There is an essential dilemma that faces those of us who choose not to discount Boise State, TCU, and Utah simply because they don’t come from a power conference. We argue that just because a team doesn’t play the strongest schedule doesn’t mean that the team itself is a worse team than any other team in the country. Moreover, the national championship is supposed to go to the best team, not the team with the strongest schedule, or half the teams in the country should quit before the season even begins. What makes life difficult is trying to determine whether these teams are better or worse than undefeated teams in the major conferences- to automatically say they are is as narrow-minded as rejecting them automatically. So in a year with some unlikely undefeated teams, who is really #1 among them?
So, I just ranked the undefeated teams, because at this point, if you have lost a game you need the pack to come back to you. None of the following teams may wind up undefeated, and Alabama, Ohio State, or another one-loss squad could come back in the picture. In the meantime however, these are your undefeated season contenders.
7) Michigan State- This is going to seem like the sour grapes of a Michigan fan, but when I see MSU play I do not see an elite team. The computers love them because they aren’t allowed to take margin of victory into account, and this team could easily be 4-3 right now. They needed a trick play to beat Notre Dame (which has hardly been impressive), barely hung on against Northwestern after falling behind early, and allowed Florida Atlantic to roll up and down the field on them (it was called a road game but was played in Detroit, how is that?). They beat a very good Wisconsin squad and forced Michigan’s offense into a number of mistakes, but they are not among the top 5 teams in the country. They are a great team (Mark Dantonio is an underrated coach and has turned that program around), but I can’t say they beat Utah or any of the other teams on this list.
6) Utah- And the mid-majors make an appearance. I slated Utah over MSU because of their pedigree, it was a tough call. Utah has shown the ability year-in and year-out to take out ranked BCS conference opponents, and seems to make a run at an undefeated season every other year. They shouldn’t be held responsible for Pitt being much worse than advertised, but they have obliterated the rest of their early slate of games, scoring no fewer than 38 points and allowing no more than 27 (and that to a surprisingly good Iowa State team that they still thumped by 41 points). They will be tested the next three weeks against Air Force and TCU, which will answer who is the best team in the Mountain West this season.
5) Missouri- The difference between Missouri and Utah/Michigan State is that they have played an elite team and won. The difference between Missouri and the higher ranked teams is that they haven’t played much of anyone else, and weren’t as impressive doing so. They didn’t thump their cupcake teams the way TCU and Boise State have, and look a lot to me like the Missouri team that went 12-2 in 2007, losing twice to Oklahoma. This year they beat Oklahoma, but I can’t compare the two teams as both have turned over their roster. If their defense can come through big against Nebraska and they escape with a win on the road against a great team, then they could be for real.
4) Auburn- When I started this exercise, I expected the Tigers to be higher. They have Cameron Newton, Heisman frontrunner, and have won games against stiff competition. But can anyone say that LSU belonged as the #4 team in the country when they faced one another? LSU had escaped so many games and had such a dysfunctional offense that I would be surprised to see them keep it even close were it not for the magic that Les Miles seems to have in that old LSU hat. They are surprisingly balanced and have taken down some excellent competition, but the games have just been too close. I will give them every opportunity to move up, but I can’t validate them jumping established teams just yet.
3) TCU- The aforementioned Texas Christian University makes an appearance. Without having taken a bye week yet, the Horned Frogs have held teams to an NCAA-best 9 points per game, a whole field goal better than the next team on this list. Dalton has been a bit more error prone this season, which keeps me from putting Texas Christian any higher. That defense could shut down any offense in the NCAA, though they might have their hands full in Eugene. Their passing game has been pedestrian statistically; though that is more because of the huge leads they have built up early than anything else. Let’s not forget, the #1 defense also gets to work with the #7 offense.
2) Boise State- No, I am not ranking Boise ahead of TCU because of what happened last season in the Fiesta Bowl. To me, last year’s bowl games have no bearing on this year’s team. But it is hard to argue with the #4 scoring offense and #2 scoring defense in the country, regardless of competition. Kellen Moore is a Heisman-candidate quarterback, and I trust him more than Anthony Dalton in the clutch. That is how close these teams are. Having played just 6 games so far, it will be interesting to see how the Broncos play down the stretch. Perhaps their back loaded schedule is to ensure that more voters see them play late in the season?
1) Oregon- I talked earlier about Auburn not being able to leap over established teams (and yes, TCU and Boise State are more established teams right now than Auburn), but Oregon is an exception. I have not seen a more capable team in the PAC 10 since the early USC teams, and even they found a way to lose a few close games. Oregon has combined its fast-paced offense with a stifling defense, a defense whose job is that much harder when the offense scores so quickly and gives the opponent so many more opportunities with the football. USC could give them a challenge, but only if Oregon lets them. I don’t think they will.
Any of these teams might be able to hold serve with the Ducks, but for now, the boys from Eugene have had the dominance over their competition that TCU and BSU have with the quality of competition that Auburn has. Anything can happen between now and January, who do you think will be left unbeaten? Will it matter?