Winners and Losers: Ranking the 10 college football conferences after 5 weeks

Where has the time gone? The month of September is almost over and five weeks of the 2019 college football season are now behind us. So what better time to power rank the 10 FBS conferences? We’ve learned a lot through the first third of the season and have a pretty good idea about each conference. We think. Here’s how we rank them.

10. MAC

Best team: Toledo

The Mid-American Conference is a hard one to figure right now. MAC teams understandably play a lot of Power Five opponents in non-conference play to earn money for their athletic departments. But Toledo and Eastern Michigan have proved their mettle so far. The Rockets won at Colorado State a week ago and beat BYU at home on Saturday. Eastern Michigan won at Illinois. Every other team in the conference is at .500 or worse.

9. Sun Belt

Best team: Appalachian State

You probably saw where North Carolina was a two-point play away from upsetting Clemson. Well, Appalachian State beat North Carolina 34-31 in Week 4. The Mountaineers moved to 4-0 after beating Coastal Carolina 56-37 on Saturday. Coastal has a road win at Kansas and Georgia State has a win at Tennessee. Meanwhile, Louisiana beat Liberty by four touchdowns and Ohio by 20 points. The Sun Belt is closer to eighth than 10th in these rankings.

8. Conference USA

Best team: Louisiana Tech

The Bulldogs survived at Rice to win 23-20 on Saturday to move to 4-1. La. Tech’s only loss came at Texas in Week 1. After that, it’s a crapshoot. UAB was undefeated heading into Saturday but lost at Western Kentucky. WKU lost to FCS Central Arkansas in Week 1. North Texas also suffered a loss to Houston on Saturday after entering the game as a touchdown favorite. There’s a lot of OK teams in C-USA but no real standouts yet.

7. Mountain West

Best team: Boise State

The Mountain West has some quality in 2019. But there’s also some confusion too. Boise State is 4-0 and has wins over Florida State on the road and Air Force at home. After that you can make a case for four or five teams as the second-best in the conference. Wyoming beat Missouri. But lost to Tulsa. Nevada beat Purdue. But lost to Oregon by 71. The likeliest answer for second-best team at the moment is Hawaii. The Warriors have wins over both Arizona and Oregon State.

6. AAC

Best team: SMU

Is it sacrilegious to not list UCF as the best team in the American? Maybe, but we’re doing it. The Knights lost at Pitt, a team that had to struggle to beat FCS Delaware on Saturday. SMU is now 5-0 after a win over South Florida on Saturday and beat TCU in Week 4. TCU is a better win than UCF’s victory over a hapless Stanford. Cincinnati also posted a nice blowout win over Marshall on Saturday and Memphis is 4-0 with wins over Ole Miss and Navy.

5. ACC

Best team: Clemson

With No. 18 Virginia’s loss Saturday to No. 10 Notre Dame, there’s a decent chance that No. 1 Clemson will be the only ACC team ranked in Sunday’s AP poll. There should be at least two ACC teams ranked, however. Wake Forest is now 5-0 after winning at Boston College and should be ranked in the 20s. After that, things get a little unorganized. Is Duke the conference’s third-best team? The Blue Devils demolished Virginia Tech on Friday night. Is Miami actually OK? Just how good is North Carolina? The ACC has a lot of questions outside of the Tigers, who escaped with that 21-20 win at North Carolina on Saturday.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - SEPTEMBER 28: Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) runs the ball up the middle in the game between the Clemson Tigers and the North Carolina Tar Heels on September 28, 2019 at Kenen Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC.(Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Clemson held on to beat North Carolina thanks to a two-point conversion stop in the final minutes. (Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

4. Pac-12

Best team: Oregon

The Ducks get the edge over Washington at the top of the Pac-12 because Auburn sure looks like the real deal and Oregon took the Tigers to the wire. The Huskies beat USC at home on Saturday but lost 20-19 to Cal earlier in September. The Bears were the final undefeated team in the conference before losing to Arizona State on Friday night. The Pac-12 is a really deep conference. There’s not much separating the top seven teams in the conference. But there’s also no College Football Playoff contender in the bunch. The Pac-12 champion could end up with a 10-3 record after the conference title game and it wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest.

3. Big 12

Best team: Oklahoma

If you were expecting Oklahoma’s offense to slip with Jalen Hurts at quarterback you’re sorely mistaken so far. Hurts isn’t far off the passing pace of Baker Mayfield in 2017 through the first four games of 2019 and has rushed for far more yards than Kyler Murray did in his first four games of 2018. Both Mayfield and Murray won the Heisman. You may have heard.

Texas is a solid second behind the Sooners and there’s a lot of depth in positions Nos. 3-7 in the conference. Baylor got a last-second win over Iowa State and Oklahoma State and Kansas State both look like solid bowl-bound teams. TCU lost to SMU a week ago but will undoubtedly go to a bowl game too.

2. Big Ten

Best team: Ohio State

The Big Ten East looks like Ohio State and everyone else and the Big Ten West looks like Wisconsin and everyone else. That’s not a diss at the rest of the conference but more of a compliment toward the Buckeyes and Badgers. They’ve been that good through the first five weeks of the season, though UW was a bit sluggish Saturday against Northwestern.

The tougher division is still the East as Penn State seems to have emerged as the No. 2 team behind Ohio State. But Michigan and Michigan State are still quality teams … we think.

In the West, both Iowa and Minnesota are undefeated though neither has looked as impressive as Wisconsin has. Minnesota has toed a fine line going 4-0 this season but sometimes teams do that on the way to nine and 10-win seasons. We’ll see if P.J. Fleck’s team harnesses the magic for a full season.

1. SEC

Best team: Alabama

Is the conference race even close through the first five weeks of the season? The SEC is the only conference that can profess to have four College Football Playoff contenders in Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Auburn. And that’s not even counting a Florida team that’s still hanging around the top 10 of the AP poll.

Are a couple of those teams overrated? Possibly. Maybe even probably. But there’s enough quality at the top of the conference to make this decision a no-brainer. Texas A&M may be the sixth-best team in the conference or that honor could go to a Missouri team that’s still facing a bowl ban from the NCAA pending appeal. The bottom of the conference isn’t great, but there’s a chance that at least 10 of the SEC’s 14 teams end up going to bowl games.

Here are the rest of this week’s winners and losers.


Ohio State: It didn’t take long for Ohio State to knock the sense of hope out of Memorial Stadium. The fifth-ranked Buckeyes absolutely demolished Nebraska on a primetime stage, dominating on both sides of the ball in a 48-7 win. By halftime, OSU had a 38-0 advantage thanks to three interceptions of Huskers QB Adrian Martinez and three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) from Justin Fields. Ohio State just looked so much faster than Nebraska on both sides of the ball and is a team that should be considered among the nation’s very best. Ryan Day is doing a great job.

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 28: Quarterback Justin Fields #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs down the sidelines against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on September 28, 2019 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)
Justin Fields had four total touchdowns in Ohio State's win over Nebraska. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

Penn State: Penn State’s offense did not look very good in a 17-10 win over Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. But those struggles were rectified Friday night at Maryland. The 12th-ranked Nittany Lions blasted the Terps 59-0, putting up 619 yards on offense while allowing Maryland to gain just 128 yards. It was supposed to be a big night in College Park. The school canceled classes and added bleachers to its stadium to accommodate a sold out crowd, but much of that crowd filed out by halftime with PSU in front 38-0. Ohio State is clearly the class of the Big Ten, and it looks like Penn State is next in line in the East division.

Wake Forest and SMU: Wake Forest and SMU are both 5-0. What a time to be alive. For Wake, it’s the first time the program has gotten off to a 5-0 start since 2006, the year the Demon Deacons won just their second-ever ACC title. To get to the 5-0 mark, Wake had to withstand a late charge from Boston College in a 27-24 victory in Chestnut Hill. Jamie Newman threw for 243 yards and ran for 102 more in the win.

For SMU, it has been much longer since it reached the 5-0 mark. For the Mustangs, that hasn’t happened since way back in 1983 — a few years before the program was infamously given the “death penalty” by the NCAA. On Saturday, the Mustangs blasted lowly USF in Tampa, 48-21. SMU got off to a 41-0 start before letting its foot off the gas pedal. SMU is going to have a say in the AAC title race — and maybe the race to represent the Group of Five conferences in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Washington: No. 17 Washington has rebounded nicely from its loss to Cal. Since then, the Huskies have won three straight, besting Hawaii, BYU and USC. On Saturday, UW completely controlled play in a 28-14 win over No. 21 USC. The Washington defense intercepted USC QB Matt Fink three times, including twice near the goal line. The highlight for the Washington offense was an 89-yard touchdown run by Salvon Ahmed late in the third quarter. Now 4-1, the Huskies have a chance to make it four wins in a row next weekend at Stanford.

Oklahoma State: Is Oklahoma State the third-best team in the Big 12? The Cowboys gave Texas a tough test a week ago in Austin. And on Saturday they dispatched No. 24 Kansas State 26-13 at home. Chuba Hubbard added to his nation-best rushing total with 296 yards on 25 carries, giving him a ridiculous 938 rushing yards in five games. But the story of Saturday night’s game may have been the performance of the OSU defense, which limited the previously-unbeaten Wildcats to just 244 yards. Now 4-1 on the year, expect OSU to be in the Top 25 next week ahead of its road game against Texas Tech.

Baylor: It’s time to give Matt Rhule kudos for the work he is doing at Baylor. He inherited a complete mess in the aftermath of the Art Briles era, went 1-11 in his first season and got back to a bowl game — a Texas Bowl victory over Vanderbilt — a year ago. In 2019, the Bears look like a team that could make some noise in the Big 12 race. Baylor improved to 4-0 with a 23-21 win over Iowa State on Saturday. BU blew a 20-0 lead, only to win on a 38-yard field goal by John Mayers with 21 seconds to go. It was the first field goal in Mayers’ career and the first field goal Baylor made all season. Baylor isn’t a team that’s going to supplant Oklahoma or Texas atop the conference standings, but Rhule’s program is definitely making headway.

Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan: Minnesota entered Saturday’s game against Purdue 3-0, but had a combined margin of victory of 13 points against some very underwhelming opponents. The Gophers, coming off a bye, looked much better against the Boilermakers, especially quarterback Tanner Morgan. Morgan completed 21 of his 22 attempts for 396 yards and four scores in a 38-31 win that was not as close as the final score may indicate (Purdue scored twice in the last six minutes). Morgan’s completion percentage of 95.5 set a Big Ten record (minimum 15 attempts). And with Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland coming up on the schedule, the Gophers could keep winning.

Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) throws against Purdue during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) throws against Purdue during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Houston: Houston became big news this week when two of its best players decided to sit out the rest of the season and take a redshirt. That led some to wonder if the Cougars, in their first season under Dana Holgorsen, were “tanking” the season. UH answered that question definitively on Saturday when it crushed North Texas, 46-25, on the road. With D’Eriq King one of the players redshirting, Clayton Tune got the start and played well, completing 16-of-20 passes and rushing for 100 yards. The Cougars also added one special teams touchdown and another on defense.

Bonus winner: Oregon State WR Isaiah Hodgins made the catch of the weekend. Watch below.


Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech is in unfamiliar territory. The Hokies were drilled 45-10 by Duke on Friday night in the program’s worst home loss since 1974. The program is trending in the wrong direction under Justin Fuente. In its last 10 games against Power Five opponents, the Hokies are a measly 3-7. That includes two losses to Boston College, a 21-point loss to Georgia Tech, a 30-point loss to Pittsburgh and a 24-point loss to Miami. Those aren’t exactly juggernauts. So far this year, VT is 2-2 and its only two wins came over Old Dominion and Furman. It’s fair to begin wondering if Fuente is the right man for the job.

South Florida: Has any program fallen off a cliff more in the last year than USF? The Bulls started the 2018 season 7-0. Since then, Charlie Strong’s team has lost nine of its last 10 games, including a 48-21 home defeat at the hands of SMU on Saturday. SMU jumped out to a 41-0 lead early in the third quarter, with Shane Buechele — Strong’s former QB at Texas — throwing three touchdowns for the Mustangs. Since Oct. 20 of last year, USF’s only win came against South Carolina State, an FCS program that hasn’t had a winning record since 2015. That means USF has lost nine straight games vs. FBS teams.

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 28: USF Head Coach Charlie Strong looks at his defense during the College Football game between the SMU Mustangs and the South Florida Bulls on September 28, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 28: USF Head Coach Charlie Strong looks at his defense during the College Football game between the SMU Mustangs and the South Florida Bulls on September 28, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Nebraska: It’s pretty clear that all of the offseason and preseason hype that surrounded Nebraska was not at all warranted. The Huskers were throttled at home by Ohio State 48-7 in a game that never even approached being competitive. Adrian Martinez threw three first-half interceptions as the Buckeyes jumped out to a 38-0 halftime lead. The Huskers went 4-8 in Scott Frost’s first season, and are 3-2 to start this year. But the leap many expected the Huskers to take has not come to fruition. The Huskers struggled in Week 1 against South Alabama, lost to Colorado in overtime and needed a comeback to beat lowly Illinois, 42-38. Nebraska was expected to compete for the Big Ten West title, but now just getting to a bowl game is a more realistic goal.

Pat Fitzgerald: Days after proclaiming how much he doesn’t care about fans’ frustrations with his team’s offense, which is one of the worst in the country, Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats could muster only 255 yards in another loss, this time at Wisconsin. The Wildcats were again miserable passing the ball. Between Hunter Johnson and Aidan Smith, Northwestern passers completed 18-of-41 throws for just 158 yards. The running game wasn’t much better: 41 carries for 97 yards. That’s 2.37 yards per carry. Fitzgerald also curiously had his team go for two twice as it attempted to mount a comeback from a 24-3 deficit. His inspiration for those calls was apparently a YouTube video he watched of Ravens coach John Harbaugh. Alrighty then.

Rutgers: It’s now Year 4 of the Chris Ash era at Rutgers, and his program has not even reached the point where it can be competitive against the upper tier of the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lost 52-0 to Michigan on the road on Saturday, marking the eighth time Rutgers has been shutout in Ash’s tenure. In its two Big Ten games so far in 2019, Rutgers has been outscored 82-0 in losses to UM and Iowa. Rutgers now has a 3-26 record in Big Ten play under Ash.

Rutgers head coach Chris Ash watches in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Rutgers head coach Chris Ash watches in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Indiana: For the fifth straight season, Indiana lost a game to a ranked team by 10 points or fewer. This year, it came on the road against Michigan State. IU tied MSU at 31 with 2:00 to play, but promptly gave up the winning field goal (and a defensive TD on a desperation final play) in the final seconds. It was a game that really would have helped the Hoosiers (now 3-2) in their quest to get back to a bowl game. IU will be favored next week against Rutgers, but may not be favored another time for the rest of the season. After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, Tom Allen may need to get to a bowl to keep his job. IU hasn’t won a bowl game since 1991 or finished with a winning record since 2007.

Purdue: After a 38-31 home loss to Minnesota, Purdue is off to a 1-3 start for the second straight season. The Boilermakers already had losses to Nevada and TCU on the year and had a bye before the Gophers came to town on Saturday. It did not go well as Tanner Morgan torched the Purdue secondary for 396 yards. Jeff Brohm got the Boilermakers to a bowl game in his first two seasons, but that may be a tough task this time around — especially after QB Elijah Sindelar and star receiver Rondale Moore were injured in Saturday’s loss.

UConn: What has happened to the Civil ConFLiCT, a once storied rivalry? In the rivalry’s latest edition, UCF scorched UConn 56-21. The Knights destroyed the Huskies in the first half and went into the break with a 42-0 lead. In the end, UCF hung 607 yards on the lowly UConn defense. UConn is now 5-23 in Randy Edsall’s second stint as head coach.

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