Two weeks into the college football season, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge about teams who are legitimate contenders, and those who are mere pretenders. This weekend will add more clarity.
Thus far, Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan State look like the fearsome heavyweights. But making early season playoff predictions is rather foolhardy.
Just ask the so-called experts that gushed about Auburn winning the national championship this year behind new starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson, whose talent some said was comparable to a certain former Auburn Heisman Trophy winner now quarterbacking the Carolina Panthers in the NFL.
In the Tigers’ underwhelming, season-opening 31-24 win against a Louisville defense that returned only four starters, Johnson tossed three dreadful interceptions that looked more like they were thrown by Cameron Diaz as opposed to Cameron Newton. Louisville’s loss to Houston over the weekend further damaged Auburn’s credibility.
Johnson’s questionable decision-making against Jacksonville State, a 41-point underdog, at home last weekend was not the bounce-back performance that I’m sure head coach Guz Malzahn was hoping for. His two interceptions nearly cost the Tigers the game. Auburn needed a touchdown in the final minute to force overtime against the Gamecocks and barely escaped with a 27-20 win. That is far from what a national champion should look like.
Here are this weekend’s top games:
LSU vs AUBURN
This weekend’s game against LSU in Death Valley will tell us if the first two weeks were an aberration,and if Auburn was merely working out the kinks in preparation for SEC play, or if they really are that bad. It will also be the first true barometer of how new Defensive Coordinator Will Muschamp’s unit, headlined by the talented linebacker Cassanova McKinzey and defensive end Carl Lawson, plan to turnaround their generosity in terms of allowing points to inferior teams.
Offensively, they’re replacing three starters from an offensive line that opened holes to the tune of some prolific running yardage over the past few years, and their depth at running back has been depleted. Defensively, they’ll have their hands full with LSU’s gifted sophomore running back Leonard Fournette, a Heisman hopeful who gashed Mississippi State for 159 rushing yards and three touchdowns in last Saturday evening’s nail-biting 21-19 victory. If Auburn doesn’t show significant improvement this week against LSU, whom they beat 41-7 last year, they could be in for a long season.
ALABAMA vs OLE MISS
This matchup could be one of the best of this entire season. The Rebels’ defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and rising junior receiver Laquon Treadwell are outstanding talents who will both be cashing big NFL checks in the future. Quarterback Chad Kelly has been on fire, albeit against lesser competition. But throwing for 557 yards and six touchdowns, with only one interception, to open the season is impressive, regardless of opponent.
Bama, the defending conference champ, will lay their 17-game home winning streak on the line. Ole Miss has scored a combined 149 points in their opening two games against Tennessee Martin and Fresno State. That’s more than some teams scored all of last season. The Crimson Tide will be looking to avenge last year’s 23-17 loss to the Rebels in Oxford.
Alabama's 35-17 defeat of no. 20 Wisconsin to open the season proved that their defensive line could be relentlessly nasty stopping the run this year, as they held the normally prolific Badgers running attack to a mere 39 yards on the ground. In Saturday’s game, they didn’t allow Middle Tennessee State any runs for more than ten yards.
They also seem to have a freshman gem in the secondary, with New Jersey native Minkah Fitzpatrick already playing like a seasoned, All-SEC nickelback.
New starting quarterback Jake Coker looks poised and solid enough to run the offensive machine while junior running back Derrick Henry, who rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns on only 13 carries against Wisconsin, will carry the load until Coker and the passing game can establish an identity. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Henry is among the top Heisman candidates right now. He’s averaging close to eight yards per carry and already has six touchdowns in only two games.
Years ago, Saban railed against the up-tempo, spread offenses proliferating and taking over the game. But Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin has slowly incorporated spread concepts and principles during his tenure, and if Coker can replace the production of the departed Blake Simms, with Henry running like runaway freight train, fans in Tuscaloosa should have plenty to celebrate this year.
USC vs STANFORD
Both of these squads have their sights set on being in the Pac-12 title game. The Trojans obliterated Idaho and Arkansas State in their glorified scrimmages to open the season by a combined score of 104-15, but we’ll see how they look in their first true test. Stanford rebounded from their stunning week 1 loss to Northwestern by handling UCF at home, 31-7. Cody Kessler is one of college football’s best quarterbacks and sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be a household name in a few weeks.
Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan will be facing a major test in the USC defense, which features one of the best cornerback tandems in the country with Adoree Jackson and Kevon Seymour and talented linebacker Su’a Cravens. A punishing, efficient ground attack will need to set the tone if Stanford wants to prove that they can hang with the Trojans.
GEORGIA TECH vs NOTRE DAME
The Fighting Irish were devastated with last week’s season-ending ankle injury to starting quarterback Malik Zaire, but took solace in DeShone Kizer’s performance in relief, especially considering that they had their backs against the wall with little time left against Virginia. Kizer will be making his first start for Notre Dame, and unfortunately for him, it’s against a ranked team that gives opponents fits because of their unique style of play.
Notre Dame should have success if Kizer can connect early and often with receiver Will Fuller, who has 12 catches, four touchdowns and 266 receiving yards in his first two games, including the thrilling game-winner last week in Charlottesville.
They’ve been bitten with the injury bug, as Notre Dame has already lost four starters to season-ending injuries. On defense, they’ll have their hands full with Georgia Tech’s treacherous triple-option attack. Justin Thomas, the Yellow Jackets quarterback, ran for over 1,000 yards last season and operates the offense with precision. They have not had a three-and-out offensive possession yet this year.
REAL DEAL OR NO?
UCLA, Baylor and TCU are highly ranked, but it’s yet to be determined if they’re true national title contenders or merely Canal Street knockoffs.
Bruins freshman quarterback Josh Rosen is turning heads out in Westwood. The last freshman to make me stutter and stammer like the champ in Harlem Nights during his debut was Jameis Winston, the most recent #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. UCLA lost a very good starting quarterback in Brent Hundley, and some were worried if Rosen was ready to start as a true freshman. He answered by completing 28-of-35 passing for 351 yards and three touchdowns in his marvelous debut against a solid Virginia defense.
TCU and Baylor are still smarting at being excluded from last year’s playoffs. Horned Frogs quarterback Trevone Boykin is electrifying, but he’s looked shaky in stretches early on this year. Last week he threw an interception in his sixth consecutive game dating back to last year. SMU shouldn’t put up much of a test for them this week. We might have to wait until November 21st, when they play Oklahoma, to see if they’re for real.
Baylor’s offense looked like it was straight out of a video game last year, and they’ve returned plenty of weapons from that explosive unit. Coach Art Briles is a diabolical offensive genius. Keep an eye on his latest experiment this year, 6-foot-8, 400-pound tight end LaQuan McGowan. Briles' last three starting quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence and Bryce Petty have given new starter Seth Russell some lofty expectations to try to live up to. RG III won the school’s first ever Heisman, Florence led the nation in passing yards and Petty won consecutive conference championships.
In the Bears’ losses to Michigan State and West Virginia last year, they allowed a combined 636 passing yards. If they are to be taken seriously, their pass defense must improve dramatically.
Florida State, Clemson, Oregon, Ole Miss, USC, Georgia, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and LSU look like they could also be in the mix among the best of the rest as the season progresses.
THE SHADOW LEAGUE HEISMAN FRONT-RUNNERS
Leonard Fournette, Sophomore Running Back, LSU
Josh Rosen, Freshman Quarterback, UCLA
Dalvin Cook, Sophomore Running Back, Florida State
Nick Chubb, Sophomore Running Back, Georgia
Derrick Henry, Junior Running Back, Alabama
Ezekiel Elliot, Junior Running Back, Ohio State
Trevone Boykin, Senior Quarterback, TCU
Braxton Miller, Senior Wide Receiver, Ohio State
Cody Kessler, Senior Quarterback, USC
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Sophomore Wide Receiver, USC