AP Top 25 Reality Check: The top tier of teams in poll widens as points gap between them shrinks

Florida State wide receiver Keon Coleman (4) catches a pass for a touchdown while covered by Clemson cornerback Jeadyn Lukus (10) during overtime in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

The top tier of The Associated Press college football poll is getting crowded.

Georgia remains a clear No. 1 in the AP Top 25. The two-time defending national champions have not budged since last season, a streak of 15 straight polls. The Bulldogs received 55 first-place votes this week.

Five other teams split the remaining eight first-place votes. No. 2 Michigan got one; No. 3 Texas two; No. 4 Ohio State had one; No. 5 Florida State got three; and No. 7 Washington one.

That’s the most teams with a first-place vote during the regular season since November 2015.

The teams in the top five are also tightening by total poll points, with No. 2 and No. 5 separated by a season-low 79. Washington’s 1,228 points are the most by a team ranked seventh this season.

It might be too early to draw conclusions about this, but it does seem like the band of teams with a chance to contend for a national title is wider.

To use another barometer, ESPN’s SP+ — which is a forward-looking metric — has the top-10 teams in the country far more bunched after four weeks of the regular season than it did in the preseason.

Before the games kicked off, there was a large gulf between the top four (Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama) and the rest of the country.

Georgia, of course, could very well be a tier of one. But the Bulldogs have played only one team that could be considered a challenge, and they trailed at halftime to South Carolina before winning by 10.

With such a small sample size, the Bulldogs can get the benefit of the doubt while also being TBD for overall quality.

Ranking the very best teams is getting tougher for voters, so Reality Check will try not to be too judgmental.

No. 1 Georgia (4-0)

Next: at Auburn, Saturday.

Reality check: A week after Reality Check suggested getting Brock Bowers more involved, the preseason All-America tight end broke out with nine catches for 121 yards and two TDs vs. UAB. Genius!

Ranked: Just right, but disagreeing is acceptable.

No. 2 Michigan (4-0)

Next: at Nebraska, Saturday.

Reality check: Wolverines are committed to staying unbeaten and untested while playing as little football as possible. Michigan is averaging 57.8 plays per game, 119th in the country and third-fewest among Power Five teams.

Ranked: Too high.

No. 3 Texas (4-0)

Next: vs. No. 24 Kansas, Saturday.

Reality check: Improvement of the Longhorns’ defense since late last season has gone a little overlooked. Texas has nine straight games without allowing 30 or more points, and it starts up front with 360-pound DT T’vondre Sweat.

Ranked: Too low.

No. 4 Ohio State (4-0)

Next: vs. Maryland, Oct. 7.

Reality check: Lots of talk about toughness and, oddly, Lou Holtz after the Buckeyes beat Notre Dame. That’s a complicated discussion, not entirely fair to Ryan Day or his team, but also not entirely resolved by scoring a 1-yard TD through a hole left vacant by coaching mismanagement. Still, darn fine victory.

Ranked: Too low.

No. 5 Florida State (4-0)

Next: vs. Virginia Tech, Oct. 7.

Reality check: Seminoles’ defense still seems not quite as good as the sum of the parts, but the athleticism and playmakers balances out some of the down-to-down inefficiencies.

Ranked: Too low.

No. 6 Penn State (4-0)

Next: at Northwestern, Saturday

Reality check: Nittany Lions have been efficient and mistake-free on offense, the only team in the country without a turnover. They need to find some explosiveness, because at some point the turnovers are going to appear and the defense will be facing more threatening offenses than it has so far.

Ranked: About right.

No. 7 Washington (4-0)

Next: at Arizona, Saturday.

Reality check: If it feels as if the Huskies are leading 31-6 in the second quarter every week — as they were against Cal — it is because they sort of are: Washington has outscored opponents 130-27 in the first half.

Ranked: Too low.

No. 8 Southern California (4-0)

Next: at Colorado, Saturday.

Reality check: The defense is better. It really is. The Trojans rank 61st in the country in yards per play allowed after being 124th last year. Still, they are 102nd in plays of 20 yards or more allowed. Missed tackles and breakdowns are still an issue.

Ranked: Too high.

No. 9 Oregon (4-0)

Next: at Stanford, Saturday.

Reality check: The Ducks have the best combination of offensive and defensive lines in the Pac-12.

Ranked: Too low.

No. 10 Utah (4-0)

Next: at No. 19 Oregon State, Friday.

Reality check: For all the great work the Utes have done without QB Cam Rising, it’s now to the point where it is reasonable to wonder how much he will be able to boost the offense when he does return.

Ranked: Too low.

No. 11 Notre Dame (4-1)

Next: at No. 17 Duke, Saturday.

Reality check: Having 10 players on the field to defend the deciding plays vs. Ohio State was inexcusable, and there were a couple of other game-management decisions down the stretch that coach Marcus Freeman probably wants back. The Irish might be good enough for the gaffes not to define this season.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 12 Alabama (3-1)

Next: at Mississippi State, Saturday.

Reality check: Look around at the rest of the SEC West and then ask yourself why the Crimson Tide won’t win the division.

Ranked: A little high.

No. 13 LSU (3-1)

Next: at No. 20 Mississippi, Saturday.

Reality check: WR Brian Thomas Jr. already has surpassed his season-high with 413 yards receiving, giving the Tigers a formidable complement to star Malik Nabers.

Ranked: About right.

No. 14 Oklahoma (4-0)

Next: vs. Iowa State, Saturday.

Reality check: The Sooners’ defense has yet to allow an opponent more than 5 yards per play in a game. It’s been a lot better than last year, but probably should withhold judgment until OU plays Texas in two weeks.

Ranked: Little low.

No. 15 North Carolina (4-0)

Next: vs. Syracuse, Oct. 7.

Reality check: Even with Clemson’s early stumbles, there is the makings of an interesting ACC race developing as the Tar Heels continue to play solid defense to go along with an elite offense led by QB Drake Maye. Don’t assume this is Florida State’s conference.

Ranked: A touch high.

No. 16 Washington State (4-0)

Next: at UCLA, Oct. 7.

Reality check: Huskies’ trio of star receivers gets a lot of attention, but the Cougars’ combo of Lincoln Victor and Josh Kelly is impressive, too, with eight combined touchdowns.

Ranked: Too low.

No. 17 Duke (4-0)

Next: vs. No. 11 Notre Dame, Saturday.

Reality check: The Blue Devils are not just off to one of the best starts in program history, they are burying opponents. Duke is tied for seventh in the country in margin of victory at 26.3 points per game, just behind Georgia (26.7).

Ranked: Just right.

No. 18 Miami (4-0)

Next: vs. Georgia Tech, Oct. 7.

Reality check: Proclaiming the Hurricanes back has burned folks before. No reason to go there, but this team might be low-key really good. Oct. 14 at North Carolina will be interesting.

Ranked: This is fine.

No. 19 Oregon State (3-1)

Next: vs. No. 10 Utah, Friday.

Reality check: Beavers got blitzed by Cameron Ward and Wazzu and then clawed their way back to respectable. That rebuilt secondary that looked solid through three weeks might have a hard time holding up to Pac-12-level passing games. Then again, that’s a challenge for most teams.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 20 Mississippi (3-1)

Next: vs. No. 13 LSU, Saturday.

Reality check: The Alabama game had an if-not-now-when feel to it for Lane Kiffin’s Rebels. Ole Miss might not be ranked much longer.

Ranked: Too high.

No. 21 Tennessee (3-1)

Next: vs. South Carolina, Saturday.

Reality check: The Vols have taken care of business in their nonconference, which isn’t meaningless. They’ll need to do more than that to wash off that Florida loss.

Ranked: Too high.

No. 22 Florida (3-1)

Next: at Kentucky, Saturday.

Reality check: After years of dominance in the rivalry, the Kentucky game has become a barometer for the Gators. Which way is this season heading?

Ranked: Too high.

No. 23 Missouri (4-0)

Next: at Vanderbilt, Saturday.

Reality check: Welcome to the Luther Burden III breakout season. The second-year former five-star receiver has topped 100 yards each of the last three games, including 10 catches for 177 yards against Memphis.

Ranked: Little low.

No. 24 Kansas (4-0)

Next: at No. 3 Texas, Saturday.

Reality check: Jayhawks are better than last season, when their 4-0 start felt fortunate. Defense is still way behind the offense, but it’s not terrible like last year’s version.

Ranked: About right.

No. 25 Fresno State (4-0)

Next: vs. Nevada, Saturday.

Reality check: Coach Jeff Tedford has a way with quarterbacks. UCF transfer Mike Keene has been the Mountain West’s best.

Ranked: This is fine.


Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com


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