Well, that was fun. There are always a few weeks during the season that turn our expectations upside down, and this was the first such week in 2018. An accounting of the carnage:
• Undefeated Georgia got dominated by LSU in Baton Rouge.
• Undefeated West Virginia got dominated by Iowa State in Ames.
• Oregon beat presumed Pac-12 frontrunner Washington in overtime.
• Michigan State beat presumed Big Ten No. 2 Penn State in Happy Valley.
• Wisconsin got crushed by Michigan in the season’s first true playoff elimination game.
• Some top teams escaped despite lackluster performances. Notre Dame looked sluggish but beat Pittsburgh. Ohio State struggled with Minnesota for three quarters. UCF nearly had its multi-season win streak snapped at Memphis. Alabama suffered some injuries that made the Crimson Tide look downright human.
It was wild. Here’s hoping next week is equally chaotic.
1. Alabama (7–0)
Last week: 1
Last game: Beat Missouri, 39–10
Next game: Saturday at Tennessee
The Crimson Tide got their first real scare Saturday. No, they weren’t in danger of losing. But quarterback Tua Tagovailoa left the Missouri game with a knee injury. Alabama coach Nick Saban said Tagovailoa could have gone back in the game if necessary, but the Tide had things in hand with backup (and former starter) Jalen Hurts running the offense. There was a period when Tagovailoa and receivers Devonta Smith and Henry Ruggs were all sidelined with injuries. Ruggs returned to the game, though. Saban said Smith would be day-to-day with a pulled muscle.
The Tide could probably beat every team on this list even without Tagovailoa, but Alabama doesn’t have the same air of invincibility when the sophomore isn’t playing. Still, Hurts looked good throwing the deep ball Saturday night.
2. Notre Dame (7–0)
Last week: 2
Last game: Beat Pittsburgh, 19–14
Next game: Oct. 27 vs. Navy in San Diego
I could nitpick how the Fighting Irish struggled to score at home against a Pittsburgh team that lost by 45 to Penn State and by 31 to UCF. But Notre Dame still won. The defense was spectacular, limiting Pitt to four yards a play. Meanwhile, Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book needed a half to warm up, but he was excellent when Notre Dame needed a comeback.
3. Ohio State (7–0)
Last week: 3
Last game: Beat Minnesota, 30–14
Next game: Saturday at Purdue
Just as with the Irish, I could nitpick the Buckeyes’ performance against Minnesota. But sometimes a team just needs to survive. As with West Virginia, Georgia and Penn State if they’d have preferred to play their opponents too close for comfort or if they’d have preferred to do what they did (lose). Even without much help for most of the game, Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins was outstanding.
4. LSU (6–1)
Last week: Unranked
Last game: Beat Georgia, 36–16
Next game: Saturday vs. Mississippi State
So was last week’s loss at Florida the anomaly, or was the dominant win against Georgia the anomaly? At the moment, LSU has what might be the nation’s best collection of wins. But Saturday’s win—and specifically the way LSU beat Georgia—offered evidence that the Tigers might be able to make a playoff run. They’d still have to beat Alabama, but they probably have the best chance of anyone on Alabama’s schedule to beat the Crimson Tide. When quarterback Joe Burrow is playing well, LSU can hang with anyone. Yes, anyone. They may be the only team on Alabama’s schedule capable of hanging with the Tide. But before they worry about the nation’s top team, the Tigers must first exact revenge on a Mississippi State team that crushed them last year.
5. Clemson (6–0)
Last week: 5
Last game: Beat Wake Forest, 63–3
Next game: Saturday vs. NC State
The Tigers will get their toughest challenge of the season when the Wolfpack come to Clemson on Saturday. Until then, pass the time by reading my story celebrating the 10th anniversary of Dabo Swinney’s appointment as Clemson’s interim coach.
6. Michigan (6–1)
Last week: 10
Last game: Beat Wisconsin, 38–13
Next game: Saturday at Michigan State
Even without its best pass rusher, Michigan’s defense made Wisconsin’s offense one-dimensional Saturday. Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook was a miserable 7-of-20 for 100 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions (including the pick six by Lavert Hill that sealed it for the Wolverines). Michigan can’t relax, though. The Wolverines face a Michigan State team that had been left for dead before it shocked Penn State in State College on Saturday. Of course, the Wolverines already know enough to be leery of the Spartans. Two stunning losses in the past three meetings will do that to a team.
7. Texas (6–1)
Last week: 6
Last game: Beat Baylor, 23–17
Next game: Oct. 27 at Oklahoma State
It wasn’t pretty, but the Longhorns gutted out a win against Baylor behind backup quarterback Shane Buechele. Texas lost starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger to a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder in the first quarter. Depending on the severity of the injury, Ehlinger may be available to play when Texas returns to action in Stillwater following a bye week.
8. Oklahoma (5–1)
Last week: 9
Last game: Lost to Texas, 48–45
Next game: Saturday at TCU
Despite the loss to Texas, the Sooners still have the nation’s most explosive offense. The question now is whether the firing of coordinator Mike Stoops—and the elevation of Ruffin McNeill to that position—will improve Oklahoma enough on that side of the ball to keep winning. With that offense, the Sooners will be in every game they play. If the defense gets a little better, Oklahoma might be able to win every remaining game on its schedule.
9. Florida (6–1)
Last week: Unranked
Last game: Beat Vanderbilt, 37–27
Next game: Oct. 27 vs. Georgia in Jacksonville
Why is Florida down here when the Gators beat LSU head-to-head last week? Because Florida also has a loss to 5–1 Kentucky, which appears nearby on this list. I had to figure out how to arrange these three because of Florida’s head-to-head games against the other two complicate matters. I decided to order them amongst each other by the quality of their wins. LSU has the best group of wins. Florida has the best single win (against LSU). Kentucky finishes behind the other two now, but the Wildcats will have plenty of chances to surpass both. This week is awfully SEC heavy, but that could change in the next few weeks.
9. Kentucky (5–1)
Last week: Unranked
Last game: Lost to Texas A&M, 20–14 (OT)
Next game: Saturday vs. Vanderbilt
The other thing I wrestled with was whether to rank Texas A&M. The Aggies have two losses, but they’re both to teams on this list (Clemson and Alabama). They’ve also beaten Kentucky head-to-head. But that game was deadlocked in regulation, and Kentucky has the better best win (Florida). This still looks like a potentially historic season for the Wildcats. And after watching Georgia lose at LSU on Saturday, I’m no longer assuming the Bulldogs beat Kentucky or Florida. (Of course Georgia also will have its chance to play its way back on the list.)
10. Oregon (5–1)
Last week: Unranked
Last game: Beat Washington, 30–27 (OT)
Next game: Saturday at Washington State
The Ducks’ overtime win Saturday felt like a paradigm shift, but remember two things:
• Oregon doesn’t control its destiny in the Pac-12 North race. It still needs Stanford to lose another Pac-12 game.
• If Oregon doesn’t come back down to earth following a huge win that shows the program is ahead of schedule, the Cougars could send the Ducks crashing back to earth this week in Pullman.
Oregon feels like the best team in the Pac-12 right now, but one clunker by the Ducks could change everything. This particular group wasn’t around the last time Oregon was dominant. This is still a team learning how to win.
Plus One: Tennessee (3–3)
Last game: Beat Auburn, 30–24
Next game: Saturday vs. Alabama
No team needed a win as badly as the Volunteers needed Saturday’s win at Auburn. Tennessee hadn’t won an SEC game since beating Missouri on Nov. 19, 2016, and the Vols had endured the firing of Butch Jones, an 0–8 season in SEC play, a bizarre coaching search, the ouster of athletic director John Currie and a humiliating loss to Florida last month. Saturday, Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Gurantano completed 21 of 32 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns. Auburn looks as if it’s imploding, but Tennessee still showed enough promise to suggest that more SEC wins could be on the way.
Meanwhile, on the Plains (where the buyout is enormous thanks to a contract extension agreed upon in the Iron Bowl afterglow):