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Mississippi State Debuts on Top 10 After Pulling Off Upset in Death Valley

What happens when we rank only the college football teams that have played a game thus far?
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A pirate flag is flying in the Southeastern Conference. A white flag is waving in the Big 12. This is where we stand in late September, as a strange season picks up eccentric steam.

Mike Leach’s debut at Mississippi State was a success beyond all expectations, with the iconoclast pirate enthusiast and his Stanford transfer quarterback K.J. Costello strafing reigning national champion LSU in Death Valley. They were the scene stealers of the SEC’s opening Saturday, which also saw the following developments: Alabama looking like Alabama; Florida’s Kyle Show (Trask to Pitts) blitzing Lane Kiffin and Mississippi; Georgia laboring past Arkansas with what was supposed to be its fourth-string quarterback; Auburn riding a plus-three turnover margin to beat Kentucky; Texas A&M still looking like an underachiever after wheezing past Vanderbilt; and Will Muschamp kicking a field goal late when he needed a touchdown against Tennessee.

The SEC being back gave this chaotic football season a greater feel of familiarity. It finally seemed real. That league will provide the bridge to a full season when the four returning conferences—the Big Ten, Pac-12, Mountain West and Mid-American—get going in late October/early November.

Part of the entertainment value of that league is the oversized outrage and surrender-cobra depression that accompany every negative development. Both Auburn and Kentucky fans will be howling for days about the bad calls that ended the first half of their game. South Carolina fans will be moaning about the punt-return fiasco that cost the Gamecocks their last chance against the Volunteers. And in Louisiana, the politicians are always ready to weigh in—Republican Louisiana attorney general Jeff Landry took a shot at Democratic governor John Bel Edwards on Twitter after the Tigers loss, blaming him for too quiet at Tiger Stadium.

(At LSU they’re out of practice dealing with losses. But it’s pretty clear that Dave Aranda, Joe Burrow, Joe Brady and many more key parts from the 2019 championship team are gone and not adequately replaced.)

While the SEC was stepping into the fray, the Big 12 was receding from it. Oklahoma blowing a 21-point lead and losing to Kansas State for the second straight season marked a new league low in a September full of lows. Only a miracle Texas rally at Texas Tech salvaged anything—and even with the Longhorns winning, the Big 12 may have played itself out of the playoff picture already. While it’s extremely rare to count a Power 5 conference out at this juncture, this is a shorter season and a lot of damage has already been done.

Mississippi State Bulldogs running back Kylin Hill (8) celebrates with cornerback Martin Emerson (1) following a 44-34 win against the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium.

The only undefeated teams left in the league are Texas (after giving up 56 points in regulation), Oklahoma State (two uninspiring wins) and Baylor (just one game played, and it was against Kansas). With no quality non-conference wins and three damaging non-conference losses, it’s going to be an uphill slog. Oklahoma has been the king of the conference for several seasons, but losing to a team that lost to Arkansas State is a big problem.

The Big 12’s demise is good news for the two Power 5 leagues that haven’t started yet, the Big Ten and Pac-12. There is room for them to make a grand entrance. It’s also good news for the American Athletic Conference, which has at least two strong teams at the top in UCF and Cincinnati. SMU and maybe Memphis are worth considering as well, if the Tigers ever get over their COVID-19 issues and re-take the field.

Now on to the rankings. Keep in mind that Sports Illustrated isn’t ranking anyone until they have played a game, which means 50 teams remain on the shelf for now.

1. Clemson

Last game: beat The Citadel 49-0 Sept. 19

Next game: Saturday vs. Virginia

The Tigers had the week off, giving them a chance to watch their next two opponents (Virginia and Miami) score ACC victories. Clemson’s 22-game league winning streak could be challenged when the Hurricanes come to town. Maybe.

2. Alabama

Last game: beat Missouri 38-19

Next game: Saturday vs. Texas A&M

This is No. 1A, more than No. 2. The Crimson Tide handled the Tigers almost exactly the same way Clemson handled its opening opponent, Wake Forest. They rolled to a 35-3 lead, dominating the game, then saw their outmatched opponent tack on some late cosmetic points. Even without Tua Tagovailoa and a pair of first-round wide receivers, Alabama again showcased a big-play passing game. This could be Nick Saban’s best defensive team in a few years—their eight tackles for loss was more than in any game in 2019. And Will Reichert might even be ready to provide the Tide some rare stability at placekicker.

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3. Miami

Last game: beat Florida State 52-10

Next game: at Clemson Oct. 10

This was really something. Beating the hated rival Seminoles to a pulp showed both how precipitously FSU has fallen and how far the Hurricanes have advanced. This was a complete mismatch, with Miami outgaining Florida State by 240 yards and routing the ‘Noles’ beleaguered offensive line. There was some speculation that the ‘Canes might fall victim to swallowing “The U is back” chatter after their promising 2-0 start, but this was a focused team that showed no mercy. Miami diversified its offensive production, with someone other than Cam’Ron Harris leading the team in rushing and someone other than Brevin Jordan leading the team in receiving.

4. Mississippi State

Last game: beat LSU 44-34

Next game: Saturday vs. Arkansas

Leach didn’t waste any time mounting his assault on SEC orthodoxy—has anyone ever beaten LSU while mustering nine yards rushing? The Bulldogs threw for a staggering 623, showcasing how quickly a team’s identity can change with the right coach and the right QB. Costello was heroic, chucking the ball a career-high 60 times and smashing his career-best for yardage (he’d never even had a 400-yard game before). Kylin Hill, the leading returning rusher in the league, had eight catches for 158 yards. He’d never had more than 26 receiving yards in a game against an SEC opponent. At the very least, Mississippi State has given the rest of the league a lot to think about going forward.

5. Notre Dame

Last game: beat South Florida 52-0 Sept. 12

Next game: Florida State comes to South Bend Oct. 10

The Fighting Irish were supposed to play Wake Forest Saturday but had to postpone due to COVID-19 issues—and to make matters worse, South Florida had to postpone its Saturday game as well. When Brian Kelly’s team has gotten on the field, it has performed well. After a slow start against Duke in the season opener, Notre Dame has outscored its opponents 69-7 the last six quarters. With that trip to Winston-Salem postponed until December, the Irish have the opportunity to open with four straight home games.

6. UCF

Last game: beat East Carolina 51-28

Next game: Tulsa comes to Orlando Saturday

Sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel is on fire to start the season. In consecutive blowout wins, he’s thrown for 825 yards and eight touchdowns with only one interception. The Knights also had a second straight 200-yard rushing game, showcasing the offensive balance that will make UCF a difficult opponent in AAC play. That said, there is reason to question the level of competition. The Pirates haven’t been good in years, and last week’s blowout of Georgia Tech loses some luster after the Yellow Jackets were beaten by previously winless Syracuse.

7. Florida

Last game: beat Mississippi 51-35

Next game: Saturday vs. South Carolina

Gators fans who loved watching Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer field potent, innovative and entertaining offenses have been hungering for what Dan Mullen’s team delivered in Oxford — legit firepower. Kyle Trask threw for 416 yards and six touchdown passes, hitting monster tight end Kyle Pitts eight times for 170 yards and four scores. The defense will have to be better going forward, but this will be a fun team to watch. (Worth noting that new Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin has now lost his last two games in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium as a head coach by a combined 93-52. His one and only Tennessee team was blasted 42-17 in 2009.)

8. Cincinnati

Last game: beat Army 24-10

Next game: Saturday vs. South Florida

Beating Army by two touchdowns is a solid win—the Cadets came in 2-0, with two dominant victories, and their option offense is always problematic for teams that don’t see it regularly. This was a classic Luke Fickell defensive performance. The Bearcats allowed no offensive touchdowns and were stout in the Red Zone, allowing only a field goal on three Army drives inside the Cincy 20. This was also the 12th straight game Cincinnati had at least one takeaway. The Bearcats aren’t the most physical team up front offensively yet, which is a potential area of concern.

9. North Carolina

Last game: beat Syracuse 13-6

Next game: Saturday at Boston College

The Tar Heels are easy to forget about since they haven’t played since Sept. 12, but keep them in mind. After a slow start in that game they dominated the Orange, especially defensively. That unit will have a good matchup with new BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec, the Notre Dame transfer who led the rally to beat Texas State Saturday and is now 2-0 as a college starter.

10. BYU

Last game: beat Troy 48-7

Next game: Friday vs. Louisiana Tech

The Cougars’ schedule is a ransom note, mismatched pieces pasted together to form something that will likely fall short of top 10 consideration in the end. (Losing a Sept. 19 game against Army was a blow.) But the Cougars have been utterly dominant in the two games they’ve played, pounding Navy and Troy. Quarterback Zach Wilson has flashed his considerable talent, and the BYU defense has been punishing. As the only team west of the Rockies playing for the next several weeks, we need some BYU night-time entertainment in our lives.

Also considered: Auburn, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Georgia, Louisiana, Marshall, Oklahoma State, SMU.