We’re three weeks into this still-young college football season and that means that the bulk of non-conference games have taken place for teams across the country. Before we move onto the next phase of life on the calendar though, it doesn’t hurt to take a moment and pause to reflect on what we saw this past weekend and what it means in the overall picture.
Namely, the Big Ten would absolutely love to hit the reset button on 2018 and start again. While not quite a disaster of biblical proportions that past seasons have been, the state of affairs in the Midwest after Week 3 certainly isn’t all that flattering.
Nebraska is 0-2 for the first time since 1957 after falling to a Sun Belt team. BYU went into Camp Randall and knocked off Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin — after two unimpressive outings from the Badgers to begin the year. Maryland spoiled their good start with an egg against Temple. Illinois blew a lead and lost to USF in front of a high school-sized crowd. Missouri dropped Purdue to 0-3. Northwestern lost to Akron by giving up 36 second-half points. Perhaps worst of all, Rutgers was blown out — yes, blown out — by Kansas.
To which the Pac-12 said: "Hold my beer."
The conference put up a stinker after dark, going 1-3 against the Mountain West on Saturday alone. USC was embarrassed for the second week in a row and did so in a showcase game at Texas. UCLA was routed by Fresno State at the Rose Bowl. Oregon State’s road losing streak stretched to 21 after a valiant comeback attempt resulted in a missed field goal. In the marquee league game, Washington and Utah beat each other up and looked impotent on offense (with subpar quarterback play on full display). Arizona struggled for a half to put away FCS opponent Southern Utah. Oh, and Arizona State spoiled all those good feelings from last week with a wretched second half effort at San Diego State.
All told, the entire Pac-12 South went winless against FBS teams over the weekend. At least the Big Ten West can say they got a victory over an FBS team, even if that one was Minnesota’s lackluster victory over Miami (Ohio) and the division went 1-5 overall.
Still, the overall picture is bleak. The Big Ten is just 6-6 against Power 5 teams so far in 2018 while the Pac-12 is 3-4. In fact, the Mountain West has one more win against Power 5 competition than their regional neighbors. The Big Ten is 1-4 in their past five games against the AAC. No, not the ACC, the AAC.
To be fair, Saturday was not the end of the world for either conference and there’s some extenuating circumstances with many of the teams. The Cornhuskers were starting a walk-on at quarterback and Troy is one of the best Group of 5 teams around (more on them below). The Bruins and Beavers both have new coaching staffs and a host of roster issues from the previous regimes. Ohio State at least held the banner for the Big Ten with their impressive put-away of TCU in the second half to move to 3-0 sans Urban Meyer.
None of those dreadful wins or awful starts will completely ruin a team’s season but it does help shape the early narrative for all of them and their conferences. At the moment, that’s not great for either the Big Ten or the Pac-12. While Larry Scott and Jim Delany would love to hit the reset button, real life doesn’t work that way.
Both leagues can rebound, both can improve as the year goes on. But woof, that was not a great Saturday for either and you’ll likely be hearing about it for a while.
Six other takeaways from the weekend:
2. Ed Orgeron’s big win
Hats off to Orgeron (right) and his Tigers for gutting out a victory on the road and knocking off their third top-10 team in the past two years, two of those victories coming courtesy of Auburn. Combined with their demolishment of Miami in the opener, few teams have the kind of quality wins LSU does right now and both came away from Death Valley. What was a team that many viewed skeptically coming into the season due to changes on offense and losses in the trenches is now in the top 10 and looking like Alabama’s top competitor in the SEC West again.
Let’s be honest though, things can still go south on the bayou. The offense has been better with Joe Burrow under center but by no means is this unit explosive. The Tigers needed an improbable throw, catch and run on Derrick Dillon’s long score against Auburn and took advantage of several penalties on the final drive to get into field goal range. Through three games, there have been just four scoring drives of over 50 yards and LSU ranks 111th in the country in total offense — one spot behind struggling Florida State.
The defense keeps the Tigers in games though and Orgeron’s been magic down the stretch in his dream job. LSU should be 6-0 going into their season-defining stretch against Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama. That’s when we’ll really find out just how good this team is but so far in 2018, nobody has turned heads more than the Tigers relative to preseason expectations.
3. Kansas is a football school
Rutgers. Kansas. You could feel the excitement.
For two programs annually ranked at the bottom of the FBS, these two staged a relative… fun one? Yes indeed. There was a pick-six and a blocked field goal for a touchdown in the first quarter alone and plenty of big plays throughout a contest that eventually turned into a rout. It’s been fun to rag on both the Jayhawks and Scarlet Knights over the years but that was actually a joy to watch this on Saturday in front of a relatively full house in Lawrence.
All told, KU put up 31 points in the first half on their way to a 55-14 win and managed to string together the program’s first winning streak against FBS teams since 2009 (!). That’s dating back to the Mark Mangino era, some 10 seasons and a whopping four head coaches ago. It was also the most points the team scored against an FBS team since 2007.
Things don’t get any easier for the Jayhawks going forward but after David Beaty was written off for being a lame duck after losing the opener to an FCS team, there’s been an impressive rally within the program. Kansas actually leads the country in turnover margin (+12) and have only turned the ball over once. Big 12 play will be another thing entirely but the past two weeks have been a nice moment in the sunlight for a program that had some ominous clouds around it after Week 1.
As for Chris Ash and Rutgers, it goes without saying that this is not what you want to see in Year 3. It really felt like there was some momentum-building going on last year as the team was markedly improved on the field. That progress seems to have been stopped dead with the result against Kansas — along with any dreams of a 5-1 start to the season that a few fans were hopeful for. I mean, allowing Kansas to go up and down the field on you more than Ohio State did seems like a red flag.
To put things in perspective, the great Newark Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi wrote afterwards that the result “might be the most demoralizing, humiliating, unacceptable loss in the modern history of Rutgers football.” Given the program’s history in college football, that’s saying quite a bit. The next game against Buffalo won’t be a walk in the park either and it could be another warning sign that the reset button will need to be pressed this offseason once again.
4. Remember the name: Neal Brown
Last season, Troy’s young head coach won 11 games and turned heads by going into Death Valley and knocking off an LSU team that finished with nine wins. The year before that he pushed the eventual national champion Clemson to the brink in the other Death Valley. Now after knocking back Nebraska a few decades on Saturday, he’s 23-6 the past three seasons.
Yes, fans of schools with potential openings better remember the name Neal Brown. If Scott Frost was last year’s coaching darling, the man who just beat him might have the mantle this season. Not only have his Trojans been prepared to face bigger and better teams, they look like they belong and those big wins are expected. That’s no easy thing to get a team to do in college football and especially so at the Sun Belt level.
Brown, who has SEC experience from a brief stint as OC at Kentucky, figures to have a number of suitors this offseason (along with fellow Air Raid compatriot Seth Littrell at North Texas) and could be in the mix for some Power 5 gigs depending on how the dominoes fall. It will probably take an attractive situation to lure him away from Troy but the results speak for themselves. it also doesn’t hurt that he’s improved the Trojans' recruiting ranking within the conference with each passing year and seems to have not broken a sweat in replacing star QB Brandon Silvers and a number of key contributors on defense this season.
There could be more to come from this Troy team but it won’t be easy. Appalachian State and cross-division foe Arkansas State both look tough in conference play and the Trojans will need to go to Boone at the end of November. Win that and secure a conference title the next week and Brown will be getting plenty of calls from bigger programs. It was a little surprising given his track record that he wasn’t poached in 2017 but safe to say that he’s on everyone’s radar now and could be the darling of many coaching searches soon enough.
5. Oklahoma State routs Boise State, keeping door open for UCF
Mike Gundy continually surprises on the field and one of the most laid-back coaches in college football showed why he doubles as one of the best on Saturday by helping demolish a very good Boise State team. Gundy and his offensive staff made some impressive adjustments, especially up front, after a tough first quarter against the Broncos and proceeded to run off 20 unanswered at one point to secure control of the game.
While many were skeptical of the Cowboys coming into 2018 after losing so much offensive firepower, OSU showed why they are quite the dark horse in the Big 12 this season. Gundy has done a great job bringing along former walk-on Taylor Cornelius and the quarterback’s surprising mobility against Boise proved to be quite a difference-maker. The receiving corps remains deep and Justice Hill continues to be criminally underrated nationally given all that he can do. It also shouldn’t be discounted that the team’s defense looks much improved under new coordinator Jim Knowles (seven sacks on Saturday) and the multiple looks they can throw at you will be key as the Cowboys move into conference play.
While anything can happen, the team does get Iowa State and Texas at home in October and OSU could very well be 9-0 going into Bedlam. The final month of the season remains brutal but there’s a reason behind the Cowboys skyrocketing in the polls on Sunday.
As for the Broncos, the effort in Stillwater had to be disappointing after looking so dominant through the first two weeks. The offensive line was overwhelmed on nearly every snap and the defense gave up a number of big plays after coming close to getting stops. Special teams also let them down on the blocked punts and put a damper on any hopes of a comeback.
While a win against OSU might have locked up the Group of 5 bid later in the season, now that door is very much wide open for UCF to snag the bid again. While Boise State has shown us more than what we’ve seen from the Knights, the transition into conference play is going to help UCF much more than it will the Broncos.
Keep this note from the AAC in mind when it comes to that: The American is a combined 4-0 against the Pac-12 since the start of last season. Teams from the league are also 4-1 in their last five games against the Big Ten, have won three of their last four against the ACC and two of their last three against the SEC. The MWC did pick up three wins against the Pac-12 on Saturday — including ones from fellow league favorites Fresno State and SDSU — but there still looks to be a gap in the overall level of play.
If the selection committee has to split hairs between both UCF and Boise State, we may very well look back at Week 3 as being a potential deciding factor between the two.
6. Clay Helton’s seat is getting toasty
USC is 1-2 on the season and while the Trojans have gotten off to bad starts under Helton (right) before, things are particularly ugly in Los Angeles after getting routed 37-14 at Texas. While everybody expected a step back in 2018 for the cardinal and gold without Sam Darnold, the continual special teams issues and the inability to establish the run in a way befitting the program’s history are things that predate this current season.
With Mike Riley off the sidelines, Helton might hold the mantle of the nicest coach in college football. A lot of folks want him to do well, especially given how stable he’s made the program after so many years of upheaval post-Pete Carroll. He’s won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title, posted double-digit wins each of the two years since getting the full-time job and brought in top-10 recruiting classes each of the past four Februarys.
But the bottom line is he’s the coach at USC and with that comes expectations — expectations Helton is in no way meeting. The Trojans are one of the sport’s true blue bloods and yet they haven’t sniffed the national title chase in the eight years he’s been on campus. He’s 0-6 against Power 5 foes without Darnold at quarterback and most damning of all is completely uncompetitive against powerhouses like Alabama, Ohio State and even Notre Dame that the fan base (and the trophy case at Heritage Hall) continually measures themselves against.
It helps a bit that Chip Kelly is off to an 0-3 start across town but you’re likely to find many USC fans who would love for Chip to be running things downtown instead of the man currently in charge. Athletic director Lynn Swann is still unproven in his job but it’s worth noting that he never hired Helton in the first place and certainly knows the mood of big boosters well given the school’s current renovation of the Coliseum.
The Pac-12 South remains wide open and finishing the year with nine wins can’t be completely ruled out either. Still, things are starting to heat up for Helton and could get even warmer if he refuses to make changes on and off the field.
7. Hurricanes will continue to impact CFB, making 14-week schedule a new priority
Eleven (11) FBS games were set to take place in the Carolinas/Virginia this past weekend in college football (and a total of 23 if you include FCS contests) and all 11 were somehow effected by Hurricane Florence hitting the East Coast. Four games were straight up cancelled, a further two postponed and the rest were shifted to play much earlier than scheduled or at different sites.
This has been a reoccurring issue that college administrators are having to deal with at the start of the season and follows two years where Hurricanes Matthew, Harvey and Irma all had significant impact at programs on and off the field. Given the changes in the global climate, the issue isn’t going away at all and will continue to effect college football in the coming years.
It’s a reminder that the NCAA needs to re-open and fast-track their look at a 14-week playing schedule for the good of the sport. The original impetus of the idea was player safety — a worthy goal in its own right — but this weekend served as a reminder as to why the proposals are badly needed for many schools given the logistical challenges they will face seemingly every year.
“Aspirationally, what we wanted to do was build in some recovery time for the players during the course of the season and try and do it in a way that was equitable,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, the former chairman of the oversight committee, told the Associated Press. “In the end, the 14-week season with the two byes just wasn’t going to work from a practical standpoint so we moved away from it.”
Coaches complaining about the start of the season beginning earlier is not a good enough excuse to prevent this from happening. If media days need to be shifted up to early July so training camp can open earlier, so be it. If there’s less time at the end of the year to prepare for the Las Vegas Bowl, so be it. It’s a good idea with huge practical applications that has to start gaining traction — from the Mid-Atlantic region to Florida and beyond.
The bigger motivating factor for all involved that could push folks to the right side of the issue? Look no further than the hit to the bottom line that some of the schools have had to take with games getting cancelled or postponed. Heck, Miami and Arkansas State are going to court over what happened last season. It’s bad enough that these hurricanes are leaving a trail of destruction for millions of people across the country but it doesn’t have to do the same to the college football season at the same time if people would come to their senses and double down on a 14-week season.
If you would like to help the people affected by Hurricane Florence, please consider a donation to the Red Cross.
Stat of the Week
San Diego State’s Ryan Agnew became the first quarterback from a non-Power 5 school to beat a nationally ranked Power 5 team in his starting debut since USF’s B.J. Daniels against No. 18 Florida State on Sept. 26, 2009.
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Darrell Henderson, Memphis
Heisman five: 1. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 2. Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), 3. Ed Oliver (Houston), 4. Will Grier (West Virginia) 5. Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State)
Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. Clemson, 4. Oklahoma
Team of the week: BYU
Honorary Les Miles Goats of the week: Clay Helton, USC
Quote of the week: “Is there an A-plus-plus?” — Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins on the job Ryan Day did as head coach.
Play of the Week
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 4.
3. Ohio State
6. Mississippi State
9. Oklahoma State
10. Penn State
14. Notre Dame
15. West Virginia
Best of the rest: Boise State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas A&M, Boston College, Miami, Oregon, Colorado, Duke
FAU at UCF
It’s not the matchup we deserve, but it is the matchup we need. Lane Kiffin and his Owls will hit the road to face off against a well-rested Knights squad to pit two of more talented Group of 5 teams around. Edge goes to the home team in this one — by at least two scores — but don’t be surprised if Kiffin makes this interesting into the second half.
Texas A&M at Alabama
The Aggies looked impressive in battling tooth and nail with the other national title favorite so they should be fired up for this one. While Jimbo Fisher won’t get a win against this juggernaut of a team, he’ll at least make things look more respectable than the previous Tide opponents and only lose by four scores or so.
Stanford at Oregon
Story of the young Pac-12 season has been the development of the Cardinal’s defense, which has only allowed two touchdowns so far (one in garbage time in the final minutes) and forced seven turnovers. They’ll be tested by Justin Herbert on the road but do just enough to pull out a very close win over the Ducks.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of byucougars.com)