This fall I will be an senior mathematics major at a small public liberal arts university. I'm trying to finalize the list of schools to which I will apply (to PhD programs in pure math), but I am finding it somewhat difficult. I know that I am not a candidate for admission at top-tier universities. My school is relatively unknown outside of its state, and the professors who will write my recommendation letters aren't very well-known either (although they do publish somewhat frequently in their respective fields). I have taken two semesters of abstract algebra, one semester of real analysis, and two semesters of topology, and received an A in all. By the time I graduate I'll have taken another semester in real analysis and a course in complex analysis, plus several other applied and discrete math classes. I haven't taken any graduate courses since my school doesn't offer them, but I have completed a research project with one of my professors in the area of math which I hope to study in grad school. My GPA is around 3.85.
I think (and please correct me if I am wrong) that I should focus on applying to "mid-tier" programs, but I find it very difficult to determine which programs are at this level. I know that one student from my school was accepted at a program ranked in the 40's by the U.S. News math grad school rankings.
Essentially, my question is this: Do the U.S. News rankings accurately reflect the selectivity of programs, and if so, is there some point in the rankings at which schools become "mid-tier" or at which I would be competitive for admission?