By Bryan Fischer
FOX Sports College Football Writer
Three weeks into a young college football season is a decent enough sample size to shed some of our preseason expectations and form new opinions on how this wild endeavor will play out over the coming months.
Perhaps the most surprising perception change from August to September has come at the top. Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State remain settled inside the elite tier of College Football Playoff contenders, but their order has changed three weeks running in the polls. The Bulldogs have proven to not have lost a step at all from 2021, the Tide looked mortal during their trip to Austin and the Buckeyes’ initial victory over Notre Dame is not as impressive as the brand name would indicate.
Yet there’s a big line of demarcation in terms of talent, coaching and intangibles between those three and the rest of the pack chasing them. Finding a fourth school to add to the playoff mix remains frustratingly wide open.
RJ Young’s Top 25: Oklahoma moves up to No. 4
RJ Young explains why he thinks the Sooners have a chance to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Many expected Clemson to return to form after “only” winning 10 games a year ago. So far though, the Tigers’ offense still looks stuck in second gear as wide receivers fail to create separation and quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei ranks 55th in passing efficiency. Defensively, the team has given up as many 20-plus-yard plays as Boston College and Bowling Green, among others.
At this point, the default is to just go with No. 4 Michigan and call it a day. That may be fine for now, but the Wolverines have three wins over opponents who have yet to beat an FBS team.
Instead, perhaps it’s time to start looking more closely at two sides tied together by Lincoln Riley — the team he left behind and the team he’s taken to brighter days. One scorned, one saved, but both capable of reaching the final four? Seems like it.
Oklahoma is back to being the Big 12 favorite and hasn’t seemed to skip a beat under new coach Brent Venables. The offense is still prolific and coming off a beating at Nebraska in which the starters averaged 7.7 yards per play and scored seven touchdowns. QB Dillon Gabriel is completing two-thirds of his passes and hasn’t thrown a pick yet. Coordinator Jeff Lebby has barely even scratched the surface of his playbook beyond the occasional trick play to keep things light.
Most encouraging for Sooners fans is a newfound defensive toughness installed by Venables. They’ve allowed just six scoring drives total and 10 points per game amid their hot start. An even better sign that this progress is sustainable is the fact that they’re fourth in the country in sacks and 11th in yards per play allowed. A feisty front seven gets after you and doesn’t let up.
OU’s postseason path also seems much easier than it did amid the unknowns of the preseason. Reigning conference champ Baylor has not been as sharp in the passing game as hoped with the spring move to Blake Shapen at quarterback. Kansas State just lost to Tulane. TCU and Oklahoma State remain untested. The Red River game against an ascending Texas side could prove interesting — but only if Quinn Ewers returns from injury in time. Kansas and Iowa State are undefeated and look quite pesky, but still are at a big talent disadvantage. West Virginia? Well, the discussion surrounding the Mountaineers’ coach and his hot seat tells you all you need to know.
It hasn’t been perfect in Norman, but it’s time to sit up and take notice.
The positive vibe is similar out West, where Riley’s tenure in cardinal and gold has gotten off to an even better start than most imagined. Prolific doesn’t even do the USC offense justice, as the team has scored 40-plus points in its opening three games for the first time since 2005.
Caleb Williams to Jordan Addison!
USC QB Caleb Williams hits Jordan Addison to give the Trojans and early lead over Fresno State on Saturday.
Quarterback Caleb Williams is fourth in FBS completion percentage and averaging 10.2 yards/attempt. New pal Jordan Addison is second in the country in touchdown receptions and hasn’t played into the fourth quarter. The entire offense is averaging a robust 7.96 yards per play and has faced the fewest third downs of any team that’s played three games.
High-scoring affairs are nothing new in the Pac-12, but the gap between what the Trojans are trotting out and everybody else is as wide as the Grand Canyon right now. To beat this group you’re going to have to score and score some more. The threat in that department is more OSU (Ohio State) and UA (Alabama) than Oregon State and Arizona.
What really makes USC a contender to reach the Playoff — and illustrate that this rebuild is more advanced than expected — is the defense. This group isn’t quite a throwback to Pete Carroll’s units in Los Angeles, but it’s been exceedingly opportunistic and helps the team lead the country in turnover margin. Riley has never been known for leaning on that side of the ball as a head coach — his Sooners allowed at least 5.84 yards per play on three trips to a semifinal.
USC currently sits at 5.60 yards per play allowed as it heads to Corvallis to take on Oregon State this week.
It doesn’t hurt that the Trojans may play just two or three ranked teams the rest of the season and will be considerable favorites in every game they have left. On paper, a trip to Salt Lake City to face No. 13 Utah is the biggest hurdle on a docket that misses No. 15 Oregon and No. 18 Washington in the rotation. USC fans are mostly just giddy at arriving at the Coliseum to see a team with a coaching advantage for the first time in a dozen years.
Plus, Riley has been there before. He’s 58-10 running a program and knows what playoff-caliber football really is.
His replacement in Norman does too, albeit this time around as a first-time head coach.
Both seem excited about what they have to work with.
As we shed our early expectations and handicap the race to crack the top four come December, it’s probably time to start believing in Oklahoma and USC as well.
Penn State makes Big Ten a power trio?
In the Big Ten, the perception that the top three teams in the East Division have a considerable gap between them and everybody else was underscored again on Saturday, as Michigan trudged along destroying overmatched opposition and Ohio State found the end zone with a regularity you could set your watch by.
The Wolverines, despite replacing both coordinators and key players like No. 2 pick Aidan Hutchinson, find themselves entering Week 4 with the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense and No. 4 scoring defense. Given the amount of change in Ann Arbor this offseason, it’s been impressive work by coach Jim Harbaugh & Co., laying waste to the opponent no matter how lackluster the schedule might be. The Buckeyes seem back to their usual destroyer-of-world selves after a 77-21 victory over Toledo, leading the country in yards per play even without star Jaxon Smith-Njigba at his healthiest.
But nobody made a bigger statement that they should also earn consideration atop the Big Ten quite like Penn State did, becoming the first program from the conference to win on the Plains in a 41-12 thumping of Auburn.
They got push up-front for their young tailbacks (176 yards combined for freshmen Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen), kept things fairly clean in the pocket for QB Sean Clifford and were opportunistic on defense to the tune of four turnovers. It’s not often a team as talented as the Tigers is outclassed in every area by a team from up North, but that was the case — and it could have been worse if not for Auburn QB T.J. Finley’s ability to scramble around. The play in the trenches for the Nittany Lions will be key in those season-defining clashes against Michigan and Ohio State in October.
Nevertheless, for all the kudos the Big Ten powerhouses deserve, it was a largely forgettable weekend for everybody else. Nebraska and Michigan State were taken to the woodshed on national TV, Indiana needed a 17-point fourth quarter plus overtime to defeat Western Kentucky, Rutgers struggled to put away Temple, Purdue snatched a loss from the jaws of victory at Syracuse, and Maryland committed penalty after penalty while escaping vs. SMU at home. Oh and Northwestern, which has made a habit of these things lately, was pushed around by a Southern Illinois team that was winless coming in after two FCS losses of its own.
Minnesota has, at least, taken care of business, but the boat has been rowed against three programs who don’t own a win to their name.
There’s strength in numbers, but so far the Big Ten is looking like quite a dichotomy between those at the top and a lackluster bottom half.
Pac is back?
The Pac-12 has been taking it on the chin during the month of September the past few years, but perhaps the narrative is turning out West in 2022. Per Jon Wilner of the Pac-12 Hotline, Saturday was the first time the conference beat two ranked teams on the same day since Sept. 14, 2013. Nine years is a long time for that to occur and came thanks to two impressive statements by Oregon over then-No. 12 BYU and Washington over then-No. 11 Michigan State. The Ducks and Huskies both looked superior in the trenches and had a pair of transfer quarterbacks who were absolutely dealing in Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr.
Throw in 3-0 starts by Oregon State and Washington State, and the Pacific Northwest contingent could be as strong as it has been since divisional play began in 2011.
Never mind the situations in Tempe and Boulder though …
You play to win the game, but when you don’t …
Arizona State parted ways with Herm Edwards on Sunday, ending an experiment that many predicted from the start would never work. It wasn’t just that he failed to win and became the first Pac-12 coach to ever lose to a MAC team in the regular season, it was the lack of consistency week-to-week that plagued the Sun Devils when the ever-quotable head coach was not making excuses.
The school is in an interesting spot because the job — when viewed in a vacuum — is a good one given access to talent, decent facilities and a massive alumni base that is ripe to utilize in the NIL era. The specter of NCAA sanctions looms, but it’s not crazy to think that USC/UCLA’s departures in 2024 could allow Arizona State to thrive down the road in a new-look Pac-10.
On the other hand, nobody has been able to elevate the program despite all those built-in advantages. No coach has left the school with a losing record since 1979, but Todd Graham’s 59% winning percentage remains the high-water mark since John Cooper left for Ohio State in 1988.
Complicating the coming search is not the threat of future scholarship losses but rather leadership at the very top. Athletic director Ray Anderson was Edwards’ agent earlier in his career and has overseen a department that has not gotten out of its own way in multiple sports. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that he could be moved to the university side by President Michael Crow while a new AD is installed to make the football hire. Interested coaching candidates might want clarity on that before taking the gig.
The change in Tempe also makes it back-to-back weeks for Power 5 programs making a coaching move. Auburn’s Bryan Harsin, Georgia Tech’s Geoff Collins, Colorado’s Karl Dorrell and several others are hoping it’s not going to be three in a row.
For all the talk about a new, young wave of coaches taking over at the NFL and college levels, the “Madden Generation” sure isn’t doing any better when it comes to game management — something on full display Saturday.
Mind you, the only reason the team was in a position to make the kick was that UCLA got a late hit penalty to extend the drive.
On the other side of the country, Troy intentionally took a safety when up just four, then squibbed the ensuing kickoff, later allowing the most incredible walk-off Hail Mary in Sun Belt history.
— Liberty mounted a stirring comeback against Wake Forest but opted to go for two and the win (fine) by … running a two-point conversion play that may have been taken from a Pop Warner playbook (with predictable results).
— Purdue scored a go-ahead touchdown with 51 seconds left … and lost. Penalties killed the Boilermakers, who also gave up 22 in the final quarter.
— Then there was Mario Cristobal, who didn’t seem to learn anything from so many bungled endings at Oregon, and kept opting for field goals late instead of going for the end zone on the road against a beatable ranked opponent. Choosing to punt while down 17-9 in the final three minutes at midfield was also a choice.
In a day and age where analytics have been woven into the fabric of most decisions in football, Saturday wasn’t the greatest showcase for following the script.
The bottom is bad!
Georgia Tech has been outscored 83-10 by FBS teams this season and has only two touchdowns in its last 18 quarters against Power 5 teams. New Mexico State is our first 0-4 squad and has been outscored by 115 points this season. The MAC has just two teams above .500 at the moment, none of which are in the East Division. Colorado suffered its 37th double-digit road loss since 2011, 29 of which have been losses by more than 20 points.
The bottom is good!
As bad as those teams listed above have been, some regulars in the also-ran section are actually thriving to start the 2022 season. The last time Kansas, Duke, Rutgers and Vanderbilt won at least three games in the same season was 2014. All four teams are 3-0 after Week 3. In fact, the six winningest Power 5 programs in men’s basketball (Kansas, Kentucky, UNC, Duke, Syracuse, UCLA) are a combined 18-0 after Week 3. Toss in Indiana and it’s 21-0.
Incredibly, of the 20 worst Power 5 programs by all-time winning percentage, 11 of them are 3-0 to start 2022. Just three of the bottom 20 even have a losing record right now and one of those (Northwestern) actually sits atop the Big Ten West standings.
Conference reputations are fickle things, and this past weekend in college football was a perfect representation of how wildly things can swing.
The week after the greatest Saturday in Sun Belt history:
— Marshall was upset by a Bowling Green squad that lost in 7OT to an FCS opponent the week prior.
Lest we think that was the only conference in that part of the country to post some struggles, Arkansas needed a late surge to put away Bobby Petrino and Missouri State, USF was a decent snap from forcing overtime at Florida, Auburn was blown out, Vanderbilt trailed at halftime at Northern Illinois and Texas A&M muddled its way to a home win over Miami.
Fans can go ahead and keep chanting those three little letters, but maybe take the next few days off after recent results.
Best Player: Penn State RB Nicholas Singleton
Team of the Week: Eastern Michigan
Goat of the Week: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald
Coach of the Week: Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Cumbie
Projected Playoff: 1. Georgia, 2. Ohio State, 3. Alabama, 4. USC
Tweet of the Week:
Here’s my ballot for the FWAA/NFF Super 16 this week:
3. Ohio State
7. Penn State
14. Oklahoma State
15. N.C. State
Just missed the cut: Utah
Best of the rest: Kentucky, Baylor, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas, Wake Forest, Texas A&M, Pitt
Maryland at Michigan (Noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)
Taulia Tagovailoa and a speedy receiving corps for the Terps present the biggest challenge to date for a renewed secondary of the Wolverines, but this has all the makings of a contest over before halftime.
Duke at Kansas (Noon ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app)
GAME OF THE WEEK? Winner gets the No. 1 seed in March? Make all the jokes you want, but this is actually a pretty interesting matchup between two undefeated teams. Mike Elko has made an instant impact on the Blue Devils’ defense, but they might be overmatched by the explosiveness of the Jayhawks’ offense.
Clemson at Wake Forest (Noon ET)
What happens when a barely moving offense faces a defense that struggled to stop Liberty? We’re about to find out, as the Demon Deacons hope to pull their first win against the ACC overlords since 2008. This has all the makings of a low-scoring affair with lots of punts for three quarters before Clemson discovers it can run the ball and end up winning by two scores.
Kansas State at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)
The Wildcats’ loss to Tulane certainly took some luster off this matchup, which has been tricky for the Sooners in recent years. Adrian Martinez and Deuce Vaughn can combine for some magic while making something out of nothing but still haven’t quite clicked under new OC Collin Klein. If this was in the Little Apple, an upset would be in the cards, but since it’s in Norman, expect OU to put up points and win comfortably.
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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