In college football, polls and rankings are the ultimate seeds of debate. Our Pylon University panel of experts bring you a rundown of national title contenders each week. We’ll be looking at teams, plays, trends, and experiences that make college football great ‒ from Division 3 to the Power Conferences ‒ along with key CFB weekend matchups.
We’re coming off a seismic Week 11 in which 8 of the AP Top 25 teams tasted defeat, including 4 in the Top 10. The Inside The Pylon voters are back with another ranking of the teams still in the national title hunt, as well as the matchups worth watching this weekend.
Teams’ vote points are in parentheses (out of 50 possible points). This week’s voting panel consists of Derek Gilpin, Adam Jones, C.S., Big Mike and Ed Mastrangelo, and they’ve offered their comments on what to expect from the best of the FBS.
Game of the Week:
#1 Mississippi State (50) at #4 Alabama (36) ‒ 3:30 p.m. ‒ CBS
FCU Staff: This matchup has rarely factored into the SEC race, let alone the national title picture. And when was the last time the consensus top-ranked team in the nation entered a November game as a 10-point underdog? Perhaps there’s good reason for that: the Tide (8-1) have won 13 straight at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and have outscored opponents at home this season by an average of 40.2 points while allowing just one red zone touchdown. The Bulldogs (9-0) cannot afford to fall behind early, and need to remain on schedule with their offensive drives. Mississippi State leads the FBS with 43 first-down gains of 20+ yards, while ‘Bama has allowed the fewest such plays (6). The Crimson Tide’s lone setback of the year came at Ole Miss (24-17 on October 4). Alabama has never lost to both the Rebels and Miss State in the same season.
Why You Should Watch: To see two spectacular athletes. MSU quarterback Dak Prescott leads the SEC with 30 combined rushing (12) and passing (18) TDs, while ‘Bama wideout Amari Cooper is second in all of FBS with 1,215 receiving yards.
Derek: This isn’t one of Nick Saban‘s strongest Alabama teams but they keep on finding ways to win. Mississippi State will be the undisputed top-ranked team until they drop a game.
BigMike: If the Bulldogs win at least one of their next two, I think they make the playoff even if they somehow lose to ‘Bama and don’t play in the SEC title game.
C.S.: ‘Bama’s one loss is on the road to a top team, and quality wins keep piling up. Obviously, the problem with ranking the SEC is someone gets to play at home, and one big play has decided several big games. I think Alabama wins out. On MSU, I’m not convinced by their defense, but Prescott should be the runaway Heisman winner if they make the playoff.
Adam: MSU has a dominant defense, a bowling ball back, and a quality quarterback. As for Alabama, fewer dramatic last possessions and costly turnovers late in games, please.
The Rest of the Rankings
#2 Florida State (40) at Miami (FL) ‒ 8:00 p.m., ABC
FCU Staff: The Seminoles (9-0) are riding a 25-game winning streak, longest in the nation since the Hurricanes won 34 straight from 2000 to 2002. Miami (6-3) has plenty to play for besides rivalry pride, as they trail ACC Coastal Division leader Duke by a game with three conference matchups left, and hold a head-to-head edge over the Blue Devils. If Jameis Winston can’t avoid turnovers (only 10 FBS QBs have thrown more picks than his 11 this year), and the Canes are able to control the tempo with running back Duke Johnson (7th in the nation this year with 1,213 rushing yards, and 168.6 per game over his last five outings), the ‘Noles could be ripe for a road upset.
Why You Should Watch: To see the ACC leader in QB rating (157.6) and passing yards per attempt (9.0). No, not Winston. Miami true freshman Brad Kayaa is off to a great start at Quarterback U., overcoming early jitters (7 interceptions in his first 4 games) and settling down nicely (just 2 picks with 10 TDs in his last 5 games).
Derek: FSU’s schedule hasn’t allowed for many marquee wins this season, but a defending national champion on a 25-game win streak has to be in the playoff.
Adam: Have the ‘Noles played anybody? And where did they misplace the “On” switch?
BigMike: If the Seminoles lose to anyone left on their schedule then they have no business at all being in the playoff.
#3 Oregon (38) ‒ BYE
FCU Staff: The Ducks (9-1), with the fourth-most potent scoring offense in the nation (46 points per game), take a break. They’ll finish their slate against Colorado (winless in the Pac-12) followed by rival Oregon State (last place in the North division) in the Platypus Bowl.
Derek: The Ducks shouldn’t have much trouble closing out their last two conference games. The Pac-12 championship game will be for a playoff berth.
Adam: Led by the best and by far the most valuable player in the land, they were missing 60% of offensive line in a one possession Thursday night loss to Arizona.
#5 TCU (33) at Kansas ‒ 3:00 p.m., FOX Sports 1
FCU Staff: The Horned Frogs (8-1) just finished a stretch of five Top-20 teams in six games, losing only at Baylor on a field goal with time expiring. Now, on paper at least, it’s all downhill for TCU until the postseason. They face a meager Jayhawks team (3-6) that snapped a five-game skid last weekend, albeit against lowly Iowa State (0-6 in the Big 12). It was also just Kansas’s second victory in its last 36 conference games, an achievement KU fans felt merited rushing the field and ripping down the goalposts. The Jayhawks should prepare for thermonuclear annihilation. Seek shelter now.
Why You Should Watch: Trevone Boykin, Aaron Green, Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee doing pre-game jumping jacks would justify eyeballs. That may well be all it takes to make this a laugher by halftime, but enjoy the fireworks.
Derek: Despite their loss to the Bears, TCU is the strongest team in the Big 12. They completely controlled a very good Kansas State team.
Adam: The Frogs were one bad quarter against Baylor from an undefeated season. During that brutal six-week stretch, they put up 82 points against Texas Tech.
C.S.: TCU has played a weak schedule and had a fourth-quarter collapse against their only good road opponent this year, along with a very shaky performance at West Virginia. They’re decent, but not a top team. Some might call the Kansas State game a signature win, but I think the Frogs need Minnesota to beat Ohio State to make a playoff claim. And I don’t see that happening.
BigMike: Just an incredibly fun team to watch, and Boykin gets my Heisman vote. They’ve been screwed before and it wouldn’t stun me if they get screwed again. This team played eight bad minutes against a legit top-10 opponent and lost by 3 points.
#6 Auburn (18.5) at #12 Georgia (2) ‒ 7:15 p.m., ESPN
FCU Staff: The Bulldogs (7-2) get running back Todd Gurley back from suspension, but the damage was done in his absence with a dreadful 38-20 loss to Florida. And while Gurley is back, Auburn will be without injured D’haquille Williams, their leading receiver. The Tigers (7-2) are 8th in the nation in rushing (286 yards per game) and UGA has yielded 8 rushing TDs and 632 running yards in its last two games ‒ including 418 to the Gators. Expect the Tigers to pound the ball on the ground.
Why You Should Watch: A national championship may no longer be in the cards for either school, but Georgia can solidify its hold on the SEC East with a win over the Tigers. These are two evenly matched teams and it shapes up as a tight wire-to-wire affair.
Derek: Auburn had been playing with fire all season long, narrowly beating Ole Miss and Kansas State, but it finally caught up with them on last Saturday.
Adam: Playing down to their competition bites them again. The Iron Bowl will determine if this season is a success.
C.S.: The Tigers are an elite team in that division from hell that happens to have two losses. I want to rank Auburn higher, primarily because of that incredible strength of schedule. Georgia has had road and neutral site struggles, but this is a team capable of beating anyone. I think they’ll give Auburn a good run for it.
BigMike: Two losses won’t be enough to get in, but Auburn is a team that could win the whole thing if they were sneak in the back door.
Ed: Auburn should have beaten Texas A&M, but they also should have lost at Ole Miss.
#7 Arizona State (17) at Oregon State ‒ 10:45 p.m., ESPN
FCU Staff: After nearly imploding, the Sun Devils (8-1) held on for the victory thanks to Demario Richard and a clutch touchdown drive. Taking care of Oregon State (4-5) positions them for a rumble with #4 Oregon and the Pac-12 Championship. Arizona State can score points, with a passing attack putting up 284 yards per game (26th in the nation). Can they stop anyone? We likely won’t find out this weekend as the Beavers’ leaky dam (allowing 385 total yards per game, including 235 through the air) will offer little resistance to the inexorable Sun Devil offensive onslaught.
Why You Should Watch: What else are doing on a Saturday night? This game carries you into Sunday no matter what U.S. time zone you live in, and that means NFL kickoff is less than 12 hours away when it’s over.
Derek: Arizona State was in need of a statement win and they got it over a Notre Dame team ranked in last week’s Inside The Pylon Top 10. The over/under in the Pac-12 championship may be close to 90.
Adam: The Sun Devils allowed 62 points to UCLA ‒ can they win without big plays?
BigMike: ASU seems headed for a battle with Oregon for a playoff spot in the Pac-12 Championship.
Ed: #1 in our hearts. More seriously, the Sun Devil defense has really stepped up after UCLA debacle.
#8 Baylor (15) ‒ BYE
FCU Staff: The pyrotechnics show is taking a break this weekend after averaging 50.1 points per game (yes, that leads the nation). Art Briles’ offensive powerhouse can still get to the playoff with some stumbles by other, higher-ranked contenders, especially conference rival TCU.
Derek: There’s a pretty good argument to be made this is the Big 12’s best team. Their comeback win over TCU was very impressive. However, the lack of a Big 12 championship game may ultimately keep them out of the playoff. If the SEC teams eat each other alive, Baylor and TCU could make the Big 12 a dark horse for slipping 2 teams into the playoffs.
Adam: The Bears finally beat Oklahoma on the road, but can they win without scoring 45 points?
BigMike: An unbelievable offense and an improving defense. Incredibly fun team to watch.
#9 Ole Miss (13.5) ‒ BYE
FCU Staff: After a 7-0 start, the Rebels (8-2) lost at LSU by 4, and at home to Auburn by 3. This is actually Mississippi’s second straight bye week, as they lounged in luxurious comfort during last Saturday’s 48-0 beatdown of hapless Presbyterian, a school in its 8th season since jumping from NCAA Division II to FCS, with a record of 26-62 since then. Yes, every team schedules cupcakes, but come on…
Adam: Second best team in Mississippi ‒ or are they? The Egg Bowl will determine whether the Rebels’ season is a success.
C.S.: Another elite SEC team that happens to have two losses and still alive, if they win out.
BigMike: So very close to being so much more. Still an outstanding team that could still spoil their rival’s season and emerge from the scrum.
#10 Ohio State (9) at Minnesota ‒ 12:00 p.m., ESPN
FCU Staff: This outcome seems a foregone conclusion, as the Buckeyes (8-1) have won 23 of their last 24 against the Gophers. OSU freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett won’t have Dontre Wilson as an option after the hybrid back broke his foot last Saturday against the Spartans, but Barrett still has Devin Smith and Michael Thomas to reel in passes. The Gophers (7-2) lean heavily on running back David Cobb (1,205 rushing yards on 227 carries) to control possession and the clock.
Why You Should Watch: This is no cozy indoor game at the Metrodome for the visitors, who instead face an arctic blast at TCF Bank Stadium. Then again, Minnesota hasn’t beaten a Top-10 team at home since toppling top-ranked Michigan State in 1977.
Derek: While Ohio State gets an immediate bump after beating Michigan State, the long-term impact will be that Big Ten deservedly will not be represented in the playoffs. The league’s best non-conference win belongs to last place Indiana (over Missouri).
C.S.: In Barrett’s second career start (against Virginia Tech), he went 9-for-29 with three interceptions in one of the more incongruous losses of the year by a top team. Otherwise, this team has been dominant against weak competition and probably slides into the playoff at 12-1 if they continue that dominance against the Nebraska/Wisconsin winner.
BigMike: The Buckeyes are a very inconsistent team in a terrible conference, owning a signature win against MSU but nothing else of note. If they beat Minnesota, that becomes easily their second-best win on the year.
Ed: This Ohio State team would get blown out by Ole Miss.
#11 UCLA (3) ‒ BYE
FCU Staff: The Bruins (8-2) are on standby as they gear up to face the USC Trojans for the Victory Bell next weekend, a game with major implications in the Pac-12 South. In football’s second-deepest division, five schools (four of them in the AP Top 25) are vying for the right to face Oregon in the conference championship.
Derek: With quarterback Brett Hundley finally playing up to preseason expectations, and Pac-12 teams finally realizing how dangerous this team can be, home losses to Utah and Oregon will relegate them to spoilers and make this a season of what could have been.
C.S.: Turnovers derailed UCLA’s home games against the Utes and Ducks, and those losses add up to a playoff eliminator, but this is a very good team that could hold its own anywhere but the SEC West.
#13 LSU (1) at Arkansas ‒ 8:00 p.m., ESPN2
FCU Staff: Still licking their paws after a crushing loss to Alabama, the Tigers (7-3) trudge to uncharacteristically frigid Fayetteville where they’ll find the mercury dipping into the 20s and a chance for wintry precipitation. LSU will hope to contain RBs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, who have combined for more than 1,700 rushing yards and are averaging 6.4 yards per carry for the Razorbacks (4-5). The Tigers, likely to be without running back Kenny Hilliard following a shoulder injury, are underdogs for the third straight game, with Vegas favoring the host Hogs by 2.5 points.
Why You Should Watch: Snowfall in Arkansas. Isn’t that reason enough?
Follow Mark on Twitter @mabrowndog.