As we approach the midway point of the 2012 college football season, we still have 16 undefeated teams in the FBS ranks. Some undefeateds look great, and others have taken advantage of good breaks and/or easy schedules. Below, I will share my ranking of the Sweet 16. (Records and AP rankings are in parentheses.)
16. UTSA (5-0, NR)
This one doesn't really count -- in the Roadrunners' provisional FBS season, they have played just two FBS opponents (South Alabama, New Mexico State), and those two are among FBS' five worst. (Of course, this means that UTSA probably isn't one of FBS' five worst, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.)
UTSA's other three wins have come over two Division II opponents (Texas A&M-Commerce, NW Oklahoma) and soon-to-be FBS newbie Georgia State. UTSA looked very FBS in easily dispatching NMSU on September 29, and Larry Coker's squad has done everything asked of it so far, but better opponents are coming up soon: San Jose State on October 20, Utah State on October 27, and Louisiana Tech (in Ruston) on November 3.
15. Ohio (5-0, No. 26)
I was higher on the Bobcats than anybody not named Holly Anderson this preseason, but Frank Solich's team has not played incredibly inspiring football of late. After a 24-14 win over Penn State to start the season, Ohio has narrowly escaped Marshall in Huntington (27-24) in Huntington, squeezed out a win over lowly UMass (37-34) in Amherst, and held off Buffalo (38-31) at home.
Granted, the schedule is still quite friendly -- road trips to Miami (Ohio), Ball State and Kent State are far from intimidating; but all three of those teams are better than UMass. Ohio still has to be considered the overall MAC favorite, but the odds for finishing the season without a blemish are decreasing.
14. Louisiana Tech (5-0, No. 23)
First things first: if the Bulldogs take out Texas A&M in Shreveport this coming Saturday night, they will probably finish undefeated. Hurdles would still remain -- a visit from Utah State on November 17, a visit to salty San Jose State on November 24 -- but Sonny Dykes' offense is humming. Tech is averaging 291 passing yards and 232 rushing yards per game (let's not talk too much about their defense, ahem) and have already beaten two FBS opponents (Illinois, Virginia) on the road by a combined martin of 34 points. Texas A&M is really good, however; beat the Aggies, and Tech would probably rise a few spots on this list.
13. Louisville (5-0, No. 18)
Seeing Louisville ranked in the preseason AP Poll had my "too much, too soon" radar blinking. Louisville improved quite a bit late last season, they have one of the best new coaches in college football in second-year head man Charlie Strong, and sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is all sorts of exciting. But the Cardinals were walking through quicksand in narrow wins at a disappointing FIU squad (Louisville won, 28-21) and a downright bad Southern Miss team (21-17). (And yes, it bears mentioning that the USM game was played in ultra-rainy conditions.) The bye week came at a good time for the Cards, however; their Big East season begins in full with a trip to face an improving but flawed Pittsburgh team this Saturday.
12. Cincinnati (4-0, No. 21)
All we know of the Bearcats is that they have been good enough to kill Pittsburgh and Miami (Ohio) at home, survive a fumble fest versus Delaware State, and knock off Virginia Tech on a neutral field. Their resume is really no more impressive than Louisville's, and they face their second FCS opponent (Fordham) this coming weekend. We will learn something about Louisville this coming weekend. We might not learn anything about Cincy until either October 20 (at Toledo) or October 26 (at Louisville).
11. Mississippi State (5-0, No. 19)
In my 2012 preview, I mentioned that it would take quite a while for us to learn anything about Mississippi State.
[A]ll four conference home games (Auburn, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Arkansas) are winnable (though Arkansas did whip them by 27 in Fayetteville in 2011), as are trips to Ole Miss and Kentucky. Throw in a super-cakey non-conference schedule (Jackson State, at Troy, South Alabama, Middle Tennessee), and you've got the potential for a high win total even if the Bulldogs are only a top 30 to 35 team. In fact, the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 projects MSU to rank just 44th in F/+ but still gives the Bulldogs a 21 percent chance of finishing 8-4 or better. We'll set the bar there, but if they are indeed better than 44th, a much better record could be in the cards.
Thus far, MSU has beaten Jackson State, Auburn and South Alabama at home and Troy and Kentucky on the road. Dan Mullen's Bulldogs needed some turnovers luck to hold off Troy, and they beat Kentucky by only 13. Being undefeated in the SEC typically means something, but in this case it really doesn't. MSU can prove a little something by taking out a solid Tennessee squad at home this weekend, but the real test will come on October 27 with a trip to Tuscaloosa. MSU almost certainly won't beat Alabama, but the level of the game's competitiveness will tell us a lot.
10. Rutgers (5-0, No. 20)
I admit it: I'm taking a leap of faith in ranking Rutgers above Mississippi State, Cincinnati and Louisville. I really, really like the Scarlet Knights' defense. Despite the loss of defensive tackle Ike Holmes, Rutgers has one of the best front sevens in the country, and while the offense has been mostly mediocre against teams not named Arkansas, the defense-and-special-teams recipe has worked well so far.
It should continue to do so until at least a mid-November trip to Cincinnati. Rutgers' next four games: Syracuse, at Temple, Kent State, Army. Though Kyle Flood's team is not truly Top 10 caliber, we should probably get used to the idea of the Scarlet Knights being 9-0 and ranked in the Top 10 when they head to Cincy on November 17.
9. Oregon State (4-0, No. 10)
It's good to have you back, Beavers. Mostly because of what I (incorrectly, in retrospect) perceived to be ridiculous depth in the Pac-12 North, I was not tremendously optimistic about Mike Riley's chances to build something too successful in Corvallis this season, but I'm happy to have been wrong. OSU rode offense to wins over UCLA and Arizona and held Wisconsin and Washington State to 13 combined points. They are reasonably well-rounded, and in Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, they have one of the best, fastest receiver duos in the country.
They are not Oregon, but they are quite possibly the second-best team in the division. Next up: a trip to Provo to face an interesting matchup with BYU. Oregon State is averaging 340 passing yards per game, but BYU hasn't allowed over 300 yards in a game in more than a calendar year.
8. Kansas State (5-0, No. 6)
Everybody's favorite S&P+ buster broke out its typical "playing against a bad opponent" blueprint against Kansas this past weekend: Show nothing until you have to, take your time, then eventually surge to a comfortable win. KSU led Missouri State, 16-9, heading into the fourth quarter and won, 51-9. They led Kansas by seven at half and won by 40. It is very, very difficult to gauge a team like this. They play one way against iffy opponents and save their best performances for their best opponents (Kansas State 24, Oklahoma 19 in Norman).
But until proven otherwise, they are also a legitimate Top 10 team. There are a lot of very, very good undefeated teams this year, but KSU will have a serious chance to move up on this list in two weeks, when the Wildcats head to Morgantown. Bill Snyder's squad will slow the pace to a crawl and break out every trick in the book to slow down West Virginia; and if recent history is any indication, it will work so much better than you think it will.
7. Notre Dame (5-0, No. 7)
I was very, very high on Brian Kelly's Irish this offseason, but their schedule cowed me a bit. I thought Notre Dame would be a legitimate Top 15 team (they are) but still drop a few games against a brutal schedule (they haven't yet). Wins over Michigan State and Michigan and a romp over Miami have the Irish ranked in the Top 7 for the first time since 2006, but the schedule doesn't let up: Stanford this coming weekend, BYU the next, and a trip to Oklahoma on October 27. The defense has been even better than I expected (and I expected it to be really good), and to date the turnovers luck has flipped a bit after bounces screwed them out of a couple of 2011 wins. The Irish are basically a better BYU (killer defense, flawed offense), but flaws or no, this is a really, really good team. It will have to continue proving it, too.
6. Ohio State (6-0, No. 8)
When Ohio State hired Urban Meyer as its new head coach, we weren't exactly sure what to expect. Meyer spent most of the last decade as one of the country's elite offensive coaches, capable of producing a spread offense that can move the ball against defenses supposedly immune to spread offenses. But Meyer's last year at Florida, which saw a move toward pro-style concepts and a lot of offensive sluggishness, gave us a completely different impression.
Good news, everybody! With quarterback Braxton Miller serving as his muse, Meyer seems to be the Old Meyer again. And after a relatively slow start, Ohio State absolutely torched what seemed to be an improved Nebraska defense. The Buckeyes were held scoreless in their first four possessions against the Huskers (they scored on a pick six), then scored touchdowns on eight of their next 10 in a 63-28 romp. Miller still has work to do in the passing game, but the Ohio State offense is explosive, and the defense is active enough to tee off when the Buckeyes build a lead. Just ask Taylor Martinez.
"Exciting" isn't a word we typically use to describe Ohio State football, even when the Buckeyes are great. But we're getting there now.
5. Florida (5-0, No. 4)
In their last 10 quarters, Will Muschamp's Gators have outscored Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU by a combined 79-12. The offense is still all sorts of imperfect, but the defense has clicked. and quarterback Jeff Driskel has shown just enough improvement to keep opponents from being able to completely key on running back Mike Gillislee (34 carries for 146 yards versus LSU).
The Gators are, for now at least, back among the nation's elite; they were explosive enough to soar past Tennessee, and they actually outmuscled LSU this past weekend in Gainesville. And after this coming weekend's trip to Vanderbilt, they won't have to leave the state again. Beat South Carolina in Gainesville and Georgia in Jacksonville, and they may have all but clinched the SEC East title by the end of October. Of course, South Carolina might have something to say about that.
4. West Virginia (5-0, No. 5)
In two Big 12 games, West Virginia has scored 118 points and gained 1,267 yards. They have also allowed 108 points and 1,104 yards. Even adjusting for pace and opponent, the Mountaineers' defense is mediocre at best, and that docks them a few spots on this list. But with that offense, does it matter?
If you can win at Texas (and WVU did just that), you can win at Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Iowa State (then again, Paul Rhoads), and you can certainly beat Kansas State and Oklahoma at home. With five home games and a huge road win in the books, the Mountaineers are very much in the Big 12 driver's seat. They have the Heisman favorite (quarterback Geno Smith), the most explosive receiver duo in the country (Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin) and a No. 3 receiver with perhaps the best HANDS in the country (J.D. Woods). And against Texas, even the rushing offense looked great (Andrew Buie: 31 carries, 207 yards). Defense: Who needs it?
3. South Carolina (6-0, No. 3)
South Carolina is basically the rich man's Kansas State. The Gamecocks looked vulnerable for about 3.9 quarters against Vanderbilt and trailed lowly Kentucky by 10 at halftime before surging. But at home, they have been incredible. They put together their best performance of the season in a 31-10 win over Missouri, and then they played about 10 times better in an absolute pasting of Georgia this past weekend.
They have proven two things so far in 2012: 1) Their ceiling is as high as that of any team in the country not named Alabama. 2) They are capable of playing far, far below their ceiling. Considering their three toughest remaining opponents all HOST the Gamecocks (LSU, Florida, Clemson), I assume they are not a legitimate threat to remain undefeated. But when things click for this team, it is impossible to ignore how good they look.
2. Oregon (6-0, No. 2)
Granted, Washington had no business being ranked in the Top 25 last week (the Huskies have played like a Top 25 team exactly once this season), but against the "ranked" Huskies squad, Oregon didn't even bother with its typical first-half, pre-surge experimentation. They just needed two drives. Oregon was held scoreless through the first seven minutes, then exploded for 35 points over the next 15. The offense cruised to an easy 6.5 yards per play (Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas: 30 carries for 197 yards), and the defense held Washington quarterback Keith Price to 4.4 yards per pass attempt (for comparison: LSU held Price to 3.2), picked him off twice and forced five fumbles.
The offense is as dominant as ever, and the defense is the fastest and most active D west of Louisiana. This is a really, really good team. An Oregon-Alabama national title game would be absolutely fascinating.
1. Alabama (5-0, No. 1)
The defending champions were off this week, resting up for a stretch that sees the Tide play three road games in four weeks. A trip to face depleted, frustrated Missouri shouldn't offer much trouble, and unless Tyler Bray has some magic saved up, neither will a trip to Knoxville on the Third Saturday in October.
Honestly, this season comes down to one game -- the November 3 trip to LSU -- and with LSU's offensive malaise, even that game doesn't seem as tough as it once did. The nation's best team has the nation's best coach and what now looks like a favorable schedule. Get used to them being No. 1 for a while longer.
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