Who’s the No. 1 team in college football right now? As we approach the midpoint of the season, with the initial College Football Playoff rankings less than a month away, there are nearly a dozen teams with an argument for the top spot.
Here are nine top undefeated Power 5 teams (sorry, Wake Forest, Boise State and others) that can make a claim on No. 1. Teams are listed in order of AP rankings.
The case for No. 1: Have you seen that offense? With Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback and three NFL-caliber receivers in Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith, the Tide can put up points in a hurry. Although the line has been slow to start, it has come together nicely in recent weeks. What’s more, the schedule remains very favorable. Nick Saban’s squad has avoided playing a single ranked opponent to improve to 5-0, and the rest of the way is manageable compared to others’ schedules, starting with a trip to No. 25 Texas A&M on Saturday. The defense is a question, but at least the injuries came early enough that the unit’s four young starters can get comfortable in their new roles before the home stretch.
The case against: We have to talk about the defense. When senior inside linebacker Joshua McMillon went down in the preseason, it was a red flag. Then last year’s Butkus Award finalist, inside linebacker Dylan Moses, was lost for the season, setting off alarm bells. Then defensive lineman LaBryan Ray went out with an injury as well, leading to a whopping four true freshmen starting on defense. And, well, that’s not ideal. Tagovailoa and the offense are good enough to win games on their own, of course, but an off night from them could spell trouble. (See: last year’s national title game against Clemson.) — Alex Scarborough
The case for No. 1: This isn’t a hard sell. The Tigers won last season’s national championship and have Trevor Lawrence, Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Travis Etienne to lead their way back. They’ve made the playoff each of the past four years. They have a schedule that assures an astonishingly simple path the rest of the way. But perhaps the biggest bit of good news for Clemson is that the defense — the one area where there was at least a tinge of concern after so many stars departed for the NFL — has been exceptional thus far. Through five games, this year’s unit has allowed fewer points per drive and forced a higher rate of three-and-outs than last year’s D. And with young talent such as Xavier Thomas, Tyler Davis and Derion Kendrick just getting their feet wet, there’s reason to think the Tigers’ defense will be even better by the time the playoff arrives.
The case against: Two weeks ago, Mack Brown rolled the dice on a potential game-winning two-point try in the final seconds in Chapel Hill. The play failed, but North Carolina’s near upset of Clemson proved just how thin the Tigers’ margin of error can be. Lawrence has been off his game to start the season, and Etienne has been quiet after a monster opener. That’s hardly reason to panic, even if the explanations feel a bit thin. Perhaps Clemson is bored. The schedule is awfully easy. Or maybe it was a typical Dabo Swinney September, when he tinkers with the personnel and the playbook just to get a feel for what his team can do down the stretch. Or maybe it’s a little bad luck here and there. It can happen to anyone. The point, however, is that any of those things could be Clemson’s undoing in any given week, and with such a weak schedule — there’s a real possibility that Clemson will finish the regular season with no wins against top-25 teams — it’s easy to wonder if a one-loss Tigers team would be left out of the playoff. — David M. Hale
The case for No. 1: It’s difficult to find a more complete team to this point than Ohio State, which had its first real test of the season last week against Michigan State and won comfortably 34-10. All teams want a difference-maker at quarterback to go with a deep, talented defensive line, and the Buckeyes check both of those boxes. Justin Fields has already accounted for 26 touchdowns after transferring from Georgia. He has 18 passing touchdowns and eight rushing touchdowns and is surrounded by big-play performers such as J.K. Dobbins and K.J. Hill, who have combined for 10 touchdowns. The Buckeyes have improved dramatically on defense since last season. They’re led by junior end Chase Young, they rank first nationally with 28 sacks, and they’re allowing just 3.69 yards per play, good for fourth nationally.
The case against: There’s no debating Fields’ overall skill set, but defenses will continue to scheme and try to force him to beat them throwing the football from the pocket. The Buckeyes have won all six of their games by at least 24 points and have led at the half by 17 or more points in all of those games. We have yet to see what Fields and that passing game can do when they have to throw the football or come from behind in the second half. The Buckeyes also need to stay healthy on the defensive line. Senior defensive end Jonathon Cooper missed the first four games because of an ankle injury. — Chris Low
The case for No. 1: Even with a few injuries, Georgia has the closest thing in college football to an NFL offensive line, and that’s always a great place to start if you’re going to win (or play for) a championship. Junior quarterback Jake Fromm personifies poise and has been on a ton of big stages, and Georgia’s defensive line is particularly talented and athletic and only going to get better. The Dawgs are the only team in the nation that has not allowed a rushing touchdown this season. The grind-it-out win over Notre Dame says a lot about the physicality of the Dawgs, whose ability to run the football is always a nice perk in key games. Junior running back D’Andre Swift is averaging nearly 7 yards per carry.
The case against: It’s hard not to be impressed by Georgia’s talent, especially on the offensive line. But the Dawgs are sort of living off of that Notre Dame win to this point. Otherwise, they haven’t been tested. Their two SEC wins were against two of the conference’s worst teams in Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and blowout wins over non-Power 5 foes Arkansas State and Murray State weren’t legitimate tests. Freshman receiver George Pickens has been impressive, but better defenses down the road will dare the Dawgs to beat them down the field with the passing game. With some of the early injuries to the offensive line, that could be a concern going forward. — Chris Low
The case for No. 1: It’s a new day in Baton Rouge. The offense that was promised for what felt like a decade has finally arrived, thanks in large part to the hiring of passing game coordinator Joe Brady this offseason, and it has the Tigers with more points through five games than any other school in SEC history. Wideouts Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall Jr. look like difference-makers. And with veteran quarterback Joe Burrow at the reins, there’s a lot to like. The Tigers went on the road and beat No. 9 Texas. A win over No. 7 Florida this weekend would further bolster an already impressive playoff résumé.
The case against: Yes, LSU has perhaps the most talented defensive back in the SEC in Grant Delpit. And, yes, in that very same backfield is perhaps the best true freshman in the conference in Derek Stingley Jr. But the defense as a whole has largely underperformed this season. After touting its credentials as DBU prior to the Texas game, it promptly gave up 38 points and 471 yards passing. Even Vanderbilt, which isn’t exactly an offensive powerhouse, managed 38 points against the Tigers. While last weekend’s 42-6 win over Utah State was promising, consistency is key with a pivotal road game against Alabama and star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on the horizon. — Alex Scarborough
The case for No. 1: That offense that produced Heisman Trophy winners the past two seasons? It’s even more productive this season with Jalen Hurts. The Sooners are averaging an incredible 9.94 yards per play — basically a first down every time they snap the ball. Their 643.8 offensive yards per game total is best in the country by a mile. They average 53.6 points per game. Oh, and their defense? A night-and-day difference from last season. They’re 25th in points allowed per game (19) and 46th overall in yards per game. They’re fast, they play fast, and if you couple that solid defense with Lincoln Riley’s offense, you have a team that’s damn hard to beat.
The case against: Quite frankly, it’s hard to know how truly great this Oklahoma team is until it plays an elite opponent. The Sooners haven’t yet. Their strength of schedule to this point in the season — the Sooners have played Houston, South Dakota, UCLA, Texas Tech and Kansas — is 94th according to Bill Connelly. Does the offense look better? Yes. Does the defense look better? Absolutely. But until the Sooners play a team at least near their level — which they will this weekend, when they face Texas in the Red River Showdown — it’s difficult to declare them the most deserving of the No. 1 spot. — Sam Khan Jr.
The case for No. 1: The Gators are No. 1 in one extremely important metric: ESPN strength of record, which determines the likelihood that the average Top 25 team would post the same record playing a team’s schedule. The Gators have three conference wins in the toughest conference in the country, including a win over a top-10 team (more than Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson or Ohio State), plus a nonconference win against a Power 5 team. Add a dominant defense, which leads the nation in takeaways (19) and is tied for third in sacks (26), tied for fourth in tackles for loss (50), 10th in total defense (276.3 YPG) and fifth in scoring defense (9.5 PPG), and you have a team that has a claim on the No. 1 spot.
The case against: Although the strength of record has Florida at the top, the Gators have beaten only one FBS team with a winning record (Auburn) and needed furious comebacks to beat Miami and Kentucky, two teams that have not come close to meeting preseason expectations. Florida is often careless with the football (13 turnovers) and undisciplined, and its offense remains a work in progress, most notably the offensive line. Florida has struggled to run the ball consistently all season, and because of that, the offense has not found much of a rhythm or balance. If we are talking about eye test alone, Florida has not been nearly as impressive as the other unbeaten teams jockeying for No. 1. — Andrea Adelson
The case for No. 1: If we entered the season with minimal preconceived notions about any particular team and just measured in-season dominance, Paul Chryst’s Badgers would have a pretty good case for the top spot. They outscored three nonconference opponents by a combined 158-0 and could have made it even worse if they had wanted to. They have a Heisman contender in running back Jonathan Taylor and a defense that has allowed just 15 points in five games outside of garbage time. The close call with Northwestern was a brief moment of nondominance, but the Badgers resumed their unforgiving form the next week. This team is awesome.
The case against: Although pitching three shutouts was uniquely impressive, one has to admit that every potential top team would have done similar damage against USF, Central Michigan and Kent State. That isn’t necessarily a way to stand out. Plus, the biggest question heading into the season — quarterback Jack Coan — has played against two power conference defenses and struggled mightily against one (113 yards and an 18.8 QBR against Northwestern). Considering that he still has to face the Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa defenses, that doesn’t inspire confidence. This is clearly an awesome team, but the case for No. 1 is tenuous. — Bill Connelly
The case for No. 1: Penn State’s offense has been better than anticipated this season without quarterback Trace McSorley or running back Miles Sanders making plays. With Sean Clifford at quarterback, the Nittany Lions are ranked 12th in offensive yards per game and fifth in offensive points per game. On top of the impressive offensive output, the defense has been stifling and stingy and has yet to give up more than 13 points in a game. Penn State’s balanced performance from both offense and defense has led the team to outscore its opponents 235 to 37 through five games.
The case against: Penn State hasn’t hit the heart of its schedule yet and hasn’t beaten a ranked team. The combined records of the first five opponents is 12-18, with only Maryland and Pitt having more wins than losses through the first six weeks. As impressive as Penn State’s numbers look, it has to take on a tough stretch — including Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State — to finish the season. Those games will be a bigger test of how this offense stacks up and how good this team really is. The second to last game of the season is against the Buckeyes, who look like a playoff team and one of the top three teams in the country, so making it out with a win against Ohio State will be incredibly difficult. — Tom VanHaaren
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