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: Illinois, North Carolina, Kansas, Utah, Cincinnati
The Almost-Elite 8
20. North Carolina St The Wolfpack escaped Florida State more due to the Seminoles making a grave error than anything special they did. But Wake Forest and North Carolina are the toughest outs left, and they played solid against Clemson despite the loss. They’ll be in the conversation for the Orange Bowl the rest of the way.
19. Tulane Feeling more and more like the best challenge to Cincinnati’s crown in the American will come from New Orleans. The Green Wave have a non-conference win against Kansas State that is aging like fine wine, and they followed up the heroics of the Houston overtime win with their best defensive game of the season against East Carolina.
18. Texas Oklahoma’s troubles are the big story from Red River Week, but the Longhorns look like a very good offensive team when Quinn Ewers is at the controls. If he stays healthy, not winning the Big 12 is going to be a fair bit of a disappointment.
17. James Madison If they’re already ranked in the AP poll, there’s no reason we can’t just scrap an unnecessary postseason ban. Especially if there are no challengers in the Sun Belt.
16. Mississippi St Mike Leach has gone away from his roots, as the last disciple of Hal Mumme running the true, uncut Air Raid is actually (gasp!!!) running the ball! The Bulldogs are actually averaging better than 106 yards per game on the ground and have run for at least 140 in back-to-back conference wins over Texas A&M and Arkansas. Continuing to run well should be prioritized, with Alabama looming in 2 weeks and Georgia and Ole Miss still left. Plus, Kentucky this Saturday only seems easier because the Wildcats look flat on offense without Will Levis, but that might have only been a one-week thing.
15. TCU The Horned Frogs won the Surprise Game of the Century at Kansas, and star wide receiver Quentin Johnston finally flashed that All-American potential with 14 catches for 206 yards. He might have to keep that up. The gauntlet stretch of the schedule continues with home games against Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Texas is waiting in mid-November, and finishing with Baylor and Iowa State is no cakewalk either. The Frogs find themselves with a good team that unfortunately draws a year where the Big 12 title is truly won, not given.
14. UCLA The Bruins have pretty well whooped up on their last 2 opponents, Washington and Utah, for long stretches of those wins. We’ve got until after the trip to Oregon next week to determine if this is a true playoff contender, but we’re getting to a point where you have to take them seriously on that front, let alone consider their chances at the New Year’s Six.
13. Kansas St Tulane needs to keep winning for their to be any real playoff chance, but winning the Big 12 with that only blemish would get the Wildcats a seat at the table. Runner-up in the Big 12 with 1-2 more losses would still be a good resume for the NY6.
The Terrific 12
12. Coastal Carolina It would be absolutely delightful if K-State ended up in any bowl game with the Chanticleers, let alone a New Year’s bowl, because you would get two of the coolest spread-option offenses going at it. Give me Grayson McCall vs Adrian Martinez.
11. Penn St Did you know Sean Clifford was PFF’s highest-graded Power 5 quarterback going into last week? This is a dumb sport.
10. Oklahoma St The Cowboys’ offense seems pretty hard to slow down, but Texas Tech proved again that you can hang around with them. The Pokes’ biggest gauntlet of the season starts this week with TCU before hosting Texas and taking on the Kansas teams. We’ll see if that defense holds up enough to get through it.
9. Ole Miss Jonathan Mingo played like the superstar the Rebels have been lacking with a monster game against Vanderbilt (9 catches, 247 yds, 2 TD). This needs to be a more featured element if Mississippi is going to complement its strong ground game enough to beat the likes of Mississippi State, let alone Alabama. Even the opponents that are losing value like Texas A&M and Arkansas are still tricky.
8. Tennessee The Volunteers’ major hurdle to the playoff is their tradition. Playing Alabama and Georgia every year, plus being in the opposite division as the former, means you have to play that combination potentially 3 times. That’s 3 wins that no one else in the country can match. But, regardless of how even this week goes, the odds of winning all three are quite small.
7. Oregon The rise of USC and a recent string of butt-whoopings at the hands of Utah means that the Ducks are not guaranteed anything if they get by UCLA next week. But, boy, do few teams have it easier after that. Improving opponents like Washington and Oregon State will be tricky, but getting to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Championship will feel pretty secured if Dan Lanning’s guys handle their business next Saturday night.
6. Clemson You probably can’t keep an unbeaten Tiger team out of the playoff. But if there are one-loss candidates like Oregon lurking, it would help their case if Dabo’s boys went back to blowing out the rest of the ACC.
5. USC I’d like to believe that the Trojans struggling to beat teams like Oregon State or Wazzu would make people recognize that the Pac-12 doesn’t stink. But no one stays up late enough to confirm this point. So Southern Cal could also do with dismembering a few hapless souls in the South division.
The Playoff 4
4. Alabama Jalen Milroe looked less like a Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa against Texas A&M and more like most 5-star freshman QBs: an unpolished talent that would benefit from sitting and waiting for a year. Nick Saban could probably hold Bryce Young out this week to ensure he was healthy for a potential rematch against Tennessee down the line. But that’s a big “potential” with Georgia looming. The Crimson Tide have proved with Young both in and out of the lineup that any good team can make them go all 12 rounds. We’ll see if they can keep avoiding a knockout blow.
3. Michigan The Wolverines disguised playing with their Indiana-shaped food by having JJ McCarthy throw for over 300 yards and 3 TDs. The good news is that the gap between this slot and #8 in terms of ability to beat each other is getting smaller, so an entertaining playoff may be at hand…
2. Georgia …the bad news is that there’s always a death machine looming. But maybe the ‘Dawgs just looked great again because Auburn’s down that bad. Maybe they’re still flawed in a way that allows someone to duplicate what Missouri did but also finish the drill…
1. Ohio St …but even then, there’s no getting around what the Buckeyes are becoming. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is free to nurse himself back to health for as long as he needs, because nobody is staying in front of Marvin Harrison Jr and Emeka Egbuka. CJ Stroud is already the best quarterback on the planet and he’s still got one more year after this before he can head to the NFL. Oh, and the defense is getting better. The Whiteout at Penn State will need to work some magic to prove there’s a weak point.