When Vanderbilt scores its biggest upset in 70 years without it even registering on the radar screen among the season's most noteworthy shockers, you know you're having a wacky college football season. Accordingly, although I wonder whether we worry too much about such things, I will soldier on with my weekly rundown of the nation's top (such as they are) teams.
As I promised I would, I began this week's ballot with a clean white sheet of paper, ignoring last week's top 25 entirely when compiling a series of rankings based solely on the season-long resumes of the teams in question. Consequently, you should ignore completely the arrows indicating movement from last week to this, which are purely coincidental.
The result of that process was this ballot:
By far the most defensible decision in the foregoing rankings was my placement of Louisiana State (7-1) at No. 1. The Bayou Bengals boast wins over the teams ranked 11th, 12th, 14th, and 24th on my ballot, which more than offsets the damage done to the Fighting Tigers' record by a triple-overtime loss on the road to a top ten team.
After that, there is room for reasonable college football fans to disagree. I went with Oklahoma (7-1) as my No. 2 team on the strength of the Sooners' wins over four teams with winning records, including seventh-ranked Missouri and a Texas team that barely missed out on making the top 25. Although O.U.'s lone loss came against a 4-4 team, that setback was a close conference contest taking place on the road.
It was with some misgivings that I placed Ohio State (8-0) at No. 3, despite the Buckeyes' undefeated record. Three of O.S.U.'s Division I-A victims are above .500 (Michigan State, Northwestern, and Purdue), even if two of them stand at 5-3, and this, plus a zero in the right-hand column of the Buckeyes' won-lost ledger, counterbalanced a slate featuring Akron (3-4), Kent State (3-5), Minnesota (1-7), Washington (2-5), and Division I-AA Youngstown State.
You want me to rank you No. 1? Try beating an S.E.C. team in a bowl game sometime.
The No. 4 ranking belonged to South Florida (6-1) because the Bulls' only setback came in a tight game at night in league play away from home, which mitigated the effect of that single loss upon a resume featuring wins over the country's 15th- and 24th-ranked teams.
The top five was rounded out by Oregon (6-1). Although the Ducks lost at home, they did so by the slimmest of margins to the No. 13 team and the team from Eugene features an increasingly shiny road win over Michigan, in addition to a victory over a Fresno State squad that very quietly has improved to 5-2.
While Boston College (7-0) brings an unblemished record to the table, the Eagles fell slightly short of a spot in the top five because of the weakness of a schedule that includes Army (3-5), Division I-AA Massachusetts, N.C. State (2-5), and Notre Dame (1-7). However, B.C. has beaten 25th-ranked Wake Forest and two other teams (Georgia Tech and Bowling Green) with winning records.
The seventh spot fell to Missouri (6-1), in light of the fact that the Tigers have wins over Illinois (5-3) and Texas Tech (6-2) to offer in retort to criticisms of their loss at second-ranked Oklahoma. Oregon State, at 4-3, is the only victim of Arizona State (7-0) to possess a winning record, but the absence of any Division I-AA opponents from the Sun Devils' slate allowed them to edge out Kansas (7-0). The Jayhawks have manhandled the likes of Division I-AA Southeast Louisiana and winless Florida International, but their only two even vaguely legitimate wins were narrow victories over mediocre opponents (Colorado, which A.S.U. also beat, and Kansas State) with seven losses between them.
Kansas is undefeated . . . the Jayhawks are the frontrunners in the Big 12 North . . . Mark Mangino is in serious contention to win the Capital One Mascot Challenge . . . it's all good in Lawrence these days.
Despite having posted a pair of losses, Kentucky (6-2) earned a place in the top ten by beating No. 1 L.S.U. and defeating Arkansas and Louisville, two teams comparable to the best opponents beaten by Arizona State and Kansas. The Wildcats' losses were to two teams in my top 15 and neither was a blowout.
One of those competitive setbacks was to Florida (5-2), the team I have ranked 11th because the Gators have wins over Kentucky, Tennessee, and a reasonably respectable Troy team and sustained a pair of quality losses in down-to-the-wire ballgames against the two sets of Tigers from the S.E.C. West. The only setback suffered by Virginia Tech (6-1) was a thumping, but it came in Baton Rouge at the hands of mighty Louisiana State, so the loss was somewhat forgivable, but the Hokies have beaten just one Division I-A team with a winning record.
The No. 13 ranking fell to California (5-2), as the Golden Bears' recent losses have been by respectable margins to teams with winning records and have been offset by victories over Oregon and Tennessee. Even in the aftermath of an embarrassing loss to the Commodores, South Carolina (6-2) held onto a spot in the top 15 because the Gamecocks have victories over Georgia and Kentucky to their credit.
Although the Mountaineers came back to make a game of it in their loss to U.S.F. in Tampa, West Virginia (6-1) has only one victory over a team with a winning record. That, though, is better than the resume submitted by Southern California (6-1), as the Trojans have lost at home to a team with a losing ledger and have claimed victory over the likes of Arizona (2-6), Idaho (1-7), Nebraska (4-4), Notre Dame (1-7), Washington (2-5), and Washington State (2-5). A team without U.S.C.'s reputation might not be ranked at all upon the basis of those meager achievements.
To their credit, the Men of Troy have a proven track record. Also, they have the Song Girls. I'm ranking them mostly because of the Song Girls.
Six straight victories, including wins over a pair of 6-2 teams (Penn State and Purdue) and a couple of 5-3 squads (Illinois and Northwestern), got Michigan (6-2) into the top 20, but the Wolverines' rise continues to be hampered by the shellacking the Maize and Blue received from Oregon and, particularly, by the eye-opening upset Michigan suffered at the hands of Division I-AA Appalachian State. Both embarrassments occurred in Ann Arbor.
Likewise, embarrassing losses to the Fighting Irish and the Utes have done considerable damage to the reputation once enjoyed by U.C.L.A. (5-2), but the Bruins deserved admission to the top 20 on the strength of wins over Cal, B.Y.U., and Oregon State. Buoyed by a win over the Bulls, Rutgers (5-2) staked its claim, as well. The Scarlet Knights' two losses were ameliorated somewhat by the fact that both Cincinnati and Maryland have winning records.
The Nittany Lions have beefed up their resume in recent weeks by scoring wins over Indiana and Wisconsin, and Penn State (6-2) also was helped by the fact that each of the setbacks sustained by the squad from Happy Valley came on the road in a close game against a conference opponent with a winning record.
The Bulldogs' losses to South Carolina and Tennessee suddenly look a good deal worse than they did before, but Georgia (5-2) benefited from victories by Alabama, Oklahoma State, and Vanderbilt to give the Red and Black wins over three Division I-A opponents with winning records, two of which came in conference games on the road.
That's right, Darth Visor . . . the best Steve coaching in the S.E.C. East isn't Spurrier, it's Martin.
After registering a huge win over Tennessee, Alabama (6-2) claimed the No. 22 spot by virtue of the Red Elephants' quartet of victories over Division I-A teams with winning records. However, the rising of the Tide was hampered by the fact that each of those four victories came against a team now sporting a 4-3 ledger. Although both of Alabama's losses came by slim margins against teams above .500, neither came on the opposing squad's home field and half of the Crimson Tide's victories have been narrow ones, as well.
Quite frankly, I didn't like having to rank Virginia (7-1) at all, because five of the Cavaliers' victories have come by the skin of their teeth and the Wahoos lost to Wyoming, but Virginia is able to claim victories over three teams with winning records, which is more than many teams can say for themselves.
The lone thrice-beaten team in the poll is, of course, Auburn (5-3), which undoubtedly would beat most of the teams ranked ahead of it. The Plainsmen have yet to face a team with a record below .500 and the Tigers' three losses all were close contests, with two of them being decided on the final play of the game against top five teams. Auburn's wins over Arkansas, Florida, and Kansas State entitle Tommy Tuberville's team to a spot in the top 25. I hate Auburn.
Much to my chagrin, the final spot in the rankings went to Wake Forest (5-2). The Demon Deacons barely survived a road trip to Duke---in football, mind you, not basketball---and they are the only even halfway decent team to have lost to Nebraska, but wins over Florida State, Maryland, and Navy gave Wake something on which to hang its hat, giving the Deacs more to boast than Boise State, Clemson, Connecticut, and Texas, all of which received serious consideration for inclusion.
Wake Forest is the nationally-ranked defending A.C.C. champion. Surely the end of the world is coming soon.
Less in-depth evaluation was afforded Air Force, Brigham Young, Purdue, Texas A&M, and Wisconsin, each of which was dismissed following a cursory glance that revealed no "there" there on the list of wins registered by the respective squads. Other than Auburn, no three-loss team warranted sincere consideration. Hawaii may---may---be given a look if---if---the Warriors remain undefeated after their November 10 date with Fresno State, but not before.
I watched the Rutgers-South Florida game on Thursday, I watched the Connecticut-Louisville game on Friday, and I am watching the Marshall-Southern Miss game (the outcome of which, to be blunt, does not have the potential to affect my rankings) even as I write this. Because of the Bulldogs' open date, I was able to travel to South Georgia to attend a family function on Saturday evening; consequently, I heard part of the Army-Georgia Tech game on the radio while driving and saw portions of the Alabama-Tennessee, Florida-Kentucky, Florida State-Miami (Florida), Cal-U.C.L.A., and Auburn-Louisiana State games while visiting with relatives.
In other words, I don't know anything, and, in this topsy-turvy season, neither do you. Nevertheless, since your guess is as good as mine, you may feel free to provide your insights, feedback, and constructive criticisms in the comments below.