This has been a banner year for programs outside of the Power 5 conferences, as there are eight teams with at least nine victories. While the New Year’s Six bowl bid reserved for the highest-ranked Group of Five team will come down to championship weekend, it’s time to show some love to two teams who despite their conference affiliation give any team in the nation a run for its money.
UCF has largely dominated the teams on its schedule for the past two years, but according to the S&P+, UCF’s 2018 strength of schedule sits outside the top 100 in the FBS (No. 102 as of Week 12). The selection committee may ultimately be unable to look beyond that, but the Knights have a dynamic quarterback in McKenzie Milton, speed at every skill position and a bend-but-don’t-break defense that turned in its best performance of the year in Saturday’s win over Cincinnati.
Anyone who hasn’t watched Utah State is missing out on an explosive, well-coached team that sits second in the nation in scoring offense, having been held to less than 30 points only twice. The Aggies are led by sophomore quarterback Jordan Love, who has 25 touchdowns and only four interceptions and is ranked in the top 20 in passing efficiency, and they have a ball-hawking defense that has forced 28 turnovers (18 interceptions, 10 fumbles).
Don’t be surprised if UCF, Utah State or whoever might upend them on the way to a conference title makes it two straight New Year’s Six wins for the Group of Five. Now, let’s get to the rest of the rankings.
1. Alabama (11–0, 7-0 SEC)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: Beat The Citadel, 50–17
Next week: vs. Auburn
2. Clemson (11–0, 8–0 ACC)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: Beat Duke, 35–6
Next week: vs. South Carolina
Clemson’s defense is peaking at the right time, holding a second straight opponent without an offensive touchdown. Clelin Ferrell had two of the Tigers’ four sacks and Trevor Lawrence had 251 yards and two touchdowns. Clemson has already clinched its spot in the ACC title against Pittsburgh, and two more victories will secure its fourth straight appearance in the College Football Playoff.
3. Notre Dame (11–0)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat Syracuse, 36–3
Next week: at USC
The battle at Yankee Stadium turned out to be a dud. Ian Book had 292 yards and two touchdowns in his return and the Irish stayed perfect on their march to the College Football Playoff. Syracuse came into the game averaging 44 points and 482 yards per game, but had only 234 yards of total offense as the Notre Dame defense tallied three interceptions and six sacks.
4. Michigan (10–1, 8–0 Big Ten)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: Beat Indiana, 31–20
Next week: at Ohio State
You can’t blame Michigan if it started to peek ahead to its matchup against Ohio State, but after trailing at halftime, the Wolverines restored order in the second half. Shea Patterson led a ball-controlled attack, throwing for 250 yards and a score. Michigan did give up a season-high 385 yards, including 139 yards to Indiana running back Stevie Scott. The Wolverines are looking to snap a six-game losing streak against Ohio State and will have to do better than kicking six field goals, like they did against Indiana, to get it done.
5. Georgia (10–1, 7–1 SEC)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: Beat UMass, 66–27
Next week: vs. Georgia Tech
6. Oklahoma (10–1, 7–1 Big 12)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: Beat Kansas, 55–40
Next week: at West Virginia
The Sooners’ defense, which has forced just three turnovers in its last six games, gave up 524 yards, including a career-high 252 yards to electric back Pooka Williams and let Kansas keep this one interesting. Kyler Murray continued his stellar play with 272 yards passing and two touchdowns, while adding 99 yards and three touchdowns. Oklahoma will play for the Big 12 title with a win next week against West Virginia.
7. UCF (10–0, 7–0 AAC)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: Beat Cincinnati 38–13
Next week: at South Florida
The Knights showed just how formidable they are on a national stage, winning their 23rd straight game. McKenzie Milton had 268 yards passing and four total touchdowns as UCF wrapped up the AAC East and will play for the conference title in two weeks. Cincinnati had plenty of chances to score, but a forced fumble in the red zone ended one drive, and two missed field goals and an extra point compounded the Bearcats’ problems.
8. Ohio State (10–1, 7–1 Big Ten)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: Beat Maryland 52–51 in OT
Next week: vs. Michigan
For all of Ohio State’s issues, especially the run defense, it still has two of the most productive offensive players in the nation. Dwyane Haskins threw for 405 yards with three touchdowns, his fourth 400-yard game of the year, and J.K. Dobbins had 205 yards rushing as the Buckeyes beat Maryland for the fifth straight time. Haskins set the school's single-season passing touchdown record, and he needed to to overcome a defense that has given up 20 plays of 40 or more yards this season.
9. Washington State (10–1, 7–1 Pac–12)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat Arizona, 66–28
Next week: vs. Washington
While Washington State took its foot off the gas after scoring 55 points in the first half, Gardner Minshew had an outstanding day, throwing 473 yards and a school-record seven touchdown passes. Now the Cougars once again find themselves battling for the Apple Cup and the Pac-12 North. Faced with that scenario last season, the Cougars were blown out 41–10 by the Huskies, increasing the losing streak to their in-state rivals to five games.
10. LSU (9–2, 5–2 SEC)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: Beat Rice, 42–10
Next week: at Texas A&M
11. West Virginia (8–2, 6–2 Big 12)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: Lost to Oklahoma State, 45–41
Next week: vs. Oklahoma
Its playoff hopes are dashed, West Virginia still has a chance to make the Big 12 title game. Will Grier threw for 364 yards and two touchdowns, while Kennedy McKoy ran for two touchdowns and 148 yards, but only 17 in the second half. The Mountaineers gave up 604 yards to Oklahoma State despite forcing four turnovers. The teams combined for 60 first downs and 1,157 yards.
12. Texas (8–3, 6–2 Big 12)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: Beat Iowa State 24–10
Next week: vs. Kansas
Texas is one small step from the Big 12 title game after smothering Iowa State. The Longhorns played the second half without starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who suffered a shoulder injury, but their defense picked up the slack. Cyclones freshman quarterback Brock Purdy passed for 130 yards and was sacked five times.
13. Penn State (8–3, 5–3 Big Ten)
Previous ranking: 18
This week: Beat Rutgers, 20–7
Next week: vs. Maryland
14. Utah (8–3, 6–3 Pac–12)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: Beat Colorado, 30–7
Next week: vs. BYU
Utah clinched its first Pac-12 South title in the snow against Colorado, setting up the dismissal of head coach Mike MacIntyre. Backup quarterback Jason Shelley had another solid game in Tyler Huntley’s place with 221 yards, passing for two touchdowns and adding 29 yards on the ground. The Utes are going to give the Apple Cup winner all it can handle in Santa Clara.
15. Florida (8–3, 5–3 SEC)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: Beat Idaho, 63–10
Next week: at Florida State
16. Washington (8–3, 6–2 Pac–12)
Previous ranking: 17
This week: Beat Oregon State, 42–23
Next week: at Washington State
A possible Rose Bowl berth will be on the line next week as the Pac-12 North will be up for grabs in the Apple Cup for the second time in three years. Washington ran its home winning streak to 14, as Jake Browning threw for 242 yards passing and three touchdowns and Myles Gaskin had 135 yards rushing.
17. Mississippi State (7–4, 3–4 SEC)
Previous ranking: 19
This week: Beat Arkansas, 52–6
Next week: at Ole Miss
It’s simple for the Bulldogs: When they gain 300 or more yards on offense, they have won every game. When they don’t, well, you know. Nick Fitzgerald completed only nine passes all day, but of those, he threw for four touchdowns and added another on the ground, becoming the school’s all-time rushing touchdowns leader. Mississippi State’s dominant defense held Arkansas to 69 yards on the ground and forced three turnovers.
18. Syracuse (8–3, 5–3 ACC)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: Lost to Notre Dame, 36–3
Next week: at Boston College
Syracuse ran into a buzzsaw named Notre Dame and had no answer for the onslaught of defensive talent and offensive efficiency. By the time Eric Dungey left with an injury in the first quarter, the Orange were already two touchdowns behind. Dungey’s replacement, Tommy DeVito, fared no better once he got in the game, throwing for 105 yards and two interceptions.
19. Army (9–2)
Previous ranking: 21
This week: Beat Colgate, 28–14
Next week: Bye; vs. Navy Dec. 8
20. Utah State (10–1, 7–0 MWC)
Previous ranking: 22
This week: Beat Colorado State, 29–24
Next week: at Boise State
Utah State escaped with its 10th straight win when Colorado State’s Hail Mary attempt was called off due to an illegal touching penalty. The Aggies, who had 2,109 yards of offense in their last three games before Saturday, had only 310 against one of the Mountain West’s worst defenses. Jordan Love threw the winning score to Aaren Vaughns with 43 seconds remaining, making up for two pick-sixes.
21. Kentucky (8–3, 5–3 SEC)
Previous ranking: 23
This week: Beat Middle Tennessee, 34–23
Next week: at Louisville
22. Northwestern (7–4, 7–1 Big Ten)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: Beat Minnesota, 24–14
Next week: vs. Illinois
Northwestern won its 11th straight game against division opponents and a school-record eighth straight on the road, behind Clayton Thorson’s 230 passing yards and Isaiah Bowser’s two touchdowns and 85 yards rushing. The Wildcats are 7–1 in conference play for the first time since 1996.
23. Boise State (9–2, 6–1 MWC)
Previous ranking: 24
This week: Beat New Mexico, 45–14
Next week: vs. Utah State
Brett Rypien threw for 222 yards and three touchdowns, while Alexander Mattison ran for a season-high 145 as Boise won to set up a huge matchup for the division title next week against Utah State that could also have some major implications in the New Year’s Six picture. Mattison reached 1,000 yards for the season, the 10th straight year a Boise State back has reached that mark.
24. NC State (7–3, 4–3 ACC)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: Beat Louisville, 52–10
Next week: at North Carolina
Ryan Finley threw for 316 yards and a career-high four touchdowns as the Wolfpack scored points on each of their seven red-zone possessions. Louisville did run for 254 yards but went 3-for-12 on third down, turned the ball over twice, and gave up 518 yards the week after firing Bobby Petrino.
25. Fresno State (9–2, 6–1 MWC)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: Beat San Diego State, 23–14
Next week: vs. San Jose State
Fresno State has clinched the Mountain West Conference West division title and will play either Utah State or Boise State for the league title. Marcus McMaryion threw for 267 yards and a touchdown as the Bulldogs overcame a sluggish running game to win the division for the fourth time in the last six years. Fresno State also continued its streak of holding opponents under 30 points to 22 straight games.
By conference: SEC (6), Big Ten (4), Big 12 (3), ACC (3), Pac-12 (3), AAC (1), Independent (2), MWC (3).
Out: Boston College, Iowa State, UAB.
Maybe next week: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Buffalo.