We’ve reached the halfway point of the regular season (excluding conference championship games), so I thought it would be a good idea to examine how each of the Power 5 conferences is doing. I am looking at them from several perspectives, including their elite teams, their depth, and their playoff positions. Have there been major surprises, or have things mostly gone as expected? The true contenders have been who we thought they were, but the second tier in particular has provided a lot of intrigue. Let’s check out the details in my week 6 takeaways (this will likely be the longest post of the season)!
I have these conferences ranked from best to worst based on my personal opinions about them, but most reasonable people would select the SEC as the conference to beat. The headliners are (1) Alabama and (2) Georgia, your reigning SEC Champions and National Champions, respectively. While they both looked like juggernauts last year, some cracks have appeared this season.
Alabama probably would’ve lost to Texas had QB Quinn Ewers not gotten hurt, and they’ve struggled to get in rhythm offensively in multiple games. In Georgia’s case, experts figured that QB Stetson Bennett IV would be the reason the Bulldogs failed to win the title in 2021, but they might have simply been one year too early. Georgia has struggled to put up points in the first half, but despite losing a lot of defensive talent to the NFL, they’re still allowing almost nothing to opposing teams. Regardless of any struggles, these teams are still unbeaten and have the potential to crush most foes. At least one should appear in the CFP.
A step behind them, we find Tennessee and Mississippi. The Volunteers are really rolling under Josh Heupel, and QB Hendon Hooker is in a real groove. They can actually give Georgia a run for their money in the SEC East. The Rebels aren’t nearly as explosive with QB Jaxson Dart as they were last year with Matt Corral, but Lane Kiffin is doing a superb coaching job, especially with the defense. Ole Miss has allowed less points than anyone in the SEC West other than Alabama. The offense is more methodical this season, but it’s been effective, even against good defenses like Kentucky.
Speaking of Kentucky, they’re also ranked highly (13th going into this weekend), but their team isn’t likely to hold up against the best opponents. Will Levis is streaky, and the defense can’t carry every game. At some point, this team is going to need to win a shootout, perhaps as soon as the next two weeks against Mississippi State and Tennessee. I’ll tentatively excuse this week’s loss to South Carolina without Levis.
LSU is the final ranked team (both among SEC teams and overall at #25), and it’s been a rocky start to Brian Kelly’s tenure. I didn’t agree with the decision to fire Ed Orgeron so soon after winning a national title, and they’ve only been slightly better this season. They suffered a heartbreaking week 1 loss to FSU, but they’re also the only team to beat Mississippi State so far. This week showed us how they’d look against a heavyweight: they got blown out at home by Tennessee. Jayden Daniels is merely a stopgap option at QB, and I wouldn’t expect to learn too much about the direction of this program in 2022.
Texas A&M is highly perplexing, but I addressed them last week so I won’t rehash that here. The other team hanging around in the middle is Florida. They’re 4-2 but they’ve recorded both strong wins and bitter losses (against ranked SEC teams). QB Anthony Richardson is even more raw than expected, so this is a team that could be playing its best football in December, not now. They’re probably already buried in the SEC East after losses to two rivals, but this season is about implementing Billy Napier’s culture and developing Richardson (assuming he doesn’t get lured by the NFL draft). Anything else, like a decent bowl game, is extra.
I’ve been most impressed with the unexpected success of Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. We knew the other Bulldogs would have an exciting offense with Mike Leach coaching the team, but last year that also came with numerous turnovers and three-and-outs. This led to a tired defense due to their fast pace, causing the team to spiral. In 2022, these mistakes have mostly vanished, keeping the defense fresh. This in turn has led to a 5-1 start with convincing wins over quality teams like LSU, Memphis, Texas A&M, and Arkansas.
Vanderbilt had a bit of a lower bar to clear. Known as the worst team in the SEC for years, the Commodores couldn’t even play competitive football against East Tennessee State in 2021. Thus, I’m not deterred by their weak strength of victory so far; ANY victories are good victories for a team that went 2-21 during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. They even had a halftime lead against Ole Miss this week! 3-3 is better than most probably expected in week 1.
The other conference competing in the Superconference Wars, the Big Ten is home to the #3 and #4 teams in the country: Ohio State and Michigan, respectively. The Buckeyes have been as advertised, shredding teams behind Heisman frontrunner QB CJ Stroud and their stellar receivers. The defense has been nothing to scoff at either, as they’ve throttled some decent opponents including then #5 Notre Dame and Wisconsin. Michigan looked absolutely dominant in their first 3 games, but those were against Colorado State, Hawai’i, and UConn, three of the worst teams in the FBS. They’ve been much less threatening in their latter 3 games against Big Ten opponents, but they’ve continued to earn victories. Whichever of these two teams wins the Big Ten is a playoff lock.
Penn State is the only other ranked team in this conference. Though they’ve been better than expected and especially potent on defense, I still don’t trust QB Sean Clifford. He has a tendency to make big mistakes in big moments, and a slate of games against unranked opponents has not presented him with an opportunity to err. He has limited turnovers so far, but the few he has made have not come back to haunt the team. That’s unlikely to continue, but this is still a quality team based on the rest of the roster.
The other teams that I feel are good but not super threatening are Maryland, Illinois, and Minnesota. The Terrapins have been greatly boosted ever since Taulia Tagovailoa transferred from Alabama. He isn’t as good as his brother, but he’s solid, and that is much better than Maryland has seen in a long time. Illinois is taking coach Bret Bielema’s rugged personality and running with it. Suffocating defense and decent offense have propelled the Illini to a 5-1 start. The Golden Gophers are a smart, veteran team with older returning players such as QB Tanner Morgan and RB Mohamed Ibrahim. They’ve looked good against some worst-than-expected squads; we’ll see how they do against Illinois and Penn State over the next two weeks.
The most surprising teams in a bad way have been Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. We were well aware that Iowa and Wisconsin are two offensively challenged teams, but it’s been particularly awful. Things have looked a bit better for Iowa as of late, but this team is only 3-2 due to their elite defense. Spencer Petras cannot be the QB if Iowa wants to take the next step. Wisconsin has alternated between dominance against weak foes and feckless against strong ones. They’re a below-average team that has now fired their coach. Much was expected out of Michigan State after their shocking 11-win 2021 season. After a 2-0 start this year, the Spartans have lost their past 4 games against better opponents, and they haven’t been particularly competitive in any of them.
The ACC has lost a little bit of its luster in the past year and a half. Since Trevor Lawrence left Clemson for the NFL, the ACC has been a lot like the two conferences below: a bunch of really good teams but no truly GREAT one. (5) Clemson is doing its best to right the ship this season after a down year (by its lofty standards) in 2021. QB DJ Uiagalelei has greatly improved since last season, where his surprisingly poor play ruined an exceptional defensive effort. That strong defense remains and is powering the Tigers. The offense is a bit clunky at times, but it’s getting the job done, especially against their conference opponents.
Three other ACC teams are ranked, including NC State, Wake Forest, and Syracuse. Among them, I think the Demon Deacons are the best team. Their lone loss is a 2OT loss to Clemson, which is nothing to be ashamed of. After pushing past a health scare in the offseason, Sam Hartman has picked up where he left off in 2021, leading a potent offense that can score with anyone. The defense is also improved, putting less pressure on Hartman’s group. NC State is a bit too inconsistent for my taste. QB Devin Leary, who was greatly hyped going into the season, has produced a few good games in between a pair of poor outings. Once he got hurt, the offense went in the tank, but the team was saved by poor FSU coaching. Syracuse has mostly looked good against bad competition. They’re taking care of business, which they haven’t done in the last few seasons, but their wins are looking less impressive as we learn about these other teams. Next week’s game against NC State will tell us a lot more.
After week 3, I told you that Florida State has been surprising but real. QB Jordan Travis has made real strides throwing the ball this season (aside from this week’s game), and that plus his rushing ability have led to a good offense. You wonder how long they can continue to come out on top in close games though. The same also seems to be true of North Carolina. The UNC defense is as atrocious as we remember, but the offense, led by new QB Drake Maye, hasn’t missed a beat. The team is winning most of their games in shootouts, and they might be fine with that.
Duke and Pittsburgh are somewhere in the middle. The Blue Devils are a far better team than they were in 2021, but they continue to struggle against decent teams like Kansas and even against average ones like Georgia Tech. Pitt was expected to take a step backward after losing QB Kenny Pickett the NFL and OC Mark Whipple to Nebraska, but they’ve looked rather poor on defense. Kedon Slovis has been a downgrade at quarterback, but the team is putting up points most weeks. Their two losses, 1-score games against Tennessee and Georgia Tech, might look better by season’s end (the loss to Tennessee is already excusable).
No Power 5 conference seems to have more disappointing teams than the ACC. Boston College was supposed to be boosted by the return of QB Phil Jurkovec from a hand injury, but they have looked lifeless on offense except against our next disappointing team. Louisville was supposed to have it’s best season with Malik Cunningham running the offense as a senior, but they’ve alternated wins and losses all season. Wins over UCF and Virginia are offset by losses to Boston College and Syracuse (the latter in a blowout).
Miami’s 2-0 start under new coach Mario Cristobal has been soured by 3 straight losses, including an ugly loss to TAMU and an inexcusable home defeat against Middle Tennessee State. Tyler Van Dyke bounced back from poor outings with his best game of the season this week, but UNC is not a defense that should be used to judge an opposing QB. Both Virginia and Virginia Tech have been underachievers, mostly because of their QBs. Brennan Armstrong and Grant Wells, respectively, have not had the years their teams thought they would, only putting up points against FCS squads.
Two undefeated teams remain in this conference, and these are the only two teams that control their own playoff destiny. Should either win out, they’ll make the CFP. The first is the Big 12’s best hope: Oklahoma State. The most impressive aspect of the Cowboys’ first 6 games is that they’ve proven their ability to win in different ways. While they’ve relied on their traditionally stout defense at times, they’ve also won games in offensive shootouts. QB Spencer Sanders has been decent at times while raising his level of play at others, enabling his team to take revenge against Baylor after losing to the Bears in the title game last season. OKST isn’t as stout as they were a year ago, but they’re more balanced.
TCU is the surprising other 5-0 squad. In the past 3 weeks, coach Sonny Dykes has led his team to a dominating win over Oklahoma and two shootout wins against SMU (his former team) and Kansas. QB Max Duggan, who lost his team’s QB competition but is playing due to injury, looks like a new man. He’s throwing with more confidence, and he’s playing with increased decisiveness. The defense needs some work, but there is speed all across this roster. One of these unbeatens will fall next week, as the Cowboys and Horned Frogs play each other in Fort Worth.
The depth of this conference has proven to be outstanding; only the SEC can claim to rival the Big 12 in this regard. Kansas and Kansas State are both ranked for the first time in what seems like forever, and both are wildly outperforming expectations. Jalon Daniels has stabilized the Kansas offense, while Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez has done an admirable job replacing Skylar Thompson at Kansas State. A loss this week by Kansas should not dampen the team’s long-term outlook. Kansas State eked out another win, this time in a defensive struggle, but the week 2 loss to Tulane is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Texas has deserved a better fate. They were well on their way to beating Alabama until QB Quinn Ewers got hurt, and they still almost won. They’ve looked good all year, with their only other loss being a close game against Texas Tech (again without Ewers). Ewers came back this week and showed how good this team can be against their rivals in Norman. Those Red Raiders are another team caught in the middle, with two wins and all 3 of their losses coming in close games against ranked opponents. They seem to have invited their own QB controversy, with top recruit Behren Morton starting and looking good against OKST. Baylor fell out of the top 25 with two losses, but tough losses to BYU and OKST are not damning defeats. The offense is streaky, but the defense is completely legit.
Oklahoma is actually in LAST place in the Big 12 standings. A decline was anticipated after losing both Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams, but new coach Brent Venables and UCF transfer QB Dillon Gabriel were supposed to provide some stability. That worked for 3 weeks. The Sooners have lost their last 3 games, all against conference opponents, looking worse each time. Granted, Gabriel has been in concussion protocol for the last game and a half, but that’s no excuse for allowing TCU to score 55 or for losing the Red River Showdown against Texas at home by a score of 49-0.
Poor Pac-12. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in previous posts, this conference gets left out of the CFP most seasons because their teams are good enough to beat up on each other, but none are capable of running the table and producing an undefeated season. Former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and QB Caleb Williams are trying to change that for (6) USC. Their presence has boosted recruiting and enabled them to obtain elite players like WR Jordan Addison via the transfer portal. They haven’t played the cleanest games in two of their last three outings, but they’re closing games out, which they weren’t doing a season ago.
If we go by recent precedent, no Pac-12 teams with any losses are getting into the playoffs, so only two teams in this conference remain alive. The other is UCLA. The Bruins quietly won their first 4 games against weak opponents before garnering attention for beating #15 Washington. This week, they followed it up with an upset over (11) Utah. UCLA is playing great on offense with 32+ points in every game, and Chip Kelly’s team should rise from their current #18 ranking.
The other currently ranked teams are Oregon, Utah, and Washington. The Ducks lost in a blowout to Georgia in week 1, but they’ve been good ever since. That awful loss might have immediately disqualified them from the CFP though. Utah has blown out every team they’ve faced in wins, but they’ve thrown in two clunkers against Florida and UCLA. They’re simply not consistent enough to repeat as Pac-12 champions at this point. Washington got off to a 4-0 start before dropping their last 2 games; the UCLA loss looks acceptable, but the defeat against Arizona State does not. However, the Huskies are undoubtedly a much improved team after replacing QB Dylan Morris with Michael Penix.
Oregon State might be the most interesting team. Their roster is performing VERY well on the whole, and they nearly upset USC. They lost their games in weeks 4 and 5 instead because of QB Chance Nolan, who has short-circuited the entire operation by throwing 0 TDs and 6 INTs in his last two games. The Beavers had a lot of momentum coming into this season after a strong finish to 2021, and it looked through 3 games like they might deliver. Subpar QB play threatens their season.
The Pac-12 is also home to 3 of the worst teams in the Power 5. One, Colorado, might be the worst in the FBS at large. The 0-5 Buffaloes have scored just 67 points while allowing 216. There’s really not much else to say here. At Stanford, coach David Shaw’s magic might be running out. Though they’ve admittedly had a tough schedule, they haven’t been competitive except in their win against Colgate. Finally, Arizona State has been so underwhelming that they fired Herm Edwards. His biggest mistake was his acquisition of QB Emory Jones in the transfer portal from Florida. It’s not an accident that the Sun Devils upset Washington after Jones got hurt and the backup QB came into the game.