A wild and crazy start to the college football season will reach the end of September with just 26 of the 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision still unbeaten.
The teams without a loss are an eclectic group. Some started the year with hopes of winning a national championship. Some weren’t thinking about much more than a bowl game. Some were just hoping to win a few games.
Among the 10 conferences, all but the Mid-American are represented. The Big Ten and Southeastern Conference have the most teams with five. Conference USA and the Pac-12 have the fewest with one. There are three unbeaten independents — that equals the amount in the Big 12. The ACC has two, the same as the Sun Belt, Conference USA and Mountain West.
The group will have at least five fewer members next week with five unbeatens meeting Saturday. And there will be further attrition in the weeks ahead. And it might get down to zero before championship weekend.
But before we reach the end of the season, it’s worth looking at where those teams are now and the likelihood they can make it through unscathed.
Even with their close call against Florida, the Crimson Tide remains the prohibitive favorite to win the SEC and the national championship. There are still games at Texas A&M and Auburn along with this week’s visit from Mississippi. However, would you bet against Alabama at this point?
All of the attention on Alabama being the runaway No. 1 creates a nice situation for the Bulldogs. They can go out and demolish everyone they face and no pressure will be placed on them. Arkansas this week shouldn’t be so much of a challenge. Florida could be tricky given the rivalry. It’s just hard to see them falling before the SEC title game.
Putting the Ducks here is more a statement about the lack of quality in the Pac-12 than saying they’re anything resembling a dominant team. UCLA will visit at the end of next month. Otherwise, it should be smooth sailing, though we’ve seen Oregon struggle against Fresno State and Arizona at home.
Never one to impress with style points, the Hawkeyes win differently than most teams. Their defense serves a dual purpose, stopping opponents and forcing turnovers to score or set up the offense for points. Only a visit from Penn State seems capable of derailing them. If you think it needs more offense, consider Maryland is the only opponent left Iowa will face that ranks in the top 50 in scoring.
The Bearcats already went on the road and beat Indiana. This week’s matchup at Notre Dame will be their toughest test of the season. If they get by the Fighting Irish, the path looks mostly clear in the American Athletic and the opportunity to make the College Football Playoff is going to become closer to reality.
6. Notre Dame
The situation is similar for the Fighting Irish. Beating Cincinnati would clear their biggest hurdle and leave a manageable schedule – Virginia Tech and North Carolina would be the two hardest games. That’s what makes Saturday’s showdown in South Bend so critical for both teams.
7. Coastal Carolina
Going unbeaten in the regular season wouldn’t be unfamiliar for the Chanticleers. They did it last year. The year’s opposition is easier as they avoid Louisiana-Lafayette and don’t play BYU. Only a trip to Appalachian State seems possible of tripping them up.
A nightmare to play against, the Black Knights always have the advantage as an independent against opponents that must step out of conference play to face their option offense. Wisconsin seemed to be the biggest challenge before the Badgers slumped. Now it might be Wake Forest.
9. Texas-San Antonio
Wins at Illinois and Memphis have the Roadrunners firmly established as the favorite in Conference USA. The remaining games aren’t that tough. It’s simply a matter of if their unfamiliar success distracts them from the task at hand. That is how upsets happen.
No. 10 Oklahoma
The Sooners would be significantly higher if not for a slow start that has seen their offense struggle and resulted in three closer-than-expected wins. Still the best team in the Big 12, it seems questionable they can get through without one hiccup.
11. Penn State
The 0-5 start of last year is firmly in the rear-view mirror as the Nittany Lions have now won eight in a row and quarterback Sean Clifford has found his form. Trips to Iowa and Ohio State are the biggest road blocks. They’re not insurmountable with the way Penn State is playing.
12. Brigham Young
Hoping to better their one-loss campaign of last year, the Cougars have dealt with the loss of quarterback Zach Wilson with flying colors. Jaren Hall has stepped in and been impressive in three defeats of Pac-12 opponents. Nothing overwhelming is left on the schedule, but there aren’t a lot of easy games, either.
The fact that Lane Kiffin even has the Rebels in this conversation is a testament to how quickly he has reshaped them just three games into his second season. This week, they face the biggest mountain in college football: Winning at Alabama. The positive? It’s all downhill if they can somehow pull it off.
Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai leads the nation with 20 touchdown passes, five more than any other player, and the offense is averaging 43 points per game. If some defense can be found, the Mustangs loom as the biggest threat to Cincinnati in the American Athletic.
15. Wake Forest
All the Demon Deacons do is quietly win under coach Dave Clawson. They’re not so quiet this year as four impressive wins have pushed them into the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll. Wake Forest has won 10 games only once – in 2007 – and the pieces are there for a similar run, especially with quarterback Sam Hartman thriving and the not-so-strong ACC being winnable.
16. Michigan State
The second season under Mel Tucker couldn’t have gone much better. Payton Thorne has solidified the quarterback position and defeats of Northwestern and Nebraska have the Spartans with two Big Ten wins already in the books. The rough Big Ten East awaits, but this team won’t be an easy out for anyone.
It’s still too early to tell whether this version of the Wolverines under Jim Harbaugh has staying power. The start has been promising, especially on defense. We’ll know more when the offense is challenged by the better teams in the Big Ten, starting with Wisconsin this week.
18. San Diego State
The Aztecs already hold two wins against Pac-12 teams – Arizona and Utah – which bodes well now that their Mountain West campaign is about to start. Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State all visit, so it’s not an improbable scenario that they can run the table.
19. Oklahoma State
Fresh off an impressive win against Kansas State which followed a defeat of Boise State on the road, the Cowboys appear over their early woes. A front-loaded Big 12 slate sees them face Baylor, Texas and Iowa State the next three weeks. Getting through that gauntlet would drastically change their outlook.
The Wildcats will go as far as their stingy defense can carry them. It’s taken them to four wins with the last three coming by seven points or less. Surviving a visit from Florida would change the calculation significantly. It’s worth noting Kentucky has only beaten the Gators in their annual game once since 1986.
If this was simply a list of the best teams that were unbeaten then the Razorbacks would be near the top. Likewise, Sam Pittman should be near the top of every coach of the year list. However, Arkansas faces Georgia and Mississippi on the road in its next two weeks and a trip to Alabama awaits. Good luck.
Another team lurking under the radar, the Bears drew notice with their defeat of Iowa State last week. An added wrinkle to their difficult run in the Big 12 is a visit from BYU that could be as dangerous as any league game.
23. Boston College
It’s been a great start for the Eagles, especially without starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who was injured in Week 2. Dennis Grosel has performed admirably in his absence. The fast start likely will hit the brakes with Clemson and North Carolina State up next.
The ride has been fun as the Terrapins beat West Virginia in the renewal of their rivalry and reeled off three more wins. The honeymoon likely ends Friday against Iowa and wins will be tough in the division. However, the start is still a great sign for the program.
It’s hard to have much conviction for the Cowboys after they needed a two-point conversion stop to avoid overtime against Connecticut, perhaps the worst team in FBS. This is also a team that trailed Montana State and Northern Illinois before last-minute touchdown drives.
26. South Alabama
Full credit to Kane Wommack for his 3-0 start in his first season with the Jaguars. Three more wins would be an accomplishment for a program that has only been to two bowl games in its history.