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    Auerbach’s Top 10 after Week 10: Slow starts, upsets and chaos for college football’s best

    Fans stormed the field in South Bend and Baton Rouge on Saturday night, cathartic moments of celebration befitting a pair of upsets over Clemson and Alabama. Three of the top six teams in the first set of College Football Playoff rankings lost, the kind of chaos we live for on a Saturday night in November. Now, with Clemson and Alabama all but assuredly out of the CFP picture, the race is becoming clearer and more crowded at the same time. So, let’s get to ranking!

    Each Saturday night throughout the college football season, I’ll rank the 10 best teams in the country. The order will fluctuate week to week based on new results, player availability and whatever else impacts this chaotic sport. The final spot each week will go to a team that may not actually be the 10th best team in the country but still deserves a little shine.

    One of the most popular storylines of the season so far, perpetuated by many including yours truly, has been the lack of ultra-dominant teams at the top of the sport. Anticipation surrounding the release of the first College Football Playoff rankings felt higher than usual because three teams had legitimate cases for No. 1.

    About that. The defending national champions reminded us that despite losing 15 players to the NFL in one history-making draft class, they are still really good at this whole football thing. Georgia’s defense was tough, physical and dominant, shutting down the nation’s most prolific offense in a 27-13 win against Tennessee. The Vols were held to 289 total yards of offense, 264 below their season average, and converted just 14.3 percent of their third downs. Hendon Hooker was pressured and hit on nearly every play, and when he did get some time, he overthrew deep balls we’d seen him deliver perfectly every week prior to this one.

    Hooker was outdueled by Stetson Bennett, another Heisman hopeful, who completed 17 of 25 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns, taking advantage of the Tennessee secondary with on-target throws to all levels, highlighted by a 37-yard beauty to Ladd McConkey in the first quarter.

    The top four won’t be set for another month, but it certainly feels safe to pencil the Bulldogs into the bracket. Actually, you can write them in with pen.

    Rutgers has played Michigan well for a half in three consecutive meetings now. But the Wolverines have prevailed each time, and on Saturday, they scored 21 points in a span of just two minutes to flip the game on its head in the third quarter. Two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, more than made up for a couple of uncharacteristic Michigan special team miscues in a 52-17 win in Piscataway.

    Despite trailing by three at the break, Michigan never really felt out of control of this game. The Wolverines ran the ball effectively, J.J. McCarthy missed on a few passes but made no critical mistakes, and Michigan dominated in time of possession. Rutgers stayed in the game for as long as it did thanks to a punt-block touchdown and a couple of surprising deep balls by the Scarlet Knights’ quarterback of the future, Gavin Wimsatt. The Wolverines outscored Rutgers 38-0 after halftime, and their defense held the Scarlet Knights to 180 yards in total — only 14 on the ground.

    Michigan is the best and most complete team in the Big Ten right now.

    The Buckeyes have dropped a couple of spots in these rankings, and they’re lucky to only have fallen this far. They have not played well for a full game since a rout of Michigan State four weeks ago, when C.J. Stroud threw more touchdown passes than incompletions and the run game accounted for 237 yards. In the next three games against Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern, Stroud has had stretches in which he’s struggled as a passer. Though to be fair, anyone would have struggled to throw the ball through the wind and rain in Evanston on Saturday, and Buckeyes receivers contributed some bad drops.

    I’d be inclined to chalk Ohio State’s 21-7 slog of a win over Northwestern up to weather alone if it weren’t such a bad Northwestern team on the other side of the field. The Wildcats have struggled mightily on both sides of the ball since returning from their season-opening win over Nebraska in Ireland. But Ohio State could not get its shorthanded running back rotation going early, relying on Stroud’s legs and a second-half surge from Miyan Williams to pull away. And the Buckeyes failed to convert their first eight third downs (they finished 4 of 15), while allowing the beleaguered Northwestern offense to convert 9 of 20 itself. The Wildcats outgained the Buckeyes’ season-low 283 total yards of offense and possessed the ball for 13 more minutes of game time. Northwestern was far more comfortable than its opponent in an ugly, weather-impacted game.

    The Buckeyes’ defense had seemed much improved, but it looked fairly pedestrian against the 10th-best offense in the Big Ten. This team needs to get better and more consistent fast if it wants to beat its archrival at the end of the month. Otherwise, Michigan can make Ohio State one-dimensional, control the trenches and win The Game comfortably for a second year in a row.

    4. Tennessee (8-1)

    The Vols came crashing back to Earth after just four days atop the CFP rankings. Their offense that looks pretty great against most defenses, but Georgia is not most defenses. Tennessee was held to season-lows in just about every major offensive category during a 27-13 loss that was not that close.

    Georgia proved to be a terrible matchup for the Vols because of the talent and depth across all levels of its defense and Bennett’s ability to stretch the field vertically. The question had lingered all season whether that area would cost Tennessee in a big moment, and it did.

    I don’t know if that loss will knock the Vols out of the Playoff picture; as Saturday’s action showed, you can’t really assume anyone’s going to win out at this point in the season. I’m keeping the Vols as high as they are now because I’d still pick them if they played any of the teams below them on this list at a neutral site next Saturday.

    There were two results on Saturday with significant implications for the Ducks. They took care of business against Colorado, 49-10, for their eighth consecutive win and have scored 40 or more points in every game since the season opener. And speaking of that season opener … Georgia’s win over Tennessee confirmed the suspicions of many that the Bulldogs very good, especially at home and in pseudo-home environments. Perhaps their dominant wins against elite competition say more about Georgia than it does about Tennessee and Oregon.

    Well, that 49-3 Week 1 loss may still say something about Oregon’s pass defense and pass rush. Keep an eye on that as the Pac-12 race hits the home stretch, but I still think the Ducks are the best team in the league right now.

    6. TCU (9-0)

    All hail the Hypnotoad. The Horned Frogs might actually be the most consistent team in the country. We know they’re going to fall behind at some point, and we also know they’re going to come all the way back before pulling away. TCU has won each of its last three games by double-digits — after trailing by 11 (to Kansas State, twice), by 7 (to West Virginia) and by 4 (to Texas Tech on Saturday). Max Duggan went from meh to great in what felt like an instant in Saturday’s 34-24 win against the Red Raiders, even without banged-up top receiver Quentin Johnston. The Horned Frogs have trailed in the second half in four of their six Big 12 games.

    The selection committee held TCU’s close calls against it in the first set of CFP rankings last week. Selection committee chair Boo Corrigan specifically said the Horned Frogs have not controlled games throughout, falling behind in a lot of their matchups. It’s an odd justification that was only used for TCU in this year’s batch of top-four hopefuls. Alabama had trailed and nearly lost to Texas. Clemson had slogged its way through multiple games and might have lost to Syracuse a few weeks ago had it not changed quarterbacks. Yet only the Horned Frogs got dinged.

    We’ve had TCU ranked behind one-loss teams for a few weeks, and we won’t apologize for that. (We also don’t get to determine CFP spots, despite our best efforts.) The Horned Frogs are entertaining, and if they keep winning — no matter how they do it — they should demand serious CFP consideration.

    Have no fear about this particular ranking, either. A win over Texas next Saturday night, and TCU will slide right up into my top four.

    7. LSU (7-2)

    I’ll admit that I put on the tin foil hat on Tuesday night with those who found it awfully convenient for the selection committee to slot LSU in at No. 10 ahead of a primetime matchup with Alabama. But the committee clearly believed in Jayden Daniels’ development and the growth within Brian Kelly’s first season. And Kelly can really coach, as we all saw Saturday night in a defining 32-31 victory over Crimson Tide, won on a gutsy two-point conversion call in overtime.

    LSU is enjoying perhaps the most impressive turnaround in the FBS from Week 1 to Week 10. The Tigers’ one-point loss to Florida State looks better now that the Seminoles are 6-3 clearly improved. The Tigers’ only other loss was a lopsided loss to Tennessee, one of the best teams in college football. Also not a bad loss.

    No two-loss team has ever made the CFP, and LSU would almost assuredly need to win an SEC championship to break that streak. But this is a weird sport and it’s been a strange season, so never say never.

    8. USC (8-1)

    Each weekend, the Trojans are good for 1) at least one phenomenal Caleb Williams moment and 2) at least one takeaway. Both arrived well before halftime in Saturday’s 41-35 win over Cal. Williams is a walking highlight reel in most games, but have Heisman Trophy voters been tuning in? I sure hope so.

    I’m all-in on Williams and far less in on this USC defense. There have been too many unnecessarily close games in which not-great opponents found ways to gash this Trojan defense. Cal arrived with an offense averaging 5.50 yards per play, 86th in the FBS, and finished with 469 total yards of offense, converting more than 50 percent of its third-down attempts.

    Yes, the Trojans’ defense forces a lot of turnovers. But is it a defense you would rely upon to win a Pac-12 title? Or to hang with a legitimate CFP contender? I am not sure. I suppose we’ll get some answers in two weeks when USC takes on UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

    9. UCLA (8-1)

    Welcome back to the Top 10, Bruins. I’ve said this a lot this season, but the top half of the Pac-12 is stronger than it’s been in years. And USC and UCLA are on a collision course, with the crosstown rivals set to square off on Nov. 19. It’s very possible both will have just one loss entering that game.

    The Bruins rushed for 403(!) yards on 41 carries in a 50-36 win over Arizona State late Saturday night, which means UCLA averaged nearly a first down per carry even without leading rusher Zach Charbonnet available. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson contributed 120 of those rushing yards and accounted for 289 total yards, four total touchdowns and nine different plays of at least 15 yards. He’s a stud.

    Defensively, I have similar questions to the ones I posed to USC. But the good news is, these offenses will decide it all on the field soon.

    The Tar Heels have quietly strung together a very nice season and gotten themselves to the doorstep of the ACC championship game. UNC can clinch the Coastal Division with a win or a Duke loss next weekend. That’s pretty astonishing for a program that had been largely written off after a couple of disconcerting defensive performances, most notably a 40-point fourth quarter allowed to App State in Week 2 and the 576-yard offensive output by Notre Dame in Week 4.

    But the Heels have Drake Maye, who is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He has thrown for 2,964 yards through nine games with a 31-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. For what it’s worth, this was the portion of the season in which Kenny Pickett really started to gain Heisman Trophy momentum a year ago. Just sayin’.

    (Photo of C.J. Stroud: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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