1 Word to Describe Every Top 25 College Football Team Entering October
Through one month of the 2021 college football season, the AP Top 25 looks much different than most expected.
Iowa State, North Carolina and Wisconsin have exited the poll, and Clemson has fallen to No. 25. Neither Ohio State nor Oklahoma is passing the eye test as a national title contender. Meanwhile, Iowa and Arkansas have soared into the Top 10.
Yes, September was a strange, fascinating month.
If the opening four weeks are an indication of what's to come in October and November, the changes aren't done yet. We're still learning a lot about everyone from Alabama to BYU to Wake Forest. But that's the long version; let's shorten the analysis.
We've assigned a single word to summarize each AP Top 25 team and provided a brief explanation for each one.
25-21. Clemson, Wake Forest, NC State, Auburn, Baylor
25. Clemson Tigers: Shocking
Honestly, the only reason Clemson remains in the Top 25 is the name of the jersey. Against three FBS opponents, the Tigers have averaged 226.0 yards and 12.7 points. The defense is outstanding (as expected), but this offense is a nightmare.
24. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Building
To begin the season, Wake Forest steamrolled Old Dominion and Norfolk State. Then, the Deacs put away Florida State in the third quarter and Virginia in the fourth. Slowly, the competition has risen. Steadily, Wake Forest has been up to the challenge. But a November slate of North Carolina, NC State, Clemson and Boston College will shape the Demon Deacons' season.
23. North Carolina State Wolfpack: Positioned
Although an early 14-point loss at Mississippi State looks bad, the loss didn't affect NC State's pursuit of an ACC title. And the overtime win over Clemson gave the Wolfpack an all-important jump in the conference race. They host Louisiana Tech before an idle weekend and then close the regular season with seven straight ACC games.
22. Auburn Tigers: Uncertain
Not every 3-1 record is created equally. Auburn smacked Akron but sandwiched a loss at Penn State between slow starts against Alabama State and Georgia State. Needing a spark in the latter win, the Tigers benched third-year starter Bo Nix in favor of T.J. Finley. The LSU transfer led a 12-point comeback and created a bit of a quarterback controversy—just in time for a showdown with his former team.
21. Baylor Bears: Beginning
Anything other than a 3-0 start against Texas State, Texas Southern and Kansas would've been disappointing. While the victory over Iowa State was an upset, it wasn't stunning. Baylor is traditionally a thorn at home, and Iowa State is typically a mess in September. The real challenge for the Bears comes now, starting with a trip to Oklahoma State before they host West Virginia and BYU.
20-16. UCLA, Oklahoma State, Fresno State, Michigan State, Coastal Carolina
20. UCLA Bruins: Capable
The offense is good. The defense, while improved, is just OK. It's a usable combination, but not a fantastic one. UCLA should finish the regular season 8-4 or 9-3, which would be the program's best finish in six seasons. But the shaky defense will probably lead to an upset loss or two during Pac-12 play.
19. Oklahoma State Cowboys: Persevering
Oklahoma State clipped Southwest Missouri State 23-16, needed a comeback to beat Tulsa 28-23 and edged Boise State 21-20 on the road. Although the Pokes toppled No. 25 Kansas State 31-20 in Week 4, they didn't score in the second half. They're still looking for their first complete performance this season. But, hey, an unexceptional 4-0 is still 4-0.
18. Fresno State Bulldogs: Threatening
If only Fresno State had protected its fourth-quarter lead at Oregon. Alas, the Bulldogs are 4-1 with a good victory over UCLA. Jake Haener has thrown for 1,842 yards and accounted for 18 touchdowns, leading the offense to top-12 marks nationally in both yards (522.8) and points (42.0) per game. Fresno State has a real chance at representing the Group of Five in a New Year's Six bowl.
17. Michigan State Spartans: Unexpected
Entering the year, MSU seemed like it would be fighting for bowl eligibility. However, at 4-0 with Western Kentucky and Rutgers up next, the Spartans might be there within two weeks. Labeling them a Big Ten contender is unwise, especially given the recent struggle at home against Nebraska. But the early road victories over Northwestern and Miami have MSU in a pleasantly surprising spot.
16. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers: Hovering
In 2020, the Sun Belt program ripped off an 11-0 regular season. That success helped Coastal Carolina open the year 22nd in the AP poll. Since then, the Chanticleers have been ranked either 16th or 17th. The schedule doesn't lend itself to much national respect, but a trip to Appalachian State in mid-October will be important for a team averaging a 29.5-point margin of victory.
15-11. Texas A&M, Michigan, BYU, Ole Miss, Ohio State
15. Texas A&M Aggies: Wondering
Even before falling to Arkansas, the Aggies had questions at quarterback. After a leg injury sidelined Haynes King, they turned to Zach Calzada. He tossed a game-winning touchdown at Colorado but mustered just 5.4 yards per throw. Calzada followed a good showing against New Mexico with 4.2 yards per attempt in the Arkansas loss. Do the Aggies have enough offense to stick in the SEC race?
14. Michigan Wolverines: Anxious
Once again, is this the year? Ohio State isn't the juggernaut of recent years, so there's a window of opportunity for Jim Harbaugh's team. Michigan ranks sixth nationally with 6.3 yards per carry, though it has come against a relatively soft schedule. Road trips to Wisconsin and Michigan State this month will help us better understand the Wolverines.
13. BYU Cougars: Steady
Four games, four victories of 7-10 points. While that's not impressive against Arizona and South Florida, it is impressive against Utah and Arizona State. In classic "bend, don't break" fashion, BYU's defense has ceded 5.8 yards per play but limited its opponents to six touchdowns in 14 red-zone trips.
12. Ole Miss Rebels: Compelling
Wins over Louisville, Austin Peay and Tulane don't demand attention, but 52.7 points per game certainly does. Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Corral has 1,155 total yards, 14 touchdowns and zero turnovers. Upcoming clashes with Alabama and Arkansas will show what to expect from Lane Kiffin's squad.
11. Ohio State Buckeyes: Grinding
Ordinarily, the regular season looks pretty easy for the Buckeyes. That's decidedly not the case in 2021, considering they trailed Minnesota at halftime, lost to Oregon and only pulled away from Tulsa in the fourth quarter. Ohio State remains the Big Ten favorite, but Iowa, Penn State and Michigan aren't far behind.
10-6. Florida, Notre Dame, Arkansas, Cincinnati, Oklahoma
10. Florida Gators: Volatile
New quarterback Emory Jones looked a mess in the first two games but improved against Alabama and Tennessee. The secondary remains a weakness, yet Florida is sturdy against the run. October brings trips to Kentucky and LSU and a neutral-site game against Georgia in Jacksonville, so the 3-1 Gators might end the month anywhere in the range of 4-4 to 6-2.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Surviving
The main takeaway: Notre Dame is 4-0. However, the Irish have withstood four scares. Florida State overcame an 18-point deficit to force overtime, and Toledo took a fourth-quarter lead before ND's winning drive. Purdue trailed 17-13 in the final frame, and Wisconsin jumped ahead in the fourth 13-10 prior to its implosion. The path ahead—Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC and North Carolina—will tell us everything we need to know about the Irish.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks: Feisty
Structure and aggression have atoned for the Razorbacks' slight deficit in the talent department, helping them stomp Texas 40-21 and hold Texas A&M to just 272 yards. Arkansas has piled up 7.1 yards per play but converted just 35.3 percent of its third-down attempts, so staying ahead of the chains will be key throughout SEC play. This defense should always give the Hogs a chance, though.
7. Cincinnati Bearcats: Primed
Now's your shot, Cincinnati. If the Bearcats are going to legitimately contend for the College Football Playoff this season, they must topple Notre Dame on Saturday. Simple as that.
6. Oklahoma Sooners: Underwhelming
Throw out a 76-0 victory over Western Carolina, and Oklahoma has three wins by a combined 15 points. Spencer Rattler has struggled badly, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt after tallying 9.6 last season. The offense has only seven gains of 30-plus yards. As with Notre Dame, 4-0 is 4-0. But this defense, disruptive though it is, can't prop up Rattler and Co. all season.
5-1. Iowa, Penn State, Oregon, Georgia, Alabama
5. Iowa Hawkeyes: Unbalanced
This defense is nasty. While surrendering the third-lowest yards per play (3.9) nationally, Iowa has nearly scored as many touchdowns (three) as it has allowed (five). Opponents have managed just 11.0 points per game. Yet on offense, the Hawkeyes rank 119th in the country with 4.6 yards per snap. The schedule is friendly, but Iowa's upside is limited if it can't score consistently.
4. Penn State Nittany Lions: Believable
On one hand, Penn State has a pair of Top 25 wins. Wisconsin's offense is a wreck, though, and Auburn has looked vulnerable so far. The perception of those victories might not be very strong by November. Nevertheless, the Nittany Lions are 4-0 behind a top-tier defense and a resurgence from quarterback Sean Clifford. Matchups at Iowa and Ohio State in October are already circled.
3. Oregon Ducks: Curious
The Ducks are good. Are they championship-level good? Oregon has a nice victory over Fresno State and a great win at Ohio State, and key defenders are returning from injury. We have questions about the receivers—Johnny Johnson III leads the Ducks with 10 catches for 148 yards, which isn't awesome in four games—but the Pac-12 isn't loaded with elite defenses. The shortage of playmakers on the outside might not matter until the CFP.
2. Georgia Bulldogs: Suffocating
There are worthy conversations about UGA's QB and receiving corps. But if the offense merely puts up 17 points, can anyone keep up? Georgia's defense ranks No. 1 nationally in yards allowed per play (3.3), yards per game (185.3) and points per game (5.8) and 10th in both takeaways (nine) and third down conversion rate allowed (28.1 percent).
1. Alabama Crimson Tide: Mortal
That doesn't mean Alabama is destined to lose. Bryce Young headlines an offense averaging 7.1 yards per snap and scoring 46.5 points per game, so the Tide are again a dynamic team. Florida nearly recovered from an 18-point deficit as Bama's run defense cracked, though. By the end of 2020, Alabama winning the national title was a foregone conclusion. There's no certainty about this very good, not impenetrable Crimson Tide roster.