- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of the University of Tennessee
If it really does mean more in the SEC, then more Mike Leach and more K.J. Costello this season could really make things interesting.
Leach and Costello stole the show Saturday as the SEC returned to action. Mississippi State put a 44-34 hurting on defending national champion LSU behind an SEC-record 623 passing yards from Costello in Leach’s Air Raid offense, and the Bulldogs went from unranked all the way to No. 8 in this week’s ESPN power rankings.
Who says you need to run the ball to win in the SEC? Costello threw the ball 60 times, and the Bulldogs finished with only nine rushing yards.
One of the other changes this week in our rankings is that Pac-12 teams are now eligible, with that conference voting to return to play in November. Alabama, which cruised to a 38-19 road win over Missouri, remains No. 1, and what a wild Saturday it was in the Big 12. Texas gave up 56 points but managed to win in overtime. Oklahoma wasn’t as fortunate. The Sooners blew a three-touchdown lead in the second half and lost for the second straight season to Kansas State.
And while Clemson is still clearly the class of the ACC until proven otherwise, Miami was the big mover in that league thanks to its 52-10 dismantling of Florida State. The Hurricanes moved into the top 10 at No. 7 with a trip to Clemson looming in two weeks.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (1-0)
Tua Tagovailoa is gone along with a pair of receivers, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, who were also first-round NFL draft picks back in April. But Alabama looked as dynamic as ever offensively in its season-opening 38-19 win over Missouri. The Crimson Tide cruised to a 38-3 lead early in the third quarter, and even though they didn’t finish the game as well as Nick Saban would have liked, there’s a lot to like about Jaylen Waddle and Najee Harris, who combined for all five of Alabama’s touchdowns.
Up next: vs. Texas A&M (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (0-0)
Changing addresses has become the norm in college football, and transfers have played key roles the past few years for the teams winning championships and making the College Football Playoff. Running back Trey Sermon could be that transfer this season for the Buckeyes after coming over from Oklahoma. J.K. Dobbins was a sensational talent, but Sermon and Master Teague III should complement each other well in the Ohio State backfield, especially with Teague ahead of schedule in his rehab from the Achilles injury he suffered in the spring.
Up next: vs. Nebraska (Oct. 24, TBA)
3. Clemson Tigers (2-0)
The Tigers were off this week after cruising to a pair of blowout victories in their first two games. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence looks as polished as ever, but the younger talent on this Clemson roster has also been hard to miss the first two weeks. Freshmen defensive linemen Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee, and sophomore receiver Frank Ladson Jr. are reminders that Clemson has recruited as well as anybody under Dabo Swinney, which means the Tigers’ 23-game winning streak against ACC opponents might not be ending anytime soon.
Up next: vs. Virginia (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ACC Network)
4. Florida Gators (1-0)
There were some lofty expectations for Florida quarterback Kyle Trask in his second season as the starter under Dan Mullen’s tutelage, and those expectations just kept climbing after Trask’s 416-yard, six-touchdown performance in the Gators’ 51-35 season-opening win Saturday at Ole Miss. In particular, the Trask-to-Kyle Pitts connection is scary good. Florida, though, might have some work to do on defense after giving up 613 total yards to the Rebels.
Up next: vs. South Carolina (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN)
5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2-0)
After an impressive start to the season, Notre Dame has come to a pause — literally. The Irish had 13 players last week put in isolation and/or quarantine because of COVID-19 issues and paused all football-related activities, leading to the postponement of Saturday’s Wake Forest game. On the field, the Irish showed enough on both sides of the ball in their first two games that they might be the only real threat to Clemson this season in the ACC. Yes, it still sounds bizarre to be talking about Notre Dame and the ACC race. But, then, bizarre and 2020 kind of go hand-in-hand.
Up next: vs. Florida State (Oct. 10, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
6. Penn State Nittany Lions (0-0)
There’s a lot to like about what Penn State returns on offense for the 2020 season. The Nittany Lions’ top three running backs from a year ago are back, including budding superstar Journey Brown. Four of their five starting offensive linemen are back along with redshirt junior quarterback Sean Clifford, who had to be stoked when he heard for sure that Pat Freiermuth planned to play this season. Freiermuth, who has 15 career touchdown catches, is one of the premier tight ends in college football.
Up next: at Indiana (Oct. 24, TBA)
7. Miami Hurricanes (3-0)
Three games into the season, Miami is a runaway winner for the most improved team in the country, particularly on offense. The combo of D’Eriq King at quarterback and Rhett Lashlee as offensive coordinator, both newcomers to The U, has made a huge difference for the Hurricanes, who romped past Florida State on Saturday at home in a 52-10 victory. Miami led 38-3 at the half and didn’t look anything like the team that struggled to put up points a year ago.
Up next: at Clemson (Oct. 10, TBA)
8. Mississippi State Bulldogs (1-0)
Mike Leach’s debut as an SEC coach was one to remember. K.J. Costello’s SEC debut was even better. In fact, it was historic. The graduate transfer quarterback from Stanford carved apart defending national champion LSU’s defense for an SEC-record 623 passing yards and five touchdowns, and Mississippi State shook things up in the SEC’s Western Division with a 44-34 upset of LSU. And to fully process what happened Saturday in Tiger Stadium, the Bulldogs could have won even more convincingly had Costello not thrown two interceptions and lost two fumbles.
Up next: vs. Arkansas (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alternate)
9. UCF Knights (2-0)
Yes, it’s way too early to be handicapping the Heisman Trophy race. But few quarterbacks have played better the first few weeks of the 2020 season than sophomore Dillon Gabriel. For the second week in a row, he threw for four touchdowns, as UCF stormed past East Carolina for a 51-28 win on Saturday. Gabriel has thrown for 825 yards with only one interception in the Knights’ first two games, and has thrown touchdown passes to five different players.
Up next: vs. Tulsa (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
10. Auburn Tigers (1-0)
Auburn, in Chad Morris’ debut calling offensive plays for the Tigers, came alive when it needed to in the second half. And on defense, Kevin Steele’s unit was its usual swarming self in a season opening 29-13 win Saturday over Kentucky. Auburn’s defense came up with three turnovers, one a first-half interception in the end zone after Kentucky had driven inside the 1. The Tigers also forced a fumble while clinging to a 15-13 fourth-quarter lead that led to an Auburn touchdown. Auburn has held seven of its past nine SEC opponents — dating to the start of the 2019 season — to 24 points or fewer.
Up next: at Georgia (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
11. Cincinnati Bearcats (2-0)
It’s never an easy assignment going against Army’s option offense, but Cincinnati got it done Saturday in all three phases of the game in a 24-10 win. The Bearcats showcased their balance by holding Army’s rushing attack to 182 yards and not giving up any touchdowns on defense, while also blocking a punt on special teams and getting a Desmond Ridder-to-Gerrid Doaks 60-yard touchdown pass to put the game away. The Bearcats remain right in the thick of the conversation as the best Group of 5 team in the country.
Up next: vs. South Florida (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
12. Georgia Bulldogs (1-0)
There’s no getting around how anemic Georgia was on offense Saturday in the first half of its season-opening 37-10 win over Arkansas, a team that now has lost 20 straight SEC games. The Dawgs did show some life in the second half with Stetson Bennett coming off the bench to throw two third-quarter touchdown passes. But even with a defense that should be elite and played to that level in the opener, Georgia will need to improve significantly on offense and play much cleaner (12 penalties for 108 yards) if it’s going to be a national title contender this season.
Up next: vs. Auburn (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
13. Oregon Ducks (0-0)
With offensive tackle Penei Sewell and the Pac-12’s best player in the lineup, the defending conference champions would be ranked even higher. But Sewell is sticking by his earlier decision to opt out for the season. The Ducks also learned Saturday that star safety Jevon Holland plans to opt out, which is a huge blow to their secondary, since cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir are also not playing this season. The good news for Mario Cristobal’s club is that defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux returns after a freshman season that saw him record 14 tackles for loss, including nine sacks.
Up next: TBA
14. Wisconsin Badgers (0-0)
Jonathan Taylor was so good for so long at Wisconsin that it will almost be surreal watching the Badgers play without No. 23 in the backfield. But running the football is rarely, if ever, an issue in Madison, and redshirt sophomore Nakia Watson is eager to show what he can do now that Taylor is gone. Redshirt senior Garrett Groshek will also play a key role, especially on third down, and freshman Jalen Berger is talented enough that it’s going to be difficult to keep him off the field.
Up next: vs. Illinois (Oct. 24, TBA)
15. Virginia Tech Hokies (1-0)
Just getting on the field was a win for the Hokies. This game was supposed to be played on Sept. 12 but was pushed back because of COVID-19 issues at NC State. And last week, Virginia Tech’s game with Virginia was postponed. The Hokies played Saturday without 23 players — including starting quarterback Hendon Hooker — and still won easily, beating the Wolfpack 45-24. Despite it being their first game, the Hokies played clean football and got two touchdown passes from third-string quarterback Quincy Patterson II, who came in for Braxton Burmeister after he left the game because of an injured hand.
Up next: at Duke (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ACC Network)
16. USC Trojans (0-0)
The Pac-12 is still more than a month away from cranking up, but it looks like a two-team race between Oregon and USC. One of the big advantages the Trojans have is a proven quarterback in Kedon Slovis, who burst onto the scene last season as a freshman and passed for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns. Slovis’ 167.6 passing efficiency rating was the highest in school history, which is saying something when you consider the long list of talented quarterbacks USC has produced.
Up next: TBA
17. Texas Longhorns (2-0)
If you’re looking for bright spots (and, yes, we’re being overly positive), Texas has erupted for 122 points in its first two games, and Sam Ehlinger has thrown 10 touchdown passes. But the Longhorns’ 63-56 overtime escape Saturday against Texas Tech after trailing 56-41 late in the fourth quarter raises all sorts of questions about a Texas defense that was absolutely shredded. The Longhorns are always going to have a shot as long as Ehlinger is at quarterback, and maybe this was just one of those ugly run-and-gun wins that are the norm in the Big 12. At least, that’s what they’re hoping on the Forty Acres.
Up next: vs. TCU (Saturday, TBA)
18. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (3-0)
Louisiana might not be the best team in the country, but Billy Napier’s club sure has been the most entertaining, and the team keeps finding ways to win. The Ragin’ Cajuns remained unbeaten Saturday with a 20-18 win over Georgia Southern thanks to Nate Snyder’s 53-yard field goal on the game’s final play. That’s after rallying from two touchdowns down a week ago to win in overtime and scoring touchdowns on a 95-yard kickoff return and 83-yard punt return in the opening week. Louisiana has won 10 of its past 11 games dating to last season.
Up next: at Appalachian State (Oct. 7, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
19. Pittsburgh Panthers (3-0)
Pat Narduzzi has been around some outstanding defenses during his coaching career, but his Pittsburgh defense this season looks good enough to keep the Panthers in every game and maybe even get them back to the ACC championship game for the second time in the past three years. Pitt won 23-20 Saturday over Louisville and held the Cardinals to 223 total yards, and sacked quarterback Malik Cunningham seven times. The Panthers still need to shore up some things on offense, but they’re one of those teams not named Clemson or Notre Dame to keep an eye on in the ACC race.
Up next: vs. North Carolina State (Saturday, noon ET, ACC Network)
20. Michigan Wolverines (0-0)
Joe Milton’s size, skill set and arm strength have a lot of Michigan fans eager to see what he’s capable of this season as he steps in as the Wolverines’ starting quarterback. The 6-foot-5, 243-pound Milton has waited for his chance behind Shea Patterson and gets his shot right out of the gate to show what he’s capable of this year. Michigan’s schedule is the toughest in the Big Ten. After opening on the road against Minnesota, the Wolverines also go on the road two weeks later to play Indiana and also face Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State — all nationally ranked teams.
Up next: at Minnesota (Oct. 24, TBA)
21. North Carolina Tar Heels (1-0)
It wasn’t the way Mack Brown and North Carolina planned it, but the Tar Heels will have three weeks to get ready for their trip to Boston College. North Carolina’s game against Charlotte on Sept. 19 was canceled, and the Tar Heels had a week off this Saturday. The extra time to prepare might not be all bad for UNC, which looked out of sync at times on offense before pulling away for a 31-6 season-opening win over Syracuse back on Sept. 12. Three of the Tar Heels’ four touchdowns came in the fourth quarter on Javonte Williams’ runs.
Up next: at Boston College (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)
22. Kansas State Wildcats (1-1)
Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that Chris Klieman has Oklahoma’s number. But here are the facts: The Sooners have lost only twice in their past 18 games against Big 12 opponents, and both of those losses came to Klieman and Kansas State. The Wildcats rebounded from their season-opening 35-21 loss to Arkansas State two weeks ago to stun the Sooners 38-35 Saturday on the road. Kansas State won despite being short-handed, too. The Wildcats were without eight players on their two-deep depth chart.
Up next: vs. Texas Tech (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)
23. Tennessee Volunteers (1-0)
It seems like forever ago that Tennessee opened Year No. 2 under Jeremy Pruitt last season with back-to-back home losses to Georgia State and BYU. The Vols, although sloppy at times, ran their winning streak to seven straight games Saturday night with a 31-27 road win at South Carolina. They closed last season with six straight wins, that streak starting with a win over the Gamecocks, and their most recent win was one they almost certainly had to have if they’re going to be a factor in the SEC’s Eastern Division race this season.
Up next: vs. Missouri (Saturday, noon ET, SEC Network)
24. Oklahoma State Cowboys (2-0)
Remember the scouting report on Oklahoma State coming into the season? The Cowboys were going to roll it up on offense, with Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace doing most of the damage. But for the second straight week, the Cowboys leaned hard on their defense Saturday in a 27-13 win over West Virginia. Hubbard had fumbling problems, although he did have a key touchdown late, and the Cowboys went with true freshman Shane Illingworth at quarterback after starter Spencer Sanders was ruled out because of a foot injury. It was far from pretty, but the Cowboys look improved on defense. We’ll find out how much over the next few weeks.
Up next: at Kansas (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)
25. Oklahoma Sooners (1-1)
Scoring 35 points and still losing the game isn’t all that uncommon in the Big 12. But when you’re leading by 21 points at home in the third quarter and still manage to lose, that’s a problem. Clearly, Oklahoma hasn’t solved all of its problems on defense, as evidenced by its 38-35 collapse Saturday against Kansas State. The Sooners are talented and explosive enough on offense to work their way back into the Big 12 race, but this is a loss that could be a crippling blow to their College Football Playoff chances.
Up next: at Iowa State (Saturday, TBA)
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