After engaging in an epic SEC heavyweight bout, where to rank Tennessee and Alabama is the biggest question facing voters in this week’s USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll.
No. 8 heading into Saturday, the Volunteers can make a case for taking over at No. 1 after earning the program’s first win against the Nick Saban-coached Crimson Tide. Tennessee is more likely to come in as high as No. 3 but no lower than No. 5, depending on how voters feel about Michigan and Clemson.
The previously top-ranked Tide will fall out of the top five but could land as high as No. 6 given the 52-49 loss and the program’s reputation. Alabama has much bigger issues, including penalties, special teams and a defense that surrendered the most points in a game since the Tide gave up 54 to Sewanee in 1907.
Alabama’s slide opens up No. 1 to Georgia and Ohio State. It’s a difficult choice: Georgia is the defending national champions and was No. 1 as recently as a few weeks ago, while the Buckeyes have been the most dominant team in the Bowl Subdivision since a sloppy opener against Notre Dame.
Here’s how the top 10 should look in this week’s Coaches Poll, which will be released in the early afternoon Sunday:
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1. Georgia (7-0)
Remember when Vanderbilt beat Georgia in 2016, during Kirby Smart’s first year as head coach? The past five meetings — the two didn’t meet during the 2020 season — have been more in line with history, and the past two matchups in particular. After handing the Commodores a 62-0 loss last September, the Bulldogs led 28-0 at halftime and cruised to a 55-0 win.
2. Ohio State (6-0)
The Buckeyes’ offense will be put to the test with games against Iowa and Penn State to end October, though Michigan’s running game gave the Nittany Lions a black eye in Saturday’s 41-17 win. Following the lead set by quarterback C.J. Stroud, OSU has been on a roll since the season opener against Notre Dame, exceeding 530 yards of offense four times and scoring at least 45 points in each of the last five games.
3. Michigan (7-0)
Penn State had given up 399 rushing yards all season before meeting the Wolverines, who went for 418 on the ground alone in the 24-point rout. While it may have been reasonable to ask where Michigan stood among the top playoff contenders after beating up on a run of overmatched teams, the win against Penn State settles any debate over the Wolverines’ ability to repeat as winners of the Big Ten and get back into the top four.
4. Tennessee (6-0)
Hendon Hooker will join Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud as the Heisman Trophy favorites entering the home stretch of the regular season. Josh Heupel is the obvious leader for national coach of the year thanks to his quick work remaking the Volunteers into a title contender in his second year. There’s more than enough praise to go around.
5. Clemson (7-0)
That’s seven wins in a row against Florida State. Competitive early, the Seminoles were unable to build on a strong start on the ground and were swamped late in the first half and early in the second. Tied at 14-14 with two minutes left in the second quarter, the Tigers scored 17 points in the next 130 seconds and then held off the Seminoles’ late run in the fourth quarter to win 34-28.
6. Alabama (6-1)
Many voters will look at Alabama’s record and the close loss at Tennessee and be tempted to rank the Tide higher, though putting them in front of Clemson is a much harder sell. What the loss does is force Alabama to win out in order to make the playoff, which would include a win against Georgia or in a rematch against the Volunteers to decide the SEC.
7. Mississippi (7-0)
Alabama and Georgia suck up all the oxygen in the SEC, leaving the Rebels unbeaten without much in the way of national fanfare or attention. Fair, unfair? Maybe a little bit of both. While the Rebels aren’t playing at the standard set by the Bulldogs, Ohio State and others, this is only the program’s second 7-0 start since 1962.
8. TCU (6-0)
The Horned Frogs are headed for a nice bump from last week’s No. 15 ranking after overcoming a series of double-digit deficits to stun Oklahoma State 43-40 in double overtime. Unbeaten midway through the program’s first year under Sonny Dykes, TCU has benefited enormously from quarterback Max Duggan’s return to the starting lineup after opening the year in a backup role. No. 9 might be selling the Horned Frogs short; they could land as No. 7.
9. Oregon (5-1)
The Ducks have recovered from a 46-point loss to Georgia in the season opener to loom right in the second tier of playoff contenders heading into next Saturday’s huge matchup with UCLA. Oregon’s offense has been filthy since being dominated by the Bulldogs, averaging 49.8 points and 552.4 yards per game in the last five.
10. UCLA (6-0)
A spot in the top 10 is probably overdue for the Bruins, who were unranked and ridiculously underrated in the preseason but have been tearing through teams since Week 1. Most recently, UCLA scored a combined 82 points in beating then-ranked opponents Washington and Utah. The program has turned a corner under coach Chip Kelly and could end up taking home the Pac-12 title.