What do you do with an AP Top 25 ballot after a day like Saturday? It was the type of college football week after which any vote for anyone anywhere feels like it will elicit criticism. Or at least even more so than usual.
There are no concrete answers, just lingering questions. But that’s part of the fun as we await a monumental Saturday to come.
Here are 10 thoughts on my ballot and historical context for this week’s rankings:
1. Georgia didn’t look like the No. 1 team for most of its game on Saturday. But then again, who did? Not Florida State at Boston College, Texas vs. Wyoming or Michigan vs. Bowling Green. USC, the other top-five team, didn’t play. So we’re left with a top of the ballot that stays almost unchanged — Texas and FSU swapped spots in the poll, though my top five didn’t move despite the Seminoles’ near debacle — because Week 3 felt like it left us with exciting but incomplete data: a lot of mediocre performances with more meaningful games to come.
There’s a week (or two or three) like this every year where the prevailing feeling is “nobody’s any good,” leaving voters stretching to justify their ballots. If you want to debate any of my rankings in the comments section, I probably won’t disagree. There are no correct answers yet.
In truth, you could argue that almost every team could be five spots higher or lower than its ranking. Think Georgia should be No. 6? Maybe Washington should be No. 1? Sure, why not? The sample sizes are small, and many more big games are ahead.
If you don’t like what the rankings look like now … just be patient.
2. I will be increasingly willing to budge from my “Georgia stays at No. 1 until proven otherwise” argument as each week passes. Nobody in the top five did enough to warrant that jump this week, but you could say that nobody in the country has been more consistently dominant through three weeks than Washington. The Huskies obliterated Michigan State 41-7 on the road after a 43-10 win against Tulsa and a 56-19 win against Boise State. Neither Michigan State nor Boise State is anywhere close to its peak, but as we saw around the country Saturday, there’s something to be said for showing up week in and week out and leaving no doubt.
With Michael Penix Jr. and a loaded receiving corps, Washington is doing just that. I moved the Huskies up to No. 6 on my ballot. Assuming it takes care of business against Cal and Arizona the rest of September, Washington should go into its Oct. 14 showdown with Oregon (after an idle week) unbeaten with a chance to make its biggest statement, though it’s unlikely to have made much headway in the poll before then. Extra patience is required to truly get to know Washington. Beyond Oregon, the Huskies’ schedule is backloaded: All four November opponents — USC, Utah, Oregon State, Washington State — are ranked in this week’s poll.
3. It’s possible I’m underrating Ohio State, which I’m holding at No. 8 on my ballot even after its best performance of the season against Western Kentucky. There’s little doubt that the Buckeyes have the talent to rise much higher; any Ohio State team has national championship talent if it all comes together. It’s also possible I am underrating Notre Dame, which has the quarterback it had been missing in Sam Hartman.
We’ll go back to the operative word, though: Patience. If you don’t like my ranking of the Fighting Irish or Buckeyes this week, I understand. But it’ll be moot in a week. Whichever team wins Saturday night in South Bend will have earned a spot in the top five, at minimum, next Sunday.
Sampson: Notre Dame is capable of beating Ohio State. Are Irish ready to meet the moment?
4. Since 1994, Notre Dame is 4-19 when playing as an AP top-10 team against another AP top-10 team. It was 14-3-1 in its previous 18 from 1988 to ’93. Beyond the 2020 regular-season game against Clemson, the Irish have mostly had a reputation for falling flat in big games. It’s the storied program that hasn’t won a major bowl game in three decades and can’t beat the sport’s heavyweights even when it emerges as a contender. That reputation has especially stuck since the blowout loss to Alabama in the 2012 national championship game.
Meanwhile, after a brief run of big-game embarrassment starting with the BCS title games following the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Ohio State is 22-9 in AP top-10 matchups since the 2010 Rose Bowl, including its 21-10 win against Notre Dame last September.
Few teams can match the big-game success of the Buckeyes and Irish since the poll debuted in 1936, but Ohio State can brag about a lot more recent history.
Most wins in AP top-10 matchups
5. Ohio State-Notre Dame is one of six matchups of teams ranked in the AP poll next Saturday, a list that also includes No. 24 Iowa at No. 7 Penn State, No. 22 UCLA at No. 11 Utah, No. 19 Colorado at No. 10 Oregon, No. 15 Ole Miss at No. 13 Alabama and No. 14 Oregon State at No. 21 Washington State. Although Clemson is ranked in the coaches poll, it’s the first team out of the AP poll, so we just miss a seventh AP-ranked matchup when Florida State visits Death Valley.
Only four regular-season Saturdays in college football history have had seven matchups of AP-ranked teams on the same day, meaning Sept. 23, 2023, will be tied for the fifth-most (and so close to tied for the most). The last time there were at least six ranked matchups on one day was Nov. 11, 2017 … and Nov. 4, 2017. Both had seven.
6. In the first three weeks, there were three total matchups of teams ranked in the AP poll: Florida State-LSU, Texas-Alabama and Ole Miss-Tulane. In Week 4, there are three in the Pac-12 alone. Eight Pac-12 teams are ranked, and six of them — everyone but USC and Washington — play each other. It’s the 11th time that one league has had three ranked conference matchups in the same week but the first time it’s happened outside of the SEC and Big Ten.
The Pac-12 is on the verge of delivering one of its most compelling seasons just as it collapses.
7. Thanks to Alabama’s abysmal performance on offense in a 17-3 win at USF, Miami’s record for the longest AP top-10 streak will carry on. The Crimson Tide were ranked in the top 10 for 128 consecutive polls, a streak that dates back to September 2015. They fell 10 weeks shy of breaking Miami’s record of 137 from 1985 to ’93. The third-longest streak, per College Poll Archive? Clemson from 2015 to ’21 — a run that started at the same time as Alabama’s.
I had Alabama 12th after the loss to Texas and dropped it to 19th this week. The Crimson Tide ended up winning by two touchdowns against the Bulls, but they looked rudderless on offense, with major lingering questions about the quarterbacks, receivers and offensive line. According to College Poll Tracker, four voters ranked Alabama lower than me. I don’t blame them.
Now Alabama has to beat Ole Miss, or else its streak of 249 consecutive ranked weeks dating to 2008 would presumably come to an end. That is also the second-longest streak, behind 348 by Nebraska from 1981 to 2002.
8. It wouldn’t be a 2023 rankings column without mentioning Colorado. The Buffaloes survived Colorado State in a late-night double-OT thriller and dropped a spot in the poll to 19th. I dropped them four spots to 18th, knowing that a top-15 ranking is almost certainly a stretch. Of course, we’re about to learn a ton more: No. 10 Oregon and No. 5 USC are next. Colorado is seeking its first win against an AP top-10 team since 2007 against Oklahoma — and, with the trip to Eugene, its first on the road since 1995 at Kansas State.
9. I’m repeating myself, but the bottom of the rankings are a bit of a mess that could go in several directions — though I strongly disagree with one route the poll took. Tennessee stayed in the rankings at No. 23, two spots ahead of Florida, which beat the Vols 29-16. I didn’t rank either team, but I was close to voting for the Gators. Even if Tennessee has a good chance of going on to have a better season, how does it make sense for the Vols to be ranked higher right now? Florida’s loss was to a Utah team that’s ranked 11th; Tennessee’s loss was by double digits to Florida. Even if head-to-head isn’t everything, it’s pretty close to everything this early in the season.
10. I could have gone either way at the bottom between Missouri and Florida but chose the unbeaten Tigers after kicker Harrison Mevis’ heroics against Kansas State. I also put Tulane back on my ballot — the Green Wave’s win against South Alabama got a nice boost when the Jaguars dominated Oklahoma State — and gave a nod to a 3-0 Fresno State team that shut out Arizona State and beat Purdue. As always, the bottom of the Top 25 can’t help but fluctuate a lot from week to week. In addition to Florida and Tennessee, I left off Iowa, which hasn’t done enough yet to prove its offense is different from what we saw last year. Perhaps we’ll see Saturday night in Happy Valley.
(Top photo of Cody Simon and Audric Estime: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)