Dan Mullen's Florida Gators are 6-0 after knocking off previously undefeated Auburn in the Swamp on Saturday
The extra-long campaign the calendar has given us in 2019 has resulted in a bit of an unbalanced college football season but after six weeks (seven if you count Week 0), we have a fairly solid sample size about teams far and wide even if it's not quite the halfway mark.
Right now the sport has 16 undefeated teams of varying degrees, from the true national title contenders to the Group of 5 programs who have managed to avoid a loss like the best of them. But how good are these teams really and who is actually just coasting on an early-season schedule that picks up in the back half?
Let's take a look at the sweetest of 16 right now and how their seasons could go.
Toughest game left: vs. LSU (Nov. 9)
Ceiling: The Crimson Tide are an annual national title contender and are again this season just like clockwork. The offense appears to be the best in the country right now, which is a good thing because their run defense is a little suspect and there are a ton of freshmen on that side of the ball. Still, a trip to New Orleans is the expectation this season.
Floor: The Citrus Bowl. For as invincible as Nick Saban's team has been, it's not inconceivable that they lose to LSU and then get tripped up in the Iron Bowl to avoid the SEC title game altogether. The Tide have made the College Football Playoff every single season but the strength of the conference at the top might make that difficult if they don't win the SEC West.
Toughest game left: vs. Wake Forest (Nov. 16)
Ceiling: Back-to-back titles and the acknowledgment that Dabo Swinney has inched his program ever so slightly ahead of his alma mater's.
Floor: The Orange Bowl. The Tigers have been good this season but expectations following that blowout in Santa Clara last season definitely inflated the perception of what this group should be doing on the field. That's led to a bit of a scenario where there's a vibe of 2014 Florida State or 2015 Ohio State. It doesn't help that the ACC is so weak this year that a loss might make the committee reconsider and put an SEC team in ahead of the defending champs come final four time.
Toughest game left: at Auburn (Nov. 16)
Ceiling: This is an elite roster that Kirby Smart has assembled and they can beat you six ways till Sunday given the amount of speed they can put on the field. Luck might be a big factor in winning the national title, something this program hasn't had recently but might have this season. If nothing else, a return trip to the Sugar Bowl for a little revenge might be on the docket even if that's not the bowl in New Orleans they want to play at in 2020.
Floor: The Citrus Bowl. The way Florida is playing right now, the World's Largest Cocktail Party is no joke for the Bulldogs and they will have a fight on their hands when they go into the Plains in late November. Drop one of those and miss out on the East title and a shocking 9-3 campaign could land them in the wrong kind of New Year's Day bowl.
Team: Ohio State
Toughest game left: vs. Wisconsin (Oct. 26)
Ceiling: It's time to stop mentioning the Buckeyes as simply a College Football Playoff contender and start including them in every Alabama/Clemson discussion because they are in the same class at the moment of national title contenders. The roster is stacked, Justin Fields seems certain to be in New York City come early December and Ryan Day is pushing all the right buttons.
Floor: New Year's Six Bowl. In addition to the Badgers, OSU still has Penn State and a trip to the Big House on the docket. A loss to any of them might prevent a division title but at this point, it's hard to see this group falling so far that they don't wind up playing in a major bowl game this season unless something catastrophic happens.
Toughest game left: at Alabama (Nov. 9)
Ceiling: The Tigers' incredible prowess on offense is tempered somewhat by their defense not quite being the most elite unit in the SEC like you could say in year's past. That might not matter in the end because Ed Orgeron has a group that is fully capable of going toe-to-toe with Alabama and making it to Atlanta. As we've seen, there's a big difference between living up to that high bar and actually clearing it but there's no question the talent is there to make a run at the playoff and perhaps more.
Floor: A return to the Citrus or Outback Bowl could actually happen given that LSU might play three top-10 teams just to be in line for the division and likely another in the SEC Championship Game. Come out on the losing end of too many of those and sliding behind others in their league becomes a real possibility — however remote it seems right now.
Toughest game left: vs. Texas (Oct. 12)
Ceiling: Everybody wants to talk about the offense with Jalen Hurts but the way the defense has improved under Alex Grinch is the real difference-maker for the Sooners should they find themselves back in a semifinal once again. The talent is more than there to make it to the national title game, which seems like the only thing the program hasn't accomplished under Lincoln Riley.
Floor: New Year's Six bowl. Even if they were to be upset by the Longhorns in Dallas, there's a pretty easy path back to the Metroplex and the Big 12 title game.
Toughest game left: vs. Georgia (Nov. 2)
Ceiling: A Sugar Bowl berth is nothing to sneeze at given what the state of the program was when Dan Mullen took over but it's probably the most realistic ceiling for this team given the situation at quarterback and general lack of depth on a roster the coaching staff is already squeezing the most out of. Even if they get past the Bulldogs in Jacksonville, asking Florida to then turn around and beat the SEC West champ in early December for a potential fourth top-10 win of the season might be asking too much.
Floor: If the injury bug really bites this group and the bottom falls out, another 9-3 campaign and a trip to an in-state bowl game could be on the table.
Toughest game left: at Ohio State (Oct. 26)
Ceiling: The Rose Bowl. There may be a select few Badgers fans who dream of breaking through and earning a trip to the playoff but the real prize is Pasadena for this team. Given the way things have gone so far, celebrating 2020 with fresh roses is a picture-perfect sight for some.
Floor: Miss out on a division title, sink down to the Outback or Citrus Bowl. Paul Chryst's club still has the Buckeyes on their schedule and if they lose that one, it's not crazy to think that Iowa will still be a pretty formidable challenge in November. That's a game the Hawkeyes can certainly win to sink UW's hopes of a division title and drop them down a few pegs in the Big Ten bowl lineup behind some East Division powers.
Team: Penn State
Toughest game left: at Ohio State (Nov. 23)
Ceiling: CFP Semifinal. The Nittany Lions haven't been properly tested this season by an elite conference power but if they can make it unscathed the next two months — which they just might be capable of — James Franklin finally getting this team over the hump and into the playoff might be realistic.
Floor: A bowl game in Florida and lots of rumors about their head coach's name popping up for other college and NFL jobs.
Team: Boise State
Toughest game left: at Utah State (Nov. 23)
Ceiling: New Year's Six bid. The Broncos are the leaders in the clubhouse for the trip to the Cotton Bowl this year but their path is still pretty difficult given the level the Mountain West is at right now and the AAC coming on so strong with so many ranked teams right now.
Floor: Hawaii Bowl. Get knocked off by a division foe after an off night from their freshman quarterback and tumbling all the way to the islands for the holidays is a very real possibility given the thin line between mega-matchup and lackluster one at the Group of 5 level.
Team: Wake Forest
Toughest game left: at Clemson (Nov. 16)
Ceiling: Being in the same division as the Tigers might actually work out in the Demon Deacons' favor as whoever comes out of the Coastal might be guaranteed an extra loss on their resume. This team could be 9-0 when the visit Death Valley and even with a loss could be the highest-ranked ACC squad if Clemson goes to the playoff, resulting in a trip to the Orange Bowl.
Floor: Wake has had all of two comfortable wins all season and one of those came against FCS opponent Elon at home. The Deacons do get to spend all of October at home which is a plus but you could still see them losing to a Florida State or Duke in some wild outing in the fourth quarter. Reaching nine wins seems pretty realistic right now, which is still a heck of a floor considering the history of the program and the way Dave Clawson has been building to this kind of season.
Toughest game left: at Memphis (Nov. 2)
Ceiling: AAC champions. Sonny Dykes has things rolling on the Hilltop right now, staving off Tulsa in improbable fashion to move to 6-0 and firing up a ton of comparisons to the Pony Express era. While making it back to the Cotton Bowl for the first time in ages is certainly a path that is available, that might be a bit of a stretch.
Floor: The Frisco Bowl. Yeah, that bowl game up the tollway from campus where Dykes made his debut with the team in disastrous fashion? That's a possibility if the Mustangs lose a few down the stretch in conference play.
Toughest game left: Oklahoma (Nov. 16)
Ceiling: Sugar Bowl. This is the third-best team in the Big 12 at the moment and if the Bears can knock off either Texas or Oklahoma and make it to the conference title game, a visit to New Orleans isn't out of the question. They get both the Sooners and Longhorns back-to-back in Waco in late November.
Floor: Alamo or Camping World Bowl. The Bears don't have to worry about Matt Rhule leaving with a hefty buyout in place but missing out on a trip to AT&T Stadium would inevitably mean a trip to San Antonio or maybe even Orlando.
Toughest game left: vs. Cincinnati (Nov. 29)
Ceiling: New Year's Six bid. The Tigers are perfectly capable of winning the AAC this year thanks to the marvelous Kenneth Gainwell and others. The slate is tough of course, but they'll have a chance to impress the committee several times with games against ranked teams.
Floor: A drab December bowl game in the South with an interim coaching staff. That might be what befalls Memphis if they lose once or twice this season and then see Mike Norvell jettison for a Power 5 gig.
Toughest game left: vs. Wisconsin (Nov. 30)
Ceiling: Trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game. The Gophers did nab Paul Bunyan's Axe last year and if they were to somehow do it again, an elusive opportunity at Lucas Oil Stadium would await. This team certainly knows how to win when things get tight in the fourth quarter and they could even drop one down the stretch and still capture the division if they can get past the Badgers.
Floor: Rowing the Boat to the Pinstripe Bowl.
Team: Appalachian State
Toughest game left: at Louisiana (Oct. 9)
Ceiling: The New Orleans Bowl. Despite a new coaching staff, the Mountaineers look like the class of the Sun Belt again this season and seem to have some distance between themselves and just about everyone else. While going undefeated with wins over North Carolina and South Carolina might be enough to earn consideration for the Group of 5 bid, it would take some chaos for it not to go to the Mountain West or AAC champion given the strength of those leagues.
Floor: A loss or two along the way for App State probably drops them into the Dollar General or Camellia Bowl despite another good season. Such is life.
2. Florida strikes first in SEC top-10 derby
All eyes were on Gainesville this weekend as we entered what amounts to the first of several top-10 derbies between all of the SEC powers that be.
There were times when this game was everything you were hoping it would be, with some incredible speedsters breaking loose and huge play after huge play on defense. Then there were times where this game devolved into two offenses with inexperienced quarterbacks really showcasing what they don't quite know about the game at this level. It got to the point where you just couldn't look away because something big seemed to happen at every turn.
You have to give major props to UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham most of all, as his blitzes and ability to have guys running around at all three levels really made Bo Nix looked like the true freshman he is. Auburn fans had to brace for this moment at some point given some of his performances prior to the Mississippi State explosion but the Gators did what they needed to at every turn and Gus Malzahn never could seem to adjust. It isn't time to panic just yet on the Plains as this team could still very much win the West but the coaching staff will have to return to the basics and build out from there the next two weeks before that trip to LSU.
Over on the other sideline though, Dan Mullen proved why he's been given that quarterback whisperer label. He had a number of great play calls dialed up to allow Kyle Trask to hit a big gain and schemed around that slight mismatch in the trenches between his young offensive line and that Auburn front seven. If there was one qualm with the coaching from the Gators though, it was the fact that the offensive staff seemingly had no issues exposing Kyle Trask to additional hits in the second half after he took that nasty-looking shot to the knee (which, contrary to what the head coach said at halftime, didn't seem dirty at all). There may be faith in the next man up in orange and blue but playing smart with your quarterback in early October is more prudent than getting a few extra yards on second down.
Mullen is now 16-3 since taking over at Florida and remarkably has already notched three top 10 victories with the Gators — more than the team had from 2013-17. While he still needs to keep building (and recruiting) in order to get the program properly positioned as a true contender to Georgia in the SEC East, the early returns are quite positive when you single out just the coaching aspect of what he has accomplished. His work developing guys was some of the best in the country during his long stint at Mississippi State and you combine that with the much higher ceiling that a powerhouse like UF has and it might not be long before this team starts to get the benefit of the doubt at every turn.
Just as impressive, the Swamp was rocking for that game like it hadn't been in nearly a decade. While there is certainly a bit of a fair-weather aspect to the fan base, there's little doubt that when things are going well in Gainesville, the place is about as tough to play as any in the country. That rang true on Saturday and figures to again over the coming weeks.
P.S.: If there were any left at all, this weekend probably eliminated any remaining doubts Florida fans had at missing out on Chip Kelly or Scott Frost and hiring Mullen, didn't it? That has as much to do with what the former two have done at UCLA and Nebraska the past two years than what the Gators have accomplished, but it's pretty clear that the better fit will do a lot more winning than the bigger names will.
3. Michigan not dead yet
It sure wasn't pretty — okay, it was downright ugly at times — but Jim Harbaugh and Michigan still have a pulse in the Big Ten race after beating Iowa at the Big House on Saturday afternoon.
The Wolverines were led by their defense in this one, which carried the team in a way that was reminiscent of early last season (as opposed to last month). Don Brown's unit was swarming at the snap on pretty much every play, sacking Nate Stanley eight times and forcing four turnovers (three picks among them). Mind you this wasn't some MAC squad, it was a top-15 team that had previously up to this point been among the best in the country at protecting the quarterback and taking care of the football.
That success defensively allowed Michigan just enough breathing room to eke out a victory as the offense once again remains a work in progress. Shea Patterson continues to turn the ball over and look nothing like a senior quarterback should while Josh Gattis seemed to have no answers for the Hawkeyes after they made some first-quarter adjustments.
The good news though? This little stretch of games post-Wisconsin loss has a chance to allow the team to find some sort of rhythm on that side of the ball. It's a mix of good tests (Iowa) and some pushover opponents (Rutgers, Illinois) that one can build some confidence against. If Gattis and Harbaugh can't fix things by the time they hit their season-defining stretch (at Penn State on Oct. 19, vs. Notre Dame on Oct. 26), then all hope of making it to Indianapolis will truly be lost for good.
Until then, however, the Maize and Blue isn't dead just yet in conference play.
4. AAC race gets even more interesting
Outside of the SEC and perhaps the muddled Pac-12, there's really no more intriguing conference race than the AAC's after this weekend really shook things up on both sides of the bracket.
You have to first start with Cincinnati, which had Nippert Stadium rocking on Friday night to pull off the upset of UCF and end the Knights' 19-game winning streak in league play. It felt a bit like the changing of the guard in the game, as the Bearcats' suffocating defense came up with a stop in critical situation after critical situation and the Desmond Ridder/Michael Warren combination kept moving the chains when needed on the other side.
We saw last year that Luke Fickell had resurrected the program in a big way by going 11-2 and it seems like they've taken things to the next level again this year by becoming true conference contenders (and maybe even the favorite) as a result of a win over the AAC's previous top dog. UC is just so balanced on both sides of the ball that the East Division really is there for the taking and if they can get past next week's trip to a limited Houston squad, it's probably safe to say they won't be challenged until the final two weeks of the year against Temple and at Memphis.
Those Tigers are likely still the odds-on favorites in the West but the field has become much more crowded than anybody thought in August or even late September. SMU is ranked for the first time since the death penalty and became the second team in the country to become bowl eligible at 6-0, a mark they've not reached since the Pony Express days of 1982. All this, too, after a wild 21-point rally in the fourth quarter to help force overtime and beat Tulsa in the game of the week.
The pollsters are taking both of those teams seriously but they better watch out for Tulane too, which scored a marquee non-conference victory by going up to Army and ending the Black Knights' 15-game home winning streak 42-33. The Green Wave played Auburn close earlier in the season down on the Plains and are brimming with confidence after shocking Houston in the fourth quarter in their last outing. This team has some speed to burn on offense and plays so sound that they might be the best all-around AAC team through six weeks at the moment. The schedule doesn't do them any favors though so if they are to reach the conference title game, they'll surely have earned it with trips to Memphis and Navy in late October plus games against UCF and at SMU to close out the year.
While Boise State is likely in the driver's seat for a Cotton Bowl bid in the New Year's Six right now, the American might have some fun of their own over the coming months trying to sort out a chief challenger to the Broncos come December. There's certainly no shortage of options in what could be a banner year for the very deep league.
5. Wild comebacks at Group of 5 level
You just knew things would be a little strange over the coming days when Georgia Southern scored with 20 seconds left in the fourth to force overtime in the very first game of Week 6, needing two extra frames to pull out a victory over South Alabama. It was really just quite the appetizer for the slate that was coming up at the Group of 5 level, which featured some incredible comebacks from coast-to-coast.
Of course, there was SMU's thriller to remain undefeated against Tulsa but also Navy pulling out a 75-yard, game-winning drive against Air Force, who had stormed back themselves to surge into the lead. Liberty and Hugh Freeze took about 90 seconds late in the fourth quarter to net their game-winner and sneak past New Mexico State while Ball State ran off 23 in a row during the second half to stun defending MAC champs Northern Illinois in DeKalb. Toledo's defense held off Western Michigan's comeback attempt elsewhere in the conference and Ohio snuck past Buffalo in overtime too thanks to a missed extra point.
It was a fairly ho-hum weekend in the Power 5 but elsewhere in college football sure had quite a number of endings you had to stick with until zeroes hit the clock.
6. Coastal chaos returns?
It's been quite easy to rag on the ACC Coastal division over the years for the sheer mediocrity it has produced but it sure seems like we could be in for yet another year of chaos in the league given how tightly bunched the teams look on the field.
Take Duke, which came all the way back from 23 points down to take the lead against Pitt on Saturday night despite doing little for three quarters... only to give up a game-winning drive late to allow the Panthers to escape Durham with a win. Pat Narduzzi's squad oscillates from good to mediocre to bad to decent on seemingly every series this season and has played up (or down) to their competition like nobody else in all of FBS. Miami mounted an incredible comeback of their own against Virginia Tech, only to see the Hokies march down the field in the final minutes to nab a win themselves in a game they led comfortably after three early turnovers.
Virginia still seems like the class of the division but still has a few tricky road trips left this season and there's that matter of ending the long streak against their in-state rivals they can't seem to overcome no matter the circumstances. Perhaps the only thing we know for sure in the Coastal is that Georgia Tech is easily relegated to the basement right now but that's not to say that Geoff Collins can't shock somebody later in the season when things start to click better between the new staff and the Yellow Jackets.
All of which is to say, don't be shocked if we're busting out the third and fourth tiebreakers for the right to get slaughtered by Clemson just like we have been seemingly every November for the past few years.
7. Kevin Sumlin suddenly has Arizona atop the Pac-12 South
The Pac-12 has been lackluster at best this season and as a result, much of the attention out West has been focused on the league's shortcomings. Most of that has been further distilled down to discussions over which head coach might (or should) get fired or the general lack of an elite national contender out West.
Flying under the radar through all that thanks to their much noisier neighbors around the conference has been Arizona. The Wildcats went into Boulder and won a wild one 35-30 over Colorado on Saturday afternoon and suddenly find themselves atop the South Division as the only 2-0 team around. Quarterback Khalil Tate was the star of the show once again and seems to be healthy again after missing the team's win over UCLA last week.
The elusive signal-caller, who burst onto the scene with an FBS record-setting rushing performance the last time he played at Folsom Field, dazzled this time around with his arm in throwing for 404 yards and three scores. He seemed to dial up an answer whenever his team needed a big play in the game — which seemed to be quite often given that there were nine lead changes in the fun back-and-forth with CU that had a little bit of everything from goal-line stands to trick plays.
While one could scarcely have predicted Arizona to be in this position, you have to give credit to Kevin Sumlin for keeping the team pointed in the right direction despite such a rocky start in Tucson the past 18 months or so. The Wildcats have appeared to improve on defense with each passing week and the offense, despite injuries, seems to be finding a bit of a groove as well. It's probably too early to call them the favorites in the South right now given a brutal schedule down the stretch but the resolve and fight in close games have been impressive.
The really wild part is that it's quite possible that just one yard separates Arizona from being taken seriously nationally as a top 20-ish team right now too. Remember back in Week Zero it was Tate who came up just short of the goal line on a scramble at Hawaii as they lost by a touchdown out on the islands. The Rainbow Warriors have proven to be pretty solid themselves and Arizona's win over Texas Tech looks better after Saturday too once they throttled a ranked Oklahoma State team.
We'll see if the Cats can keep things up the rest of the month with games against Washington, USC and Stanford upcoming but in a conference full of disappointment in 2019, there's at least one team trying to overachieve on the field in 2019.
Tweet of the Week
Play of the Week
Don't run onto the field at Autzen Stadium. Just don't do it.
Defensive play of the game from Cyrus. pic.twitter.com/OVFZg8DN4j— Tyson Alger (@tysonalger) October 6, 2019
Stat of the Week
Wisconsin is the only team in FBS to not trail this season. The Badgers have given up only a field goal in the first half all year and have posted shutouts in three of their first five games, something that hasn't been done since 2001.
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Derrick Brown, Auburn
Team of the Week: SMU
Goat of the Week: Chip Kelly, UCLA
Heisman Five: 1. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), 2. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 3. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 4. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), 5. Joe Burrow (LSU)
Projected Playoff: 1. Ohio State, 2. Clemson, 3. Georgia, 4. Oklahoma
Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Wisconsin vs. Oregon, Sugar Bowl — Texas vs. Alabama, Orange Bowl — Virginia vs. LSU, Cotton Bowl — Notre Dame vs. Boise State
Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:
1. Ohio State
8. Notre Dame
11. Penn State
13. Boise State
14. Wake Forest
Best of the rest: Tulane, Michigan, Iowa, Cincinnati, Virginia, Appalachian State, Arizona State, SMU, Pitt
Oklahoma vs. Texas (Dallas)
One of the greatest rivalry games in all of college football once again looks like it will be a fun one. This will be Jalen Hurts' first taste of Red River but being a Texas native, he's bound to want a win in this one more than you would think. The Longhorns' beat-up secondary might hold up for a while but the Sooners have just too much firepower and overcome underdog Tom Herman, who still keeps things close despite picking up a loss. The Pick: Longhorns +10
Florida at LSU
The schedule does not let up for the Gators, as they'll have to quickly move on from that big win at the Swamp to turn their attention to the next set of Tigers. Death Valley won't be like previous places Kyle Trask has been to, especially at night, and that has to worry Florida fans a bit. Dan Mullen should be able to scheme up things to move the ball against LSU's defense but something says some turnovers down the stretch hold the visitors back in this bitter rivalry. The Pick: LSU -13.5
USC at Notre Dame
This might amount to a must-win for Clay Helton if he harbors any hope at all of keeping his job. The Trojans should be a lot healthier for this game after the off week but outside of the rivalry factor, it's hard to see them executing at a level that will keep pace with the Irish. The Pick: Notre Dame -11.5
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.