut him down completely is a futile endeavor. Yet even those not impressed by Jackson’s game shouldn’t have a hard time convincing themselves to watch him. If he declares for the NFL draft after this season, he’ll be one of the most polarizing quarterback prospects in recent memory, particularly if his passing repertoire hasn’t materially improved by the postseason.
One of the biggest difficulties in keeping Group of Five programs at the top of their respective leagues is managing head coaching turnover. When the coaches of small programs succeed, they inevitably jump to bigger jobs. The Tigers seem to have made close to a perfect choice to address their latest change of leadership. Mike Norvell, their replacement for Justin Fuente, who’s now at Virginia Tech, guided the Tigers to eight wins in 2016, and he has them in the thick of the race for the Group of Five’s automatic New Year’s Six bid in ’17.
The Tigers’ national coming-out party was a three-point win over UCLA on Sept. 16, in which senior quarterback Riley Ferguson upstaged Bruins counterpart and projected early first-round draft pick Josh Rosen with 398 passing yards and six touchdowns, and senior wide receiver Anthony Miller hauled in nine passes for 185 yards and two scores.
Memphis’s headlining QB-WR duo is easy to root for, too. Ferguson is balling out as the pilot of an American Athletic Conference power after signing with Tennessee out of high school and redshirting because of a fractured tibia, then transferring to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas before eventually ending up in the Bluff City. And Miller is a former walk-on who reportedly received no scholarship offers as a class of 2013 recruit out of Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, now set to torment AAC defensive backs over the next two months. Anyone craving a mid-major fix should follow along as the Tigers fight for an invitation to a big-time bowl.
The Tigers have already moved past two of the most challenging games on their schedule, a 14–6 win over Auburn on Sept. 9 and a 47–21 decision over Louisville a week later. Both of them were kind of dull, despite what the scoreline of the first one may imply, which attests to Clemson’s newfound capacity for turning high-wattage meetings between Power 5 conference contenders into snoozers.
The Tigers are unique in that their biggest source of fascination is on defense. In particular, their defensive line is composed of a collection of future pros liable to pulverize whatever’s standing between them and the opposing quarterback. It’s mystifying how one program was able to accumulate a group of players both powerful enough to plow offensive linemen backward and dexterous enough to make sharp, sudden movements in tight quarters while pursuing the ball.
One can’t help but appreciate the way sophomores Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, and juniors Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant, upend whatever sense of timing quarterbacks hope to maintain on passing dropbacks, and seal every lane or crevice running backs could hope to burst through on handoffs. They boss the line of scrimmage in a way no other front four can and, half the time they do it inside a deafening stadium packed with 81,500 orange-clad fans after a really cool field entrance.
The Sooners have kept on humming at the top of the Big 12 despite an offseason coaching change that saw Bob Stoops hand the reins to now 34-year-old Lincoln Riley after 18 years in charge. Riley has Oklahoma in far better shape from a playoff perspective than Stoops did at this time a year ago. The Sooners’ 31–16 triumph at Ohio State in Week 2 should rate out as one of the best wins this season, full stop, and Oklahoma State’s loss to TCU on Saturday squelched any questions over the identity of the Big 12’s top dog.
The Sooners replaced a few household names on offense (wide receiver Dede Westbrook and running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon), but their catalyst, quarterback Baker Mayfield, decided to return for his 26th year of eligibility, and the college football-viewing public is better off because of it. Mayfield rifles the ball with more accuracy than Michael van Gerwen tosses darts; the former Texas Tech walk-on ranks fourth in the FBS with a 75.2 completion percentage this season after topping all qualifying signal-callers in that statistic last year at 70.9% while setting the single-season record for efficiency rating.
Mayfield is also a tough runner who does a good job evading oncoming rushers in the pocket, although a stout offensive line led by gargantuan left tackle Orlando Brown keeps him from taking too many hits, and underclassman running duo Abdul Adams and Trey Sermon prevent defenses from selling out against the pass. Tempting though it may be to put the Sooners on the back burner until their two-week November stretch against the Cowboys and Horned Frogs, make it a point to catch one of their upcoming Big 12 contests against Iowa State, Texas, Kansas State or Texas Tech.
Husky Stadium is a gem. Experiencing it in person is obviously preferable to taking it in on TV, but zoomed-out views of the venue’s signature overhanging roofs, with the Olympic and Cascade Mountains and Lake Washington in the background, are a nice touch in between game action. The product on the field suits the picturesque surroundings. After running away from Colorado for a 37–10 win in Boulder on Saturday night, the Huskies are 4–0 and checked in at No. 6 in the AP Top 25 and Coaches Polls, No. 5 in ESPN’s Football Power Index and No. 8 in Football Outsiders S&P + ratings.
Washington watched a chunk of its high-end talent leave for the NFL this off-season, including standout defensive backs Kevin King, Budda Baker and Sidney Jones, as well as leading wide receiver John Ross, but head coach Chris Petersen has the Huskies on track to take the Pac-12 North again and earn its second trip to the national semifinals in as many years.
Junior quarterback Jake Browning made some noise in the Heisman Trophy race last season, but the player to home in on when sampling Washington is Dante Pettis, a senior wide receiver/ace return man who reportedly clocked a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash last year. He’s Browning’s No. 1 target, and he should see more balls thrown his way now that No. 2 target Chico McClatcher is out for the season with a broken ankle. On top of that, he doubles as one of the best return men in college football history, having tied the NCAA record with his eighth career punt runback for a touchdown in Week 3’s 48–16 win over Fresno State.
The Crimson Tide will repel fans who enjoy genuine competition. They ruthlessly hammer their opponents with a fierce defense and an offense whose bread and butter is a multi-faceted ground game. Alabama is capable of making opponents pay for loading up to stuff the run by heaving it long to stud junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley, but it typically doesn’t need to ask sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts to step too far out of his comfort zone.
On Saturday, in a 59–0 victory over a Vanderbilt team with an ostensibly formidable defense, the Crimson Tide rushed the ball 66 times for 496 yards (good for 7.5 yards per carry) and threw it only 27 times, transforming CBS’s Game of the Week into 60 minutes of garbage time. Alabama hasn’t been pushed yet this season, and it may not be until it reaches the SEC title bout. Some may view that prospect as a major turnoff. Others, however, could delight in the Crimson Tide Death Star methodically mowing down conference foes while showing off a group of former highly-touted recruits ticketed for the early rounds of future NFL drafts.
The Alabama dynasty won’t last forever, so it’s probably better to marvel at the Crimson Tide’s unremitting success than ignore them until another program comes along to grab the throne. At the very least, this year’s version of the Iron Bowl, at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Thanksgiving weekend, demands your attention, if only because Auburn will do everything in its power to deny Alabama a fourth consecutive trip to the final four.
The Bruins’ head coach, Jim Mora, was a popular name on hot seat lists this summer. His team has lost half of its games so far and is more likely to spend the final few weeks of the season fighting for bowl eligibility than making a push for the playoff. That does not sound like a particularly interesting team. Give UCLA a chance, though, and it just might win you over.
For starters, there’s Rosen, a preternaturally gifted passer who looks capable of orchestrating an NFL offense at a high-level right now. No college quarterback slings it like Rosen, and look no further than Week 1 for evidence of how he can warp the complexion of a game and drag a suspect supporting cast past the finishing line. It’s difficult to envision any player this season topping what Rosen did to will the Bruins back against Texas A&M in Los Angeles.
UCLA gets major bonus points for owning the best color scheme in college football. Whether the Bruins are running up the score on an overmatched opponent or, more likely, getting run off the field by a conference foe, those powder blues are so slick. Don’t miss the limited opportunities you have every fall to admire them. UCLA also happens to play in an iconic stadium, the Rose Bowl, offering gorgeous vistas of the San Gabriel Mountains. With upcoming matchups against Oregon, Washington, Utah and USC, the Bruins can be your window into the Power 5’s most overlooked conference, and they should be able to make enough progress to at least hang in the race for the No. 2 spot in the Pac-12 South behind the Trojans.