It happens every single college football season, without fail.
There’s always that one week on the calendar where the slate of games looks less than appetizing and sometimes even down right appalling. By midweek you might be wondering whether or not to skip a few games on Saturday in order to take care of a few chores or spend time outside in that last bit of summer weather. On cue however, that once measly slate turns into one wild weekend with everything from narrow escapes to unexpected upsets to the craziest of jaw-dropping endings.
In 2016, Week 2 checked off all those boxes and what was supposed to be a nice, quiet slate of games turned into anything but by the time Sunday morning rolled around. Just look at the top 10, which saw only three teams (Michigan, Washington and Wisconsin) dispatch overmatched opponents in quiet fashion. The others all had something unexpected or noteworthy happen that made a routine week anything but.
Top-ranked Alabama played well against Western Kentucky but still failed to live up to the Nick Saban standard, prompting a few outbursts from the unhappy head coach on the sideline and in a later press conference. Clemson struggled mightily with Troy and won by just six. Florida State saw star safety Derwin James taken off with an injury. Ohio State was sluggish to start against Tulsa and had to sit through both a downpour and an extended weather delay. Houston went through the same thing with the weather gods and didn’t have starting quarterback Greg Ward Jr. in a romp over Lamar. Georgia was pushed to the brink in a two-point win in its home opener against Nicholls.
From the top to the bottom of the polls, from East Coast to West Coast, it was just one unexpected week of college football.
The epicenter of that abnormal was in the Big 12 however. In Stillwater, one untimed down — that should never have happened according to both the MAC and the Big 12 — resulted in a Central Michigan Hail Mary-and-lateral touchdown that took down Oklahoma State 30-27. Further south, three fourth quarter touchdowns were not enough for TCU to beat Arkansas in a wild double- overtime loss that was more of an old WAC shootout after halftime than SWC revival.
In retrospect, both should have resulted in wins. The Cowboys literally had the game won before throwing it away. The Horned Frogs couldn’t get a defensive stop or kick a field goal to secure the win in the final minute. Still, they will count firmly in the loss column going forward and only served to further hurt their conference’s reputation in the bigger picture.
Just two weeks into the season, one would be right to worry about the Big 12 on and off the field right now. The league has won just 58 percent of its non-conference games — the worst mark by far of the Power Five — and has failed to secure many marque victories despite ample opportunities. It says plenty about the Big 12 that there are just three undefeated teams left after two weeks and, aside from Texas’ upset of Notre Dame, the conference is hanging its hat on West Virginia’s win over Missouri.
That’s not good at all. Unless you’re outside the Big 12 that is.
Which conference might be best able to take advantage is still up for debate but it’s probably not who you’d expect.
It’s been a widely held belief that the SEC would be the league best suited to placing four teams in the final four but that appears not to be the case in 2016. Alabama continues to lift up the league but after that only Ole Miss has shown enough to even be in the national conversation at this point (and we’ll see about that in Oxford this upcoming Saturday). For right now though, it’s the Crimson Tide or bust in the land where it just means more.
That’s not the case for the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 though.
The ACC has three teams in the top 10 at the moment and, perhaps luckily for it, all are in the same division. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where one of Florida State, Clemson and Louisville goes undefeated, another has just one loss to end the year and the final team loses to the other two and stays in the top 10. That might just be enough for two ACC Playoff teams if the Big 12 and Pac-12 have a conference champion with two losses.
The Big Ten also could pounce courtesy of big brand names Michigan and Ohio State. The Buckeyes can put a dagger into Big 12 playoff hopes this week in Norman and the Wolverines have done everything that’s been asked of them during an easy opening slate. If they can meet at the end of the year undefeated, that talk from 2006 about a rematch in a big bowl game could be revived. Either way, both top-five teams look like bona fide national title contenders with talented rosters and a pair of top-notch coaches.
Still, the scenarios of placing two teams into the Playoff needs a lot to happen for things to have a truly realistic chance of happening. Putting that line of thinking on hold and looking more realistically, no league is as delighted at the Big 12’s misfortune quite like the Pac-12 is.
Yes, opportunities for big early wins by UCLA, USC, Washington State and others never materialized but the North division in particular looks like it could be even more loaded than once thought. Stanford and Washington are both ranked in the top 10 at the moment and it’s not inconceivable that either the Cardinal or Huskies could have a better case for the committee to be in the final four even if they suffered a loss based on strength of schedule and quality wins. Stanford would definitely trumpet its victory over Kansas State to begin the year for example.
As time goes on, the Pac-12 looks best positioned to take advantage of any struggles the Big 12 has when it comes to the national title race. We’re still a ways away from the selection committee’s first set of rankings but already the narrative has started to move and shift after just two weeks.
If the Big 12 doesn’t want to find itself on the outside looking in for the second time in three years, the league better get moving where it counts: on the field. There are only a handful of opportunities left to leave a mark on the national landscape and the Big 12 must take advantage of them or commissioner Bob Bowlsby will be left wondering what if by the end of October in between expansion meetings.
The biggest chance to change minds comes this week when Oklahoma hosts Ohio State. If the Sooners win that, they’re right back in the Playoff hunt. Fellow league power Texas also must impress at Cal on Saturday and then have to keep rolling come time for conference play.
Given the state of everybody else though, just two games in and it’s simply hard not to wonder if the preseason notion that the Big 12 has a Playoff spot locked up was a bit of fool’s gold. After a whacky Week 2 in fly-over country, one is starting to get that impression.
Stat of the Week
The three service academies (Army, Navy and Air Force) are all 2-0 to start the season for the first time since 1996. Amazingly, the three have never started the year 3-0 together. The Black Knights play at UTEP next week, Navy is at Tulane and Air Force plays at Utah State in two weeks. It’s possible all three schools are favored in those matchups.
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage (eight touchdowns — seven rushing, one receiving — on just 15 touches)
Heisman five: 1. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 2. Greg Ward Jr. (Houston), 3. Christian McCaffrey (Stanford), 4. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State), 5. DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame)
Team of the week: Louisville
Goat of the week: Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
Quote of the week: Nick Saban on being seen yelling at Lane Kiffin: "There were no arguments. Those are called ass chewings."
Play of the Week
Central Michigan sure does have a thing for laterals and Hail Marys to win games (even if this one shouldn’t have counted).
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 3.
2. Florida State
3. Ohio State
12. Texas A&M
15. Notre Dame
Just missed the cut: Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Florida, Boise State, San Diego State, Pitt, Baylor, Michigan State, LSU, Toledo
Florida State at Louisville
The Cardinals have not truly been tested this season but look like they’re ahead of schedule thanks to the emergence of Lamar Jackson behind center. The question mark surrounding the status of safety Derwin James has to be a concern for Florida State on a short week but the Seminoles are just too good in the trenches to take a loss in what should be an entertaining game.
Alabama at Ole Miss
One shudders to think what the reverberations will be if Ole Miss beats Alabama for a third straight season. The Crimson Tide have likely had this one circled since the offseason and they should be more than ready to take home a win from Oxford as the Alabama defensive line really takes over against the Rebels.
Ohio State at Oklahoma
This was my most anticipated game of the 2016 season and even though Oklahoma lost to Houston, it still has a lot of the elements that could make it a classic: two Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback, a pair of all-time great head coaches, some young defenses looking to prove things and two conferences that badly need the marquee victory. I’ll still stick with the home team in a narrow upset but this truly seems like a tossup at this point.
— 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.