It happens like clockwork every season.
The schedule looks lackluster coming in. Power 5 teams host huge underdogs. Big-name, top-25 games are few and far between. David against Goliath might be too kind of a term for some matchups. There appears to be a lengthy window where getting those chores done around the house might be a better use of one’s time.
And then... bam, college football reminds you why it’s so much fun to soak in.
Craziness rears its beautiful head and we’re ultimately rewarded with memorable moments that we will all be talking about for years to come. Hail Marys and overtimes, fumble luck and pick-sixes, two-minute drives and goal-line stands. Even on a Saturday where there were numerous laughers, we were still entertained by what happened from coast-to-coast as games started to wind down and the energy ramped up.
Start out in the Swamp, where Tennessee never could pull away from Florida during a lumbering game over three quarters that was marked by the lack of success in the red zone than anything else. Eventually the Volunteers managed to find the end zone for a triumphant score that tied the game and appeared to send things to overtime. But these two teams, with these two coaches, simply don’t do easy.
And so young Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks rolled out of the pocket and launched a 63-yard prayer right into the arms of Tyrie Cleveland, who wasn’t just open but somehow single-covered with a defensive back trailing him past the goal line. Improbably and impossibly, Florida emerged with a victory and strike first in its SEC East title defense. Luckily for us, the wild ending was just getting us ready for what came later.
Northern Illinois went into Lincoln and became the first MAC team to beat once mighty Nebraska. There was Nick Fitzgerald leading Mississippi State to a win over LSU from out of left field down in StarkVegas. Vanderbilt beat a ranked non-conference opponent for the first time in 71 — 71! — years as a result of a red zone stand on fourth down. Kentucky ended any mojo South Carolina had with a controlling win few saw coming. Arizona State rallied from 18 down to tie Texas Tech before falling short in a crazy shootout. Toledo kicked a field goal as time expired to beat Tulsa in a game that featured 105 points and more than 1,200 yards of offense.
All of which set up an incredible night in Southern California.
In the nostalgia-filled matchup between Texas and USC, a rather mediocre defensive struggle that had broken out was suddenly turned into must-see TV in the final few minutes of each half. Sam Darnold and the Trojans struck first in the second quarter by capitalizing on a short field and finding the end zone with his old Rose Bowl hero Deontay Burnett less than three minutes before halftime. After a defensive stop gave a glimmer of hope that the Trojans could add to their lead, the one-time Heisman winner promptly threw a pass right off his receiver’s hands and into the arms of DeShon Elliott, who took it the other way for a pick-six and just 10 seconds left on the clock.
So tie game going into the locker room right? Of course not. Darnold found Ronald Jones II over the middle on what amounted to a dump off instead of a Hail Mary and the tailback promptly wove his way into the end zone from 56 yards out. Just how they drew it up.
As impressive as that was, it was only an appetizer to the end of the second half. Sam Ehlinger did his best Vince Young impression to lead a 91-yard touchdown drive that wound up putting the Longhorns ahead with just 45 seconds left in the game.
That was about 44 ticks too much for Darnold though, who promptly marched down without timeouts to set up the game-tying 31 yarder to send the game into overtime. Walk-on kicker Chase McGrath eventually nailed another from 43 yards out to seal the win. It probably wasn’t enough to make up for the pain felt by the cardinal and gold the last time these two schools played but it was certainly a small measure of revenge for that Rose Bowl loss over a decade ago.
As if that wasn’t enough action for one day, a little farther south in San Diego there was a full-on Super Bowl XLVII style blackout at Qualcomm Stadium as the San Diego State Aztecs were locked in a struggle with No. 19 Stanford. That bizarre break in action proved to be fortuitous for Rocky Long’s squad and helped spark a 75-yard scoring drive that gave the team their second upset of a Pac-12 foe in as many weeks.
So yeah, even when you least expect it, college football has a way of sneaking up on you and reminding you how fun — and out of left field crazy — it can be. It is weird and strange and emotional at the same time. And when you leave things up to 18- to 25-year-olds and a wide range of coaches with acumen all over the place, well, you get nights like we saw on Saturday.
That’s why even those folks who primarily think football is played on Sundays are coming around to the notion that the superior entertainment option is at the college level.
College football is fun, especially for neutral observers. So soak in the chaos and craziness and embrace it — because you’re going to see it all again next weekend.
Six more observations from what took place in Week 3:
2. Group of 5 race is going to be way better than 2016
There hasn’t been a ton of drama or intrigue when it’s come to the Group of 5 bid the past few years but we may finally be in store for a bit of fun based on the early returns.
Memphis made a big statement on Saturday with an upset of UCLA and looks poised to take control of the AAC East. San Diego State has already notched two wins over Pac-12 competition and easily is the class of the Mountain West at the moment. South Florida and Navy are undefeated and have enough talent to make things interesting the rest of the way (especially if the Bulls can start clicking). Don’t sleep on Toledo either, which beat Tulsa in a wild shootout and looks a little dangerous going to a Miami next week to face a Hurriacnes team that has been preoccupied with things much more important than football.
If things continue to trend like this, the selection committee will actually have a potentially tough decision come December if the above teams keep winning.
3. Stock up, stock down
Group of 5 Up: Memphis’ Mike Norvell (beat UCLA), UAB’s Bill Clark (beat Coastal Carolina), Toledo’s Jason Candle (beat Tulsa)
Power 5 Down: Pat Narduzzi (Pitt), Ed Orgeron (LSU), Butch Jones (Tennessee), David Shaw (Stanford), Mike Riley (Nebraska)
4. Purdue, Cal lead coaching turnarounds among Power 5 programs
We don’t know how the rest of the season will play out but you can’t help be impressed at two particular turnarounds we’ve seen so far at the Power 5 level. Let’s face it, it’s was a chore to watch Purdue play the last several years, especially on offense. Across the country in Berkeley, Cal and defense were not exactly synonymous as the Bears limped toward the bottom of the standings most years.
But suddenly it’s fun to watch the Boilermakers, who are a surprising 2-1 after throttling Missouri 35-3 and looking good in their lone loss to a ranked Louisville team. The Jeff Brohm hire was well received by many when it was made and the infusion of talent from various levels has made the team instantly more competitive. We’ll see if Purdue can give Michigan a run this week but it goes without saying that the Boilermakers can make some noise in the Big Ten this year and be quite pesky to the teams at the top of the standings.
Out west, Justin Wilcox is leading one of just six teams who are 3-0 with two wins over Power 5 competition. That the Golden Bears beat Ole Miss on Saturday isn’t mind blowing. The fact that they did so with defense is the incredible part given how bad they were just 12 months ago (No. 127 in scoring defense in 2016). Beyond the numbers, just flip on any of their games and you can just see Cal playing better on that side of the ball. Pac-12 play will be another beast but those are some solid starts for two programs that haven’t had a lot to believe in the past few years.
5. NFL scouts might want to forget Week 3
The NFL scouting process won’t really kick into high gear for several more months but the scouts are still watching and they probably were not thrilled at some of the things they saw in Week 3 from top prospects. UCLA’s Josh Rosen was uneven against Memphis and made some absolutely terrible decisions on several of his throws. Wyoming’s Josh Allen failed to take advantage of a sub-par Oregon defense and finished Saturday 9-of-24 for 64 yards and a pick. Sam Darnold did lead USC to an improbable comeback with yet more magic but too often was throwing off balance or off his back foot and one of his two interceptions was squarely on him. Poor Lamar Jackson was under siege from that Clemson front all night long and recorded most of his numbers when the game was out of reach.
While it could be a blip in the radar for all three, it did make me wonder if it’s the slight opening that others like Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph need to jump onto more radars. The Cowboys’ signal-caller in particular seems like somebody whose momentum is only just getting started given how well he’s playing. It’s a long ways until draft day but this is certainly a very intriguing quarterback class.
6. Where does Nebraska go from here?
Mike Riley’s personality fits Nebraska. He’s smartly helped increase the school’s recruiting connections into California. He fired a longtime confidant and brought in a respected defensive coordinator who had a good track record at his last Midwest stop. He landed a solid transfer at the one position (quarterback) the Cornhuskers needed most. All of which is to say, Riley understands that tweaks and changes need to be made — and have been made recently — if he’s to succeed in Lincoln.
Yet even in what many expected to be a rebuilding season, it’s hard to fathom just how bad this team has been in 2017. They needed a late stop to secure their only win of the year, were blown out for most of their contest at Oregon and then lost 21-17 to a MAC team. While that last item is not typically cause for concern in the Big Ten — and maybe even a requirement of joining the conference — the fact that it was an awful Northern Illinois team means alarm bells are ringing all over Big Red.
While even the most ardent of supporters understands the days of annually competing for the national title are over, winning consistently and also having a few high-water marks like their division rivals Iowa (a Rose Bowl appearance) and Wisconsin (trips to Indy, New Year’s Six bowl) are not unreasonable. It’s one reason why Riley has been on the hot seat with his fan base ever since he took the job and underscores that even if he makes it until next fall in charge, there’s a ton of work left to be done. Perhaps playing all those young players will pay off in 2018 and lead to big things down the road.
If not though, Nebraska will have to hope that Scott Frost doesn’t take a bigger job this offseason.
7. We appear headed toward an Alabama/Clemson rubber match
Remember when we fretted over Clemson losing Deshuan Watson and a half dozen other starters? Or how Jonathan Allen’s production would be replaced in a young front seven for Alabama?
It has been just three weeks but it sure seems like those question marks about the Tigers’ aren’t quite what they used to be — not after dispatching Louisville with ease this weekend. Over in Tuscaloosa, things are business as usual as the Tide look to have reloaded and replaced at every spot (again). Neither Clemson nor Alabama appear to be perfect but the top two teams in the country sure have acted like it despite several difficult tests to begin 2017 and make it seem like we’re barreling to seeing both in the title game for a third straight season.
Can you imagine the scene in Atlanta if that were to be the case for the rubber match? As fun as it has been to watch Golden State and Cleveland play in the NBA Finals three straight times, a college football trifecta between Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban sounds pretty fun too (especially given how recent championship games have been).
Georgia, Florida State and a handful of others will have a say about any undefeated runs over the coming weeks. You also can never predict key injuries. The list of true national title contenders shrinks with each passing week and will accelerate as teams enter the thick of conference play over the next few months. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Penn State and the like have looked good early and seem like they could make things interesting when it comes time to narrow the College Football Playoff field down to four.
But the way things stand now, it sure seems like we’ll see part three of Tigers and Tide played at the end of the season.
Stat of the Week
In four career starts against Oregon State, Luke Falk went 4-0 and threw for 1,689 yards (422.3 ypg), 22 touchdowns and two interceptions. The 22 touchdowns against one team is likely an FBS record and nobody comes close to the mark since at least 2000. Thankfully for the Beavers, Falk will be in the NFL the next time the two play in 2018.
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player:Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
Heisman five: 1. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 2. Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State), 3. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 4. Sam Darnold (USC), 5. Saquon Barkley (Penn State)
Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Oklahoma, 4. Ohio State
Team of the week: Austin Peay (29-game losing streak snapped)
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Mike Riley, Nebraska
Quote of the week: "It wasn't pretty, but ugly wins count too." — USC’s Clay Helton
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.
4. Oklahoma State
6. Penn State
8. Mississippi State
9. Ohio State
10. Florida State
15. Virginia Tech
Best of the rest: Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Miami, Washington State, Memphis, San Diego State, Oregon, West Virginia, Colorado
TCU at Oklahoma State
Two years ago, the Horned Frogs travelled to Stillwater ranked in the top 10 with a Heisman Trophy candidate and were blown out by the Cowboys to knock them out of College Football Playoff contention. Could the same thing happen again, or could the reverse be true and TCU returns the favor on the road to an OSU squad in the top 10 with their own Heisman contender? This one will be closer than expected until the Mullet’s team pulls away late.
Mississippi State at Georgia
Was that performance against LSU a mirage for Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs or a sign they’re here to stay? MSU is a team well equipped to play somebody like Georgia given personnel on defense and the ability for Nick Fitzgerald to beat you with his arm and his legs. This is a tricky one but we’ll lean toward the home team by a field goal.
Penn State at Iowa
The Hawkeyes are 3-0 for the seventh time under Kirk Ferentz, and the last two times they did so the team finished with 11 wins. Could this be another one of those Iowa teams that surprises everybody with a great year despite not much there on paper? We’ll find out this week with PSU coming to town for a prime-time game. Something says this one will be much tougher for the Nittany Lions than their non-conference slate even if they secure the win in the end.
— 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.