The Football Informant: The elites stand and deliver

This week in college football was tumultuous, unpredictable, and thrilling—in other words, it was all of the reasons why the sport is great. Contenders were validated, pretenders revealed, and the national title picture is becoming clearer. Florida State’s expected collapse came in spectacular fashion, as the Seminoles inexplicably blew a 16-0 halftime lead, getting shut out in the second half against North Carolina State in a one-point loss that should end FSU’s title hopes. On the other hand, South Carolina used a spectacular first quarter to lay waste to fifth-ranked Georgia, validating the Gamecocks’ national title campaign. After six weeks, we have finally seen enough football to reasonably select the best teams in football. With much ado, here is the inaugural 2012 Football Informant Top Five:

1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide have been utterly dominant, admittedly against less-than-ideal competition, but the Tide may not be the invincible juggernaut they seem to be. But this team is really, really good. Down year or not, a 52-0 victory at Arkansas is jaw-dropping. The Tide still have to go through LSU and the SEC East champion, however, and they will need to prove that their lofty position is deserved.

2. Oregon: This is another team that has held lesser opposition, and the Ducks appear more vulnerable than the Tide, but they have betrayed few signs of weakness thus far. No one has been able to slow their relentless offensive attack, and the defense has been pulling its weight. With USC weaker than expected, the Ducks should be able to roll to a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title.

3. South Carolina: Here we depart from transcendent, unchallenged teams to address one that has faced and effectively dealt with adversity. The Gamecocks ground out a tough opening win against sneaky-good Vanderbilt, then rallied after a first-half setback against Kentucky. However, in the big games, Carolina has shined, locking down Missouri and then nearly shutting out Georgia to take command of the SEC East. With a win over Florida, the Gamecocks can decide the SEC East.. In between, there lies a trip to LSU that means little in the division race but is crucial for Carolina’s national title hopes.

4. Kansas State: The Wildcats have made themselves out to be one of the best teams in the Big 12, behind a lockdown defense and the capable guidance of quarterback Collin Klein. K-State can brag about the big-time victory at Oklahoma, and the Wildcats have the opportunity to take command of the Big 12 in two weeks when they travel to West Virginia.

5. West Virginia: Serious questions remain about the Mountaineers’ defense, even after it came through late in locking down Texas to preserve a narrow road win. However, there are few indications that the offense, spectacularly led by Heisman-frontrunner Geno Smith, cannot simply outscore any efforts the opposition might make. This is a team that has won a game 70-63 this season, and is perfectly happy to do so. It will be very entertaining when Kansas State comes to visit.

These are the teams that currently stand at the head of the pack in the national title hunt, and odds are, one of them will finish the season holding the crystal ball. Other contenders remain, but all are flawed enough that they will be unlikely to make it through the season undamaged. As previously mentioned, Florida State choked away its chances with an indefensible loss to NC State. LSU and Oklahoma can still get back in the hunt, as their losses were less damaging, but overall they need a lot of things to go right. USC is a longer shot, as Stanford is mediocre, but two victories over Oregon should silence doubters. Notre Dame has a reasonable schedule with a few winnable marquee games, and should the Irish go unbeaten, they will almost assuredly reach the championship, deserving or not. However, I am going to suggest that the national champion, and most likely the team they defeat, will come from the above list of contenders.

The conference races are unpredictable, and new challengers abound. Duke, for instance, has opened a surprising 5-1 and can almost be considered a favorite to win its division in the weak ACC. Florida State should still be fine, but another loss allows Clemson back into the hunt. The Big Ten is chaotic, as Ohio State is easily the best team despite being ineligible for the title. Penn State finds itself leading the absurdly-named Leaders Division, while Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska have disappointed in the Legends. Stay tuned, anything could happen here. The Big 12 should come down to Kansas State-West Virginia, as predicted by absolutely no one before the season. Oregon appears to have the PAC-12 to itself, but Oregon State remains a wild-card that could wind up in the national title race by season’s end. In the SEC, the West still belongs to the LSU-‘Bama winner, but South Carolina has set itself up nicely for a second East title in three years with a win over Florida. The season is just starting to round into shape, and with title contenders as diverse as West Virginia and Alabama, it should be very entertaining at the finish.

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