When it comes to filling out my BlogPoll ballot, some weekends are more difficult than others. This was one of the difficult ones, due partly to the fact that there simply aren't ten teams worthy of being ranked in the top ten.
Add to that the fact that the likes of Arizona State, Cincinnati, Clemson, Kentucky, Michigan State, Missouri, South Florida, and Wisconsin remain difficult to distinguish from one another, even after the first third of the season has elapsed, and the result is a ballot as unsatisfying as this one:
Keeping the Bayou Bengals at No. 1 was the week's easiest decision. Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Virginia Tech all are undefeated except for their respective run-ins with the Fighting Tigers, who beat the Bulldogs, the Gamecocks, and the Hokies by respectable margins. There is no doubt in my mind that L.S.U. is the top team in the country right now, based upon what Louisiana State has done on the field of play.
The Sooners slipped past the Trojans into the No. 2 spot by virtue of their 62-21 manhandling of previously unbeaten Tulsa on the road. Southern California's 47-14 victory over Washington State at home was less than impressive, given that a largely lackluster Wisconsin squad defeated the Cougars by a similar margin earlier in the season.
In addition, Oklahoma's beatdown of Miami (Florida) looks a bit more impressive in the aftermath of the Hurricanes' hammering of Texas A&M, while U.S.C.'s win over Nebraska counts for considerably less after the Cornhuskers needed a substantial amount of luck to survive a 41-40 scare from Ball State.
After failing to put away a struggling Ole Miss club in Oxford, the Gators dropped a spot, to be replaced by an Ohio State squad that hammered Northwestern. The Buckeyes' prior win over Washington counts for at least as much as Florida's victory over Tennessee, so the underwhelming effort by the Orange and Blue enabled O.S.U. to edge them out for fourth place.
Better this again . . .
. . . than this again.
Because Boston College allowed Army to hang around for much longer than the Black Knights ought to have stayed within striking distance of the Eagles, the Golden Bears sneaked up a notch to No. 6. I'm still not sold on Cal, as the boys from Berkeley remain questionable on defense, but Jeff Tedford's team put up 45 points on a conference foe, which represented a greater achievement than B.C.'s dalliance with West Point.
The Ducks and the Mountaineers likewise traded places, with Oregon ascending after a 55-31 win at Stanford in spite of the fact that the team from Eugene had to come back to win a game in which its defense again performed unimpressively. Nevertheless, the Ducks' win over Michigan is looking better and better all the time, while West Virginia's 48-7 win over East Carolina was cheapened by the simultaneous devaluation of the Mountaineers' earlier win over Maryland.
After that, matters get more than a little murky. No one really seemed deserving of the No. 10 ranking, but I ultimately settled upon Kentucky because the Wildcats followed up their come-from-behind win over Louisville with another come-from-behind win over Arkansas . . . only U.K. beat the Hogs pulling away and did it on the road. The kind of poise necessary to follow up an emotional win with another emotional win deserves to be rewarded, even if beating U. of L. now seems significantly less impressive than it did a week ago.
The Longhorns checked in at No. 11 after registering the closest thing to a convincing win Texas has posted all season long, although a 58-14 home win over 0-4 Rice is less than impressive. Wins over Washington State and Iowa gave the undefeated Badgers the next-nearest thing to a couple of quality wins, although the dearth of deserving squads is attested to by Wiscy's elevation to the No. 12 spot, which is way, way better than the Badgers deserve . . . but no one else seems more deserving, either.
Please understand that, by saying that Wisconsin isn't all that good, I run the risk that Barry Alvarez will have me dragged off into the Southeast Asian jungle and killed.
The Sun Devils' comeback win against the Beavers was noteworthy mostly for the fact that Arizona State gave up 32 points, placing Dennis Erickson's club squarely in the same category as Cal and Oregon, teams that are doing little to disabuse East Coast football fans of the stereotype that Pac-10 teams are defensively deficient. I struggled over whether to rank A.S.U. ahead of Cincinnati, since both teams' best win was over Oregon State, but the fact that the Sun Devils' second-best win was over Colorado, while the Bearcats' second-best victory was over Miami (Ohio), made my decision easier.
Some eyebrows were raised, I am sure, by the fact that the Gamecocks rose seven spots following a loss, but let's be serious here; had I told you on Friday night that South Carolina would go on the road and lose to the top team in the Southeastern Conference by a mere 12 points, you'd have told me I was crazy. By giving L.S.U. the best game the Bayou Bengals have gotten all year, the Palmetto State Poultry proved they belonged in the top 15, particularly in light of the fact that the Big Chickens' win over the 'Dawgs now looks better than it did a week ago.
We know from the result of Georgia's game against South Carolina that the Bulldogs and the Gamecocks are near-equals. Since the two teams now have identical records (3-1 overall and 1-1 in league play), each has beaten a quality conference opponent in a close contest on the road, and Steve Spurrier's squad defeated the Red and Black head-to-head, it only makes sense that Georgia should be ranked one spot behind South Carolina, particularly since the Bulldogs' season-opening win over Oklahoma State reacquired some of its lost luster after the Pokes defeated Texas Tech. Similar logic dictates that the Crimson Tide be ranked just behind the Bulldogs.
Naturally, Missouri's 38-17 win over Illinois State counts for next to nothing, but, even though the Tigers' victories over Illinois and Mississippi appear incrementally more meaningful after Saturday's action, I cannot shake the sense that I have overrated Mizzou consistently, so I'm moving the Tigers down until they record something resembling a marquee win.
Perhaps Missouri could start by not being the victim of so many other teams' marquee wins.
The Scarlet Knights didn't play, so they slipped slightly due to the performances of the teams around them. South Florida rose only three spots after the Bulls throttled North Carolina because Auburn's struggles with New Mexico State at home for much of yesterday's game further cheapened an already suspect U.S.F. victory over the Plainsmen, which the Bulls' hammering of an exceedingly unaccomplished Tar Heel squad did little to ameliorate. South Florida will have my undivided attention when it hosts West Virginia on Friday night and I am prepared to be impressed.
Clemson beat N.C. State by 22 points yet dropped five spots because the Tigers' resume has not been augmented in any meaningful way in the last seven days. Clemson's first three opponents (Florida State, Louisiana-Monroe, and Furman) all took this weekend off and the Wolfpack's only win was over Wofford. I gave Tommy Bowden's team too much credit for last week's victory, in which Clemson was outgained by a Division I-AA opponent, so I'm correcting my earlier error this week.
Cincy slipped slightly after soundly beating Marshall because the Thundering Herd is 0-4. Michigan State slipped considerably after soundly beating Notre Dame because the Fighting Irish are 0-4. The Spartans are undefeated, but their best win arguably is against Pitt, so I couldn't justify keeping them in the top 15 . . . or even the top 20.
(I pause to offer a brief aside on the Notre Dame Surrendering Irish. It is accepted as conventional wisdom that Tyrone Willingham was an incompetent coach who deserved to be fired before his initial contract had elapsed and Charlie Weis is a genius who has restored the program to greatness and saved the most storied tradition in college football. However, it also is an incontrovertible fact that Coach Willingham took over a Notre Dame squad that had lost six games in the year before his arrival in South Bend and guided the Irish to an 18-11 record in his first 29 games, whereas Coach Weis took over a Notre Dame squad that had lost six games in the year before his arrival in South Bend and guided the Irish to a 19-10 record in his first 29 games.)
I guess there must be a fine line between genius and stupidity.
The Nittany Lions plummeted from 12th to 23rd by losing to Michigan, although I suspect that their loss to the Wolverines will grow less embarrassing as the season continues. In the meantime, though, nothing in Penn State's previous record of achievement (consisting of wins over Florida International, Notre Dame, and Buffalo) gave Joe Paterno's squad much traction to prevent the team from sliding right out of the top 20.
(I pause to offer a brief aside on yesterday's Michigan-Penn State game, which featured one of the best Aflac trivia questions I have ever seen. Viewers were asked to name the three schools, other than Michigan, that had produced both a president of the United States and a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Susan and I had some family members over yesterday, so, when that question appeared on the screen, I happened to be watching with my father, my mother-in-law, and my brother-in-law, Travis Rice, in the room. Trav and I proceeded to work it through, without consulting outside reference materials, and successfully came up with Miami (Ohio), Navy, and Stanford as the correct answer before the accuracy of our response was confirmed by the broadcasting crew. It was second only to Matthew Stafford's game-winning touchdown pass to Mikey Henderson as the highlight of the day.)
By running their record to 4-0, the Boilermakers snagged a spot in my top 25, although I am extremely skeptical of Purdue and I do not expect the squad's stay in my rankings to be long. Still, an undefeated team in a major conference is an undefeated team in a major conference . . . for now. Finally, the Bruins partially atoned for the drubbing they absorbed from the Utes by posting a double-digit victory over a decent Washington club to improve to 3-1. After B.Y.U. added value to U.C.L.A.'s victory over the Cougars by beating Air Force handily, Karl Dorrell's team once again found its way into the top 25.
The Falcons, by contrast, dropped out after losing 31-6 to Brigham Young and the 'Huskers, whose toehold in the top 25 was shaky enough as it was, got the boot after winning at home by one point over Ball State in a game in which Nebraska was more lucky than good.
How 'bout them Fightin' Hoosieroons?
The weakness of the field is attested to by the fact that Connecticut, Illinois, Miami (Florida), Mississippi State, New Mexico, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Wyoming all received consideration for inclusion. The Hokies and the Hurricanes are the most likely contenders among these, but both Big East refugees will need to post additional victories before climbing out of the holes they dug for themselves by being beaten so soundly by top teams.
On Thursday night, I watched Miami (Florida)-Texas A&M. On Friday night, I watched Oklahoma-Tulsa, although I will admit that I spent much of this game dozing on the couch while the contest played out on the television. On Saturday, I saw all of Georgia-Alabama; large portions of Florida-Mississippi, Louisiana State-South Carolina, Louisville-Syracuse, Michigan-Penn State, Michigan State-Notre Dame, and North Carolina-South Florida; and parts of Arkansas-Kentucky, Army-Boston College, Iowa-Wisconsin, Minnesota-Purdue, and Oklahoma State-Texas Tech.
That is my ballot for this week, with which I remain wholly unsatisfied and for which your constructive criticisms are most welcome. I'm hoping next weekend's action (which includes Alabama-Florida State, Auburn-Florida, California-Oregon, Clemson-Georgia Tech, Michigan State-Wisconsin, and South Florida-West Virginia) will help shake things out a bit more clearly, so that my comfort level will increase along with our supply of useful information.