Despite the lack of competitive marquee matchups this week, several of the top tier teams were severely tested against perceived inferior opponents. Although many of the aforementioned “elite” programs ultimately ended up being victorious, several highly ranked teams (see Wisconsin, Notre Dame) were lucky to come away with wins that should have been easily achieved. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable to witness another competitive weekend in college football that on paper did not appear to be particularly intriguing. With the final regular-season matchups upcoming, programs that are comfortably in the College Football Playoff will attempt to hold serve while those on the outside looking in will valiantly fight to topple the accomplished opponents in front of them before Conference Championship contests commence.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
While the undefeated Crimson Tide are deservedly the best team in the country, they can firmly cement their dominance this season by dispatching a fierce Auburn program that now has a great quarterback to go along with an unforgiving defense. If Jalen Hurst can make enough big plays with his arm while using his athleticism to shake a relentless Tigers defensive front, the Crimson Tide will once again be the heavy favorites to win the National Title.
2. Clemson Tigers
Since their loss to Syracuse earlier in the season, the Tigers recent wins over Georgia Tech, NC State, and Florida State have been less than convincing. While Clemson’s defensive line is arguably the best in the country, their secondary has been much more porous as they have regularly given up big touchdown plays to quarterbacks that are not highly regarded as gunslingers. Still, the Tigers are deserving of a Playoff spot given their impressive resume and can make believers out of the most cynical critics with a convincing win over Miami in the ACC Championship Game.
3. Miami Hurricanes
Although the Hurricanes ultimately beat the Virginia Cavaliers 44-28 in their most recent contest, this team has to be better at evoking their killer instinct against inferior opponents. Luckily, Pittsburgh will be the last such team that the Hurricanes will have to contend with as they will face a championship-caliber Clemson program in the ACC Championship game in two weeks.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
While some may have issues with quarterback Baker Mayfield’s obscene gestures and abrasive disposition on the field, his competitive nature, and natural talent have resulted in him being the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. Completing more than 70% of his passes for 34 touchdowns and just five interceptions, Mayfield is a fearless gunslinger who has rarely put his team in a difficult position when it comes to winning tight football games. Assuming the Sooners beat West Virginia this week, Mayfield will most likely get another shot at dismantling one of the best defenses in the country (TCU) in the BIG 12 Championship Game.
5. Wisconsin Badgers
As has been the case for the Badgers this season, they are an undefeated team that still needs a decisive victory over a top-tier program to have a chance at making the Playoff. With a 24-10 victory over a formidable Wolverines run-defense, the Badgers should be pleased. Yet, considering the win was not particularly convincing, they will need to get over the hump of winning a BIG 10 Championship Game, something that has just eluded them in recent years.
6. Auburn Tigers
With a gifted quarterback in Jarrett Stidham (67.8 CMP%) and a top-10 defense (16.6 PAPG, tied for 8th in the nation), the Tigers are easily the best two-loss team in the country and could vault themselves into the Playoff if they win their next two contests. With top-ranked Alabama to contend with in the Iron Bowl, the Tigers will have to play top-notch football to defeat the best team in the country en route to an eventual rematch against a Bulldogs program that will be looking for blood.
7. Georgia Bulldogs
If the Bulldogs defense (14.4 PAPG, 4th in the nation) and their dynamic rushing attack (267.4 RYPG, 10th in the nation) can be as productive as they were before they faced Auburn, they will have a solid chance of winning the SEC Championship game. However, quarterback Jake Fromm has to be willing to take more shots downfield if the Bulldogs hope to overcome the elite defenses in the SEC.
8. USC Trojans
Despite quarterback Sam Darnold throwing one interception and zero touchdowns in a huge rivalry game against UCLA, running back Ronald Jones II (122 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Bruins) and the Trojans won a close one in thrilling fashion. With the PAC-12 Championship Game looming large, the Trojans will need to a complete performance to defeat their opponent in two weeks.
9. TCU Horned Frogs
With a win over Baylor to finish off the season, the Horned Frogs could feasibly get a chance at redemption against a Sooners program that picked apart their exceptional defense. However, TCU needs more production out of quarterback Kenny Hill (did not play against Texas Tech) and running back Darius Anderson if they hope to put pressure on an Oklahoma team that has proven to be supremely potent on offense. With a well-balanced approach, the Horned Frogs could surprise and defeat the Sooners, effectively spoiling their chance of making the Playoff.
10. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Considering how vulnerable the Fighting Irish looked in their close win over Navy recently, they could feasibly be on upset alert come this week when they face Stanford in their final regular season contest. While quarterback Brandon Wimbush was able to throw for two massive touchdowns late against Navy, their once dominant rushing attack looked fairly anemic compared to what it was before they were ripped to shreds by Miami two weeks ago. Although it’s hard to be sure at this point, it’s more than possible that the Fighting Irish have been exposed as being a one-dimensional offense that simply cannot overwhelm the top defenses in the country.
11. Ohio State Buckeyes
Since an embarrassing loss to Iowa, the Buckeyes have played with a merciless anger as they have demolished their last two opponents by a scoring margin of 100-17. When this team is firing on all cylinders, it’s easy to see why this program was selected by numerous pundits to make the College Football Playoff before the season started. With Michigan to finish out the regular season, the Buckeyes will need to bring the same no-nonsense attitude to take out the Wolverines while keeping a close eye on the defensively stout Wisconsin Badgers, who they will ultimately face in the BIG 10 Championship Game.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions
Even though the Nittany Lions scored 56 points in their victory this weekend, they needed nearly every bit of that offensive output to beat a decidedly below average Nebraska program. Once the best scoring defense in the country, the Nittany Lions have relinquished 27 points or more in three out of their last four games. Luckily quarterback Trace McSorley (24 touchdowns, eight interceptions this season) and running back Saquon Barkley (14 rushing touchdowns this season) have played at a high enough level to bail out a now porous defense.
13. Washington Huskies
While it has not always been pretty for the Huskies, their formidable defense (14.5 PAPG this season, 5th in the nation) and dynamic offense have looked like the real deal more often than not. Led by quarterback Jake Browning (69.1 CMP%) and running back Myles Gaskin (six yards per rush, 15 rushing touchdowns this season), the Huskies offense has been consistently efficient and has been held under 30 points only once this season. With the Cougars coming into town this week, this Huskies will get a chance to finish off their season with an emphatic win over a hated in-state rival.
14. Central Florida Knights
I don’t care who your opposition is. When you have the best scoring offense in college football (47.5 PPG) that is complemented by a great defense (20.5 PAPG, 27th in the nation), it’s simply impossible to discredit that type of balanced proficiency. Quarterback McKenzie Milton has been exceptional all season long (69.6 CMP%, 31 total touchdowns this season) and wideout Tre’Quan Smith (19.3 yards per reception) has been one of the most reliable and explosive playmakers in the country. With a highly-intriguing contest against South Florida to cap off the regular season, the Knights have a grand opportunity to finish out the regular season undefeated while putting themselves in a great position to garner a New Years Six Bowl bid.
15. Washington State Cougars
Without quarterback Luke Falk (66.8 CMP% this year, 3224 passing yards), you have to wonder how this Cougar program would have faired this season. Still, Washington State has been fortunate to have Falk this year along with a better than expected defense (22.9 PPG this season, 40th in the nation) that has kept this team in close games against the upper echelon of the PAC-12. With the Apple Cup against Washington upcoming, the Cougars can finish off what has been a very impressive season with a win against their fiercely hated rival.
16. Michigan State Spartans
With only one loss at home to Notre Dame this season, the scrappy albeit wildly inconsistent Spartans have allowed their fan base to be more euphoric than disappointed this season. While a blowout loss to Ohio State two weeks ago was perplexing, their resilient defense has been great for the most part and sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke has shown signs of greatness this year, something that this relatively young program should be immensely excited about in the years to come.
17. Mississippi State Bulldogs
While you have to admire the unshakeable resolve of the Bulldogs, their losses to ranked teams in combination with their close victories over vastly inferior opponents (see UMASS, Arkansas) diminishes the aforementioned sentiment severely. As it stands, the Bulldogs will finish with a fairly impressive record, but cannot be considered anything more than an intensely competitive albeit slightly above average SEC program.
18. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Unlike Memphis, the Cowboys have not been able to overcome their defensive issues, despite having one of the most prolific offenses in the country (383.1 PYPG, 1st in the nation; 45.2 PPG, 2nd in the nation). Even with veterans such as quarterback Mason Rudolph (4115 passing yards, 33 passing touchdowns) along with wide receivers James Washington (21.6 yards per reception) and Marcel Ateman (18.8 yards per reception), the Cowboys have still struggled mightily to dispatch conference opponents (recently lost to Kansas State 45-40).
19. Memphis Tigers
I hate to sound like a broken record, but the Tigers defense is absolutely dreadful (32.6 PAPG this season, 100th in the nation). Yet, in spite of their woeful defense, the Tigers electric offense has had its way with nearly every opponent they have faced this season (42 PPG this season, 6th in the nation). Thanks to the tremendous connection that exists between quarterback Riley Ferguson (29 touchdowns, eight interceptions this season) and wideout Anthony Miller (14.2 yards per receptions and 13 touchdowns this season) the Tigers have been able to cover their defensive deficiencies with relative ease.
20. LSU Tigers
Since their inexplicable loss to Troy, the Tigers have shut down the opposition on defense (18.8 PAPG this season, 17th in the nation) while running back Derrius Guice (5.5 yards per rush, 10 rushing touchdowns this season) has carried a predictable but physical Tigers offense to one hard-fought win after another. Without a competent quarterback (Danny Etling has a completion percentage of just 59.9% this season) it’s hard to imagine the physical but noticeably incomplete Tigers going much higher in the rankings this year.
21. Stanford Cardinal
Despite a poor passing attack (184.4 passing yards per game, 96th in the nation), the Cardinal have been able to win their last two games thanks to the prolific rushing abilities of Bryce Love (8.8 yards per rush, 16 rushing touchdowns this season). Defensively, the Cardinal has been one of the better programs in college football (20.7 PAPG, 29th in the nation) and will need all of that and then some to topple the aggressive rushing attack of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this week.
22. Northwestern Wildcats
During their last four games, the Wildcats defense has been otherworldly as they have improved at a torrid pace (allowed 31 points in a win over Michigan State one month ago, have allowed points totals of 24, 13 and zero in their victories since then). While the improvements for the defense have been majestic, its been the tenacity of running back Justin Jackson (averaged five yards per rush in two of last three games, averaged the same or more yards per rush only two other times this season) and the newfound discipline of quarterback Clayton Thorson (six touchdowns, two interceptions in last four games; four touchdowns, six interceptions in the previous four games) that has allowed the now well-rounded Wildcats to succeed where they once failed.
23. South Florida Bulls
Since losing a nail-biter to Houston three weeks ago, the Bulls have quickly and impressively recovered in two straight wins in which they have held their respective opponents to just 20 points each (19.9 PAPG this season, 19th in the nation). Offensively, quarterback Quinton Flowers has performed admirably by making big plays with both his arm (17 touchdowns, five interceptions this season) and legs (10 rushing touchdowns). Despite not being an accurate passer (53.5 CMP% on the season), Flowers has used his off the charts athleticism to carry his team to one well-earned victory after another. With the UCF Knights coming up to close out the regular season, the offensively tenacious Bulls will have their work cut out for them.
24. Boise State Broncos
Similar to their conference rivals in the Fresno State Bulldogs, the Broncos got off to a slow start with a 2-2 record. However, the Broncos have persevered since then as they have won seven games in a row. Holding six out of their last seven opponents to 19 points or less while scoring less than 30 points only twice during their win streak, the Broncos have become a well-balanced program that can effectively compete on both sides of the football. Considering how well quarterback Brett Rypien has played this season (14 touchdowns, four interceptions this season), the Broncos should feel incredibly confident going into their final regular-season matchup against Fresno State.
25. Fresno State Bulldogs
After starting 1-2, the Bulldogs have dug deep throughout the season as they have compiled a highly impressive record of 7-1 since their poor three-game start. This is due largely in part to their stingy defense (17.3 PAPG, 12th in the nation) and the improved quarterback play of junior passer Marcus McMaryion (has thrown for five touchdowns in last two games, only recorded seven touchdowns in his previous appearances). With a ranked Boise State program on the schedule to finish the regular season, the Bulldogs will face their toughest challenge yet.