Hayes: Contenders or pretenders? Ranking the top 10 unbeatens in college football
It’s only Week 4, but there’s a definite vibe in this early prove-it week.
While we can’t completely eliminate 1-loss teams (we see you, LSU), any breakdown of the Playoff begins and ends with the unbeaten.
And while there are 32 unbeaten Power 5 teams, there are 10 that legitimately have the talent to make a run. A look at those 10, ranked in order of easiest road to the Playoff.
1. FSU (3-0)
What’s good: A team in the image of the new world order of college football: transfer starters everywhere, including Heisman Trophy candidate QB Jordan Travis.
WR Keon Coleman and TE Jaheim Bell have drastically changed the passing game. Instead of just 1 physical target that’s difficult to cover (WR Johnny Wilson), there are now 3 — and a quarterback who is successful off-schedule and can constantly place a defense in conflict.
Then there are 3 new, significant impact transfers on the defense — DT Braden Fiske, CB Fentrell Cypress, Edge Gilber Edmond — who have pushed the unit from good to potentially great.
What’s not: This team still must prove it can win big games — and games as a heavy favorite. You can’t have an impressive rout like the season-opener against LSU, and follow it up with a clunker against undermanned Boston College.
It’s time to play the same against Clemson and Miami — and Wake Forest and Pittsburgh.
2. Texas (3-0)
What’s good: Confidence. Momentum. Skill players. System. It’s all coming together for the Longhorns, who have seemingly found the right coach after 2 misses post-Mack Brown era.
There was the player’s coach (Charlie Strong) and the general (Tom Herman), and neither worked. Steve Sarkisian has recruited at an elite level, and he and the staff are developing players. That, beyond all the other sideshows, is the how and why Texas is among the nation’s elite again. Recruiting, development.
QB Quinn Ewers is playing like the No. 1 recruit and is surrounded by elite options in the pass game (WRs Xavier Worthy and AD Mitchell, TE Ja’Tavion Sanders).
What’s not: Recent history, and the inevitability that something will go wrong. And that’s about it. The Big 12 is winnable, the schedule is navigable and belief grows with each week.
Are they who we thought they were?
3. Michigan (3-0)
What’s good: A loaded roster of players motivated to eliminate the memory of 2 ugly losses in the Playoff semifinals. The best offensive line in the nation, and 2 elite tailbacks (Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards) that will get more use —and wear down defenses — as the calendar reaches October and November.
The front 7 on defense is punishing, and the secondary is as good as any in the nation. A complete team from the quarterback (JJ McCarthy) all the way down to special teams. Now coach Jim Harbaugh returns from suspension to ratchet up the intensity.
What’s not: There’s a trend under Harbaugh that can’t be denied: As well as the Wolverines play in big regular-season games (of late), they’re susceptible to playing down to competition.
UM could have lost to Illinois and Maryland in 2022, and Rutgers in 2021, while sleepwalking through all 3 games as a double-digit favorite.
4. Georgia (3-0)
What’s good: It begins — where else? — with a nasty defense. New players, same speed and punishing scheme. There’s no step back after significant losses to the NFL Draft the past 2 years.
Georgia plays with a swagger and confidence, and can turn it on when needed (see: last week vs. South Carolina) like most elite teams. The emotional and mental edge has carried Georgia for 2 years, and will likely do the same the rest of this season.
What’s not: Where do we start? The offensive line is a mess, specifically with pass protection. That’s not a good sign with a new quarterback (Carson Beck) and an offensive system based on the run game and throwing off play-action.
There’s a lot going on with the 2-time defending national champions: new QB who hasn’t yet proven it in a true SEC road game, a shaky offensive line, and weekly motivation questions.
Time to prove it
5. Notre Dame (4-0)
What’s good: QB Sam Hartman and a group of receivers that have made huge strides with a quarterback who can throw deep accurately. They’re converting 55% of 3rd downs and lead the nation in long plays from scrimmage (69 plays of 10+ yards) — including 11 of 40+ yards.
There’s momentum now in the program, and players are beginning to see what could be when there’s elite play at the most important position on the field. Beat Ohio State on Saturday, and that momentum spikes.
What’s not: Navy, Tennessee State, NC State, Central Michigan. What exactly are we supposed to get from that soft schedule to begin the season?
In the most difficult game yet (at NC State), the offensive line gave up 4 sacks. What happens with the elite defense of Ohio State?
6. Penn State (3-0)
What’s good: Let’s begin with no turnovers. That can’t be overlooked, considering the team’s problems with ball security in big games over the last 3-4 seasons.
QB Drew Allar is playing smart, and showing elite skills, and he’s the perfect complement to a strong run game with RBs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. This might also be Penn State’s best defense under coach James Franklin.
What’s not: A terrific run game has so far protected Allar, who will be pressed into more difficult situations Saturday against a strong Iowa defense, and as the season progresses (at Ohio State, Michigan). Does he respond?
7. Washington (3-0)
What’s good: All things QB Michael Penix Jr. He returned for his final season and is playing flawlessly. It’s early, and the schedule hasn’t been demanding, but he’s throwing with accuracy (74%) and averaging 11.8 yards per attempt.
An argument can be made that WRs Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lyn Polk are as good or better than Ohio State’s more heralded trio of Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming.
What’s not: The run game. The Huskies are throwing it all over the place, averaging 38 passes a game. The run/pass ratio (121/74) could be a problem as the Pac-12 schedule gets difficult.
At some point, the Huskies will have to run the ball consistently with Mississippi State transfer Dillon Johnson, or closing out games in the 4th quarter will be an adventure.
8. Ohio State (3-0)
What’s good: The Buckeyes are the most talented team in the nation, and have the best roster in college football. The defense has a Georgia feel to it, with a handful of menacing defensive linemen (Tyleik Williams, Michael Hall Jr.) and edge players (JT Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer) who can disrupt on any play.
There’s balance on offense, and once QB Kyle McCord hits his stride, a group of elite skill players in the backfield and at wide receiver become more dangerous.
What’s not: The great unknown of McCord. He hasn’t played a true tough road environment (the game at Indiana was nearly an Ohio State home game, and it was Indiana) where he needs to make plays in the passing game to extend drives. What if he’s not what every other QB under coach Ryan Day has been?
Until McCord does it — Saturday at Notre Dame is a chance to prove it — we can’t truly analyze this team.
9. USC (4-0)
What’s good: Caleb Williams, and more Caleb Williams. And did I mention Caleb Williams?
He’s so good, and so accurate and such a big moment player, USC is never out of a game. He’s completing almost 80% of his passes, and averaging a whopping 12.5 yards per attempt.
South Carolina transfer RB MarShawn Lloyd has given the run game a jolt of toughness and dynamic ability. It’s what we’ve come to expect from a Lincoln Riley offense — and more.
What’s not: The defense. I get it, USC is giving up 17.3 ppg., and that’s a huge improvement from last season — when the Trojans gave up 29.2, including 6 games of at least 35 points, and 4 of at least 43.
They’ve played San Jose State, Nevada and Stanford. Check back later in the season to see if it holds.
10. Oregon (3-0)
What’s good: A big win on the road already on the resume — in difficult circumstances and after trailing late in the 4th quarter. Don’t underestimate that entry point in the discussion, especially with so many teams playing money games early on to pick up easy wins.
Want to know how much better QB Bo Nix is this season? He completed 73% of his passes in a hostile environment at Texas Tech and didn’t commit a turnover.
So when you start complaining about Oregon stat-padding against Portland State and Hawaii — a legit argument – don’t forget a big win on the road. RBs Bucky Irving and Noah Whittington aren’t the biggest guys, but they’re fast and slippery and deceptively tough.
What’s not: Is 2 years enough for Ducks coach (and former Georgia DC) Dan Lanning to build the unit? Probably not.
They’re still in need of an impact defensive lineman or 2, and they can be pushed around (Texas Tech had 174 yards rushing). Next up: the Deion (and Shedeur) Sanders Show and Colorado roll into Eugene.