An Assessment of the College Football Landscape Three Weeks into the Season
It is both exciting and upsetting that a quarter of the college football regular season is complete. There has been plenty of drama, with surprising performances (both good and bad) from across the country. Three weeks is enough time to make a few claims and reflect on some of the commonly shared opinions from the preseason. I take a stab at identifying what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know through the first three weeks of action.
What We Know
- Dwayne Haskins Jr. is the most polished passer Urban Meyer has ever had
As an Ohio State alum, it has been a while since I have been able to watch a quarterback whom I was supremely confident in distributing the ball. Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett were both run-first, throw-second quarterbacks. Defenses would force those two to beat them with their arm.
Playing the same game with Haskins would be a mistake, as TCU found out during a 40-28 Buckeye victory. Haskins passed a difficult against the Horned Frogs in Jerry World. He accounted for 3 TDs (including one on the ground), and the Buckeyes defense chipped in 2 more scores. Coach Urban Meyer returns from a suspension this week to a quarterback situation he truly has not had before. Meyer’s quarterbacks have always been very productive at the collegiate level (Tim Tebow, Alex Smith, Miller, Barrett to name a few), but none have had the arm talent Haskins possesses. He has performed so well thus far that Meyer mentioned Tuesday he will be taking a more hands-off approach as a “game manager” with the offense, signaling his confidence in Haskins working with co-Offensive Coordinators Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson.
As Trent Dilfer alluded to Saturday night, (https://twitter.com/DilfersDimes/status/1041169042017591296), Haskins’ passing prowess is rare. He’s completing over 72% of his passes with an 11/1 TD-to-INT ratio through the first three games. He is firmly in the Heisman discussion, and if he plays like he did Saturday night, he will have a chance to have one of the best debut and farewell seasons a college quarterback has ever had. He could be a one-year wonder who has his name called very early next April.
- All LSU needed to compete was a competent quarterback
It has been pretty remarkable to see the difference Joe Burrow has made for this LSU team. The talent on defense and at the skill positions (Fournette, Guice, Landry, Beckham to name a few) over the past 10-15 years has been some of the best in the country. Many would argue the quarterback play has been what kept LSU from competing more closely with Alabama during the Saban Era. It seemed to be the number one question heading into camp every preseason. This offseason was no different. The mood around the program was pessimistic with quarterback questions, a daunting schedule, and Coach Orgeron at the top of all the national “Hot Seat” lists. Many, myself included, predicted a rough start for the Tigers which could have led to an impatient fan base looking to make a change.
Enter Burrow. The Ohio State transfer has stabilized the program and transformed them into a contender in the SEC West seemingly overnight. His numbers aren’t staggering, but his ability to make the right play and, more importantly, avoid the catastrophic one has made a world of difference for the Bayou Bengals. Previously, opponents could key on stopping the run and wait to pounce on the mistakes of the Tigers’ QB. Burrow’s composure and decision making in big situations early in the year have been impressive. Saturday’s win on The Plains was a surprise because in the past LSU has not had a savvy quarterback capable of the 14 play drive that ended with a game-winning field goal.
The Tigers have arguably the toughest stretch of games in the country upcoming. Their next few weeks include Ole Miss, at Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama. A brutal stretch that before the season looked like it could be Orgeron’s undoing as head coach. That outlook has completely changed with Burrow under center.
- Kyler Murray brings a different dimension to the Oklahoma offense
It was no secret that whomever Lincoln Riley billed as the next signal caller in Norman would have a tough time replacing the production of Baker Mayfield. The Heisman winner was as prolific a passer as we have seen in recent memory. What made him special was his accuracy, but he was mobile enough to keep defenses honest when running the read option.
Unlike Mayfield, Murray’s running is what defenses key on. The future Oakland Athletic outfielder has already had a few highlight-worthy runs in the young season. With Rodney Anderson out for the year, his running ability will be even more of a focal point for opposing defenses moving forward. Murray was his usual self on the ground Saturday in a 37-27 win over an undermanned yet scrappy Iowa State team. He ran for 77 yards and kept a number of plays alive when the pocket collapsed. His arm was a question mark coming into the year, but he silenced many doubters with his performance in Ames. He completed 72% of his passes for 348 yards and 3 TD’s. He may not need to throw as much as Mayfield did, but performances like this past weekend will keep coordinators from bringing an extra man in the box to key on him in the running game. Their personnel changed, but with Murray at the helm, Riley’s Sooners look as if they will remain the class of the Big 12.
- There is no hangover in Athens
Give Kirby Smart credit. While they had a lot to replace as studs like Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel exited to the NFL, talent was not the concern I had about this Georgia team. I wondered how the Dawgs would respond to last year’s playoff loss. To come so close only to fall short of capturing the program’s first title can weigh on a team’s psyche. But there has been no stopping the momentum Smart has generated. The defense has picked up right where they left off, and the tandem of D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield appears fully capable of replacing Chubb and Michel’s production. Many wondered whether a week 2 trip to South Carolina would push them. Georgia put together a convincing performance, pulling away from the Gamecocks in a 41-17 road victory.
Upcoming road games against Missouri and LSU, along with hosting Auburn in November still loom as tests for Smart’s group. I don’t love the 2 QB system, but Fields is too talented to keep on the bench, and Fromm and Smart seem to be handling everything just fine. It might be time to stop doubting them as they march back to Atlanta for what could be a rematch with the Tide for the SEC crown and a playoff berth.
- Vegas Knows
I don’t know how they do it, but I know they do it well. There are at least a half dozen examples of this every week, but I will focus on the point total in Saturday’s Alabama-Ole Miss contest. 70 was the number to hit, and the Tide were dominant, putting up 49 in the first half. They allowed only an opening drive Rebels TD for 56 total first half points. The Tide put in their second and third strings after halftime, and were still clearly the better team. Given their recent history with the Rebs, they wanted to pour it on. The last points in this game were scored with just over 12 minutes left in the 4th quarter. The total ended at 69, with Bama rolling 62-7 in Oxford.
Vegas always knows.
What We Think We Know
These appear to be true for now, but things could change:
- The SEC West is the best division in college football
The Big Ten East is the only real contender to this claim, but they have some work to do. Ohio State has looked to be one of the most explosive offenses in the country, but has been susceptible to big plays defensively. Michigan lost their toughest matchup to date in South Bend, but seems to have turned a corner offensively. Penn State seems to have found their way after a shaky first two weeks. Michigan State has been slightly disappointing early on, with an escape at home against Utah State in Week 1 and a tough road loss to the Fighting Herm Edwards’ in Tempe. Indiana has looked improved through the first three weeks, and has a chance to make a statement against the Spartans in Bloomington this weekend. Maryland opened strong against Texas before dropping one to Temple at home. Rutgers is still searching for their footing in the Big Ten, and a convincing loss in Lawrence to lowly Kansas did not help.
The SEC West is more loaded at the top than it appeared before the season, but does not lack in depth of quality teams. Alabama is as dominant as advertised, and the talent discrepancy between them and the rest of the country is significant. Some teams have everything you want on their roster; Alabama has two of everything you want on theirs. LSU has the two most impressive wins through the early part of the season. Texas A&M might be the most improved team in the country, and many would argue they were robbed of a season-defining win over Clemson two weeks ago. Jimbo Fisher has had an immediate impact on Kellen Mond’s development. Joe Moorehead has Mississippi State undefeated heading into conference play after convincing wins over Stephen F. Austin, at Kansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Nick Fitzgerald seems to be healthy after a gruesome injury that ended his 2017 season. Both the Bulldogs and Aggies appear to have the formula to give the Crimson Tide some trouble when they meet in Tuscaloosa (creative offensive coaches, dual-threat quarterbacks, strong defenses to keep them in the game). Auburn’s offense has not quite hit their stride yet, but they’ve faced two top defenses in their opening games. They still have one of the best front 7’s in college football, and I trust Gus Malzahn will find a way to get the offense straightened out over the next few weeks. Ole Miss has an explosive offense, but will have to win every game in a shootout. Arkansas has looked every bit the rebuilding project they were expected to be. The home loss this past weekend to the Mean Green of North Texas was not a pretty sight.
- Clemson is still the “safest bet” to make the playoff
Before the season began, many national pundits pegged the Tigers as the most likely team to make the playoff thanks to the combination of their returning talent and a manageable schedule. Clemson avoids facing either Virginia Tech or Miami in the Coastal until the ACC Championship, and the trip to Tallahassee does not look nearly as intimidating now as it did in August. A visit to Chestnut Hill in November will likely be the toughest test remaining on their schedule. Even if Clemson were to “Clemson” and drop a game they have no business losing, it seems like they will still have the best shot at making their conference title game compared to the other playoff contenders.
Quick tangent – I know Trevor Lawrence has all the talent in the world, but what more does Kelly Bryant need to do to get some love and respect? He’s dynamic in the running game, and his limitations in the passing game are blown out of proportion. I think Coach Dabo Swinney could open up the playbook a little bit more in big spots to allow Bryant to spread the ball around to the numerous playmakers at his disposal.
- The Penn State offense will be just as explosive without Saquon Barkley
You could argue this is in the “What We Don’t Know” category, but I am going out on a limb a little bit. I want to be clear here. I am NOT saying Penn State is better without Barkley, because I don’t think they are. He is a transcendent talent. However, I don’t expect the drop-off in production we usually see when a team loses a player of his caliber to the NFL. We haven’t seen his departure from his collegiate team have the impact like Sam Darnold’s departure has had with USC. Miles Sanders has filled in nicely for Barkley thus far, helping lead the Nittany Lions to averaging over 50 points per game. Barkley was even overheard at the end of last season’s Fiesta Bowl telling Sanders to “save me some records”, leading me to believe that we haven’t seen the best of Sanders yet.
To be fair, Penn State has not faced a top level defense to date but I think the offense is capable of matching last year’s outputs in big games. Coach James Franklin has recruited very well, and I think some of the other skill players are still finding their footing. Defenses can’t key on Barkley like they did a year ago (even though they could not stop him), which means more equal opportunity for quarterback Trace McSorley to be a dynamic playmaker in this offense. I don’t think McSorley has found his rhythm yet either, which should be a scary thought for Big Ten opponents. He has always had a knack for the big moment, and I expect him to play well when Penn State hosts Ohio State on September 29th.
What We Still Don’t Know
Well, a lot, but definitely these few things:
- If Notre Dame is a true playoff contender
Since week 1, the Irish have been anything but convincing. They have had their moments en route to a 3-0 start. But if they continue to play like they have for the last 9 or so quarters, they will be on the outside looking in on College Football’s version of Selection Sunday. The Irish offense has been particularly sloppy, highlighted by Brandon Wimbush’s 52.2 QBR and 1/4 TD-to-INT ratio. I’ll give them a pass against Ball State, as it was a natural spot for a letdown after an emotional victory over Michigan in Week 1. However, the Irish were fortunate to hold on to a victory in South Bend this past weekend against Vanderbilt. I would have expected them to have more momentum after opening the year with three home games, but they have sputtered a bit and seem to have more questions than answers than you’d expect based on their record. The next three weeks will play a big part into shaping their chances for the playoff, beginning with this weekend’s road test at Wake Forest. It could be a bit of a trap game with Notre Dame looking ahead to hosting Stanford and traveling to Virginia Tech the following two weeks. The talent is there, and the schedule is manageable from mid-October onward, but they will have to clean some things up if they want to avoid falling apart as they did toward the end of last season.
- Who is the class of the Pac 12?
Many pronounced the conference’s playoff hopes dead after Week 1 with Washington’s loss to Auburn in Atlanta. I’m not ready to go that far yet. I still think the Huskies have a chance, and they are not alone, but all of these teams have major questions. Jake Browning has had a shaky few weeks against top defenses, but he has plenty of experience and a strong supporting cast. Washington was fortunate to get a win in Salt Lake City Saturday, as Utah could not convert late after a first and goal from inside the Washington 5 yard line to make things interesting. Staying in the North, Stanford has finally identified a quarterback after years of searching to replace Kevin Hogan. However, the Bryce Love undisclosed injury is a concern, and outside of JJ Arcega-Whiteside, no other perimeter player has truly emerged. Oregon has a potent offense again and a relatively favorable schedule, but there are still questions about the defense and Mario Cristobal. The Autzen Zoo will be rocking Saturday night, as the Ducks host the Cardinal in the biggest game in Eugene since Marcus Mariota was under center. Cal is very well coached, and the BYU win in Provo looks even more impressive after they beat Wisconsin in Madison. They host Oregon, Washington and Stanford later in the year, but are they ready to make the jump and compete with those teams? Washington State’s defense has been impressive to start the year, but they always seem to lose a game that’s inexplicable. Oregon State is improved, but not a threat to contend.
The Pac 12 North seems very deep, but the Pac 12 South is a bit of a mess. USC had a difficult opening schedule and is starting a true freshman quarterback, but the offense has looked pedestrian. Clay Helton’s teams have notoriously started slowly, so there’s still a chance he can right the ship to an eight or nine win year. Arizona State appeared to be the best in the South after beating Michigan State, but they dropped one on the road to San Diego State in a classic “hangover” loss. Arizona may be the biggest disappointment so far, as Kevin Sumlin inherited a Heisman candidate only to see his campaign go by the wayside after two losses against BYU and Houston. Colorado has been a bright spot, but with Nebraska’s loss to Troy this past Saturday, that road win doesn’t seem as impressive. Utah had a great opportunity to beat Washington at home but squandered their chances late. UCLA has a long way to go, and another Bruins head coach faces a loud dad who thinks he knows how to coach his son’s collegiate team (https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2018/09/18/chip-kelly-continues-to-struggle-at-ucla-with-qbs-dad-now-taking-shots/).
In conclusion, the PAC 12 is all over the place. The next few weeks should provide some clarity as to who is at the top and whether or not the conference still has a shot at a playoff spot.
- What is going on in Tallahassee?
Saturday’s performance in the Carrier Dome was an utter embarrassment. I watched far too much of this 30-7 drubbing. The score is misleading; it was not even that close. That’s how bad Florida State looked against Syracuse. The defense played decent for a half, and it looked like they’d have a chance to get back in the game when the Orange’s starting quarterback Eric Dungey exited the contest. That was not the case, as backup Tommy DeVito performed well and the Orange gashed Florida State for 222 yards rushing. The Orange had the ball for 36 minutes, in large part to the Florida State offensive ineptitude. I feel bad for Deondre Francois. I think he is incredibly talented, but he has very little help right now. The playmakers around him are young, and the offensive line is still in shambles. I’m not sure how the line play can still be this significant of an issue after 2+ years of attempting to address it, but it is the foundation of their offensive problems. The ‘Noles are out of the playoff picture and saw their ACC title chances wash away this past Saturday, falling to 0-2 in conference play. Will this team crumble again like last year, when the Alabama loss opening weekend sent them into a tailspin? Willie Taggart asked for patience this week, and he will need it. He has a lot of work to do to salvage the season and potentially his job.
- How Wisconsin will respond to a shocking home loss
I think the Badgers home loss to BYU was the most surprising result of the season thus far. Wisconsin has defended home turf well under Paul Chryst with a 15-1 record at Camp Randall over the past 2+ seasons. They were even more dominant in the non-conference and held the nation’s longest non-conference home winning streak of 41 games. Wisconsin was outplayed throughout and their hopes of extending their streak to 42 games ended when, ironically, Rafael Gaglianone’s 42 yard field goal attempt went wide left with 41 seconds left. I am not sure if the Badgers were looking ahead to their conference opener at Iowa, but that would hard to believe as BYU has played too well in the first few weeks to be overlooked. I predicted the Badgers would lose in Kinnick before the season started, but I think I’m going to back off that claim now. They will be hyper-focused and ready to prove last week was a fluke. This weekend’s game in Kinnick will go a long way in determining who will represent the Big Ten West in Indianapolis this December.
Thank you for reading! Check back in a few weeks for the next Quarterly Report to see what else we have learned and if these statements/predictions held true.