The 25 best teams in college football right now
One way or another, the teams at the very top were able to overcome the challenges they faced in Week 9, but the chasing pack fared less well, with a number of undefeated teams falling to defeat on the road. No conference suffered more than the Big 12, as the demise of their two unbeaten teams all but ends their hopes of making the playoff. This week the College Football Playoff committee releases their first rankings of the season, so we will finally get their take on the 2016 season so far.
Alabama faces a potentially testing trip to face LSU in Baton Rouge as they come off their bye week. The Crimson Tide shut down the LSU offense in last year’s encounter by thoroughly dominating the line of scrimmage, leaving Leonard Fournette, LSU’s star RB, with nowhere to run. Alabama’s 2016 defense may be even better — defensive linemen Dalvin Tomlinson (86.6 run defense) and Jonathan Allen (85.3), and inside linebacker Reuben Foster (89.5) have been among the very best run defenders in the nation.
The Tigers managed to claim a tight 37-34 win over Florida State in Tallahassee, in what many regarded as their last true test of the regular season, at least until the ACC title game. They did so with strong performances from their skill players on offense, with tight end Jordan Leggett claiming a game-high 86.5 overall grade, and wide receiver Mike Williams second on the team with an 83.2 overall grade.
Michigan broke a three-game losing streak against Michigan State with a 32-23 victory in East Lansing. The Wolverines had a number of notable performers, but two in particular stood out. Wide receiver Amara Darboh caught all eight catchable passes that came his way, for 165 yards, which helped him to an 86.1 overall grade. Defensive end Taco Charlton had three QB hits, seven total pressures and two defensive stops, he ended up with an impressive 84.9 overall grade, and 80+ scores as both pass rusher and run defender.
Washington’s trip to Salt Lake City has been circled on the schedule for some time, as the game in which they might stumble, and they so nearly did, needing a late punt return touchdown to put Utah away. It was also a game that saw running back Myles Gaskin come to the fore. Gaskin earned an 81.1 rushing grade, with 151 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries, and an average of 3.2 yards after contact. Corner Kevin King recorded an 83.4 coverage grade, after allowing just three catches for 19 yards from seven targets.
5. Ohio State
The Buckeyes found themselves in another tough game this week, this time overcoming Northwestern 24-20 in Columbus. The offense wasn’t at its best, but running back Mike Weber had a good game, with five missed tackles from 17 touches helping him to an 81.5 overall grade. On the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones and linebacker Raekwon McMillan led the way with matching 86.1 overall grades, after notching up 10 defensive stops between them. Next up is a visit from a good Nebraska team.
6. Texas A&M
Texas A&M enjoyed a routine 52-10 win over New Mexico State, a nice way to get the Alabama defeat out of their system. Next up is a trip to Starkville to take on Mississippi State — the Aggies’ final road game of the season. The visits of Ole Miss and LSU aren’t without their challenges, but the Aggies have an 11-win season in their sights and that just might be enough to put them in playoff contention, should an unbeaten team falter.
The Cardinals had themselves another unexpected nail-biter, this time on the road against a 2-6 Virginia team, and once again QB Lamar Jackson rescued them with a late touchdown drive. Given they have a run-in devoid of marque matchups, the Cardinals can ill afford to struggle in victory. the optics matter. Corner Jaire Alexander had an interesting game, his coverage was targeted eight times, giving up three completions for 15 yards, with two of them touchdowns. However, Alexander also had two interceptions and a pass breakup, and finished with an impressive 93.7 overall grade.
The Tigers’ march continues apace, with a fourth SEC West win in five games, this time a 40-29 victory in Oxford. It was far from plain sailing, Ole Miss had considerable joy moving the ball through the air, and took the lead five times, only for Auburn to pull away in the fourth quarter. While the Rebels were generally successful throwing the ball, that wasn’t true when they targeted corner Joshua Holsey’s coverage. Just two of the ten passes thrown into Hosley’s coverage were completed, going for 34 yards, of the other eight one was picked and four were broken up.
Wisconsin made it back-to-back Big Ten West victories with a tight 23-17 win over Nebraska, handing the Cornhuskers their first loss. On offense, running back Dare Ogunbowale rushed for 120 yards on 11 carries, averaging 6.0 yards after contact, while tight end Troy Fumagalli made some key catches to earn an 87.6 overall grade. On defense, outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt each recorded five pressures. It’s not all positive for the Badgers, they continue to rotate quarterbacks Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston, with neither excelling.
Oklahoma now find themselves as the Big 12s most credible team, and their offense certainly looks the part, but those two out of conference defeats present a considerable hurdle to playoff participation. in short they’d need chaos. Wide receiver Dede Westbrook has developed into one of the most dangerous receivers in the nation. He entered Week 9 with a 90.1 overall grade, the best mark among then nations wide receivers.
Florida handed Georgia a 24-10 defeat that was built on defense. They held the Bulldogs to 164 total yards and 21 total rushing yards, while also bringing the heat on passing downs. Georgia QB Jacob Eason was pressured on 57.9 percent of his dropbacks. As the 6-1 frontrunner for the SEC East, Florida might very well expect to be higher on this list. That they aren’t is down to their own underperforming offense, and a schedule that has avoided opponents that are currently ranked.
After spending weeks wondering just how good they were, the Cornhuskers finally had the chance to show what they could do against a strong team, and lost. They pushed the Badgers to overtime, and almost didn’t lose at all, so even in defeat in they may have enhanced their reputation. Linebacker Josh Banderas earned an 84.9 overall grade after leading the team with nine tackles, all of which were defensive stops (wins for the defense).
13. Washington State
Washington State got themselves into a hole against Oregon State, falling 21-0 behind before getting their act together. If not for another poor start to their season, the Cougars could be sitting pretty as an undefeated team, and looking forward to a decisive Apple Cup that could have propelled them to the Pac-12 title and into the playoff. They could still win the Pac-12, but the playoff is unlikely. If they are to challenge for the conference, the form of QB Luke Falk will be key. Against the Beavers he had a 141.4 passer rating on deep passes (those that travel 20+ yards in the air), connecting on four for 151 yards and three touchdowns.
14. Oklahoma State
Another enigmatic team, the Cowboys propelled themselves up the rankings with a 37-20 win over West Virginia, trumping the Mountaineers with a little defense of their own. Defensive tackle Vincent Taylor recorded two sacks, four total pressures and four defensive stops to earn an 86.2 overall grade, and lifted his overall grade to an impressive 87.0 for the season. Quarterback Mason Rudolph had an 84.4 adjusted accuracy percentage, and finished with an excellent 85.1 passing grade.
Utah may have lost to Washington, but played the Huskies close, if they were to face off again in the Pac-12 championship game, the Utes would surely fancy their chances of reversing this result. The remarkable story of Utah running back Joe Williams shows no sign of abating, here he earned an 82.7 rushing grade after forcing a season-high four missed tackles.
16. Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech earned a 39-36 win on the road against Pitt, thanks in part to strong performances from their wide receivers. Isaiah Ford (82.3 receiving grade), Bucky Hodges (81.2) and Cam Phillips (75.2) each finished with 100+ receiving yards. Other than an unexpectedly losing against Syracuse, Virginia Tech’s ACC campaign has gone entirely to plan, they hold victories over all bar one of their challengers for the Coastal division, with Georgia Tech being the one they’ve yet to face.
17. West Virginia
West Virginia’s bubble burst against Oklahoma State, with a 37-20 defeat that drops the Mountaineers out of the top 10. Their season can certainly still be salvaged — they host Oklahoma in two weeks, and it’s not as though the defensive resilience that had served them well failed completely against the Cowboys. They held Oklahoma State to 358 total yards, a more than respectable number in the Big 12. Defensive end Noble Nwachukwu led the team with seven defensive stops, six of them against the run.
18. North Carolina
Much of the attention around North Carolina has rightly gone to the play of QB Mitch Trubisky, but the return to form of corner M.J. Stewart has been equally important for the Tar Heels. Since the start of the 2015 season, Stewart’s coverage has been targeted 100 times, of which just 46 percent were completions and only one of those has went for a touchdown. Over that same span he has four interceptions and 15 further pass breakups. All games are must-wins at this point, but even doing so won’t be enough to win the ACC Coastal unless Virginia Tech slip up.
19. Penn State
Penn State followed up the win over Ohio State with a 62-24 victory at Purdue. The Boilermakers were able to keep up with Penn State initially, it was 17-17 at the half, but the Nittany Lions pulled away after that, thanks to a big day from running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley forced six missed tackles in 21 touches, and averaged 3.9 yards after contact as a rusher, which helped him to an 80.9 overall grade.
20. Western Michigan
With Boise State falling to defeat at Wyoming, the bye week has been kind for Western Michigan. That leaves them as the frontrunners to be the top team outside of the Power-5, provided they can keep winning, and their season-opening win over Northwestern looks pretty decent at this point. Inside linebacker Robert Spillane leads the team with 25 defensive stops, which has helped him to an 84.8 overall grade.
With their customary weak out of conference schedule, Baylor’s season was always going to come down to how they fared in Big 12 play, 12-0 seemed a necessity. A 35-24 home win over Oklahoma State was a solid start, but losing 35-34 to a 4-4 Texas team effectively ends the Bears playoff hopes. With games lined up against Duke, Ole Miss, BYU and Utah over the next eight seasons, Baylor have taken steps to beef up their non-conference slate going forward, which will leave them less reliant on achieving perfection in-conference.
This is a pivotal week for LSU’s season. If they can beat Alabama, or even play them close, it will legitimize their turnaround under head coach Ed Orgeron. Doing so will not be easy and will require the Tigers offense to be more balanced than it was in last year’s game against Alabama. The good news for LSU fans is that the passing game has been more explosive under Orgeron. Through the first four games of the season, wide receiver Malachi Dupre averaged 1.25 yards per route run, fellow WR D.J. Chark averaged 0.95, in the three games since Orgeron took charge, they have averaged 3.5 and 4.22, respectively.
Few could have predicted the Trojans turnaround. Four weeks into the season and the search for Clay Helton’s eventual successor seemed to be underway, after a thumping from Alabama, and losses to Stanford and Utah had gotten Helton off to the worst possible start. However, USC have won four straight since and have found their quarterback, in redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. Darnold has graded well as both a passer (72.8) and runner (70.6), and helped to breathe new life into an ailing USC offense.
24. Boise State
Boise State’s 30-28 defeat in Wyoming was a hammer blow to their season outlook. Not only did it hand the initiative to Western Michigan in the race to be the top-ranked team from outside the Power-5, but it leaves them needing a misstep from the Cowboys to even make the Mountain West title game.
With Utah losing to Washington, Colorado come out of their bye week as the outright leaders of the Pac-12 South. Starting corners Ahkello Witherspoon (85.9 coverage grade) and Chidobe Awuzie (84.2) have between them allowed just 32 from 83 targeted passes into their coverage to be completed, with just one of those going for a touchdown.