By Andy Staples
September 27, 2011

The problem with ranking teams so early in the season is balancing what we have seen from this year's teams -- the ones we're supposed to be ranking -- with their counterparts from the previous year. By Week 10, this won't be a problem because teams will have hefty 2011 résumés. But at this point, it's still quite difficult to use only this year's results, especially when some schools insist on front-loading with cupcakes. Several of the nation's best teams (LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma) have been kind enough to schedule challenging early matchups that allow for some evaluation of their 2011 merits, but others -- we're looking at you, Wisconsin and Virginia Tech -- have forced pollsters to read their histories as well as their tea leaves in an attempt to rank them accurately.

This also answers the most common question I've received over the past two weeks. Why am I the only Associated Press poll voter who has yet to rank Texas? The answer: Texas squeaked by a BYU team that got crushed by (also unranked) Utah, then beat a UCLA team that lost to (also unranked) Houston. Yes, UCLA beat Oregon State, but so did Sacramento State. Had the Longhorns gone 10-3 last year, I probably would have them ranked. But Texas went 5-7 last year and forfeited the benefit of the doubt that comes with a string of successful seasons. Right now, I have Texas just outside the Top 25 behind last-team-in Iowa State, which beat the Longhorns in Austin last year. Conveniently enough, the two teams play in Ames on Saturday. The winner will be ranked. The loser probably will not.

You're probably asking why we even bother to rank teams this early. You're not going to like the answer: Because you read the rankings. In fact, you're obsessed with them. If you didn't read them, we wouldn't do them. We're not in the business of giving readers what they don't want. So if you'd like for us to wait until Week 6 to begin ranking teams, spend the early part of the season reading some of the great works of American literature instead of reading -- and whining about -- the rankings. Need some suggested reading? Look no further than this Top 25.

(Also, it has come to my attention on Twitter that some of you hate the themed Power Rankings with the fire of 1,000 suns. Too bad. Keep up the complaints, and next week I'll compare the Top 25 teams to Lifetime Original Movies.)

NCAA Football Power Rankings
1 LSU Tigers
Last Week: 2
LSU Tigers (4-0)
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Face it. Les Miles is Billy Pilgrim. Miles has been unstuck in time since he approved a pass into the end zone in the waning seconds of the 2007 Auburn game. Like Pilgrim and the Tralfamadorians who abducted him, Miles can see in four dimensions. He sees past, present and future. He didn't mismanage the clock against Tennessee last year; he knew the Volunteers would put 13 defenders on the field. He knew the ball would bounce properly at Florida. He knew a 5-foot-9 cornerback from New Orleans (Tyrann Mathieu) would become the single most disruptive force in college football. Miles even knows who will win when the Tigers face Alabama on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa. He has already watched the game and reviewed the film. He would tell the rest of us what happens, but that wouldn't be any fun. Instead, we'll have to watch the Tigers' defense annihilate everything in its path for a month until we find out for ourselves.
Last game: Beat West Virginia, 47-21
Next game: Saturday vs. Kentucky
2 Alabama Crimson Tide
Last Week: 3
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: One-time Alabama law student Nelle Harper Lee -- the former editor of the Rammer Jammer humor magazine on campus -- crafted about as close to perfect a novel as a writer can create. Then she never wrote another one. It was the literary equivalent of a rapper spitting a flawless verse, throwing down the mic and walking off the stage. Go ahead. Try to find a weakness in To Kill A Mockingbird. Not easy, is it? From Scout to Atticus to Boo Radley to the trial, it's everything a reader could want in a novel. It's equally difficult to find a weakness in this year's Alabama team, which looks as good -- if not better -- at this point than its 2009 counterpart that won the national title. After watching the defense manhandle an excellent Arkansas offense, Trent Richardson going beast mode every time he touched the ball and Marquis Maze doing his best Bo Jackson Tecmo Bowl impression on a punt return against Arkansas, it's tough to find a flaw in this team. LSU gets the slight nod because the Tigers' best win is better than Alabama's best win, but the margin is paper-thin. Fortunately for those of us who vote in the various polls, the teams get to play one another.
Last game: Beat Arkansas, 38-14
Next game: Saturday at Florida
3 Oklahoma Sooners
Last Week: 1
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: This comparison would have been a no-brainer had the Pac-12 decided to expand. Oklahomans heading west would have been too easy. Unfortunately for this particular conceit, Oklahoma remained in the Big 12. That's OK, because I'm sure I drew the wrath of Oklahomans by dropping the Sooners from No. 1 to No. 3 this week. Sorry, but LSU and Alabama have looked more impressive against quality competition. But that difference is slight. Oklahoma will have plenty more chances to prove it is the nation's best. But not this week. Oklahoma is going to treat Ball State like the farm owners treated the Dust Bowl refugees in Steinbeck's novel.
Last game: Beat Missouri, 38-28
Next game: Saturday vs. Ball State
4 Wisconsin Badgers
Last Week: 4
Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins: Does Tom Robbins really belong on a list alongside Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee and some of the literary titans I'll mention below? Maybe. Maybe not. But it's my list, and I love Robbins and his special brand of Pacific Northwest mysticism. By the same token, does Wisconsin belong alongside LSU, Alabama and Oklahoma, which have already proven their 2011 bona fides with wins against quality opponents while the Badgers have throttled four cupcakes? Maybe. Maybe not. We'll find out this week when Nebraska comes to Madison. There, the Cornhuskers will meet Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson, the current college football star most equipped to duplicate the life of Another Roadside Attraction's Westminster "Plucky" Purcell, a former college football star who inadvertently infiltrates a cadre of Vatican-controlled monk assassins. Wilson probably received some military training from former Marine Tom O'Brien during his three-year stint as NC State's starter.
Last game: Beat South Dakota, 59-10
Next game: Saturday vs. Nebraska
5 Stanford Cardinal
Last Week: 5
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: Never heard of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner by Dominican immigrant Diaz about a "ghetto nerd" who reads sci-fi and longs to be a hero? Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and safety Delano Howell -- as well as the other members of the Cardinal's signing class of 2008 -- might be able to tell you all about it. Diaz's novel was one of a trio of books mailed to incoming Stanford freshmen in 2008 as part of the school's Three Books program. At the time, the Cardinal were two seasons removed from 1-11. Now, they're trying to improve upon an 11-win season. The nerds have emerged from the football ghetto.
Last game: Beat Arizona, 37-10
Next game: Saturday vs. UCLA
6 Boise St. Broncos
Last Week: 6
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving: In the book, Owen, a growth-stunted child with a funny voice who believes he is God's instrument on earth, spends years practicing "the Shot" with narrator John Wheelwright while the two are students at Gravesend Academy. What is "the Shot?" Essentially, John picks up Owen and holds him so that Owen can dunk a basketball. I won't spoil the story, but "the Shot" comes in quite handy during an extremely critical moment. In Boise, the Broncos almost certainly are practicing a trick play or two every day. Boise State hasn't needed to use one yet because it has manhandled its first three opponents, but when Chris Petersen's team needs yards in a critical situation -- maybe in a BCS bowl or even the BCS title game -- all that practice will come in handy.
Last game: Beat Tulsa, 41-21
Next game: Saturday vs. Nevada
7 Oklahoma St. Cowboys
Last Week: 10
On the Road by Jack Kerouac: Someday, Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden -- who is 8-0 on the road as a starter -- will pen a fictionalized tale of his adventures away from Stillwater with his buddy, Dean Blackmon. Weeden will need to write a few more chapters in October. After an open date and a home game against Kansas, Oklahoma State must face Texas in Austin and Missouri in Columbia in consecutive weeks.
Last game: Beat Texas A&M, 30-29
Next game: Oct. 8 vs. Kansas
8 Oregon Ducks
Last Week: 9
L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy: Oregon plays offense the way an Ellroy novel reads. Fast. Subject verb object. Zone left LaMichael. Jet sweep DeAnthony. Play-action pass to Paulson. All action. No time to catch the breath. Cal slowed down Oregon last year. Looked like the offensive version of Ellroy trying to write a Fabio-covered romance novel. Chip Kelly may write a Thursday-night bestseller next week.
Last game: Beat Arizona, 56-31
Next game: Oct. 6 vs. Cal
9 South Carolina Gamecocks
Last Week: 11
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: If Gamecocks quarterback Stephen Garcia wasn't college football's version of disaffected protagonist Holden Caulfield before last week, he probably was after a four-interception performance against Vanderbilt. Afterward, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's response to questions about Garcia's play ended up being far more withering than if Spurrier had simply ripped his quarterback. "I'm not going to say anything about Stephen," Spurrier said. "Stephen is trying the best he can. That's all as a coach that you can ask a person to do. We came out throwing a bit early and hit a few here and there. He just missed a guy going down the middle, just didn't look for a guy. He's doing the best he can, and that's all we can ever say for any of our players." Like Caulfield, Garcia is probably not a fan of authority figures after that.
Last game: Beat Vanderbilt, 21-3
Next game: Saturday vs. Auburn
10 Virginia Tech Hokies
Last Week: 12
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville: Hokies coach Frank Beamer shook up his staff this year because while his team dominates its league, he continues his Ahab-like quest for his own white whale: a national title. Beamer is the best coach in the country without a national title, and because of the perceived weakness of the Virginia Tech Conference, he has little margin for error if he wants to insert the Hokies into the crystal football conversation. Saturday's visit from Clemson could go a long way in helping determine whether Virginia Tech belongs in the national title conversation. The Tigers have turned out to be much better than originally expected, and if coordinator Bud Foster's defense can shut down Clemson's high-scoring offense, the Hokies will earn some national respect.
Last game: Beat Marshall, 30-10
Next game: Saturday vs. Clemson
11 Texas A&M Aggies
Last Week: 8
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: Aggies tailback Christine Michael had to feel as anonymous as the unnamed protagonist of Ellison's masterpiece as the second half of Saturday's loss to Oklahoma State unfolded. After Michael averaged 11.6 yards per carry in the first, Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman apparently forgot Michael was on the roster. Michael carried one more time, for four yards. Who would want to establish a clock-chewing ground game while playing a team with a blinding no-huddle, hurry-up offense that can sap a defense's energy reserves if the offense can't stay on the field for a respectable amount of time? Why not just throw three times and go sit back down on the bench? If Texas A&M hopes to rebound Saturday against a good but banged-up Arkansas team, Sherman will have to make Michael a visible part of the offense.
Last game: Lost to Oklahoma State, 30-29
Next game: Saturday vs. Arkansas in Arlington, Texas
12 Nebraska Cornhuskers
Last Week: 14
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: Huck had the option of staying home with pap, and Nebraska had the option of staying in the Big 12. Each chose to run away. (I know Pap dies before Huck gets too far, but Huck doesn't know this because Jim doesn't tell him.) Now, the Cornhuskers will begin their version of life on the Mississippi River as they enter Big Ten play. Clearly, the Big Ten is in favor of hazing, because Nebraska's first conference experience will come at Camp Randall Stadium. The Cornhuskers haven't seen an offense close to the quality of Wisconsin's, which averages 48.5 points per game. If Nebraska can block its option plays perfectly, it might be able to keep pace with the Badgers. Expect Wisconsin to dare Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to throw.
Last game: Beat Wyoming, 38-14
Next game: Saturday at Wisconsin
13 Clemson Tigers
Last Week: --
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain: Two Twain novels in a row? Again, it's my list. Also, American literature is woefully short on precocious protagonists who come out winners, and Clemson freshman receiver Sammy Watkins is nothing if not precocious. Travis Sawchik of the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier explains that Watkins went to offensive coordinator Chad Morris during Saturday's win against Florida State and explained to his coach that the Seminoles were overplaying slant routes. So Watkins suggested that the next time the Tigers faced third-and-short, Morris should call a slant and go, where the receiver runs a slant, flashes as if to catch the ball and then turns upfield on a dead run. The next series, Clemson faced third-and-four. Morris called a slant and go, and Watkins caught the pass for a 62-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. Tom Sawyer found gold at the end of his tale. Only at the beginning of his own tale, Watkins has proven that the Tigers struck gold when they signed him.
Last game: Beat Florida State, 35-30
Next game: Saturday at Virginia Tech
14 Florida St. Seminoles
Last Week: 7
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney: It was bad enough that you lost to Oklahoma and got your starting quarterback injured, but then you went and lost to Clemson and your star cornerback just got himself arrested. You can forget the national title. Here are your new Tallahasseean Marching Orders: You should just pretend those expectations never existed, just as the unnamed main character in Bright Lights, Big City pretends his wife hasn't just left him. At this point, that's all you can do. You can still be a very good team, but you'll have to learn to move on.
Last game: Lost to Clemson, 35-30
Next game: Oct. 8 at Wake Forest
15 Florida Gators
Last Week: 15
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Gators are the ultimate nouveau riche West Eggers. Many of their fans think football was invented in 1990, and they've been so spoiled by the program's recent success since then that they can't handle the inevitable dips that come after periods of achievement. Saturday, Team Gatsby will face the SEC's quintessential old-money program. Alabama has been a national power for most of the time college football has been a sport. Florida didn't finish first in the SEC until 1984, and the Gators didn't win an SEC title that officially counted until 1991. This week last year, Alabama exposed the 4-0 Gators with an epic beating in Tuscaloosa. This year, first-year coach Will Muschamp's team hopes to "run faster, stretch out our arms farther" than its 2010 counterpart. If it can't, it will once again be "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Last game: Beat Kentucky, 48-10
Next game: Saturday vs. Alabama
16 Arkansas Razorbacks
Last Week: 13
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: Like protagonist Jake Barnes in his attempts to woo divorcee Lady Brett Ashley, the Razorbacks are hampered by injury. Tailback Knile Davis (knee) didn't make it through preseason camp. Defensive end Jake Bequette (hamstring) missed the Alabama game. Now the Razorbacks' other starting defensive end, Tenarius Wright, will miss four to six weeks after undergoing surgery Sunday to repair a broken arm. Does that mean Arkansas is sunk against Texas A&M? Not necessarily. Alabama can make any team appear impotent, so don't give up on the Hogs just yet.
Last game: Lost to Alabama, 38-14
Next game: Saturday vs. Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas
17 Baylor Bears
Last Week: 17
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper: Cooper's most famous character was Natty Bumppo, a do-it-all hero whose nickname was Hawkeye. The Bears' hero is quarterback Robert Griffin III, who needs some nickname to commemorate his ridiculous accuracy. Through three games, Griffin has connected on 85.4 percent of his passes. How mind-boggling is that figure? Consider this: Griffin has thrown 13 touchdown passes and 12 incompletions.
Last game: Beat Rice, 56-31
Next game: Saturday at Kansas State
18 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Last Week: --
A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe: In Wolfe's blistering sendup of 1990s Atlanta, Cap'm Charlie Croker is a good ole' boy former Georgia Tech star convinced to speak on behalf of a current Georgia Tech player in order to get the bank -- to which he owes a considerable sum -- off his back. Early in the book, one of the bank's workout specialists rattles Croker so much that he sweats "saddlebags" -- perspiration that begins in the armpits and eventually covers most of a person's chest -- into his shirt. Current Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson never would have allowed such a calamity to take place. Had a banker tried to work him out, Johnson, through sheer force of will, would have convinced the banker that he owed Johnson money.
Last game: Beat North Carolina, 35-28
Next game: Saturday at NC State
19 South Florida Bulls
Last Week: 19
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: The Bulls get a coming-of-age story in honor of quarterback B.J. Daniels, who seems to be making the transition from athlete who plays quarterback to respected signal-caller. The key stat for Daniels is touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last year, he threw 11 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. This season, Daniels has thrown eight touchdown passes and one interception. If he can come close to maintaining that ratio as USF begins Big East play, the Bulls have an excellent chance to compete for their first conference title.
Last game: Beat UTEP, 52-24
Next game: Thursday at Pittsburgh
20 West Virginia Mountaineers
Last Week: 16
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: According to the rules set forth in Heller's satire of war and bureaucracy, an airman who didn't worry about death was insane and therefore had to be grounded. But according to Heller, Catch-22 "specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind," which meant that an airman who expressed concern about dying was sane and therefore fit to fly. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who celebrated being elevated to the head-coaching job by jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, probably would have been grounded in Heller's novel. But the Mountaineers are lucky athletic director Oliver Luck doesn't govern with Catch-22. West Virginia's offense showed flashes of brilliance against LSU, which typically smothers any sort of brilliance before it leaves the quarterback's hand. The Mountaineers can rest assured that they won't face a better defense all season, and they gained 533 yards against the Tigers. If they cut down on the turnovers, none of the remaining teams on their schedule can stop them.
Last game: Lost to LSU, 47-21
Next game: Saturday vs. Bowling Green
21 TCU Horned Frogs
Last Week: 20
Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins: Maybe TCU tailback Ed Wesley -- who is expected to return Saturday after missing three weeks with a shoulder injury -- should carry a recorder and keep a journal of his season just as fictional former Horned Frog Billy Clyde Puckett did in the best-seller from one of SI's all-time greats. Jenkins, a proud TCU graduate, also is a former neighbor of Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson.
Last game: Beat Portland State, 55-13
Next game: Saturday vs. SMU
22 Michigan Wolverines
Last Week: 23
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Much of the action in Hurston's novel takes place in The Muck. The area, near Florida's Lake Okeechobee, also produced Wolverines tailback Vincent Smith, who is averaging 8.5 yards per carry this season. The Wolverines also resemble main character Janie Crawford, who returns to Eatonville, Fla., as a mysterious figure and the subject of gossip by her fellow townsfolk. The rest of the Big Ten is wondering about Michigan, which once again has started hot. The Wolverines' dominant win against San Diego State suggests Michigan has improved under Brady Hoke, but Rich Rodriguez's team started off 5-0 last year and lost six of its next eight.
Last game: Beat San Diego State, 28-7
Next game: Saturday vs. Minnesota
23 Illinois Fighting Illini
Last Week: 24
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: I took over the Florida beat for The Tampa Tribune in 2004. That means I heard current Illini coach Ron Zook say a lot of things were correctable during his final season in Gainesville. For much of Zook's tenure in Champaign, the Illini have suffered from the same Midwestern malaise as the Lamberts, the family at the center of Franzen's novel, which is set during the painful mini-recession that descended after the first dotcom bubble burst. But like matriarch Enid Lambert, maybe Zook resolved to make some changes, because this team appears capable of getting over the hump and competing for the Big Ten title.
Last game: Beat Western Michigan, 23-20
Next game: Saturday vs. Northwestern
24 Arizona St. Sun Devils
Last Week: --
Portnoy's Complaint by Phillip Roth: Roth's tale of a man's internal battle between his ethical thoughts and his base instincts might connect with Sun Devils linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who has a historical inability to switch off his id on the football field. That issue was plumbed quite thoroughly in an excellent Los Angeles Times story that included USC quarterback Matt Barkley calling Burfict "a dirty player." Burfict did get flagged for a personal foul against USC, but a series later, he intercepted Barkley in the red zone and returned the ball 36 yards to set up an Arizona State touchdown drive. Saturday's real winner, though, was Getty Images photographer Norm Hall, who captured a brilliant shot of Burfict telling Barkley exactly how Saturday's game would play out.
Last game: Beat USC, 43-22
Next game: Saturday vs. Oregon State
25 Iowa St. Cyclones
Last Week: 25
As I Lay Dying by William Faulker: Each chapter of As I Lay Dying is named for the character who narrates it, and the Bundrens -- who bumble through the novel seeking a burial spot for matriarch Addie -- have some cool names. There's Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman. But the Bundren family has nothing on the Jantz family in the name department. Cyclones quarterback Steele Jantz might not even have the coolest moniker in his own family. Jantz, from Agoura Hills, Calif., has brothers named Broughan and Truk, and his father's name is Foxx.
Last game: Beat Connecticut, 24-20
Next game: Saturday vs. Texas

Next five: Texas, Houston, USC, Washington, Kansas State

Andy Staples' Power Rankings also serve as his ballot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

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