It was a weekend of separation in college football and especially in the SEC as the tiers of the sport revealed themselves in a way that should be reflected when the new AP Top 25 is released on Sunday. The college football rankings on a national level serve as a way to judge conferences as a whole with the number of ranked teams and the locations of those rankings providing talking points for how things are going. The SEC has a lot going in its favor after the conclusion of Week 7, including a national championship contender with Alabama, a worthy rival in Georgia and two more New Year's Six hopefuls with Texas A&M and Florida.
When the 12 best teams in the country are awarded spots in the best bowl games, it seems likely that at least three of these four teams -- that we expect to all be in the top 10 of the new AP Top 25 -- will be involved, but the league took a hit with Tennessee and Auburn both falling to unranked opponents. We're predicting that both teams will drop out of the top 25, leaving the SEC with just four ranked teams. So while the SEC has four teams that we project to be in the top 10 on Sunday, those could be the only teams receiving enough votes from the AP balloting to warrant a national ranking.
That's less than the ACC and the Big Ten, though there is certainly plenty of shakeup ahead for the Big Ten once it finally starts to log results for the 2020 season. The collapse of preseason hopes for LSU and early season hype for Mississippi State and Tennessee has left the SEC with a very strong tier of elite teams and very little separation between the rest of the conference. Considering how Auburn has yet to show the top-10 potential associated with its preseason ranking, you could argue that Arkansas, the team that just snapped a multiple-year losing streak in SEC play, is the second-best team in the SEC West.
There's plenty of room for error in this projection, including the potential return of Kentucky to the rankings and a future ranking that could loom for the Razorbacks if they continue their winning ways; however, as we put the fourth full week of SEC play in the books, it's clear that Alabama and Georgia are operating on another level, Florida and Texas A&M are close in pursuit, and the rest of the conference is all capable of beating each other. That's great for entertainment, but not ideal for attaining a top 25 ranking.
Here's how we believe the new AP Top 25 will look on Sunday:
1. Clemson (Last week -- 1): One advantage of those nonconference games against FCS or lower-tier FBS programs is the opportunity for power conference teams to develop depth by letting their backups get in game reps. Clemson treated Georgia Tech like its FCS opponent in a 73-7 win, with Trevor Lawrence and other starters mostly out of the game by midway through the third quarter.
2. Alabama (2): This will be yet another week to check the dispersion of No. 1 votes when the new rankings come out on Sunday. Clemson had 59 of the 62 available first-place votes in last week's balloting, and considering the 67-point win, I don't think the Tigers are in jeopardy of losing that spot atop the polls. But Alabama had its own display of talent against a significantly better opponent, so I'd expect that the Crimson Tide have more than two first-place votes as they start to close the gap with Clemson and separate itself from the rest of the poll. Alabama scored 24 unanswered points vs. Georgia.
3. Georgia (3): I just don't think there's any reason to jump any of the teams below ahead of the Bulldogs after the loss. Georgia showed early that it had the pieces to compete on the same field as the Tide, the only issue being that Alabama's pieces were just a little bit better. Given how Notre Dame played against Louisville and the fact that most of the top 10 weren't in action, I think Georgia stays snug at No. 3 after its first loss of the season.
4. Notre Dame (4): Will the Fighting Irish fall after a 12-7 baseball score against Louisville? Brian Kelly suggested that the game went better than the score indicates, and that's likely because there wasn't much time that it ever appeared that the Irish were going to lose to the unranked Cardinals. With a handful of teams behind them off due to COVID-19 cancellations or the fact that their season hasn't started yet, Notre Dame remains in place. But keep an eye on those voting points because the gap with Ohio State could be minimal heading into the first week of Big Ten play.
5. Ohio State (6): The Buckeyes will kick off their 2020 season on Saturday against Nebraska.
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6. Oklahoma State (7): The Cowboys' Week 7 game against Baylor was postponed after the Bears putting a pause on all football activities due to positive COVID-19 tests.
7. Cincinnati (8): The Bearcats' Week 7 against against Tulsa was postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests within the Cincinnati program.
8. Penn State (9): The Nittany Lions kick off their 2020 season on Saturday against Indiana.
9. Texas A&M (11): There was an opportunity for a letdown after knocking off Florida in the signature win of the Jimbo Fisher era, but a trip to Starkville, Mississippi, would not prove to be a slip-up spot for the 2020 Aggies. Instead, it was confirmation that this is a solid football team. Texas A&M has won a lot of different ways, and its only loss has come to Alabama. So after trailing the Gators by few voting points in last week's balloting, I think it jumps ahead after a 28-14 win at Mississippi State.
10. Florida (10): More than two dozen players and multiple coaches were sidelined due to positive COVID-19 tests and the ensuing contact tracing protocol, prompting a postponement of this week's game against LSU and next week's game against Missouri. The Gators will be back in action on Oct. 31 against Missouri and will face LSU on Dec. 12.
11. BYU (14): It's time to start having those difficult conversations with your children about BYU as a College Football Playoff contender. Zach Wilson threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns as the Cougars won a game of runs with a 22-0 finish for a 43-26 win at Houston. The Cougars have two more games in which they should be heavily favored (against Texas State and Western Kentucky, both at home) and then comes arguably the toughest test of the season, at Boise State on Friday, Nov. 6. If Wilson continues to play like he's been, BYU might be a 7-0 team headed to the Smurf Turf with hopes of impressive the CFP Selection Committee.
12. Oregon (12): The Ducks will kick off their 2020 season on Nov. 7 against Stanford.
13. Miami (FL) (13): In a hangover spot without its best skill player, Miami showed a lot of fight in a 31-19 win against Pitt. D'Eriq King didn't have a great game and definitely missed having Brevin Jordan (shoulder), but he finished with four passing touchdowns, including a pair of scores connecting with Miami's other weapon at tight end, Will Mallory. King's ability to move and extend the play was key against a Pitt defensive front that shut down the Canes' rushing attack and made a habit of getting into the backfield. Plenty to work on and no reason the voters will make any major adjustments, but a solid win against an opponent that's given Miami trouble as an ACC foe.
14. Wisconsin (16): The Badgers kick off their 2020 season on Friday night against Illinois.
15. SMU (17): The first game without star receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. saw three players finish with at least 100 receiving yards and Shane Buechele threw for more than 300 yards for the fourth time in four games against FBS opponents this year. But it was almost not enough as Tulane nearly pulled off the upset in a game that had eight lead changes and four ties before SMU escaped with an interception and game-winning field goal in overtime.
16. North Carolina (5): Storming back in the second half raised the floor for North Carolina's fall after its first loss of the season, which was already anchored by its win against Virginia Tech. This was a cold shower of a result for the Tar Heels and that top-five hype, and now the challenge is to refocus with a motivated and surging NC State team coming to Chapel Hill next Saturday.
17. Michigan (19): The Wolverines kick off their 2020 season on Saturday at Minnesota.
18. Iowa State (20): The Cyclones were off in Week 7 and will next play at Oklahoma State on Saturday.
19. Kansas State (22): The Wildcats were off in Week 7 and will next host Kansas on Saturday.
20. Virginia Tech (23): There aren't many teams in the top 25 that are as committed to the ground game as Virginia Tech and definitely no teams that are as productive. The Hokies' season average is going to be over 300 yards per game after totaling 350 rushing yards on 41 attempts with four rushing touchdowns in a 40-14 win against Boston College. Running back Khalil Herbert continued his impressive clip with 143 yards on 18 carries, but the deal-breaker for the future outlook of the Virginia Tech offense was quarterback Hendon Hooker, who missed the first games of the season, leading the team with 164 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries of his own. After starting the year late due to positive COVID-19 tests and missing handfuls of players through the first weeks of the season, the Hokies know exactly who they are and how to win.
21. Minnesota (24): The Gophers start their 2020 season on Saturday against Michigan.
22. USC (25): The Trojans kick off their 2020 season on Nov. 7 against Arizona State.
23. Marshall (NR): After checking in at No. 26 in last week's balloting, the Thundering Herd will crack the top 25 for the second time this season, marking the first time the program has been ranked multiple weeks in the same season since 2014. Marshall got into the rankings after the Big Ten and Pac-12 teams were taken out and fell from the rankings without a loss in part due to the return of those same teams who have still yet to play. At 4-0, the Herd checked an important box to Conference USA title contention with a 35-17 win at Louisiana Tech.
24. NC State (NR): Saturday was a test of NC State's maturity, back home against a one-win Duke team with rival North Carolina on the horizon after two straight road wins as two-score underdogs. The Wolfpack fell behind early but tightened up and pitched a second-half shutout in their 31-20 win against the Blue Devils. That's a huge win for a team that's gaining confidence as one of the better teams in the ACC, and now at 4-1, the upcoming meeting with UNC could be the first time that both teams have been ranked since 1993.
25. Coastal Carolina (NR): The undefeated Chanticleers were seventh team just outside the top 25 last week, and after taking down Louisiana on the road, I think they'll jump ahead in line and make enough ballots to appear in the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history.
Projected to drop from the rankings: Auburn (15), Tennessee (18), Louisiana (21)