Welcome to a weekly series ranking college football teams based on their likelihood of making the playoff and/or a New Year’s Six bowl.
Almost Famous: Cincinnati, Kentucky, Tulane, Arkansas, Baylor
The Almost-Elite 8
20. Ole Miss The Rebels are a different kind of offense this year, but the wins are still coming. This weekend against Kentucky is basically an elimination game, especially for Mississippi, who has the chance to trip up against chaos teams like LSU or Mississippi State.
19. Florida State Mike Norvell getting the Seminoles back to competent could not have come at a better time. Everybody beating everybody might catch up to FSU, though, starting with Wake Forest this week.
18. Texas A&M We’re going to keep doing this thing with the Aggies, even if they’re not as talented as many in and out of this list. That talent deficit is especially glaring at quarterback, which is why they feel due for around 3 more losses. Escaping Arkansas was essential to staying alive for at least the New Year’s Six.
17. James Madison The Group of 5 race for a NY6 bid is gonna be dark this year. Example: only 4 games in, there is no team with a winning record in the MAC, and only 4 teams are 2-2! Into that void walks a perennial FCS powerhouse playing out its first year in the Sun Belt. There’s a postseason ban on the Dukes because of that move, but they’re one of only 2 unbeaten non-Power 5 teams left!!! If it’s between this and (gulp) UNLV, the bowls might be left with no choice but to go over the NCAA’s head (what a new concept!!!!!).
16. North Carolina State Nobody has a chance to make a bigger jump this week than the Wolfpack. A win over Clemson puts them as the lead horse in the ACC and begins at least a conversation about the playoff.
15. Utah The Florida loss is losing its value. A return trip the Rose Bowl would appreciated, which is good because that might be as good as it gets for the Utes.
14. Penn State They’re here because they’re a program with a proud tradition and because they play in one of the toughest conference divisions in the country. But Sean Clifford’s been erratic in a way that will cost the Nittany Lions a couple of games, and that probably costs them the NY6.
13. Oklahoma State Who’s the Big 12 favorite? Is it Baylor, the reigning champs? Did Kansas State vault Oklahoma for that claim this weekend? Will TCU surprise in Sonny Dykes’ first year and win it? The only sure thing seems to be the undefeated Cowboys will be part of the conversation. Finishing the job this year is more likely with a much-improved Spencer Sanders at quarterback, but the defense has also regressed with Jim Knowles’ move to Ohio State.
The Terrific 12
12. Coastal Carolina While this is the shakiest version of the Chanticleers we’ve seen under Jamey Chadwell, they’re also the only unbeaten in the Group of 5 besides JMU. Grayson McCall is a cult college football star and would be a fun draw for a big bowl. As long as the Beach Chickens can win the Sun Belt, maybe even with a loss thrown in, they’ll have a strong case for the NY6.
11. Minnesota The Golden Gophers are in position to be a weekly riser, as they’ve smashed overmatched competition to get to 4-0 and should be favored in all but one game the rest of the regular season. If they can win out or only lose to Penn State, not only does a long-awaited return to the Rose Bowl become more real; but, regardless of if you think they can actually beat Ohio State, a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game would essentially turn that night in Indianapolis into a playoff quarterfinal.
10. Oklahoma You can choose to view Saturday’s loss to K-State as one of 2 things: another hiccup that proves the Sooners aren’t quite ready to return to their perch atop the Big 12, or another instance of one particular team having your number, as Chris Klieman scored his third win in 4 tries against OU. Either way, the path back to the playoff is uphill at the moment.
9. Tennessee Let’s be clear about something: nobody’s hopes of double-digit wins can go sideways faster than the Volunteers. Playing Alabama and Georgia every year means you have to be perfect otherwise. A top-10-ranked Kentucky could give that game more value if you drop it. But that means the Vols would have to win out just to reach the NY6.
8. Oregon No 1-loss team in America has a better resume than the Ducks, if only because that loss is to the Georgia Death Machine. Still, Bo Nix had to bail them out with a career day in a comeback against Washington State. Decimating teams like they did BYU would keep that resume looking strong ahead of tough tests against Washington, Utah and possibly USC.
7. Clemson The Tigers went from a team whose reputation as a perennial playoff participant would help you ignore their struggling offense to one who is using that reputation to shield your questions about how the best defensive line in the country couldn’t bully Wake Forest. Going out and being great on both sides of the ball Saturday night against NC State would finally start to validate the Tigers of now instead of leaning on what happened over the last 7 years.
6. Washington That turned quickly, huh? Kalen DeBoer’s scoop of Michael Penix Jr out of the transfer portal has proven to be a steal. It’s a question of how long they can keep it going, but the reason the Huskies deserve the hype is that, when facing middling teams like Michigan State and Stanford, they didn’t just win the games; they dominated. We’ll learn a little more with the first road test of the season featuring a UCLA hungry to prove it’s legit as well, but the toughest opponent left on the schedule is Oregon. Don’t get me wrong, teams like Oregon State, Arizona and Wazzu will make it tough, but the 12-0 red carpet to the Pac-12 Championship Game could very easily roll out.
5. Michigan The Wolverines are likely the lone threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten. JJ McCarthy is the right choice at QB because he can provide big plays and maybe a star at the position. He looked shaky against Maryland, but that might end up being one of the tougher opponents the Maize and Blue face this year. Keep riding Blake Corum and hope the defense rounds into form before November.
The Playoff 4
4. USC The last spot in this year’s playoff seems like the only one truly up for grabs. So why not take the sexy team everyone wants to believe is great? There’s honestly no shame in having to survive a rock fight against Oregon State. But it is a reminder that making the playoff in year one under Lincoln Riley doesn’t also mean the Trojans would be competitive once they get there.
3. Alabama Bryce Young needs some help. One of those typical Crimson Tide stars that shows up at running back and wide receiver every year is disturbingly absent. Even Nick Saban’s most defense-first championship teams had Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson make it to the Heisman ceremony. Will Richardson and Dallas Turner would be happy to see someone make plays on offense like that.
2. Ohio State In the absence of Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Marvin Harrison Jr and Emeka Egbuka have combined for 829 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns and better than 17 yards per catch. Either CJ Stroud is getting better or the Buckeyes have legit depth behind one of the nation’s best wide receivers. Or both! Any scenario is terrifying and makes OSU close to unbeatable.
1. Georgia No one on the planet will have a good explanation for how Kent State hung around for that long in Athens. Brock Bowers alone makes the Bulldogs close to an elite offense. The defensive replacements for last year’s legendary group are more than adequate. They’re the best team in America, and only Ohio State is close. It would take an absurd string of events to keep them out of the playoff. Might take that to keep them from winning it all.