The second half of the 2017 college football season started with an Ed Orgeron-like howl. Seven ranked teams, including four in the top 10, went down. Five previously undefeated teams are unbeaten no more, including defending national champion Clemson.
After seven weeks, there are only eight unbeaten teams remaining, including six from Power 5 conferences. It’s hard to know what to expect from the rest of the regular season. Usually by now you have a good idea of which conference is best. After Week 7, it’s hard to say.
ESPN’s Football Power Index indicates there is very little to separate the SEC, ACC and Big 12 as the top leagues. The ACC has the most teams in the FPI top 25 (six), but if you only measure the strength of each conference’s top five teams, the SEC and the Big Ten end up on top (though the bottom of the Big Ten is very bad). The Big 12, however, has eight of its 10 teams ranked in the top 36 of FPI.
There’s plenty of time to settle that debate, so I took a different approach to my Power 5 conference rankings. Here they are, ranked from best to worst based on performance, entertainment value and intrigue, with three things you should be paying attention to the second half of the season.
1. Big Ten
The Big Ten has three teams ranked in the top six of the AP top 25 and five included in the top 20. It has the best rivalry game (Michigan vs. Ohio State), the best collection of coaches — and coaching rivalries — and the game’s most electrifying player.
Maybe this season the Big Ten will even score a few points in the College Football Playoff.
- It’s Heisman time for Saquon Barkley
Penn State is ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, its highest ranking since 1999. Now the Nittany Lions are going to have to earn it to stay there. Few teams will face as brutal a three-game stretch as Penn State — home against No. 19 Michigan on Saturday, at No. 6 Ohio State on Oct. 28 and at No. 18 Michigan State on Nov. 4.
Tailback Saquon Barkley is among the leading Heisman Trophy candidates, but his production has been hampered by Penn State’s porous offensive line. Barkley ran for 211 yards in a 21-19 win at Iowa on Sept. 23, but he has been held to fewer than 100 in four of six games. Penn State has allowed 50 tackles for loss, most in the Big Ten, including 23 in the past two games.
If the Nittany Lions can’t do a better job blocking, they’ll have problems against Michigan and Ohio State, which have two of the better defensive lines in the country.
- Who’s your pick in the Big Ten East?
Ohio State was all but left for dead after a 31-16 loss to Oklahoma at home on Sept. 9. The Buckeyes have feasted on a lesser competition since then and a rash of top-10 upsets in the past two weeks has seen them rise to No. 6. Ohio State won its past five games by an average of 42 points; Army was the only team it beat that currently has a winning record. Since losing to the Sooners, Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett has thrown 18 touchdowns with no interceptions.
FPI gives Ohio State a 74 percent chance to win the Big Ten East. If the Buckeyes beat Penn State in two weeks, that number rises to 97 percent. Games remain against Michigan State and Michigan in November, and Ohio State desperately needs those wins and a place in the Big Ten championship game to bolster its playoff résumé.
- What to make of Wisconsin?
The Badgers are one of only eight unbeaten teams left in the FBS, but it’s hard to gauge how good they really are. Wisconsin hasn’t beaten a team that currently has a winning record, and it will face only two such teams — Iowa and Michigan, both at home — in the second half of its schedule.
With its stingy defense and freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor running wild — he has three games with 200-plus rushing yards — the Badgers are overwhelming favorites to win the Big Ten West. Are they really good enough to put up a fight against Ohio State or Penn State in the Big Ten championship game?
Sure, the SEC is once again top-heavy — No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia are the only remaining unbeaten teams — and some of its teams (yeah, I’m talking about you, Tennessee and Florida) are downright difficult to watch. But the SEC might be in position to become the first conference to have two teams in the CFP. As long as the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs don’t slip up before the SEC championship game, both of them might be worthy of CFP spots, regardless of which team wins in Atlanta.
- Mentor vs. pupil
Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Kirby Smart — Saban’s prized pupil and former Tide defensive coordinator — seem to be on a collision course to meet in the SEC championship game.
The Bulldogs (7-0) look a cut above the competition in the SEC East, and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm is getting better each week. There are still three potentially difficult games against their biggest rivals — vs. Florida in Jacksonville, Florida, on Oct. 28; at No. 21 Auburn on Nov. 11; and at Georgia Tech on Nov. 25.
If Georgia wins the East and Alabama wins the West as expected, it would be the 12th time a Saban-coached team faced one of his former assistants. Smart would try to do what Derek Dooley (0-3), Jim McElwain (0-3), Will Muschamp (0-2), Mark Dantonio (0-2) and Jimbo Fisher (0-1) couldn’t: beat the master. Saban is 11-0 against his former pupils, with all of those wins by a margin of at least 14 points.
With Urban Meyer and Les Miles having moved on, the SEC desperately needs a good coaching rivalry, and Smart might be a brewing one. Their relationship didn’t end well when Smart left to coach his alma mater — Alabama tried to prevent defensive back Maurice Smith from transferring to join Smart at UGA — and Saban would probably love to show his former assistant he’s still the boss.
- It just costs more
College football might mean more in the SEC, but the cost of doing business is about to get pretty expensive for a handful of its schools.
Two SEC coaches — Tennessee’s Butch Jones ($8.48 million buyout) and Missouri‘s Barry Odom ($1.8 million) — are definitely on the hot seat, and a few others like Texas A&M‘s Kevin Sumlin ($11.25 million), Auburn’s Gus Malzahn ($6.7 million), Arkansas‘ Bret Bielema ($5.9 million) and Florida’s Jim McElwain ($11.25 million) might find themselves in trouble depending on how the rest of the season goes.
The Volunteers have lost their past three SEC games and haven’t scored a touchdown in the past 10 quarters. Aside from upsetting Alabama and winning out, it seems highly unlikely that Jones can do anything to save his job. In fact, if the Crimson Tide roll past the Volunteers for the 11th straight time, Jones might be dismissed as early as next week.
McElwain and Malzahn seem safe for now, and Sumlin might end up guiding the Aggies to nine or 10 victories after a terrible start. If Texas A&M finishes strong, Sumlin might look to leave on his own — maybe to somewhere like Arizona State or UCLA. It wouldn’t be a complete shock if McElwain searches for an escape route of his own.
- Will anyone take down Alabama?
The Crimson Tide won all but one of their first seven games by 17 points or more, and they’ll play only two ranked teams the rest of the way (home against No. 24 LSU on Nov. 4 and at No. 21 Auburn on Nov. 25).
ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight gives Alabama a 60 percent chance to win the SEC, a 71 percent chance to make the CFP and a 30 percent chance to win a national championship. In fact, ESPN’s FPI gives the Tide a 47 percent chance to enter bowl season without a loss, which is greater than the chance of the other five unbeaten Power 5 teams combined.
No, this isn’t Saban’s most talented team, but it might end up being the first one since 2009 to finish unbeaten because everyone else in the SEC besides Georgia is mediocre or worse.
3. Big 12
The Big 12 was left out of two of the first three CFP fields, but it seems to be in decent shape with three contenders this year. With first-year coaches at Oklahoma and Texas, it was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Big 12. But TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are each ranked in the top 10.
- Gary Patterson’s revenge
TCU coach Gary Patterson will probably never forget being left out of the inaugural CFP in 2014, when his 11-1 team was bypassed for eventual national champion Ohio State. He knows anything short of an unbeaten record leaves a team’s fate in the hands of the selection committee.
The Horned Frogs already have road wins at Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Kansas State, and they beat No. 23 West Virginia at home. They’ll have to prove their mettle away from home a few more times with road games remaining at Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
- Don’t count out Oklahoma in the CFP race
If one of the selection committee’s final decisions comes down to choosing Ohio State or Oklahoma, the Sooners’ 15-point road victory over the Buckeyes will carry a lot of weight and probably be the deciding factor in their favor.
If Oklahoma is going to stay in the CFP race, it has to play a lot better than it has since winning at Ohio State. Since knocking off the Buckeyes, the Sooners gave up 41 points to hapless Baylor, lost to Iowa State 38-31 (at home no less) and blew a 20-point lead before holding on for a 29-24 win over Texas on Saturday.
The Sooners still play three games against ranked teams — at No. 10 Oklahoma State, and home against No. 4 TCU and No. 23 West Virginia — along with this week’s road game at Kansas State.
- How will we grade Year 1 at Texas for Tom Herman?
The Longhorns showed once again Saturday that Herman is a master motivator and gets his teams ready to play in big games. Texas is certainly better than the team that lost to Maryland 51-41 in Herman’s first game. They lost at USC by a field goal in overtime and nearly came from 20 points behind to stun Oklahoma.
Freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger is only going to get better, and he’ll get plenty of difficult tests in the second half of the season. UT plays Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia in its final six games. The Longhorns might be big favorites in only two of their remaining games — at Baylor and home against Kansas.
What looked like the best Power 5 conference at the end of 2016 is limping into the second half of the 2017 season. Florida State’s season was derailed after losing star quarterback Deondre Francois in Week 1, and the Seminoles can’t seem to get back on track. Defending national champion Clemson lost at Syracuse 27-24 on Friday night after losing quarterback Kelly Bryant to a concussion. If Clemson doesn’t rebound, Miami might be the ACC’s only hope to make the CFP.
- Déjà vu for the defending champion
Clemson’s loss at Syracuse was quite a surprise, but it’s not as if the Tigers haven’t been here before. Last season, then-No. 2 Clemson lost to unranked Pittsburgh 43-42 at home in its 10th game, dropped to No. 4 in the CFP rankings and then won its next three games to make the playoff and then won the national championship.
Clemson has even more time to make up for this loss, but Bryant’s health is a concern. In addition to a concussion, he also re-aggravated an ankle injury against Syracuse, so this week’s open date couldn’t come at a better time. Clemson is going to have to win out, and Syracuse is going to have to lose again for the Tigers to win the Atlantic Division.
- Are you buying Miami or NC State?
The No. 8 Hurricanes are the only remaining unbeaten team in the ACC, but let’s hold off on declaring, “The U is back” for now. Mark Richt has done a really nice job in his second season at his alma mater, but let’s put Miami’s 5-0 start in perspective.
The Hurricanes defeated FCS foe Bethune-Cookman, Toledo and Duke, and then had to come from behind to beat struggling Florida State and Georgia Tech (which lost to Tennessee) the past two weeks. The Canes (and Virginia!) are in control in the ACC Coastal for now, but they still have to play Syracuse, No. 14 Virginia Tech and Virginia at home and North Carolina and Pitt on the road.
With Clemson’s loss, NC State took a one-game lead over the Tigers in the loss column of the Atlantic Division standings. The Wolfpack have opportunities to really impress the CFP selection committee when they play at No. 13 Notre Dame on Oct. 28 and then host Clemson on Nov. 4. NC State finishes ACC play with three games in which it should be favored: at Boston College, at Wake Forest and home against North Carolina.
- What will happen to Bobby Petrino?
Louisville suspended athletic director Tom Jurich with pay in the wake of the FBI investigation into college basketball, and Petrino’s contract buyout will be reduced from $8.5 million to $4.25 million if Jurich is dismissed permanently as expected.
Given the athletic department’s uncertain future and the Cardinals’ struggles this season, Petrino might look to get out while he can. Louisville has lost three of its past five games, and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is once again a one-man show. Given Petrino’s track record of winning, there’s another AD out there somewhere who will be blinded by the prospect of success.
The Pac-12 is the only Power 5 conference without an undefeated team, and every team except USC, Washington and Washington State has lost more than once. In the SEC, it used to be called parity. In the Pac-12, it’s now called mediocrity, am I right?
- Does the Pac-12 have any hope of having a team in the CFP field?
USC, which rebounded to beat Oregon State and Utah the past two weeks, might be the Pac-12’s best (and only?) hope. The No. 11 Trojans play at No. 13 Notre Dame this week, and a victory over the Fighting Irish would rank among the better nonconference wins in the FBS. USC will also get help if No. 22 Stanford keeps turning in the right direction after a couple of early season losses.
What’s going to hurt USC is that after this week, it probably wouldn’t have another game against a ranked opponent until the Pac-12 championship game.
- All is not well in the Apple Cup
Because of its soft nonconference schedule, Washington probably had no margin for error. The Huskies’ best nonconference victory is a 30-14 win at lowly Rutgers. That’s not going to sit well with the committee, and neither is their 13-7 loss at struggling Arizona State on Saturday.
If the Huskies were to win their final five games, which would include victories over No. 22 Stanford and No. 15 Washington State, and then beat one-loss USC in the Pac-12 championship game, they might have an argument to be included in the four-team CFP field, depending on what happens in the other Power 5 leagues.
Washington State’s fortunes aren’t much better after losing 37-3 at California on Friday. The Cougars’ best nonconference victory is against Boise State, which has already lost twice.
- How crazy will the Pac-12 coaching carousel be?
Oregon State and coach Gary Andersen parted company this past week, and Andersen agreed to walk away from a $12 million buyout. The Beavers might not be the only Pac-12 school in the market for a coach.
UCLA’s Jim Mora is on the hot seat after a 3-3 start, which includes an ugly 47-30 loss at Arizona on Saturday. The Bruins are giving up 40.5 points per game.
Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State’s Todd Graham were thought to be on the hot seat entering the season, but both have made strides to keep their jobs. ASU’s upset of Washington will help Graham tremendously, and the Wildcats have won their past two games with quarterback Khalil Tate running wild.