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#Nuggets: Who is the best team in the country? UNC's near miss and SMU's rise

NUGGETS

Let's do things a bit different this week, shall we? Six of the top eight teams in the country played unranked conference opponents this week, and the other two were off. Most of those games weren't particularly interesting. In fact, through five weeks only one AP Top 10 team has lost to a team outside the AP Top 10 (i.e., excluding Texas' loss to LSU and Notre Dame's loss to Georgia): USC over No. 10 Utah last Friday night. Hardly a season-shaking upset.

So, as the first month of the season comes to a close, I thought we'd take stock of the eight best teams in the country to determine who is No. 1 -- based solely on what we've seen through the first third of the season. We'll go by AP poll rankings, working in reverse order.

No. 8 Wisconsin: Allowed all of three first half points all season. Owns perhaps the most single most impressive win of the season in last week's flattening of previously unbeaten Michigan. The defense did allow two garbage time touchdowns in this week's 24-15 win over Northwestern, but that came after the defense scored two touchdowns. Jonathan Taylor has racked up 510 yards and 10 touchdowns through four games.

No. 7 Auburn: No team in the country owns three wins move impressive than 27-21 over Oregon in Dallas, 28-20 at Texas A&M and 56-23 over Mississippi State. The running game runs hot and cold under Gus Malzahn, and now that Gus has taken back play calling the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing. Auburn also entered Saturday second in the SEC in rush defense.

No. 6 Oklahoma: I mean, have you seen their offense? Lincoln Riley could be charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon every single time he calls a play, if only there were a prosecutor in Oklahoma brave enough to build a case. Jalen Hurts has put together four straight games with a QB rating of 245 or greater.

But the most important statistic to emerge from Oklahoma's first month is this:

No. 5 Ohio State: They haven't played the most impressive schedule, but it's hard to imagine playing this schedule more impressively: 45-21 over Florida Atlantic (it was 28-0 eight minutes into the game), 42-0 over Cincinnati, 51-10 over Indiana, 76-5 over Miami (Ohio) and 48-7 over Nebraska. The Buckeyes out-gained the Huskers 580-231. The Ohio State defense limited Adrian Martienz to 47 yards and three interceptions on 17 pass attempts.

The team seems to have benefitted from the coaching change if nothing else than exchanging the high-strung personalties of Urban Meyer and Greg Schiano to the laid back (or, at least laid back by major college football coaching standards) voices of Ryan Day and Jeff Hafley, allowing the team to play loose and free.

No. 4 LSU: If Wisconsin 35, Michigan 14 isn't the most impressive win of the season, then LSU 45, Texas 38 is. The defense has its warts, but those warts must be weighed against this: You'd have to get in a track meet to beat LSU in 2019, and Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall, Jr., are ready and willing to run with anybody. No. 3 Georgia: Last week's 23-17 win over No. 10 Notre Dame gained value when the Irish beat No. 18 Virginia 35-20 on Saturday. In terms of impressive victories over overmatched opponents, a 55-0 demolition of a good Arkansas State team is a 10.0 out of 10. While Auburn is first in the SEC in rushing offense and second in rushing defense, Georgia is second in rushing offense and first in rushing defense. However, if Alabama and LSU start to score on this defense, can Georgia's offense keep up? No. 2 Alabama: Like LSU, you can poke holes in this defense. Ole Miss did on Saturday, rushing for 279 yards and throwing for 200 more. South Carolina and Ole Miss averaged 27 points and nearly 470 yards against Alabama's defense. Which sounds great until you realize Tua can get a snap off a 65-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Juedy, Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle pretty much at will. Beating Alabama is like playing the Big 3-era Miami Heat knowing LeBron was guaranteed to go for 35, 12 and 10. It can be done, but it's a steep hill to climb. No. 1 Clemson: Is still Clemson. They've won 20 straight games, and North Carolina on Saturday became the second opponent in Clemson's last 15 games to score more than two touchdowns. Seems to be operating under the "We'll have it when we need it" assumption common to many defending champions, which sometimes works but most often doesn't. Let's look at the sport from a 35,000-foot view. We're headed for some epic games down the stretch. Texas vs. Oklahoma on Oct. 12. Wisconsin at Ohio State and Auburn at LSU on Oct. 26. LSU at Alabama on Nov. 9. Georgia at Auburn on Nov. 16 and the Iron Bowl on Nov. 30. But the entire sport seems to have an air of inevitability clouding around it for the past, well, decade or so. Alabama and Clemson are both 60-4 with two national championships since 2015. Oklahoma is 50-8 since 2015. Ohio State is 66-7 since 2014. Georgia is 28-5 since 2017. A total of 20 College Football Playoff bids have been awarded since the system began in 2014, and those five programs have gobbled up 15 of them. It's looking like they'll go 18- or 19-of-24 this year. Dynasties are generally good for sports, but but the nation-wide pollination of the no-huddle, RPO-based offense has super-fed the nation's best teams to the point where a 28-point win over a conference opponent feels like a close call. See: Nick Saban after Alabama's 59-31 demolition of Ole Miss on Saturday.

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There was one exception, though. Clemson 21, North Carolina 20 was an absolutely fantastic college football game, the type of game that would've left players on both teams covered in grass stains in the old days.

North Carolina went 75 yards in four plays to take a 7-0 lead to open the game, then took a 14-7 lead after its defense forced a Travis Etienne fumble in Clemson territory. Jay Bateman's defense played fantastic: after Clemson tied it 14-14 just before halftime, the UNC forced four consecutive empty possessions when the Clemson offense took the field thinking, "Okay, now is the time we break the game open."

And yet North Carolina refused to go away. In fact, it seemed the Heels' defenders seemed to grow more confident as the game went along.

Clemson finally took its lead with 9:54 remaining, but then North Carolina answered with a beauty of a possession: 16 plays, 75 yards, 8 minutes and 37 seconds. Sam Howell converted two fourth downs, and Javonte Williams pulled the Tar Heels within one with 1:17 to go. Mack Brown elected to go for two, and UNC ran a triple option play that never had a chance. Clemson 21, UNC 20.

Still, it was a great scene at Kenan Stadium. It was great seeing the Carolina blue play in a game that matters again. It was great seeing Mack Brown back. And, in an age where 59-17 is a normal conference game for a national championship contender, it was great seeing a heavyweight have to work for a win.

"I thought they outplayed us, I thought they out-coached us," Dabo Swinney said afterward. "Simple as that. We were really fortunate to win."

More of all of it, please.

FRIES

The Super 16. I couldn't spend nearly 1,000 words evaluating the nation's top teams without re-jiggering the rankings. Here's this week's NFF-FWAA Super 16 ballot, based on what we've seen in 2019.

  1. Ohio State
  2. Auburn
  3. LSU
  4. Oklahoma
  5. Alabama
  6. Georgia
  7. Clemson
  8. Wisconsin
  9. Notre Dame
  10. Penn State
  11. Texas
  12. Florida
  13. Oregon
  14. Washington
  15. Iowa
  16. Utah

Odds and Ends

a. Maryland fancies itself a rival of Penn State. The Terps cancelled classes and brought in extra student bleachers for their Friday night game. Penn State won 59-0. That one had to feel good.

b. Texas A&M beat Arkansas 31-27, but the winning locker room probably felt like the losing locker room and vice versa. The Hogs were throwing for the end zone inside the final minute.

c. We might be in the final days of Charlie Strong's head coaching career. USF has now lost nine straight to FBS competition, eight of them by double digits.

d. On the flip side, SMU is now 5-0 for the first time since 1983, and Sonny Dykes's team deservers to make its first AP poll appearance since 1986. e. Matt Rhule and Baylor earned a man-sized win in beating Iowa State 23-21 in Waco. The Bears led 20-0 entering the fourth quarter, fell behind with three minutes to play, then got off the mat to score a game-winning field goal... its first made field goal of the entire season. Baylor is now 4-0 and has stolen the "Hey, this team could be a Big 12 darkhorse" title from Iowa State. f. After becoming a topic of national conversation this week, Houston went on the road as an underdog and beat North Texas, 46-25. The Cougars returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. g. Florida State's streak of four straight games leading and trailing in the fourth quarter came to an end, for a good reason. The 'Noles led throughout in a 31-13 win over NC State. h. Row the boat, right?

i. Talk about playing to the level of your competition. Pitt's last three games -- a 17-10 loss to Penn State, a 35-34 win over UCF, and then a 17-14 win over Delaware.

j. It's the exclamation point that really makes it here.

k. No. 10 Notre Dame registered seven second-half sacks and turned quarterback Bryce Perkins over four times in the second half to turn a 17-14 deficit into a 35-20 win over No. 18 Virginia. j. Herm Edwards earned another impressive win, going on the road to beat No. 15 Cal, 24-17 on Friday night. l. Two results that aren't great for the ACC: Temple 24, Georgia Tech 2. Duke 45, Virginia Tech 10. m. South Carolina whipped Kentucky, but Will Muschamp well full Eeyore after the game.

n. Clay Helton watch: Playing with third-string quarterback Matt Fink, USC fell to Washington, 28-14, dropping to 3-2 with a trip to Notre Dame waiting after an off week.

DESSERT

If your fake punt doesn't end with your punter running straight up the gut for the touchdown, is it even worth it?

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