College Football Writer
As conference play begins in earnest for much of college football this weekend, including the Big 12 debut for Cincinnati hosting Oklahoma in the “Big Noon Kickoff” game on Saturday, it’s time to take stock in the title races that are about to transfix the country from now until early December. With a quarter of the season already in the books — and a decent enough sample size of just how good (or bad) teams are — who can truly be considered the favorite for each Power 5 league?
Consequently, who has shown that although they may be 2-1 or 3-0 on the year, they’re really just pretending to be in position to challenge for the trophy?
HOW TO WATCH ‘BIG NOON KICKOFF’ THIS SATURDAY
- 10 a.m.-Noon ET: “Big Noon Kickoff” pregame show on FOX
- Noon ET: Oklahoma at Cincinnati on FOX and the FOX Sports app
After putting on the tape following an eventful Week 3 of the season, here is the state of each conference race.
The Longhorns were in a classic letdown game against Wyoming on the heels of their big win over Alabama, playing around for three quarters before eventually taking care of business in a 31-10 win. The Big 12 preseason favorite remains in pole position to end its time in the conference with a championship. The Longhorns have the most talented roster in the league, even though they’re perfectly capable of slipping up to an unranked opponent at some point this fall. Texas seems like it’s not yet reaching its potential.
Contenders: Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas State
The Sooners struggled against SMU at home in Week 2, but otherwise have put the pedal to the metal against inferior competition in their other two games, ranking in the top five in both scoring offense and defense. It’s clear that they’re much improved in Brent Venables’ second year, particularly when it comes to some of the aspects they struggled with a year ago — namely tackling. The Sooners get three of the new schools on the schedule during conference play, including Cincinnati off a loss this week, and bottom-third opponents like Iowa State, West Virginia and Oklahoma State as well. Even if Red River doesn’t turn out well, they’re as good a pick as any to still get back to Dallas.
Interestingly, Oklahoma hosts one of their top contenders in TCU to end the regular season. The Horned Frogs have gotten back on track after that surprise loss to Colorado, which is turning out to be far more of a quality game than first expected. The offense still hasn’t clicked like it should, but the defensive improvement the last two weeks is pretty encouraging.
KSU had a far more head-scratching loss, losing to Missouri on a 61-yard field goal in a game the Wildcats gave away in the fourth quarter. The non-conference setback aside, Chris Klieman still has plenty to work with in Manhattan to repeat as title winners but needs DJ Giddens and Treshaun Ward to pick things up in the run game to give Will Howard some more time to get the passing game in sync. They skip the Sooners on the schedule and host TCU, but also have to travel to Texas to balance things out.
Pretenders: Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, Kansas, Texas Tech
The Bearcats had an excellent chance to be 3-0 but blew an absolutely winnable game to Miami (Ohio) on Saturday, with numerous issues in the red zone. The roster is not close to being able to contend long-term, even if Cincy seems like it’ll knock off somebody they shouldn’t. Fellow newcomer BYU played its best game of the season in knocking off Arkansas but has still had some inconsistent spurts on offense and may have the toughest league slate ahead. UCF, meanwhile, will be without starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee for a few weeks. The Jayhawks have a dynamic offense but Jalon Daniels has also been dealing with some injuries early in the year and struggled in their only road trip of the year against a woeful Nevada team that just was blown out by an FCS side. Texas Tech might have the most talent to leap up into the contender tier, but an 0-2 start in non-conference play that was compounded by some blown leads is enough to think the title talk was a little premature.
A bowl would be nice: Iowa State, West Virginia, Baylor, Houston, Oklahoma State
The Wolverines won’t play much of anybody with a pulse until November, so it’s hard to completely tell how improved they really are from last season. Jim Harbaugh’s suspension is over, however, and you would like to think that means they’ll be a little crisper in terms of execution after Saturday’s turnover-filled slog over Bowling Green.
Have Buckeyes solidified themselves as a top 10 team?
Contenders: Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa
At this point, the biggest threat to Michigan likely lies with their Nov. 11 date in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions have shown flashes, but need to continue to build up the passing attack into a more consistent force. OSU seemed to break out of its shell on that same front against Western Kentucky in a 63-10 win but is still far from a finished product at the moment. A road trip to Notre Dame in Week 4 will show us if a return to the College Football Playoff could be in the cards. On the other half of the league, Iowa’s salty defense and special teams continue to balance out any continued offensive issues as the class of the Big Ten West right now.
Pretenders: Rutgers, Maryland, Minnesota, Wisconsin
Mike Locksley believes his team can be in contention for more than just a bowl game, but some slow starts in their first three wins have put that in question. QB Taulia Tagovailoa has been pushing the ball down the field more, but it’s not resulting in any more touchdowns, and it doesn’t seem like a true test will happen until heading to Columbus on Oct. 7. Rutgers looks plenty capable of reaching a bowl but has wins over two of the worst Power 5 programs and have a very difficult upcoming schedule that starts with Michigan this coming Saturday. Minnesota’s defense has been solid, but the Gophers rank in the 100s in numerous offensive categories, while Wisconsin remains turnover prone. The Badgers do have a favorable schedule that includes Iowa and Ohio State coming to Camp Randall but still need to improve drastically in terms of consistency if they’re to make the leap.
A bowl would be nice: Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern
The Trojans lead the country in scoring while Caleb Williams does Caleb Williams things. Most encouragingly, the defense seems to have much-improved personnel. Once they get past Arizona State, however, the gauntlet begins with six ranked teams ahead plus tricky games against Arizona and at Cal sandwiched in.
Deion Sanders, Colorado avoid upset
Contenders: Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, Utah, Washington
At this point, it’s easier to list who isn’t a contender out West as just about everybody in the above group has a quality quarterback and has shown some things on defense, too. The Bruins do have a freshman operating the controls behind center in Dante Moore and haven’t faced much resistance in a light non-conference slate, but will finally get tested when they face Utah this week in a bit of a separation game. The Utes still haven’t had their best QB take a snap but seem to be the most complete team if Cam Rising returns to the lineup fully healthy. Both of the Oregon schools have improved from week to week, and the Buffs have so far proven to be legitimate as one of the few teams around who can claim a pair of Power 5 victories. Washington is likely the top threat to the Trojans, however, as Michael Penix Jr. and the rest of the Huskies offense have simply been laying waste to all who have stepped in front of them.
Pretenders: Washington State, Arizona, Cal
None of these three are easy outs by any stretch of the imagination, but all have issues on one side of the ball. Turnovers are particularly problematic for the Bears and Wildcats, while the Cougars defense isn’t quite where it was a year ago.
A bowl would be nice: Arizona State, Stanford
Are the Washington Huskies undervalued?
Favorite: Florida State
That near loss to Boston College is going to ring alarm bells for some but may have been a product of the circumstances in a classic lookahead road trip before taking on Clemson this week. That win over LSU is going to carry weight for the CFP Selection Committee, and the Noles can really help their case in-league by dealing the Tigers their second conference loss before the month is out. It helps that both Duke and Miami, arguably their biggest threats, have to come to Tallahassee.
Contenders: Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Clemson
While many assumed the Blue Devils were going to take a step back based on a much tougher schedule, that may wind up being a false assumption, as the defense has balanced out what QB Riley Leonard brings to the table. They do have to go to FSU and Louisville, plus down the road to UNC, but the path is still there to make it to Charlotte. Miami is one of the candidates for most-improved after rolling to a 3-0 start and should be 6-0 going into a stretch that sees them play four tough games in a five-week stretch. One of those games is against the Tar Heels, who seem to be much improved defensively (17 and 13 points allowed to Power Five opponents so far this year) and have the best quarterback in the league (and maybe the country). As for little ol’ Clemson, Dabo Swinney’s crew still has plenty of talent and a pretty good defense, but it remains to be seen if new OC Garrett Riley will be able to get things rolling
Pretenders: Louisville, Syracuse, Wake Forest, N.C. State
Jeff Brohm has the Cardinals off to a 3-0 mark but needed a goal-line stand and a late rally in order to do so. The team displays better balance than under the previous regime, but things haven’t quite clicked enough to elevate into being a real contender. ‘Cuse is also off to a good start against a light schedule but has a difficult next three weeks coming up. Wake’s defense still appears to be a problem, as is the Wolfpack’s surprisingly (64th in points allowed).
A bowl would be nice: Pitt, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Boston College, Georgia Tech
Kansas State upset, Florida State holds on
The reigning champs are at the top of the pyramid based on talent and respect because it will be so hard to gauge how good the 2023 edition is with no ranked teams on tap until basically Halloween. Both sides of the ball seem to have showcased a little rust during their first three games, but the safest assumption in the sport right now is probably seeing Kirby Smart in Atlanta the first week of December.
Contenders: LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama
The lopsided final score against FSU overshadowed that LSU did play well in stretches during its opener and has proceeded to show why it has the talent to make it back to the SEC title game. Jayden Daniels still takes too many hits, and Harold Perkins doesn’t seem to be utilized as best as he could be — but this remains the most balanced group of anybody in the West. The schedule is daunting, however, with road trips to Missouri, Ole Miss and Alabama highlighting a difficult stretch in the middle of the year. The Rebels will put their contender status on the line by going to Tuscaloosa this week, but have, on balance, played the best across their early games of anybody in the SEC right now. Lane Kiffin’s team has gotten off to some sub-par starts but seems to make adjustments well by averaging 33 points in the second half. The Tide seem as vulnerable as they ever have under Nick Saban, but they still have the greatest coach of all time and the best roster in the country according to 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite. That’s got to count for something no matter how bad they looked against USF.
Pretenders: Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, South Carolina, Auburn, Arkansas, Texas A&M
The middle pack of the SEC seems as soft as it has been in nearly a decade. The list above all have been suspect defensively at times so far this year but mostly can’t be elevated due to quarterback play being even more questionable.
A bowl would be nice: Vanderbilt, Mississippi State
Do the Georgia Bulldogs still look like the best team in the country?
First and 10
1. The lackluster slate on paper naturally turned into what veteran college football observers could have seen coming from miles away: a Saturday filled with upsets or lackluster performances. Boy did that ever turn out to be the case as numerous teams struggled in what wound up being very much a win-your-clunkers weekend. Georgia struggled to put away a pesky South Carolina side 24-14 at home, Michigan turned the ball over way too much, Boston College probably upsets FSU if they don’t commit so many penalties and Texas played with its food as Wyoming made things interesting late — and that’s just the top five, which probably saw USC thank the stars they were off. One common theme throughout? Lack of offensive execution.
2. Speaking of offense, it’s very apparent that college football quarterbacking has become the domain of either transfers or young starters since the arrival of the transfer portal. Of the top 20 passers in terms of yards per game, 16 of them are transfers, one is a multi-year sophomore starter, one is a multi-year redshirt sophomore and two are freshmen. You either start or transfer at the most important position on the field and that’s a strategy that coaches and players alike seem to be following.
3. Of the dozen worst Power 5 programs by overall winning percentage, a remarkable half of them (Wake Forest, Kansas, Oregon State, Rutgers, Duke, Washington State) have started 2023 with a 3-0 mark, and it nearly was seven after Kansas State lost at the buzzer. Incredibly, this is the second straight season that group of teams has begun the year 3-0.
4. The Wildcats and former No. 11 Tennessee going down on the road to unranked opponents got the most attention on Saturday, but it was also a banner weekend for the little guy, too. Fresno State extended the second-longest winning streak in the country to 12 games by shutting out Arizona State. The Bulldogs, which were paid a combined $2.45 million in buy games against the Sun Devils and Purdue, are the only team with two Power 5 road wins on their résumé.
Elsewhere, the Big 12 really took one on the chin as three Group of 5 teams pulled off upsets — Ohio topped Iowa State, South Alabama thumped Oklahoma State and Miami (Ohio) won in overtime at Cincinnati. The Pac-12, which has been stellar in non-conference play so far, was not immune either, as Sacramento State spoiled Troy Taylor’s debut on the Farm by beating their former coach late on Saturday night for the first FCS-over-Power 5 upset of the year. Stanford allowed the Hornets to convert 11-of-16 third downs (69%) and score 10 points in the final 4:13 to win the game.
5. The Coach Prime Show hit some roadblocks for really the first time this season but nevertheless came through in the clutch to move to 3-0 by beating Colorado State in double-overtime deep into Saturday night. While some coaching decisions by the Rams may have contributed to it both being such a close game and eventually ending up with a win by the home team, it still underscored that there’s no team more entertaining than the Buffs this year.
After all, how many games could you say that an 11-point fourth-quarter comeback — featuring a 98-yard do-or-die touchdown drive — to force extra frames might have only been the fourth or fifth most interesting thing to happen before the final whistle? It’s a bummer that two-star Travis Hunter was injured, but this continues to be must-see TV in Boulder and genuinely the closest thing we’ve had to the big games and celebrity-filled sidelines of USC during the glory days of the Pete Carroll dynasty.
6. It seems pretty clear that Ohio State QB Kyle McCord fully understands now that the key to success remains throw it up to Marvin Harrison Jr. as many times as you can. The Buckeyes offense seemed to come to life against WKU by drawing up chunk plays for their superstar receiver, who was increasingly unguardable as the game wore on, notching 126 yards and a touchdown. His 75-yard score was a great example of this in the second quarter as he split a double-team with barely a finger on him, and felt wide open on several other plays before the game got out of hand. The Buckeyes offensive line still feels suspect and will get tested at Notre Dame this week, but you can start to see OSU looking a lot more like the version we’re used to seeing against overmatched opposition.
7. Penn State will enjoy not facing Jer’Zhan Newton anymore after the Illinois defensive lineman was a one-man wrecking crew against the Nittany Lions on Big Noon Saturday. The 30-13 win felt like one where James Franklin’s team was in control throughout, but it was at least hard-earned with how Newton made life running the ball extremely difficult. Not sure you can take much away from Drew Allar’s mediocre performance throwing the ball given the inability to hand the ball off or step up in a clean pocket, but PSU’s supposed strength up front seems like less of one after the trip to Champaign.
8. Colorado might be the must-see team in college football so far this year, but Washington is likely the pick if we’re sticking strictly to things between the lines. The Huskies broke 1995 Nebraska’s mark for most yards gained against Michigan State by rolling up 713 — a school record that could have been made worse if Michael Penix Jr. had played more than two and a half quarters. The way they bomb it down the field is just so fun to watch, and the receiving corps featuring the likes of Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan has probably earned the right to be labeled best in the country based on the way they’ve played in the first three games.
9. If you want a refresher on everything that’s special about college football, flipping on the Backyard Brawl in Morgantown was a good reminder. The game itself didn’t feature any semblance of quality offensive play — 211 total yards for both Pitt and West Virginia, four combined turnovers and just 14 completed passes — but it was an incredible atmosphere amid a contest befitting of a nickname involving ‘brawl.’ The crowd shots of fans overexcited about every big hit or Mountaineers score really underscored that we need to pester athletic directors more about keeping some of these series that realignment has taken or disrupted.
10. Just for fun, this is what a 12-team College Football Playoff would look like at the moment:
Byes: Georgia, Michigan, Florida State and Texas
Opening round: Fresno State at USC, Utah at Ohio State, Oregon at Penn State and Notre Dame at Washington
Too bad we have to wait until next year.
Play of the Weekend
How could it not be Harrison Mevis’ 61-yard walk-off field goal to beat Kansas State?
Double-Take from Week 3
Best Player: Malik Nabors, LSU
Team of the Week: Florida
Coach of the Week: Chuck Martin, Miami (OH)
Hot Seat of the Week: Troy Taylor, Stanford
Heisman Five: 1. Caleb Williams (USC), 2. Travis Hunter (Colorado), 3. Sam Hartman (Notre Dame), 4. Shedeur Sanders (Colorado), 5. Michael Penix Jr. (Washington)
Tweet of the Week
My ballot going into Week 4 in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 poll:
- Florida State
- Notre Dame
- Penn State
- Oregon State
- Ohio State
- Ole Miss
Just missed the cut: North Carolina
Best of the rest: Miami, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa, Florida, Tennessee, Fresno State, Washington State
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Oklahoma at Cincinnati (Noon ET on FOX)
Even before the recent stumble, the Bearcats didn’t look like they would be capable of keeping pace with some of their higher-scoring conference peers like Oklahoma. Something says they’ll surprise early and keep things close before the Sooners get things rolling to win comfortably. Oklahoma -14
Florida State at Clemson (Noon ET)
The ‘Noles playing Boston College in a Red Bandanna game while there was a weather front hovering over Chestnut Hill — with this game on deck — was a combination of factors that surely led to a questionable performance. They’ll be amped for this one, and it wouldn’t surprise if Mike Norvell secretly didn’t mind the wake-up call before the trip to Death Valley. FSU -1.5
Ole Miss at Alabama (3:30 p.m. ET)
Lane Kiffin’s team hasn’t just been the better team this season, it’s been the significantly better team coming into Tuscaloosa, and the head coach is already playing mind games with the Tide by suggesting on Sunday that they’ve changed defensive play-callers without announcing it. Despite all that, the hunch is Jalen Milroe returns at quarterback and the Tide avoid back-to-back home defeats thanks to a bevy of Ole Miss mistakes. Alabama -7
UCLA at Utah (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX)
Will Cam Rising finally return? The prospect of that hovers over the conference opener as unblemished UCLA arrives. The Bruins are untested but appear better on defense and seem to have their QB for the next three years with the way Dante Moore is playing. Don’t bet against Kyle Whittingham at home, however. Utah -5
Colorado at Oregon (3:30 p.m. ET)
Oddsmakers have been wide of the mark in all three of the Buffs’ games so far, but which direction ahead of this trip to Eugene remains to be seen. The Ducks’ physicality will allow them to take and keep the lead but Colorado should keep things close despite the absence of Travis Hunter. Colorado +21
Oregon State at Washington State (7 p.m. on FOX)
Does the winner get a Pac-2 trophy or the rights to the conference commissioner post in 2024? Emotions are sure to be riding high either way as two very good sides try to make the first step toward Vegas and the actual conference title game. If OSU doesn’t turn the ball over, they can escape by a field goal from the Palouse. Oregon State -2.5
Ohio State at Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET)
The Buckeyes’ recent game seemed to shift the thinking on this one, but it’s the Irish who have played better overall to start the year. They’ve been tested and have the rare edge at quarterback with Sam Hartman using the primetime audience to make his first Heisman Trophy pitch. Notre Dame +3
Iowa at Penn State 7:30 p.m. ET
The Nittany Lions have won five of their last six White Out games and now get to play host to an Iowa side still struggling to find consistent offense as the clock ticks by. This has a chance to turn into a tough watch given how good the defenses are but the home team is always going to have the advantage in this series even if they might have to guard against the backdoor against the Hawkeyes. Penn State -14
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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