Auburn edges Miss. State

Auburn stops No. 16 Mississippi State at the goal line to preserve wild 41-34 victory.

<p>After the release of the ACC’s schedule on Wednesday, all 64 Power 5 teams now know their exact slate of games for the 2018 season. There are multiple checkpoints to cross between now and Aug. 25, when a trio of contests mark the official start of the year. National Signing Day is one, as is spring football. But next season is slowly but surely beginning to take shape, as are the storylines that will dominate public discourse when fall does finally roll around. Here’s one narrative from each Power 5 conference for fans to ponder over the game-barren months ahead.</p><h3>ACC: Can the Coastal Division end years of inferiority?</h3><p>The ACC has been won by either Florida State or Clemson, both of which play in the Atlantic Division, each of the past seven years. The disparity between the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions doesn’t just exist at the top of the standings—six of the seven teams in the Atlantic finished 2017 with a winning record, compared to just three in the Coastal. But the top is where the difference in quality has been most consistently evident, year after year.</p><p><a href="https://www.si.com/college-football/2017/10/05/miami-hurricanes-the-u-mark-richt" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Miami’s emergence" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Miami’s emergence</a> bodes well for the Coastal’s future prospects. The Hurricanes started last season 10–0 before dropping their final three games, a streak that included a humiliating 38–3 loss to Clemson in the conference championship game. Still, Miami’s sudden return to the national conversation—a resurgence expedited by the opportunistic defense that popularized the <a href="https://www.si.com/college-football/2017/11/11/miami-hurricanes-gold-turnover-chain" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:turnover chain" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">turnover chain</a>—reminded us how much better the ACC is when The U is at its swaggering best. Miami should enter next year ranked in the top 10, with another impressive recruiting class on the way. Virginia Tech will also be a force to be reckoned with in year three under Justin Fuente. Quarterback Josh Jackson returns with a year of starting experience under his belt, and Fuente has recruited well enough to mitigate the loss of six starters on a defensive unit that was one of the nation’s best last year. Is this the year that either Miami or Virginia Tech loosen the Atlantic’s airtight grip on the trophy?</p><h3>Big 12: Does the end of the Baker Mayfield era open the door for someone to challenge Oklahoma?</h3><p>The Heisman Trophy winner who guided the Sooners to three straight Big 12 titles is off to the NFL. Taking the reins behind center will be Kyler Murray, a former five-star recruit who transferred to Oklahoma from Texas A&#38;M. Murray is fully capable of leading this team to another Big 12 title, but anytime a team has to move on from a legend like Mayfield, there’s certainly a chance for a drop-off.</p><p>The door is open—or at least ajar—for a team like TCU to step in and knock the Sooners off their pedestal. The Horned Frogs also lose their signal-caller, Kenny Hill, to graduation, and they’ll likely hand the keys to sophomore dual-threat Shawn Robinson. Oklahoma State is another potential successor to their in-state rivals, but there are some questions as to how good the Cowboys will be as they too will be without their starting quarterback from last year, Mason Rudolph. Texas has their quarterback returning and welcomes a top-five recruiting class to campus, but it might be too much to expect Tom Herman’s turnaround under construction to yield a league title contender in just his second season in Austin.</p><p>It’s not clear which team can or will challenge Oklahoma, and it’s not even clear that the Sooners will suffer any sort of setback post-Mayfield. It is the end of an era in Norman, though, and the rest of the Big 12 will hope that also means it’s the end of Oklahoma’s dominance.</p><h3>Big Ten: Will the top tier be a Big Four or a Big Five?</h3><p>Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin enter next season with expectations a cut above the rest of their Big Ten foes. And while Jim Harbaugh has kept Michigan in the headlines for the past three seasons, there’s a growing dissatisfaction among Michigan fans that he hasn’t cemented the Wolverines’ place among that upper tier. Part of the reason for that is that they play Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State every year because they’re in the East division, while Wisconsin generally has a much easier path in the West.</p><p>But excuses don’t get you far when you’re the coach of a program like Michigan, and there is significant pressure on Harbaugh to finally deliver in the most important games to the fan base. Michigan doesn’t have any time to ease into the season, as they open at Notre Dame. That game that won’t affect Michigan’s Big Ten chances, but a win would certainly ease the blood pressure of boosters and fans alike. Michigan gets Wisconsin and Penn State at home but has to play Michigan State and Ohio State on the road; they’ll have to win at least two of those marquee matchups to get to that 10-win benchmark and probably one or two more to challenge for the Big Ten title.</p><h3>Pac-12: Can the conference champion get back into the playoff?</h3><p>USC entered last season as the Pac-12’s best hope to get into the playoff, but the Trojans’ chances were all but shattered with a 49–14 loss to Notre Dame in October. Then it looked like Washington had a shot, but they too were undone by a late-season setback, at the hands of Stanford. With two weeks left in the regular season, it became clear that no Pac-12 team had a realistic shot at reaching the final four. After a miracle on championship Saturday didn’t happen, the inevitable became a reality: The Pac-12 was shut out of the playoff for the second time in the format’s four-year history.</p><p>Part of the reason for this could be that the conference just isn’t getting the type of recruits that its Power 5 peers are. Over the past five years, USC is the only school to post a top-10 recruiting class in any one cycle, per the 247Sports composite rankings, while every other conference has had at least two schools land top-10 hauls. (On the other end of this spectrum, <em>eight</em> SEC teams have cracked the top 10 in that span: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&#38;M.) Another potential target of blame for the playoff absences could be the oft-cited but impossible-to-prove bias against West Coast teams and those 10:30 p.m. ET kickoffs. Or maybe it’s just been bad luck. Whatever the cause, conference commissioner Larry Scott has to hope that a clear front-runner emerges in 2018, and that the front-runner wins the conference title game. Two misses in four years is explainable, but three in five would be a seriously worrying pattern.</p><h3>SEC: How will the new coaches fare?</h3><p>December brought the typical flurry of high-profile coaching changes around the country this year, but many of the most talked-about moves took place in the Southeast. In total, there are five teams that will be led by new head coaches: Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&#38;M, Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee, Dan Mullen at Florida, Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State and Chad Morris at Arkansas. (Ole Miss also removed the interim tag from head coach Matt Luke.) Apart from Moorhead, the new hires have experience at big-time SEC programs, and all besides Moorhead are taking over sputtering programs with national ambitions.</p><p>Fisher will have the most eyes on him because he left Florida State after re-establishing the Seminoles as a powerhouse for a bar-raising $75 million guaranteed over 10 years. But all non-Vanderbilt coaches don’t get a honeymoon period in the SEC. They’re expected to produce right away, and it will be interesting to see which coach can muster the kind of quick turnaround that brings buzz back to a program and builds momentum for the future. Two coaches in particular to watch: Mullen might be inheriting the most talented roster of the group in Gainesville, while Moorhead takes over the nine-win team Mullen left behind in Starkville.</p>
Offseason Storylines to Keep Every Power 5 Conference Busy Until August

After the release of the ACC’s schedule on Wednesday, all 64 Power 5 teams now know their exact slate of games for the 2018 season. There are multiple checkpoints to cross between now and Aug. 25, when a trio of contests mark the official start of the year. National Signing Day is one, as is spring football. But next season is slowly but surely beginning to take shape, as are the storylines that will dominate public discourse when fall does finally roll around. Here’s one narrative from each Power 5 conference for fans to ponder over the game-barren months ahead.

ACC: Can the Coastal Division end years of inferiority?

The ACC has been won by either Florida State or Clemson, both of which play in the Atlantic Division, each of the past seven years. The disparity between the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions doesn’t just exist at the top of the standings—six of the seven teams in the Atlantic finished 2017 with a winning record, compared to just three in the Coastal. But the top is where the difference in quality has been most consistently evident, year after year.

Miami’s emergence bodes well for the Coastal’s future prospects. The Hurricanes started last season 10–0 before dropping their final three games, a streak that included a humiliating 38–3 loss to Clemson in the conference championship game. Still, Miami’s sudden return to the national conversation—a resurgence expedited by the opportunistic defense that popularized the turnover chain—reminded us how much better the ACC is when The U is at its swaggering best. Miami should enter next year ranked in the top 10, with another impressive recruiting class on the way. Virginia Tech will also be a force to be reckoned with in year three under Justin Fuente. Quarterback Josh Jackson returns with a year of starting experience under his belt, and Fuente has recruited well enough to mitigate the loss of six starters on a defensive unit that was one of the nation’s best last year. Is this the year that either Miami or Virginia Tech loosen the Atlantic’s airtight grip on the trophy?

Big 12: Does the end of the Baker Mayfield era open the door for someone to challenge Oklahoma?

The Heisman Trophy winner who guided the Sooners to three straight Big 12 titles is off to the NFL. Taking the reins behind center will be Kyler Murray, a former five-star recruit who transferred to Oklahoma from Texas A&M. Murray is fully capable of leading this team to another Big 12 title, but anytime a team has to move on from a legend like Mayfield, there’s certainly a chance for a drop-off.

The door is open—or at least ajar—for a team like TCU to step in and knock the Sooners off their pedestal. The Horned Frogs also lose their signal-caller, Kenny Hill, to graduation, and they’ll likely hand the keys to sophomore dual-threat Shawn Robinson. Oklahoma State is another potential successor to their in-state rivals, but there are some questions as to how good the Cowboys will be as they too will be without their starting quarterback from last year, Mason Rudolph. Texas has their quarterback returning and welcomes a top-five recruiting class to campus, but it might be too much to expect Tom Herman’s turnaround under construction to yield a league title contender in just his second season in Austin.

It’s not clear which team can or will challenge Oklahoma, and it’s not even clear that the Sooners will suffer any sort of setback post-Mayfield. It is the end of an era in Norman, though, and the rest of the Big 12 will hope that also means it’s the end of Oklahoma’s dominance.

Big Ten: Will the top tier be a Big Four or a Big Five?

Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin enter next season with expectations a cut above the rest of their Big Ten foes. And while Jim Harbaugh has kept Michigan in the headlines for the past three seasons, there’s a growing dissatisfaction among Michigan fans that he hasn’t cemented the Wolverines’ place among that upper tier. Part of the reason for that is that they play Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State every year because they’re in the East division, while Wisconsin generally has a much easier path in the West.

But excuses don’t get you far when you’re the coach of a program like Michigan, and there is significant pressure on Harbaugh to finally deliver in the most important games to the fan base. Michigan doesn’t have any time to ease into the season, as they open at Notre Dame. That game that won’t affect Michigan’s Big Ten chances, but a win would certainly ease the blood pressure of boosters and fans alike. Michigan gets Wisconsin and Penn State at home but has to play Michigan State and Ohio State on the road; they’ll have to win at least two of those marquee matchups to get to that 10-win benchmark and probably one or two more to challenge for the Big Ten title.

Pac-12: Can the conference champion get back into the playoff?

USC entered last season as the Pac-12’s best hope to get into the playoff, but the Trojans’ chances were all but shattered with a 49–14 loss to Notre Dame in October. Then it looked like Washington had a shot, but they too were undone by a late-season setback, at the hands of Stanford. With two weeks left in the regular season, it became clear that no Pac-12 team had a realistic shot at reaching the final four. After a miracle on championship Saturday didn’t happen, the inevitable became a reality: The Pac-12 was shut out of the playoff for the second time in the format’s four-year history.

Part of the reason for this could be that the conference just isn’t getting the type of recruits that its Power 5 peers are. Over the past five years, USC is the only school to post a top-10 recruiting class in any one cycle, per the 247Sports composite rankings, while every other conference has had at least two schools land top-10 hauls. (On the other end of this spectrum, eight SEC teams have cracked the top 10 in that span: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.) Another potential target of blame for the playoff absences could be the oft-cited but impossible-to-prove bias against West Coast teams and those 10:30 p.m. ET kickoffs. Or maybe it’s just been bad luck. Whatever the cause, conference commissioner Larry Scott has to hope that a clear front-runner emerges in 2018, and that the front-runner wins the conference title game. Two misses in four years is explainable, but three in five would be a seriously worrying pattern.

SEC: How will the new coaches fare?

December brought the typical flurry of high-profile coaching changes around the country this year, but many of the most talked-about moves took place in the Southeast. In total, there are five teams that will be led by new head coaches: Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee, Dan Mullen at Florida, Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State and Chad Morris at Arkansas. (Ole Miss also removed the interim tag from head coach Matt Luke.) Apart from Moorhead, the new hires have experience at big-time SEC programs, and all besides Moorhead are taking over sputtering programs with national ambitions.

Fisher will have the most eyes on him because he left Florida State after re-establishing the Seminoles as a powerhouse for a bar-raising $75 million guaranteed over 10 years. But all non-Vanderbilt coaches don’t get a honeymoon period in the SEC. They’re expected to produce right away, and it will be interesting to see which coach can muster the kind of quick turnaround that brings buzz back to a program and builds momentum for the future. Two coaches in particular to watch: Mullen might be inheriting the most talented roster of the group in Gainesville, while Moorhead takes over the nine-win team Mullen left behind in Starkville.

<p>College hoops finally calmed down a bit in the last week, that is, unless you play in the Big 12, which continues to be a cage match night in and night out. We’re starting to get a clearer picture of which teams are for real, meanwhile some top contenders, such as Michigan State, have hit a stumbling block. We’re down to just three one-loss teams, one of which almost everyone saw coming (Villanova), one of which most didn’t see coming (Virginia) and one of which no one saw coming (Auburn). Here’s the new top 25:</p><h3>1. Villanova (16–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (1)</strong>: beat Xavier, beat St. John’s<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Georgetown, at UConn, vs. Providence</p><p>While last week the Wildcats were more of a default No. 1 after upsets rocked the top five, they more than proved they deserve the top ranking with their 24-point home rout of Xavier. After a few lackluster defensive showings, Villanova held the Musketeers to 0.92 points per possession and a 3-of-17 mark from three while forcing 15 turnovers. Meanwhile, the offense continues to hum and narrowly grabbed the top adjusted efficiency mark in the country away from Duke. The Wildcats have six different players playing at least 60% of the team’s minutes and posting an offensive rating of at least 116.9, and even role player Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has been very efficient when on the floor.</p><h3>2. Purdue (18–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (2)</strong>: beat Minnesota, beat Wisconsin<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Iowa</p><p>The Boilermakers are playing like the class of the Big Ten right now, and after back-to-back dominations of Minnesota and Wisconsin they’ve risen to the No. 1 overall rank on kenpom. They’re the only team with an offense and defense both ranked in the top 10 in adjusted efficiency and will probably be favored in all of their remaining games, the exception being their trip to East Lansing. In its last three games, Purdue has connected on 51.2% (40 of 78) of its threes, including a 14 of 22 performance against the Badgers that saw four different players knock down at least three treys. That’ll do.</p><h3>3. Virginia (16–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (5)</strong>: beat North Carolina State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest, vs. Clemson</p><p>With another great defensive showing, the Cavaliers made sure they weren’t NC State’s third straight upset victim with an easy win at home. UVA was able to do what Duke and Clemson weren’t by excelling in two areas it’s strong in: perimeter defense and forcing turnovers. In their two upset wins, NC State shot a combined 15 of 35 (42.9%) from three and committed just 14 total turnovers. Against Virginia, they shot 2 of 16 (12.5%) from three and turned it over 15 times. That’s the difference the Hoos can make, and why at 5–0 they should currently be considered the favorite to win the ACC.</p><h3>4. Duke (16–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (6)</strong>: beat Wake Forest, beat Miami<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Pittsburgh, at Wake Forest</p><p>Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen and, to a lesser extent, Wendell Carter Jr. typically dominate the conversation when it comes to discussing the Blue Devils’ potent offense, but let’s talk about Gary Trent Jr. Trent, you may or may not know, is leading Duke in three-point shooting at 41.4%, and that number has been 47.9% in five ACC games. In the last week, the freshman combined to go 12 of 16 from three, including hitting 6 of 9 as part of a breakout 30-point performance to help secure a big road win at Miami. Trent has found a home beyond the three-point line, where over half his shot attempts come, and of his 46 makes on the season, all but one have been assisted (per Hoop-Math).</p><h3>5. Wichita State (15–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (10)</strong>: beat East Carolina, beat Tulsa<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. SMU, at Houston</p><p>After an easy start to AAC play, the Shockers’ schedule is about to get a bit juicy. Their next week includes two top-45 kenpom teams in SMU and Houston, the latter of whom they already easily handled at home but now must face on the road. These games are exactly why Wichita State joined the American; while some AAC teams like South Florida and East Carolina don’t inspire much fear, there’s more opportunities now for stronger wins than it had the chance to get in the Missouri Valley, where it often could only make statements through the margin of its routs. In the AAC, the Shockers’ big showdowns will be with Cincinnati, who they don’t face until Feb. 18 and March 4, but before then they have other opportunities at wins that will directly help (or hurt) their standing on Selection Sunday. </p><h3>6. Texas Tech (15–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (11)</strong>: beat West Virginia<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Texas, at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State</p><p>The Red Raiders responded to their first Big 12 loss with a statement one-point win over then-No. 2 West Virginia over the weekend. With victories already over two of the league’s top challengers and a chance to avenge its loss to Oklahoma at home next month, Texas Tech can control its own destiny, but there’s still a long way to go. It owns the No. 2 adjusted efficient defense in the nation and has been strong at defending teams both inside and outside the perimeter. That’s been key, because one of the reasons the Red Raiders have been able to start 4–1 in the Big 12 is because all five opponents were held to either a two-point percentage under 50% or a three-point mark under 31%.</p><h3>7. Kansas (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (15)</strong>: beat Kansas State, beat West Virginia<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Baylor, at Oklahoma</p><p>The Jayhawks are sending a pretty clear message right now: <em>we’re still here</em>. After their Big 12 streak looked vulnerable following their Jan. 2 loss to Texas Tech, they’ve won four straight, including a crucial comeback road win at West Virginia Monday night. Kansas had, uhh, <a href="https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2018/01/15/sagaba-konate-west-virginia-kansas-block-highlights-video" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:some trouble" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">some trouble</a> driving to the rim on WVU’s Sagaba Konate in the first half, but rather than become three-point dependent as it’s done on many previous occasions this season, the Jayhawks found a way to score in the paint, making 9 of 12 there in the second half after going 6 of 20 in the first. Another positive sign of late for KU is that it’s started to improve on its obscenely low free-throw rate, posting a 33.2% mark in Big 12 play compared to 22.8% overall.</p><h3>8. Michigan State (16–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (4)</strong>: beat Rutgers, lost to Michigan<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Indiana, at Illinois</p><p>After a formidable 15–1 start to the season, the Spartans have hit a road block. Losses to Ohio State and Michigan sandwiched being taken to overtime at home by Rutgers, and MSU now finds itself looking up at three teams in the suddenly new-look Big Ten race. In its home loss to Michigan on Saturday, Michigan State exhibited both a familiar and unfamiliar trait. The familiar one was turnovers, which continue to be an issue holding back this team. The Spartans turned it over 18 times, giving it away on one out of every four possessions. The unfamiliar trait was the fact that they attempted just 12 threes, making three. MSU came into Saturday averaging 21.7 attempts per game, and its three makes against Michigan were its fewest since the season opener. When a team turns it over that much and gets just nine points from the perimeter against good competition, it’s rarely going to be a happy ending.</p><h3>9. West Virginia (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (3)</strong>: lost to Texas Tech, lost to Kansas<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Texas, at TCU</p><p>What had been the nation’s longest win streak came to an end in Lubbock on Saturday…and then the Mountaineers followed it up by blowing a 12-point lead with nine minutes left in a home loss to Kansas. WVU had beaten the Jayhawks four straight years in Morgantown before the defeat, and back-to-back losses to two of its top competition in the Big 12 race puts it in a mid-January hole. The Mountaineers’ ability to force turnovers is well documented, but they’ve been having a bit of their own turnover issue of late. On the season, West Virginia’s turnover percentage is 16.7%, but in six Big 12 games it’s ballooned to 20.3%, worse than all but two other league teams. Additionally, both Texas Tech and Kansas yielded 13 giveaways in their wins (on fewer than 20% of their possessions), a respectable number for most defenses—but not near the 26.7% average WVU thrives with.</p><h3>10. Oklahoma (14–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (7)</strong>: beat TCU, lost to Kansas State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Oklahoma State, vs. Kansas</p><p>Twelve. That’s how many turnovers star freshman Trae Young had in a road loss to Kansas State on Tuesday night—or as many as the Wildcats had as a team. Incredible as Young has been this season, his proclivity for miscues is going to catch up with him on occasion, like it did in Manhattan. Young is averaging 7.6 turnovers per game in six Big 12 games, but that can often be overlooked when you have the nation’s leading assist rate and can do things like this after your own missed free throw:</p><p>The fact is, Oklahoma plays incredibly fast—it plays at the third quickest tempo in the country and its possessions last an average of just 13.7 seconds, per kenpom—and Young is 19 years old and has earned plenty of freedom as the engineer of that offense. Oklahoma could obviously benefit from him making some smarter decisions, but his aggressiveness and free nature on the court have done a lot to get the Sooners to where they are right now.</p><h3>11. Arizona (14–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (13)</strong>: beat Oregon State, beat Oregon<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at California, at Stanford</p><p>After the Wildcats’ seven-point weekend win over Oregon, Sean Miller <a href="http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/recap?gameId=400988314" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:said" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">said</a> his team’s “ability to make free throws was the difference in the game,” and he wasn’t kidding. Arizona went to the line 37 times, making 34, which is fitting for the nation’s ninth-best free-throw shooting team. The ‘Cats needed every bit of those free points to make up for 17 turnovers, and it was no surprise that Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton took the most attempts, with 11 apiece. But Rawle Alkins also went 5 of 6 from the line, the fifth time in the nine games since his return that he’s attempted at least five at the charity stripe. Per Hoop-Math, Alkins is actually taking a smaller percentage of shots at the rim than he did as a freshman, but he’s making them count by getting fouled more, upping his free-throw rate from 32.7% to 55.3%. </p><h3>12. Xavier (16–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (8)</strong>: lost to Villanova, beat Creighton<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. St. John’s, at Seton Hall</p><p>The Musketeers didn’t come close to the result they were hoping for last week in Philly, and in five years in the Big East they’ve yet to put up a real challenge on the road at Villanova. But unlike last year, when it kicked off a three-game losing streak, this time Xavier responded with an authoritative win over a good Creighton team at home over the weekend. The difference for Trevon Bluiett and Kaiser Gates in particular was night and day; Gates was actually dropped from the starting lineup after scoring a total of three points in the Musketeers’ back-to-back losses, and he came back with his most efficient outing of the season in a 16-point, eight-rebound, two-steal effort against the Bluejays.</p><h3>13. Cincinnati (16–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (12)</strong>: beat South Florida, beat UCF<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. East Carolina</p><p>What happens when two top-five efficient defenses meet, which also belong to two of the country’s slowest-paced teams? You get a result like the 49–38 win that Cincinnati had over UCF on Tuesday night, which featured a total of 20 free throws and 35 field goals. The Bearcats held the Knights to a 10 of 33 (30.3%) mark inside the arc, which is even lower than their 38.7% average two-point defense, which ranks second in the country. Cincy’s offense isn’t going to overpower teams, but it knows how to grind out games and take advantage of opponents’ errors, like averaging 17.6 points off turnovers in AAC play.</p><h3>14. Arizona State (14–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (9)</strong>: lost to Oregon, beat Oregon State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Stanford, at Cal</p><p>The Sun Devils are officially trending downward. After a magical 12–0 nonconference run that nearly got them to the top of the polls, they’ve started Pac-12 play 2–3, with their two wins coming by a combined five points against mediocre competition. After losing to Oregon last week, they needed a second-half comeback to scrape by Oregon State, a team sitting outside the kenpom top-100. There’s been multiple reasons behind the drop off: ASU’s already unreliable defense has been even worse in conference play, giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions, the team’s shooting has declined (after going 50.8% of the field and 39.3% from three in nonconference, it has shot 41.4% from the field and 34.7% from three in Pac-12 play) and outside of the Sun Devils’ loss to Arizona, leading scorer Tra Holder has struggled to maintain the high level of efficiency he posted for much of nonconference action. The question that could define the rest of Arizona State’s season is whether its recent shooting issues are simply a slump or in fact a regression to the mean.</p><h3>15. Gonzaga (16–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (18)</strong>: beat Portland, beat San Francisco<br><strong>This Week</strong>: vs. Saint Mary’s, at Santa Clara</p><p>Part I of what seems destined to be another Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s trilogy that ends in the WCC tournament final is finally next, giving both teams the opportunity to pick up a significant win. The Zags will be going up against the Gaels’ third-ranked efficient offense, and plenty of eyes will be on Saint Mary’s senior Jock Landale. In two of three games last year, the Bulldogs were able to hold Landale to 10 points (he went for 24 in the other), but in all three they were able to get the big man into foul trouble, limiting him to 26, 25 and 19 minutes. That defensive job largely went to the departed Przemek Karnowski, so Gonzaga’s new-look frontcourt will look to have a similar level of success against the Gaels’ best player.</p><h3>16. Auburn (16–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (19)</strong>: beat Mississippi State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Alabama, vs. Georgia</p><p>Now alone in first at 4–0, could Auburn actually win the SEC? It’s early, but the Tigers haven’t been lucking into their wins. They’ve won all four games by no less than eight points and have had the most efficient offense in conference play so far. They also have a favorable schedule—they’ve already won their lone matchup with Tennessee, and they face other top challengers Kentucky and Florida once apiece and get a visit from the Wildcats, who have been vulnerable on the road. We’ve got a ways to go, but the Tigers are making noise for the first time in a long time and just might be able to cash in.</p><h3>17. North Carolina (15–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (21)</strong>: beat Notre Dame, beat Clemson<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech</p><p>The good for UNC in the last week: in a year that potentially seemed ripe for upstart Clemson to get its first-ever win in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels denied it behind their best performance yet from transfer Cameron Johnson, who made 6 of 9 threes. The bad: a game before that, North Carolina was an inch away from losing to a Notre Dame squad missing its two best players. The Heels got the win, which is most important, but somehow allowed the Bonzie Colson-less Irish to grab 20 offensive rebounds. UNC has been strong itself on the offensive boards this year, but it can’t allow itself to lose that battle 10-to-2 in the second half as it did against the Irish.</p><h3>18. Kentucky (14–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (14)</strong>: beat Vanderbilt, lost to South Carolina<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Florida, vs. Mississippi State</p><p>The Wildcats blew a 14-point second-half lead to South Carolina to drop to 4–2 in the SEC Tuesday night, and their youth was evident. The Gamecocks, whose effective field goal percentage ranks 309th in the country, didn’t spring the upset through a rare hot shooting night, but rather by simply outworking Kentucky’s freshmen late. The ‘Cats had no answer for Chris Silva, who finished with 27, and they made multiple bad decisions late and went 5 of 12 from the free-throw line in the final 12 minutes. The good news is that former five-star recruit Jarred Vanderbilt made his season debut, chipping in six points, five rebounds and three assists in 14 minutes.</p><h3>19. Seton Hall (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (20)</strong>: beat Georgetown<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Creighton, vs. Xavier</p><p>The Pirates have a big week coming up that should have key ramifications on the Big East race, and they could use a couple solid performances from guard Myles Powell, who’s made a nice jump so far in his sophomore season. Powell has upped his scoring from 10.7 ppg to 14.2 in large part due to finding his three-point stroke. He shot a respectable 33.2% from deep as a freshman, but that number was low considering his team-high 205 attempts. He’s leading Seton Hall again in perimeter attempts this year, only now he’s connecting on 41.3% of them, which has helped lift his true shooting percentage nearly 10 percentage points to 63.4%.</p><h3>20. Tennessee (12–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (25)</strong>: beat Texas A&#38;M<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs. Vanderbilt</p><p>The Vols have rebounded nicely after losing their first two SEC games, most recently handling Texas A&#38;M by double digits despite a subpar offensive night by Grant Williams. Tennessee has played better when it hasn’t been forced to play faster than it wants; each of its three conference wins featured fewer than 70 possessions, while all four of its overall losses have seen more than 70. Probably not coincidentally, the Vols have also been more prone to turnovers when playing faster. Since Dec. 1, they’ve turned it over on 15.9% of their possessions in their five games with 69 or fewer possessions, and 19.5% of the time in their five games with 70 or more possessions.</p><h3>21. Ohio State (15–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (NR)</strong>: beat Maryland, beat Rutgers<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Northwestern, vs. Minnesota (at MSG), vs. Nebraska</p><p>The two-team Big Ten party has been crashed by both the Buckeyes and Michigan (see below), who have each beat Michigan State recently and moved ahead of the Spartans in the standings. Ohio State is the biggest surprise in the league with a 6–0 start in what was expected to be a rebuilding year in Chris Holtmann’s first season. Keita Bates-Diop has been a revelation in his redshirt junior year after returning from injury, improving in nearly every facet of his game while serving as OSU’s go-to guy, taking 31.1% of its shots when he’s on the floor. His defensive rebounding rate is up to 25.4% after a 17.6% mark in his last full season, and he’s taking (and making) more threes than ever. After hitting 36 of 111 (32.4%) perimeter attempts as a sophomore, Bates-Diop is attempting 2.1 more per game this season and connecting on 41%.</p><h3>22. Michigan (16–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week</strong>: beat Michigan State, beat Maryland<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Nebraska, vs. Rutgers</p><p>Free throws giveth, free throws taketh away. Isaac Haas’s tiebreaking free throw in the final seconds last week handed the Wolverines a recent heartbreaking loss—their only defeat in their last 10 games—but they were on the right end of the charity stripe on Monday when Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sunk two in the final 1.2 seconds to give them a one-point win over Maryland. Abdur-Rahkman has made 91.9% of his free throws this season and was the right man to have on the line, but Michigan overall has been one of the country’s weakest free-throw shooting teams at 65.8%. One of the ways it makes up for it is by limiting opponents’ second-chances: its defensive rebounding rate is tops in Big Ten play so far, and in its upset win over Michigan State it held the country’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just eight (on 28.6% of its misses, below the Spartans’ 37.8% season mark).</p><h3>23. Clemson (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (16)</strong>: lost to NC State, beat Miami, lost to North Carolina<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Notre Dame, at Virginia</p><p>This won’t be the year the Tigers get their first-ever win in Chapel Hill, but they did pick up a home win over Miami to salvage an otherwise disappointing week. Clemson’s calling-card this year has been its defense, but in losses to NC State and UNC it gave up 1.15 and 1.21 points per possession, respectively, easily its highest totals given up all season. If there’s one area the Tigers have been weaker in overall on defense it’s been on the perimeter, and both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels took advantage, shooting 47.6% and 48.4%, respectively. It was especially killer in the loss to North Carolina, as Clemson had managed to hold the nation’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just five.</p><h3>24. TCU (13–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (17)</strong>: lost to Texas, lost to Oklahoma<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Iowa State, at Kansas State, vs. West Virginia</p><p>Life in the Big 12, man. It’s rough. After a perfect mark in nonconference play, the Horned Frogs have started league action 1–4, including an overtime loss, a double-overtime loss and both a one-point loss and four-point loss in regulation (and oh yeah, it’s one win came in OT as well). It’s going to take a lot for TCU to climb back into the Big 12 race now, and it doesn’t get any easier with three games over the next six days. The Frogs have both shown the ability to score with anyone and the failure to stop anyone—through those five conference games, it leads the league in offensive efficiency and yet is last in defensive efficiency, per kenpom. That’s how you wind up playing three overtime games in five contests, but the law of averages says some of these close results will start going TCU’s way….right?</p><h3>25. Saint Mary’s (17–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (NR)</strong>: beat Santa Clara, beat Pepperdine<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Gonzaga, at Pacific</p><p>The Gaels finally sneak in here after landing on the ‘next five out’ for the last few weeks, but whether it’s a short stay will be entirely decided by their performance in Spokane on Thursday night. Saint Mary’s résumé is weak and its head-scratching nonconference loss to Washington State still stands out, but this team knows how to score the basketball. Randy Bennett’s group has ranked in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom in each of the last two seasons, and this year it’s currently up to No. 3 behind underrated senior Jock Landale. Its defense, however, has dropped off considerably without Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau. If the Gaels are going to beat the Zags on the road, they’re going to need to slow the Bulldogs down to their pace and either win the battle in the paint, where both teams rank top-10 in two-point percentage, or shoot the lights out from deep.</p><p><strong>DROPPED OUT</strong>: Florida, Miami, Notre Dame</p><p><strong>NEXT FIVE OUT</strong>: Nevada, Rhode Island, Louisville, Florida, Miami</p><h3>Mid-Major Meter</h3><p>(<em>For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10</em>.)</p><p>1. <strong>Gonzaga</strong>: The Zags have a rare conference chance to improve their résumé and secure the upper leg in the WCC race this week.</p><p>2. <strong>Saint Mary’s</strong>: Are the Gaels a true threat to ending the Zags’ five-year run of regular season WCC titles? We’ll know Thursday night.</p><p>3. <strong>Nevada</strong>: The Wolfpack have started Mountain West play 5–0 and get their closest current challenger, Boise State, at home this weekend. Their offense is up to No. 9 nationally in adjusted efficiency.</p><p>4. <strong>New Mexico State</strong>: The Aggies have played four straight road games and won them all, three by double digits.</p><p>5. <strong>Middle Tennessee</strong>: The Blue Raiders have a big date with Western Kentucky in Bowling Green on Saturday that could see both teams come in undefeated in C-USA play.</p>
Power Rankings: The Three Remaining One-Loss Teams, Big 12's Depth Spark Changes

College hoops finally calmed down a bit in the last week, that is, unless you play in the Big 12, which continues to be a cage match night in and night out. We’re starting to get a clearer picture of which teams are for real, meanwhile some top contenders, such as Michigan State, have hit a stumbling block. We’re down to just three one-loss teams, one of which almost everyone saw coming (Villanova), one of which most didn’t see coming (Virginia) and one of which no one saw coming (Auburn). Here’s the new top 25:

1. Villanova (16–1)

Last Week (1): beat Xavier, beat St. John’s
Next Week: at Georgetown, at UConn, vs. Providence

While last week the Wildcats were more of a default No. 1 after upsets rocked the top five, they more than proved they deserve the top ranking with their 24-point home rout of Xavier. After a few lackluster defensive showings, Villanova held the Musketeers to 0.92 points per possession and a 3-of-17 mark from three while forcing 15 turnovers. Meanwhile, the offense continues to hum and narrowly grabbed the top adjusted efficiency mark in the country away from Duke. The Wildcats have six different players playing at least 60% of the team’s minutes and posting an offensive rating of at least 116.9, and even role player Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has been very efficient when on the floor.

2. Purdue (18–2)

Last Week (2): beat Minnesota, beat Wisconsin
Next Week: at Iowa

The Boilermakers are playing like the class of the Big Ten right now, and after back-to-back dominations of Minnesota and Wisconsin they’ve risen to the No. 1 overall rank on kenpom. They’re the only team with an offense and defense both ranked in the top 10 in adjusted efficiency and will probably be favored in all of their remaining games, the exception being their trip to East Lansing. In its last three games, Purdue has connected on 51.2% (40 of 78) of its threes, including a 14 of 22 performance against the Badgers that saw four different players knock down at least three treys. That’ll do.

3. Virginia (16–1)

Last Week (5): beat North Carolina State
Next Week: at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest, vs. Clemson

With another great defensive showing, the Cavaliers made sure they weren’t NC State’s third straight upset victim with an easy win at home. UVA was able to do what Duke and Clemson weren’t by excelling in two areas it’s strong in: perimeter defense and forcing turnovers. In their two upset wins, NC State shot a combined 15 of 35 (42.9%) from three and committed just 14 total turnovers. Against Virginia, they shot 2 of 16 (12.5%) from three and turned it over 15 times. That’s the difference the Hoos can make, and why at 5–0 they should currently be considered the favorite to win the ACC.

4. Duke (16–2)

Last Week (6): beat Wake Forest, beat Miami
Next Week: vs. Pittsburgh, at Wake Forest

Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen and, to a lesser extent, Wendell Carter Jr. typically dominate the conversation when it comes to discussing the Blue Devils’ potent offense, but let’s talk about Gary Trent Jr. Trent, you may or may not know, is leading Duke in three-point shooting at 41.4%, and that number has been 47.9% in five ACC games. In the last week, the freshman combined to go 12 of 16 from three, including hitting 6 of 9 as part of a breakout 30-point performance to help secure a big road win at Miami. Trent has found a home beyond the three-point line, where over half his shot attempts come, and of his 46 makes on the season, all but one have been assisted (per Hoop-Math).

5. Wichita State (15–2)

Last Week (10): beat East Carolina, beat Tulsa
Next Week: vs. SMU, at Houston

After an easy start to AAC play, the Shockers’ schedule is about to get a bit juicy. Their next week includes two top-45 kenpom teams in SMU and Houston, the latter of whom they already easily handled at home but now must face on the road. These games are exactly why Wichita State joined the American; while some AAC teams like South Florida and East Carolina don’t inspire much fear, there’s more opportunities now for stronger wins than it had the chance to get in the Missouri Valley, where it often could only make statements through the margin of its routs. In the AAC, the Shockers’ big showdowns will be with Cincinnati, who they don’t face until Feb. 18 and March 4, but before then they have other opportunities at wins that will directly help (or hurt) their standing on Selection Sunday.

6. Texas Tech (15–2)

Last Week (11): beat West Virginia
Next Week: at Texas, at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State

The Red Raiders responded to their first Big 12 loss with a statement one-point win over then-No. 2 West Virginia over the weekend. With victories already over two of the league’s top challengers and a chance to avenge its loss to Oklahoma at home next month, Texas Tech can control its own destiny, but there’s still a long way to go. It owns the No. 2 adjusted efficient defense in the nation and has been strong at defending teams both inside and outside the perimeter. That’s been key, because one of the reasons the Red Raiders have been able to start 4–1 in the Big 12 is because all five opponents were held to either a two-point percentage under 50% or a three-point mark under 31%.

7. Kansas (15–3)

Last Week (15): beat Kansas State, beat West Virginia
Next Week: vs. Baylor, at Oklahoma

The Jayhawks are sending a pretty clear message right now: we’re still here. After their Big 12 streak looked vulnerable following their Jan. 2 loss to Texas Tech, they’ve won four straight, including a crucial comeback road win at West Virginia Monday night. Kansas had, uhh, some trouble driving to the rim on WVU’s Sagaba Konate in the first half, but rather than become three-point dependent as it’s done on many previous occasions this season, the Jayhawks found a way to score in the paint, making 9 of 12 there in the second half after going 6 of 20 in the first. Another positive sign of late for KU is that it’s started to improve on its obscenely low free-throw rate, posting a 33.2% mark in Big 12 play compared to 22.8% overall.

8. Michigan State (16–3)

Last Week (4): beat Rutgers, lost to Michigan
Next Week: vs. Indiana, at Illinois

After a formidable 15–1 start to the season, the Spartans have hit a road block. Losses to Ohio State and Michigan sandwiched being taken to overtime at home by Rutgers, and MSU now finds itself looking up at three teams in the suddenly new-look Big Ten race. In its home loss to Michigan on Saturday, Michigan State exhibited both a familiar and unfamiliar trait. The familiar one was turnovers, which continue to be an issue holding back this team. The Spartans turned it over 18 times, giving it away on one out of every four possessions. The unfamiliar trait was the fact that they attempted just 12 threes, making three. MSU came into Saturday averaging 21.7 attempts per game, and its three makes against Michigan were its fewest since the season opener. When a team turns it over that much and gets just nine points from the perimeter against good competition, it’s rarely going to be a happy ending.

9. West Virginia (15–3)

Last Week (3): lost to Texas Tech, lost to Kansas
Next Week: vs. Texas, at TCU

What had been the nation’s longest win streak came to an end in Lubbock on Saturday…and then the Mountaineers followed it up by blowing a 12-point lead with nine minutes left in a home loss to Kansas. WVU had beaten the Jayhawks four straight years in Morgantown before the defeat, and back-to-back losses to two of its top competition in the Big 12 race puts it in a mid-January hole. The Mountaineers’ ability to force turnovers is well documented, but they’ve been having a bit of their own turnover issue of late. On the season, West Virginia’s turnover percentage is 16.7%, but in six Big 12 games it’s ballooned to 20.3%, worse than all but two other league teams. Additionally, both Texas Tech and Kansas yielded 13 giveaways in their wins (on fewer than 20% of their possessions), a respectable number for most defenses—but not near the 26.7% average WVU thrives with.

10. Oklahoma (14–3)

Last Week (7): beat TCU, lost to Kansas State
Next Week: at Oklahoma State, vs. Kansas

Twelve. That’s how many turnovers star freshman Trae Young had in a road loss to Kansas State on Tuesday night—or as many as the Wildcats had as a team. Incredible as Young has been this season, his proclivity for miscues is going to catch up with him on occasion, like it did in Manhattan. Young is averaging 7.6 turnovers per game in six Big 12 games, but that can often be overlooked when you have the nation’s leading assist rate and can do things like this after your own missed free throw:

The fact is, Oklahoma plays incredibly fast—it plays at the third quickest tempo in the country and its possessions last an average of just 13.7 seconds, per kenpom—and Young is 19 years old and has earned plenty of freedom as the engineer of that offense. Oklahoma could obviously benefit from him making some smarter decisions, but his aggressiveness and free nature on the court have done a lot to get the Sooners to where they are right now.

11. Arizona (14–4)

Last Week (13): beat Oregon State, beat Oregon
Next Week: at California, at Stanford

After the Wildcats’ seven-point weekend win over Oregon, Sean Miller said his team’s “ability to make free throws was the difference in the game,” and he wasn’t kidding. Arizona went to the line 37 times, making 34, which is fitting for the nation’s ninth-best free-throw shooting team. The ‘Cats needed every bit of those free points to make up for 17 turnovers, and it was no surprise that Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton took the most attempts, with 11 apiece. But Rawle Alkins also went 5 of 6 from the line, the fifth time in the nine games since his return that he’s attempted at least five at the charity stripe. Per Hoop-Math, Alkins is actually taking a smaller percentage of shots at the rim than he did as a freshman, but he’s making them count by getting fouled more, upping his free-throw rate from 32.7% to 55.3%.

12. Xavier (16–3)

Last Week (8): lost to Villanova, beat Creighton
Next Week: vs. St. John’s, at Seton Hall

The Musketeers didn’t come close to the result they were hoping for last week in Philly, and in five years in the Big East they’ve yet to put up a real challenge on the road at Villanova. But unlike last year, when it kicked off a three-game losing streak, this time Xavier responded with an authoritative win over a good Creighton team at home over the weekend. The difference for Trevon Bluiett and Kaiser Gates in particular was night and day; Gates was actually dropped from the starting lineup after scoring a total of three points in the Musketeers’ back-to-back losses, and he came back with his most efficient outing of the season in a 16-point, eight-rebound, two-steal effort against the Bluejays.

13. Cincinnati (16–2)

Last Week (12): beat South Florida, beat UCF
Next Week: vs. East Carolina

What happens when two top-five efficient defenses meet, which also belong to two of the country’s slowest-paced teams? You get a result like the 49–38 win that Cincinnati had over UCF on Tuesday night, which featured a total of 20 free throws and 35 field goals. The Bearcats held the Knights to a 10 of 33 (30.3%) mark inside the arc, which is even lower than their 38.7% average two-point defense, which ranks second in the country. Cincy’s offense isn’t going to overpower teams, but it knows how to grind out games and take advantage of opponents’ errors, like averaging 17.6 points off turnovers in AAC play.

14. Arizona State (14–3)

Last Week (9): lost to Oregon, beat Oregon State
Next Week: at Stanford, at Cal

The Sun Devils are officially trending downward. After a magical 12–0 nonconference run that nearly got them to the top of the polls, they’ve started Pac-12 play 2–3, with their two wins coming by a combined five points against mediocre competition. After losing to Oregon last week, they needed a second-half comeback to scrape by Oregon State, a team sitting outside the kenpom top-100. There’s been multiple reasons behind the drop off: ASU’s already unreliable defense has been even worse in conference play, giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions, the team’s shooting has declined (after going 50.8% of the field and 39.3% from three in nonconference, it has shot 41.4% from the field and 34.7% from three in Pac-12 play) and outside of the Sun Devils’ loss to Arizona, leading scorer Tra Holder has struggled to maintain the high level of efficiency he posted for much of nonconference action. The question that could define the rest of Arizona State’s season is whether its recent shooting issues are simply a slump or in fact a regression to the mean.

15. Gonzaga (16–3)

Last Week (18): beat Portland, beat San Francisco
This Week: vs. Saint Mary’s, at Santa Clara

Part I of what seems destined to be another Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s trilogy that ends in the WCC tournament final is finally next, giving both teams the opportunity to pick up a significant win. The Zags will be going up against the Gaels’ third-ranked efficient offense, and plenty of eyes will be on Saint Mary’s senior Jock Landale. In two of three games last year, the Bulldogs were able to hold Landale to 10 points (he went for 24 in the other), but in all three they were able to get the big man into foul trouble, limiting him to 26, 25 and 19 minutes. That defensive job largely went to the departed Przemek Karnowski, so Gonzaga’s new-look frontcourt will look to have a similar level of success against the Gaels’ best player.

16. Auburn (16–1)

Last Week (19): beat Mississippi State
Next Week: at Alabama, vs. Georgia

Now alone in first at 4–0, could Auburn actually win the SEC? It’s early, but the Tigers haven’t been lucking into their wins. They’ve won all four games by no less than eight points and have had the most efficient offense in conference play so far. They also have a favorable schedule—they’ve already won their lone matchup with Tennessee, and they face other top challengers Kentucky and Florida once apiece and get a visit from the Wildcats, who have been vulnerable on the road. We’ve got a ways to go, but the Tigers are making noise for the first time in a long time and just might be able to cash in.

17. North Carolina (15–4)

Last Week (21): beat Notre Dame, beat Clemson
Next Week: vs. Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech

The good for UNC in the last week: in a year that potentially seemed ripe for upstart Clemson to get its first-ever win in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels denied it behind their best performance yet from transfer Cameron Johnson, who made 6 of 9 threes. The bad: a game before that, North Carolina was an inch away from losing to a Notre Dame squad missing its two best players. The Heels got the win, which is most important, but somehow allowed the Bonzie Colson-less Irish to grab 20 offensive rebounds. UNC has been strong itself on the offensive boards this year, but it can’t allow itself to lose that battle 10-to-2 in the second half as it did against the Irish.

18. Kentucky (14–4)

Last Week (14): beat Vanderbilt, lost to South Carolina
Next Week: vs. Florida, vs. Mississippi State

The Wildcats blew a 14-point second-half lead to South Carolina to drop to 4–2 in the SEC Tuesday night, and their youth was evident. The Gamecocks, whose effective field goal percentage ranks 309th in the country, didn’t spring the upset through a rare hot shooting night, but rather by simply outworking Kentucky’s freshmen late. The ‘Cats had no answer for Chris Silva, who finished with 27, and they made multiple bad decisions late and went 5 of 12 from the free-throw line in the final 12 minutes. The good news is that former five-star recruit Jarred Vanderbilt made his season debut, chipping in six points, five rebounds and three assists in 14 minutes.

19. Seton Hall (15–3)

Last Week (20): beat Georgetown
Next Week: at Creighton, vs. Xavier

The Pirates have a big week coming up that should have key ramifications on the Big East race, and they could use a couple solid performances from guard Myles Powell, who’s made a nice jump so far in his sophomore season. Powell has upped his scoring from 10.7 ppg to 14.2 in large part due to finding his three-point stroke. He shot a respectable 33.2% from deep as a freshman, but that number was low considering his team-high 205 attempts. He’s leading Seton Hall again in perimeter attempts this year, only now he’s connecting on 41.3% of them, which has helped lift his true shooting percentage nearly 10 percentage points to 63.4%.

20. Tennessee (12–4)

Last Week (25): beat Texas A&M
Next Week: at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs. Vanderbilt

The Vols have rebounded nicely after losing their first two SEC games, most recently handling Texas A&M by double digits despite a subpar offensive night by Grant Williams. Tennessee has played better when it hasn’t been forced to play faster than it wants; each of its three conference wins featured fewer than 70 possessions, while all four of its overall losses have seen more than 70. Probably not coincidentally, the Vols have also been more prone to turnovers when playing faster. Since Dec. 1, they’ve turned it over on 15.9% of their possessions in their five games with 69 or fewer possessions, and 19.5% of the time in their five games with 70 or more possessions.

21. Ohio State (15–4)

Last Week (NR): beat Maryland, beat Rutgers
Next Week: at Northwestern, vs. Minnesota (at MSG), vs. Nebraska

The two-team Big Ten party has been crashed by both the Buckeyes and Michigan (see below), who have each beat Michigan State recently and moved ahead of the Spartans in the standings. Ohio State is the biggest surprise in the league with a 6–0 start in what was expected to be a rebuilding year in Chris Holtmann’s first season. Keita Bates-Diop has been a revelation in his redshirt junior year after returning from injury, improving in nearly every facet of his game while serving as OSU’s go-to guy, taking 31.1% of its shots when he’s on the floor. His defensive rebounding rate is up to 25.4% after a 17.6% mark in his last full season, and he’s taking (and making) more threes than ever. After hitting 36 of 111 (32.4%) perimeter attempts as a sophomore, Bates-Diop is attempting 2.1 more per game this season and connecting on 41%.

22. Michigan (16–4)

Last Week: beat Michigan State, beat Maryland
Next Week: at Nebraska, vs. Rutgers

Free throws giveth, free throws taketh away. Isaac Haas’s tiebreaking free throw in the final seconds last week handed the Wolverines a recent heartbreaking loss—their only defeat in their last 10 games—but they were on the right end of the charity stripe on Monday when Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sunk two in the final 1.2 seconds to give them a one-point win over Maryland. Abdur-Rahkman has made 91.9% of his free throws this season and was the right man to have on the line, but Michigan overall has been one of the country’s weakest free-throw shooting teams at 65.8%. One of the ways it makes up for it is by limiting opponents’ second-chances: its defensive rebounding rate is tops in Big Ten play so far, and in its upset win over Michigan State it held the country’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just eight (on 28.6% of its misses, below the Spartans’ 37.8% season mark).

23. Clemson (15–3)

Last Week (16): lost to NC State, beat Miami, lost to North Carolina
Next Week: vs. Notre Dame, at Virginia

This won’t be the year the Tigers get their first-ever win in Chapel Hill, but they did pick up a home win over Miami to salvage an otherwise disappointing week. Clemson’s calling-card this year has been its defense, but in losses to NC State and UNC it gave up 1.15 and 1.21 points per possession, respectively, easily its highest totals given up all season. If there’s one area the Tigers have been weaker in overall on defense it’s been on the perimeter, and both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels took advantage, shooting 47.6% and 48.4%, respectively. It was especially killer in the loss to North Carolina, as Clemson had managed to hold the nation’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just five.

24. TCU (13–4)

Last Week (17): lost to Texas, lost to Oklahoma
Next Week: vs. Iowa State, at Kansas State, vs. West Virginia

Life in the Big 12, man. It’s rough. After a perfect mark in nonconference play, the Horned Frogs have started league action 1–4, including an overtime loss, a double-overtime loss and both a one-point loss and four-point loss in regulation (and oh yeah, it’s one win came in OT as well). It’s going to take a lot for TCU to climb back into the Big 12 race now, and it doesn’t get any easier with three games over the next six days. The Frogs have both shown the ability to score with anyone and the failure to stop anyone—through those five conference games, it leads the league in offensive efficiency and yet is last in defensive efficiency, per kenpom. That’s how you wind up playing three overtime games in five contests, but the law of averages says some of these close results will start going TCU’s way….right?

25. Saint Mary’s (17–2)

Last Week (NR): beat Santa Clara, beat Pepperdine
Next Week: at Gonzaga, at Pacific

The Gaels finally sneak in here after landing on the ‘next five out’ for the last few weeks, but whether it’s a short stay will be entirely decided by their performance in Spokane on Thursday night. Saint Mary’s résumé is weak and its head-scratching nonconference loss to Washington State still stands out, but this team knows how to score the basketball. Randy Bennett’s group has ranked in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom in each of the last two seasons, and this year it’s currently up to No. 3 behind underrated senior Jock Landale. Its defense, however, has dropped off considerably without Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau. If the Gaels are going to beat the Zags on the road, they’re going to need to slow the Bulldogs down to their pace and either win the battle in the paint, where both teams rank top-10 in two-point percentage, or shoot the lights out from deep.

DROPPED OUT: Florida, Miami, Notre Dame

NEXT FIVE OUT: Nevada, Rhode Island, Louisville, Florida, Miami

Mid-Major Meter

(For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10.)

1. Gonzaga: The Zags have a rare conference chance to improve their résumé and secure the upper leg in the WCC race this week.

2. Saint Mary’s: Are the Gaels a true threat to ending the Zags’ five-year run of regular season WCC titles? We’ll know Thursday night.

3. Nevada: The Wolfpack have started Mountain West play 5–0 and get their closest current challenger, Boise State, at home this weekend. Their offense is up to No. 9 nationally in adjusted efficiency.

4. New Mexico State: The Aggies have played four straight road games and won them all, three by double digits.

5. Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders have a big date with Western Kentucky in Bowling Green on Saturday that could see both teams come in undefeated in C-USA play.

<p>College hoops finally calmed down a bit in the last week, that is, unless you play in the Big 12, which continues to be a cage match night in and night out. We’re starting to get a clearer picture of which teams are for real, meanwhile some top contenders, such as Michigan State, have hit a stumbling block. We’re down to just three one-loss teams, one of which almost everyone saw coming (Villanova), one of which most didn’t see coming (Virginia) and one of which no one saw coming (Auburn). Here’s the new top 25:</p><h3>1. Villanova (16–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (1)</strong>: beat Xavier, beat St. John’s<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Georgetown, at UConn, vs. Providence</p><p>While last week the Wildcats were more of a default No. 1 after upsets rocked the top five, they more than proved they deserve the top ranking with their 24-point home rout of Xavier. After a few lackluster defensive showings, Villanova held the Musketeers to 0.92 points per possession and a 3-of-17 mark from three while forcing 15 turnovers. Meanwhile, the offense continues to hum and narrowly grabbed the top adjusted efficiency mark in the country away from Duke. The Wildcats have six different players playing at least 60% of the team’s minutes and posting an offensive rating of at least 116.9, and even role player Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has been very efficient when on the floor.</p><h3>2. Purdue (18–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (2)</strong>: beat Minnesota, beat Wisconsin<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Iowa</p><p>The Boilermakers are playing like the class of the Big Ten right now, and after back-to-back dominations of Minnesota and Wisconsin they’ve risen to the No. 1 overall rank on kenpom. They’re the only team with an offense and defense both ranked in the top 10 in adjusted efficiency and will probably be favored in all of their remaining games, the exception being their trip to East Lansing. In its last three games, Purdue has connected on 51.2% (40 of 78) of its threes, including a 14 of 22 performance against the Badgers that saw four different players knock down at least three treys. That’ll do.</p><h3>3. Virginia (16–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (5)</strong>: beat North Carolina State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest, vs. Clemson</p><p>With another great defensive showing, the Cavaliers made sure they weren’t NC State’s third straight upset victim with an easy win at home. UVA was able to do what Duke and Clemson weren’t by excelling in two areas it’s strong in: perimeter defense and forcing turnovers. In their two upset wins, NC State shot a combined 15 of 35 (42.9%) from three and committed just 14 total turnovers. Against Virginia, they shot 2 of 16 (12.5%) from three and turned it over 15 times. That’s the difference the Hoos can make, and why at 5–0 they should currently be considered the favorite to win the ACC.</p><h3>4. Duke (16–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (6)</strong>: beat Wake Forest, beat Miami<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Pittsburgh, at Wake Forest</p><p>Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen and, to a lesser extent, Wendell Carter Jr. typically dominate the conversation when it comes to discussing the Blue Devils’ potent offense, but let’s talk about Gary Trent Jr. Trent, you may or may not know, is leading Duke in three-point shooting at 41.4%, and that number has been 47.9% in five ACC games. In the last week, the freshman combined to go 12 of 16 from three, including hitting 6 of 9 as part of a breakout 30-point performance to help secure a big road win at Miami. Trent has found a home beyond the three-point line, where over half his shot attempts come, and of his 46 makes on the season, all but one have been assisted (per Hoop-Math).</p><h3>5. Wichita State (15–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (10)</strong>: beat East Carolina, beat Tulsa<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. SMU, at Houston</p><p>After an easy start to AAC play, the Shockers’ schedule is about to get a bit juicy. Their next week includes two top-45 kenpom teams in SMU and Houston, the latter of whom they already easily handled at home but now must face on the road. These games are exactly why Wichita State joined the American; while some AAC teams like South Florida and East Carolina don’t inspire much fear, there’s more opportunities now for stronger wins than it had the chance to get in the Missouri Valley, where it often could only make statements through the margin of its routs. In the AAC, the Shockers’ big showdowns will be with Cincinnati, who they don’t face until Feb. 18 and March 4, but before then they have other opportunities at wins that will directly help (or hurt) their standing on Selection Sunday. </p><h3>6. Texas Tech (15–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (11)</strong>: beat West Virginia<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Texas, at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State</p><p>The Red Raiders responded to their first Big 12 loss with a statement one-point win over then-No. 2 West Virginia over the weekend. With victories already over two of the league’s top challengers and a chance to avenge its loss to Oklahoma at home next month, Texas Tech can control its own destiny, but there’s still a long way to go. It owns the No. 2 adjusted efficient defense in the nation and has been strong at defending teams both inside and outside the perimeter. That’s been key, because one of the reasons the Red Raiders have been able to start 4–1 in the Big 12 is because all five opponents were held to either a two-point percentage under 50% or a three-point mark under 31%.</p><h3>7. Kansas (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (15)</strong>: beat Kansas State, beat West Virginia<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Baylor, at Oklahoma</p><p>The Jayhawks are sending a pretty clear message right now: <em>we’re still here</em>. After their Big 12 streak looked vulnerable following their Jan. 2 loss to Texas Tech, they’ve won four straight, including a crucial comeback road win at West Virginia Monday night. Kansas had, uhh, <a href="https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2018/01/15/sagaba-konate-west-virginia-kansas-block-highlights-video" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:some trouble" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">some trouble</a> driving to the rim on WVU’s Sagaba Konate in the first half, but rather than become three-point dependent as it’s done on many previous occasions this season, the Jayhawks found a way to score in the paint, making 9 of 12 there in the second half after going 6 of 20 in the first. Another positive sign of late for KU is that it’s started to improve on its obscenely low free-throw rate, posting a 33.2% mark in Big 12 play compared to 22.8% overall.</p><h3>8. Michigan State (16–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (4)</strong>: beat Rutgers, lost to Michigan<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Indiana, at Illinois</p><p>After a formidable 15–1 start to the season, the Spartans have hit a road block. Losses to Ohio State and Michigan sandwiched being taken to overtime at home by Rutgers, and MSU now finds itself looking up at three teams in the suddenly new-look Big Ten race. In its home loss to Michigan on Saturday, Michigan State exhibited both a familiar and unfamiliar trait. The familiar one was turnovers, which continue to be an issue holding back this team. The Spartans turned it over 18 times, giving it away on one out of every four possessions. The unfamiliar trait was the fact that they attempted just 12 threes, making three. MSU came into Saturday averaging 21.7 attempts per game, and its three makes against Michigan were its fewest since the season opener. When a team turns it over that much and gets just nine points from the perimeter against good competition, it’s rarely going to be a happy ending.</p><h3>9. West Virginia (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (3)</strong>: lost to Texas Tech, lost to Kansas<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Texas, at TCU</p><p>What had been the nation’s longest win streak came to an end in Lubbock on Saturday…and then the Mountaineers followed it up by blowing a 12-point lead with nine minutes left in a home loss to Kansas. WVU had beaten the Jayhawks four straight years in Morgantown before the defeat, and back-to-back losses to two of its top competition in the Big 12 race puts it in a mid-January hole. The Mountaineers’ ability to force turnovers is well documented, but they’ve been having a bit of their own turnover issue of late. On the season, West Virginia’s turnover percentage is 16.7%, but in six Big 12 games it’s ballooned to 20.3%, worse than all but two other league teams. Additionally, both Texas Tech and Kansas yielded 13 giveaways in their wins (on fewer than 20% of their possessions), a respectable number for most defenses—but not near the 26.7% average WVU thrives with.</p><h3>10. Oklahoma (14–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (7)</strong>: beat TCU, lost to Kansas State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Oklahoma State, vs. Kansas</p><p>Twelve. That’s how many turnovers star freshman Trae Young had in a road loss to Kansas State on Tuesday night—or as many as the Wildcats had as a team. Incredible as Young has been this season, his proclivity for miscues is going to catch up with him on occasion, like it did in Manhattan. Young is averaging 7.6 turnovers per game in six Big 12 games, but that can often be overlooked when you have the nation’s leading assist rate and can do things like this after your own missed free throw:</p><p>The fact is, Oklahoma plays incredibly fast—it plays at the third quickest tempo in the country and its possessions last an average of just 13.7 seconds, per kenpom—and Young is 19 years old and has earned plenty of freedom as the engineer of that offense. Oklahoma could obviously benefit from him making some smarter decisions, but his aggressiveness and free nature on the court have done a lot to get the Sooners to where they are right now.</p><h3>11. Arizona (14–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (13)</strong>: beat Oregon State, beat Oregon<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at California, at Stanford</p><p>After the Wildcats’ seven-point weekend win over Oregon, Sean Miller <a href="http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/recap?gameId=400988314" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:said" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">said</a> his team’s “ability to make free throws was the difference in the game,” and he wasn’t kidding. Arizona went to the line 37 times, making 34, which is fitting for the nation’s ninth-best free-throw shooting team. The ‘Cats needed every bit of those free points to make up for 17 turnovers, and it was no surprise that Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton took the most attempts, with 11 apiece. But Rawle Alkins also went 5 of 6 from the line, the fifth time in the nine games since his return that he’s attempted at least five at the charity stripe. Per Hoop-Math, Alkins is actually taking a smaller percentage of shots at the rim than he did as a freshman, but he’s making them count by getting fouled more, upping his free-throw rate from 32.7% to 55.3%. </p><h3>12. Xavier (16–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (8)</strong>: lost to Villanova, beat Creighton<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. St. John’s, at Seton Hall</p><p>The Musketeers didn’t come close to the result they were hoping for last week in Philly, and in five years in the Big East they’ve yet to put up a real challenge on the road at Villanova. But unlike last year, when it kicked off a three-game losing streak, this time Xavier responded with an authoritative win over a good Creighton team at home over the weekend. The difference for Trevon Bluiett and Kaiser Gates in particular was night and day; Gates was actually dropped from the starting lineup after scoring a total of three points in the Musketeers’ back-to-back losses, and he came back with his most efficient outing of the season in a 16-point, eight-rebound, two-steal effort against the Bluejays.</p><h3>13. Cincinnati (16–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (12)</strong>: beat South Florida, beat UCF<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. East Carolina</p><p>What happens when two top-five efficient defenses meet, which also belong to two of the country’s slowest-paced teams? You get a result like the 49–38 win that Cincinnati had over UCF on Tuesday night, which featured a total of 20 free throws and 35 field goals. The Bearcats held the Knights to a 10 of 33 (30.3%) mark inside the arc, which is even lower than their 38.7% average two-point defense, which ranks second in the country. Cincy’s offense isn’t going to overpower teams, but it knows how to grind out games and take advantage of opponents’ errors, like averaging 17.6 points off turnovers in AAC play.</p><h3>14. Arizona State (14–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (9)</strong>: lost to Oregon, beat Oregon State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Stanford, at Cal</p><p>The Sun Devils are officially trending downward. After a magical 12–0 nonconference run that nearly got them to the top of the polls, they’ve started Pac-12 play 2–3, with their two wins coming by a combined five points against mediocre competition. After losing to Oregon last week, they needed a second-half comeback to scrape by Oregon State, a team sitting outside the kenpom top-100. There’s been multiple reasons behind the drop off: ASU’s already unreliable defense has been even worse in conference play, giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions, the team’s shooting has declined (after going 50.8% of the field and 39.3% from three in nonconference, it has shot 41.4% from the field and 34.7% from three in Pac-12 play) and outside of the Sun Devils’ loss to Arizona, leading scorer Tra Holder has struggled to maintain the high level of efficiency he posted for much of nonconference action. The question that could define the rest of Arizona State’s season is whether its recent shooting issues are simply a slump or in fact a regression to the mean.</p><h3>15. Gonzaga (16–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (18)</strong>: beat Portland, beat San Francisco<br><strong>This Week</strong>: vs. Saint Mary’s, at Santa Clara</p><p>Part I of what seems destined to be another Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s trilogy that ends in the WCC tournament final is finally next, giving both teams the opportunity to pick up a significant win. The Zags will be going up against the Gaels’ third-ranked efficient offense, and plenty of eyes will be on Saint Mary’s senior Jock Landale. In two of three games last year, the Bulldogs were able to hold Landale to 10 points (he went for 24 in the other), but in all three they were able to get the big man into foul trouble, limiting him to 26, 25 and 19 minutes. That defensive job largely went to the departed Przemek Karnowski, so Gonzaga’s new-look frontcourt will look to have a similar level of success against the Gaels’ best player.</p><h3>16. Auburn (16–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (19)</strong>: beat Mississippi State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Alabama, vs. Georgia</p><p>Now alone in first at 4–0, could Auburn actually win the SEC? It’s early, but the Tigers haven’t been lucking into their wins. They’ve won all four games by no less than eight points and have had the most efficient offense in conference play so far. They also have a favorable schedule—they’ve already won their lone matchup with Tennessee, and they face other top challengers Kentucky and Florida once apiece and get a visit from the Wildcats, who have been vulnerable on the road. We’ve got a ways to go, but the Tigers are making noise for the first time in a long time and just might be able to cash in.</p><h3>17. North Carolina (15–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (21)</strong>: beat Notre Dame, beat Clemson<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech</p><p>The good for UNC in the last week: in a year that potentially seemed ripe for upstart Clemson to get its first-ever win in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels denied it behind their best performance yet from transfer Cameron Johnson, who made 6 of 9 threes. The bad: a game before that, North Carolina was an inch away from losing to a Notre Dame squad missing its two best players. The Heels got the win, which is most important, but somehow allowed the Bonzie Colson-less Irish to grab 20 offensive rebounds. UNC has been strong itself on the offensive boards this year, but it can’t allow itself to lose that battle 10-to-2 in the second half as it did against the Irish.</p><h3>18. Kentucky (14–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (14)</strong>: beat Vanderbilt, lost to South Carolina<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Florida, vs. Mississippi State</p><p>The Wildcats blew a 14-point second-half lead to South Carolina to drop to 4–2 in the SEC Tuesday night, and their youth was evident. The Gamecocks, whose effective field goal percentage ranks 309th in the country, didn’t spring the upset through a rare hot shooting night, but rather by simply outworking Kentucky’s freshmen late. The ‘Cats had no answer for Chris Silva, who finished with 27, and they made multiple bad decisions late and went 5 of 12 from the free-throw line in the final 12 minutes. The good news is that former five-star recruit Jarred Vanderbilt made his season debut, chipping in six points, five rebounds and three assists in 14 minutes.</p><h3>19. Seton Hall (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (20)</strong>: beat Georgetown<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Creighton, vs. Xavier</p><p>The Pirates have a big week coming up that should have key ramifications on the Big East race, and they could use a couple solid performances from guard Myles Powell, who’s made a nice jump so far in his sophomore season. Powell has upped his scoring from 10.7 ppg to 14.2 in large part due to finding his three-point stroke. He shot a respectable 33.2% from deep as a freshman, but that number was low considering his team-high 205 attempts. He’s leading Seton Hall again in perimeter attempts this year, only now he’s connecting on 41.3% of them, which has helped lift his true shooting percentage nearly 10 percentage points to 63.4%.</p><h3>20. Tennessee (12–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (25)</strong>: beat Texas A&#38;M<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs. Vanderbilt</p><p>The Vols have rebounded nicely after losing their first two SEC games, most recently handling Texas A&#38;M by double digits despite a subpar offensive night by Grant Williams. Tennessee has played better when it hasn’t been forced to play faster than it wants; each of its three conference wins featured fewer than 70 possessions, while all four of its overall losses have seen more than 70. Probably not coincidentally, the Vols have also been more prone to turnovers when playing faster. Since Dec. 1, they’ve turned it over on 15.9% of their possessions in their five games with 69 or fewer possessions, and 19.5% of the time in their five games with 70 or more possessions.</p><h3>21. Ohio State (15–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (NR)</strong>: beat Maryland, beat Rutgers<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Northwestern, vs. Minnesota (at MSG), vs. Nebraska</p><p>The two-team Big Ten party has been crashed by both the Buckeyes and Michigan (see below), who have each beat Michigan State recently and moved ahead of the Spartans in the standings. Ohio State is the biggest surprise in the league with a 6–0 start in what was expected to be a rebuilding year in Chris Holtmann’s first season. Keita Bates-Diop has been a revelation in his redshirt junior year after returning from injury, improving in nearly every facet of his game while serving as OSU’s go-to guy, taking 31.1% of its shots when he’s on the floor. His defensive rebounding rate is up to 25.4% after a 17.6% mark in his last full season, and he’s taking (and making) more threes than ever. After hitting 36 of 111 (32.4%) perimeter attempts as a sophomore, Bates-Diop is attempting 2.1 more per game this season and connecting on 41%.</p><h3>22. Michigan (16–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week</strong>: beat Michigan State, beat Maryland<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Nebraska, vs. Rutgers</p><p>Free throws giveth, free throws taketh away. Isaac Haas’s tiebreaking free throw in the final seconds last week handed the Wolverines a recent heartbreaking loss—their only defeat in their last 10 games—but they were on the right end of the charity stripe on Monday when Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sunk two in the final 1.2 seconds to give them a one-point win over Maryland. Abdur-Rahkman has made 91.9% of his free throws this season and was the right man to have on the line, but Michigan overall has been one of the country’s weakest free-throw shooting teams at 65.8%. One of the ways it makes up for it is by limiting opponents’ second-chances: its defensive rebounding rate is tops in Big Ten play so far, and in its upset win over Michigan State it held the country’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just eight (on 28.6% of its misses, below the Spartans’ 37.8% season mark).</p><h3>23. Clemson (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (16)</strong>: lost to NC State, beat Miami, lost to North Carolina<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Notre Dame, at Virginia</p><p>This won’t be the year the Tigers get their first-ever win in Chapel Hill, but they did pick up a home win over Miami to salvage an otherwise disappointing week. Clemson’s calling-card this year has been its defense, but in losses to NC State and UNC it gave up 1.15 and 1.21 points per possession, respectively, easily its highest totals given up all season. If there’s one area the Tigers have been weaker in overall on defense it’s been on the perimeter, and both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels took advantage, shooting 47.6% and 48.4%, respectively. It was especially killer in the loss to North Carolina, as Clemson had managed to hold the nation’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just five.</p><h3>24. TCU (13–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (17)</strong>: lost to Texas, lost to Oklahoma<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Iowa State, at Kansas State, vs. West Virginia</p><p>Life in the Big 12, man. It’s rough. After a perfect mark in nonconference play, the Horned Frogs have started league action 1–4, including an overtime loss, a double-overtime loss and both a one-point loss and four-point loss in regulation (and oh yeah, it’s one win came in OT as well). It’s going to take a lot for TCU to climb back into the Big 12 race now, and it doesn’t get any easier with three games over the next six days. The Frogs have both shown the ability to score with anyone and the failure to stop anyone—through those five conference games, it leads the league in offensive efficiency and yet is last in defensive efficiency, per kenpom. That’s how you wind up playing three overtime games in five contests, but the law of averages says some of these close results will start going TCU’s way….right?</p><h3>25. Saint Mary’s (17–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (NR)</strong>: beat Santa Clara, beat Pepperdine<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Gonzaga, at Pacific</p><p>The Gaels finally sneak in here after landing on the ‘next five out’ for the last few weeks, but whether it’s a short stay will be entirely decided by their performance in Spokane on Thursday night. Saint Mary’s résumé is weak and its head-scratching nonconference loss to Washington State still stands out, but this team knows how to score the basketball. Randy Bennett’s group has ranked in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom in each of the last two seasons, and this year it’s currently up to No. 3 behind underrated senior Jock Landale. Its defense, however, has dropped off considerably without Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau. If the Gaels are going to beat the Zags on the road, they’re going to need to slow the Bulldogs down to their pace and either win the battle in the paint, where both teams rank top-10 in two-point percentage, or shoot the lights out from deep.</p><p><strong>DROPPED OUT</strong>: Florida, Miami, Notre Dame</p><p><strong>NEXT FIVE OUT</strong>: Nevada, Rhode Island, Louisville, Florida, Miami</p><h3>Mid-Major Meter</h3><p>(<em>For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10</em>.)</p><p>1. <strong>Gonzaga</strong>: The Zags have a rare conference chance to improve their résumé and secure the upper leg in the WCC race this week.</p><p>2. <strong>Saint Mary’s</strong>: Are the Gaels a true threat to ending the Zags’ five-year run of regular season WCC titles? We’ll know Thursday night.</p><p>3. <strong>Nevada</strong>: The Wolfpack have started Mountain West play 5–0 and get their closest current challenger, Boise State, at home this weekend. Their offense is up to No. 9 nationally in adjusted efficiency.</p><p>4. <strong>New Mexico State</strong>: The Aggies have played four straight road games and won them all, three by double digits.</p><p>5. <strong>Middle Tennessee</strong>: The Blue Raiders have a big date with Western Kentucky in Bowling Green on Saturday that could see both teams come in undefeated in C-USA play.</p>
Power Rankings: The Three Remaining One-Loss Teams, Big 12's Depth Spark Changes

College hoops finally calmed down a bit in the last week, that is, unless you play in the Big 12, which continues to be a cage match night in and night out. We’re starting to get a clearer picture of which teams are for real, meanwhile some top contenders, such as Michigan State, have hit a stumbling block. We’re down to just three one-loss teams, one of which almost everyone saw coming (Villanova), one of which most didn’t see coming (Virginia) and one of which no one saw coming (Auburn). Here’s the new top 25:

1. Villanova (16–1)

Last Week (1): beat Xavier, beat St. John’s
Next Week: at Georgetown, at UConn, vs. Providence

While last week the Wildcats were more of a default No. 1 after upsets rocked the top five, they more than proved they deserve the top ranking with their 24-point home rout of Xavier. After a few lackluster defensive showings, Villanova held the Musketeers to 0.92 points per possession and a 3-of-17 mark from three while forcing 15 turnovers. Meanwhile, the offense continues to hum and narrowly grabbed the top adjusted efficiency mark in the country away from Duke. The Wildcats have six different players playing at least 60% of the team’s minutes and posting an offensive rating of at least 116.9, and even role player Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has been very efficient when on the floor.

2. Purdue (18–2)

Last Week (2): beat Minnesota, beat Wisconsin
Next Week: at Iowa

The Boilermakers are playing like the class of the Big Ten right now, and after back-to-back dominations of Minnesota and Wisconsin they’ve risen to the No. 1 overall rank on kenpom. They’re the only team with an offense and defense both ranked in the top 10 in adjusted efficiency and will probably be favored in all of their remaining games, the exception being their trip to East Lansing. In its last three games, Purdue has connected on 51.2% (40 of 78) of its threes, including a 14 of 22 performance against the Badgers that saw four different players knock down at least three treys. That’ll do.

3. Virginia (16–1)

Last Week (5): beat North Carolina State
Next Week: at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest, vs. Clemson

With another great defensive showing, the Cavaliers made sure they weren’t NC State’s third straight upset victim with an easy win at home. UVA was able to do what Duke and Clemson weren’t by excelling in two areas it’s strong in: perimeter defense and forcing turnovers. In their two upset wins, NC State shot a combined 15 of 35 (42.9%) from three and committed just 14 total turnovers. Against Virginia, they shot 2 of 16 (12.5%) from three and turned it over 15 times. That’s the difference the Hoos can make, and why at 5–0 they should currently be considered the favorite to win the ACC.

4. Duke (16–2)

Last Week (6): beat Wake Forest, beat Miami
Next Week: vs. Pittsburgh, at Wake Forest

Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen and, to a lesser extent, Wendell Carter Jr. typically dominate the conversation when it comes to discussing the Blue Devils’ potent offense, but let’s talk about Gary Trent Jr. Trent, you may or may not know, is leading Duke in three-point shooting at 41.4%, and that number has been 47.9% in five ACC games. In the last week, the freshman combined to go 12 of 16 from three, including hitting 6 of 9 as part of a breakout 30-point performance to help secure a big road win at Miami. Trent has found a home beyond the three-point line, where over half his shot attempts come, and of his 46 makes on the season, all but one have been assisted (per Hoop-Math).

5. Wichita State (15–2)

Last Week (10): beat East Carolina, beat Tulsa
Next Week: vs. SMU, at Houston

After an easy start to AAC play, the Shockers’ schedule is about to get a bit juicy. Their next week includes two top-45 kenpom teams in SMU and Houston, the latter of whom they already easily handled at home but now must face on the road. These games are exactly why Wichita State joined the American; while some AAC teams like South Florida and East Carolina don’t inspire much fear, there’s more opportunities now for stronger wins than it had the chance to get in the Missouri Valley, where it often could only make statements through the margin of its routs. In the AAC, the Shockers’ big showdowns will be with Cincinnati, who they don’t face until Feb. 18 and March 4, but before then they have other opportunities at wins that will directly help (or hurt) their standing on Selection Sunday.

6. Texas Tech (15–2)

Last Week (11): beat West Virginia
Next Week: at Texas, at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State

The Red Raiders responded to their first Big 12 loss with a statement one-point win over then-No. 2 West Virginia over the weekend. With victories already over two of the league’s top challengers and a chance to avenge its loss to Oklahoma at home next month, Texas Tech can control its own destiny, but there’s still a long way to go. It owns the No. 2 adjusted efficient defense in the nation and has been strong at defending teams both inside and outside the perimeter. That’s been key, because one of the reasons the Red Raiders have been able to start 4–1 in the Big 12 is because all five opponents were held to either a two-point percentage under 50% or a three-point mark under 31%.

7. Kansas (15–3)

Last Week (15): beat Kansas State, beat West Virginia
Next Week: vs. Baylor, at Oklahoma

The Jayhawks are sending a pretty clear message right now: we’re still here. After their Big 12 streak looked vulnerable following their Jan. 2 loss to Texas Tech, they’ve won four straight, including a crucial comeback road win at West Virginia Monday night. Kansas had, uhh, some trouble driving to the rim on WVU’s Sagaba Konate in the first half, but rather than become three-point dependent as it’s done on many previous occasions this season, the Jayhawks found a way to score in the paint, making 9 of 12 there in the second half after going 6 of 20 in the first. Another positive sign of late for KU is that it’s started to improve on its obscenely low free-throw rate, posting a 33.2% mark in Big 12 play compared to 22.8% overall.

8. Michigan State (16–3)

Last Week (4): beat Rutgers, lost to Michigan
Next Week: vs. Indiana, at Illinois

After a formidable 15–1 start to the season, the Spartans have hit a road block. Losses to Ohio State and Michigan sandwiched being taken to overtime at home by Rutgers, and MSU now finds itself looking up at three teams in the suddenly new-look Big Ten race. In its home loss to Michigan on Saturday, Michigan State exhibited both a familiar and unfamiliar trait. The familiar one was turnovers, which continue to be an issue holding back this team. The Spartans turned it over 18 times, giving it away on one out of every four possessions. The unfamiliar trait was the fact that they attempted just 12 threes, making three. MSU came into Saturday averaging 21.7 attempts per game, and its three makes against Michigan were its fewest since the season opener. When a team turns it over that much and gets just nine points from the perimeter against good competition, it’s rarely going to be a happy ending.

9. West Virginia (15–3)

Last Week (3): lost to Texas Tech, lost to Kansas
Next Week: vs. Texas, at TCU

What had been the nation’s longest win streak came to an end in Lubbock on Saturday…and then the Mountaineers followed it up by blowing a 12-point lead with nine minutes left in a home loss to Kansas. WVU had beaten the Jayhawks four straight years in Morgantown before the defeat, and back-to-back losses to two of its top competition in the Big 12 race puts it in a mid-January hole. The Mountaineers’ ability to force turnovers is well documented, but they’ve been having a bit of their own turnover issue of late. On the season, West Virginia’s turnover percentage is 16.7%, but in six Big 12 games it’s ballooned to 20.3%, worse than all but two other league teams. Additionally, both Texas Tech and Kansas yielded 13 giveaways in their wins (on fewer than 20% of their possessions), a respectable number for most defenses—but not near the 26.7% average WVU thrives with.

10. Oklahoma (14–3)

Last Week (7): beat TCU, lost to Kansas State
Next Week: at Oklahoma State, vs. Kansas

Twelve. That’s how many turnovers star freshman Trae Young had in a road loss to Kansas State on Tuesday night—or as many as the Wildcats had as a team. Incredible as Young has been this season, his proclivity for miscues is going to catch up with him on occasion, like it did in Manhattan. Young is averaging 7.6 turnovers per game in six Big 12 games, but that can often be overlooked when you have the nation’s leading assist rate and can do things like this after your own missed free throw:

The fact is, Oklahoma plays incredibly fast—it plays at the third quickest tempo in the country and its possessions last an average of just 13.7 seconds, per kenpom—and Young is 19 years old and has earned plenty of freedom as the engineer of that offense. Oklahoma could obviously benefit from him making some smarter decisions, but his aggressiveness and free nature on the court have done a lot to get the Sooners to where they are right now.

11. Arizona (14–4)

Last Week (13): beat Oregon State, beat Oregon
Next Week: at California, at Stanford

After the Wildcats’ seven-point weekend win over Oregon, Sean Miller said his team’s “ability to make free throws was the difference in the game,” and he wasn’t kidding. Arizona went to the line 37 times, making 34, which is fitting for the nation’s ninth-best free-throw shooting team. The ‘Cats needed every bit of those free points to make up for 17 turnovers, and it was no surprise that Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton took the most attempts, with 11 apiece. But Rawle Alkins also went 5 of 6 from the line, the fifth time in the nine games since his return that he’s attempted at least five at the charity stripe. Per Hoop-Math, Alkins is actually taking a smaller percentage of shots at the rim than he did as a freshman, but he’s making them count by getting fouled more, upping his free-throw rate from 32.7% to 55.3%.

12. Xavier (16–3)

Last Week (8): lost to Villanova, beat Creighton
Next Week: vs. St. John’s, at Seton Hall

The Musketeers didn’t come close to the result they were hoping for last week in Philly, and in five years in the Big East they’ve yet to put up a real challenge on the road at Villanova. But unlike last year, when it kicked off a three-game losing streak, this time Xavier responded with an authoritative win over a good Creighton team at home over the weekend. The difference for Trevon Bluiett and Kaiser Gates in particular was night and day; Gates was actually dropped from the starting lineup after scoring a total of three points in the Musketeers’ back-to-back losses, and he came back with his most efficient outing of the season in a 16-point, eight-rebound, two-steal effort against the Bluejays.

13. Cincinnati (16–2)

Last Week (12): beat South Florida, beat UCF
Next Week: vs. East Carolina

What happens when two top-five efficient defenses meet, which also belong to two of the country’s slowest-paced teams? You get a result like the 49–38 win that Cincinnati had over UCF on Tuesday night, which featured a total of 20 free throws and 35 field goals. The Bearcats held the Knights to a 10 of 33 (30.3%) mark inside the arc, which is even lower than their 38.7% average two-point defense, which ranks second in the country. Cincy’s offense isn’t going to overpower teams, but it knows how to grind out games and take advantage of opponents’ errors, like averaging 17.6 points off turnovers in AAC play.

14. Arizona State (14–3)

Last Week (9): lost to Oregon, beat Oregon State
Next Week: at Stanford, at Cal

The Sun Devils are officially trending downward. After a magical 12–0 nonconference run that nearly got them to the top of the polls, they’ve started Pac-12 play 2–3, with their two wins coming by a combined five points against mediocre competition. After losing to Oregon last week, they needed a second-half comeback to scrape by Oregon State, a team sitting outside the kenpom top-100. There’s been multiple reasons behind the drop off: ASU’s already unreliable defense has been even worse in conference play, giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions, the team’s shooting has declined (after going 50.8% of the field and 39.3% from three in nonconference, it has shot 41.4% from the field and 34.7% from three in Pac-12 play) and outside of the Sun Devils’ loss to Arizona, leading scorer Tra Holder has struggled to maintain the high level of efficiency he posted for much of nonconference action. The question that could define the rest of Arizona State’s season is whether its recent shooting issues are simply a slump or in fact a regression to the mean.

15. Gonzaga (16–3)

Last Week (18): beat Portland, beat San Francisco
This Week: vs. Saint Mary’s, at Santa Clara

Part I of what seems destined to be another Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s trilogy that ends in the WCC tournament final is finally next, giving both teams the opportunity to pick up a significant win. The Zags will be going up against the Gaels’ third-ranked efficient offense, and plenty of eyes will be on Saint Mary’s senior Jock Landale. In two of three games last year, the Bulldogs were able to hold Landale to 10 points (he went for 24 in the other), but in all three they were able to get the big man into foul trouble, limiting him to 26, 25 and 19 minutes. That defensive job largely went to the departed Przemek Karnowski, so Gonzaga’s new-look frontcourt will look to have a similar level of success against the Gaels’ best player.

16. Auburn (16–1)

Last Week (19): beat Mississippi State
Next Week: at Alabama, vs. Georgia

Now alone in first at 4–0, could Auburn actually win the SEC? It’s early, but the Tigers haven’t been lucking into their wins. They’ve won all four games by no less than eight points and have had the most efficient offense in conference play so far. They also have a favorable schedule—they’ve already won their lone matchup with Tennessee, and they face other top challengers Kentucky and Florida once apiece and get a visit from the Wildcats, who have been vulnerable on the road. We’ve got a ways to go, but the Tigers are making noise for the first time in a long time and just might be able to cash in.

17. North Carolina (15–4)

Last Week (21): beat Notre Dame, beat Clemson
Next Week: vs. Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech

The good for UNC in the last week: in a year that potentially seemed ripe for upstart Clemson to get its first-ever win in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels denied it behind their best performance yet from transfer Cameron Johnson, who made 6 of 9 threes. The bad: a game before that, North Carolina was an inch away from losing to a Notre Dame squad missing its two best players. The Heels got the win, which is most important, but somehow allowed the Bonzie Colson-less Irish to grab 20 offensive rebounds. UNC has been strong itself on the offensive boards this year, but it can’t allow itself to lose that battle 10-to-2 in the second half as it did against the Irish.

18. Kentucky (14–4)

Last Week (14): beat Vanderbilt, lost to South Carolina
Next Week: vs. Florida, vs. Mississippi State

The Wildcats blew a 14-point second-half lead to South Carolina to drop to 4–2 in the SEC Tuesday night, and their youth was evident. The Gamecocks, whose effective field goal percentage ranks 309th in the country, didn’t spring the upset through a rare hot shooting night, but rather by simply outworking Kentucky’s freshmen late. The ‘Cats had no answer for Chris Silva, who finished with 27, and they made multiple bad decisions late and went 5 of 12 from the free-throw line in the final 12 minutes. The good news is that former five-star recruit Jarred Vanderbilt made his season debut, chipping in six points, five rebounds and three assists in 14 minutes.

19. Seton Hall (15–3)

Last Week (20): beat Georgetown
Next Week: at Creighton, vs. Xavier

The Pirates have a big week coming up that should have key ramifications on the Big East race, and they could use a couple solid performances from guard Myles Powell, who’s made a nice jump so far in his sophomore season. Powell has upped his scoring from 10.7 ppg to 14.2 in large part due to finding his three-point stroke. He shot a respectable 33.2% from deep as a freshman, but that number was low considering his team-high 205 attempts. He’s leading Seton Hall again in perimeter attempts this year, only now he’s connecting on 41.3% of them, which has helped lift his true shooting percentage nearly 10 percentage points to 63.4%.

20. Tennessee (12–4)

Last Week (25): beat Texas A&M
Next Week: at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs. Vanderbilt

The Vols have rebounded nicely after losing their first two SEC games, most recently handling Texas A&M by double digits despite a subpar offensive night by Grant Williams. Tennessee has played better when it hasn’t been forced to play faster than it wants; each of its three conference wins featured fewer than 70 possessions, while all four of its overall losses have seen more than 70. Probably not coincidentally, the Vols have also been more prone to turnovers when playing faster. Since Dec. 1, they’ve turned it over on 15.9% of their possessions in their five games with 69 or fewer possessions, and 19.5% of the time in their five games with 70 or more possessions.

21. Ohio State (15–4)

Last Week (NR): beat Maryland, beat Rutgers
Next Week: at Northwestern, vs. Minnesota (at MSG), vs. Nebraska

The two-team Big Ten party has been crashed by both the Buckeyes and Michigan (see below), who have each beat Michigan State recently and moved ahead of the Spartans in the standings. Ohio State is the biggest surprise in the league with a 6–0 start in what was expected to be a rebuilding year in Chris Holtmann’s first season. Keita Bates-Diop has been a revelation in his redshirt junior year after returning from injury, improving in nearly every facet of his game while serving as OSU’s go-to guy, taking 31.1% of its shots when he’s on the floor. His defensive rebounding rate is up to 25.4% after a 17.6% mark in his last full season, and he’s taking (and making) more threes than ever. After hitting 36 of 111 (32.4%) perimeter attempts as a sophomore, Bates-Diop is attempting 2.1 more per game this season and connecting on 41%.

22. Michigan (16–4)

Last Week: beat Michigan State, beat Maryland
Next Week: at Nebraska, vs. Rutgers

Free throws giveth, free throws taketh away. Isaac Haas’s tiebreaking free throw in the final seconds last week handed the Wolverines a recent heartbreaking loss—their only defeat in their last 10 games—but they were on the right end of the charity stripe on Monday when Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sunk two in the final 1.2 seconds to give them a one-point win over Maryland. Abdur-Rahkman has made 91.9% of his free throws this season and was the right man to have on the line, but Michigan overall has been one of the country’s weakest free-throw shooting teams at 65.8%. One of the ways it makes up for it is by limiting opponents’ second-chances: its defensive rebounding rate is tops in Big Ten play so far, and in its upset win over Michigan State it held the country’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just eight (on 28.6% of its misses, below the Spartans’ 37.8% season mark).

23. Clemson (15–3)

Last Week (16): lost to NC State, beat Miami, lost to North Carolina
Next Week: vs. Notre Dame, at Virginia

This won’t be the year the Tigers get their first-ever win in Chapel Hill, but they did pick up a home win over Miami to salvage an otherwise disappointing week. Clemson’s calling-card this year has been its defense, but in losses to NC State and UNC it gave up 1.15 and 1.21 points per possession, respectively, easily its highest totals given up all season. If there’s one area the Tigers have been weaker in overall on defense it’s been on the perimeter, and both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels took advantage, shooting 47.6% and 48.4%, respectively. It was especially killer in the loss to North Carolina, as Clemson had managed to hold the nation’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just five.

24. TCU (13–4)

Last Week (17): lost to Texas, lost to Oklahoma
Next Week: vs. Iowa State, at Kansas State, vs. West Virginia

Life in the Big 12, man. It’s rough. After a perfect mark in nonconference play, the Horned Frogs have started league action 1–4, including an overtime loss, a double-overtime loss and both a one-point loss and four-point loss in regulation (and oh yeah, it’s one win came in OT as well). It’s going to take a lot for TCU to climb back into the Big 12 race now, and it doesn’t get any easier with three games over the next six days. The Frogs have both shown the ability to score with anyone and the failure to stop anyone—through those five conference games, it leads the league in offensive efficiency and yet is last in defensive efficiency, per kenpom. That’s how you wind up playing three overtime games in five contests, but the law of averages says some of these close results will start going TCU’s way….right?

25. Saint Mary’s (17–2)

Last Week (NR): beat Santa Clara, beat Pepperdine
Next Week: at Gonzaga, at Pacific

The Gaels finally sneak in here after landing on the ‘next five out’ for the last few weeks, but whether it’s a short stay will be entirely decided by their performance in Spokane on Thursday night. Saint Mary’s résumé is weak and its head-scratching nonconference loss to Washington State still stands out, but this team knows how to score the basketball. Randy Bennett’s group has ranked in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom in each of the last two seasons, and this year it’s currently up to No. 3 behind underrated senior Jock Landale. Its defense, however, has dropped off considerably without Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau. If the Gaels are going to beat the Zags on the road, they’re going to need to slow the Bulldogs down to their pace and either win the battle in the paint, where both teams rank top-10 in two-point percentage, or shoot the lights out from deep.

DROPPED OUT: Florida, Miami, Notre Dame

NEXT FIVE OUT: Nevada, Rhode Island, Louisville, Florida, Miami

Mid-Major Meter

(For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10.)

1. Gonzaga: The Zags have a rare conference chance to improve their résumé and secure the upper leg in the WCC race this week.

2. Saint Mary’s: Are the Gaels a true threat to ending the Zags’ five-year run of regular season WCC titles? We’ll know Thursday night.

3. Nevada: The Wolfpack have started Mountain West play 5–0 and get their closest current challenger, Boise State, at home this weekend. Their offense is up to No. 9 nationally in adjusted efficiency.

4. New Mexico State: The Aggies have played four straight road games and won them all, three by double digits.

5. Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders have a big date with Western Kentucky in Bowling Green on Saturday that could see both teams come in undefeated in C-USA play.

<p>College hoops finally calmed down a bit in the last week, that is, unless you play in the Big 12, which continues to be a cage match night in and night out. We’re starting to get a clearer picture of which teams are for real, meanwhile some top contenders, such as Michigan State, have hit a stumbling block. We’re down to just three one-loss teams, one of which almost everyone saw coming (Villanova), one of which most didn’t see coming (Virginia) and one of which no one saw coming (Auburn). Here’s the new top 25:</p><h3>1. Villanova (16–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (1)</strong>: beat Xavier, beat St. John’s<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Georgetown, at UConn, vs. Providence</p><p>While last week the Wildcats were more of a default No. 1 after upsets rocked the top five, they more than proved they deserve the top ranking with their 24-point home rout of Xavier. After a few lackluster defensive showings, Villanova held the Musketeers to 0.92 points per possession and a 3-of-17 mark from three while forcing 15 turnovers. Meanwhile, the offense continues to hum and narrowly grabbed the top adjusted efficiency mark in the country away from Duke. The Wildcats have six different players playing at least 60% of the team’s minutes and posting an offensive rating of at least 116.9, and even role player Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has been very efficient when on the floor.</p><h3>2. Purdue (18–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (2)</strong>: beat Minnesota, beat Wisconsin<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Iowa</p><p>The Boilermakers are playing like the class of the Big Ten right now, and after back-to-back dominations of Minnesota and Wisconsin they’ve risen to the No. 1 overall rank on kenpom. They’re the only team with an offense and defense both ranked in the top 10 in adjusted efficiency and will probably be favored in all of their remaining games, the exception being their trip to East Lansing. In its last three games, Purdue has connected on 51.2% (40 of 78) of its threes, including a 14 of 22 performance against the Badgers that saw four different players knock down at least three treys. That’ll do.</p><h3>3. Virginia (16–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (5)</strong>: beat North Carolina State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest, vs. Clemson</p><p>With another great defensive showing, the Cavaliers made sure they weren’t NC State’s third straight upset victim with an easy win at home. UVA was able to do what Duke and Clemson weren’t by excelling in two areas it’s strong in: perimeter defense and forcing turnovers. In their two upset wins, NC State shot a combined 15 of 35 (42.9%) from three and committed just 14 total turnovers. Against Virginia, they shot 2 of 16 (12.5%) from three and turned it over 15 times. That’s the difference the Hoos can make, and why at 5–0 they should currently be considered the favorite to win the ACC.</p><h3>4. Duke (16–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (6)</strong>: beat Wake Forest, beat Miami<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Pittsburgh, at Wake Forest</p><p>Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen and, to a lesser extent, Wendell Carter Jr. typically dominate the conversation when it comes to discussing the Blue Devils’ potent offense, but let’s talk about Gary Trent Jr. Trent, you may or may not know, is leading Duke in three-point shooting at 41.4%, and that number has been 47.9% in five ACC games. In the last week, the freshman combined to go 12 of 16 from three, including hitting 6 of 9 as part of a breakout 30-point performance to help secure a big road win at Miami. Trent has found a home beyond the three-point line, where over half his shot attempts come, and of his 46 makes on the season, all but one have been assisted (per Hoop-Math).</p><h3>5. Wichita State (15–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (10)</strong>: beat East Carolina, beat Tulsa<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. SMU, at Houston</p><p>After an easy start to AAC play, the Shockers’ schedule is about to get a bit juicy. Their next week includes two top-45 kenpom teams in SMU and Houston, the latter of whom they already easily handled at home but now must face on the road. These games are exactly why Wichita State joined the American; while some AAC teams like South Florida and East Carolina don’t inspire much fear, there’s more opportunities now for stronger wins than it had the chance to get in the Missouri Valley, where it often could only make statements through the margin of its routs. In the AAC, the Shockers’ big showdowns will be with Cincinnati, who they don’t face until Feb. 18 and March 4, but before then they have other opportunities at wins that will directly help (or hurt) their standing on Selection Sunday. </p><h3>6. Texas Tech (15–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (11)</strong>: beat West Virginia<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Texas, at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State</p><p>The Red Raiders responded to their first Big 12 loss with a statement one-point win over then-No. 2 West Virginia over the weekend. With victories already over two of the league’s top challengers and a chance to avenge its loss to Oklahoma at home next month, Texas Tech can control its own destiny, but there’s still a long way to go. It owns the No. 2 adjusted efficient defense in the nation and has been strong at defending teams both inside and outside the perimeter. That’s been key, because one of the reasons the Red Raiders have been able to start 4–1 in the Big 12 is because all five opponents were held to either a two-point percentage under 50% or a three-point mark under 31%.</p><h3>7. Kansas (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (15)</strong>: beat Kansas State, beat West Virginia<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Baylor, at Oklahoma</p><p>The Jayhawks are sending a pretty clear message right now: <em>we’re still here</em>. After their Big 12 streak looked vulnerable following their Jan. 2 loss to Texas Tech, they’ve won four straight, including a crucial comeback road win at West Virginia Monday night. Kansas had, uhh, <a href="https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2018/01/15/sagaba-konate-west-virginia-kansas-block-highlights-video" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:some trouble" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">some trouble</a> driving to the rim on WVU’s Sagaba Konate in the first half, but rather than become three-point dependent as it’s done on many previous occasions this season, the Jayhawks found a way to score in the paint, making 9 of 12 there in the second half after going 6 of 20 in the first. Another positive sign of late for KU is that it’s started to improve on its obscenely low free-throw rate, posting a 33.2% mark in Big 12 play compared to 22.8% overall.</p><h3>8. Michigan State (16–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (4)</strong>: beat Rutgers, lost to Michigan<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Indiana, at Illinois</p><p>After a formidable 15–1 start to the season, the Spartans have hit a road block. Losses to Ohio State and Michigan sandwiched being taken to overtime at home by Rutgers, and MSU now finds itself looking up at three teams in the suddenly new-look Big Ten race. In its home loss to Michigan on Saturday, Michigan State exhibited both a familiar and unfamiliar trait. The familiar one was turnovers, which continue to be an issue holding back this team. The Spartans turned it over 18 times, giving it away on one out of every four possessions. The unfamiliar trait was the fact that they attempted just 12 threes, making three. MSU came into Saturday averaging 21.7 attempts per game, and its three makes against Michigan were its fewest since the season opener. When a team turns it over that much and gets just nine points from the perimeter against good competition, it’s rarely going to be a happy ending.</p><h3>9. West Virginia (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (3)</strong>: lost to Texas Tech, lost to Kansas<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Texas, at TCU</p><p>What had been the nation’s longest win streak came to an end in Lubbock on Saturday…and then the Mountaineers followed it up by blowing a 12-point lead with nine minutes left in a home loss to Kansas. WVU had beaten the Jayhawks four straight years in Morgantown before the defeat, and back-to-back losses to two of its top competition in the Big 12 race puts it in a mid-January hole. The Mountaineers’ ability to force turnovers is well documented, but they’ve been having a bit of their own turnover issue of late. On the season, West Virginia’s turnover percentage is 16.7%, but in six Big 12 games it’s ballooned to 20.3%, worse than all but two other league teams. Additionally, both Texas Tech and Kansas yielded 13 giveaways in their wins (on fewer than 20% of their possessions), a respectable number for most defenses—but not near the 26.7% average WVU thrives with.</p><h3>10. Oklahoma (14–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (7)</strong>: beat TCU, lost to Kansas State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Oklahoma State, vs. Kansas</p><p>Twelve. That’s how many turnovers star freshman Trae Young had in a road loss to Kansas State on Tuesday night—or as many as the Wildcats had as a team. Incredible as Young has been this season, his proclivity for miscues is going to catch up with him on occasion, like it did in Manhattan. Young is averaging 7.6 turnovers per game in six Big 12 games, but that can often be overlooked when you have the nation’s leading assist rate and can do things like this after your own missed free throw:</p><p>The fact is, Oklahoma plays incredibly fast—it plays at the third quickest tempo in the country and its possessions last an average of just 13.7 seconds, per kenpom—and Young is 19 years old and has earned plenty of freedom as the engineer of that offense. Oklahoma could obviously benefit from him making some smarter decisions, but his aggressiveness and free nature on the court have done a lot to get the Sooners to where they are right now.</p><h3>11. Arizona (14–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (13)</strong>: beat Oregon State, beat Oregon<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at California, at Stanford</p><p>After the Wildcats’ seven-point weekend win over Oregon, Sean Miller <a href="http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/recap?gameId=400988314" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:said" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">said</a> his team’s “ability to make free throws was the difference in the game,” and he wasn’t kidding. Arizona went to the line 37 times, making 34, which is fitting for the nation’s ninth-best free-throw shooting team. The ‘Cats needed every bit of those free points to make up for 17 turnovers, and it was no surprise that Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton took the most attempts, with 11 apiece. But Rawle Alkins also went 5 of 6 from the line, the fifth time in the nine games since his return that he’s attempted at least five at the charity stripe. Per Hoop-Math, Alkins is actually taking a smaller percentage of shots at the rim than he did as a freshman, but he’s making them count by getting fouled more, upping his free-throw rate from 32.7% to 55.3%. </p><h3>12. Xavier (16–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (8)</strong>: lost to Villanova, beat Creighton<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. St. John’s, at Seton Hall</p><p>The Musketeers didn’t come close to the result they were hoping for last week in Philly, and in five years in the Big East they’ve yet to put up a real challenge on the road at Villanova. But unlike last year, when it kicked off a three-game losing streak, this time Xavier responded with an authoritative win over a good Creighton team at home over the weekend. The difference for Trevon Bluiett and Kaiser Gates in particular was night and day; Gates was actually dropped from the starting lineup after scoring a total of three points in the Musketeers’ back-to-back losses, and he came back with his most efficient outing of the season in a 16-point, eight-rebound, two-steal effort against the Bluejays.</p><h3>13. Cincinnati (16–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (12)</strong>: beat South Florida, beat UCF<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. East Carolina</p><p>What happens when two top-five efficient defenses meet, which also belong to two of the country’s slowest-paced teams? You get a result like the 49–38 win that Cincinnati had over UCF on Tuesday night, which featured a total of 20 free throws and 35 field goals. The Bearcats held the Knights to a 10 of 33 (30.3%) mark inside the arc, which is even lower than their 38.7% average two-point defense, which ranks second in the country. Cincy’s offense isn’t going to overpower teams, but it knows how to grind out games and take advantage of opponents’ errors, like averaging 17.6 points off turnovers in AAC play.</p><h3>14. Arizona State (14–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (9)</strong>: lost to Oregon, beat Oregon State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Stanford, at Cal</p><p>The Sun Devils are officially trending downward. After a magical 12–0 nonconference run that nearly got them to the top of the polls, they’ve started Pac-12 play 2–3, with their two wins coming by a combined five points against mediocre competition. After losing to Oregon last week, they needed a second-half comeback to scrape by Oregon State, a team sitting outside the kenpom top-100. There’s been multiple reasons behind the drop off: ASU’s already unreliable defense has been even worse in conference play, giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions, the team’s shooting has declined (after going 50.8% of the field and 39.3% from three in nonconference, it has shot 41.4% from the field and 34.7% from three in Pac-12 play) and outside of the Sun Devils’ loss to Arizona, leading scorer Tra Holder has struggled to maintain the high level of efficiency he posted for much of nonconference action. The question that could define the rest of Arizona State’s season is whether its recent shooting issues are simply a slump or in fact a regression to the mean.</p><h3>15. Gonzaga (16–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (18)</strong>: beat Portland, beat San Francisco<br><strong>This Week</strong>: vs. Saint Mary’s, at Santa Clara</p><p>Part I of what seems destined to be another Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s trilogy that ends in the WCC tournament final is finally next, giving both teams the opportunity to pick up a significant win. The Zags will be going up against the Gaels’ third-ranked efficient offense, and plenty of eyes will be on Saint Mary’s senior Jock Landale. In two of three games last year, the Bulldogs were able to hold Landale to 10 points (he went for 24 in the other), but in all three they were able to get the big man into foul trouble, limiting him to 26, 25 and 19 minutes. That defensive job largely went to the departed Przemek Karnowski, so Gonzaga’s new-look frontcourt will look to have a similar level of success against the Gaels’ best player.</p><h3>16. Auburn (16–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (19)</strong>: beat Mississippi State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Alabama, vs. Georgia</p><p>Now alone in first at 4–0, could Auburn actually win the SEC? It’s early, but the Tigers haven’t been lucking into their wins. They’ve won all four games by no less than eight points and have had the most efficient offense in conference play so far. They also have a favorable schedule—they’ve already won their lone matchup with Tennessee, and they face other top challengers Kentucky and Florida once apiece and get a visit from the Wildcats, who have been vulnerable on the road. We’ve got a ways to go, but the Tigers are making noise for the first time in a long time and just might be able to cash in.</p><h3>17. North Carolina (15–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (21)</strong>: beat Notre Dame, beat Clemson<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech</p><p>The good for UNC in the last week: in a year that potentially seemed ripe for upstart Clemson to get its first-ever win in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels denied it behind their best performance yet from transfer Cameron Johnson, who made 6 of 9 threes. The bad: a game before that, North Carolina was an inch away from losing to a Notre Dame squad missing its two best players. The Heels got the win, which is most important, but somehow allowed the Bonzie Colson-less Irish to grab 20 offensive rebounds. UNC has been strong itself on the offensive boards this year, but it can’t allow itself to lose that battle 10-to-2 in the second half as it did against the Irish.</p><h3>18. Kentucky (14–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (14)</strong>: beat Vanderbilt, lost to South Carolina<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Florida, vs. Mississippi State</p><p>The Wildcats blew a 14-point second-half lead to South Carolina to drop to 4–2 in the SEC Tuesday night, and their youth was evident. The Gamecocks, whose effective field goal percentage ranks 309th in the country, didn’t spring the upset through a rare hot shooting night, but rather by simply outworking Kentucky’s freshmen late. The ‘Cats had no answer for Chris Silva, who finished with 27, and they made multiple bad decisions late and went 5 of 12 from the free-throw line in the final 12 minutes. The good news is that former five-star recruit Jarred Vanderbilt made his season debut, chipping in six points, five rebounds and three assists in 14 minutes.</p><h3>19. Seton Hall (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (20)</strong>: beat Georgetown<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Creighton, vs. Xavier</p><p>The Pirates have a big week coming up that should have key ramifications on the Big East race, and they could use a couple solid performances from guard Myles Powell, who’s made a nice jump so far in his sophomore season. Powell has upped his scoring from 10.7 ppg to 14.2 in large part due to finding his three-point stroke. He shot a respectable 33.2% from deep as a freshman, but that number was low considering his team-high 205 attempts. He’s leading Seton Hall again in perimeter attempts this year, only now he’s connecting on 41.3% of them, which has helped lift his true shooting percentage nearly 10 percentage points to 63.4%.</p><h3>20. Tennessee (12–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (25)</strong>: beat Texas A&#38;M<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs. Vanderbilt</p><p>The Vols have rebounded nicely after losing their first two SEC games, most recently handling Texas A&#38;M by double digits despite a subpar offensive night by Grant Williams. Tennessee has played better when it hasn’t been forced to play faster than it wants; each of its three conference wins featured fewer than 70 possessions, while all four of its overall losses have seen more than 70. Probably not coincidentally, the Vols have also been more prone to turnovers when playing faster. Since Dec. 1, they’ve turned it over on 15.9% of their possessions in their five games with 69 or fewer possessions, and 19.5% of the time in their five games with 70 or more possessions.</p><h3>21. Ohio State (15–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (NR)</strong>: beat Maryland, beat Rutgers<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Northwestern, vs. Minnesota (at MSG), vs. Nebraska</p><p>The two-team Big Ten party has been crashed by both the Buckeyes and Michigan (see below), who have each beat Michigan State recently and moved ahead of the Spartans in the standings. Ohio State is the biggest surprise in the league with a 6–0 start in what was expected to be a rebuilding year in Chris Holtmann’s first season. Keita Bates-Diop has been a revelation in his redshirt junior year after returning from injury, improving in nearly every facet of his game while serving as OSU’s go-to guy, taking 31.1% of its shots when he’s on the floor. His defensive rebounding rate is up to 25.4% after a 17.6% mark in his last full season, and he’s taking (and making) more threes than ever. After hitting 36 of 111 (32.4%) perimeter attempts as a sophomore, Bates-Diop is attempting 2.1 more per game this season and connecting on 41%.</p><h3>22. Michigan (16–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week</strong>: beat Michigan State, beat Maryland<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Nebraska, vs. Rutgers</p><p>Free throws giveth, free throws taketh away. Isaac Haas’s tiebreaking free throw in the final seconds last week handed the Wolverines a recent heartbreaking loss—their only defeat in their last 10 games—but they were on the right end of the charity stripe on Monday when Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sunk two in the final 1.2 seconds to give them a one-point win over Maryland. Abdur-Rahkman has made 91.9% of his free throws this season and was the right man to have on the line, but Michigan overall has been one of the country’s weakest free-throw shooting teams at 65.8%. One of the ways it makes up for it is by limiting opponents’ second-chances: its defensive rebounding rate is tops in Big Ten play so far, and in its upset win over Michigan State it held the country’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just eight (on 28.6% of its misses, below the Spartans’ 37.8% season mark).</p><h3>23. Clemson (15–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (16)</strong>: lost to NC State, beat Miami, lost to North Carolina<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Notre Dame, at Virginia</p><p>This won’t be the year the Tigers get their first-ever win in Chapel Hill, but they did pick up a home win over Miami to salvage an otherwise disappointing week. Clemson’s calling-card this year has been its defense, but in losses to NC State and UNC it gave up 1.15 and 1.21 points per possession, respectively, easily its highest totals given up all season. If there’s one area the Tigers have been weaker in overall on defense it’s been on the perimeter, and both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels took advantage, shooting 47.6% and 48.4%, respectively. It was especially killer in the loss to North Carolina, as Clemson had managed to hold the nation’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just five.</p><h3>24. TCU (13–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (17)</strong>: lost to Texas, lost to Oklahoma<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Iowa State, at Kansas State, vs. West Virginia</p><p>Life in the Big 12, man. It’s rough. After a perfect mark in nonconference play, the Horned Frogs have started league action 1–4, including an overtime loss, a double-overtime loss and both a one-point loss and four-point loss in regulation (and oh yeah, it’s one win came in OT as well). It’s going to take a lot for TCU to climb back into the Big 12 race now, and it doesn’t get any easier with three games over the next six days. The Frogs have both shown the ability to score with anyone and the failure to stop anyone—through those five conference games, it leads the league in offensive efficiency and yet is last in defensive efficiency, per kenpom. That’s how you wind up playing three overtime games in five contests, but the law of averages says some of these close results will start going TCU’s way….right?</p><h3>25. Saint Mary’s (17–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (NR)</strong>: beat Santa Clara, beat Pepperdine<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Gonzaga, at Pacific</p><p>The Gaels finally sneak in here after landing on the ‘next five out’ for the last few weeks, but whether it’s a short stay will be entirely decided by their performance in Spokane on Thursday night. Saint Mary’s résumé is weak and its head-scratching nonconference loss to Washington State still stands out, but this team knows how to score the basketball. Randy Bennett’s group has ranked in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom in each of the last two seasons, and this year it’s currently up to No. 3 behind underrated senior Jock Landale. Its defense, however, has dropped off considerably without Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau. If the Gaels are going to beat the Zags on the road, they’re going to need to slow the Bulldogs down to their pace and either win the battle in the paint, where both teams rank top-10 in two-point percentage, or shoot the lights out from deep.</p><p><strong>DROPPED OUT</strong>: Florida, Miami, Notre Dame</p><p><strong>NEXT FIVE OUT</strong>: Nevada, Rhode Island, Louisville, Florida, Miami</p><h3>Mid-Major Meter</h3><p>(<em>For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10</em>.)</p><p>1. <strong>Gonzaga</strong>: The Zags have a rare conference chance to improve their résumé and secure the upper leg in the WCC race this week.</p><p>2. <strong>Saint Mary’s</strong>: Are the Gaels a true threat to ending the Zags’ five-year run of regular season WCC titles? We’ll know Thursday night.</p><p>3. <strong>Nevada</strong>: The Wolfpack have started Mountain West play 5–0 and get their closest current challenger, Boise State, at home this weekend. Their offense is up to No. 9 nationally in adjusted efficiency.</p><p>4. <strong>New Mexico State</strong>: The Aggies have played four straight road games and won them all, three by double digits.</p><p>5. <strong>Middle Tennessee</strong>: The Blue Raiders have a big date with Western Kentucky in Bowling Green on Saturday that could see both teams come in undefeated in C-USA play.</p>
Power Rankings: The Three Remaining One-Loss Teams, Big 12's Depth Spark Changes

College hoops finally calmed down a bit in the last week, that is, unless you play in the Big 12, which continues to be a cage match night in and night out. We’re starting to get a clearer picture of which teams are for real, meanwhile some top contenders, such as Michigan State, have hit a stumbling block. We’re down to just three one-loss teams, one of which almost everyone saw coming (Villanova), one of which most didn’t see coming (Virginia) and one of which no one saw coming (Auburn). Here’s the new top 25:

1. Villanova (16–1)

Last Week (1): beat Xavier, beat St. John’s
Next Week: at Georgetown, at UConn, vs. Providence

While last week the Wildcats were more of a default No. 1 after upsets rocked the top five, they more than proved they deserve the top ranking with their 24-point home rout of Xavier. After a few lackluster defensive showings, Villanova held the Musketeers to 0.92 points per possession and a 3-of-17 mark from three while forcing 15 turnovers. Meanwhile, the offense continues to hum and narrowly grabbed the top adjusted efficiency mark in the country away from Duke. The Wildcats have six different players playing at least 60% of the team’s minutes and posting an offensive rating of at least 116.9, and even role player Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has been very efficient when on the floor.

2. Purdue (18–2)

Last Week (2): beat Minnesota, beat Wisconsin
Next Week: at Iowa

The Boilermakers are playing like the class of the Big Ten right now, and after back-to-back dominations of Minnesota and Wisconsin they’ve risen to the No. 1 overall rank on kenpom. They’re the only team with an offense and defense both ranked in the top 10 in adjusted efficiency and will probably be favored in all of their remaining games, the exception being their trip to East Lansing. In its last three games, Purdue has connected on 51.2% (40 of 78) of its threes, including a 14 of 22 performance against the Badgers that saw four different players knock down at least three treys. That’ll do.

3. Virginia (16–1)

Last Week (5): beat North Carolina State
Next Week: at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest, vs. Clemson

With another great defensive showing, the Cavaliers made sure they weren’t NC State’s third straight upset victim with an easy win at home. UVA was able to do what Duke and Clemson weren’t by excelling in two areas it’s strong in: perimeter defense and forcing turnovers. In their two upset wins, NC State shot a combined 15 of 35 (42.9%) from three and committed just 14 total turnovers. Against Virginia, they shot 2 of 16 (12.5%) from three and turned it over 15 times. That’s the difference the Hoos can make, and why at 5–0 they should currently be considered the favorite to win the ACC.

4. Duke (16–2)

Last Week (6): beat Wake Forest, beat Miami
Next Week: vs. Pittsburgh, at Wake Forest

Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen and, to a lesser extent, Wendell Carter Jr. typically dominate the conversation when it comes to discussing the Blue Devils’ potent offense, but let’s talk about Gary Trent Jr. Trent, you may or may not know, is leading Duke in three-point shooting at 41.4%, and that number has been 47.9% in five ACC games. In the last week, the freshman combined to go 12 of 16 from three, including hitting 6 of 9 as part of a breakout 30-point performance to help secure a big road win at Miami. Trent has found a home beyond the three-point line, where over half his shot attempts come, and of his 46 makes on the season, all but one have been assisted (per Hoop-Math).

5. Wichita State (15–2)

Last Week (10): beat East Carolina, beat Tulsa
Next Week: vs. SMU, at Houston

After an easy start to AAC play, the Shockers’ schedule is about to get a bit juicy. Their next week includes two top-45 kenpom teams in SMU and Houston, the latter of whom they already easily handled at home but now must face on the road. These games are exactly why Wichita State joined the American; while some AAC teams like South Florida and East Carolina don’t inspire much fear, there’s more opportunities now for stronger wins than it had the chance to get in the Missouri Valley, where it often could only make statements through the margin of its routs. In the AAC, the Shockers’ big showdowns will be with Cincinnati, who they don’t face until Feb. 18 and March 4, but before then they have other opportunities at wins that will directly help (or hurt) their standing on Selection Sunday.

6. Texas Tech (15–2)

Last Week (11): beat West Virginia
Next Week: at Texas, at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State

The Red Raiders responded to their first Big 12 loss with a statement one-point win over then-No. 2 West Virginia over the weekend. With victories already over two of the league’s top challengers and a chance to avenge its loss to Oklahoma at home next month, Texas Tech can control its own destiny, but there’s still a long way to go. It owns the No. 2 adjusted efficient defense in the nation and has been strong at defending teams both inside and outside the perimeter. That’s been key, because one of the reasons the Red Raiders have been able to start 4–1 in the Big 12 is because all five opponents were held to either a two-point percentage under 50% or a three-point mark under 31%.

7. Kansas (15–3)

Last Week (15): beat Kansas State, beat West Virginia
Next Week: vs. Baylor, at Oklahoma

The Jayhawks are sending a pretty clear message right now: we’re still here. After their Big 12 streak looked vulnerable following their Jan. 2 loss to Texas Tech, they’ve won four straight, including a crucial comeback road win at West Virginia Monday night. Kansas had, uhh, some trouble driving to the rim on WVU’s Sagaba Konate in the first half, but rather than become three-point dependent as it’s done on many previous occasions this season, the Jayhawks found a way to score in the paint, making 9 of 12 there in the second half after going 6 of 20 in the first. Another positive sign of late for KU is that it’s started to improve on its obscenely low free-throw rate, posting a 33.2% mark in Big 12 play compared to 22.8% overall.

8. Michigan State (16–3)

Last Week (4): beat Rutgers, lost to Michigan
Next Week: vs. Indiana, at Illinois

After a formidable 15–1 start to the season, the Spartans have hit a road block. Losses to Ohio State and Michigan sandwiched being taken to overtime at home by Rutgers, and MSU now finds itself looking up at three teams in the suddenly new-look Big Ten race. In its home loss to Michigan on Saturday, Michigan State exhibited both a familiar and unfamiliar trait. The familiar one was turnovers, which continue to be an issue holding back this team. The Spartans turned it over 18 times, giving it away on one out of every four possessions. The unfamiliar trait was the fact that they attempted just 12 threes, making three. MSU came into Saturday averaging 21.7 attempts per game, and its three makes against Michigan were its fewest since the season opener. When a team turns it over that much and gets just nine points from the perimeter against good competition, it’s rarely going to be a happy ending.

9. West Virginia (15–3)

Last Week (3): lost to Texas Tech, lost to Kansas
Next Week: vs. Texas, at TCU

What had been the nation’s longest win streak came to an end in Lubbock on Saturday…and then the Mountaineers followed it up by blowing a 12-point lead with nine minutes left in a home loss to Kansas. WVU had beaten the Jayhawks four straight years in Morgantown before the defeat, and back-to-back losses to two of its top competition in the Big 12 race puts it in a mid-January hole. The Mountaineers’ ability to force turnovers is well documented, but they’ve been having a bit of their own turnover issue of late. On the season, West Virginia’s turnover percentage is 16.7%, but in six Big 12 games it’s ballooned to 20.3%, worse than all but two other league teams. Additionally, both Texas Tech and Kansas yielded 13 giveaways in their wins (on fewer than 20% of their possessions), a respectable number for most defenses—but not near the 26.7% average WVU thrives with.

10. Oklahoma (14–3)

Last Week (7): beat TCU, lost to Kansas State
Next Week: at Oklahoma State, vs. Kansas

Twelve. That’s how many turnovers star freshman Trae Young had in a road loss to Kansas State on Tuesday night—or as many as the Wildcats had as a team. Incredible as Young has been this season, his proclivity for miscues is going to catch up with him on occasion, like it did in Manhattan. Young is averaging 7.6 turnovers per game in six Big 12 games, but that can often be overlooked when you have the nation’s leading assist rate and can do things like this after your own missed free throw:

The fact is, Oklahoma plays incredibly fast—it plays at the third quickest tempo in the country and its possessions last an average of just 13.7 seconds, per kenpom—and Young is 19 years old and has earned plenty of freedom as the engineer of that offense. Oklahoma could obviously benefit from him making some smarter decisions, but his aggressiveness and free nature on the court have done a lot to get the Sooners to where they are right now.

11. Arizona (14–4)

Last Week (13): beat Oregon State, beat Oregon
Next Week: at California, at Stanford

After the Wildcats’ seven-point weekend win over Oregon, Sean Miller said his team’s “ability to make free throws was the difference in the game,” and he wasn’t kidding. Arizona went to the line 37 times, making 34, which is fitting for the nation’s ninth-best free-throw shooting team. The ‘Cats needed every bit of those free points to make up for 17 turnovers, and it was no surprise that Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton took the most attempts, with 11 apiece. But Rawle Alkins also went 5 of 6 from the line, the fifth time in the nine games since his return that he’s attempted at least five at the charity stripe. Per Hoop-Math, Alkins is actually taking a smaller percentage of shots at the rim than he did as a freshman, but he’s making them count by getting fouled more, upping his free-throw rate from 32.7% to 55.3%.

12. Xavier (16–3)

Last Week (8): lost to Villanova, beat Creighton
Next Week: vs. St. John’s, at Seton Hall

The Musketeers didn’t come close to the result they were hoping for last week in Philly, and in five years in the Big East they’ve yet to put up a real challenge on the road at Villanova. But unlike last year, when it kicked off a three-game losing streak, this time Xavier responded with an authoritative win over a good Creighton team at home over the weekend. The difference for Trevon Bluiett and Kaiser Gates in particular was night and day; Gates was actually dropped from the starting lineup after scoring a total of three points in the Musketeers’ back-to-back losses, and he came back with his most efficient outing of the season in a 16-point, eight-rebound, two-steal effort against the Bluejays.

13. Cincinnati (16–2)

Last Week (12): beat South Florida, beat UCF
Next Week: vs. East Carolina

What happens when two top-five efficient defenses meet, which also belong to two of the country’s slowest-paced teams? You get a result like the 49–38 win that Cincinnati had over UCF on Tuesday night, which featured a total of 20 free throws and 35 field goals. The Bearcats held the Knights to a 10 of 33 (30.3%) mark inside the arc, which is even lower than their 38.7% average two-point defense, which ranks second in the country. Cincy’s offense isn’t going to overpower teams, but it knows how to grind out games and take advantage of opponents’ errors, like averaging 17.6 points off turnovers in AAC play.

14. Arizona State (14–3)

Last Week (9): lost to Oregon, beat Oregon State
Next Week: at Stanford, at Cal

The Sun Devils are officially trending downward. After a magical 12–0 nonconference run that nearly got them to the top of the polls, they’ve started Pac-12 play 2–3, with their two wins coming by a combined five points against mediocre competition. After losing to Oregon last week, they needed a second-half comeback to scrape by Oregon State, a team sitting outside the kenpom top-100. There’s been multiple reasons behind the drop off: ASU’s already unreliable defense has been even worse in conference play, giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions, the team’s shooting has declined (after going 50.8% of the field and 39.3% from three in nonconference, it has shot 41.4% from the field and 34.7% from three in Pac-12 play) and outside of the Sun Devils’ loss to Arizona, leading scorer Tra Holder has struggled to maintain the high level of efficiency he posted for much of nonconference action. The question that could define the rest of Arizona State’s season is whether its recent shooting issues are simply a slump or in fact a regression to the mean.

15. Gonzaga (16–3)

Last Week (18): beat Portland, beat San Francisco
This Week: vs. Saint Mary’s, at Santa Clara

Part I of what seems destined to be another Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s trilogy that ends in the WCC tournament final is finally next, giving both teams the opportunity to pick up a significant win. The Zags will be going up against the Gaels’ third-ranked efficient offense, and plenty of eyes will be on Saint Mary’s senior Jock Landale. In two of three games last year, the Bulldogs were able to hold Landale to 10 points (he went for 24 in the other), but in all three they were able to get the big man into foul trouble, limiting him to 26, 25 and 19 minutes. That defensive job largely went to the departed Przemek Karnowski, so Gonzaga’s new-look frontcourt will look to have a similar level of success against the Gaels’ best player.

16. Auburn (16–1)

Last Week (19): beat Mississippi State
Next Week: at Alabama, vs. Georgia

Now alone in first at 4–0, could Auburn actually win the SEC? It’s early, but the Tigers haven’t been lucking into their wins. They’ve won all four games by no less than eight points and have had the most efficient offense in conference play so far. They also have a favorable schedule—they’ve already won their lone matchup with Tennessee, and they face other top challengers Kentucky and Florida once apiece and get a visit from the Wildcats, who have been vulnerable on the road. We’ve got a ways to go, but the Tigers are making noise for the first time in a long time and just might be able to cash in.

17. North Carolina (15–4)

Last Week (21): beat Notre Dame, beat Clemson
Next Week: vs. Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech

The good for UNC in the last week: in a year that potentially seemed ripe for upstart Clemson to get its first-ever win in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels denied it behind their best performance yet from transfer Cameron Johnson, who made 6 of 9 threes. The bad: a game before that, North Carolina was an inch away from losing to a Notre Dame squad missing its two best players. The Heels got the win, which is most important, but somehow allowed the Bonzie Colson-less Irish to grab 20 offensive rebounds. UNC has been strong itself on the offensive boards this year, but it can’t allow itself to lose that battle 10-to-2 in the second half as it did against the Irish.

18. Kentucky (14–4)

Last Week (14): beat Vanderbilt, lost to South Carolina
Next Week: vs. Florida, vs. Mississippi State

The Wildcats blew a 14-point second-half lead to South Carolina to drop to 4–2 in the SEC Tuesday night, and their youth was evident. The Gamecocks, whose effective field goal percentage ranks 309th in the country, didn’t spring the upset through a rare hot shooting night, but rather by simply outworking Kentucky’s freshmen late. The ‘Cats had no answer for Chris Silva, who finished with 27, and they made multiple bad decisions late and went 5 of 12 from the free-throw line in the final 12 minutes. The good news is that former five-star recruit Jarred Vanderbilt made his season debut, chipping in six points, five rebounds and three assists in 14 minutes.

19. Seton Hall (15–3)

Last Week (20): beat Georgetown
Next Week: at Creighton, vs. Xavier

The Pirates have a big week coming up that should have key ramifications on the Big East race, and they could use a couple solid performances from guard Myles Powell, who’s made a nice jump so far in his sophomore season. Powell has upped his scoring from 10.7 ppg to 14.2 in large part due to finding his three-point stroke. He shot a respectable 33.2% from deep as a freshman, but that number was low considering his team-high 205 attempts. He’s leading Seton Hall again in perimeter attempts this year, only now he’s connecting on 41.3% of them, which has helped lift his true shooting percentage nearly 10 percentage points to 63.4%.

20. Tennessee (12–4)

Last Week (25): beat Texas A&M
Next Week: at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs. Vanderbilt

The Vols have rebounded nicely after losing their first two SEC games, most recently handling Texas A&M by double digits despite a subpar offensive night by Grant Williams. Tennessee has played better when it hasn’t been forced to play faster than it wants; each of its three conference wins featured fewer than 70 possessions, while all four of its overall losses have seen more than 70. Probably not coincidentally, the Vols have also been more prone to turnovers when playing faster. Since Dec. 1, they’ve turned it over on 15.9% of their possessions in their five games with 69 or fewer possessions, and 19.5% of the time in their five games with 70 or more possessions.

21. Ohio State (15–4)

Last Week (NR): beat Maryland, beat Rutgers
Next Week: at Northwestern, vs. Minnesota (at MSG), vs. Nebraska

The two-team Big Ten party has been crashed by both the Buckeyes and Michigan (see below), who have each beat Michigan State recently and moved ahead of the Spartans in the standings. Ohio State is the biggest surprise in the league with a 6–0 start in what was expected to be a rebuilding year in Chris Holtmann’s first season. Keita Bates-Diop has been a revelation in his redshirt junior year after returning from injury, improving in nearly every facet of his game while serving as OSU’s go-to guy, taking 31.1% of its shots when he’s on the floor. His defensive rebounding rate is up to 25.4% after a 17.6% mark in his last full season, and he’s taking (and making) more threes than ever. After hitting 36 of 111 (32.4%) perimeter attempts as a sophomore, Bates-Diop is attempting 2.1 more per game this season and connecting on 41%.

22. Michigan (16–4)

Last Week: beat Michigan State, beat Maryland
Next Week: at Nebraska, vs. Rutgers

Free throws giveth, free throws taketh away. Isaac Haas’s tiebreaking free throw in the final seconds last week handed the Wolverines a recent heartbreaking loss—their only defeat in their last 10 games—but they were on the right end of the charity stripe on Monday when Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sunk two in the final 1.2 seconds to give them a one-point win over Maryland. Abdur-Rahkman has made 91.9% of his free throws this season and was the right man to have on the line, but Michigan overall has been one of the country’s weakest free-throw shooting teams at 65.8%. One of the ways it makes up for it is by limiting opponents’ second-chances: its defensive rebounding rate is tops in Big Ten play so far, and in its upset win over Michigan State it held the country’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just eight (on 28.6% of its misses, below the Spartans’ 37.8% season mark).

23. Clemson (15–3)

Last Week (16): lost to NC State, beat Miami, lost to North Carolina
Next Week: vs. Notre Dame, at Virginia

This won’t be the year the Tigers get their first-ever win in Chapel Hill, but they did pick up a home win over Miami to salvage an otherwise disappointing week. Clemson’s calling-card this year has been its defense, but in losses to NC State and UNC it gave up 1.15 and 1.21 points per possession, respectively, easily its highest totals given up all season. If there’s one area the Tigers have been weaker in overall on defense it’s been on the perimeter, and both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels took advantage, shooting 47.6% and 48.4%, respectively. It was especially killer in the loss to North Carolina, as Clemson had managed to hold the nation’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just five.

24. TCU (13–4)

Last Week (17): lost to Texas, lost to Oklahoma
Next Week: vs. Iowa State, at Kansas State, vs. West Virginia

Life in the Big 12, man. It’s rough. After a perfect mark in nonconference play, the Horned Frogs have started league action 1–4, including an overtime loss, a double-overtime loss and both a one-point loss and four-point loss in regulation (and oh yeah, it’s one win came in OT as well). It’s going to take a lot for TCU to climb back into the Big 12 race now, and it doesn’t get any easier with three games over the next six days. The Frogs have both shown the ability to score with anyone and the failure to stop anyone—through those five conference games, it leads the league in offensive efficiency and yet is last in defensive efficiency, per kenpom. That’s how you wind up playing three overtime games in five contests, but the law of averages says some of these close results will start going TCU’s way….right?

25. Saint Mary’s (17–2)

Last Week (NR): beat Santa Clara, beat Pepperdine
Next Week: at Gonzaga, at Pacific

The Gaels finally sneak in here after landing on the ‘next five out’ for the last few weeks, but whether it’s a short stay will be entirely decided by their performance in Spokane on Thursday night. Saint Mary’s résumé is weak and its head-scratching nonconference loss to Washington State still stands out, but this team knows how to score the basketball. Randy Bennett’s group has ranked in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom in each of the last two seasons, and this year it’s currently up to No. 3 behind underrated senior Jock Landale. Its defense, however, has dropped off considerably without Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau. If the Gaels are going to beat the Zags on the road, they’re going to need to slow the Bulldogs down to their pace and either win the battle in the paint, where both teams rank top-10 in two-point percentage, or shoot the lights out from deep.

DROPPED OUT: Florida, Miami, Notre Dame

NEXT FIVE OUT: Nevada, Rhode Island, Louisville, Florida, Miami

Mid-Major Meter

(For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10.)

1. Gonzaga: The Zags have a rare conference chance to improve their résumé and secure the upper leg in the WCC race this week.

2. Saint Mary’s: Are the Gaels a true threat to ending the Zags’ five-year run of regular season WCC titles? We’ll know Thursday night.

3. Nevada: The Wolfpack have started Mountain West play 5–0 and get their closest current challenger, Boise State, at home this weekend. Their offense is up to No. 9 nationally in adjusted efficiency.

4. New Mexico State: The Aggies have played four straight road games and won them all, three by double digits.

5. Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders have a big date with Western Kentucky in Bowling Green on Saturday that could see both teams come in undefeated in C-USA play.

<p>With <a href="https://www.si.com/college-football/2017/12/28/season-review-saquon-barkley-khalil-tate" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:another season" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">another season</a> and <a href="https://www.si.com/college-football/2018/01/10/tua-tagovailoa-jalen-hurts-alabama-quarterback-transfer" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:another Alabama title in the books" class="link rapid-noclick-resp"><em>another</em> Alabama title in the books</a>, it’s time to shift the focus from that epic title game to the epic games to come.</p><p>It’s impossible to accurately predict which games will be most impactful a whole year in advance, because way too much can happen between now and the fall of 2018. Heck, it’s often not clear which games mean the most until weeks <em>after </em>the game itself.</p><p>Take last year’s Week 1 matchup between Alabama and Florida State. The Tide and Seminoles came to Atlanta ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, and pundits debated whether this was the best opening weekend matchup in college football history. The game itself was a dud: Alabama won 24–7 in nondescript fashion, and Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending leg injury late in the fourth quarter. Fast forward three months, and Florida State needed a win over Louisiana-Monroe to become bowl eligible one day after coach Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&#38;M. What was supposed to be Alabama’s signature win lost all its thunder as FSU’s 2017 unraveled completely by mid-October.</p><p>On the flip side, matchups are sometimes way, way better and more important than they appear at the time. When UCF and Memphis faced off in late September, not much attention was paid to a game between two unranked AAC teams. UCF, of course, is now claiming a national championship, while Memphis finished the season in the Top 25, with two regular season losses to UCF and a Liberty Bowl loss to Iowa State.</p><p>The point of all this is that things change in a hurry in the world of college football. Still, there’s no harm in letting the eyes wander to next year’s schedule to try to pinpoint the best games. Some of these will indeed turn out to be everything we expect and more, while some will be rendered virtually meaningless, whether we know it at the time or not.</p><p>Next year’s slate of games features the usual bevy of impactful in-conference gems, but there are some marquee matchups between big-names sprinkled throughout the season that have us hyped. (And the ACC has not released its conference schedule yet, so expect more key games to fill in the gaps within the lighter weeks on this list.) Without further ado:</p><h3>Week 1: Michigan at Notre Dame</h3><p>Jim Harbaugh’s seat isn’t warm, but it certainly is not as cool as he’d like it to be. There’s a growing sense of dissatisfaction in Ann Arbor as Harbaugh’s first three teams have struggled to pick up signature wins. Harbaugh gets a chance right off the bat to quiet some of his naysayers with a win over an iconic program like Notre Dame, a proposition that becomes much more likely if Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson is indeed ruled eligible to play quarterback in 2018. Notre Dame finished the ’17 season with a hard-fought 21–17 victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl but will have to replace stud running back Josh Adams, who decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft.</p><p><em>Honorable mention</em>: <strong>Auburn vs. Washington</strong>?—A season-opening clash at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta should tell us a lot about both teams. <strong>Florida Atlantic at Oklahoma</strong>—Lane Kiffin gets a shot at the big boys. <strong>Virginia Tech at Florida State—</strong>Willie Taggart’s opener in Tallahassee comes on Labor Day. <strong>LSU at Miami</strong>—Is Miami here to stay? An early test against a upper-tier SEC foe is a good way to find out. <strong>Alabama at Louisville</strong>—This one would have been a lot more fun with Lamar Jackson.</p><h3>Week 2: Clemson at Texas A&#38;M</h3><p>Jimbo Fisher doesn’t have to wait long for his first serious test as Texas A&#38;M’s head coach. Kyle Field will be rocking when the new-look Aggies host Clemson, who should be loaded once again and return starting quarterback Kelly Bryant. This game presents an opportunity for Fisher to start off his tenure with a momentum-building victory over a team that’s certain to enter the season ranked in the top three.</p><p><em>Honorable mention: </em><strong>UCLA at Oklahoma</strong>—Chip Kelly’s first big test with the Bruins. <strong>Colorado at Nebraska</strong>—One of the old Big 12’s best rivalries is rekindled, with Scott Frost leading the Cornhuskers. <strong>Michigan State at Arizona State</strong>—An early look at how Herm Edwards’s Sun Devils measure up to a Top 25 team.</p><h3>Week 3: TCU vs. Ohio State (at AT&#38;T Stadium)</h3><p>After a Week 2 loss to Oklahoma at home last season, Ohio State will be looking for a measure of September revenge against the Big 12. That opportunity awaits in Arlington as both the Buckeyes and Horned Frogs break in new quarterbacks. For TCU, it’ll almost certainly be Shawn Robinson, a dual-threat who was the 2016-17 Gatorade Texas Player of the Year. Ohio State’s situation is a little less clear, as Urban Meyer has a few candidates to guide his team through life after J.T. Barrett. The favorite to start for the Buckeyes is Dwayne Haskins, who filled in for an injured Barrett against Michigan, but keep an eye on Tate Martell, a mercurial playmaker who has drawn comparisons to Johnny Manziel.</p><p><em>Honorable mention</em>: <strong>USC at Texas</strong>—Last year’s double-overtime thriller at the Coliseum was almost as epic as that national championship game in 2006 without any of the stakes. <strong>Boise State at Oklahoma State</strong>—Hey Broncos, want some respect? A win in Stillwater should do it. <strong>Colorado State at Florida</strong>—This game was part of the package Florida gave to Colorado State in exchange for Jim McElwain’s services, but McElwain didn’t last long enough to coach in it.</p><h3>Week 4: Florida Atlantic at UCF</h3><p>This is as enticing as a non-Power 5 matchup gets. On one side there’s Lane Kiffin, everyone’s favorite least-favorite coach, and an FAU team that finished ninth in total offense en route to an 11–3 season. This year’s Owls could be even better, as Devin Singletary (1,920 rushing yards, 33 total TDs) is back and Kiffin welcomes the first class of players he recruited to #thefaU. Then there’s UCF, the sort-of defending national champions, who will be looking to prove that their relevance isn’t tied to former head coach Scott Frost. Star quarterback McKenzie Milton returns to power the Knights’ offense, and he should be one of the top passers in the country under the direction of first-year head coach Josh Heupel, who was lured to Orlando after serving as Missouri’s offensive coordinator for two seasons. The points should flow freely.</p><p><em>Honorable mention: </em><strong>Texas A&#38;M at Alabama</strong>—Fisher vs. Saban will dominate the midweek headlines. <strong>Florida at Tennessee</strong>—Another SEC battle, this one between two new coaches in the East in Dan Mullen and Jeremy Pruitt. <strong>TCU at Texas</strong>—Can Tom Herman’s Longhorns make some headway in the quest to reestablish their place as the state’s premier program?</p><h3>Week 5: Ohio State at Penn State</h3><p>The last two matchups between these Big Ten powers have been classics. Back in October, the Buckeyes came back from a 35–20 deficit to eke out a 39–38 victory that kept their playoff hopes alive and crushed Penn State’s. In 2016, the then-unranked Nittany Lions returned a blocked field goal 60 yards in the fourth quarter for a game-winning touchdown on their way to an unlikely Big Ten title. There are few better venues for a huge game than State College, and you can be certain that 100,000-plus dressed in all-white will be packed into Beaver Stadium. This will also be the first real challenge for Penn State’s offense in the post-Saquon Barkley era.</p><p><em>Honorable mention: </em><strong>Tennessee at Georgia</strong>—The Bulldogs are very familiar with Pruitt from his short stay in Athens. <strong>Stanford at Notre Dame</strong>—This is around the time of year the Cardinal typically round into form. <strong>Florida at Mississippi State</strong>—Mullen’s return to Starkville should be an emotional measuring stick game for both teams.</p><h3>Week 6: Texas vs. Oklahoma (at the Cotton Bowl)</h3><p>Tom Herman’s second season at Texas should be marked by the growing influence of players he brought to Austin have on the on-field product. That’s great news for Texas, because Herman’s first recruiting class was a consensus top-five haul, and this year’s could land in the top three. This game will also feature two of the country’s best young quarterbacks in Texas’s Sam Ehlinger and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, the five-star transfer from Texas A&#38;M who faces the unenviable task of replacing Baker Mayfield. Herman’s presence should breathe new life into the Red River Rivalry for years to come.</p><p><em>Honorable mentions: </em><strong>Florida State at Miami—</strong>The Canes capitalized on a down year for FSU and ended a seven-game losing streak in this rivalry last season<strong>. Nebraska at Wisconsin</strong>—Could this be the first of many Big Ten West title bouts between these two programs in the years ahead? <strong>Notre Dame at Virginia Tech</strong>—Keep an eye on the Hokies as a potential ACC sleeper this year.</p><h3>Week 7: Georgia at LSU</h3><p>This will be the first matchup between these SEC elites since 2013, and it should be a doozy. The Bulldogs will enter the season as one of the nation’s top teams, fresh off an appearance in the national championship game. Sure, they will miss the graduating running back tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and yes, they’ll also lose their leading receiver (Javon Wims) and best defensive player (Roquan Smith), but they get quarterback Jake Fromm back and welcome the best recruiting class in the country to campus. This offseason has been notable for the LSU coordinator positions, but for different reasons— defensive coordinator Dave Aranda signed a new deal that will make him the highest-paid assistant in the country ($2.5 million annual salary), while former offensive coordinator Matt Canada was replaced by tight ends coach Steve Ensminger. The Tigers’ defense has been championship-quality for years, and if Ensminger can revitalize a sleepy offensive attack, LSU could challenge for the SEC title.</p><p><em>Honorable mentions: </em><strong>Michigan State at Penn State</strong>—Michigan State won a seven-hour marathon in East Lansing last season, otherwise Penn State could well have made the playoff. <strong>Wisconsin at Michigan</strong>—Another huge test for the Wolverines, who have one of the toughest schedules in the country.</p><h3>Week 8: Michigan at Michigan State</h3><p>Harbaugh will be under mountains of pressure to get a win over a rival, as his teams are a combined 1–5 against Michigan State and Ohio State. The Spartans return 10 starters on offense, including Brian Lewerke, who could become the next in a long line of NFL quarterbacks from Michigan State, and leading rusher L.J. Scott. They also get nine starters back on defense. The 2017 bowl selection process added another level of tension to this game: Spartans fans fumed when Michigan was selected for the Outback Bowl over Michigan State despite the fact that Michigan State had a better regular season record <em>and</em> beat Michigan. State will be out to reassert their supremacy.</p><p><em>Honorable mentions: </em><strong>Alabama at Tennessee</strong>—Saban vs. his defensive coordinator from 2017. <strong>Oklahoma at TCU</strong>—The Sooners beat TCU twice last season, so the Horned Frogs will be set on revenge.</p><h3>Week 9: Clemson at Florida State</h3><p>These two programs have had a stranglehold on the ACC for the last seven seasons, a span in which the winner of this matchup has won the conference crown every year. Clemson won the ACC title in 2011 before Florida State reigned supreme for three consecutive years. Clemson has retaken control, with three consecutive league titles. Meanwhile, the Seminoles had about as disappointing a year as possible in 2017 and enter a new era with Willie Taggart at the helm. The Tigers get their entire ultra-talented defensive line back and already have commitments from two five-star D-line prospects from the class of 2018. </p><p><em>Honorable mentions: </em><strong>Texas at Oklahoma State—</strong>Texas held an explosive Oklahoma State offense to just 13 points in an eventual 13-10 overtime loss last season<strong>. Florida at Georgia</strong>—The 2017 game was the death knell for the Jim McElwain era in Gainesville. Can Mullen change the conversation? <strong>Wisconsin at Northwestern</strong>—These were the top two teams from the Big Ten West last year, though Northwestern will be without quarterback Clayton Thorson. <strong>Iowa at Penn State</strong>—The Hawkeyes spoiled Ohio State’s playoff hopes last season. Can they ruin Penn State’s in 2018??</p><h3>Week 10: Stanford at Washington</h3><p>Stanford got a big boost with Bryce Love returning for his senior year, and coach David Shaw finds a way to keep his team near the top of the Pac-12 every season. Quarterback K.J. Costello played pretty well when he took over the starting job midway through the season, and he should improve with another year of development. Jake Browning should be one of the nation’s most productive passers in his senior season, but we’ll know a lot more about Washington as a whole after that season opener against Auburn in Atlanta. No matter what happens in Week 1, this game could be a de facto Pac-12 North championship game.</p><p><em>Honorable mentions: </em><strong>Texas A&#38;M at Auburn</strong>—The Aggies have to deal with both Bama and Auburn on the road. <strong>Alabama at LSU</strong>—Can the Tigers end a seven-game losing streak to the Tide? <strong>Penn State at Michigan</strong>—The Big Ten East is the gift that keeps on giving.</p><h3>Week 11: Wisconsin at Penn State</h3><p>Wisconsin doesn’t draw the same national attention as some of its Big Ten foes, but the Badgers will once again be the heavy favorite to win the West. Jonathan Taylor rushed for a mind-boggling 1,977 yards as an 18-year-old freshman, and lefty quarterback Alex Hornibrook also returns. But the Badgers might once again have to go undefeated to get into the playoff, as their non-conference schedule (home games against Western Kentucky, New Mexico and BYU) is about as weak as you’ll see from a big-time program with national title aspirations. That makes every game of the utmost importance, and this trip to Happy Valley might carry the most risk and the most reward.</p><p><em>Honorable mentions: </em><strong>Auburn at Georgia</strong>—A rematch of last year’s SEC title game. <strong>Florida State at Notre Dame</strong>—These last time these two golden helmet–wearers met, in 2014, both teams were ranked in the top five, and Jameis Winston guided the Seminoles to a 31-27 victory. <strong>Oklahoma State at Oklahoma</strong>—Bedlam, minus Mayfield and Rudolph. <strong>Ohio State at Michigan State</strong>—Ohio State won this matchup by 45 in 2017, but something tells me that won’t happen in East Lansing.?</p><h3>Week 12: USC at UCLA</h3><p>Will Chip Kelly’s presence tip the scales in a rivalry that’s been rather one-sided in recent years? USC has won the last three meetings and 15 of the last 19, but Sam Darnold’s departure leaves a little uncertainty about how good the 2018 team will be. UCLA coaches often talk about wanting to “rule the city,” and there’s no better way to do that than to beat USC. Kelly will need some time to implement his system and get his players to Westwood, but a win here would jump-start the rebuilding process.</p><p><em>Honorable mentions: </em><strong>West Virginia at Oklahoma State</strong>—West Virginia should be much improved in 2018, the final go-around for Will Grier and David Sills V. <strong>Michigan State at Nebraska</strong>—The importance of this game largely depends on how good Frost’s team will be.?</p><h3>Week 13: Auburn at Alabama</h3><p>It’s always tough to identify the best game from rivalry weekend, which is always filled with classics like Ohio State–Michigan, South Carolina–Clemson and Florida–Florida State. But the Iron Bowl is electric every single year, and 2018 will be no different, with both teams projecting to be among the country’s best. Whether it’s quarterbacked by Jalen Hurts or title game hero Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama loses a ton of offensive talent to the draft. Meanwhile, Auburn loses its top rushers from 2017 but keeps quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Both offenses should reload without issue. The winner of this game will probably represent the West in the SEC title game, and the Tide’s national title won’t curb their desire for revenge after Auburn handled them 26–14 last season.</p><p><em>Honorable mentions: </em><strong>Florida at Florida State</strong>—Mullen vs. Taggart, Volume I. <strong>South Carolina at Clemson</strong>—The Tigers are looking for their fifth straight victory in this rivalry. <strong>Notre Dame at USC</strong>—There’s always something special about watching these two programs face off in Southern California. <strong>Oklahoma State at TCU</strong>—Again, the Cowboys control how much drama this one holds. <strong>Michigan at Ohio State</strong>—Is this the year Harbaugh finally beats the rivals to the south?</p>
The Best Games of Every Week of the 2018 Season

With another season and another Alabama title in the books, it’s time to shift the focus from that epic title game to the epic games to come.

It’s impossible to accurately predict which games will be most impactful a whole year in advance, because way too much can happen between now and the fall of 2018. Heck, it’s often not clear which games mean the most until weeks after the game itself.

Take last year’s Week 1 matchup between Alabama and Florida State. The Tide and Seminoles came to Atlanta ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, and pundits debated whether this was the best opening weekend matchup in college football history. The game itself was a dud: Alabama won 24–7 in nondescript fashion, and Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending leg injury late in the fourth quarter. Fast forward three months, and Florida State needed a win over Louisiana-Monroe to become bowl eligible one day after coach Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M. What was supposed to be Alabama’s signature win lost all its thunder as FSU’s 2017 unraveled completely by mid-October.

On the flip side, matchups are sometimes way, way better and more important than they appear at the time. When UCF and Memphis faced off in late September, not much attention was paid to a game between two unranked AAC teams. UCF, of course, is now claiming a national championship, while Memphis finished the season in the Top 25, with two regular season losses to UCF and a Liberty Bowl loss to Iowa State.

The point of all this is that things change in a hurry in the world of college football. Still, there’s no harm in letting the eyes wander to next year’s schedule to try to pinpoint the best games. Some of these will indeed turn out to be everything we expect and more, while some will be rendered virtually meaningless, whether we know it at the time or not.

Next year’s slate of games features the usual bevy of impactful in-conference gems, but there are some marquee matchups between big-names sprinkled throughout the season that have us hyped. (And the ACC has not released its conference schedule yet, so expect more key games to fill in the gaps within the lighter weeks on this list.) Without further ado:

Week 1: Michigan at Notre Dame

Jim Harbaugh’s seat isn’t warm, but it certainly is not as cool as he’d like it to be. There’s a growing sense of dissatisfaction in Ann Arbor as Harbaugh’s first three teams have struggled to pick up signature wins. Harbaugh gets a chance right off the bat to quiet some of his naysayers with a win over an iconic program like Notre Dame, a proposition that becomes much more likely if Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson is indeed ruled eligible to play quarterback in 2018. Notre Dame finished the ’17 season with a hard-fought 21–17 victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl but will have to replace stud running back Josh Adams, who decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft.

Honorable mention: Auburn vs. Washington?—A season-opening clash at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta should tell us a lot about both teams. Florida Atlantic at Oklahoma—Lane Kiffin gets a shot at the big boys. Virginia Tech at Florida State—Willie Taggart’s opener in Tallahassee comes on Labor Day. LSU at Miami—Is Miami here to stay? An early test against a upper-tier SEC foe is a good way to find out. Alabama at Louisville—This one would have been a lot more fun with Lamar Jackson.

Week 2: Clemson at Texas A&M

Jimbo Fisher doesn’t have to wait long for his first serious test as Texas A&M’s head coach. Kyle Field will be rocking when the new-look Aggies host Clemson, who should be loaded once again and return starting quarterback Kelly Bryant. This game presents an opportunity for Fisher to start off his tenure with a momentum-building victory over a team that’s certain to enter the season ranked in the top three.

Honorable mention: UCLA at Oklahoma—Chip Kelly’s first big test with the Bruins. Colorado at Nebraska—One of the old Big 12’s best rivalries is rekindled, with Scott Frost leading the Cornhuskers. Michigan State at Arizona State—An early look at how Herm Edwards’s Sun Devils measure up to a Top 25 team.

Week 3: TCU vs. Ohio State (at AT&T Stadium)

After a Week 2 loss to Oklahoma at home last season, Ohio State will be looking for a measure of September revenge against the Big 12. That opportunity awaits in Arlington as both the Buckeyes and Horned Frogs break in new quarterbacks. For TCU, it’ll almost certainly be Shawn Robinson, a dual-threat who was the 2016-17 Gatorade Texas Player of the Year. Ohio State’s situation is a little less clear, as Urban Meyer has a few candidates to guide his team through life after J.T. Barrett. The favorite to start for the Buckeyes is Dwayne Haskins, who filled in for an injured Barrett against Michigan, but keep an eye on Tate Martell, a mercurial playmaker who has drawn comparisons to Johnny Manziel.

Honorable mention: USC at Texas—Last year’s double-overtime thriller at the Coliseum was almost as epic as that national championship game in 2006 without any of the stakes. Boise State at Oklahoma State—Hey Broncos, want some respect? A win in Stillwater should do it. Colorado State at Florida—This game was part of the package Florida gave to Colorado State in exchange for Jim McElwain’s services, but McElwain didn’t last long enough to coach in it.

Week 4: Florida Atlantic at UCF

This is as enticing as a non-Power 5 matchup gets. On one side there’s Lane Kiffin, everyone’s favorite least-favorite coach, and an FAU team that finished ninth in total offense en route to an 11–3 season. This year’s Owls could be even better, as Devin Singletary (1,920 rushing yards, 33 total TDs) is back and Kiffin welcomes the first class of players he recruited to #thefaU. Then there’s UCF, the sort-of defending national champions, who will be looking to prove that their relevance isn’t tied to former head coach Scott Frost. Star quarterback McKenzie Milton returns to power the Knights’ offense, and he should be one of the top passers in the country under the direction of first-year head coach Josh Heupel, who was lured to Orlando after serving as Missouri’s offensive coordinator for two seasons. The points should flow freely.

Honorable mention: Texas A&M at Alabama—Fisher vs. Saban will dominate the midweek headlines. Florida at Tennessee—Another SEC battle, this one between two new coaches in the East in Dan Mullen and Jeremy Pruitt. TCU at Texas—Can Tom Herman’s Longhorns make some headway in the quest to reestablish their place as the state’s premier program?

Week 5: Ohio State at Penn State

The last two matchups between these Big Ten powers have been classics. Back in October, the Buckeyes came back from a 35–20 deficit to eke out a 39–38 victory that kept their playoff hopes alive and crushed Penn State’s. In 2016, the then-unranked Nittany Lions returned a blocked field goal 60 yards in the fourth quarter for a game-winning touchdown on their way to an unlikely Big Ten title. There are few better venues for a huge game than State College, and you can be certain that 100,000-plus dressed in all-white will be packed into Beaver Stadium. This will also be the first real challenge for Penn State’s offense in the post-Saquon Barkley era.

Honorable mention: Tennessee at Georgia—The Bulldogs are very familiar with Pruitt from his short stay in Athens. Stanford at Notre Dame—This is around the time of year the Cardinal typically round into form. Florida at Mississippi State—Mullen’s return to Starkville should be an emotional measuring stick game for both teams.

Week 6: Texas vs. Oklahoma (at the Cotton Bowl)

Tom Herman’s second season at Texas should be marked by the growing influence of players he brought to Austin have on the on-field product. That’s great news for Texas, because Herman’s first recruiting class was a consensus top-five haul, and this year’s could land in the top three. This game will also feature two of the country’s best young quarterbacks in Texas’s Sam Ehlinger and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, the five-star transfer from Texas A&M who faces the unenviable task of replacing Baker Mayfield. Herman’s presence should breathe new life into the Red River Rivalry for years to come.

Honorable mentions: Florida State at Miami—The Canes capitalized on a down year for FSU and ended a seven-game losing streak in this rivalry last season. Nebraska at Wisconsin—Could this be the first of many Big Ten West title bouts between these two programs in the years ahead? Notre Dame at Virginia Tech—Keep an eye on the Hokies as a potential ACC sleeper this year.

Week 7: Georgia at LSU

This will be the first matchup between these SEC elites since 2013, and it should be a doozy. The Bulldogs will enter the season as one of the nation’s top teams, fresh off an appearance in the national championship game. Sure, they will miss the graduating running back tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and yes, they’ll also lose their leading receiver (Javon Wims) and best defensive player (Roquan Smith), but they get quarterback Jake Fromm back and welcome the best recruiting class in the country to campus. This offseason has been notable for the LSU coordinator positions, but for different reasons— defensive coordinator Dave Aranda signed a new deal that will make him the highest-paid assistant in the country ($2.5 million annual salary), while former offensive coordinator Matt Canada was replaced by tight ends coach Steve Ensminger. The Tigers’ defense has been championship-quality for years, and if Ensminger can revitalize a sleepy offensive attack, LSU could challenge for the SEC title.

Honorable mentions: Michigan State at Penn State—Michigan State won a seven-hour marathon in East Lansing last season, otherwise Penn State could well have made the playoff. Wisconsin at Michigan—Another huge test for the Wolverines, who have one of the toughest schedules in the country.

Week 8: Michigan at Michigan State

Harbaugh will be under mountains of pressure to get a win over a rival, as his teams are a combined 1–5 against Michigan State and Ohio State. The Spartans return 10 starters on offense, including Brian Lewerke, who could become the next in a long line of NFL quarterbacks from Michigan State, and leading rusher L.J. Scott. They also get nine starters back on defense. The 2017 bowl selection process added another level of tension to this game: Spartans fans fumed when Michigan was selected for the Outback Bowl over Michigan State despite the fact that Michigan State had a better regular season record and beat Michigan. State will be out to reassert their supremacy.

Honorable mentions: Alabama at Tennessee—Saban vs. his defensive coordinator from 2017. Oklahoma at TCU—The Sooners beat TCU twice last season, so the Horned Frogs will be set on revenge.

Week 9: Clemson at Florida State

These two programs have had a stranglehold on the ACC for the last seven seasons, a span in which the winner of this matchup has won the conference crown every year. Clemson won the ACC title in 2011 before Florida State reigned supreme for three consecutive years. Clemson has retaken control, with three consecutive league titles. Meanwhile, the Seminoles had about as disappointing a year as possible in 2017 and enter a new era with Willie Taggart at the helm. The Tigers get their entire ultra-talented defensive line back and already have commitments from two five-star D-line prospects from the class of 2018.

Honorable mentions: Texas at Oklahoma State—Texas held an explosive Oklahoma State offense to just 13 points in an eventual 13-10 overtime loss last season. Florida at Georgia—The 2017 game was the death knell for the Jim McElwain era in Gainesville. Can Mullen change the conversation? Wisconsin at Northwestern—These were the top two teams from the Big Ten West last year, though Northwestern will be without quarterback Clayton Thorson. Iowa at Penn State—The Hawkeyes spoiled Ohio State’s playoff hopes last season. Can they ruin Penn State’s in 2018??

Week 10: Stanford at Washington

Stanford got a big boost with Bryce Love returning for his senior year, and coach David Shaw finds a way to keep his team near the top of the Pac-12 every season. Quarterback K.J. Costello played pretty well when he took over the starting job midway through the season, and he should improve with another year of development. Jake Browning should be one of the nation’s most productive passers in his senior season, but we’ll know a lot more about Washington as a whole after that season opener against Auburn in Atlanta. No matter what happens in Week 1, this game could be a de facto Pac-12 North championship game.

Honorable mentions: Texas A&M at Auburn—The Aggies have to deal with both Bama and Auburn on the road. Alabama at LSU—Can the Tigers end a seven-game losing streak to the Tide? Penn State at Michigan—The Big Ten East is the gift that keeps on giving.

Week 11: Wisconsin at Penn State

Wisconsin doesn’t draw the same national attention as some of its Big Ten foes, but the Badgers will once again be the heavy favorite to win the West. Jonathan Taylor rushed for a mind-boggling 1,977 yards as an 18-year-old freshman, and lefty quarterback Alex Hornibrook also returns. But the Badgers might once again have to go undefeated to get into the playoff, as their non-conference schedule (home games against Western Kentucky, New Mexico and BYU) is about as weak as you’ll see from a big-time program with national title aspirations. That makes every game of the utmost importance, and this trip to Happy Valley might carry the most risk and the most reward.

Honorable mentions: Auburn at Georgia—A rematch of last year’s SEC title game. Florida State at Notre Dame—These last time these two golden helmet–wearers met, in 2014, both teams were ranked in the top five, and Jameis Winston guided the Seminoles to a 31-27 victory. Oklahoma State at Oklahoma—Bedlam, minus Mayfield and Rudolph. Ohio State at Michigan State—Ohio State won this matchup by 45 in 2017, but something tells me that won’t happen in East Lansing.?

Week 12: USC at UCLA

Will Chip Kelly’s presence tip the scales in a rivalry that’s been rather one-sided in recent years? USC has won the last three meetings and 15 of the last 19, but Sam Darnold’s departure leaves a little uncertainty about how good the 2018 team will be. UCLA coaches often talk about wanting to “rule the city,” and there’s no better way to do that than to beat USC. Kelly will need some time to implement his system and get his players to Westwood, but a win here would jump-start the rebuilding process.

Honorable mentions: West Virginia at Oklahoma State—West Virginia should be much improved in 2018, the final go-around for Will Grier and David Sills V. Michigan State at Nebraska—The importance of this game largely depends on how good Frost’s team will be.?

Week 13: Auburn at Alabama

It’s always tough to identify the best game from rivalry weekend, which is always filled with classics like Ohio State–Michigan, South Carolina–Clemson and Florida–Florida State. But the Iron Bowl is electric every single year, and 2018 will be no different, with both teams projecting to be among the country’s best. Whether it’s quarterbacked by Jalen Hurts or title game hero Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama loses a ton of offensive talent to the draft. Meanwhile, Auburn loses its top rushers from 2017 but keeps quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Both offenses should reload without issue. The winner of this game will probably represent the West in the SEC title game, and the Tide’s national title won’t curb their desire for revenge after Auburn handled them 26–14 last season.

Honorable mentions: Florida at Florida State—Mullen vs. Taggart, Volume I. South Carolina at Clemson—The Tigers are looking for their fifth straight victory in this rivalry. Notre Dame at USC—There’s always something special about watching these two programs face off in Southern California. Oklahoma State at TCU—Again, the Cowboys control how much drama this one holds. Michigan at Ohio State—Is this the year Harbaugh finally beats the rivals to the south?

<p>Mississippi State fans chant &#39;UCF!&#39; at Auburn basketball game</p>
Mississippi State fans chant 'UCF!' at Auburn basketball game

Mississippi State fans chant 'UCF!' at Auburn basketball game

Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland pleads with an official over a foul called against his player during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
No. 22 Auburn rallies to beat Mississippi St 76-68
Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland pleads with an official over a foul called against his player during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Jared Harper (1) shoots an uncontested layup during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
No. 22 Auburn rallies to beat Mississippi St 76-68
Auburn guard Jared Harper (1) shoots an uncontested layup during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Abdul Ado (24) muscles the ball for a layup basket past the defense of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
No. 22 Auburn rallies to beat Mississippi St 76-68
Mississippi State forward Abdul Ado (24) muscles the ball for a layup basket past the defense of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) attempts a shot in front of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
No. 22 Auburn rallies to beat Mississippi St 76-68
Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) attempts a shot in front of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) blocks a shot attempt by Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
No. 22 Auburn rallies to beat Mississippi St 76-68
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) blocks a shot attempt by Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl pleads with his players to defend Mississippi State players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
No. 22 Auburn rallies to beat Mississippi St 76-68
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl pleads with his players to defend Mississippi State players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Aric Holman (35) attempts a shot on the basket while a Auburn defender tries to block during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
No. 22 Auburn rallies to beat Mississippi St 76-68
Mississippi State forward Aric Holman (35) attempts a shot on the basket while a Auburn defender tries to block during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) passes to a teammate during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) passes to a teammate during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) passes to a teammate during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) attempts a three-point shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) attempts a three-point shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) attempts a three-point shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl pleads with his players to defend Mississippi State players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl pleads with his players to defend Mississippi State players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl pleads with his players to defend Mississippi State players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) pulls down a rebound between Auburn guard Davion Mitchell (10) and forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) pulls down a rebound between Auburn guard Davion Mitchell (10) and forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) pulls down a rebound between Auburn guard Davion Mitchell (10) and forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland pleads with an official over a foul called against his player during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland pleads with an official over a foul called against his player during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland pleads with an official over a foul called against his player during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) attempts a layup past an Auburn defender during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) attempts a layup past an Auburn defender during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) attempts a layup past an Auburn defender during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) attempts a layup while Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) tries to block during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) attempts a layup while Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) tries to block during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) attempts a layup while Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) tries to block during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Desean Murray (13) shoots over the defense of Mississippi State forward Abdul Ado (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Desean Murray (13) shoots over the defense of Mississippi State forward Abdul Ado (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Desean Murray (13) shoots over the defense of Mississippi State forward Abdul Ado (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Aric Holman (35) pulls down a rebound in front of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Aric Holman (35) pulls down a rebound in front of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Aric Holman (35) pulls down a rebound in front of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Jared Harper (1) shoots an uncontested layup during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Jared Harper (1) shoots an uncontested layup during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Jared Harper (1) shoots an uncontested layup during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) and teammate forward Desean Murray (13) celebrate their 76-68 NCAA college basketball game win over Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) and teammate forward Desean Murray (13) celebrate their 76-68 NCAA college basketball game win over Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) and teammate forward Desean Murray (13) celebrate their 76-68 NCAA college basketball game win over Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) shoots over a defending Mississippi State guard Nick Weatherspoon (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) shoots over a defending Mississippi State guard Nick Weatherspoon (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) shoots over a defending Mississippi State guard Nick Weatherspoon (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Desean Murray (13) closes his eyes as he anticipates a body slam from a Mississippi State defender during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Desean Murray (13) closes his eyes as he anticipates a body slam from a Mississippi State defender during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Desean Murray (13) closes his eyes as he anticipates a body slam from a Mississippi State defender during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Auburn won 76-68. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) blocks a shot attempt by Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) blocks a shot attempt by Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) blocks a shot attempt by Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Abdul Ado (24) muscles the ball for a layup basket past the defense of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Abdul Ado (24) muscles the ball for a layup basket past the defense of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Abdul Ado (24) muscles the ball for a layup basket past the defense of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) makes a layup against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) makes a layup against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) makes a layup against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Aric Holman (35) attempts a shot on the basket while a Auburn defender tries to block during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Aric Holman (35) attempts a shot on the basket while a Auburn defender tries to block during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State forward Aric Holman (35) attempts a shot on the basket while a Auburn defender tries to block during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) attempts a shot in front of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) attempts a shot in front of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Xavian Stapleton (3) attempts a shot in front of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) attempts a layup past Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) attempts a layup past Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) attempts a layup past Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Nick Weatherspoon (0) attempts a shot while Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl, left, calls for better defense on Weatherspoon, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Nick Weatherspoon (0) attempts a shot while Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl, left, calls for better defense on Weatherspoon, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Nick Weatherspoon (0) attempts a shot while Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl, left, calls for better defense on Weatherspoon, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
<p>After another upset-filled week saw four of our top five and plenty of other top teams lose, college basketball is quickly becoming a tangled web with little separation between many of the nation’s best. Some of this week’s biggest risers are not necessarily entirely the result of impressive wins, but also a product of playing well enough to keep winning while other teams had off nights or saw their weaknesses exposed. Additionally, the blanket chaos meant that some teams that had a rough loss didn’t fall as much as you’d normally expect. Without further ado, here’s the new-look top 25:</p><h3>1. Villanova (14–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (3)</strong>: beat Marquette<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Xavier, at St. John’s</p><p>The Wildcats slide back into the No. 1 spot, but it’s more by default after the carnage around them. Villanova is being led by its incredibly efficient offense right now while its defense has opened Big East play as a sore spot. It’s early, but through their three conference games the Wildcats rank dead last in the Big East in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. The offense, meanwhile, has been head and shoulders above the rest of the league behind Jalen Brunson, who is posting the nation’s highest offensive rating among players being used on at least 20% of possessions.</p><h3>2. Purdue (16–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (6)</strong>: beat Rutgers, beat Nebraska, beat Michigan<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Minnesota, vs. Wisconsin</p><p>The Boilermakers kept their 12-game win streak alive by eking out a one-point road win over Michigan on Tuesday. It may not be the flashiest win, but that’s a notable victory in a tough road environment for a team that’s currently in the driver’s seat at 5–0 in the Big Ten (and, outside of a trip to East Lansing, may have gotten its next-toughest road contest out of the way). Purdue has greatly improved its free-throw rate this season but had just seven attempts from the line against the Wolverines—by far its season low—and still found a way to get the W.</p><h3>3. West Virginia (15–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (8)</strong>: beat Oklahoma, beat Baylor<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Texas Tech, vs. Kansas</p><p>After Tuesday’s win over Baylor, the Mountaineers are the only Big 12 team yet to suffer a conference loss as they sit atop the league at 4–0. Over the weekend, WVU picked up an important win over Oklahoma by holding Trae Young to his lowest offensive rating of the season. Young scored 29 in the loss, but committed eight turnovers, made just 3 of 12 three-point attempts and tied his season-low with five assists. Then against the Bears, the Mountaineers used their trademark defense to force 21 turnovers and overcome a subpar offensive performance, which included making just nine of their 36 two-point shots.</p><h3>4. Michigan State (15–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (1)</strong>: beat Maryland, lost to Ohio State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Rutgers, vs. Michigan</p><p>The Spartans’ stay at No. 1 didn’t last very long. After a 30-point home rout of Maryland, they went to Columbus and got handed a 16-point loss to snap their 14-game win streak. MSU couldn’t slow Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop, who poured in 32 points, including seven in the Buckeyes’ pivotal 19–4 run to end the first half. Normally a very reliable shooting team, Michigan State had its third-worst shooting night from behind the arc this season despite attempting 25 threes, and Ohio State was able to hit 54.5% of its two-pointers—20% higher than opponents have averaged against the Spartans on the year.</p><h3>5. Virginia (15–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (10</strong>): beat Virginia Tech, beat North Carolina, beat Syracuse<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. NC State</p><p>The Cavaliers continue to be one of the surprises of the season after getting off to a 4–0 ACC start. What’s not surprising is that they’ve been doing it with their No. 1 ranked defense. UVA held Luke Maye to a season-low six points on 2-of-10 shooting and UNC to 0.83 points per possession and 49 overall in a double-digit win, one game after holding Virginia Tech to a season-low 0.76 PPP. Offensively, the Hoos have now had a different leading scorer in four straight games, including Kyle Guy’s 22-point effort against Syracuse where he knocked down five threes.</p><h3>6. Duke (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (2)</strong>: lost to NC State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Pittsburgh, vs. Wake Forest, at Miami</p><p>The Blue Devils suffered their second ACC loss to a team not expected to contend in the league, and it’s only been three games. It’s clear now that their defensive issues won’t just be a problem when they face the conference’s best, and that’s a big concern considering nine of their remaining 16 ACC games will come against teams with more efficient offenses than Boston College and NC State. Three years ago, Mike Krzyzewski was able to turn what was a dubious defense for most of the season into a juggernaut just in time for an incredible run to the national title. While that shows it can be done, it’s something that should be far from expected to happen again.</p><h3>7. Oklahoma (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (7)</strong>: lost to West Virginia, beat Texas Tech<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: (13–2): vs. TCU, at Kansas State</p><p>Trae Young showed his first glimpses of being mortal over the last week, and considering he still scored 29 and 27 points against two top-10 defenses, that tells you all you need to know about how good his season has been. His struggles against West Virginia were detailed above, but the freshman also got off to a slow start at home against Texas Tech, missing 11 of his first 12 shot attempts. Young recovered to finish with 27 points, nine assists and four steals to lead a crucial win over Texas Tech, but it was the Sooners’ defense that was the team’s MVP on the night, holding the Red Raiders to 0.84 PPP and a 37.3% mark from the field.</p><h3>8. Xavier (15–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (5)</strong>: lost to Providence<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Villanova, vs. Creighton</p><p>The bubble mentioned here last week as something that may be close to bursting after a string of close games indeed burst in a road trip to Providence. A number of things went wrong for the Musketeers, who lost despite posting a 16-plus rebounding margin: they shot just 35.5% in the first half to fall into an eight-point hole, Trevon Bluiett went scoreless in the second half, Kaiser Gates was a non-factor with zero points and one rebound and they committed 15 turnovers, 10 of which came in the first 20 minutes. Now, a potentially Big East race-altering week awaits with a road trip to Villanova and a home matchup with Creighton.</p><h3>9. Arizona State (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (4)</strong>: lost to Colorado, beat Utah<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Oregon, vs. Oregon State</p><p>In 15 games this season, there’s been two times when the opponent posted a higher PPP than Arizona State. Not coincidentally, those two games have been the Sun Devils’ two losses: at Arizona and at Colorado, the latter of which is far less excusable. It’s a reminder that just like Duke, ASU has a major flaw right now with its defense, which ranks three spots behind the Blue Devils at 109th in adjusted efficiency. When Arizona State’s offense is humming, like it has on so many occasions already this season, it has shown it can compete with anyone. But if it’s not having the most efficient night, it doesn’t take a world-beating effort by the other team to walk away with a win.</p><h3>10. Wichita State (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (16)</strong>: beat Houston, beat USF<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at East Carolina, at Tulsa</p><p>In three AAC games so far, the Shockers have taken 72 threes and hit 50% of them. While that number is not sustainable, it’s hard to ignore the 52.7% clip Landry Shamet has posted on 74 perimeter attempts on the season so far. Shamet has found a way to be even more efficient than last year, when his 129.6 offensive rating on kenpom.com ranked 18th in the country. It’s currently up to 136.0 this season, and his effective field goal percentage has grown from 59.5% to 68.9%, his true shooting percentage from 62.7% to 72.0% and his assist rate from 22.2% to 28.5%. Not too shabby.</p><h3>11. Texas Tech (14–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (11)</strong>: beat Kansas State, lost to Oklahoma<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. West Virginia</p><p>The Red Raiders went 3–1 across a challenging opening two weeks of Big 12 play, and now their “reward” is getting to host No. 2 West Virginia this weekend (the Big 12 grind never stops!). Texas Tech was unable to take better advantage of a poor first half by Oklahoma star Trae Young on Tuesday, leading by only two at halftime before succumbing to Young and Co. in the second half (and was, it should be noted, playing without senior Zach Smith). The Red Raiders have built much of their success this season on their defense and by creating turnovers, and while they did a pretty good job limiting the Sooners’ talented offense, they didn’t get enough offense themselves outside Keenan Evans to fill in what was needed.</p><h3>12. Cincinnati (14–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (18)</strong>: beat Temple, beat SMU<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at South Florida, at UCF</p><p>The Bearcats picked up two important AAC wins in beating Temple on the road before defeating SMU by 20 at home. Cincinnati can be a legitimate challenger to Wichita State in the American, but for as good as its defense is, its offense, currently ranked 52nd in efficiency, is what may be key. It needs more showings like the one it had against SMU, when Gary Clark and Jacob Evans each scored 18 and the Bearcats won by 20 despite the rest of the team shooting 31.4% from the floor, and less like their 55–53 win over Temple in which the offense gave the defense no breathing room and little margin for error.</p><h3>13. Arizona (12–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (9)</strong>: beat Utah, lost to Colorado<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Oregon State, vs. Oregon</p><p>After knocking off Arizona State in overtime, Colorado completed a stunning 1–2 punch against the Pac-12’s desert schools by taking down Arizona. The Wildcats squandered a golden opportunity gain another game on their in-state foe, instead dealing with their own questions after the surprising loss. DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier combined for just eight points in a critical first half as the Buffs built a 45–29 lead that would be just enough cushion to hold on. Who is Arizona when its star duo is struggling or non-factors on offense? The Wildcats need to find a more cohesive identity outside the pairing.</p><h3>14. Kentucky (13–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (13)</strong>: beat LSU, lost to Tennessee, beat Texas A&#38;M<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Vanderbilt, at South Carolina</p><p>Even with a starting five of all freshmen, the Wildcats couldn’t shake their predecessors’ demons at Thompson-Boling Arena in the program’s third straight road loss to Tennessee, but Kentucky returned home to rebound with a one-point win over Texas A&#38;M after a <a href="https://www.sbnation.com/college-basketball/2018/1/9/16872260/kentucky-got-away-with-a-clear-foul-on-texas-a-m-in-last-possession-of-1-point-win" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:controversial no-call" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">controversial no-call</a> in the final seconds. If you haven’t watched UK play recently, you’re missing out on seeing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s been emerging as perhaps the team’s best and most important player. Gilgeous-Alexander does a little bit of everything, and it’s not a coincidence that his worst game of the season came in the loss to Tennessee. Take that game out, and over his last four, of which Kentucky went 4­–0, he’s averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks on 53.0% shooting.</p><h3>15. Kansas (13–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (22)</strong>: beat TCU, beat Iowa State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Kansas State, at West Virginia</p><p>The Jayhawks had exactly the kind of week they needed, notching close wins on the road at TCU and at home over Iowa State. Svi Mykhailiuk had a pair of strong games, scoring 20 and 23 points, respectively, and knocking down a combined 11 of 16 from three. The Ukrainian guard has become a steady leader on offense in his senior year and has notably improved his perimeter shooting, hitting 47.9% this season after a 39.8% mark as a junior. He’s also currently leading the team—even Devonte’ Graham—in both shot attempts and percentage of shots taken when on the floor.</p><h3>16. Clemson (14–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (21)</strong>: beat Boston College, beat Louisville<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at NC State, vs. Miami, at North Carolina</p><p>At 14–1, the Tigers have continued their best start since opening 16­–0 in 2008–09, and we’re about to get a real good look at the makeup of this team. After a road trip to Raleigh, Clemson enters a four-game gauntlet of facing Miami, UNC, Notre Dame and Virginia, a brutal stretch that will ultimately show whether this team could actually be a serious surprise contender in the ACC. The Tigers are a veteran team that start five upperclassmen and are powered by their defense, which currently ranks 11th in adjusted efficiency, a big step up from 86th last season.</p><h3>17. TCU (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (15)</strong>: beat Baylor, lost to Kansas<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Texas, at Oklahoma</p><p>The Horned Frogs’ defense has had a harsh welcome to conference play, posting the Big 12’s worst defensive efficiency in league action early on. Opponents are shooting at a higher clip than TCU is from both two- and three-point distance, and posting a considerably higher free-throw late. The offense has held its own amid the step up in competition, but when your three conference games have been decided by one, three and four points, you need to be able to trust your defense to get stops, and right now, TCU can’t do that.</p><h3>18. Gonzaga (14–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (19)</strong>: beat Pepperdine, beat Loyola Marymount<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Portland, at San Francisco</p><p>It’s no surprise that the Bulldogs’ four conference wins so far have all been blowouts, as the only real tests they should get in WCC play will come from Saint Mary’s and maybe BYU. Johnathan Williams had his second 30-point game of the season against Loyola Marymount, while freshman Zach Norvell has now scored double figures in five straight while hitting 43% of his threes. If there’s anything negative of note about the Zags’ WCC start, it’s that their free-throw rate of 25.2% has been unexpectedly low and second-worst in the league.</p><h3>19. Auburn (15–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (25)</strong>: beat Arkansas, beat Ole Miss<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Mississippi State</p><p>The Tigers continued their surprising ascent with double-digit wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss to move to 15–1 on the season. Their road win over Tennessee and victory over the Razorbacks are a better pair of wins than anyone else has in SEC play at this early juncture, and they’re now the second-ranked SEC team on kenpom.com at No. 21. Can Auburn keep this up? That answer likely depends on whether it can keep up the significant defensive improvement it has made so far this season. Opponents’ effective field-goal percentage against the Tigers has been 46.8%, down from 50.6% in 2016–17, and their 43.4% defensive two-point mark ranks 19th in the country.</p><h3>20. Seton Hall (14–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (14)</strong>: beat Butler, lost to Marquette<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Georgetown</p><p>The Pirates had a trip to BMO Harris Bradley Center to forget in a 20-point loss to Marquette on Tuesday night, their first in Big East play. Seton Hall let the Golden Eagles have their way in transition, giving up 25 fast-break points and 18 points off turnovers, and couldn’t overcome a combined 10-for-27 shooting mark from Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez, continuing the trend of the Pirates struggling when Rodriguez doesn’t hit the 17-point benchmark (he scored 11). After back-to-back games of giving up 1.24 PPP and an overall efficiency mark outside the top 50, defensive improvement is an obvious area where Seton Hall would benefit.</p><h3>21. North Carolina (13–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (12)</strong>: lost to Florida State, lost to Virginia, beat Boston College<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Notre Dame, vs. Clemson</p><p>The Tar Heels suffered a 1–2 week, and while road losses to Florida State and Virginia aren’t reason to hit the panic button, their showing against UVA again exposed deep struggles against an elite defense. UNC’s worst offensive outing of the season came in an ugly loss to Michigan State, and against the Cavaliers it wasn’t able to generate much more, scoring 0.83 PPP, shooting 29.6% and turning it over 19 times in a 61–49 loss. Those two games have also been Luke Maye’s least efficient of the season, but the junior did respond in a big way with a 32-point, 15-rebound effort against Boston College.</p><h3>22. Florida (11–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (24)</strong>: beat Missouri<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Mississippi State, at Ole Miss</p><p>The Gators won their only game of the week as they continue to build momentum after getting through their four-losses-in-five-games stretch. They’re 3–0 in the SEC despite opponents shooting 44.9% from three in that span, an extension of their overall 287th-ranked perimeter defense, but Florida’s three-point prowess itself has helped offset that. Despite the nonconference bumps, the Gators can still contend for the SEC crown, especially given Kentucky’s growing pains and the fact that expected challenger Texas A&#38;M has practically knocked itself out of the race already by starting league play 0–4.</p><h3>23. Miami (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (17)</strong>: lost to Georgia Tech, beat Florida State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Clemson, vs. Duke</p><p>An ugly 10-point road loss to Georgia Tech isn’t exactly the way the Hurricanes were hoping to open the new year. Losing to the Yellow Jackets, whose own losses include Wofford, Grambling and Wright State, is hardly something Miami can afford if it wants to compete for the ACC title. But the most concerning aspect was its pitiful 0.77 PPP offensive performance in the loss, the second time in four games the ‘Canes failed to score 0.80 PPP against an opponent outside the kenpom.com top 40 defenses. Miami has a defense itself that should keep it in most games, but the offense needs to find more consistency, particularly from Bruce Brown. Was freshman Chris Lykes’s 18-point breakout against FSU a sign of things to come?</p><h3>24. Notre Dame (13–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (NR)</strong>: beat NC State, beat Syracuse<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Georgia Tech, vs. UNC, vs. Louisville</p><p>How about the Irish, who have started ACC play 3–0 despite having Bonzie Colson for just one of those wins and Matt Farrell for one and a half? Their three wins may not be against the class of the conference, but they routed an NC State team that would go on to beat Duke and edged Syracuse on the road without their two best players. Without those two, there’s far more pressure on TJ Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, as well as freshman DJ Harvey, and right now they’re weathering the storm. Pflueger had his second-most efficient game of the season while Harvey scored a career-high 17 against the Wolfpack, and Gibbs posted a combined total of 40 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists on 43% shooting in two games in the last week.</p><h3>25. Tennessee (11–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (NR)</strong>: beat Kentucky, beat Vanderbilt<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Texas A&#38;M</p><p>The Vols rebounded from back-to-back losses to open SEC play by beating Kentucky in Knoxville for the third straight season and taking care of Vanderbilt on the road. Even with four losses, Tennessee is up to No. 15 on kenpom.com behind a balanced offense and defense, a big improvement after starting 43rd. Against the Wildcats, Grant Williams was able to come alive in the second half to lead the comeback, and the big man exploded three days later against Vandy, pouring in a career-high 37 points on 12-of-20 shooting.</p><p><strong>DROPPED OUT</strong>: Texas A&#38;M, SMU</p><p><strong>NEXT FIVE OUT</strong>: Creighton, Ohio State, Saint Mary’s, Florida State, Nevada</p><h3>Mid-Major Meter</h3><p>(<em>For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10.</em>)</p><p>1. <strong>Gonzaga</strong>: Don’t expect the Bulldogs to potentially budge from this spot until their Jan. 18 showdown with Saint Mary’s in Spokane.</p><p>2. <strong>Saint Mary’s</strong>: With the nation’s No. 3 adjusted offense and No. 143 adjusted defense, the latter of which is a big drop off from a year ago, the Gaels are a fascinating study.</p><p>3. <strong>Nevada</strong>: Former NC State transfer Caleb Martin has improved his three-point percentage from 36.1% two years ago to 48.1% to help the Wolf Pack start 4–0 in the Mountain West.</p><p>4. <strong>New Mexico State</strong>: The 13–3 Aggies have a big road game at preseason WAC favorite Grand Canyon on Thursday.</p><p>5. <strong>Middle Tennessee</strong>: The preseason C-USA favorite has started league play 3–0, including a road win over one of its biggest challengers in UAB.</p>
Power Rankings: Villanova Reclaims Top Spot as Purdue, West Virginia Continue to Climb

After another upset-filled week saw four of our top five and plenty of other top teams lose, college basketball is quickly becoming a tangled web with little separation between many of the nation’s best. Some of this week’s biggest risers are not necessarily entirely the result of impressive wins, but also a product of playing well enough to keep winning while other teams had off nights or saw their weaknesses exposed. Additionally, the blanket chaos meant that some teams that had a rough loss didn’t fall as much as you’d normally expect. Without further ado, here’s the new-look top 25:

1. Villanova (14–1)

Last Week (3): beat Marquette
Next Week: vs. Xavier, at St. John’s

The Wildcats slide back into the No. 1 spot, but it’s more by default after the carnage around them. Villanova is being led by its incredibly efficient offense right now while its defense has opened Big East play as a sore spot. It’s early, but through their three conference games the Wildcats rank dead last in the Big East in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. The offense, meanwhile, has been head and shoulders above the rest of the league behind Jalen Brunson, who is posting the nation’s highest offensive rating among players being used on at least 20% of possessions.

2. Purdue (16–2)

Last Week (6): beat Rutgers, beat Nebraska, beat Michigan
Next Week: at Minnesota, vs. Wisconsin

The Boilermakers kept their 12-game win streak alive by eking out a one-point road win over Michigan on Tuesday. It may not be the flashiest win, but that’s a notable victory in a tough road environment for a team that’s currently in the driver’s seat at 5–0 in the Big Ten (and, outside of a trip to East Lansing, may have gotten its next-toughest road contest out of the way). Purdue has greatly improved its free-throw rate this season but had just seven attempts from the line against the Wolverines—by far its season low—and still found a way to get the W.

3. West Virginia (15–1)

Last Week (8): beat Oklahoma, beat Baylor
Next Week: at Texas Tech, vs. Kansas

After Tuesday’s win over Baylor, the Mountaineers are the only Big 12 team yet to suffer a conference loss as they sit atop the league at 4–0. Over the weekend, WVU picked up an important win over Oklahoma by holding Trae Young to his lowest offensive rating of the season. Young scored 29 in the loss, but committed eight turnovers, made just 3 of 12 three-point attempts and tied his season-low with five assists. Then against the Bears, the Mountaineers used their trademark defense to force 21 turnovers and overcome a subpar offensive performance, which included making just nine of their 36 two-point shots.

4. Michigan State (15–2)

Last Week (1): beat Maryland, lost to Ohio State
Next Week: vs. Rutgers, vs. Michigan

The Spartans’ stay at No. 1 didn’t last very long. After a 30-point home rout of Maryland, they went to Columbus and got handed a 16-point loss to snap their 14-game win streak. MSU couldn’t slow Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop, who poured in 32 points, including seven in the Buckeyes’ pivotal 19–4 run to end the first half. Normally a very reliable shooting team, Michigan State had its third-worst shooting night from behind the arc this season despite attempting 25 threes, and Ohio State was able to hit 54.5% of its two-pointers—20% higher than opponents have averaged against the Spartans on the year.

5. Virginia (15–1)

Last Week (10): beat Virginia Tech, beat North Carolina, beat Syracuse
Next Week: vs. NC State

The Cavaliers continue to be one of the surprises of the season after getting off to a 4–0 ACC start. What’s not surprising is that they’ve been doing it with their No. 1 ranked defense. UVA held Luke Maye to a season-low six points on 2-of-10 shooting and UNC to 0.83 points per possession and 49 overall in a double-digit win, one game after holding Virginia Tech to a season-low 0.76 PPP. Offensively, the Hoos have now had a different leading scorer in four straight games, including Kyle Guy’s 22-point effort against Syracuse where he knocked down five threes.

6. Duke (13–2)

Last Week (2): lost to NC State
Next Week: at Pittsburgh, vs. Wake Forest, at Miami

The Blue Devils suffered their second ACC loss to a team not expected to contend in the league, and it’s only been three games. It’s clear now that their defensive issues won’t just be a problem when they face the conference’s best, and that’s a big concern considering nine of their remaining 16 ACC games will come against teams with more efficient offenses than Boston College and NC State. Three years ago, Mike Krzyzewski was able to turn what was a dubious defense for most of the season into a juggernaut just in time for an incredible run to the national title. While that shows it can be done, it’s something that should be far from expected to happen again.

7. Oklahoma (13–2)

Last Week (7): lost to West Virginia, beat Texas Tech
Next Week: (13–2): vs. TCU, at Kansas State

Trae Young showed his first glimpses of being mortal over the last week, and considering he still scored 29 and 27 points against two top-10 defenses, that tells you all you need to know about how good his season has been. His struggles against West Virginia were detailed above, but the freshman also got off to a slow start at home against Texas Tech, missing 11 of his first 12 shot attempts. Young recovered to finish with 27 points, nine assists and four steals to lead a crucial win over Texas Tech, but it was the Sooners’ defense that was the team’s MVP on the night, holding the Red Raiders to 0.84 PPP and a 37.3% mark from the field.

8. Xavier (15–2)

Last Week (5): lost to Providence
Next Week: at Villanova, vs. Creighton

The bubble mentioned here last week as something that may be close to bursting after a string of close games indeed burst in a road trip to Providence. A number of things went wrong for the Musketeers, who lost despite posting a 16-plus rebounding margin: they shot just 35.5% in the first half to fall into an eight-point hole, Trevon Bluiett went scoreless in the second half, Kaiser Gates was a non-factor with zero points and one rebound and they committed 15 turnovers, 10 of which came in the first 20 minutes. Now, a potentially Big East race-altering week awaits with a road trip to Villanova and a home matchup with Creighton.

9. Arizona State (13–2)

Last Week (4): lost to Colorado, beat Utah
Next Week: vs. Oregon, vs. Oregon State

In 15 games this season, there’s been two times when the opponent posted a higher PPP than Arizona State. Not coincidentally, those two games have been the Sun Devils’ two losses: at Arizona and at Colorado, the latter of which is far less excusable. It’s a reminder that just like Duke, ASU has a major flaw right now with its defense, which ranks three spots behind the Blue Devils at 109th in adjusted efficiency. When Arizona State’s offense is humming, like it has on so many occasions already this season, it has shown it can compete with anyone. But if it’s not having the most efficient night, it doesn’t take a world-beating effort by the other team to walk away with a win.

10. Wichita State (13–2)

Last Week (16): beat Houston, beat USF
Next Week: at East Carolina, at Tulsa

In three AAC games so far, the Shockers have taken 72 threes and hit 50% of them. While that number is not sustainable, it’s hard to ignore the 52.7% clip Landry Shamet has posted on 74 perimeter attempts on the season so far. Shamet has found a way to be even more efficient than last year, when his 129.6 offensive rating on kenpom.com ranked 18th in the country. It’s currently up to 136.0 this season, and his effective field goal percentage has grown from 59.5% to 68.9%, his true shooting percentage from 62.7% to 72.0% and his assist rate from 22.2% to 28.5%. Not too shabby.

11. Texas Tech (14–2)

Last Week (11): beat Kansas State, lost to Oklahoma
Next Week: vs. West Virginia

The Red Raiders went 3–1 across a challenging opening two weeks of Big 12 play, and now their “reward” is getting to host No. 2 West Virginia this weekend (the Big 12 grind never stops!). Texas Tech was unable to take better advantage of a poor first half by Oklahoma star Trae Young on Tuesday, leading by only two at halftime before succumbing to Young and Co. in the second half (and was, it should be noted, playing without senior Zach Smith). The Red Raiders have built much of their success this season on their defense and by creating turnovers, and while they did a pretty good job limiting the Sooners’ talented offense, they didn’t get enough offense themselves outside Keenan Evans to fill in what was needed.

12. Cincinnati (14–2)

Last Week (18): beat Temple, beat SMU
Next Week: at South Florida, at UCF

The Bearcats picked up two important AAC wins in beating Temple on the road before defeating SMU by 20 at home. Cincinnati can be a legitimate challenger to Wichita State in the American, but for as good as its defense is, its offense, currently ranked 52nd in efficiency, is what may be key. It needs more showings like the one it had against SMU, when Gary Clark and Jacob Evans each scored 18 and the Bearcats won by 20 despite the rest of the team shooting 31.4% from the floor, and less like their 55–53 win over Temple in which the offense gave the defense no breathing room and little margin for error.

13. Arizona (12–4)

Last Week (9): beat Utah, lost to Colorado
Next Week: vs. Oregon State, vs. Oregon

After knocking off Arizona State in overtime, Colorado completed a stunning 1–2 punch against the Pac-12’s desert schools by taking down Arizona. The Wildcats squandered a golden opportunity gain another game on their in-state foe, instead dealing with their own questions after the surprising loss. DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier combined for just eight points in a critical first half as the Buffs built a 45–29 lead that would be just enough cushion to hold on. Who is Arizona when its star duo is struggling or non-factors on offense? The Wildcats need to find a more cohesive identity outside the pairing.

14. Kentucky (13–3)

Last Week (13): beat LSU, lost to Tennessee, beat Texas A&M
Next Week: at Vanderbilt, at South Carolina

Even with a starting five of all freshmen, the Wildcats couldn’t shake their predecessors’ demons at Thompson-Boling Arena in the program’s third straight road loss to Tennessee, but Kentucky returned home to rebound with a one-point win over Texas A&M after a controversial no-call in the final seconds. If you haven’t watched UK play recently, you’re missing out on seeing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s been emerging as perhaps the team’s best and most important player. Gilgeous-Alexander does a little bit of everything, and it’s not a coincidence that his worst game of the season came in the loss to Tennessee. Take that game out, and over his last four, of which Kentucky went 4­–0, he’s averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks on 53.0% shooting.

15. Kansas (13–3)

Last Week (22): beat TCU, beat Iowa State
Next Week: vs. Kansas State, at West Virginia

The Jayhawks had exactly the kind of week they needed, notching close wins on the road at TCU and at home over Iowa State. Svi Mykhailiuk had a pair of strong games, scoring 20 and 23 points, respectively, and knocking down a combined 11 of 16 from three. The Ukrainian guard has become a steady leader on offense in his senior year and has notably improved his perimeter shooting, hitting 47.9% this season after a 39.8% mark as a junior. He’s also currently leading the team—even Devonte’ Graham—in both shot attempts and percentage of shots taken when on the floor.

16. Clemson (14–1)

Last Week (21): beat Boston College, beat Louisville
Next Week: at NC State, vs. Miami, at North Carolina

At 14–1, the Tigers have continued their best start since opening 16­–0 in 2008–09, and we’re about to get a real good look at the makeup of this team. After a road trip to Raleigh, Clemson enters a four-game gauntlet of facing Miami, UNC, Notre Dame and Virginia, a brutal stretch that will ultimately show whether this team could actually be a serious surprise contender in the ACC. The Tigers are a veteran team that start five upperclassmen and are powered by their defense, which currently ranks 11th in adjusted efficiency, a big step up from 86th last season.

17. TCU (13–2)

Last Week (15): beat Baylor, lost to Kansas
Next Week: at Texas, at Oklahoma

The Horned Frogs’ defense has had a harsh welcome to conference play, posting the Big 12’s worst defensive efficiency in league action early on. Opponents are shooting at a higher clip than TCU is from both two- and three-point distance, and posting a considerably higher free-throw late. The offense has held its own amid the step up in competition, but when your three conference games have been decided by one, three and four points, you need to be able to trust your defense to get stops, and right now, TCU can’t do that.

18. Gonzaga (14–3)

Last Week (19): beat Pepperdine, beat Loyola Marymount
Next Week: vs. Portland, at San Francisco

It’s no surprise that the Bulldogs’ four conference wins so far have all been blowouts, as the only real tests they should get in WCC play will come from Saint Mary’s and maybe BYU. Johnathan Williams had his second 30-point game of the season against Loyola Marymount, while freshman Zach Norvell has now scored double figures in five straight while hitting 43% of his threes. If there’s anything negative of note about the Zags’ WCC start, it’s that their free-throw rate of 25.2% has been unexpectedly low and second-worst in the league.

19. Auburn (15–1)

Last Week (25): beat Arkansas, beat Ole Miss
Next Week: at Mississippi State

The Tigers continued their surprising ascent with double-digit wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss to move to 15–1 on the season. Their road win over Tennessee and victory over the Razorbacks are a better pair of wins than anyone else has in SEC play at this early juncture, and they’re now the second-ranked SEC team on kenpom.com at No. 21. Can Auburn keep this up? That answer likely depends on whether it can keep up the significant defensive improvement it has made so far this season. Opponents’ effective field-goal percentage against the Tigers has been 46.8%, down from 50.6% in 2016–17, and their 43.4% defensive two-point mark ranks 19th in the country.

20. Seton Hall (14–3)

Last Week (14): beat Butler, lost to Marquette
Next Week: vs. Georgetown

The Pirates had a trip to BMO Harris Bradley Center to forget in a 20-point loss to Marquette on Tuesday night, their first in Big East play. Seton Hall let the Golden Eagles have their way in transition, giving up 25 fast-break points and 18 points off turnovers, and couldn’t overcome a combined 10-for-27 shooting mark from Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez, continuing the trend of the Pirates struggling when Rodriguez doesn’t hit the 17-point benchmark (he scored 11). After back-to-back games of giving up 1.24 PPP and an overall efficiency mark outside the top 50, defensive improvement is an obvious area where Seton Hall would benefit.

21. North Carolina (13–4)

Last Week (12): lost to Florida State, lost to Virginia, beat Boston College
Next Week: at Notre Dame, vs. Clemson

The Tar Heels suffered a 1–2 week, and while road losses to Florida State and Virginia aren’t reason to hit the panic button, their showing against UVA again exposed deep struggles against an elite defense. UNC’s worst offensive outing of the season came in an ugly loss to Michigan State, and against the Cavaliers it wasn’t able to generate much more, scoring 0.83 PPP, shooting 29.6% and turning it over 19 times in a 61–49 loss. Those two games have also been Luke Maye’s least efficient of the season, but the junior did respond in a big way with a 32-point, 15-rebound effort against Boston College.

22. Florida (11–4)

Last Week (24): beat Missouri
Next Week: vs. Mississippi State, at Ole Miss

The Gators won their only game of the week as they continue to build momentum after getting through their four-losses-in-five-games stretch. They’re 3–0 in the SEC despite opponents shooting 44.9% from three in that span, an extension of their overall 287th-ranked perimeter defense, but Florida’s three-point prowess itself has helped offset that. Despite the nonconference bumps, the Gators can still contend for the SEC crown, especially given Kentucky’s growing pains and the fact that expected challenger Texas A&M has practically knocked itself out of the race already by starting league play 0–4.

23. Miami (13–2)

Last Week (17): lost to Georgia Tech, beat Florida State
Next Week: at Clemson, vs. Duke

An ugly 10-point road loss to Georgia Tech isn’t exactly the way the Hurricanes were hoping to open the new year. Losing to the Yellow Jackets, whose own losses include Wofford, Grambling and Wright State, is hardly something Miami can afford if it wants to compete for the ACC title. But the most concerning aspect was its pitiful 0.77 PPP offensive performance in the loss, the second time in four games the ‘Canes failed to score 0.80 PPP against an opponent outside the kenpom.com top 40 defenses. Miami has a defense itself that should keep it in most games, but the offense needs to find more consistency, particularly from Bruce Brown. Was freshman Chris Lykes’s 18-point breakout against FSU a sign of things to come?

24. Notre Dame (13–3)

Last Week (NR): beat NC State, beat Syracuse
Next Week: at Georgia Tech, vs. UNC, vs. Louisville

How about the Irish, who have started ACC play 3–0 despite having Bonzie Colson for just one of those wins and Matt Farrell for one and a half? Their three wins may not be against the class of the conference, but they routed an NC State team that would go on to beat Duke and edged Syracuse on the road without their two best players. Without those two, there’s far more pressure on TJ Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, as well as freshman DJ Harvey, and right now they’re weathering the storm. Pflueger had his second-most efficient game of the season while Harvey scored a career-high 17 against the Wolfpack, and Gibbs posted a combined total of 40 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists on 43% shooting in two games in the last week.

25. Tennessee (11–4)

Last Week (NR): beat Kentucky, beat Vanderbilt
Next Week: vs. Texas A&M

The Vols rebounded from back-to-back losses to open SEC play by beating Kentucky in Knoxville for the third straight season and taking care of Vanderbilt on the road. Even with four losses, Tennessee is up to No. 15 on kenpom.com behind a balanced offense and defense, a big improvement after starting 43rd. Against the Wildcats, Grant Williams was able to come alive in the second half to lead the comeback, and the big man exploded three days later against Vandy, pouring in a career-high 37 points on 12-of-20 shooting.

DROPPED OUT: Texas A&M, SMU

NEXT FIVE OUT: Creighton, Ohio State, Saint Mary’s, Florida State, Nevada

Mid-Major Meter

(For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10.)

1. Gonzaga: Don’t expect the Bulldogs to potentially budge from this spot until their Jan. 18 showdown with Saint Mary’s in Spokane.

2. Saint Mary’s: With the nation’s No. 3 adjusted offense and No. 143 adjusted defense, the latter of which is a big drop off from a year ago, the Gaels are a fascinating study.

3. Nevada: Former NC State transfer Caleb Martin has improved his three-point percentage from 36.1% two years ago to 48.1% to help the Wolf Pack start 4–0 in the Mountain West.

4. New Mexico State: The 13–3 Aggies have a big road game at preseason WAC favorite Grand Canyon on Thursday.

5. Middle Tennessee: The preseason C-USA favorite has started league play 3–0, including a road win over one of its biggest challengers in UAB.

<p>After another upset-filled week saw four of our top five and plenty of other top teams lose, college basketball is quickly becoming a tangled web with little separation between many of the nation’s best. Some of this week’s biggest risers are not necessarily entirely the result of impressive wins, but also a product of playing well enough to keep winning while other teams had off nights or saw their weaknesses exposed. Additionally, the blanket chaos meant that some teams that had a rough loss didn’t fall as much as you’d normally expect. Without further ado, here’s the new-look top 25:</p><h3>1. Villanova (14–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (3)</strong>: beat Marquette<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Xavier, at St. John’s</p><p>The Wildcats slide back into the No. 1 spot, but it’s more by default after the carnage around them. Villanova is being led by its incredibly efficient offense right now while its defense has opened Big East play as a sore spot. It’s early, but through their three conference games the Wildcats rank dead last in the Big East in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. The offense, meanwhile, has been head and shoulders above the rest of the league behind Jalen Brunson, who is posting the nation’s highest offensive rating among players being used on at least 20% of possessions.</p><h3>2. Purdue (16–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (6)</strong>: beat Rutgers, beat Nebraska, beat Michigan<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Minnesota, vs. Wisconsin</p><p>The Boilermakers kept their 12-game win streak alive by eking out a one-point road win over Michigan on Tuesday. It may not be the flashiest win, but that’s a notable victory in a tough road environment for a team that’s currently in the driver’s seat at 5–0 in the Big Ten (and, outside of a trip to East Lansing, may have gotten its next-toughest road contest out of the way). Purdue has greatly improved its free-throw rate this season but had just seven attempts from the line against the Wolverines—by far its season low—and still found a way to get the W.</p><h3>3. West Virginia (15–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (8)</strong>: beat Oklahoma, beat Baylor<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Texas Tech, vs. Kansas</p><p>After Tuesday’s win over Baylor, the Mountaineers are the only Big 12 team yet to suffer a conference loss as they sit atop the league at 4–0. Over the weekend, WVU picked up an important win over Oklahoma by holding Trae Young to his lowest offensive rating of the season. Young scored 29 in the loss, but committed eight turnovers, made just 3 of 12 three-point attempts and tied his season-low with five assists. Then against the Bears, the Mountaineers used their trademark defense to force 21 turnovers and overcome a subpar offensive performance, which included making just nine of their 36 two-point shots.</p><h3>4. Michigan State (15–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (1)</strong>: beat Maryland, lost to Ohio State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Rutgers, vs. Michigan</p><p>The Spartans’ stay at No. 1 didn’t last very long. After a 30-point home rout of Maryland, they went to Columbus and got handed a 16-point loss to snap their 14-game win streak. MSU couldn’t slow Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop, who poured in 32 points, including seven in the Buckeyes’ pivotal 19–4 run to end the first half. Normally a very reliable shooting team, Michigan State had its third-worst shooting night from behind the arc this season despite attempting 25 threes, and Ohio State was able to hit 54.5% of its two-pointers—20% higher than opponents have averaged against the Spartans on the year.</p><h3>5. Virginia (15–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (10</strong>): beat Virginia Tech, beat North Carolina, beat Syracuse<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. NC State</p><p>The Cavaliers continue to be one of the surprises of the season after getting off to a 4–0 ACC start. What’s not surprising is that they’ve been doing it with their No. 1 ranked defense. UVA held Luke Maye to a season-low six points on 2-of-10 shooting and UNC to 0.83 points per possession and 49 overall in a double-digit win, one game after holding Virginia Tech to a season-low 0.76 PPP. Offensively, the Hoos have now had a different leading scorer in four straight games, including Kyle Guy’s 22-point effort against Syracuse where he knocked down five threes.</p><h3>6. Duke (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (2)</strong>: lost to NC State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Pittsburgh, vs. Wake Forest, at Miami</p><p>The Blue Devils suffered their second ACC loss to a team not expected to contend in the league, and it’s only been three games. It’s clear now that their defensive issues won’t just be a problem when they face the conference’s best, and that’s a big concern considering nine of their remaining 16 ACC games will come against teams with more efficient offenses than Boston College and NC State. Three years ago, Mike Krzyzewski was able to turn what was a dubious defense for most of the season into a juggernaut just in time for an incredible run to the national title. While that shows it can be done, it’s something that should be far from expected to happen again.</p><h3>7. Oklahoma (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (7)</strong>: lost to West Virginia, beat Texas Tech<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: (13–2): vs. TCU, at Kansas State</p><p>Trae Young showed his first glimpses of being mortal over the last week, and considering he still scored 29 and 27 points against two top-10 defenses, that tells you all you need to know about how good his season has been. His struggles against West Virginia were detailed above, but the freshman also got off to a slow start at home against Texas Tech, missing 11 of his first 12 shot attempts. Young recovered to finish with 27 points, nine assists and four steals to lead a crucial win over Texas Tech, but it was the Sooners’ defense that was the team’s MVP on the night, holding the Red Raiders to 0.84 PPP and a 37.3% mark from the field.</p><h3>8. Xavier (15–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (5)</strong>: lost to Providence<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Villanova, vs. Creighton</p><p>The bubble mentioned here last week as something that may be close to bursting after a string of close games indeed burst in a road trip to Providence. A number of things went wrong for the Musketeers, who lost despite posting a 16-plus rebounding margin: they shot just 35.5% in the first half to fall into an eight-point hole, Trevon Bluiett went scoreless in the second half, Kaiser Gates was a non-factor with zero points and one rebound and they committed 15 turnovers, 10 of which came in the first 20 minutes. Now, a potentially Big East race-altering week awaits with a road trip to Villanova and a home matchup with Creighton.</p><h3>9. Arizona State (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (4)</strong>: lost to Colorado, beat Utah<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Oregon, vs. Oregon State</p><p>In 15 games this season, there’s been two times when the opponent posted a higher PPP than Arizona State. Not coincidentally, those two games have been the Sun Devils’ two losses: at Arizona and at Colorado, the latter of which is far less excusable. It’s a reminder that just like Duke, ASU has a major flaw right now with its defense, which ranks three spots behind the Blue Devils at 109th in adjusted efficiency. When Arizona State’s offense is humming, like it has on so many occasions already this season, it has shown it can compete with anyone. But if it’s not having the most efficient night, it doesn’t take a world-beating effort by the other team to walk away with a win.</p><h3>10. Wichita State (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (16)</strong>: beat Houston, beat USF<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at East Carolina, at Tulsa</p><p>In three AAC games so far, the Shockers have taken 72 threes and hit 50% of them. While that number is not sustainable, it’s hard to ignore the 52.7% clip Landry Shamet has posted on 74 perimeter attempts on the season so far. Shamet has found a way to be even more efficient than last year, when his 129.6 offensive rating on kenpom.com ranked 18th in the country. It’s currently up to 136.0 this season, and his effective field goal percentage has grown from 59.5% to 68.9%, his true shooting percentage from 62.7% to 72.0% and his assist rate from 22.2% to 28.5%. Not too shabby.</p><h3>11. Texas Tech (14–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (11)</strong>: beat Kansas State, lost to Oklahoma<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. West Virginia</p><p>The Red Raiders went 3–1 across a challenging opening two weeks of Big 12 play, and now their “reward” is getting to host No. 2 West Virginia this weekend (the Big 12 grind never stops!). Texas Tech was unable to take better advantage of a poor first half by Oklahoma star Trae Young on Tuesday, leading by only two at halftime before succumbing to Young and Co. in the second half (and was, it should be noted, playing without senior Zach Smith). The Red Raiders have built much of their success this season on their defense and by creating turnovers, and while they did a pretty good job limiting the Sooners’ talented offense, they didn’t get enough offense themselves outside Keenan Evans to fill in what was needed.</p><h3>12. Cincinnati (14–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (18)</strong>: beat Temple, beat SMU<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at South Florida, at UCF</p><p>The Bearcats picked up two important AAC wins in beating Temple on the road before defeating SMU by 20 at home. Cincinnati can be a legitimate challenger to Wichita State in the American, but for as good as its defense is, its offense, currently ranked 52nd in efficiency, is what may be key. It needs more showings like the one it had against SMU, when Gary Clark and Jacob Evans each scored 18 and the Bearcats won by 20 despite the rest of the team shooting 31.4% from the floor, and less like their 55–53 win over Temple in which the offense gave the defense no breathing room and little margin for error.</p><h3>13. Arizona (12–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (9)</strong>: beat Utah, lost to Colorado<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Oregon State, vs. Oregon</p><p>After knocking off Arizona State in overtime, Colorado completed a stunning 1–2 punch against the Pac-12’s desert schools by taking down Arizona. The Wildcats squandered a golden opportunity gain another game on their in-state foe, instead dealing with their own questions after the surprising loss. DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier combined for just eight points in a critical first half as the Buffs built a 45–29 lead that would be just enough cushion to hold on. Who is Arizona when its star duo is struggling or non-factors on offense? The Wildcats need to find a more cohesive identity outside the pairing.</p><h3>14. Kentucky (13–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (13)</strong>: beat LSU, lost to Tennessee, beat Texas A&#38;M<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Vanderbilt, at South Carolina</p><p>Even with a starting five of all freshmen, the Wildcats couldn’t shake their predecessors’ demons at Thompson-Boling Arena in the program’s third straight road loss to Tennessee, but Kentucky returned home to rebound with a one-point win over Texas A&#38;M after a <a href="https://www.sbnation.com/college-basketball/2018/1/9/16872260/kentucky-got-away-with-a-clear-foul-on-texas-a-m-in-last-possession-of-1-point-win" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:controversial no-call" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">controversial no-call</a> in the final seconds. If you haven’t watched UK play recently, you’re missing out on seeing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s been emerging as perhaps the team’s best and most important player. Gilgeous-Alexander does a little bit of everything, and it’s not a coincidence that his worst game of the season came in the loss to Tennessee. Take that game out, and over his last four, of which Kentucky went 4­–0, he’s averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks on 53.0% shooting.</p><h3>15. Kansas (13–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (22)</strong>: beat TCU, beat Iowa State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Kansas State, at West Virginia</p><p>The Jayhawks had exactly the kind of week they needed, notching close wins on the road at TCU and at home over Iowa State. Svi Mykhailiuk had a pair of strong games, scoring 20 and 23 points, respectively, and knocking down a combined 11 of 16 from three. The Ukrainian guard has become a steady leader on offense in his senior year and has notably improved his perimeter shooting, hitting 47.9% this season after a 39.8% mark as a junior. He’s also currently leading the team—even Devonte’ Graham—in both shot attempts and percentage of shots taken when on the floor.</p><h3>16. Clemson (14–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (21)</strong>: beat Boston College, beat Louisville<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at NC State, vs. Miami, at North Carolina</p><p>At 14–1, the Tigers have continued their best start since opening 16­–0 in 2008–09, and we’re about to get a real good look at the makeup of this team. After a road trip to Raleigh, Clemson enters a four-game gauntlet of facing Miami, UNC, Notre Dame and Virginia, a brutal stretch that will ultimately show whether this team could actually be a serious surprise contender in the ACC. The Tigers are a veteran team that start five upperclassmen and are powered by their defense, which currently ranks 11th in adjusted efficiency, a big step up from 86th last season.</p><h3>17. TCU (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (15)</strong>: beat Baylor, lost to Kansas<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Texas, at Oklahoma</p><p>The Horned Frogs’ defense has had a harsh welcome to conference play, posting the Big 12’s worst defensive efficiency in league action early on. Opponents are shooting at a higher clip than TCU is from both two- and three-point distance, and posting a considerably higher free-throw late. The offense has held its own amid the step up in competition, but when your three conference games have been decided by one, three and four points, you need to be able to trust your defense to get stops, and right now, TCU can’t do that.</p><h3>18. Gonzaga (14–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (19)</strong>: beat Pepperdine, beat Loyola Marymount<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Portland, at San Francisco</p><p>It’s no surprise that the Bulldogs’ four conference wins so far have all been blowouts, as the only real tests they should get in WCC play will come from Saint Mary’s and maybe BYU. Johnathan Williams had his second 30-point game of the season against Loyola Marymount, while freshman Zach Norvell has now scored double figures in five straight while hitting 43% of his threes. If there’s anything negative of note about the Zags’ WCC start, it’s that their free-throw rate of 25.2% has been unexpectedly low and second-worst in the league.</p><h3>19. Auburn (15–1)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (25)</strong>: beat Arkansas, beat Ole Miss<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Mississippi State</p><p>The Tigers continued their surprising ascent with double-digit wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss to move to 15–1 on the season. Their road win over Tennessee and victory over the Razorbacks are a better pair of wins than anyone else has in SEC play at this early juncture, and they’re now the second-ranked SEC team on kenpom.com at No. 21. Can Auburn keep this up? That answer likely depends on whether it can keep up the significant defensive improvement it has made so far this season. Opponents’ effective field-goal percentage against the Tigers has been 46.8%, down from 50.6% in 2016–17, and their 43.4% defensive two-point mark ranks 19th in the country.</p><h3>20. Seton Hall (14–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (14)</strong>: beat Butler, lost to Marquette<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Georgetown</p><p>The Pirates had a trip to BMO Harris Bradley Center to forget in a 20-point loss to Marquette on Tuesday night, their first in Big East play. Seton Hall let the Golden Eagles have their way in transition, giving up 25 fast-break points and 18 points off turnovers, and couldn’t overcome a combined 10-for-27 shooting mark from Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez, continuing the trend of the Pirates struggling when Rodriguez doesn’t hit the 17-point benchmark (he scored 11). After back-to-back games of giving up 1.24 PPP and an overall efficiency mark outside the top 50, defensive improvement is an obvious area where Seton Hall would benefit.</p><h3>21. North Carolina (13–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (12)</strong>: lost to Florida State, lost to Virginia, beat Boston College<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Notre Dame, vs. Clemson</p><p>The Tar Heels suffered a 1–2 week, and while road losses to Florida State and Virginia aren’t reason to hit the panic button, their showing against UVA again exposed deep struggles against an elite defense. UNC’s worst offensive outing of the season came in an ugly loss to Michigan State, and against the Cavaliers it wasn’t able to generate much more, scoring 0.83 PPP, shooting 29.6% and turning it over 19 times in a 61–49 loss. Those two games have also been Luke Maye’s least efficient of the season, but the junior did respond in a big way with a 32-point, 15-rebound effort against Boston College.</p><h3>22. Florida (11–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (24)</strong>: beat Missouri<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Mississippi State, at Ole Miss</p><p>The Gators won their only game of the week as they continue to build momentum after getting through their four-losses-in-five-games stretch. They’re 3–0 in the SEC despite opponents shooting 44.9% from three in that span, an extension of their overall 287th-ranked perimeter defense, but Florida’s three-point prowess itself has helped offset that. Despite the nonconference bumps, the Gators can still contend for the SEC crown, especially given Kentucky’s growing pains and the fact that expected challenger Texas A&#38;M has practically knocked itself out of the race already by starting league play 0–4.</p><h3>23. Miami (13–2)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (17)</strong>: lost to Georgia Tech, beat Florida State<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Clemson, vs. Duke</p><p>An ugly 10-point road loss to Georgia Tech isn’t exactly the way the Hurricanes were hoping to open the new year. Losing to the Yellow Jackets, whose own losses include Wofford, Grambling and Wright State, is hardly something Miami can afford if it wants to compete for the ACC title. But the most concerning aspect was its pitiful 0.77 PPP offensive performance in the loss, the second time in four games the ‘Canes failed to score 0.80 PPP against an opponent outside the kenpom.com top 40 defenses. Miami has a defense itself that should keep it in most games, but the offense needs to find more consistency, particularly from Bruce Brown. Was freshman Chris Lykes’s 18-point breakout against FSU a sign of things to come?</p><h3>24. Notre Dame (13–3)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (NR)</strong>: beat NC State, beat Syracuse<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: at Georgia Tech, vs. UNC, vs. Louisville</p><p>How about the Irish, who have started ACC play 3–0 despite having Bonzie Colson for just one of those wins and Matt Farrell for one and a half? Their three wins may not be against the class of the conference, but they routed an NC State team that would go on to beat Duke and edged Syracuse on the road without their two best players. Without those two, there’s far more pressure on TJ Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, as well as freshman DJ Harvey, and right now they’re weathering the storm. Pflueger had his second-most efficient game of the season while Harvey scored a career-high 17 against the Wolfpack, and Gibbs posted a combined total of 40 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists on 43% shooting in two games in the last week.</p><h3>25. Tennessee (11–4)</h3><p><strong>Last Week (NR)</strong>: beat Kentucky, beat Vanderbilt<br><strong>Next Week</strong>: vs. Texas A&#38;M</p><p>The Vols rebounded from back-to-back losses to open SEC play by beating Kentucky in Knoxville for the third straight season and taking care of Vanderbilt on the road. Even with four losses, Tennessee is up to No. 15 on kenpom.com behind a balanced offense and defense, a big improvement after starting 43rd. Against the Wildcats, Grant Williams was able to come alive in the second half to lead the comeback, and the big man exploded three days later against Vandy, pouring in a career-high 37 points on 12-of-20 shooting.</p><p><strong>DROPPED OUT</strong>: Texas A&#38;M, SMU</p><p><strong>NEXT FIVE OUT</strong>: Creighton, Ohio State, Saint Mary’s, Florida State, Nevada</p><h3>Mid-Major Meter</h3><p>(<em>For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10.</em>)</p><p>1. <strong>Gonzaga</strong>: Don’t expect the Bulldogs to potentially budge from this spot until their Jan. 18 showdown with Saint Mary’s in Spokane.</p><p>2. <strong>Saint Mary’s</strong>: With the nation’s No. 3 adjusted offense and No. 143 adjusted defense, the latter of which is a big drop off from a year ago, the Gaels are a fascinating study.</p><p>3. <strong>Nevada</strong>: Former NC State transfer Caleb Martin has improved his three-point percentage from 36.1% two years ago to 48.1% to help the Wolf Pack start 4–0 in the Mountain West.</p><p>4. <strong>New Mexico State</strong>: The 13–3 Aggies have a big road game at preseason WAC favorite Grand Canyon on Thursday.</p><p>5. <strong>Middle Tennessee</strong>: The preseason C-USA favorite has started league play 3–0, including a road win over one of its biggest challengers in UAB.</p>
Power Rankings: Villanova Reclaims Top Spot as Purdue, West Virginia Continue to Climb

After another upset-filled week saw four of our top five and plenty of other top teams lose, college basketball is quickly becoming a tangled web with little separation between many of the nation’s best. Some of this week’s biggest risers are not necessarily entirely the result of impressive wins, but also a product of playing well enough to keep winning while other teams had off nights or saw their weaknesses exposed. Additionally, the blanket chaos meant that some teams that had a rough loss didn’t fall as much as you’d normally expect. Without further ado, here’s the new-look top 25:

1. Villanova (14–1)

Last Week (3): beat Marquette
Next Week: vs. Xavier, at St. John’s

The Wildcats slide back into the No. 1 spot, but it’s more by default after the carnage around them. Villanova is being led by its incredibly efficient offense right now while its defense has opened Big East play as a sore spot. It’s early, but through their three conference games the Wildcats rank dead last in the Big East in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. The offense, meanwhile, has been head and shoulders above the rest of the league behind Jalen Brunson, who is posting the nation’s highest offensive rating among players being used on at least 20% of possessions.

2. Purdue (16–2)

Last Week (6): beat Rutgers, beat Nebraska, beat Michigan
Next Week: at Minnesota, vs. Wisconsin

The Boilermakers kept their 12-game win streak alive by eking out a one-point road win over Michigan on Tuesday. It may not be the flashiest win, but that’s a notable victory in a tough road environment for a team that’s currently in the driver’s seat at 5–0 in the Big Ten (and, outside of a trip to East Lansing, may have gotten its next-toughest road contest out of the way). Purdue has greatly improved its free-throw rate this season but had just seven attempts from the line against the Wolverines—by far its season low—and still found a way to get the W.

3. West Virginia (15–1)

Last Week (8): beat Oklahoma, beat Baylor
Next Week: at Texas Tech, vs. Kansas

After Tuesday’s win over Baylor, the Mountaineers are the only Big 12 team yet to suffer a conference loss as they sit atop the league at 4–0. Over the weekend, WVU picked up an important win over Oklahoma by holding Trae Young to his lowest offensive rating of the season. Young scored 29 in the loss, but committed eight turnovers, made just 3 of 12 three-point attempts and tied his season-low with five assists. Then against the Bears, the Mountaineers used their trademark defense to force 21 turnovers and overcome a subpar offensive performance, which included making just nine of their 36 two-point shots.

4. Michigan State (15–2)

Last Week (1): beat Maryland, lost to Ohio State
Next Week: vs. Rutgers, vs. Michigan

The Spartans’ stay at No. 1 didn’t last very long. After a 30-point home rout of Maryland, they went to Columbus and got handed a 16-point loss to snap their 14-game win streak. MSU couldn’t slow Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop, who poured in 32 points, including seven in the Buckeyes’ pivotal 19–4 run to end the first half. Normally a very reliable shooting team, Michigan State had its third-worst shooting night from behind the arc this season despite attempting 25 threes, and Ohio State was able to hit 54.5% of its two-pointers—20% higher than opponents have averaged against the Spartans on the year.

5. Virginia (15–1)

Last Week (10): beat Virginia Tech, beat North Carolina, beat Syracuse
Next Week: vs. NC State

The Cavaliers continue to be one of the surprises of the season after getting off to a 4–0 ACC start. What’s not surprising is that they’ve been doing it with their No. 1 ranked defense. UVA held Luke Maye to a season-low six points on 2-of-10 shooting and UNC to 0.83 points per possession and 49 overall in a double-digit win, one game after holding Virginia Tech to a season-low 0.76 PPP. Offensively, the Hoos have now had a different leading scorer in four straight games, including Kyle Guy’s 22-point effort against Syracuse where he knocked down five threes.

6. Duke (13–2)

Last Week (2): lost to NC State
Next Week: at Pittsburgh, vs. Wake Forest, at Miami

The Blue Devils suffered their second ACC loss to a team not expected to contend in the league, and it’s only been three games. It’s clear now that their defensive issues won’t just be a problem when they face the conference’s best, and that’s a big concern considering nine of their remaining 16 ACC games will come against teams with more efficient offenses than Boston College and NC State. Three years ago, Mike Krzyzewski was able to turn what was a dubious defense for most of the season into a juggernaut just in time for an incredible run to the national title. While that shows it can be done, it’s something that should be far from expected to happen again.

7. Oklahoma (13–2)

Last Week (7): lost to West Virginia, beat Texas Tech
Next Week: (13–2): vs. TCU, at Kansas State

Trae Young showed his first glimpses of being mortal over the last week, and considering he still scored 29 and 27 points against two top-10 defenses, that tells you all you need to know about how good his season has been. His struggles against West Virginia were detailed above, but the freshman also got off to a slow start at home against Texas Tech, missing 11 of his first 12 shot attempts. Young recovered to finish with 27 points, nine assists and four steals to lead a crucial win over Texas Tech, but it was the Sooners’ defense that was the team’s MVP on the night, holding the Red Raiders to 0.84 PPP and a 37.3% mark from the field.

8. Xavier (15–2)

Last Week (5): lost to Providence
Next Week: at Villanova, vs. Creighton

The bubble mentioned here last week as something that may be close to bursting after a string of close games indeed burst in a road trip to Providence. A number of things went wrong for the Musketeers, who lost despite posting a 16-plus rebounding margin: they shot just 35.5% in the first half to fall into an eight-point hole, Trevon Bluiett went scoreless in the second half, Kaiser Gates was a non-factor with zero points and one rebound and they committed 15 turnovers, 10 of which came in the first 20 minutes. Now, a potentially Big East race-altering week awaits with a road trip to Villanova and a home matchup with Creighton.

9. Arizona State (13–2)

Last Week (4): lost to Colorado, beat Utah
Next Week: vs. Oregon, vs. Oregon State

In 15 games this season, there’s been two times when the opponent posted a higher PPP than Arizona State. Not coincidentally, those two games have been the Sun Devils’ two losses: at Arizona and at Colorado, the latter of which is far less excusable. It’s a reminder that just like Duke, ASU has a major flaw right now with its defense, which ranks three spots behind the Blue Devils at 109th in adjusted efficiency. When Arizona State’s offense is humming, like it has on so many occasions already this season, it has shown it can compete with anyone. But if it’s not having the most efficient night, it doesn’t take a world-beating effort by the other team to walk away with a win.

10. Wichita State (13–2)

Last Week (16): beat Houston, beat USF
Next Week: at East Carolina, at Tulsa

In three AAC games so far, the Shockers have taken 72 threes and hit 50% of them. While that number is not sustainable, it’s hard to ignore the 52.7% clip Landry Shamet has posted on 74 perimeter attempts on the season so far. Shamet has found a way to be even more efficient than last year, when his 129.6 offensive rating on kenpom.com ranked 18th in the country. It’s currently up to 136.0 this season, and his effective field goal percentage has grown from 59.5% to 68.9%, his true shooting percentage from 62.7% to 72.0% and his assist rate from 22.2% to 28.5%. Not too shabby.

11. Texas Tech (14–2)

Last Week (11): beat Kansas State, lost to Oklahoma
Next Week: vs. West Virginia

The Red Raiders went 3–1 across a challenging opening two weeks of Big 12 play, and now their “reward” is getting to host No. 2 West Virginia this weekend (the Big 12 grind never stops!). Texas Tech was unable to take better advantage of a poor first half by Oklahoma star Trae Young on Tuesday, leading by only two at halftime before succumbing to Young and Co. in the second half (and was, it should be noted, playing without senior Zach Smith). The Red Raiders have built much of their success this season on their defense and by creating turnovers, and while they did a pretty good job limiting the Sooners’ talented offense, they didn’t get enough offense themselves outside Keenan Evans to fill in what was needed.

12. Cincinnati (14–2)

Last Week (18): beat Temple, beat SMU
Next Week: at South Florida, at UCF

The Bearcats picked up two important AAC wins in beating Temple on the road before defeating SMU by 20 at home. Cincinnati can be a legitimate challenger to Wichita State in the American, but for as good as its defense is, its offense, currently ranked 52nd in efficiency, is what may be key. It needs more showings like the one it had against SMU, when Gary Clark and Jacob Evans each scored 18 and the Bearcats won by 20 despite the rest of the team shooting 31.4% from the floor, and less like their 55–53 win over Temple in which the offense gave the defense no breathing room and little margin for error.

13. Arizona (12–4)

Last Week (9): beat Utah, lost to Colorado
Next Week: vs. Oregon State, vs. Oregon

After knocking off Arizona State in overtime, Colorado completed a stunning 1–2 punch against the Pac-12’s desert schools by taking down Arizona. The Wildcats squandered a golden opportunity gain another game on their in-state foe, instead dealing with their own questions after the surprising loss. DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier combined for just eight points in a critical first half as the Buffs built a 45–29 lead that would be just enough cushion to hold on. Who is Arizona when its star duo is struggling or non-factors on offense? The Wildcats need to find a more cohesive identity outside the pairing.

14. Kentucky (13–3)

Last Week (13): beat LSU, lost to Tennessee, beat Texas A&M
Next Week: at Vanderbilt, at South Carolina

Even with a starting five of all freshmen, the Wildcats couldn’t shake their predecessors’ demons at Thompson-Boling Arena in the program’s third straight road loss to Tennessee, but Kentucky returned home to rebound with a one-point win over Texas A&M after a controversial no-call in the final seconds. If you haven’t watched UK play recently, you’re missing out on seeing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s been emerging as perhaps the team’s best and most important player. Gilgeous-Alexander does a little bit of everything, and it’s not a coincidence that his worst game of the season came in the loss to Tennessee. Take that game out, and over his last four, of which Kentucky went 4­–0, he’s averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks on 53.0% shooting.

15. Kansas (13–3)

Last Week (22): beat TCU, beat Iowa State
Next Week: vs. Kansas State, at West Virginia

The Jayhawks had exactly the kind of week they needed, notching close wins on the road at TCU and at home over Iowa State. Svi Mykhailiuk had a pair of strong games, scoring 20 and 23 points, respectively, and knocking down a combined 11 of 16 from three. The Ukrainian guard has become a steady leader on offense in his senior year and has notably improved his perimeter shooting, hitting 47.9% this season after a 39.8% mark as a junior. He’s also currently leading the team—even Devonte’ Graham—in both shot attempts and percentage of shots taken when on the floor.

16. Clemson (14–1)

Last Week (21): beat Boston College, beat Louisville
Next Week: at NC State, vs. Miami, at North Carolina

At 14–1, the Tigers have continued their best start since opening 16­–0 in 2008–09, and we’re about to get a real good look at the makeup of this team. After a road trip to Raleigh, Clemson enters a four-game gauntlet of facing Miami, UNC, Notre Dame and Virginia, a brutal stretch that will ultimately show whether this team could actually be a serious surprise contender in the ACC. The Tigers are a veteran team that start five upperclassmen and are powered by their defense, which currently ranks 11th in adjusted efficiency, a big step up from 86th last season.

17. TCU (13–2)

Last Week (15): beat Baylor, lost to Kansas
Next Week: at Texas, at Oklahoma

The Horned Frogs’ defense has had a harsh welcome to conference play, posting the Big 12’s worst defensive efficiency in league action early on. Opponents are shooting at a higher clip than TCU is from both two- and three-point distance, and posting a considerably higher free-throw late. The offense has held its own amid the step up in competition, but when your three conference games have been decided by one, three and four points, you need to be able to trust your defense to get stops, and right now, TCU can’t do that.

18. Gonzaga (14–3)

Last Week (19): beat Pepperdine, beat Loyola Marymount
Next Week: vs. Portland, at San Francisco

It’s no surprise that the Bulldogs’ four conference wins so far have all been blowouts, as the only real tests they should get in WCC play will come from Saint Mary’s and maybe BYU. Johnathan Williams had his second 30-point game of the season against Loyola Marymount, while freshman Zach Norvell has now scored double figures in five straight while hitting 43% of his threes. If there’s anything negative of note about the Zags’ WCC start, it’s that their free-throw rate of 25.2% has been unexpectedly low and second-worst in the league.

19. Auburn (15–1)

Last Week (25): beat Arkansas, beat Ole Miss
Next Week: at Mississippi State

The Tigers continued their surprising ascent with double-digit wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss to move to 15–1 on the season. Their road win over Tennessee and victory over the Razorbacks are a better pair of wins than anyone else has in SEC play at this early juncture, and they’re now the second-ranked SEC team on kenpom.com at No. 21. Can Auburn keep this up? That answer likely depends on whether it can keep up the significant defensive improvement it has made so far this season. Opponents’ effective field-goal percentage against the Tigers has been 46.8%, down from 50.6% in 2016–17, and their 43.4% defensive two-point mark ranks 19th in the country.

20. Seton Hall (14–3)

Last Week (14): beat Butler, lost to Marquette
Next Week: vs. Georgetown

The Pirates had a trip to BMO Harris Bradley Center to forget in a 20-point loss to Marquette on Tuesday night, their first in Big East play. Seton Hall let the Golden Eagles have their way in transition, giving up 25 fast-break points and 18 points off turnovers, and couldn’t overcome a combined 10-for-27 shooting mark from Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez, continuing the trend of the Pirates struggling when Rodriguez doesn’t hit the 17-point benchmark (he scored 11). After back-to-back games of giving up 1.24 PPP and an overall efficiency mark outside the top 50, defensive improvement is an obvious area where Seton Hall would benefit.

21. North Carolina (13–4)

Last Week (12): lost to Florida State, lost to Virginia, beat Boston College
Next Week: at Notre Dame, vs. Clemson

The Tar Heels suffered a 1–2 week, and while road losses to Florida State and Virginia aren’t reason to hit the panic button, their showing against UVA again exposed deep struggles against an elite defense. UNC’s worst offensive outing of the season came in an ugly loss to Michigan State, and against the Cavaliers it wasn’t able to generate much more, scoring 0.83 PPP, shooting 29.6% and turning it over 19 times in a 61–49 loss. Those two games have also been Luke Maye’s least efficient of the season, but the junior did respond in a big way with a 32-point, 15-rebound effort against Boston College.

22. Florida (11–4)

Last Week (24): beat Missouri
Next Week: vs. Mississippi State, at Ole Miss

The Gators won their only game of the week as they continue to build momentum after getting through their four-losses-in-five-games stretch. They’re 3–0 in the SEC despite opponents shooting 44.9% from three in that span, an extension of their overall 287th-ranked perimeter defense, but Florida’s three-point prowess itself has helped offset that. Despite the nonconference bumps, the Gators can still contend for the SEC crown, especially given Kentucky’s growing pains and the fact that expected challenger Texas A&M has practically knocked itself out of the race already by starting league play 0–4.

23. Miami (13–2)

Last Week (17): lost to Georgia Tech, beat Florida State
Next Week: at Clemson, vs. Duke

An ugly 10-point road loss to Georgia Tech isn’t exactly the way the Hurricanes were hoping to open the new year. Losing to the Yellow Jackets, whose own losses include Wofford, Grambling and Wright State, is hardly something Miami can afford if it wants to compete for the ACC title. But the most concerning aspect was its pitiful 0.77 PPP offensive performance in the loss, the second time in four games the ‘Canes failed to score 0.80 PPP against an opponent outside the kenpom.com top 40 defenses. Miami has a defense itself that should keep it in most games, but the offense needs to find more consistency, particularly from Bruce Brown. Was freshman Chris Lykes’s 18-point breakout against FSU a sign of things to come?

24. Notre Dame (13–3)

Last Week (NR): beat NC State, beat Syracuse
Next Week: at Georgia Tech, vs. UNC, vs. Louisville

How about the Irish, who have started ACC play 3–0 despite having Bonzie Colson for just one of those wins and Matt Farrell for one and a half? Their three wins may not be against the class of the conference, but they routed an NC State team that would go on to beat Duke and edged Syracuse on the road without their two best players. Without those two, there’s far more pressure on TJ Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, as well as freshman DJ Harvey, and right now they’re weathering the storm. Pflueger had his second-most efficient game of the season while Harvey scored a career-high 17 against the Wolfpack, and Gibbs posted a combined total of 40 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists on 43% shooting in two games in the last week.

25. Tennessee (11–4)

Last Week (NR): beat Kentucky, beat Vanderbilt
Next Week: vs. Texas A&M

The Vols rebounded from back-to-back losses to open SEC play by beating Kentucky in Knoxville for the third straight season and taking care of Vanderbilt on the road. Even with four losses, Tennessee is up to No. 15 on kenpom.com behind a balanced offense and defense, a big improvement after starting 43rd. Against the Wildcats, Grant Williams was able to come alive in the second half to lead the comeback, and the big man exploded three days later against Vandy, pouring in a career-high 37 points on 12-of-20 shooting.

DROPPED OUT: Texas A&M, SMU

NEXT FIVE OUT: Creighton, Ohio State, Saint Mary’s, Florida State, Nevada

Mid-Major Meter

(For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10.)

1. Gonzaga: Don’t expect the Bulldogs to potentially budge from this spot until their Jan. 18 showdown with Saint Mary’s in Spokane.

2. Saint Mary’s: With the nation’s No. 3 adjusted offense and No. 143 adjusted defense, the latter of which is a big drop off from a year ago, the Gaels are a fascinating study.

3. Nevada: Former NC State transfer Caleb Martin has improved his three-point percentage from 36.1% two years ago to 48.1% to help the Wolf Pack start 4–0 in the Mountain West.

4. New Mexico State: The 13–3 Aggies have a big road game at preseason WAC favorite Grand Canyon on Thursday.

5. Middle Tennessee: The preseason C-USA favorite has started league play 3–0, including a road win over one of its biggest challengers in UAB.

<p>A bowl season that began with blowout after blowout eventually delivered the goods, rewarding college football fans with the best semifinal in the four-year history of the College Football Playoff and capping off the year with an overtime thriller between two SEC behemoths that refused to back down. But in the four weeks that comprised 40 games from Troy’s New Orleans Bowl win to Alabama’s national title clincher, several players took full advantage of the national stage awarded their season finales. With another thrilling bowl season in the books, let’s look back and highlight the standouts from the final month of an epic college football season.</p><h3>QB: Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama (National Championship Game)</h3><p>A true freshman quarterback who comes off the bench and leads his team to a national title will get the nod in this spot every time. Sent out to start the third quarter in place of Jalen Hurts, Tagovailoa threw three touchdowns, including the winning score in overtime, to help the Crimson Tide erase a 13-point halftime deficit.</p><h3>RB: Sony Michel, Georgia (Rose Bowl)</h3><p>Michel sliced through Oklahoma’s defense with such ease that it was a surprise Georgia ever needed to throw the ball. Michel ran for 181 yards and three touchdowns on only 11 carries, the last of which was a 27-yard scamper for the game-winning score in double overtime. (Senior backfield partner Nick Chubb tossed in a mere 145 yards on 14 carries against the Sooners.)</p><h3>RB: Rashaad Penny, San Diego State (Armed Forces Bowl)</h3><p>Penny could have run for 400 yards if the offense had the ball enough—in fact, his chunk plays may have ultimately worn out his own defense, which spent most of the game taking a beating from Army’s option attack. Penny capped off a brilliant career with 221 yards and four touchdowns in a 42–35 loss to Army.</p><h3>WR: Christian Kirk, Texas A&#38;M (Belk Bowl)</h3><p>Kirk was a man among boys (in this case the Wake Forest secondary) in Charlotte, catching 13 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns. The Aggies’ defense didn’t show up in a 55–52 loss, but Kirk’s final college showcase should have NFL scouts frothing.</p><h3>WR: Cedrick Wilson, Boise State (Las Vegas Bowl)</h3><p>Wilson caught 10 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown as Boise State raced out to a 24–0 lead and held on for a 10-point victory over Oregon.</p><h3>TE: Cam Serigne, Wake Forest (Belk Bowl)</h3><p>Serigne led all tight ends this bowl season with nine catches for 112 yards and a score as the Demon Deacons survived a shootout.</p><h3>Offensive Line: Navy (Military Bowl)</h3><p>The most dominant group of the entire bowl season, the Midshipmen line mauled Virginia’s defense all afternoon, rushing for 452 yards and helping the offense keep the ball for 42 minutes in a 49–7 rout of the Cavaliers.</p><h3>DL: Deadrin Senat, South Florida (Birmingham Bowl)</h3><p>An underrated disruptive force in the middle of the Bulls’ defense, Senat had five tackles, including three sacks, in the Bulls’ 38–34 win over Texas Tech.</p><h3>DL: Sam Hubbard, Ohio State (Cotton Bowl)</h3><p>Hubbard lived in the USC backfield all night in Arlington, recording 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks of Sam Darnold as part of a dominant defensive performance against the Trojans.</p><h3>DL: Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama (Sugar Bowl)</h3><p>Da’Ron Payne earned the headlines with his 21-yard interception return and touchdown catch to put Clemson away, but Hand was instrumental in helping hold the Tigers to 1.9 yards rushing on 33 carries. Hand had five tackles and a sack in the game.</p><h3>LB: Kyahva Tezino, San Diego State (Armed Forces Bowl)</h3><p>Tezino and his Aztec counterparts on defense had their hands full against the Army rushing attack, Tezino was all over the field, recording 17 tackles, including 11 solo stops in a 42–35 loss.</p><h3>LB: Shaquem Griffin, Central Florida (Peach Bowl)</h3><p>Griffin helped the Knights secure an undefeated season with 12 stops, including 1.5 sacks in the Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, terrorizing the Tigers’ O-line with his speed off the edge.</p><h3>LB: Jawuan Johnson, Northern Illinois (Quick Lane Bowl)</h3><p>It’s certainly not Johnson’s fault the rest of the Huskies’ defense couldn’t stop Daniel Jones and the Duke offense. Johnson had 12 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in a 36–14 loss.</p><h3>LB: Mack Wilson, Alabama (Sugar Bowl)</h3><p>Pressed into starting duties due to serious depth issues in the Alabama front seven, Wilson played the run and pass equally well in New Orleans, finishing with six tackles (a career high he doubled a week later in Atlanta) and two passes defensed, including a pick-six that helped send the Tide to the national title game.</p><h3>DB: Damon Webb, Ohio State (Cotton Bowl)</h3><p>Webb picked off Darnold and returned it 23 yards for a score and also scooped up a fumble on the game’s third play from scrimmage that helped lead to Ohio State’s first touchdown.</p><h3>DB: Julian Blackmon, Utah (Heart of Dallas Bowl)</h3><p>Blackmon backed up his second-team all-Pac-12 honors with two interceptions in Fort Worth, helping to expose the flaws in West Virginia’s offense without Will Grier under center.</p><h3>DB: Mark McLaurin, Mississippi State (TaxSlayer Bowl)</h3><p>McLaurin would have tied for second among Louisville players in receptions—if he actually played for Louisville. McLaurin intercepted Lamar Jackson three times and also had 11 tackles in the Bulldogs’ close win over the Cardinals.</p><h3>DB: Amik Robertson, Louisiana Tech (Frisco Bowl)</h3><p>Robertson, a freshman, had a pick-six, four solo tackles and a tackle for loss in Tech&#39;s 51–10 rout of SMU.</p><h3>P: Michael Dickson, Texas (Texas Bowl)</h3><p>Probably the easiest and obvious choice of the entire team, Dickson put Missouri in bad field position all night, downing 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. For his efforts, he was named the game’s MVP.</p><h3>K: Cole Bunce, TCU (Alamo Bowl)</h3><p>Bunce’s 33-yard field goal with three minutes left provided the winning score in the Horned Frogs’ comeback win over Stanford.</p><h3>All-Purpose: Akrum Wadley, Iowa (Pinstripe Bowl)</h3><p>Wadley had 283 all-purpose yards—171 on kick returns and 88 more on the ground—to help Iowa snap a five-game bowl losing streak with a win over Boston College.</p>
SI's 2017-18 All-Bowl Team

A bowl season that began with blowout after blowout eventually delivered the goods, rewarding college football fans with the best semifinal in the four-year history of the College Football Playoff and capping off the year with an overtime thriller between two SEC behemoths that refused to back down. But in the four weeks that comprised 40 games from Troy’s New Orleans Bowl win to Alabama’s national title clincher, several players took full advantage of the national stage awarded their season finales. With another thrilling bowl season in the books, let’s look back and highlight the standouts from the final month of an epic college football season.

QB: Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama (National Championship Game)

A true freshman quarterback who comes off the bench and leads his team to a national title will get the nod in this spot every time. Sent out to start the third quarter in place of Jalen Hurts, Tagovailoa threw three touchdowns, including the winning score in overtime, to help the Crimson Tide erase a 13-point halftime deficit.

RB: Sony Michel, Georgia (Rose Bowl)

Michel sliced through Oklahoma’s defense with such ease that it was a surprise Georgia ever needed to throw the ball. Michel ran for 181 yards and three touchdowns on only 11 carries, the last of which was a 27-yard scamper for the game-winning score in double overtime. (Senior backfield partner Nick Chubb tossed in a mere 145 yards on 14 carries against the Sooners.)

RB: Rashaad Penny, San Diego State (Armed Forces Bowl)

Penny could have run for 400 yards if the offense had the ball enough—in fact, his chunk plays may have ultimately worn out his own defense, which spent most of the game taking a beating from Army’s option attack. Penny capped off a brilliant career with 221 yards and four touchdowns in a 42–35 loss to Army.

WR: Christian Kirk, Texas A&M (Belk Bowl)

Kirk was a man among boys (in this case the Wake Forest secondary) in Charlotte, catching 13 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns. The Aggies’ defense didn’t show up in a 55–52 loss, but Kirk’s final college showcase should have NFL scouts frothing.

WR: Cedrick Wilson, Boise State (Las Vegas Bowl)

Wilson caught 10 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown as Boise State raced out to a 24–0 lead and held on for a 10-point victory over Oregon.

TE: Cam Serigne, Wake Forest (Belk Bowl)

Serigne led all tight ends this bowl season with nine catches for 112 yards and a score as the Demon Deacons survived a shootout.

Offensive Line: Navy (Military Bowl)

The most dominant group of the entire bowl season, the Midshipmen line mauled Virginia’s defense all afternoon, rushing for 452 yards and helping the offense keep the ball for 42 minutes in a 49–7 rout of the Cavaliers.

DL: Deadrin Senat, South Florida (Birmingham Bowl)

An underrated disruptive force in the middle of the Bulls’ defense, Senat had five tackles, including three sacks, in the Bulls’ 38–34 win over Texas Tech.

DL: Sam Hubbard, Ohio State (Cotton Bowl)

Hubbard lived in the USC backfield all night in Arlington, recording 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks of Sam Darnold as part of a dominant defensive performance against the Trojans.

DL: Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama (Sugar Bowl)

Da’Ron Payne earned the headlines with his 21-yard interception return and touchdown catch to put Clemson away, but Hand was instrumental in helping hold the Tigers to 1.9 yards rushing on 33 carries. Hand had five tackles and a sack in the game.

LB: Kyahva Tezino, San Diego State (Armed Forces Bowl)

Tezino and his Aztec counterparts on defense had their hands full against the Army rushing attack, Tezino was all over the field, recording 17 tackles, including 11 solo stops in a 42–35 loss.

LB: Shaquem Griffin, Central Florida (Peach Bowl)

Griffin helped the Knights secure an undefeated season with 12 stops, including 1.5 sacks in the Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, terrorizing the Tigers’ O-line with his speed off the edge.

LB: Jawuan Johnson, Northern Illinois (Quick Lane Bowl)

It’s certainly not Johnson’s fault the rest of the Huskies’ defense couldn’t stop Daniel Jones and the Duke offense. Johnson had 12 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in a 36–14 loss.

LB: Mack Wilson, Alabama (Sugar Bowl)

Pressed into starting duties due to serious depth issues in the Alabama front seven, Wilson played the run and pass equally well in New Orleans, finishing with six tackles (a career high he doubled a week later in Atlanta) and two passes defensed, including a pick-six that helped send the Tide to the national title game.

DB: Damon Webb, Ohio State (Cotton Bowl)

Webb picked off Darnold and returned it 23 yards for a score and also scooped up a fumble on the game’s third play from scrimmage that helped lead to Ohio State’s first touchdown.

DB: Julian Blackmon, Utah (Heart of Dallas Bowl)

Blackmon backed up his second-team all-Pac-12 honors with two interceptions in Fort Worth, helping to expose the flaws in West Virginia’s offense without Will Grier under center.

DB: Mark McLaurin, Mississippi State (TaxSlayer Bowl)

McLaurin would have tied for second among Louisville players in receptions—if he actually played for Louisville. McLaurin intercepted Lamar Jackson three times and also had 11 tackles in the Bulldogs’ close win over the Cardinals.

DB: Amik Robertson, Louisiana Tech (Frisco Bowl)

Robertson, a freshman, had a pick-six, four solo tackles and a tackle for loss in Tech's 51–10 rout of SMU.

P: Michael Dickson, Texas (Texas Bowl)

Probably the easiest and obvious choice of the entire team, Dickson put Missouri in bad field position all night, downing 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. For his efforts, he was named the game’s MVP.

K: Cole Bunce, TCU (Alamo Bowl)

Bunce’s 33-yard field goal with three minutes left provided the winning score in the Horned Frogs’ comeback win over Stanford.

All-Purpose: Akrum Wadley, Iowa (Pinstripe Bowl)

Wadley had 283 all-purpose yards—171 on kick returns and 88 more on the ground—to help Iowa snap a five-game bowl losing streak with a win over Boston College.

<p>He held his headset in his hands, and if he hadn’t needed it, he might have thrown it all the way from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa. Alabama coach Nick Saban had put the ball in the hands of a backup true freshman quarterback (by choice). That quarterback was protected by a true freshman left tackle (by necessity). Now, down three in overtime of the national title game, those two had produced a disaster.</p><p>Tackle Alex Leatherwood had replaced injured starter Jonah Williams in the third quarter. Leatherwood had played well until Alabama’s first offensive snap of overtime, when he let Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy slip past. Bellamy chased Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who had replaced starter Jalen Hurts to start the second half, backward. Bellamy dove and missed, but teammate Jonathan Ledbetter joined the pursuit. Tagovailoa kept backpedaling. Tagovailoa scrambled the wrong way so long that Bellamy had time to get up, chase again and sack him for a 16-yard loss.</p><p>But the great thing about freshmen is they don’t know what they don’t know, and Tagovailoa didn’t seem to grasp that the sack was supposed to doom his team. As Tagovailoa caught the next snap, on second-and-26 from the 41, another Alabama true freshman rocketed off the line of scrimmage down the left sideline. DeVonta Smith had seen the Bulldogs playing Cover 2. He knew he had a chance. Leatherwood blocked Bellamy. This time Tagovailoa stepped up in the pocket and saw Smith spring open. He cocked and threw.</p><p>Confetti rained seconds after Smith crossed the goal line with the ball in his hands. “OH MY GOD,” Alabama center Bradley Bozeman screamed as tears streamed down his face. Bozeman then celebrated Alabama’s 26–23 win by <a href="https://www.si.com/college-football/2018/01/09/bradley-bozeman-alabama-girlfriend-proposal-video" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:proposing to girlfriend Nikki Hegstetter on the field" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">proposing to girlfriend Nikki Hegstetter on the field</a>. (She said yes, so both halves of the couple earned rings in Atlanta.) Moments later, Leatherwood sat on a bench and stared at the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “It feels like a dream,” he said as the first bars of “Sweet Home Alabama” played.</p><p>With his sixth national title—five at Alabama and one at LSU—Saban tied Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most ever won by one coach. Saban had to guide the Tide through injuries, through uncertainty created by a regular season-ending loss that almost derailed the Tide’s playoff run before it began, and, finally, out of a 13–0 halftime hole in the championship game that seemed too deep for an offense that gained all of 94 yards in the first half. The moment called for a drastic—or desperate—move, and Saban had one up his sleeve. He pulled Hurts, who had gone 25–2 as a starter, and took a leap of faith on a 18-year-old southpaw who a year ago was a high school senior in Hawaii and who had thrown just 53 passes in his college career, most of them in blowout win mop-up duty. “We needed a spark on offense,” Saban said after the game, which Tagovailoa finished 14–for–24 passing for 166 yards and three touchdowns. “Tua certainly gave us that.”</p><p>Bryant’s six titles were spread over 25 seasons at Alabama. After winning his first with LSU in 2003, Saban has won five with the Tide in just 11 seasons in Tuscaloosa. But to win this one and pull even with the ultimate Tide legend, Saban had to give his team his best coaching job.</p><p>• <a href="http://si.fanatics.com/COLLEGE_Alabama_Crimson_Tide" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Alabama fans: Buy national champs gear here" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Alabama fans: Buy national champs gear here</a> | <a href="https://subscription.si.com/storefront/subscribe-to-sports-illustrated/site/si-2017cfc49.html?link=1045302&#38;fpa_oc=CFB+2018" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Order SI&#39;s championship package" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Order SI&#39;s championship package</a></p><p>Bear Bryant watched Alabama’s practices from atop a tower. On the rare occasions he descended during practice, players braced themselves for a tongue-lashing. After Saban dons his straw hat before each practice, he climbs no steps. He participates as actively as his players. In Bryant’s era, players knew a tongue-lashing was coming when they heard the chain that blocked the entrance to the tower clang off the tower’s metal piping. In the Saban era, one of the coach’s famous “a-- chewings” can come at any moment.</p><p>Need to locate Saban at the start of an Alabama practice? Find the cornerbacks. Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who served as the Tide’s secondary coach from 2010 to ’12 (and will be head coach at Tennessee next season), once joked, “everybody in the country knows who Alabama’s DBs coach is, and that’s Nick Saban.”</p><p>The truth is that Saban, who was a defensive back at Kent State, doesn’t always act like the DBs coach during practice. Sometimes he acts like the graduate assistant who <em>works</em> for the DBs coach. Five days before the championship game in Atlanta, Saban ran cornerbacks through agility drills during a practice. Then he grabbed a football and threw passes for those corners to intercept. (At 66, the former high school quarterback can still spin it.) Other coaches have gravitated toward a pure CEO role as they’ve aged. Saban refuses to disappear into football’s version of an ivory tower. “I enjoy the game—the Xs and Os, the technical part, being involved at practice,” he says. “I haven’t separated myself.” Says Pruitt: “If they didn’t let him coach the corners anymore, I think he’d quit. So I think they’ll let him coach the corners as long as he wants.”</p><p>This helps on a micro level and on a macro level. With a field-level view Saban can see if a linebacker is struggling to read his keys and correct the problem immediately. Seeing the fine details on a daily basis also helps Saban see the big picture. That’s how he has adapted more quickly than some of his peers who’ve failed to keep up with schematic changes. “You’re there to see the flaws,” he says. “You’re a part of quality control. You’re not depending on somebody else to tell you ‘This isn’t working anymore.’”</p><p>In the early 2010s, when Alabama struggled against run-pass option (RPO) plays, which allow the quarterback to decide after the snap whether he’ll throw, hand off or keep the ball and run, Saban could see the problems on the practice field. He anticipated his team would have problems when it faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&#38;M in 2012 and when it faced the breathless Oklahoma offense in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season. They did, as both opposing teams outplayed the Tide defense in a pair of losses for Alabama. But because Saban spotted the problems early, help was on the way. The Tide had begun recruiting lighter defenders to match up with higher tempo offenses. The 2009 national title team started 365-pound Terrence Cody at nose tackle. The 2012 title team started 320-pound Jesse Williams. The 2017 team started 308-pound Da’Ron Payne, who is so nimble that he intercepted a Kelly Bryant pass and <a href="https://www.si.com/college-football/2018/01/01/alabama-clemson-darom-payne-touchdown-catch-video" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:caught a touchdown pass as an H-back" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">caught a touchdown pass as an H-back</a> in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. The linebackers and the safeties also got smaller. Meanwhile, Saban ordered his assistant coordinators to add RPOs into Alabama’s offense and to recruit a mobile quarterback who could run them effectively. Enter Hurts, a high school powerlifting standout from Texas who in 2016 became the first true freshman to start at quarterback at Alabama in 32 years. “The game is constantly changing,” Saban says. “So you have to change with it.”</p><p>But how much longer will Saban be willing to adapt? It’s human nature to become resistant to change, but this tendency doesn’t seem to apply to Saban. Rules have been passed to thwart advantages Saban creates, and he has adjusted. When the NCAA banned head coaches in 2008 from visiting high schools to watch practice during the spring evaluation period, Saban became one of the first coaches to use video conferencing to talk to recruits. After coaches at other schools complained about Saban’s roster management techniques, the SEC changed the rules that govern how many recruits a school can sign each year. Saban wouldn’t be able to erase his recruiting mistakes so easily by convincing them to transfer and simply signing more players to fill their spots. When the league passed the new rules in 2011, Alabama had just signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Alabama’s next six recruiting classes also ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the Tide won four SEC titles and three national titles during that span.</p><p>How has Saban kept complacency at bay? “I’m never satisfied,” he says. “My greatest fear professionally is that we might lose the next game.” That pressure comes from within. “It’s not because of the fans. It’s not because of the expectations,” he says. “I want to do the best job I can to help our players have the best opportunity to do that. I hate the feeling you have when you lose, but I also hate the feeling that you have when you didn’t do a good job for your players.” That fear strikes every day. Even though no coach in history has won more titles than Saban, even though a contract extension signing bonus pushed his salary to $11.125 million for 2017, he still coaches like a man who thinks he could be fired at any moment. “When I get to where I don’t feel that way anymore,” he says, “I would rather call it quits than to be satisfied watching it go down.”</p><p>That would be a dark day in Tuscaloosa, but given Saban’s age and accomplishments, it’s now a legitimate question to ask when that will happen. Will he coach his way past Bryant in the record books? He only needs one more title. But there’s reason to believe that winning championships is only going to get more difficult for a coach who has made winning titles look so easy. If the next one is as difficult to win as this one was, it may take a while. Or it may not come at all.</p><p>All those top-ranked recruiting classes should render a team immune to rotten injury luck, but Alabama’s linebacker depth chart following a season-opening 24–7 win against Florida State suggested otherwise. Outside linebackers Christian Miller (biceps) and Terrell Lewis (elbow), injured in the season opener, were lost until late November. Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings (ankle) and inside linebacker Rashaan Evans (groin) missed games in September. The list only grew longer as the season wore on. Freshman Dylan Moses missed the Colorado State game with a concussion. Outside linebacker Jamey Mosley missed the Ole Miss game because of an illness. Just when it seemed the Tide were starting to get healthy, middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton broke his kneecap against LSU and was lost for the season. In that same game, linebacker Mack Wilson sustained a foot injury that would require surgery. Despite a pessimistic initial prognosis, Wilson didn’t miss the rest of the season and returned an interception for a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. That was fortunate, because Moses—who excelled while replacing Wilson in November—was lost for the College Football Playoff after suffering a foot injury at practice in December. The pain didn’t end there. Jennings went down with a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl.</p><p>“It was kind of like, this is ridiculous, man,” says Evans, who wound up splitting time calling defensive alignments with Wilson. “I’ve never had so many people get hurt in one season.”</p><p>Those injuries made Alabama look different than it had looked since the Tide began winning national titles under Saban in the 2009 season. At times down the stretch, the Tide looked downright . . . normal. They squeaked out a 31–24 win at Mississippi State. After a 56–0 win against Mercer, the top-ranked Tide headed to Auburn—where the Tigers had creamed No. 1 Georgia 40–17 two weeks earlier. Auburn manhandled Alabama in a 26–14 Iron Bowl win, and suddenly the Tide’s chances of reaching a fourth consecutive College Football Playoff seemed slim. For the first time, neither Saban nor his team had any control over the Tide’s playoff chances.</p><p>The Tide also had a brewing issue at quarterback. Though the Auburn loss was only the second for Hurts as a starter, he averaged only 5.1 yards per pass attempt. Hurts also carried 18 times for 82 yards. Alabama’s deep stable of backs combined for only 19 carries that day even though the group averaged 6.8 yards a carry. After the loss, the drumbeat grew louder for Tagovailoa, who looked like the better passer in limited action. Could the offense run more smoothly with Tagovailoa throwing downfield and the backs handling the bulk of the running?</p><p>The day after they returned to Tuscaloosa, Alabama players lifted in the weight room and sprinted on the field. They couldn’t control their fate, but they’d be ready in case the playoff selection committee decided to place them in the bracket. “Whether we made the playoff or not, it didn’t do any harm to be working hard,” left tackle Williams says. “We could have played in the Buttermilk Bowl. It still would have been beneficial.”</p><p>Alabama’s actual bowl destination would be much sweeter.</p><p>Shortly after Ohio State made its case by beating Wisconsin for the Big Ten title on the night of Dec. 2, Saban, reduced to an unfamiliar role, called in to ESPN. He would rather have coached a football game that day, but the loss to Auburn had reduced him to politicking for a playoff spot. ACC champ Clemson, SEC champ Georgia and Big 12 champ Oklahoma were most likely in the field. The selection committee’s choice at No. 4 came down to Alabama, which was 11–1 and hadn’t even won its own division, and Ohio State, which was 11–2 but had been beaten 31–16 at home by Oklahoma in September and pounded 55–24 at Iowa in November. “If we lost to a team in our conference that was not ranked by 30 points, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Saban told <em>SportsCenter</em> host Scott Van Pelt. “You wouldn’t even be talking to me.”</p><p>Later that morning, the members of the selection committee agreed with Saban. They chose Alabama as the No. 4 team and sent the Tide to face No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in a rematch of the teams that had split the previous two national championship games. The first two meetings were classics. The Alabama defense sucked the life out of the third, with a smothering performance over the Tigers in a 24–6 win. The Tide, who had averaged 2.6 sacks a game, sacked Clemson QB Bryant five times. Alabama limited an offense that had averaged six yards a play during the regular season to a miserable 2.7. Alabama had made the top seed in the playoff look average, and the Tide would get a chance to win a second national title in three seasons and a fifth in nine seasons.</p><p>But to do it, Saban would have to beat the man who had been one of his top lieutenants and the program that had emerged as the greatest potential threat to Alabama’s dominance.</p><p>Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had helped Saban win four national titles as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. He knew the Tide’s roster intimately, and he knew all of Saban’s tendencies. And Smart put together a brilliant game plan to stop the Alabama offense in first half of the national championship game. With his own true freshman quarterback (Jake Fromm) humming, Smart just needed his Bulldogs to hunker down for another half to collect his first national title. But Tagovailoa’s entrance changed everything.</p><p>“When coach Saban sees something...” receiver Calvin Ridley said after the game. Saban sensed that minor halftime adjustments wouldn’t help the Tide offense. Hurts had completed only three of eight passes for 21 yards. Something had to be done. Tagovailoa had expected to play in the Sugar Bowl but didn’t leave the sideline. “We had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity,” Saban said. “Even in the last game.”</p><p>Tagovailoa was ready. So was fellow freshman Najee Harris, a jumbo tailback who had carried only 55 times entering the title game but led Alabama in rushing with 64 yards on six carries. On Tagovailoa’s second drive, he completed three consecutive passes to Henry Ruggs III (another freshman), including a six-yard touchdown pass. An 80-yard Fromm-to-Mecole Hardman touchdown pass to make it a 20–7 game didn’t faze Tagovailoa, who led two field goal drives and hit Ridley for a seven-yard score to force a 20–20 tie with 3:49 remaining. Alabama was set to claim the title with a 36-yard field goal as regulation expired, but Andy Pappanastos’s kick sailed wide left.</p><p>The Process took over. Play the next play, Tide players told one another. Even after Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 51-yard field goal in OT and Tagovailoa took that sack on the next play, the Tide wouldn’t quit. They had lost a national title to Clemson in the closing seconds last season. Saban told his team this offseason not to “waste a failure.” They would win a title on the final play this season. “I hope you take something from this game,” Saban told his team in the locker room afterward, “and the resiliency that you showed in this game helps you be more successful in life.”</p><p>Saban’s success is undeniable. The question now is where this title ranks. The only way to know is to ask those who know him best. “No. 1,” says Terry Saban, who met Nick at science camp as schoolchildren in West Virginia and married him 46 years ago. “Of course.”</p><p>Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran, Saban’s consigliere since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, agrees. “No doubt, for him to put 13 [Tagovailoa] and put 22 [Harris] in. Think of all that and all the distractions and all of the injuries, and he’s on that stage holding that trophy.”</p><p>Again.</p>
Why Nick Saban Turned to Tua Tagovailoa to Write a New Alabama Legend

He held his headset in his hands, and if he hadn’t needed it, he might have thrown it all the way from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa. Alabama coach Nick Saban had put the ball in the hands of a backup true freshman quarterback (by choice). That quarterback was protected by a true freshman left tackle (by necessity). Now, down three in overtime of the national title game, those two had produced a disaster.

Tackle Alex Leatherwood had replaced injured starter Jonah Williams in the third quarter. Leatherwood had played well until Alabama’s first offensive snap of overtime, when he let Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy slip past. Bellamy chased Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who had replaced starter Jalen Hurts to start the second half, backward. Bellamy dove and missed, but teammate Jonathan Ledbetter joined the pursuit. Tagovailoa kept backpedaling. Tagovailoa scrambled the wrong way so long that Bellamy had time to get up, chase again and sack him for a 16-yard loss.

But the great thing about freshmen is they don’t know what they don’t know, and Tagovailoa didn’t seem to grasp that the sack was supposed to doom his team. As Tagovailoa caught the next snap, on second-and-26 from the 41, another Alabama true freshman rocketed off the line of scrimmage down the left sideline. DeVonta Smith had seen the Bulldogs playing Cover 2. He knew he had a chance. Leatherwood blocked Bellamy. This time Tagovailoa stepped up in the pocket and saw Smith spring open. He cocked and threw.

Confetti rained seconds after Smith crossed the goal line with the ball in his hands. “OH MY GOD,” Alabama center Bradley Bozeman screamed as tears streamed down his face. Bozeman then celebrated Alabama’s 26–23 win by proposing to girlfriend Nikki Hegstetter on the field. (She said yes, so both halves of the couple earned rings in Atlanta.) Moments later, Leatherwood sat on a bench and stared at the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “It feels like a dream,” he said as the first bars of “Sweet Home Alabama” played.

With his sixth national title—five at Alabama and one at LSU—Saban tied Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most ever won by one coach. Saban had to guide the Tide through injuries, through uncertainty created by a regular season-ending loss that almost derailed the Tide’s playoff run before it began, and, finally, out of a 13–0 halftime hole in the championship game that seemed too deep for an offense that gained all of 94 yards in the first half. The moment called for a drastic—or desperate—move, and Saban had one up his sleeve. He pulled Hurts, who had gone 25–2 as a starter, and took a leap of faith on a 18-year-old southpaw who a year ago was a high school senior in Hawaii and who had thrown just 53 passes in his college career, most of them in blowout win mop-up duty. “We needed a spark on offense,” Saban said after the game, which Tagovailoa finished 14–for–24 passing for 166 yards and three touchdowns. “Tua certainly gave us that.”

Bryant’s six titles were spread over 25 seasons at Alabama. After winning his first with LSU in 2003, Saban has won five with the Tide in just 11 seasons in Tuscaloosa. But to win this one and pull even with the ultimate Tide legend, Saban had to give his team his best coaching job.

Alabama fans: Buy national champs gear here | Order SI's championship package

Bear Bryant watched Alabama’s practices from atop a tower. On the rare occasions he descended during practice, players braced themselves for a tongue-lashing. After Saban dons his straw hat before each practice, he climbs no steps. He participates as actively as his players. In Bryant’s era, players knew a tongue-lashing was coming when they heard the chain that blocked the entrance to the tower clang off the tower’s metal piping. In the Saban era, one of the coach’s famous “a-- chewings” can come at any moment.

Need to locate Saban at the start of an Alabama practice? Find the cornerbacks. Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who served as the Tide’s secondary coach from 2010 to ’12 (and will be head coach at Tennessee next season), once joked, “everybody in the country knows who Alabama’s DBs coach is, and that’s Nick Saban.”

The truth is that Saban, who was a defensive back at Kent State, doesn’t always act like the DBs coach during practice. Sometimes he acts like the graduate assistant who works for the DBs coach. Five days before the championship game in Atlanta, Saban ran cornerbacks through agility drills during a practice. Then he grabbed a football and threw passes for those corners to intercept. (At 66, the former high school quarterback can still spin it.) Other coaches have gravitated toward a pure CEO role as they’ve aged. Saban refuses to disappear into football’s version of an ivory tower. “I enjoy the game—the Xs and Os, the technical part, being involved at practice,” he says. “I haven’t separated myself.” Says Pruitt: “If they didn’t let him coach the corners anymore, I think he’d quit. So I think they’ll let him coach the corners as long as he wants.”

This helps on a micro level and on a macro level. With a field-level view Saban can see if a linebacker is struggling to read his keys and correct the problem immediately. Seeing the fine details on a daily basis also helps Saban see the big picture. That’s how he has adapted more quickly than some of his peers who’ve failed to keep up with schematic changes. “You’re there to see the flaws,” he says. “You’re a part of quality control. You’re not depending on somebody else to tell you ‘This isn’t working anymore.’”

In the early 2010s, when Alabama struggled against run-pass option (RPO) plays, which allow the quarterback to decide after the snap whether he’ll throw, hand off or keep the ball and run, Saban could see the problems on the practice field. He anticipated his team would have problems when it faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in 2012 and when it faced the breathless Oklahoma offense in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season. They did, as both opposing teams outplayed the Tide defense in a pair of losses for Alabama. But because Saban spotted the problems early, help was on the way. The Tide had begun recruiting lighter defenders to match up with higher tempo offenses. The 2009 national title team started 365-pound Terrence Cody at nose tackle. The 2012 title team started 320-pound Jesse Williams. The 2017 team started 308-pound Da’Ron Payne, who is so nimble that he intercepted a Kelly Bryant pass and caught a touchdown pass as an H-back in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. The linebackers and the safeties also got smaller. Meanwhile, Saban ordered his assistant coordinators to add RPOs into Alabama’s offense and to recruit a mobile quarterback who could run them effectively. Enter Hurts, a high school powerlifting standout from Texas who in 2016 became the first true freshman to start at quarterback at Alabama in 32 years. “The game is constantly changing,” Saban says. “So you have to change with it.”

But how much longer will Saban be willing to adapt? It’s human nature to become resistant to change, but this tendency doesn’t seem to apply to Saban. Rules have been passed to thwart advantages Saban creates, and he has adjusted. When the NCAA banned head coaches in 2008 from visiting high schools to watch practice during the spring evaluation period, Saban became one of the first coaches to use video conferencing to talk to recruits. After coaches at other schools complained about Saban’s roster management techniques, the SEC changed the rules that govern how many recruits a school can sign each year. Saban wouldn’t be able to erase his recruiting mistakes so easily by convincing them to transfer and simply signing more players to fill their spots. When the league passed the new rules in 2011, Alabama had just signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Alabama’s next six recruiting classes also ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the Tide won four SEC titles and three national titles during that span.

How has Saban kept complacency at bay? “I’m never satisfied,” he says. “My greatest fear professionally is that we might lose the next game.” That pressure comes from within. “It’s not because of the fans. It’s not because of the expectations,” he says. “I want to do the best job I can to help our players have the best opportunity to do that. I hate the feeling you have when you lose, but I also hate the feeling that you have when you didn’t do a good job for your players.” That fear strikes every day. Even though no coach in history has won more titles than Saban, even though a contract extension signing bonus pushed his salary to $11.125 million for 2017, he still coaches like a man who thinks he could be fired at any moment. “When I get to where I don’t feel that way anymore,” he says, “I would rather call it quits than to be satisfied watching it go down.”

That would be a dark day in Tuscaloosa, but given Saban’s age and accomplishments, it’s now a legitimate question to ask when that will happen. Will he coach his way past Bryant in the record books? He only needs one more title. But there’s reason to believe that winning championships is only going to get more difficult for a coach who has made winning titles look so easy. If the next one is as difficult to win as this one was, it may take a while. Or it may not come at all.

All those top-ranked recruiting classes should render a team immune to rotten injury luck, but Alabama’s linebacker depth chart following a season-opening 24–7 win against Florida State suggested otherwise. Outside linebackers Christian Miller (biceps) and Terrell Lewis (elbow), injured in the season opener, were lost until late November. Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings (ankle) and inside linebacker Rashaan Evans (groin) missed games in September. The list only grew longer as the season wore on. Freshman Dylan Moses missed the Colorado State game with a concussion. Outside linebacker Jamey Mosley missed the Ole Miss game because of an illness. Just when it seemed the Tide were starting to get healthy, middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton broke his kneecap against LSU and was lost for the season. In that same game, linebacker Mack Wilson sustained a foot injury that would require surgery. Despite a pessimistic initial prognosis, Wilson didn’t miss the rest of the season and returned an interception for a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. That was fortunate, because Moses—who excelled while replacing Wilson in November—was lost for the College Football Playoff after suffering a foot injury at practice in December. The pain didn’t end there. Jennings went down with a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl.

“It was kind of like, this is ridiculous, man,” says Evans, who wound up splitting time calling defensive alignments with Wilson. “I’ve never had so many people get hurt in one season.”

Those injuries made Alabama look different than it had looked since the Tide began winning national titles under Saban in the 2009 season. At times down the stretch, the Tide looked downright . . . normal. They squeaked out a 31–24 win at Mississippi State. After a 56–0 win against Mercer, the top-ranked Tide headed to Auburn—where the Tigers had creamed No. 1 Georgia 40–17 two weeks earlier. Auburn manhandled Alabama in a 26–14 Iron Bowl win, and suddenly the Tide’s chances of reaching a fourth consecutive College Football Playoff seemed slim. For the first time, neither Saban nor his team had any control over the Tide’s playoff chances.

The Tide also had a brewing issue at quarterback. Though the Auburn loss was only the second for Hurts as a starter, he averaged only 5.1 yards per pass attempt. Hurts also carried 18 times for 82 yards. Alabama’s deep stable of backs combined for only 19 carries that day even though the group averaged 6.8 yards a carry. After the loss, the drumbeat grew louder for Tagovailoa, who looked like the better passer in limited action. Could the offense run more smoothly with Tagovailoa throwing downfield and the backs handling the bulk of the running?

The day after they returned to Tuscaloosa, Alabama players lifted in the weight room and sprinted on the field. They couldn’t control their fate, but they’d be ready in case the playoff selection committee decided to place them in the bracket. “Whether we made the playoff or not, it didn’t do any harm to be working hard,” left tackle Williams says. “We could have played in the Buttermilk Bowl. It still would have been beneficial.”

Alabama’s actual bowl destination would be much sweeter.

Shortly after Ohio State made its case by beating Wisconsin for the Big Ten title on the night of Dec. 2, Saban, reduced to an unfamiliar role, called in to ESPN. He would rather have coached a football game that day, but the loss to Auburn had reduced him to politicking for a playoff spot. ACC champ Clemson, SEC champ Georgia and Big 12 champ Oklahoma were most likely in the field. The selection committee’s choice at No. 4 came down to Alabama, which was 11–1 and hadn’t even won its own division, and Ohio State, which was 11–2 but had been beaten 31–16 at home by Oklahoma in September and pounded 55–24 at Iowa in November. “If we lost to a team in our conference that was not ranked by 30 points, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Saban told SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt. “You wouldn’t even be talking to me.”

Later that morning, the members of the selection committee agreed with Saban. They chose Alabama as the No. 4 team and sent the Tide to face No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in a rematch of the teams that had split the previous two national championship games. The first two meetings were classics. The Alabama defense sucked the life out of the third, with a smothering performance over the Tigers in a 24–6 win. The Tide, who had averaged 2.6 sacks a game, sacked Clemson QB Bryant five times. Alabama limited an offense that had averaged six yards a play during the regular season to a miserable 2.7. Alabama had made the top seed in the playoff look average, and the Tide would get a chance to win a second national title in three seasons and a fifth in nine seasons.

But to do it, Saban would have to beat the man who had been one of his top lieutenants and the program that had emerged as the greatest potential threat to Alabama’s dominance.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had helped Saban win four national titles as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. He knew the Tide’s roster intimately, and he knew all of Saban’s tendencies. And Smart put together a brilliant game plan to stop the Alabama offense in first half of the national championship game. With his own true freshman quarterback (Jake Fromm) humming, Smart just needed his Bulldogs to hunker down for another half to collect his first national title. But Tagovailoa’s entrance changed everything.

“When coach Saban sees something...” receiver Calvin Ridley said after the game. Saban sensed that minor halftime adjustments wouldn’t help the Tide offense. Hurts had completed only three of eight passes for 21 yards. Something had to be done. Tagovailoa had expected to play in the Sugar Bowl but didn’t leave the sideline. “We had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity,” Saban said. “Even in the last game.”

Tagovailoa was ready. So was fellow freshman Najee Harris, a jumbo tailback who had carried only 55 times entering the title game but led Alabama in rushing with 64 yards on six carries. On Tagovailoa’s second drive, he completed three consecutive passes to Henry Ruggs III (another freshman), including a six-yard touchdown pass. An 80-yard Fromm-to-Mecole Hardman touchdown pass to make it a 20–7 game didn’t faze Tagovailoa, who led two field goal drives and hit Ridley for a seven-yard score to force a 20–20 tie with 3:49 remaining. Alabama was set to claim the title with a 36-yard field goal as regulation expired, but Andy Pappanastos’s kick sailed wide left.

The Process took over. Play the next play, Tide players told one another. Even after Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 51-yard field goal in OT and Tagovailoa took that sack on the next play, the Tide wouldn’t quit. They had lost a national title to Clemson in the closing seconds last season. Saban told his team this offseason not to “waste a failure.” They would win a title on the final play this season. “I hope you take something from this game,” Saban told his team in the locker room afterward, “and the resiliency that you showed in this game helps you be more successful in life.”

Saban’s success is undeniable. The question now is where this title ranks. The only way to know is to ask those who know him best. “No. 1,” says Terry Saban, who met Nick at science camp as schoolchildren in West Virginia and married him 46 years ago. “Of course.”

Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran, Saban’s consigliere since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, agrees. “No doubt, for him to put 13 [Tagovailoa] and put 22 [Harris] in. Think of all that and all the distractions and all of the injuries, and he’s on that stage holding that trophy.”

Again.

<p>He held his headset in his hands, and if he hadn’t needed it, he might have thrown it all the way from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa. Alabama coach Nick Saban had put the ball in the hands of a backup true freshman quarterback (by choice). That quarterback was protected by a true freshman left tackle (by necessity). Now, down three in overtime of the national title game, those two had produced a disaster.</p><p>Tackle Alex Leatherwood had replaced injured starter Jonah Williams in the third quarter. Leatherwood had played well until Alabama’s first offensive snap of overtime, when he let Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy slip past. Bellamy chased Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who had replaced starter Jalen Hurts to start the second half, backward. Bellamy dove and missed, but teammate Jonathan Ledbetter joined the pursuit. Tagovailoa kept backpedaling. Tagovailoa scrambled the wrong way so long that Bellamy had time to get up, chase again and sack him for a 16-yard loss.</p><p>But the great thing about freshmen is they don’t know what they don’t know, and Tagovailoa didn’t seem to grasp that the sack was supposed to doom his team. As Tagovailoa caught the next snap, on second-and-26 from the 41, another Alabama true freshman rocketed off the line of scrimmage down the left sideline. DeVonta Smith had seen the Bulldogs playing Cover 2. He knew he had a chance. Leatherwood blocked Bellamy. This time Tagovailoa stepped up in the pocket and saw Smith spring open. He cocked and threw.</p><p>Confetti rained seconds after Smith crossed the goal line with the ball in his hands. “OH MY GOD,” Alabama center Bradley Bozeman screamed as tears streamed down his face. Bozeman then celebrated Alabama’s 26–23 win by <a href="https://www.si.com/college-football/2018/01/09/bradley-bozeman-alabama-girlfriend-proposal-video" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:proposing to girlfriend Nikki Hegstetter on the field" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">proposing to girlfriend Nikki Hegstetter on the field</a>. (She said yes, so both halves of the couple earned rings in Atlanta.) Moments later, Leatherwood sat on a bench and stared at the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “It feels like a dream,” he said as the first bars of “Sweet Home Alabama” played.</p><p>With his sixth national title—five at Alabama and one at LSU—Saban tied Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most ever won by one coach. Saban had to guide the Tide through injuries, through uncertainty created by a regular season-ending loss that almost derailed the Tide’s playoff run before it began, and, finally, out of a 13–0 halftime hole in the championship game that seemed too deep for an offense that gained all of 94 yards in the first half. The moment called for a drastic—or desperate—move, and Saban had one up his sleeve. He pulled Hurts, who had gone 25–2 as a starter, and took a leap of faith on a 18-year-old southpaw who a year ago was a high school senior in Hawaii and who had thrown just 53 passes in his college career, most of them in blowout win mop-up duty. “We needed a spark on offense,” Saban said after the game, which Tagovailoa finished 14–for–24 passing for 166 yards and three touchdowns. “Tua certainly gave us that.”</p><p>Bryant’s six titles were spread over 25 seasons at Alabama. After winning his first with LSU in 2003, Saban has won five with the Tide in just 11 seasons in Tuscaloosa. But to win this one and pull even with the ultimate Tide legend, Saban had to give his team his best coaching job.</p><p>• <a href="http://si.fanatics.com/COLLEGE_Alabama_Crimson_Tide" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Alabama fans: Buy national champs gear here" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Alabama fans: Buy national champs gear here</a> | <a href="https://subscription.si.com/storefront/subscribe-to-sports-illustrated/site/si-2017cfc49.html?link=1045302&#38;fpa_oc=CFB+2018" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Order SI&#39;s championship package" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Order SI&#39;s championship package</a></p><p>Bear Bryant watched Alabama’s practices from atop a tower. On the rare occasions he descended during practice, players braced themselves for a tongue-lashing. After Saban dons his straw hat before each practice, he climbs no steps. He participates as actively as his players. In Bryant’s era, players knew a tongue-lashing was coming when they heard the chain that blocked the entrance to the tower clang off the tower’s metal piping. In the Saban era, one of the coach’s famous “a-- chewings” can come at any moment.</p><p>Need to locate Saban at the start of an Alabama practice? Find the cornerbacks. Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who served as the Tide’s secondary coach from 2010 to ’12 (and will be head coach at Tennessee next season), once joked, “everybody in the country knows who Alabama’s DBs coach is, and that’s Nick Saban.”</p><p>The truth is that Saban, who was a defensive back at Kent State, doesn’t always act like the DBs coach during practice. Sometimes he acts like the graduate assistant who <em>works</em> for the DBs coach. Five days before the championship game in Atlanta, Saban ran cornerbacks through agility drills during a practice. Then he grabbed a football and threw passes for those corners to intercept. (At 66, the former high school quarterback can still spin it.) Other coaches have gravitated toward a pure CEO role as they’ve aged. Saban refuses to disappear into football’s version of an ivory tower. “I enjoy the game—the Xs and Os, the technical part, being involved at practice,” he says. “I haven’t separated myself.” Says Pruitt: “If they didn’t let him coach the corners anymore, I think he’d quit. So I think they’ll let him coach the corners as long as he wants.”</p><p>This helps on a micro level and on a macro level. With a field-level view Saban can see if a linebacker is struggling to read his keys and correct the problem immediately. Seeing the fine details on a daily basis also helps Saban see the big picture. That’s how he has adapted more quickly than some of his peers who’ve failed to keep up with schematic changes. “You’re there to see the flaws,” he says. “You’re a part of quality control. You’re not depending on somebody else to tell you ‘This isn’t working anymore.’”</p><p>In the early 2010s, when Alabama struggled against run-pass option (RPO) plays, which allow the quarterback to decide after the snap whether he’ll throw, hand off or keep the ball and run, Saban could see the problems on the practice field. He anticipated his team would have problems when it faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&#38;M in 2012 and when it faced the breathless Oklahoma offense in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season. They did, as both opposing teams outplayed the Tide defense in a pair of losses for Alabama. But because Saban spotted the problems early, help was on the way. The Tide had begun recruiting lighter defenders to match up with higher tempo offenses. The 2009 national title team started 365-pound Terrence Cody at nose tackle. The 2012 title team started 320-pound Jesse Williams. The 2017 team started 308-pound Da’Ron Payne, who is so nimble that he intercepted a Kelly Bryant pass and <a href="https://www.si.com/college-football/2018/01/01/alabama-clemson-darom-payne-touchdown-catch-video" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:caught a touchdown pass as an H-back" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">caught a touchdown pass as an H-back</a> in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. The linebackers and the safeties also got smaller. Meanwhile, Saban ordered his assistant coordinators to add RPOs into Alabama’s offense and to recruit a mobile quarterback who could run them effectively. Enter Hurts, a high school powerlifting standout from Texas who in 2016 became the first true freshman to start at quarterback at Alabama in 32 years. “The game is constantly changing,” Saban says. “So you have to change with it.”</p><p>But how much longer will Saban be willing to adapt? It’s human nature to become resistant to change, but this tendency doesn’t seem to apply to Saban. Rules have been passed to thwart advantages Saban creates, and he has adjusted. When the NCAA banned head coaches in 2008 from visiting high schools to watch practice during the spring evaluation period, Saban became one of the first coaches to use video conferencing to talk to recruits. After coaches at other schools complained about Saban’s roster management techniques, the SEC changed the rules that govern how many recruits a school can sign each year. Saban wouldn’t be able to erase his recruiting mistakes so easily by convincing them to transfer and simply signing more players to fill their spots. When the league passed the new rules in 2011, Alabama had just signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Alabama’s next six recruiting classes also ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the Tide won four SEC titles and three national titles during that span.</p><p>How has Saban kept complacency at bay? “I’m never satisfied,” he says. “My greatest fear professionally is that we might lose the next game.” That pressure comes from within. “It’s not because of the fans. It’s not because of the expectations,” he says. “I want to do the best job I can to help our players have the best opportunity to do that. I hate the feeling you have when you lose, but I also hate the feeling that you have when you didn’t do a good job for your players.” That fear strikes every day. Even though no coach in history has won more titles than Saban, even though a contract extension signing bonus pushed his salary to $11.125 million for 2017, he still coaches like a man who thinks he could be fired at any moment. “When I get to where I don’t feel that way anymore,” he says, “I would rather call it quits than to be satisfied watching it go down.”</p><p>That would be a dark day in Tuscaloosa, but given Saban’s age and accomplishments, it’s now a legitimate question to ask when that will happen. Will he coach his way past Bryant in the record books? He only needs one more title. But there’s reason to believe that winning championships is only going to get more difficult for a coach who has made winning titles look so easy. If the next one is as difficult to win as this one was, it may take a while. Or it may not come at all.</p><p>All those top-ranked recruiting classes should render a team immune to rotten injury luck, but Alabama’s linebacker depth chart following a season-opening 24–7 win against Florida State suggested otherwise. Outside linebackers Christian Miller (biceps) and Terrell Lewis (elbow), injured in the season opener, were lost until late November. Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings (ankle) and inside linebacker Rashaan Evans (groin) missed games in September. The list only grew longer as the season wore on. Freshman Dylan Moses missed the Colorado State game with a concussion. Outside linebacker Jamey Mosley missed the Ole Miss game because of an illness. Just when it seemed the Tide were starting to get healthy, middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton broke his kneecap against LSU and was lost for the season. In that same game, linebacker Mack Wilson sustained a foot injury that would require surgery. Despite a pessimistic initial prognosis, Wilson didn’t miss the rest of the season and returned an interception for a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. That was fortunate, because Moses—who excelled while replacing Wilson in November—was lost for the College Football Playoff after suffering a foot injury at practice in December. The pain didn’t end there. Jennings went down with a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl.</p><p>“It was kind of like, this is ridiculous, man,” says Evans, who wound up splitting time calling defensive alignments with Wilson. “I’ve never had so many people get hurt in one season.”</p><p>Those injuries made Alabama look different than it had looked since the Tide began winning national titles under Saban in the 2009 season. At times down the stretch, the Tide looked downright . . . normal. They squeaked out a 31–24 win at Mississippi State. After a 56–0 win against Mercer, the top-ranked Tide headed to Auburn—where the Tigers had creamed No. 1 Georgia 40–17 two weeks earlier. Auburn manhandled Alabama in a 26–14 Iron Bowl win, and suddenly the Tide’s chances of reaching a fourth consecutive College Football Playoff seemed slim. For the first time, neither Saban nor his team had any control over the Tide’s playoff chances.</p><p>The Tide also had a brewing issue at quarterback. Though the Auburn loss was only the second for Hurts as a starter, he averaged only 5.1 yards per pass attempt. Hurts also carried 18 times for 82 yards. Alabama’s deep stable of backs combined for only 19 carries that day even though the group averaged 6.8 yards a carry. After the loss, the drumbeat grew louder for Tagovailoa, who looked like the better passer in limited action. Could the offense run more smoothly with Tagovailoa throwing downfield and the backs handling the bulk of the running?</p><p>The day after they returned to Tuscaloosa, Alabama players lifted in the weight room and sprinted on the field. They couldn’t control their fate, but they’d be ready in case the playoff selection committee decided to place them in the bracket. “Whether we made the playoff or not, it didn’t do any harm to be working hard,” left tackle Williams says. “We could have played in the Buttermilk Bowl. It still would have been beneficial.”</p><p>Alabama’s actual bowl destination would be much sweeter.</p><p>Shortly after Ohio State made its case by beating Wisconsin for the Big Ten title on the night of Dec. 2, Saban, reduced to an unfamiliar role, called in to ESPN. He would rather have coached a football game that day, but the loss to Auburn had reduced him to politicking for a playoff spot. ACC champ Clemson, SEC champ Georgia and Big 12 champ Oklahoma were most likely in the field. The selection committee’s choice at No. 4 came down to Alabama, which was 11–1 and hadn’t even won its own division, and Ohio State, which was 11–2 but had been beaten 31–16 at home by Oklahoma in September and pounded 55–24 at Iowa in November. “If we lost to a team in our conference that was not ranked by 30 points, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Saban told <em>SportsCenter</em> host Scott Van Pelt. “You wouldn’t even be talking to me.”</p><p>Later that morning, the members of the selection committee agreed with Saban. They chose Alabama as the No. 4 team and sent the Tide to face No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in a rematch of the teams that had split the previous two national championship games. The first two meetings were classics. The Alabama defense sucked the life out of the third, with a smothering performance over the Tigers in a 24–6 win. The Tide, who had averaged 2.6 sacks a game, sacked Clemson QB Bryant five times. Alabama limited an offense that had averaged six yards a play during the regular season to a miserable 2.7. Alabama had made the top seed in the playoff look average, and the Tide would get a chance to win a second national title in three seasons and a fifth in nine seasons.</p><p>But to do it, Saban would have to beat the man who had been one of his top lieutenants and the program that had emerged as the greatest potential threat to Alabama’s dominance.</p><p>Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had helped Saban win four national titles as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. He knew the Tide’s roster intimately, and he knew all of Saban’s tendencies. And Smart put together a brilliant game plan to stop the Alabama offense in first half of the national championship game. With his own true freshman quarterback (Jake Fromm) humming, Smart just needed his Bulldogs to hunker down for another half to collect his first national title. But Tagovailoa’s entrance changed everything.</p><p>“When coach Saban sees something...” receiver Calvin Ridley said after the game. Saban sensed that minor halftime adjustments wouldn’t help the Tide offense. Hurts had completed only three of eight passes for 21 yards. Something had to be done. Tagovailoa had expected to play in the Sugar Bowl but didn’t leave the sideline. “We had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity,” Saban said. “Even in the last game.”</p><p>Tagovailoa was ready. So was fellow freshman Najee Harris, a jumbo tailback who had carried only 55 times entering the title game but led Alabama in rushing with 64 yards on six carries. On Tagovailoa’s second drive, he completed three consecutive passes to Henry Ruggs III (another freshman), including a six-yard touchdown pass. An 80-yard Fromm-to-Mecole Hardman touchdown pass to make it a 20–7 game didn’t faze Tagovailoa, who led two field goal drives and hit Ridley for a seven-yard score to force a 20–20 tie with 3:49 remaining. Alabama was set to claim the title with a 36-yard field goal as regulation expired, but Andy Pappanastos’s kick sailed wide left.</p><p>The Process took over. Play the next play, Tide players told one another. Even after Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 51-yard field goal in OT and Tagovailoa took that sack on the next play, the Tide wouldn’t quit. They had lost a national title to Clemson in the closing seconds last season. Saban told his team this offseason not to “waste a failure.” They would win a title on the final play this season. “I hope you take something from this game,” Saban told his team in the locker room afterward, “and the resiliency that you showed in this game helps you be more successful in life.”</p><p>Saban’s success is undeniable. The question now is where this title ranks. The only way to know is to ask those who know him best. “No. 1,” says Terry Saban, who met Nick at science camp as schoolchildren in West Virginia and married him 46 years ago. “Of course.”</p><p>Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran, Saban’s consigliere since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, agrees. “No doubt, for him to put 13 [Tagovailoa] and put 22 [Harris] in. Think of all that and all the distractions and all of the injuries, and he’s on that stage holding that trophy.”</p><p>Again.</p>
Why Nick Saban Turned to Tua Tagovailoa to Write a New Alabama Legend

He held his headset in his hands, and if he hadn’t needed it, he might have thrown it all the way from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa. Alabama coach Nick Saban had put the ball in the hands of a backup true freshman quarterback (by choice). That quarterback was protected by a true freshman left tackle (by necessity). Now, down three in overtime of the national title game, those two had produced a disaster.

Tackle Alex Leatherwood had replaced injured starter Jonah Williams in the third quarter. Leatherwood had played well until Alabama’s first offensive snap of overtime, when he let Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy slip past. Bellamy chased Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who had replaced starter Jalen Hurts to start the second half, backward. Bellamy dove and missed, but teammate Jonathan Ledbetter joined the pursuit. Tagovailoa kept backpedaling. Tagovailoa scrambled the wrong way so long that Bellamy had time to get up, chase again and sack him for a 16-yard loss.

But the great thing about freshmen is they don’t know what they don’t know, and Tagovailoa didn’t seem to grasp that the sack was supposed to doom his team. As Tagovailoa caught the next snap, on second-and-26 from the 41, another Alabama true freshman rocketed off the line of scrimmage down the left sideline. DeVonta Smith had seen the Bulldogs playing Cover 2. He knew he had a chance. Leatherwood blocked Bellamy. This time Tagovailoa stepped up in the pocket and saw Smith spring open. He cocked and threw.

Confetti rained seconds after Smith crossed the goal line with the ball in his hands. “OH MY GOD,” Alabama center Bradley Bozeman screamed as tears streamed down his face. Bozeman then celebrated Alabama’s 26–23 win by proposing to girlfriend Nikki Hegstetter on the field. (She said yes, so both halves of the couple earned rings in Atlanta.) Moments later, Leatherwood sat on a bench and stared at the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “It feels like a dream,” he said as the first bars of “Sweet Home Alabama” played.

With his sixth national title—five at Alabama and one at LSU—Saban tied Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most ever won by one coach. Saban had to guide the Tide through injuries, through uncertainty created by a regular season-ending loss that almost derailed the Tide’s playoff run before it began, and, finally, out of a 13–0 halftime hole in the championship game that seemed too deep for an offense that gained all of 94 yards in the first half. The moment called for a drastic—or desperate—move, and Saban had one up his sleeve. He pulled Hurts, who had gone 25–2 as a starter, and took a leap of faith on a 18-year-old southpaw who a year ago was a high school senior in Hawaii and who had thrown just 53 passes in his college career, most of them in blowout win mop-up duty. “We needed a spark on offense,” Saban said after the game, which Tagovailoa finished 14–for–24 passing for 166 yards and three touchdowns. “Tua certainly gave us that.”

Bryant’s six titles were spread over 25 seasons at Alabama. After winning his first with LSU in 2003, Saban has won five with the Tide in just 11 seasons in Tuscaloosa. But to win this one and pull even with the ultimate Tide legend, Saban had to give his team his best coaching job.

Alabama fans: Buy national champs gear here | Order SI's championship package

Bear Bryant watched Alabama’s practices from atop a tower. On the rare occasions he descended during practice, players braced themselves for a tongue-lashing. After Saban dons his straw hat before each practice, he climbs no steps. He participates as actively as his players. In Bryant’s era, players knew a tongue-lashing was coming when they heard the chain that blocked the entrance to the tower clang off the tower’s metal piping. In the Saban era, one of the coach’s famous “a-- chewings” can come at any moment.

Need to locate Saban at the start of an Alabama practice? Find the cornerbacks. Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who served as the Tide’s secondary coach from 2010 to ’12 (and will be head coach at Tennessee next season), once joked, “everybody in the country knows who Alabama’s DBs coach is, and that’s Nick Saban.”

The truth is that Saban, who was a defensive back at Kent State, doesn’t always act like the DBs coach during practice. Sometimes he acts like the graduate assistant who works for the DBs coach. Five days before the championship game in Atlanta, Saban ran cornerbacks through agility drills during a practice. Then he grabbed a football and threw passes for those corners to intercept. (At 66, the former high school quarterback can still spin it.) Other coaches have gravitated toward a pure CEO role as they’ve aged. Saban refuses to disappear into football’s version of an ivory tower. “I enjoy the game—the Xs and Os, the technical part, being involved at practice,” he says. “I haven’t separated myself.” Says Pruitt: “If they didn’t let him coach the corners anymore, I think he’d quit. So I think they’ll let him coach the corners as long as he wants.”

This helps on a micro level and on a macro level. With a field-level view Saban can see if a linebacker is struggling to read his keys and correct the problem immediately. Seeing the fine details on a daily basis also helps Saban see the big picture. That’s how he has adapted more quickly than some of his peers who’ve failed to keep up with schematic changes. “You’re there to see the flaws,” he says. “You’re a part of quality control. You’re not depending on somebody else to tell you ‘This isn’t working anymore.’”

In the early 2010s, when Alabama struggled against run-pass option (RPO) plays, which allow the quarterback to decide after the snap whether he’ll throw, hand off or keep the ball and run, Saban could see the problems on the practice field. He anticipated his team would have problems when it faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in 2012 and when it faced the breathless Oklahoma offense in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season. They did, as both opposing teams outplayed the Tide defense in a pair of losses for Alabama. But because Saban spotted the problems early, help was on the way. The Tide had begun recruiting lighter defenders to match up with higher tempo offenses. The 2009 national title team started 365-pound Terrence Cody at nose tackle. The 2012 title team started 320-pound Jesse Williams. The 2017 team started 308-pound Da’Ron Payne, who is so nimble that he intercepted a Kelly Bryant pass and caught a touchdown pass as an H-back in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. The linebackers and the safeties also got smaller. Meanwhile, Saban ordered his assistant coordinators to add RPOs into Alabama’s offense and to recruit a mobile quarterback who could run them effectively. Enter Hurts, a high school powerlifting standout from Texas who in 2016 became the first true freshman to start at quarterback at Alabama in 32 years. “The game is constantly changing,” Saban says. “So you have to change with it.”

But how much longer will Saban be willing to adapt? It’s human nature to become resistant to change, but this tendency doesn’t seem to apply to Saban. Rules have been passed to thwart advantages Saban creates, and he has adjusted. When the NCAA banned head coaches in 2008 from visiting high schools to watch practice during the spring evaluation period, Saban became one of the first coaches to use video conferencing to talk to recruits. After coaches at other schools complained about Saban’s roster management techniques, the SEC changed the rules that govern how many recruits a school can sign each year. Saban wouldn’t be able to erase his recruiting mistakes so easily by convincing them to transfer and simply signing more players to fill their spots. When the league passed the new rules in 2011, Alabama had just signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Alabama’s next six recruiting classes also ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the Tide won four SEC titles and three national titles during that span.

How has Saban kept complacency at bay? “I’m never satisfied,” he says. “My greatest fear professionally is that we might lose the next game.” That pressure comes from within. “It’s not because of the fans. It’s not because of the expectations,” he says. “I want to do the best job I can to help our players have the best opportunity to do that. I hate the feeling you have when you lose, but I also hate the feeling that you have when you didn’t do a good job for your players.” That fear strikes every day. Even though no coach in history has won more titles than Saban, even though a contract extension signing bonus pushed his salary to $11.125 million for 2017, he still coaches like a man who thinks he could be fired at any moment. “When I get to where I don’t feel that way anymore,” he says, “I would rather call it quits than to be satisfied watching it go down.”

That would be a dark day in Tuscaloosa, but given Saban’s age and accomplishments, it’s now a legitimate question to ask when that will happen. Will he coach his way past Bryant in the record books? He only needs one more title. But there’s reason to believe that winning championships is only going to get more difficult for a coach who has made winning titles look so easy. If the next one is as difficult to win as this one was, it may take a while. Or it may not come at all.

All those top-ranked recruiting classes should render a team immune to rotten injury luck, but Alabama’s linebacker depth chart following a season-opening 24–7 win against Florida State suggested otherwise. Outside linebackers Christian Miller (biceps) and Terrell Lewis (elbow), injured in the season opener, were lost until late November. Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings (ankle) and inside linebacker Rashaan Evans (groin) missed games in September. The list only grew longer as the season wore on. Freshman Dylan Moses missed the Colorado State game with a concussion. Outside linebacker Jamey Mosley missed the Ole Miss game because of an illness. Just when it seemed the Tide were starting to get healthy, middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton broke his kneecap against LSU and was lost for the season. In that same game, linebacker Mack Wilson sustained a foot injury that would require surgery. Despite a pessimistic initial prognosis, Wilson didn’t miss the rest of the season and returned an interception for a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. That was fortunate, because Moses—who excelled while replacing Wilson in November—was lost for the College Football Playoff after suffering a foot injury at practice in December. The pain didn’t end there. Jennings went down with a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl.

“It was kind of like, this is ridiculous, man,” says Evans, who wound up splitting time calling defensive alignments with Wilson. “I’ve never had so many people get hurt in one season.”

Those injuries made Alabama look different than it had looked since the Tide began winning national titles under Saban in the 2009 season. At times down the stretch, the Tide looked downright . . . normal. They squeaked out a 31–24 win at Mississippi State. After a 56–0 win against Mercer, the top-ranked Tide headed to Auburn—where the Tigers had creamed No. 1 Georgia 40–17 two weeks earlier. Auburn manhandled Alabama in a 26–14 Iron Bowl win, and suddenly the Tide’s chances of reaching a fourth consecutive College Football Playoff seemed slim. For the first time, neither Saban nor his team had any control over the Tide’s playoff chances.

The Tide also had a brewing issue at quarterback. Though the Auburn loss was only the second for Hurts as a starter, he averaged only 5.1 yards per pass attempt. Hurts also carried 18 times for 82 yards. Alabama’s deep stable of backs combined for only 19 carries that day even though the group averaged 6.8 yards a carry. After the loss, the drumbeat grew louder for Tagovailoa, who looked like the better passer in limited action. Could the offense run more smoothly with Tagovailoa throwing downfield and the backs handling the bulk of the running?

The day after they returned to Tuscaloosa, Alabama players lifted in the weight room and sprinted on the field. They couldn’t control their fate, but they’d be ready in case the playoff selection committee decided to place them in the bracket. “Whether we made the playoff or not, it didn’t do any harm to be working hard,” left tackle Williams says. “We could have played in the Buttermilk Bowl. It still would have been beneficial.”

Alabama’s actual bowl destination would be much sweeter.

Shortly after Ohio State made its case by beating Wisconsin for the Big Ten title on the night of Dec. 2, Saban, reduced to an unfamiliar role, called in to ESPN. He would rather have coached a football game that day, but the loss to Auburn had reduced him to politicking for a playoff spot. ACC champ Clemson, SEC champ Georgia and Big 12 champ Oklahoma were most likely in the field. The selection committee’s choice at No. 4 came down to Alabama, which was 11–1 and hadn’t even won its own division, and Ohio State, which was 11–2 but had been beaten 31–16 at home by Oklahoma in September and pounded 55–24 at Iowa in November. “If we lost to a team in our conference that was not ranked by 30 points, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Saban told SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt. “You wouldn’t even be talking to me.”

Later that morning, the members of the selection committee agreed with Saban. They chose Alabama as the No. 4 team and sent the Tide to face No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in a rematch of the teams that had split the previous two national championship games. The first two meetings were classics. The Alabama defense sucked the life out of the third, with a smothering performance over the Tigers in a 24–6 win. The Tide, who had averaged 2.6 sacks a game, sacked Clemson QB Bryant five times. Alabama limited an offense that had averaged six yards a play during the regular season to a miserable 2.7. Alabama had made the top seed in the playoff look average, and the Tide would get a chance to win a second national title in three seasons and a fifth in nine seasons.

But to do it, Saban would have to beat the man who had been one of his top lieutenants and the program that had emerged as the greatest potential threat to Alabama’s dominance.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had helped Saban win four national titles as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. He knew the Tide’s roster intimately, and he knew all of Saban’s tendencies. And Smart put together a brilliant game plan to stop the Alabama offense in first half of the national championship game. With his own true freshman quarterback (Jake Fromm) humming, Smart just needed his Bulldogs to hunker down for another half to collect his first national title. But Tagovailoa’s entrance changed everything.

“When coach Saban sees something...” receiver Calvin Ridley said after the game. Saban sensed that minor halftime adjustments wouldn’t help the Tide offense. Hurts had completed only three of eight passes for 21 yards. Something had to be done. Tagovailoa had expected to play in the Sugar Bowl but didn’t leave the sideline. “We had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity,” Saban said. “Even in the last game.”

Tagovailoa was ready. So was fellow freshman Najee Harris, a jumbo tailback who had carried only 55 times entering the title game but led Alabama in rushing with 64 yards on six carries. On Tagovailoa’s second drive, he completed three consecutive passes to Henry Ruggs III (another freshman), including a six-yard touchdown pass. An 80-yard Fromm-to-Mecole Hardman touchdown pass to make it a 20–7 game didn’t faze Tagovailoa, who led two field goal drives and hit Ridley for a seven-yard score to force a 20–20 tie with 3:49 remaining. Alabama was set to claim the title with a 36-yard field goal as regulation expired, but Andy Pappanastos’s kick sailed wide left.

The Process took over. Play the next play, Tide players told one another. Even after Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 51-yard field goal in OT and Tagovailoa took that sack on the next play, the Tide wouldn’t quit. They had lost a national title to Clemson in the closing seconds last season. Saban told his team this offseason not to “waste a failure.” They would win a title on the final play this season. “I hope you take something from this game,” Saban told his team in the locker room afterward, “and the resiliency that you showed in this game helps you be more successful in life.”

Saban’s success is undeniable. The question now is where this title ranks. The only way to know is to ask those who know him best. “No. 1,” says Terry Saban, who met Nick at science camp as schoolchildren in West Virginia and married him 46 years ago. “Of course.”

Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran, Saban’s consigliere since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, agrees. “No doubt, for him to put 13 [Tagovailoa] and put 22 [Harris] in. Think of all that and all the distractions and all of the injuries, and he’s on that stage holding that trophy.”

Again.

<p>He held his headset in his hands, and if he hadn’t needed it, he might have thrown it all the way from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa. Alabama coach Nick Saban had put the ball in the hands of a backup true freshman quarterback (by choice). That quarterback was protected by a true freshman left tackle (by necessity). Now, down three in overtime of the national title game, those two had produced a disaster.</p><p>Tackle Alex Leatherwood had replaced injured starter Jonah Williams in the third quarter. Leatherwood had played well until Alabama’s first offensive snap of overtime, when he let Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy slip past. Bellamy chased Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who had replaced starter Jalen Hurts to start the second half, backward. Bellamy dove and missed, but teammate Jonathan Ledbetter joined the pursuit. Tagovailoa kept backpedaling. Tagovailoa scrambled the wrong way so long that Bellamy had time to get up, chase again and sack him for a 16-yard loss.</p><p>But the great thing about freshmen is they don’t know what they don’t know, and Tagovailoa didn’t seem to grasp that the sack was supposed to doom his team. As Tagovailoa caught the next snap, on second-and-26 from the 41, another Alabama true freshman rocketed off the line of scrimmage down the left sideline. DeVonta Smith had seen the Bulldogs playing Cover 2. He knew he had a chance. Leatherwood blocked Bellamy. This time Tagovailoa stepped up in the pocket and saw Smith spring open. He cocked and threw.</p><p>Confetti rained seconds after Smith crossed the goal line with the ball in his hands. “OH MY GOD,” Alabama center Bradley Bozeman screamed as tears streamed down his face. Bozeman then celebrated Alabama’s 26–23 win by <a href="https://www.si.com/college-football/2018/01/09/bradley-bozeman-alabama-girlfriend-proposal-video" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:proposing to girlfriend Nikki Hegstetter on the field" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">proposing to girlfriend Nikki Hegstetter on the field</a>. (She said yes, so both halves of the couple earned rings in Atlanta.) Moments later, Leatherwood sat on a bench and stared at the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “It feels like a dream,” he said as the first bars of “Sweet Home Alabama” played.</p><p>With his sixth national title—five at Alabama and one at LSU—Saban tied Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most ever won by one coach. Saban had to guide the Tide through injuries, through uncertainty created by a regular season-ending loss that almost derailed the Tide’s playoff run before it began, and, finally, out of a 13–0 halftime hole in the championship game that seemed too deep for an offense that gained all of 94 yards in the first half. The moment called for a drastic—or desperate—move, and Saban had one up his sleeve. He pulled Hurts, who had gone 25–2 as a starter, and took a leap of faith on a 18-year-old southpaw who a year ago was a high school senior in Hawaii and who had thrown just 53 passes in his college career, most of them in blowout win mop-up duty. “We needed a spark on offense,” Saban said after the game, which Tagovailoa finished 14–for–24 passing for 166 yards and three touchdowns. “Tua certainly gave us that.”</p><p>Bryant’s six titles were spread over 25 seasons at Alabama. After winning his first with LSU in 2003, Saban has won five with the Tide in just 11 seasons in Tuscaloosa. But to win this one and pull even with the ultimate Tide legend, Saban had to give his team his best coaching job.</p><p>• <a href="http://si.fanatics.com/COLLEGE_Alabama_Crimson_Tide" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Alabama fans: Buy national champs gear here" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Alabama fans: Buy national champs gear here</a> | <a href="https://subscription.si.com/storefront/subscribe-to-sports-illustrated/site/si-2017cfc49.html?link=1045302&#38;fpa_oc=CFB+2018" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Order SI&#39;s championship package" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Order SI&#39;s championship package</a></p><p>Bear Bryant watched Alabama’s practices from atop a tower. On the rare occasions he descended during practice, players braced themselves for a tongue-lashing. After Saban dons his straw hat before each practice, he climbs no steps. He participates as actively as his players. In Bryant’s era, players knew a tongue-lashing was coming when they heard the chain that blocked the entrance to the tower clang off the tower’s metal piping. In the Saban era, one of the coach’s famous “a-- chewings” can come at any moment.</p><p>Need to locate Saban at the start of an Alabama practice? Find the cornerbacks. Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who served as the Tide’s secondary coach from 2010 to ’12 (and will be head coach at Tennessee next season), once joked, “everybody in the country knows who Alabama’s DBs coach is, and that’s Nick Saban.”</p><p>The truth is that Saban, who was a defensive back at Kent State, doesn’t always act like the DBs coach during practice. Sometimes he acts like the graduate assistant who <em>works</em> for the DBs coach. Five days before the championship game in Atlanta, Saban ran cornerbacks through agility drills during a practice. Then he grabbed a football and threw passes for those corners to intercept. (At 66, the former high school quarterback can still spin it.) Other coaches have gravitated toward a pure CEO role as they’ve aged. Saban refuses to disappear into football’s version of an ivory tower. “I enjoy the game—the Xs and Os, the technical part, being involved at practice,” he says. “I haven’t separated myself.” Says Pruitt: “If they didn’t let him coach the corners anymore, I think he’d quit. So I think they’ll let him coach the corners as long as he wants.”</p><p>This helps on a micro level and on a macro level. With a field-level view Saban can see if a linebacker is struggling to read his keys and correct the problem immediately. Seeing the fine details on a daily basis also helps Saban see the big picture. That’s how he has adapted more quickly than some of his peers who’ve failed to keep up with schematic changes. “You’re there to see the flaws,” he says. “You’re a part of quality control. You’re not depending on somebody else to tell you ‘This isn’t working anymore.’”</p><p>In the early 2010s, when Alabama struggled against run-pass option (RPO) plays, which allow the quarterback to decide after the snap whether he’ll throw, hand off or keep the ball and run, Saban could see the problems on the practice field. He anticipated his team would have problems when it faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&#38;M in 2012 and when it faced the breathless Oklahoma offense in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season. They did, as both opposing teams outplayed the Tide defense in a pair of losses for Alabama. But because Saban spotted the problems early, help was on the way. The Tide had begun recruiting lighter defenders to match up with higher tempo offenses. The 2009 national title team started 365-pound Terrence Cody at nose tackle. The 2012 title team started 320-pound Jesse Williams. The 2017 team started 308-pound Da’Ron Payne, who is so nimble that he intercepted a Kelly Bryant pass and <a href="https://www.si.com/college-football/2018/01/01/alabama-clemson-darom-payne-touchdown-catch-video" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:caught a touchdown pass as an H-back" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">caught a touchdown pass as an H-back</a> in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. The linebackers and the safeties also got smaller. Meanwhile, Saban ordered his assistant coordinators to add RPOs into Alabama’s offense and to recruit a mobile quarterback who could run them effectively. Enter Hurts, a high school powerlifting standout from Texas who in 2016 became the first true freshman to start at quarterback at Alabama in 32 years. “The game is constantly changing,” Saban says. “So you have to change with it.”</p><p>But how much longer will Saban be willing to adapt? It’s human nature to become resistant to change, but this tendency doesn’t seem to apply to Saban. Rules have been passed to thwart advantages Saban creates, and he has adjusted. When the NCAA banned head coaches in 2008 from visiting high schools to watch practice during the spring evaluation period, Saban became one of the first coaches to use video conferencing to talk to recruits. After coaches at other schools complained about Saban’s roster management techniques, the SEC changed the rules that govern how many recruits a school can sign each year. Saban wouldn’t be able to erase his recruiting mistakes so easily by convincing them to transfer and simply signing more players to fill their spots. When the league passed the new rules in 2011, Alabama had just signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Alabama’s next six recruiting classes also ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the Tide won four SEC titles and three national titles during that span.</p><p>How has Saban kept complacency at bay? “I’m never satisfied,” he says. “My greatest fear professionally is that we might lose the next game.” That pressure comes from within. “It’s not because of the fans. It’s not because of the expectations,” he says. “I want to do the best job I can to help our players have the best opportunity to do that. I hate the feeling you have when you lose, but I also hate the feeling that you have when you didn’t do a good job for your players.” That fear strikes every day. Even though no coach in history has won more titles than Saban, even though a contract extension signing bonus pushed his salary to $11.125 million for 2017, he still coaches like a man who thinks he could be fired at any moment. “When I get to where I don’t feel that way anymore,” he says, “I would rather call it quits than to be satisfied watching it go down.”</p><p>That would be a dark day in Tuscaloosa, but given Saban’s age and accomplishments, it’s now a legitimate question to ask when that will happen. Will he coach his way past Bryant in the record books? He only needs one more title. But there’s reason to believe that winning championships is only going to get more difficult for a coach who has made winning titles look so easy. If the next one is as difficult to win as this one was, it may take a while. Or it may not come at all.</p><p>All those top-ranked recruiting classes should render a team immune to rotten injury luck, but Alabama’s linebacker depth chart following a season-opening 24–7 win against Florida State suggested otherwise. Outside linebackers Christian Miller (biceps) and Terrell Lewis (elbow), injured in the season opener, were lost until late November. Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings (ankle) and inside linebacker Rashaan Evans (groin) missed games in September. The list only grew longer as the season wore on. Freshman Dylan Moses missed the Colorado State game with a concussion. Outside linebacker Jamey Mosley missed the Ole Miss game because of an illness. Just when it seemed the Tide were starting to get healthy, middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton broke his kneecap against LSU and was lost for the season. In that same game, linebacker Mack Wilson sustained a foot injury that would require surgery. Despite a pessimistic initial prognosis, Wilson didn’t miss the rest of the season and returned an interception for a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. That was fortunate, because Moses—who excelled while replacing Wilson in November—was lost for the College Football Playoff after suffering a foot injury at practice in December. The pain didn’t end there. Jennings went down with a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl.</p><p>“It was kind of like, this is ridiculous, man,” says Evans, who wound up splitting time calling defensive alignments with Wilson. “I’ve never had so many people get hurt in one season.”</p><p>Those injuries made Alabama look different than it had looked since the Tide began winning national titles under Saban in the 2009 season. At times down the stretch, the Tide looked downright . . . normal. They squeaked out a 31–24 win at Mississippi State. After a 56–0 win against Mercer, the top-ranked Tide headed to Auburn—where the Tigers had creamed No. 1 Georgia 40–17 two weeks earlier. Auburn manhandled Alabama in a 26–14 Iron Bowl win, and suddenly the Tide’s chances of reaching a fourth consecutive College Football Playoff seemed slim. For the first time, neither Saban nor his team had any control over the Tide’s playoff chances.</p><p>The Tide also had a brewing issue at quarterback. Though the Auburn loss was only the second for Hurts as a starter, he averaged only 5.1 yards per pass attempt. Hurts also carried 18 times for 82 yards. Alabama’s deep stable of backs combined for only 19 carries that day even though the group averaged 6.8 yards a carry. After the loss, the drumbeat grew louder for Tagovailoa, who looked like the better passer in limited action. Could the offense run more smoothly with Tagovailoa throwing downfield and the backs handling the bulk of the running?</p><p>The day after they returned to Tuscaloosa, Alabama players lifted in the weight room and sprinted on the field. They couldn’t control their fate, but they’d be ready in case the playoff selection committee decided to place them in the bracket. “Whether we made the playoff or not, it didn’t do any harm to be working hard,” left tackle Williams says. “We could have played in the Buttermilk Bowl. It still would have been beneficial.”</p><p>Alabama’s actual bowl destination would be much sweeter.</p><p>Shortly after Ohio State made its case by beating Wisconsin for the Big Ten title on the night of Dec. 2, Saban, reduced to an unfamiliar role, called in to ESPN. He would rather have coached a football game that day, but the loss to Auburn had reduced him to politicking for a playoff spot. ACC champ Clemson, SEC champ Georgia and Big 12 champ Oklahoma were most likely in the field. The selection committee’s choice at No. 4 came down to Alabama, which was 11–1 and hadn’t even won its own division, and Ohio State, which was 11–2 but had been beaten 31–16 at home by Oklahoma in September and pounded 55–24 at Iowa in November. “If we lost to a team in our conference that was not ranked by 30 points, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Saban told <em>SportsCenter</em> host Scott Van Pelt. “You wouldn’t even be talking to me.”</p><p>Later that morning, the members of the selection committee agreed with Saban. They chose Alabama as the No. 4 team and sent the Tide to face No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in a rematch of the teams that had split the previous two national championship games. The first two meetings were classics. The Alabama defense sucked the life out of the third, with a smothering performance over the Tigers in a 24–6 win. The Tide, who had averaged 2.6 sacks a game, sacked Clemson QB Bryant five times. Alabama limited an offense that had averaged six yards a play during the regular season to a miserable 2.7. Alabama had made the top seed in the playoff look average, and the Tide would get a chance to win a second national title in three seasons and a fifth in nine seasons.</p><p>But to do it, Saban would have to beat the man who had been one of his top lieutenants and the program that had emerged as the greatest potential threat to Alabama’s dominance.</p><p>Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had helped Saban win four national titles as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. He knew the Tide’s roster intimately, and he knew all of Saban’s tendencies. And Smart put together a brilliant game plan to stop the Alabama offense in first half of the national championship game. With his own true freshman quarterback (Jake Fromm) humming, Smart just needed his Bulldogs to hunker down for another half to collect his first national title. But Tagovailoa’s entrance changed everything.</p><p>“When coach Saban sees something...” receiver Calvin Ridley said after the game. Saban sensed that minor halftime adjustments wouldn’t help the Tide offense. Hurts had completed only three of eight passes for 21 yards. Something had to be done. Tagovailoa had expected to play in the Sugar Bowl but didn’t leave the sideline. “We had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity,” Saban said. “Even in the last game.”</p><p>Tagovailoa was ready. So was fellow freshman Najee Harris, a jumbo tailback who had carried only 55 times entering the title game but led Alabama in rushing with 64 yards on six carries. On Tagovailoa’s second drive, he completed three consecutive passes to Henry Ruggs III (another freshman), including a six-yard touchdown pass. An 80-yard Fromm-to-Mecole Hardman touchdown pass to make it a 20–7 game didn’t faze Tagovailoa, who led two field goal drives and hit Ridley for a seven-yard score to force a 20–20 tie with 3:49 remaining. Alabama was set to claim the title with a 36-yard field goal as regulation expired, but Andy Pappanastos’s kick sailed wide left.</p><p>The Process took over. Play the next play, Tide players told one another. Even after Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 51-yard field goal in OT and Tagovailoa took that sack on the next play, the Tide wouldn’t quit. They had lost a national title to Clemson in the closing seconds last season. Saban told his team this offseason not to “waste a failure.” They would win a title on the final play this season. “I hope you take something from this game,” Saban told his team in the locker room afterward, “and the resiliency that you showed in this game helps you be more successful in life.”</p><p>Saban’s success is undeniable. The question now is where this title ranks. The only way to know is to ask those who know him best. “No. 1,” says Terry Saban, who met Nick at science camp as schoolchildren in West Virginia and married him 46 years ago. “Of course.”</p><p>Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran, Saban’s consigliere since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, agrees. “No doubt, for him to put 13 [Tagovailoa] and put 22 [Harris] in. Think of all that and all the distractions and all of the injuries, and he’s on that stage holding that trophy.”</p><p>Again.</p>
Why Nick Saban Turned to Tua Tagovailoa to Write a New Alabama Legend

He held his headset in his hands, and if he hadn’t needed it, he might have thrown it all the way from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa. Alabama coach Nick Saban had put the ball in the hands of a backup true freshman quarterback (by choice). That quarterback was protected by a true freshman left tackle (by necessity). Now, down three in overtime of the national title game, those two had produced a disaster.

Tackle Alex Leatherwood had replaced injured starter Jonah Williams in the third quarter. Leatherwood had played well until Alabama’s first offensive snap of overtime, when he let Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy slip past. Bellamy chased Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who had replaced starter Jalen Hurts to start the second half, backward. Bellamy dove and missed, but teammate Jonathan Ledbetter joined the pursuit. Tagovailoa kept backpedaling. Tagovailoa scrambled the wrong way so long that Bellamy had time to get up, chase again and sack him for a 16-yard loss.

But the great thing about freshmen is they don’t know what they don’t know, and Tagovailoa didn’t seem to grasp that the sack was supposed to doom his team. As Tagovailoa caught the next snap, on second-and-26 from the 41, another Alabama true freshman rocketed off the line of scrimmage down the left sideline. DeVonta Smith had seen the Bulldogs playing Cover 2. He knew he had a chance. Leatherwood blocked Bellamy. This time Tagovailoa stepped up in the pocket and saw Smith spring open. He cocked and threw.

Confetti rained seconds after Smith crossed the goal line with the ball in his hands. “OH MY GOD,” Alabama center Bradley Bozeman screamed as tears streamed down his face. Bozeman then celebrated Alabama’s 26–23 win by proposing to girlfriend Nikki Hegstetter on the field. (She said yes, so both halves of the couple earned rings in Atlanta.) Moments later, Leatherwood sat on a bench and stared at the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “It feels like a dream,” he said as the first bars of “Sweet Home Alabama” played.

With his sixth national title—five at Alabama and one at LSU—Saban tied Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most ever won by one coach. Saban had to guide the Tide through injuries, through uncertainty created by a regular season-ending loss that almost derailed the Tide’s playoff run before it began, and, finally, out of a 13–0 halftime hole in the championship game that seemed too deep for an offense that gained all of 94 yards in the first half. The moment called for a drastic—or desperate—move, and Saban had one up his sleeve. He pulled Hurts, who had gone 25–2 as a starter, and took a leap of faith on a 18-year-old southpaw who a year ago was a high school senior in Hawaii and who had thrown just 53 passes in his college career, most of them in blowout win mop-up duty. “We needed a spark on offense,” Saban said after the game, which Tagovailoa finished 14–for–24 passing for 166 yards and three touchdowns. “Tua certainly gave us that.”

Bryant’s six titles were spread over 25 seasons at Alabama. After winning his first with LSU in 2003, Saban has won five with the Tide in just 11 seasons in Tuscaloosa. But to win this one and pull even with the ultimate Tide legend, Saban had to give his team his best coaching job.

Alabama fans: Buy national champs gear here | Order SI's championship package

Bear Bryant watched Alabama’s practices from atop a tower. On the rare occasions he descended during practice, players braced themselves for a tongue-lashing. After Saban dons his straw hat before each practice, he climbs no steps. He participates as actively as his players. In Bryant’s era, players knew a tongue-lashing was coming when they heard the chain that blocked the entrance to the tower clang off the tower’s metal piping. In the Saban era, one of the coach’s famous “a-- chewings” can come at any moment.

Need to locate Saban at the start of an Alabama practice? Find the cornerbacks. Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who served as the Tide’s secondary coach from 2010 to ’12 (and will be head coach at Tennessee next season), once joked, “everybody in the country knows who Alabama’s DBs coach is, and that’s Nick Saban.”

The truth is that Saban, who was a defensive back at Kent State, doesn’t always act like the DBs coach during practice. Sometimes he acts like the graduate assistant who works for the DBs coach. Five days before the championship game in Atlanta, Saban ran cornerbacks through agility drills during a practice. Then he grabbed a football and threw passes for those corners to intercept. (At 66, the former high school quarterback can still spin it.) Other coaches have gravitated toward a pure CEO role as they’ve aged. Saban refuses to disappear into football’s version of an ivory tower. “I enjoy the game—the Xs and Os, the technical part, being involved at practice,” he says. “I haven’t separated myself.” Says Pruitt: “If they didn’t let him coach the corners anymore, I think he’d quit. So I think they’ll let him coach the corners as long as he wants.”

This helps on a micro level and on a macro level. With a field-level view Saban can see if a linebacker is struggling to read his keys and correct the problem immediately. Seeing the fine details on a daily basis also helps Saban see the big picture. That’s how he has adapted more quickly than some of his peers who’ve failed to keep up with schematic changes. “You’re there to see the flaws,” he says. “You’re a part of quality control. You’re not depending on somebody else to tell you ‘This isn’t working anymore.’”

In the early 2010s, when Alabama struggled against run-pass option (RPO) plays, which allow the quarterback to decide after the snap whether he’ll throw, hand off or keep the ball and run, Saban could see the problems on the practice field. He anticipated his team would have problems when it faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in 2012 and when it faced the breathless Oklahoma offense in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season. They did, as both opposing teams outplayed the Tide defense in a pair of losses for Alabama. But because Saban spotted the problems early, help was on the way. The Tide had begun recruiting lighter defenders to match up with higher tempo offenses. The 2009 national title team started 365-pound Terrence Cody at nose tackle. The 2012 title team started 320-pound Jesse Williams. The 2017 team started 308-pound Da’Ron Payne, who is so nimble that he intercepted a Kelly Bryant pass and caught a touchdown pass as an H-back in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. The linebackers and the safeties also got smaller. Meanwhile, Saban ordered his assistant coordinators to add RPOs into Alabama’s offense and to recruit a mobile quarterback who could run them effectively. Enter Hurts, a high school powerlifting standout from Texas who in 2016 became the first true freshman to start at quarterback at Alabama in 32 years. “The game is constantly changing,” Saban says. “So you have to change with it.”

But how much longer will Saban be willing to adapt? It’s human nature to become resistant to change, but this tendency doesn’t seem to apply to Saban. Rules have been passed to thwart advantages Saban creates, and he has adjusted. When the NCAA banned head coaches in 2008 from visiting high schools to watch practice during the spring evaluation period, Saban became one of the first coaches to use video conferencing to talk to recruits. After coaches at other schools complained about Saban’s roster management techniques, the SEC changed the rules that govern how many recruits a school can sign each year. Saban wouldn’t be able to erase his recruiting mistakes so easily by convincing them to transfer and simply signing more players to fill their spots. When the league passed the new rules in 2011, Alabama had just signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Alabama’s next six recruiting classes also ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the Tide won four SEC titles and three national titles during that span.

How has Saban kept complacency at bay? “I’m never satisfied,” he says. “My greatest fear professionally is that we might lose the next game.” That pressure comes from within. “It’s not because of the fans. It’s not because of the expectations,” he says. “I want to do the best job I can to help our players have the best opportunity to do that. I hate the feeling you have when you lose, but I also hate the feeling that you have when you didn’t do a good job for your players.” That fear strikes every day. Even though no coach in history has won more titles than Saban, even though a contract extension signing bonus pushed his salary to $11.125 million for 2017, he still coaches like a man who thinks he could be fired at any moment. “When I get to where I don’t feel that way anymore,” he says, “I would rather call it quits than to be satisfied watching it go down.”

That would be a dark day in Tuscaloosa, but given Saban’s age and accomplishments, it’s now a legitimate question to ask when that will happen. Will he coach his way past Bryant in the record books? He only needs one more title. But there’s reason to believe that winning championships is only going to get more difficult for a coach who has made winning titles look so easy. If the next one is as difficult to win as this one was, it may take a while. Or it may not come at all.

All those top-ranked recruiting classes should render a team immune to rotten injury luck, but Alabama’s linebacker depth chart following a season-opening 24–7 win against Florida State suggested otherwise. Outside linebackers Christian Miller (biceps) and Terrell Lewis (elbow), injured in the season opener, were lost until late November. Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings (ankle) and inside linebacker Rashaan Evans (groin) missed games in September. The list only grew longer as the season wore on. Freshman Dylan Moses missed the Colorado State game with a concussion. Outside linebacker Jamey Mosley missed the Ole Miss game because of an illness. Just when it seemed the Tide were starting to get healthy, middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton broke his kneecap against LSU and was lost for the season. In that same game, linebacker Mack Wilson sustained a foot injury that would require surgery. Despite a pessimistic initial prognosis, Wilson didn’t miss the rest of the season and returned an interception for a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. That was fortunate, because Moses—who excelled while replacing Wilson in November—was lost for the College Football Playoff after suffering a foot injury at practice in December. The pain didn’t end there. Jennings went down with a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl.

“It was kind of like, this is ridiculous, man,” says Evans, who wound up splitting time calling defensive alignments with Wilson. “I’ve never had so many people get hurt in one season.”

Those injuries made Alabama look different than it had looked since the Tide began winning national titles under Saban in the 2009 season. At times down the stretch, the Tide looked downright . . . normal. They squeaked out a 31–24 win at Mississippi State. After a 56–0 win against Mercer, the top-ranked Tide headed to Auburn—where the Tigers had creamed No. 1 Georgia 40–17 two weeks earlier. Auburn manhandled Alabama in a 26–14 Iron Bowl win, and suddenly the Tide’s chances of reaching a fourth consecutive College Football Playoff seemed slim. For the first time, neither Saban nor his team had any control over the Tide’s playoff chances.

The Tide also had a brewing issue at quarterback. Though the Auburn loss was only the second for Hurts as a starter, he averaged only 5.1 yards per pass attempt. Hurts also carried 18 times for 82 yards. Alabama’s deep stable of backs combined for only 19 carries that day even though the group averaged 6.8 yards a carry. After the loss, the drumbeat grew louder for Tagovailoa, who looked like the better passer in limited action. Could the offense run more smoothly with Tagovailoa throwing downfield and the backs handling the bulk of the running?

The day after they returned to Tuscaloosa, Alabama players lifted in the weight room and sprinted on the field. They couldn’t control their fate, but they’d be ready in case the playoff selection committee decided to place them in the bracket. “Whether we made the playoff or not, it didn’t do any harm to be working hard,” left tackle Williams says. “We could have played in the Buttermilk Bowl. It still would have been beneficial.”

Alabama’s actual bowl destination would be much sweeter.

Shortly after Ohio State made its case by beating Wisconsin for the Big Ten title on the night of Dec. 2, Saban, reduced to an unfamiliar role, called in to ESPN. He would rather have coached a football game that day, but the loss to Auburn had reduced him to politicking for a playoff spot. ACC champ Clemson, SEC champ Georgia and Big 12 champ Oklahoma were most likely in the field. The selection committee’s choice at No. 4 came down to Alabama, which was 11–1 and hadn’t even won its own division, and Ohio State, which was 11–2 but had been beaten 31–16 at home by Oklahoma in September and pounded 55–24 at Iowa in November. “If we lost to a team in our conference that was not ranked by 30 points, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Saban told SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt. “You wouldn’t even be talking to me.”

Later that morning, the members of the selection committee agreed with Saban. They chose Alabama as the No. 4 team and sent the Tide to face No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in a rematch of the teams that had split the previous two national championship games. The first two meetings were classics. The Alabama defense sucked the life out of the third, with a smothering performance over the Tigers in a 24–6 win. The Tide, who had averaged 2.6 sacks a game, sacked Clemson QB Bryant five times. Alabama limited an offense that had averaged six yards a play during the regular season to a miserable 2.7. Alabama had made the top seed in the playoff look average, and the Tide would get a chance to win a second national title in three seasons and a fifth in nine seasons.

But to do it, Saban would have to beat the man who had been one of his top lieutenants and the program that had emerged as the greatest potential threat to Alabama’s dominance.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had helped Saban win four national titles as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. He knew the Tide’s roster intimately, and he knew all of Saban’s tendencies. And Smart put together a brilliant game plan to stop the Alabama offense in first half of the national championship game. With his own true freshman quarterback (Jake Fromm) humming, Smart just needed his Bulldogs to hunker down for another half to collect his first national title. But Tagovailoa’s entrance changed everything.

“When coach Saban sees something...” receiver Calvin Ridley said after the game. Saban sensed that minor halftime adjustments wouldn’t help the Tide offense. Hurts had completed only three of eight passes for 21 yards. Something had to be done. Tagovailoa had expected to play in the Sugar Bowl but didn’t leave the sideline. “We had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity,” Saban said. “Even in the last game.”

Tagovailoa was ready. So was fellow freshman Najee Harris, a jumbo tailback who had carried only 55 times entering the title game but led Alabama in rushing with 64 yards on six carries. On Tagovailoa’s second drive, he completed three consecutive passes to Henry Ruggs III (another freshman), including a six-yard touchdown pass. An 80-yard Fromm-to-Mecole Hardman touchdown pass to make it a 20–7 game didn’t faze Tagovailoa, who led two field goal drives and hit Ridley for a seven-yard score to force a 20–20 tie with 3:49 remaining. Alabama was set to claim the title with a 36-yard field goal as regulation expired, but Andy Pappanastos’s kick sailed wide left.

The Process took over. Play the next play, Tide players told one another. Even after Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 51-yard field goal in OT and Tagovailoa took that sack on the next play, the Tide wouldn’t quit. They had lost a national title to Clemson in the closing seconds last season. Saban told his team this offseason not to “waste a failure.” They would win a title on the final play this season. “I hope you take something from this game,” Saban told his team in the locker room afterward, “and the resiliency that you showed in this game helps you be more successful in life.”

Saban’s success is undeniable. The question now is where this title ranks. The only way to know is to ask those who know him best. “No. 1,” says Terry Saban, who met Nick at science camp as schoolchildren in West Virginia and married him 46 years ago. “Of course.”

Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran, Saban’s consigliere since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, agrees. “No doubt, for him to put 13 [Tagovailoa] and put 22 [Harris] in. Think of all that and all the distractions and all of the injuries, and he’s on that stage holding that trophy.”

Again.

What to Read Next