The Monday After: There's parity among college football's elite despite a chalky start

Who says there's no parity in college football? OK, so maybe there isn't a lot of parity, but when it comes to the eventual 2019 national champion, the biggest takeaway I have from the first six weeks of the season is that the race is a lot more open than initially thought. Coming into the season, the question everybody wanted an answer to was whether there was a challenger to Alabama or Clemson for the title.

It was a natural question considering Alabama and Clemson have won the last four and have played each other in the College Football Playoff each of those four seasons, three times in the title game. When you see that kind of domination from two programs, one starts to wonder whether we'll ever see another team challenge them in our lifetimes. I know that when asked over the summer, I would answer with some variation of, "I don't know." I'd offer other candidates like Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State, but I couldn't claim any real confidence.

Now that we're a week into October, I do have some conviction.

It's somewhat ironic. This is a season of rare chalk at the top of the top 25 polls. As The Athletic's Matt Brown pointed out last week, this marks the first time since 1969 that the top six teams in the preseason AP Top 25 were still the top six teams at the end of September. Those same six remain there through the first week of October. What makes the shared dominance at the top even more interesting is that, of those six, five received first-place votes in the poll this week. Coming into the season, it was hard to imagine three teams garnering first-place votes in any given week, let alone five.

There is plenty of parity in the chalk. Every one of those six teams is capable of not only reaching the College Football Playoff but winning it. And they're not the only contenders, either. That six does not include a 6-0 Florida team that just beat what had been a 5-0 Auburn team that was ranked at No. 7. There's a No. 8 Wisconsin team that has outscored opponents 217-29 (including a 21-point win over Michigan) this season and shut out all three of its nonconference opponents. The Badgers are followed by a 4-1 Notre Dame team whose only loss came by six points at No. 3 Georgia. Penn State rounds out the top 10, and while it is yet to face the meat of its schedule, it's looked impressive in its 5-0 start. At No. 11 is a Texas team that's lone loss came to No. 5 LSU and will get another chance to prove its mettle against No. 6 Oklahoma this weekend. Oh, and Auburn still has plenty of chances itself.

It's no longer a question of whether anybody outside of Alabama or Clemson can win the national title. The new question is which contender is best positioned to do so? There are plenty of candidates, but based on what I've seen to this point, the four most likely threats are Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma. So I took to Twitter on Sunday night to get a general consensus. I am not surprised by who received the most votes, though the margin it won by did raise an eyebrow.

The Buckeyes received nearly 60 percent of the vote. Some of this is no doubt due to recency bias as Ohio State was coming off an impressive win over a ranked Michigan State team in prime time. Georgia was cruising past a Tennessee team nobody takes seriously at the time. Earlier in the day, both LSU and Oklahoma had comfortable wins over Utah State and Kansas, respectively. If I were to ask this same question next week when Ohio State is on a bye, odds are the results would be a lot closer if LSU is coming off a win over Florida and Oklahoma has beaten Texas. Ohio State might still receive the most votes, but the margin won't be as wide.

And I must admit, to these eyes, Ohio State does appear to be the biggest threat with LSU right behind it. I've shared my thoughts about LSU in this space already, but I haven't said much about Ohio State. I don't have an AP Top 25, but if I did, Ohio State would be at No. 1 on my ballot. I don't think there's been another team in the country as impressive as the Buckeyes this season. But while I'd put Ohio State at No. 1, I'd have a difficult time figuring out the order of the rest of my top 10.

Oh, and while I've mentioned all these other threats to Alabama and Clemson, let's not forget that Alabama and Clemson are both still extremely capable of winning the national title themselves! They're just no longer the only ones.

So now when asked which team is the biggest threat to Alabama and Clemson, I'll still answer with, "I don't know," but it will only be due to the fact there are too many good options. The second half of this season is setting up to be a lot of fun.

Hot Seat of the Week

Illinois lost to Minnesota 40-17 on Saturday. The loss itself didn't come as much of a surprise considering the Illini were 14-point underdogs, but it might have been the straw that broke Lovie Smith's back. Even Smith's most ardent supporters seemed to check out following another blowout loss for the Illini in Big Ten play. It was last year at this time that Illinois was crushing Minnesota 55-31, and some thought the program had turned a corner.

Since that win, Illinois has gone 2-6. Its two wins have come against Akron and UConn, two teams that are a combined 1-9 in 2019. Minnesota has gone the other direction, going 8-1. Illinois finished 2018 with a record of 2-7 in the Big Ten. It's seven conference losses came by an average of 32.4 points. Its defensive coordinator, Hardy Nickerson, stepped down during the season due to personal reasons. Smith took over the defense and did not hire a new defensive coordinator over the offseason. In 2019, Smith's defense has allowed 6.75 yards per play and 38.7 points per game against teams not named Akron or UConn.

While Smith has undoubtedly improved the talent level at Illinois during his tenure, that talent hasn't led to more wins. The Illini went 6-26 in the Big Ten in the four seasons before Lovie's hiring. They've gone 4-25 under Smith. With games remaining against Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, it's hard to imagine Smith surpasses those six wins of Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit. And even if he does, it's hard to believe he'll be back in Champaign in 2020.

Giddiest Moment of the Week

I've been watching football for a long time, but I had a chance to see something I'd never seen before on Saturday night. If it isn't clear what happened here, Tulsa kicked off to SMU and scored a touchdown on the play because SMU never picked the ball up, so it served as a long onside kick. I'm sure that this has happened in a game before, but this was the first time I've seen it. I only wish I knew how to spell the noises that were coming out of my mouth as I watched it happen. It took me a second to realize what I was witnessing, but I was embarrassingly excited about it.

SMU got the last laugh, however, coming back from a 30-9 deficit after three quarters to win 43-37 in triple-overtime. The Mustangs are now ranked No. 21 and 6-0 for the first time since 1982. 

Tweet of the Week

I don't know whether my favorite part of this is the tweet itself or that somebody at Cincinnati was confident enough about their chances of beating UCF on Friday night that they had the foresight to put it all together ahead of time. Either way, bravo.

Quote of the Week

"I really think we're hitting our stride, I really do. The way our offense has been practicing, the way they've been preparing. I have great faith they're hitting their stride."

That was Jim Harbaugh after No. 16 Michigan beat Iowa 10-3 on Saturday. The Wolverines offense managed 267 yards, averaging 4.5 per play. Nine of Michigan's 13 possessions in the game covered fewer than 20 yards. One of those possessions resulted in a field goal after Michigan moved 8 yards in four plays following an Iowa fumble. That was one of Iowa's four turnovers on the day. Michigan only had one, but it fumbled twice and recovered both.

That's the offense that is "hitting its stride." Watch out, world!

Facial Hair of the Week

That's East Carolina punter Jonn Young. His mustache is so finely coiffed that it was probably what caused the lights to go out during ECU's loss to Temple on Thursday night.

Tom Fornelli Team of the Year Dropouts of the Week

Beginning in 2019, The Tom Fornelli Team of the Year Award, presented by The Tom Fornelli Foundation For Football Exceptionalism, is to be given out to one incredible football team that best displays the values of The Tom Fornelli Foundation For Football Exceptionalism. Every week, teams will be eliminated from the running for reasons. Those reasons are at the sole discretion of Tom Fornelli and The Tom Fornelli Foundation For Football Exceptionalism, which is comprised of Tom Fornelli and nobody else. Here are the teams eliminated from consideration in Week 6.

EliminatedReason for elimination

Air Force

If you can't trust Service Academy Game Unders, what can you trust?

California

I'm sorry, I can't. You play hard, but I can't.

Connecticut

I honestly can't believe you lasted this long.

Duke

All that comin' back for nothing.

Iowa State

Nice win against TCU, but I get annoyed when teams wear colors that aren't school colors.

Kent State

You get shutout, you're gone.

Miami

All that comin' back for nothing.

Navy

If you can't trust Service Academy Game Unders, what can you trust?

Oregon

You're the Pac-12's last hope, so you've already lost.

Temple

How could you do that to me?

Tulsa

Need SMU to go undefeated this year for irony reasons, and you almost ruined that.

UTEP

Looks like another Bottom 25 Playoff appearance is coming.

Vanderbilt

I just ran for 30 yards against you while typing this.

Teams remaining: 73 / 130
Teams eliminated last week: Akron, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Virginia Tech, Washington State
For a full list of eliminated teams and the respective reasons, click here.

AP Voter of the Week

This week's voter is somebody whom I've featured in this spot before. It's The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal's, Don Williams. The reason I noticed Don's ballot again this week is that he left Boise State off. Now, that isn't a major offense to anybody's sensibilities, but it is quite the varying path from the rest of Williams' fellow voters.

There were 62 ballots turned in this week, and all of them had Boise State somewhere except for his. Among the 61 voters who did have Boise State ranked, only three of them -- Soren Petro, Sam McKewon and Rece Davis -- had the Broncos outside the top 20. Among the 58 voters who had Boise State in the top 20, 44 of them had the Broncos in the top 15. So Williams leaving them off entirely is a bit of a head-scratcher. What could he be seeing from Boise State that is so divergent from what his fellow voters see? Particularly when considering that Boise State was at No. 25 on his ballot last week.

Well, the reason is rather simple. Williams is not a fan of ranking teams from the Group of Five conferences. From the preseason through Week 5, the only such team Williams had on his ballot was UCF. Last week was the first time he had two with both UCF and Boise State. This week he doesn't have any. In a vacuum, there's nothing wrong with this. If you don't think any Group of Five teams belong in the top 25, then you shouldn't rank them. But you shouldn't put Power Five teams on your ballot just because they're Power Five, either.

The bottom four teams on Williams' ballot are all two-loss teams. One of those teams is Iowa State, which has lost to Iowa (No. 18 on Williams' ballot) and Baylor (No. 21). Williams is the only voter to include Iowa State on their ballot this week. Iowa State was not on his ballot last week, however, which suggests that the Cyclones' 49-24 win over TCU was the catalyst to their inclusion this week.

The same cannot be said for SMU, which is 6-0 and has a road win over that same TCU team. Now, the argument can be made that SMU hasn't faced the most difficult schedule. Aside from TCU, its wins are against Arkansas State, North Texas, Texas State, South Florida and Tulsa. But TCU's wins are against Arkansas Pine-Bluff, a 1-4 Purdue team and a 2-4 Kansas. Iowa State's three wins are against Northern Iowa, Louisiana-Monroe and the same TCU team SMU beat on the road.

So what have TCU and Iowa State done to earn that much credit from Williams? If they were still in the Mountain West, would the Horned Frogs be viewed through the same lens? Based on Don's voting history, probably not, and if SMU had played the same schedule while a member of the Big 12, it'd likely be on his ballot.

I have no problem with people having an opinion or conviction in that opinion. I obviously have my own as I write this. But Williams' ballots strike me as somebody who has taken a position and isn't willing to reconsider it, no matter the evidence or results. That's why he's our AP Voter of the Week.

College Football Playoff Projection of the Week

  1. Alabama
  2. Ohio State
  3. Clemson
  4. Georgia

Until the next Monday After!

CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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