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Can Ohio State repel its regional challengers? College football Kings of the North top 10 rankings

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 9/27/2022 Doug Lesmerises, cleveland.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio — We labeled the Ohio State Buckeyes as The Kings of the North in our preseason series, as we divided college football not by conferences but by geographic area — North, South and Southwest.

In the North, we placed 29 of the 65 teams from power conferences:

* All 14 Big Ten teams.

* The six teams in the top half of the Pac-12: Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Colorado and Utah.

* Four teams from the Big 12: Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and West Virginia.

* Four ACC teams: Pitt, Syracuse, Boston College and Virginia Tech.

* And independent Notre Dame. Also included are teams like BYU and Cincinnati, who aren’t in power conferences now but will join the Big 12 next season.

The exercise here is our first in-season Kings of the North rankings. Recruiting bases, weather, the view of the football in the larger context of the university — there are aspects of Northern football that are, or at least can be, different than Southern football. The competition in the South is typically more fierce. But the challenges to reaching true national success are greater in the North.

That’s why we believe a title like Kings of the North means something. And that’s why these top-10 rankings four weeks into the season are another worthy way of looking at teams in this part of the country. Onto our KOTN Top 10.

KINGS OF THE NORTH SERIES

PART 1: How have the Ohio State Buckeyes been able to battle the South? By becoming ‘Kings of the North’

PART 2: Ohio State football recruited its way to the title of ‘Kings of the North’

PART 3: Which teams are the biggest threats to Ohio State football’s long reign as ‘Kings of the North’?

MAPS AND STATS: Kings of the North database

10. Pitt (3-1)

Inside the North: Beat West Virginia, Western Michigan, Rhode Island.

Outside the North: Lost to Tennessee.

Repping the North: The Panthers played overtime games in their first two weeks, beating the Mountaineers and losing to the Volunteers, which means they’ve been tested as much as any team on this list. That Tennessee loss, when they limited Vols QB Hendon Hooker to 7.7 yards per attempt, is looking pretty good right now. Without quarterback Kenny Pickett and receiver Jordan Addison, the Panthers are averaging 100 fewer passing yards per game than last year. But running Israel Abanikanda has more than doubled his output and is leading the ACC with 120 rushing yards per game.

9. Kansas (4-0)

Inside the North: Beat West Virginia.

Outside the North: Beat Houston, Duke, Tennessee Tech.

Repping the North: Head coach Lance Leipold has the Jayhawks already above their over/under win total for the season, which was 2.5. They aren’t ranked in the AP poll but should be after controlling Group of 5 darling Houston in an 18-point win in Week 3. Quarterback Jalon Daniels, a three-star Southern California QB discovered by Kansas in the same Los Angeles-area class that sent C.J. Stroud to Ohio State, Bryce Young to Alabama and DJ Uiagalelei to Clemson, is playing as well as any QB in the Big 12. He’s averaging 223 passing yards and 80 rushing yards per game. That could get Kansas to 6-0 before a mid-October trip to Oklahoma.

8. BYU (3-1)

Inside the North: Beat Wyoming. Lost to Oregon.

Outside the North: Beat Baylor, South Florida.

Repping the North: An overtime win over Baylor in Week 2 breathed life into the idea of BYU as this season’s Cincinnati, but a shellacking at Oregon the next week doused that. The Cougars have battled major receiver injuries all season, but they expect to have Gunner Romney for the first time this Saturday, and Chase Roberts should be back after leaving the game last week. Puka Nacua, their most explosive receiver, went out again against Wyoming after missing the Baylor and Oregon games with a high ankle sprain. One of the most veteran teams in the country, it would be nice to see the Cougars at full strength, with Notre Dame and Arkansas on the schedule in October.

7. Utah (3-1)

Inside the North: Beat Southern Utah.

Outside the North: Beat Arizona State, San Diego State. Lost to Florida.

Repping the North: The Utes could be in trouble after losing tight end Brant Kuithe, their best pass catcher, for the season to a knee injury. Utah is a tight end factory and still has Dalton Kincaid, but that’s a blow to how the Utes do business on offense. A Week 1 loss at Florida took the shine of their playoff hopes, but they remain at the top of Pac-12 contenders with their balance — 11th in the Football Outsiders F+ rankings on offense and 19th on defense. Yet after a Rose Bowl trip last season, the hopes for a truly special season have dimmed. Saturday’s home game with Oregon State won’t be easy, and USC will arrive in Salt Lake City two weeks later.

6. Oregon (3-1)

Inside the North: Beat BYU, Washington State, Eastern Washington.

Outside the North: Lost to Georgia.

Repping the North: The season opened with a Southern destruction of this Northern power, as Georgia unleashed on the Ducks 49-3. But the Dawgs might do that to a lot of teams. A convincing win over BYU was followed by a wild comeback against Washington State, as the Ducks scored three touchdowns in the final four minutes. Quarterback Bo Nix is an adventure, which might make it difficult to rely on Oregon. First-year head coach Dan Lanning was the defensive coordinator for national champ Georgia last season, but Oregon has given up 40 points twice. This might be a hang-on-by-your-fingernails situation until November, when a finish of Washington, Utan and Oregon State will make it clear how good this team really is.

5. Minnesota (4-0)

Inside the North: Beat Michigan State, Colorado, Western Illinois.

Outside the North: Beat New Mexico State.

Repping the North: The Golden Gophers rank first in the country in fewest yards allowed per game and third in the nation in most yards gained per game. With running back Mo Ibrahim back after missing almost all of last season due to injury, the domination has been on, including Saturday’s 34-7 destruction of Michigan State when the Gophers were only favored by 3. The next three games are interesting — Purdue, at Illinois, at Penn State. But this could be the best team in the Big Ten West. Veteran QB Tanner Morgan is averaging 11.2 yards per attempt, even better than his 10.2 yards per attempt in 2019 when he was throwing to two future NFL receivers and the Gophers went 11-2.

4. Washington (4-0)

Inside the North: Beat Michigan State, Kent State, Portland State.

Outside the North: Beat Stanford.

Repping the North: Indiana transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is leading the nation in passing yards per game with 347, while throwing 12 touchdowns against one interception. He’s playing even better than he did while lifting the Hoosiers to new heights in 2020. First-year coach Kalin DeBoer is maximizing the talent that fired coach Jimmy Lake failed with last season, going 4-5 before he was let go and the Huskies finished 4-8. With 15 sacks, the Huskies’ defense is No. 3 in the nation in getting quarterbacks to the ground, and there’s a real path to 8-0 before they’re tested by the Oregon schools in November.

3. Michigan (4-0)

Inside the North: Beat Maryland, UConn, Colorado State.

Outside the North: Beat Hawai’i.

Repping the North: Quarterback JJ McCarthy was all over the place against Maryland last week, scrambling for good and for bad, but the Wolverines raised their ceiling by going to their five-star sophomore. The passing game needs tight end Erick All and running back Donovan Edwards to get healthy, and the Wolverines are searching for rhythm on offense. But running back Blake Corum is seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game at at 120, while averaging 7.5 yards per carry. The defense, ranked seventh in the country by Football Outsiders F+ rating, isn’t at the level of last year, but playmakers remain, with tackle Mazi Smith, corner D.J. Turner, linebacker Junior Colson and others. The schedule was soft, but Maryland was a test, and a trip to Iowa (the No. 1 defense by F+) this week will require McCarthy to mix dynamic play and better decision making.

2. Penn State (4-0)

Inside the North: Beat Purdue, Central Michigan, Ohio.

Outside the North: Beat Auburn.

Repping the North: The Nittany Lions are living up to their defensive standard, with the No. 5 defense in the nation according to the F+ ratings. But their offense has risen a level this season with the addition of playmakers Mitchell Tinsley (a receiver transfer from Western Kentucky) and freshman running back Nicholas Singleton. The offensive line has also improved and the result has carried them to road wins at Purdue and at Auburn. One of the biggest remaining Northern showdowns looms — at Michigan on Oct. 15. Penn State will have extra time to prep with an off week before that matchup.

1. Ohio State (4-0)

Inside the North: Beat Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Toledo.

Outside the North: Beat Arkansas State.

Repping the North: The Buckeyes couldn’t hold their Northern title last year, losing to Oregon and Michigan. But wins over Notre Dame and Wisconsin in the first month have reasserted their royal status.

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