The college football rankings are set to undergo some major changes after Week 4 action. Not only is the AP Top 25 set to welcome Big Ten teams back into the fold, but the first weekend of SEC play and a big weekend of Big 12 action provided some of the most dramatic results for ranked teams that we’ve seen all year.
First, Kansas State stunned No. 3 Oklahoma for a second year in a row, handing the Sooners a loss in their first game against FBS competition in 2020. OU was outscored 17-0 in the fourth quarter and now find themselves with no margin for error if they plan to return to the College Football Playoff for a fourth year in a row. A return to the College Football Playoff looks even less likely for No. 6 LSU, which followed in Oklahoma’s footsteps with a home loss to an unranked conference foe. Only this time, the defeat came at the hands of Mike Leach, K.J. Costello and a Mississippi State team that now has its own momentum as one of the better teams in the SEC West after a 623-yard, five-touchdown passing performance against the Tigers.
Those were the unlucky ones on a day that saw top-10 teams Auburn, Texas and Texas A&M all struggle against conference opponents but eventually win. But while those teams were fortunate to emerge without a loss, it might not come without penalty in the AP Top 25 as voters make room for the return of the Big Ten.
The AP announced that it would wait until the Big Ten released its schedule to make those teams available for consideration, and now is the time for voters to add them back into the fold. In the Coaches Poll, which added Big Ten teams back last week, some of the same teams made the top 25 as the preseason balloting. However, Ohio State checked in at No. 10. That suggests either the coaches were punishing the Buckeyes for the Big Ten’s in-and-out approach to the season or (more likely) not every coach knew they could rank Ohio State on their ballots.
With more time for the AP voters to get on the same page, we expect that Ohio State will fall closer to its No. 2 preseason ranking, and many of the other teams in the poll — Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan — will jump back in to a spot more closely aligned to the teams they were near, rather than the numbers they held. That is going to allow for some grouping near the top after the shake ups in the top 10, though teams like Minnesota and Iowa could end up just outside the top 25 because of wins from teams that have broken into the rankings since the preseason poll was released last month. If the Gophers and Hawkeyes are in the top 25, it will be at the expense of a Louisiana or Virginia Tech, I’m not sure having no games is going to be an advantage when splitting hairs between those teams at the end of voters’ ballots.
So with all of the shake ups and the addition of the Big Ten teams in mind, here’s how we think the new AP Top 25 will look on Sunday:
1. Clemson (Last week — 1): There are some weeks when just not playing a game seems to be like avoiding the storm, and Clemson got sit back at home and watch the carnage unfold during a stress-free week off.
2. Alabama (2): Mac Jones looked great, the backups got some quality run once the game was in hand (albeit with plenty of “coachable moments” for Bryce Young and Co.), and the Crimson Tide made quick work of Missouri in the first of what should be several lopsided results in Alabama’s 10-game SEC schedule.
3. Ohio State (NR): As we mentioned earlier, the No. 10 ranking in the Coaches Poll shouldn’t serve as a preview of how the AP voters will treat the Buckeyes. Ohio State won’t be able to immediately reclaim all 21 of the first-place votes it received in the Preseason AP Top 25, but it’s not going to be far off Clemson and Alabama’s pace.
4. Georgia (4): This new-look Georgia offense is certainly in the beta version, and unfortunately, there are no nonconference games in the schedule to keep working out the kinks. The 37-10 final score does not properly highlight how ineffective that side of the ball appeared early on against Arkansas, but voters who paid attention might adjust their rating even after a stronger second half showing.
5. Florida (5): On one hand, Kyle Trask tied Joe Burrow’s record for touchdowns in an SEC opener and Kyle Pitts looked like one of the best skill position talents in the country. On the other, the Gators gave up more than 600 yards to Ole Miss in the runaway win. The highlights will dominate the story and could result in a flip-flop with Georgia, but I doubt they make it to No. 3.
7. Penn State (NR): This is an admittedly bullish position for the Nittany Lions, but this is supposed to be a year where they can threaten Ohio State for the Big Ten East title. Penn State was ahead of Florida, Notre Dame and Auburn in the preseason rankings, and I think so far only Florida and Notre Dame have done enough to jump ahead in the pecking order.
8. Auburn (8): Things looked a little dicey early on against Kentucky, but Auburn’s passing attack eventually delivered the promised results with Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz coming up with big plays that helped the Tigers pull away late in a 29-13 win.
9. Miami (12): One of the first big tests for Miami was to maintain its high level of play and even improve on execution going up against the best defense it has faced all year in Florida State. The Hurricanes passed that test with flying colors and now enter a week off before the much-anticipated meeting with Clemson in Death Valley. Is it an ACC Championship Game preview? Saturday’s lopsided win against the rival Seminoles certainly made it look like Miami was on Notre Dame’s level.
10. Wisconsin (NR): All the way down at No. 12 in the preseason rankings, Wisconsin gets a bump from Texas and Texas A&M struggling in victory along with consideration regarding the Oklahoma and LSU losses. Replacing Jonathan Taylor is the burning question that will be discussed in the coming weeks, but the Badgers have a high floor and expectations of competing for a Big Ten title.
11. Texas (8): A bad day for the Big 12 was almost even worse as Texas barely escaped Texas Tech with an overtime victory. Special teams mistakes and missed tackles on defense overshadowed the Longhorns’ furious 15-point comeback to force overtime, since those same issues put them in that tough spot. Give credit for the comeback and closing out the win in overtime to avoid joining rival Oklahoma in loss, but it’s not going inspire confidence from the voters.
12. Texas A&M (10): Speaking of not inspiring confidence from the voters. Texas A&M’s offense sputtered early and never caught its footing at home against Vanderbilt in what was arguably the most surprising score of the evening slate.
14. UCF (13): Another UCF game, another 400-yard, four touchdown performance for Dillon Gabriel. I know it’s going to go overlooked with K.J. Costello throwing for 623 yards against LSU, but Gabriel is making his case as one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
15. Cincinnati (14): There wasn’t much to take from blowing out Austin Peay, but repeating some of those hopeful signs of offensive improvement against Army is a great sign for the Bearcats moving forward. But ultimately this win, and the team’s AAC title contention, is going to be led by its defense, which was dialed in to Army’s attack and caused problems for the Black Knights all afternoon.
16. Oklahoma State (15): True freshman backup quarterback Shane Illingworth was back under center in his first career start with Spencer Sanders sidelined, and he looked alright running the offense in a 27-13 win against West Virginia. It’s clear he’s not going to help present the same kind of downfield passing attack as Sanders, but two 100-yard performances from LD Brown and Chuba Hubbard helped power the offense in the victory.
17. Oklahoma (3): Every single Lincoln Riley season at Oklahoma has included one regular season conference loss. Now the challenge is to battle back and prove that trend, and Kansas State’s involvement in particular, is only a subtle flaw from an otherwise dominant history in Big 12 play with Riley at the helm.
18. Mississippi State (NR): Buy all of the hype and buckle up for a wild ride in Starkville, Mississippi, this fall. If you believe that the lack of tackling in the run-up to the 2020 season will turn competition into more seven-on-seven style football, then Mike Leach doubly ready to succeed. Not only does his Air Raid offense fit that style of football, but Mississippi State has been hitting and showed it against LSU on Saturday.
19. Michigan (NR): After checking in at No. 16 in the preseason rankings, I think the Wolverines will return to the AP Top 25 somewhere just inside the top 20 and likely ahead of wherever LSU lands following the Tigers’ loss.
20. LSU (6): Traditionally, AP voters have been wary of dropping teams from the mid-to-high top-10 all the way out of the rankings after just one loss. There was plenty in the Tigers’ defeat to suggest that they are more than a few steps off the pace in the SEC, but it’s also hard to come up with 25 teams that are definitively better.
21. Tennessee (16): South Carolina brought the fight to Tennessee, but the Vols got just enough to escape with a 31-27 win. The offense hit in fits and starts with a few quick strikes and big plays to that flashed but plenty of mistakes and room for improvement. Defensively, there was some lapses as well, but Henry To’o To’o’s interception return touchdown served as a reminder that he’s going to be one of the SEC’s stars in 2020.
24. Louisiana (19): The Ragin’ Cajuns might end up getting dropped from the rankings after another close call, but there was so much national attention from that dominant Iowa State win that I’m guessing it will take a loss to see them fall from the top 25 entirely.
25. Virginia Tech (20): Down 23 players and multiple coaches, including defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton, the Hokies looked like one of the better teams in the ACC as they made quick work of NC State in a blowout win.