We're already three weeks into the 2021 college football season.
While it may feel like the season started just days ago, most teams across the country are already a quarter of the way through their regular seasons. So we think it's a good time to rank the 10 conferences at the top level of college football.
This list is by no means final and definitive. We'll learn a lot about the strength of each conference as we get deeper into conference play. Consider this your preliminary power ranking of how all the conferences stack up against each other as October creeps closer.
10. Conference USA
Charlotte and UTSA have C-USA’s big wins of the season so far. The 49ers knocked off Duke in Week 1 while UTSA took down Illinois on the road.
Northern Illinois opened the season with a win at Georgia Tech and Western Michigan got a nice win over Pitt on Saturday. Toledo hung tough with Notre Dame in Week 2 but then lost to Colorado State in Week 3.
8. Sun Belt
No. 16 Coastal Carolina is 3-0 after beating Buffalo on Saturday and Louisiana moved to 2-1 with a 49-14 win over Ohio on Thursday. Georgia State got its first win of the season over Charlotte in Week 3 and Troy took down Southern Miss.
7. Mountain West
Saturday was OK. Fresno State upset No. 13 UCLA in an incredible fourth quarter that transpired while most people were sleeping. Nevada lost to Kansas State and Boise State fell to 1-2 after a 21-20 loss to Oklahoma State. The Broncos appeared to have recovered a fumble for a go-ahead TD late in the fourth quarter but since officials conferred and said the ball carrier was down, the TD didn’t count. On the plus side, San Diego State, Utah State, and Wyoming are all 3-0.
The AAC had a solid weekend that could have gone a little better. No. 8 Cincinnati went to Indiana and won while Memphis beat Mississippi State at home in a game that was heavily impacted by officiating errors. SMU needed a Hail Mary to beat Louisiana Tech and UCF lost a wild one to Louisville on Friday night that ended with an injury to QB Dillon Gabriel.
Clemson is the only team in the top 15 of the AP Top 25 and the Tigers have not been wholly convincing so far this season. The defense is stellar. Clemson is the only team in the country that hasn’t given up an offensive TD through the first three games. No. 21 North Carolina started the season in the top 10 and lost to Virginia Tech in Week 1. The Hokies lost to West Virginia on Saturday. NC State lost on the road to Mississippi State in Week 2 and No. 24 Miami will certainly not be ranked for a while after losing to Michigan State at home on Saturday. Pitt, meanwhile, lost to Western Michigan at home in Week 3 and Florida State is the only winless team in the conference.
It’s close between the ACC and the Pac-12. The Pac-12 may have a legitimate College Football Playoff challenger in No. 4 Oregon and there’s some depth behind the Ducks as No. 13 UCLA looks to be a program on the rise but lost late Saturday night to Fresno State. Much like the ACC, it’s hard to tell just how good everyone behind the top team is Washington lost to Montana in Week 1. Stanford was easily dispatched by Kansas State in Week 1 before beating USC in Week 2. Utah has lost to BYU and San Diego State. Colorado got shellacked by Minnesota on Saturday. Cal started the season 0-2. We think the Pac-12 is better right now, but that isn’t definite. Especially after watching UCLA. Like we said, it's really close.
3. Big 12
If No. 14 Iowa State had beaten Iowa at home in Week 2 then we could consider putting the Big 12 ahead of the Big Ten. Instead, the Big 12 is comfortably in the middle of the Power Five conferences with a team at the top in No. 3 Oklahoma had that has made its two games against FBS teams way closer than they should have been so far this season. The Cyclones are the clear No. 2 team in the conference and Kansas State has nice wins over Stanford and Nevada. West Virginia lost to Maryland in Week 1 before beating Virginia Tech on Saturday and Texas was blitzed by Arkansas in Week 2.
2. Big Ten
Who is the best team in the Big Ten? That’s a question with four possible answers. Preseason favorites No. 9 Ohio State lost to Oregon and were in a tough contest with Tulsa on Saturday before finally pulling away late. No. 5 Iowa has been phenomenal in its three games so far and No. 10 Penn State got a signature win against No. 22 Auburn on Saturday night. No. 25 Michigan is also lurking with a run game that is barreling over and through opponents. Michigan State is a nice surprise at 3-0 after beating Miami on the road and both Maryland and Rutgers are undefeated too.
The Big Ten and SEC should each have six teams ranked in Sunday’s AP Top 25. The SEC gets the slight edge here because we still think the conference is slightly deeper. No. 11 Florida proved it could hang with No. 1 Alabama on Saturday and No. 2 Georgia has an even stronger claim to No. 1 after easily dispatching South Carolina. No. 7 Texas A&M is currently considered the third-best team in the conference but we’re interested to see how QB Haynes King’s injury affects the Aggies. No. 17 Ole Miss is the surprise of the conference so far as the Rebels look to have a competent defense to go along with an offense that is living up to its explosive billing.
Here are this week's winners and losers.
Penn State: PSU started the 2020 season 0-5, but has now won seven consecutive games. Saturday night’s 28-20 thriller against Auburn was the latest. Auburn gave PSU a big test, but Sean Clifford made enough plays and the defense got the stops it needed to preserve a big victory. PSU is now 3-0 with wins over two ranked teams: No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 22 Auburn. That’s a heck of a way to start the season — especially with Ohio State struggling a bit.
Alabama: A win is a win. With the way some of the top teams in the country struggled on Saturday, Alabama will take a 31-29 road win over No. 11 Florida any day of the week. It’s one of those games where Nick Saban can reassure his team that it is not as good as everybody says it is. It will benefit the Crimson Tide in the long run, especially with back-to-back games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M coming in October.
BYU: The Cougars got another big home win with a 27-17 win over No. 19 Arizona State late Saturday night though QB Jaren Hall was injured late in the game. Hall got a big first down with less than two minutes left but landed hard on his left shoulder and was down for a moment. Baylor Romney came in to replace him and then threw a TD on third and goal with 1:19 to go to extend BYU's lead to two possessions. The BYU crowd caused Arizona State issues all night with multiple false start penalties. Thanks to a win over Utah last week, BYU has now beaten ranked teams on consecutive weeks for the first time ever.
Cincinnati: Things did not look good early on for Cincinnati on the road against Indiana, but UC was able to rally and turn a 14-0 second-quarter deficit into a 38-24 win. In 2020, Cincinnati did not have the chance to test itself against Power Five opponents. This year, the Bearcats have Indiana and Notre Dame on the road. One down, one to go. Cincinnati is now 3-0 with a bye week ahead. The much-awaited trip to South Bend comes the following week. Perhaps those will boost Cincy’s CFP resume in the long run.
Michigan State: Mel Tucker’s team has been awfully impressive through three weeks. On Saturday, the Spartans went down to Florida and improved to 3-0 by upsetting Miami, 38-17. The Spartans showed impressive team speed in the win, putting up 454 yards of offense. Kenneth Walker, the RB transfer from Wake Forest, continues to impress. With the 172 yards vs. Miami, Walker has 493 rushing yards in three games.
West Virginia: WVU almost blew it down the stretch, but managed to pull out a 27-21 win over No. 15 Virginia Tech. The Mountaineers were actually favored in the game so it wasn’t an upset, but it was still a good performance from Neal Brown’s program. WVU is now 3-0 on the year and could be ranked heading into Norman to face No. 3 Oklahoma next weekend.
Louisville: UL did not look good when it opened the season with a 43-24 loss to Ole Miss. Two weeks later, the Cardinals pulled out a 42-35 upset over UCF. The game had a crazy ending. UCF tied the score at 35-35 with 1:21 to go and then got the ball back after intercepting UL QB Malik Cunningham. UCF looked primed to win the game, only for Jaylin Alderman to pick off UCF QB Dillon Gabriel on the very next play and return it for the game-winning TD.
GAME-WINNING PICK-SIX WITH SECONDS LEFT 😱 pic.twitter.com/I0tgOYfk8B
— ESPN (@espn) September 18, 2021
USC QB Jaxson Dart: With starting QB Kedon Slovis injured and Washington State leading 14-0 late in the first half, things were looking bleak for USC. On the heels of a coach firing, it was fair to wonder if things were going to really start disintegrating. But then Jaxson Dart got hot. The freshman led the Trojans to 45 unanswered points, throwing for 391 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-14 win. That’s a heck of a college debut.
Ohio State RB TreVeyon Henderson: Ohio State’s offense looked sluggish in Saturday’s win over Tulsa other than Henderson. The freshman made his first career start and had a huge afternoon, going for 277 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. He’ll be one of the best backs in the country before long.
Fresno State QB Jake Haener: If you did not stay up well past 2 a.m. on the East Coast, you missed an incredibly gutsy performance from Jake Haener in Fresno's upset victory over UCLA. Haener led two scoring drives in the final three minutes, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Jalen Cropper with just 14 seconds left. Haener took so many hits that he was in obvious pain every time he threw a pass, but he still willed his team to victory.
— Mountain West (@MountainWest) September 19, 2021
Clemson: To say Clemson’s offense is struggling would be an understatement. The Tigers mustered only 284 yards and just 4.3 yards per play in an ugly 14-8 home win over Georgia Tech. Clemson had to stuff Georgia Tech on fourth-and-goal in the final minute to avoid GT potentially tying the score. This is a Georgia Tech team that lost to Northern Illinois.
Ohio State: Ohio State has a lot of issues to work through. After losing at home to Oregon last weekend, OSU sleep-walked through Saturday’s matchup with Tulsa. The Buckeyes eventually won 41-20, but that doesn’t reflect how close this game was. Tulsa actually had the ball with a chance to tie the score midway through the fourth quarter. C.J. Stroud struggled, passing for just 185 yards. The defense also allowed Tulsa to gain 487 yards. Yikes.
Pittsburgh: Pitt was a two-touchdown favorite, but lost at home to Western Michigan, 44-41. It was not a good performance. WMU put up 517 yards of offense and caused three Pitt turnovers in the upset victory. Afterward, WMU coach Tim Lester said he went back to his time as Syracuse’s offensive coordinator to study Pitt. It does not reflect positively on Pat Narduzzi, who is now 44-35 as Pitt’s head coach.
"I've watched that game three hundred times this week and where they're going to come and how they're going to fit and what our matchups are going to be and what variety of matchups we're going to need to keep the safety off balance."
— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) September 18, 2021
Colorado: Colorado nearly upset Texas A&M last week. This week, it got absolutely demolished at home by Minnesota, 30-0. In the loss, Colorado mustered only 63 yards of offense. Yes, you read that correctly. Colorado was 12-of-24 for 82 yards passing and had 21 rushing attempts for -19 yards (sacks included). That’s brutal.
Miami: The Week 1 blowout loss to Alabama was not a fair barometer for Miami. But a near-loss to Appalachian State and a 21-point home loss to Michigan State are. The Hurricanes are now 1-2 on the season, and have not looked like the ACC contender many expected they could be when the year began. The run game is really struggling and putting way too much pressure on D’Eriq King. He had 59 passing attempts against MSU.
Florida State: Things are not going well for Mike Norvell and Florida State. After losing to Jacksonville State as time expired last week, FSU lost 35-14 to Wake Forest on Saturday. The Seminoles had six turnovers in the loss — three lost fumbles and three interceptions. One of those lost fumbles came in the end zone. It was ugly all around. FSU is now 0-3 on the year.
Utah: What happened to Utah? This was supposed to be a Pac-12 South contender. Now the Utes are 1-2 with losses to BYU and San Diego State. Utah trailed SDSU 24-10 late in the fourth, but backup QB Cameron Rising led a comeback that forced overtime. In the end, the Utes would lose 33-31 in triple-overtime. The offense has a ton of issues to sort out if Utah wants to compete in the Pac-12.
Northwestern: The Wildcats have very clearly taken a big step back. Northwestern won the Big Ten West in 2020, but is 1-2 to open the season with losses to Michigan State and Duke. On Saturday, Duke jumped out to a 27-0 first-half lead. Northwestern would make things respectable in the second half (the game finished 30-23), but it was not a promising performance from the defense. Duke had 558 yards of offense.
Marshall: Marshall led East Carolina 38-21 midway through the fourth quarter and lost. ECU scored 21 points in the final 7:31 and won 42-38. The comeback included a recovered onside kick by the Pirates. ECU went ahead with 55 seconds remaining and sealed the upset with an interception of Marshall QB Grant Wells. That’s a brutal one for first-year Marshall coach Charles Huff.
Toledo: Speaking of brutal, Toledo lost 22-6 to Colorado State. The Rockets nearly upset Notre Dame on the road last week and then proceeded to lose at home to CSU, a team with losses to South Dakota State and Vanderbilt. Toledo had just 21 rushing yards in the loss. Ugly.