Thursday, December 7, 2023

Tomorrow’s Top 25 Today: Ohio State among teams surviving upset bids ahead of new college football rankings

While we have yet to see the college football scoreboard light up with upsets for teams holding places atop the AP Top 25 rankings, Saturday provided enough upset scares to remind everyone of how difficult it is to carry impressive records deep into the season. Now past the midway point of the campaign, there remain nine undefeated teams with two such programs from Power Five conferences going down in Week 8.

Just as noticeable from a big-picture standpoint were the close calls, like Oklahoma holding off UCF on a failed 2-point try, or Texas getting the best of Houston after the Cougars failed to convert on a fourth-and-1 opportunity. Even teams like Alabama and Oregon faced early challenges in what would eventually become double-digit wins. Those teams will be among a group waking up Sunday feeling fortunate they did not suffer the same fate as North Carolina, which was undefeated and heavily favored against Virginia but will tumble in the rankings after a 31-27 home loss. 

Michigan and Ohio State stand out for different reasons on what was a sweaty Saturday for much of the top 25. The Buckeyes faced a difficult test with Penn State in town but rode the strength of what’s proving to be an elite defense to gain control of the contest and log a crucial 20-12 win. That victory knocked the Nittany Lions from the ranks of the undefeated and put Ohio State one win closer to its goal, which is to enter the game against Michigan with stakes that include a Big Ten Championship Game appearance and potentially spot in the College Football Playoff. Michigan, meanwhile, completed a 49-point romp of rival Michigan State for one of few wire-to-wire dominant performances Saturday. It is clear the rivals remain holding a tier to themselves in the Big Ten. 

Further down in the rankings, there will be more fallout from Florida State’s impressive comeback win against Duke, the USC-Utah result and some interesting decisions near the end of the ballot that could mark triumphant 2023 AP Top 25 arrivals for teams like James Madison and Liberty. 

Here’s how we think the new AP Top 25 will look after Week 8 results: 

1. Georgia (Last week — 1): The Bulldogs were off in Week 8 and will be in action next week against rival Florida in Jacksonville. 

2. Michigan (2): Though scandal and controversy dominates the conversation, the on-field contributions of Michigan football to the sport remain pure domination. It would not be surprising to see the Wolverines continue to pick up some more first-place votes after a 49-0 shutout win against rival Michigan State that stood in stark contrast to the results of many other top-10 teams on Saturday. 

3. Ohio State (3): College football fans are always asking whether one program or another is “back,” but what about something more specific? Because after a 20-12 win against Penn State, which featured yet another display of defensive excellence, is it fair to ask if the “Silver Bullets” are back in Columbus, Ohio? Penn State was held under 250 yards of offense for the first time since 2021, and the Buckeyes defense came up with a stop on all but one third-down attempt. It may be a different kind of team than the Ohio State squads that have contended for the College Football Playoff in recent years, but it can still accomplish those same goals.  

4. Florida State (4): The Seminoles got a great punch from Duke, but after Riley Leonard exited the game in the second half, the response was arguably even more impressive. Jordan Travis utilized his legs to become one of the primary playmakers on offense and Florida State’s defense feasted once Leonard was knocked out of the game in a 38-20 win in which FSU scored the last 21 points.

5. Washington (5): If not for the significant gap in voting points between Washington and Oklahoma last week, there would be a chance that we see the Sooners jump ahead of the Huskies following their near-upset at home at the hands of one-win Arizona State. However, Oklahoma also had its own close call as a heavy home favorite, so there might not be enough voters to flip their order compared to the way their ballots looked last week. 

6. Oklahoma (6): We should have known a day of upset scares was coming when Oklahoma needed a defensive stop on a 2-point try to hold off unranked UCF for a 31-29 win in the early slate. Oklahoma’s 7-0 record eclipses last season’s win total, and it did not come easy as it required a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives from Dillon Gabriel to overcome a second-half deficit against Gus Malzahn’s group. 

7. Texas (8): Quinn Ewers’ shoulder injury remains the biggest topic around the Longhorns as escaping with a one-touchdown win against Houston after an upset scare is good enough to maintain the team’s one-loss profile in the rankings. Maalik Murphy got the tap to replace Ewers at quarterback, but it was Jonathan Brooks and CJ Baxter who led the offense in those key moments to help Texas improve to 6-1. 

8. Oregon (9): The Ducks bounced back from last week’s disappointing loss at Washington with a solid effort against Washington State, using a couple of explosive third quarter touchdown runs from Bucky Irving to pull away from a feisty Cougars squad. The 38-24 final score is good enough to meet voters’ expectations.

9. Alabama (11): Roaring back from a double-digit halftime lead to outscore Tennessee 27-0 in the second half, Alabama was able to not only avoid getting knocked off at home, it reinforced the notion that this year’s team has the tools to contend for an SEC title on the strength of an elite defense and enough big plays from Jalen Milroe. An offense that was slow to start on Saturday but got the job done after halftime. 

10. Penn State (7): Once a team does lose for the first time in a season, especially after the opening weeks, voters begin to ask, “Who have you beat?” For Penn State, the bedrock of its high ranking was an undefeated record and objectively excellent defense, not the resume which had Iowa and West Virginia as its best wins. Because of that, the Nittany Lions will drop behind one-loss teams with better wins — just not too far as voters aren’t quick to punish losses to top-five teams. 

11. Oregon State (12): The Beavers were off in Week 8 and will be back in action next week at Arizona. 

12. Ole Miss (13): The Rebels continue to stack wins, this time rolling into Auburn and getting a strong performance from Quinshon Judkins (124 yards, touchdown on 21 carries) in a 28-21 win to improve to 6-1. Ole Miss’ lone loss is to Alabama, and it has wins over LSU and Tulane helping its case in the debate among top one-loss teams. 

13. Utah (14): The Utes and USC were knotted at 14 into the third quarter before trading blows for the duration of the game. In the end, the Trojans scored too soon, and the Utes were able to drive down the field for a walk-off field goal to prevail 34-32. Third-string quarterback Bryson Barnes, a former walk-on, starred for Utah with a gutsy performance to prevail over Caleb Williams.

14. North Carolina (10): It’s difficult to know exactly where the Tar Heels will land, as I expect there will be wide-ranging responses from the voters to a stunning home loss to previously 1-5 Virginia. As a one-loss team with five double-digit wins against Power Five opponents, there’s some strength to the profile. However, UNC does not have quality wins against teams anywhere close to the current top 25, and it lost the luster of being undefeated.

15. Notre Dame (15): The Fighting Irish were off in Week 8 and will be back in action next week against Pitt. 

16. LSU (19): No major changes coming out of the LSU result as the Tigers’ 62-0 win against Army did plenty for Jayden Daniels’ historic passing campaign (four total touchdowns) but will accomplish less in terms of making big moves in the rankings. 

17. Missouri (20): South Carolina did not score a single touchdown against Missouri, settling for four field goals in a 34-12 Tigers win. Mizzou jumped out to a 24-0 lead and never looked back, riding a productive run game to lock up the win and move 7-1 overall. 

18. Louisville (21): The Cardinals were off in Week 8 and will be back in action next week against Duke. 

19. Air Force (22): Though there was some doubt about his availability due to injury during the week, quarterback Zac Larrier not only played against Navy but made history on a 94-yard touchdown pass to Dane Kinamon. The 94-yard score early the second quarter broke open a scoreless game and got momentum rolling for the Falcons, who are now 7-0 after the 17-6 win. 

20. Tulane (23): The Green Wave got a scare from North Texas in their first game back as a nationally ranked team; however, a long touchdown run from quarterback Michael Pratt in the final minutes helped Tulane escape with a 35-28 win. 

21. Duke (16): Voters are not likely to bounce Duke all the way out of the rankings after plenty of them got eyes on the Blue Devils’ strong start against the ‘Noles and will recognize how the contest turned after Leonard was knocked out of the game. Duke does need more quality wins but will get that opportunity next week against Louisville.

22. UCLA (25): Chip Kelly made a change at quarterback giving Ethan Garbers a majority of the snaps in Saturday night’s win but the Bruins’ defense remains its greatest strength as UCLA improved to 5-2 with a 42-7 win at Stanford. 

23. James Madison (NR): The Dukes were the first team just outside the top 25 last week then proceeded to stifle Marshall in a 20-9 win on the road to improve to 7-0. Breaking into the AP To 25 would mark the Dukes’ second-ever appearance following last season’s one-week stint at No. 25 after a 5-0 start to the 2022 campaign. 

24. Florida (NR): The Gators were off this week, but as a two-loss team with both defeats coming on the road — one to highly ranked Utah — Florida should slot in ahead of a Tennessee team it beat by 13 points. The Gators received the 28th most voting points last week after arguably their best offensive showings of the season, a come-from-behind win at South Carolina.

25. Tennessee (17): Alabama scored 27 unanswered points Saturday as Tennessee turned a 20-7 halftime lead into a 34-20 loss. Sitting at 5-2, the Vols should sit just behind the Gators given the head-to-head loss and the fact that UT doesn’t have a high-quality win on this season.

Projected to drop out: No. 18 USC, No. 24 Iowa 

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