Winners and Losers: Ranking college football conferences from worst to best

The 2022 college football season is a month old.

Yep, Week 4 was the final weekend of September as most teams are now a third of the way through their regular seasons. With October approaching, there’s no better time to see how the 10 conferences at the top level of college football stack up to one another. And, spoiler alert, the SEC is at No. 1.

10. MAC

The biggest two wins for the MAC so far are Bowling Green’s upset of Marshall after the Thundering Herd beat Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan’s win over Arizona State that cost Herm Edwards his job. The MAC doesn’t look to have a clear frontrunner just yet and no team is over .500 thanks to the buy games that its teams frontload on their schedules against Power Five opponents. We’re still looking forward to November midweek MACtion, however.

9. Conference USA

This is a conference that’s feeling the sting of realignment with Marshall now in the Sun Belt and others set to leave after the end of this football season. Middle Tennessee got the C-USA win of the season with its victory over Miami on Saturday and UTSA has a win over Army and a close loss to Houston. UTEP knocked off a reeling Boise State on Friday night and Western Kentucky hasn’t scored fewer than 30 points since 2020.

8. Mountain West

Wyoming and Air Force appear to be the top teams in the conference and the Cowboys beat the Falcons in Week 3. Boise State has struggled through the first four weeks of the season and has losses to Oregon State and UTEP. Colorado State could easily be the worst team at the top level of college football at 0-4 and Utah State lost by 28 to Weber State after getting blown out by Alabama. San Diego State also seems to be worse than it has been in recent years and Fresno State sits at 1-2 after a loss to USC that saw QB Jake Haener get carted off with an ankle injury.

7. Sun Belt

The Sun Belt is truly the Fun Belt this year. Marshall has the win over Notre Dame, James Madison is 3-0 in its first season at the top level of college football and Georgia Southern’s win over Nebraska led to Scott Frost’s firing. Coastal Carolina is rolling along at 4-0 and we can’t forget App State as the Mountaineers are incapable of playing a normal football game. App State scored 40 in the fourth quarter in a 63-61 loss to North Carolina, beat Texas A&M, beat Troy on a Hail Mary and then gave up 29 unanswered points to James Madison to lose on Saturday.

6. American

The AAC is still the top Group of Five conference and its champion will likely head to a New Year’s Six Bowl game. Cincinnati has three convincing wins after losing by seven to Arkansas in Week 1 and beat Indiana by 21 on Saturday. UCF is 3-1 and Tulane knocked off Kansas State in Week 3. Houston is also one of the better two-loss teams outside the Power Five as its defeats have come at the hands of Texas Tech and Kansas. SMU may also be better than its 2-2 record after losing by a TD to TCU on Saturday. The AAC looks pretty deep, even if Cincinnati and UCF look to be at the top of the heap.

5. ACC

If Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei plays like he did against Wake Forest on Saturday then the No. 5 Tigers are a legitimate playoff threat. The No. 21 Demon Deacons showed they weren’t a one-hit wonder in 2021 in that overtime loss and simply have the misfortune of being in the same division as the Tigers. Otherwise we could see this matchup again in the ACC championship game. No. 12 NC State is also undefeated and part of the Atlantic division. The Coastal, meanwhile, is simply mediocre. Virginia Tech lost to West Virginia at home on Thursday, Miami was embarrassed by Middle Tennessee and Virginia lost at 4-0 Syracuse (another member of the Atlantic) on Friday night. Pitt looks to be the best team in the Coastal.

4. Pac-12

Outside of a Colorado team that looks to be the worst Power Five team in the country, the Pac-12 is a solid conference. Oregon scored a fantastic comeback win at a feisty Washington State team on Saturday and Washington is much improved over 2021. Utah is still a potential 10-win team despite its Week 1 loss to Florida and even Arizona looks a bit better than it was a year ago when it found itself in Colorado’s position. While the Pac-12 may not end the season with a team in playoff contention, it should still have plenty of teams ranked in the Top 25.

3. Big 12

Is the Big 12 closer to second than it is to fourth? Oklahoma and Oklahoma State appear to be the class of the conference so far but there are nine fanbases that could legitimately talk themselves into eight-win seasons. And that includes Kansas fans after the Jayhawks moved to 4-0 with a win over Duke. The entire Big 12 won’t finish above .500, of course, but this is a deep conference that could conceivably have every team thinking about bowl eligibility over the final few weeks of the season. Had Baylor beaten BYU in Week 2, we’d be seriously considering the Big 12 at No. 2.

2. Big Ten

The Big Ten gets the edge over the Big 12 because Ohio State and Michigan feel like stronger national title contenders than both Oklahoma schools at the moment. Throw in a Penn State team that’s probably better than the third-best team in the Big 12 and the Big Ten gets the edge even if the middle of the Big 12 is better overall. Minnesota is probably the No. 4 team in the conference after its thrashing of Michigan State on Saturday and after that, it’s anyone’s guess how to rank the rest of the teams in the conference through Nebraska at No. 14. Sorry Huskers, you’re at 1-3 and already have a conference loss.

1. SEC

Georgia and Alabama are deserving of their Nos. 1 and 2 rankings, respectively, while three other teams entered Week 4 in the top 11. That included Tennessee, which beat No. 20 Florida for just the second time in the last 18 seasons on Saturday. No. 16 Ole Miss looks like a dangerous matchup for anyone in the SEC West and Mississippi State will also likely score an upset or two along the way this season. The SEC will once again have 10 or 11 bowl-eligible teams in 2022 and if you’re able to figure out the order of six teams in the SEC West behind Alabama, you’re smarter than we are.

– Nick Bromberg

Here are this week’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

Clemson: Clemson has been carried by its defense for a long time. On Saturday against Wake Forest, however, it was the offense that came through. The Tigers put up 559 yards of offense in a 51-45 overtime victory in Winston-Salem with much-maligned quarterback DJ Uiagalelei leading the way. Uiagalelei threw for 371 yards and five touchdowns while adding 52 yards on the ground. Will Shipley added 104 rushing yards in the win, but for Uiagalelei it was his best performance since he threw for 439 yards on the road against Notre Dame as a true freshman. With the win, the Tigers are now 4-0 with NC State coming to town next week.

Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (5) looks to pass against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (5) looks to pass against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (5) looks to pass against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Kansas: It’s time to rank Kansas. The Jayhawks are 4-0 after beating Duke 35-27 on Saturday. Jalon Daniels had a huge day for KU, throwing for 324 yards, rushing for 83 yards and combining for five touchdowns. The Jayhawks had 528 yards of offense and are 4-0 to start a season for the first time since 2009. On top of that, this is the first time KU has reached four wins in a season since 2009. Kansas hasn’t had a winning season since 2008.

Tennessee: For just the second time in 18 tries, Tennessee beat Florida. It was a 38-33 decision in front of a raucous crowd in Knoxville and it wasn’t as close as the final score may indicate. The Vols thoroughly outplayed the Gators to improve to 4-0. Hendon Hooker was the best player on the field. He threw for 349 yards and two touchdowns and added 112 yards and a score on the ground. Tennessee now enters a bye week before a trip to LSU and a visit from Alabama in its next two games. Can the Vols contend for an SEC title?

Michigan RB Blake Corum: After three blowout wins to start the season, Michigan found itself in a battle with Maryland. And the Wolverines may not have won without Blake Corum. The veteran running back had a huge day, going for a career-high 243 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. Corum broke off a 33-yard touchdown run on fourth down to give Michigan a lead right before halftime and then had a 47-yard score to put the game away late in the fourth quarter in Michigan’s 34-27 victory.

Oregon QB Bo Nix: Bo Nix gets a lot of flak for his volatile play at Auburn, but he deserves a lot of credit for his performance on Saturday. Now the starter at Oregon, Nix overcame an early pick-six to lead the Ducks on an epic come-from-behind road win over Washington State. Nix threw for 428 yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead 50-yarder in the final minutes. Nix struggled vs. some SEC defenses but has the chance to really thrive in the Pac-12.

Texas Tech: TTU beat Texas in Lubbock for the first time in 14 years. The Red Raiders trailed the Longhorns 31-17 late in the third quarter, but TTU came back to tie the score at 31-31 midway through the fourth. The teams would trade field goals in the final minute to send the game to overtime. That’s when the TTU defense forced Texas star Bijan Robinson to fumble and kicked the game-winning field goal to pull off the upset. Texas Tech is off to a 3-1 start in its first season under Joey Maguire and looks like a team capable of making some noise in the Big 12.

Texas Tech fans celebrate on the field after an NCAA college football game against Texas, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Brad Tollefson)Texas Tech fans celebrate on the field after an NCAA college football game against Texas, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Brad Tollefson)

Texas Tech fans celebrate on the field after an NCAA college football game against Texas, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Brad Tollefson)

TCU: Sonny Dykes’ new team beat Sonny Dykes’ old team. Dykes is in his first season at TCU after a four-year stint at SMU and the Horned Frogs were able to pull out a 42-34 road win over the Mustangs on Saturday. Max Duggan threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns in the win while Kendre Miller rushed for 142 yards. TCU is now off to a 3-0 start with Big 12 play on the horizon. First up on the conference schedule is Oklahoma at home next Saturday.

James Madison: James Madison has its first Sun Belt victory and got it in dramatic fashion. JMU trailed Appalachian State 28-3 late in the first half but managed to score the game’s final 29 points en route to a 32-28 upset. That performance included a second-half shutout of the Mountaineers, who beat Texas A&M earlier this season. While App State fell to 2-2, JMU is now 3-0 to begin its first season at the FBS level.

Kent State: Georgia played its closest regular season game since its 10-3 season-opening win over Clemson last year. It came against Kent State. Yes, really. The Golden Flashes hung tough against the No. 1 team in the country and only lost 39-22. Georgia cruised through the regular season and had one other 17-point win last year after the opener, but Kentucky scored with four seconds remaining to make that 30-13 score a little more respectable. Kent State was actually within 10 points in the fourth quarter. Kent State played three Power Five road games in the non-conference schedule — Washington, Oklahoma and Georgia. The Golden Flashes should enter MAC play with some confidence.

LOSERS

Miami: Mario Cristobal was supposed to take Miami to the next level, not lose to Conference USA teams at home. After falling to beat Texas A&M last week, the Hurricanes were embarrassed 45-31 by Middle Tennessee. A MTSU offense that was averaging only 311 yards per game put up a whopping 507 yards in the win, including 408 yards through the air. MTSU scored on passing touchdowns of 71, 69 and 98 yards, frequently running by the Miami secondary. The Miami offense played terribly too as Tyler Van Dyke was benched and the Hurricanes had only 68 rushing yards. It was an ugly day for Cristobal’s program.

Middle Tennessee defensive tackle Zaylin Wood (7) celebrates with cornerback Decorian Patterson (33) after Wood intercepted the ball and scored against Miami, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)Middle Tennessee defensive tackle Zaylin Wood (7) celebrates with cornerback Decorian Patterson (33) after Wood intercepted the ball and scored against Miami, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Middle Tennessee defensive tackle Zaylin Wood (7) celebrates with cornerback Decorian Patterson (33) after Wood intercepted the ball and scored against Miami, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Boise State: Boise State has serious problems on offense. The Broncos were trounced 27-10 by UTEP on Friday night and mustered only 177 yards in the loss. Hank Bachmeier completed 13 of 34 passes for just 93 yards while the Broncos rushed for only 84 yards. UTEP, meanwhile, completely controlled the clock, finishing the game with more than 40 minutes of possession. The Miners have losses to North Texas and New Mexico this season yet were able to dominate Boise State, who dropped to 2-2 with the loss. That’s not a good sign for Andy Avalos, who fired offensive coordinator Tim Plough on Saturday.

Michigan State: Speaking of bad offenses, Michigan State got destroyed at home by Minnesota on Saturday. The Spartans fell 34-7 and only avoided the shutout by scoring a touchdown with 17 seconds left in regulation. Minnesota led 17-0 at halftime and took a 31-0 lead early in the fourth. The Gophers completely controlled MSU, which looked terrible on both sides of the ball. MSU had only 165 yards of offense before that garbage time drive in the final two minutes. Minnesota, meanwhile, had 240 rushing yards and Tanner Morgan torched the MSU secondary for 268 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-26 throwing. That’s consecutive ugly losses for MSU, who fell to Washington the week before.

Missouri: Tigers fans are used to their team being on the wrong end of a wild finish. But even the most calloused Missouri fan had to be shocked at how Mizzou lost 17-14 to Auburn on Saturday. Reliable Missouri kicker Harrison Mevis missed a straight-on 26-yard field goal to win the game in regulation and RB Nathaniel Peat appeared to be on his way to a game-winning TD in overtime before he dropped the ball a foot from the end zone while reaching toward the goal line. The loss dropped Missouri to 2-2 in a game it could have won with a single second-half score. Missouri and Auburn combined to punt 12 consecutive times after halftime.

Virginia Tech: Brent Pry’s rebuilding job looms large. The Hokies were blown out Thursday night at home by West Virginia and were especially undisciplined in the process. The Mountaineers won 33-10 as Virginia Tech committed 15 penalties for 132 yards. QB Grant Wells completed just 16 of his 35 pass attempts for 193 yards and the Hokies couldn’t get anything going from their running backs. Jalen Holston was the team’s leading rusher with 18 yards while Wells had 15. Better play up front will go a long way for Tech, but that’s something that also can’t be fixed in a week or two.

North Carolina: Entering Saturday’s game at North Carolina, Notre Dame ranked No. 113 nationally in total offense by averaging 300.3 yards per game. UNC had a bye week to prepare for that vaunted Irish attack, but still struggled mightily in a 45-32 loss. UNC allowed 576 yards, including 289 passing yards from Notre Dame backup QB Drew Pyne and 287 rushing yards. In its three games vs. FBS opponents, UNC is giving up an average of 44.6 points per game.

North Carolina head coach Mack Brown watches the team during the first half against Notre Dame in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 (AP Photo/Chris Seward)North Carolina head coach Mack Brown watches the team during the first half against Notre Dame in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

North Carolina head coach Mack Brown watches the team during the first half against Notre Dame in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech just keeps losing. The Yellow Jackets fell 27-10 to UCF on Saturday to drop to 1-3 on the year and just 10-28 in Geoff Collins’ tenure as head coach. It wouldn’t be a surprise if that tenure came to a close pretty soon. Georgia Tech actually significantly outgained the Knights, but mustered only 10 points. Along the way, GT lost two fumbles, missed two field goals, turned it over on downs three times and had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. Somehow, Georgia Tech has had four punts blocked this season. That’s just bad coaching.

Colorado State: CSU is off to a miserable start under Jay Norvell. The Rams lost 41-10 at home to Sacramento State on Saturday. Yes, Sacramento State. The Hornets are a top-10 FCS team, but it’s still unacceptable to lose by 31 at home to a program from a lower level. CSU is now 0-4 on the year and has lost all four games by double digits.

Florida International: FIU lost 73-0 to Western Kentucky on Saturday. In the loss, FIU gave up 688 yards of offense while its own offense had just 180 yards and was 2-of-16 on third down. Mike MacIntyre has a massive rebuild ahead for the Panthers.