None of the Saturdays of the 2020 college football season has been quite as wall-to-wall eventful as we’re used to. Only a few top-10 teams have played at all, a No. 17 vs. No. 18 matchup was the best Week 3 had to offer, and with no late-night football to speak of, you probably went to bed far earlier on Saturday night than you’re used to.
Let’s face it, though: We never need much gunpowder to fire the overreactions cannon. Let’s take a look at some of the knee-jerk questions, and potential answers, that Week 3 presented.
Has Miami finally figured out this ‘offense’ thing?
It was easy to understand what Miami coach Manny Diaz saw in new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. The former Arkansas backup quarterback got his first OC job at age 27, and he’s worked for both Gus Malzahn and Air Raid preacher Sonny Dykes; he’s been exposed to two main branches of the spread offense tree, and in Hurricanes quarterback D’Eriq King he’s got the perfect muse for marrying these two schools of thought.
One of Malzahn’s most effective tendencies is his ability to find an advantage and destroy you with it until you adjust. If you never adjust, he won’t overthink and start doing something else. Thus far, Lashlee has shown the same tendency. In the first game of the season, against a UAB squad with an excellent pass defense, Miami rushed for 337 yards. In the second, against a Louisville defense with an experienced front seven but a disorganized secondary (disorganized everything, if we’re being honest), the Hurricanes went overboard with unbalanced formations and threw for 325 yards. They managed to score 47 points on just 60 plays.
(Why only 60 plays for what is supposed to be a high-tempo offense? The Canes were scoring too quickly to rack up snaps. Their only two plays in the first 12 minutes of the second half were 75-yard touchdowns, and they had a three-play TD drive in the fourth quarter, as well.)
Two tests, two completely different game plans, two easy wins. It’s hard to ask for much more right out of the gates. But in the name of avoiding overreactions, I present a couple of reasons to perhaps pump the brakes:
First, Miami did this to Louisville last season, too. In one of the only truly impressive performances of Dan Enos’ season as offensive coordinator, Jarren Williams threw for 253 yards and six touchdowns as the Canes walloped the Cards 52-27 last November. Torching the Louisville defense means only so much considering nine of 12 power conference opponents have scored at least 34 on the Cards since the start of 2019.
Second, it’s hard to rely on big plays for a full season. Among the 52 FBS teams who have played so far, Miami ranks 42nd in success rate — only 37% of the Hurricanes’ non-garbage time snaps have gained at least 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second and 100% on third. That’s 8 percentage points below the national average.
The big plays have been steady — eight gains of 30-plus yards, three of 60-plus — and there’s no question that the Canes have lots of super-fast skill guys. But they’re falling behind schedule quite a bit, and against ACC defenses that actually have a pulse (sorry, UL), it won’t be quite as easy to catch back up to the chains. There’s nothing saying the Canes can’t improve their efficiency levels — they’ve got a new QB and quite a few youngsters in the skill corps, after all, and they should continue to jell — but they’re going to need to.
Is Oklahoma State’s offense in trouble?
The universe remains balanced at all times — for every instance of growth like Miami’s, there is regression. And man oh man, did Oklahoma State’s offense look like a shadow of its former self in a tight, 16-7 win over Tulsa. The Pokes gained just 279 yards — their lowest total since a blowout loss to Texas in 2014 — and all-world running back Chuba Hubbard managed just 93 yards on 27 carries (3.4 per carry).
Credit where it’s due: Tulsa ranked a solid 51st in defensive SP+ last season, thanks primarily to a strong run defense. The Golden Hurricane had a role to play in this stagnation. Plus, starting quarterback Spencer Sanders got hurt on OSU’s second possession. Backup Ethan Bullock struggled mightily — he was 8-for-13 for just 41 yards, an interception and four sacks — but after four-star freshman Shane Illingworth entered the game in the third quarter, the Pokes took care of business. He went 4-for-5 for 74 yards, and Oklahoma State scored on its final three full possessions.
Still, strong run defense or not, Hubbard gained 256 yards against Tulsa last season. One of OSU’s biggest questions heading into 2020 was how a remodeled offensive line would operate; tackle Teven Jenkins was the only returnee among last season’s primary starters, and while guard Josh Sills came over from West Virginia and two other starters at least had starting experience, this was a question mark heading into the Tulsa game. And considering the woeful rushing averages and six total sacks (Sanders also took two in just four pass attempts), it remains a question mark.
How bad is the Big 12?
It’s been better! While Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia looked good against bad competition in Week 2, almost everyone else from the conference who has played has disappointed. Oklahoma State’s sketchy performance, combined with Texas Tech’s narrow escape over Houston Baptist and an 0-for-3 performance against the Sun Belt in Week 2 (Iowa State lost to Louisiana, Kansas State lost to Arkansas State and Kansas fell to Coastal Carolina) have certainly lent us the impression that this is a two-team conference title race at the moment.
After just one game each, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Kansas State and Texas Tech all rank at least 11 spots lower in SP+ than they did in the preseason, and the only reason Kansas doesn’t is because the Jayhawks didn’t have that far to fall (they started out 85th of 91 fall teams, and now they’re 88th). It’s obviously early, and I’m assuming at least one of these teams rebounds pretty well. But yikes.
Is Notre Dame ready for an ACC title push?
Notre Dame’s offense started about as slowly as possible against Duke in Week 2, going three-and-out on its first three possessions and scoring only one touchdown in its first eight drives. The Fighting Irish finished the game with 17 points in four possessions to pull away to a 27-13 victory and then absolutely laid waste to poor South Florida on Saturday.
In six first-half possessions, they scored five touchdowns and missed a field goal. Because their defense was so thoroughly squashing the USF attack (65 total yards in the first half, 42 on one play), they generated a massive field position advantage — average drive start in the first half: ND 50.2, USF 20.7 — and rode a powerful run game to easy scores. They took their foot off the gas in the second half and still won 52-0. C’Bo Flemister, Chris Tyree and Kyren Williams combined for 31 carries and 254 yards.
USF isn’t very good, but adjusting for opponent, the performance was still impressive enough for the Irish to hop Oklahoma and Texas into eighth in SP+. And now they get what should be a tuneup game at Wake Forest before visits from offensively challenged Florida State and defensively challenged Louisville. Even with Oct. 24 opponent Pitt looking pretty good, SP+ projects the Irish as a double-digit favorite in every game until the Nov. 7 showdown with Clemson. North Carolina and Miami should assure that this isn’t a Big 12-style two-team race, but it’s clear who the two best teams are at the moment.
Is there a conspiracy against Nebraska?
“I came to Missouri to play against the best. You come to the SEC to go against the best.” — Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz to a St. Louis radio station in August after the Tigers were given Alabama and LSU for their two extra SEC games.
“We’re excited to play this schedule. The SEC is the best and that’s where Arkansas belongs, with the best. We’ve got an incredible opportunity ahead of us as a program.” — Arkansas coach Sam Pittman after the Razorbacks were given Florida and Georgia.
“I wasn’t toasting champagne. … I think a little more thought could have been put into pieces of this, and it wasn’t.” — Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos, quoted by the Omaha World-Herald, after Nebraska’s abridged schedule didn’t include Rutgers.
That admittedly isn’t the fairest framing in the world. Moos did go on to say, “We’re going to strap the chin strap on and go out and win games.” And it appeared he was more frustrated with his Cornhuskers starting at Ohio State, not the removal of the Rutgers game. (Not that that’s any better, really — Mizzou starts with Alabama, after all, and Arkansas starts with Georgia. That’s life.)
It was certainly noticeable, though, that after Nebraska coaches and fans were by far the loudest in yelling about the Big Ten’s postponed fall season, NU was also the source of the most high-volume discontent when schedules were released Saturday. I joked in our schedule reactions piece that the conspiracy-minded among us might be able to draw a correlation between those two things, and it’s fair to say there are at least a few tinfoil hats in Lincoln and the greater Omaha area at the moment. Even school officials seem to have forgotten how to keep their complaints internal.
Be it because of coincidence or conspiracy, Nebraska’s projected fortunes were indeed affected the most negatively by this second (and, one hopes, final) schedule redesign.
In shrinking the schedule in August from 10 conference games to eight in September, the Big Ten lopped off two cross-division battles. Nebraska was originally scheduled to play Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Rutgers but retained only OSU and PSU. Losing two likely wins will indeed drop your projected win percentage a good amount.
Of course, the next three teams “punished” the most by these new schedules were Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan, aka three of the conference’s five most highly projected teams and schools whose presidents voted to postpone the season. Michigan president Mark Schlissel was one of the most vocal proponents of the postponement, and yet the Wolverines’ schedule kept games against Minnesota and Wisconsin (the top two teams in the West, per SP+) — both come up on the front half of the schedule, no less — and lost Purdue and Northwestern (the second- and third-worst). If this was a conspiracy against the Huskers, it was a conspiracy against the Wolverines, too.
(Spoiler: It probably wasn’t a conspiracy at all.)
Is Ohio State going to roll to an unbeaten record?
Further non-conspiracy evidence: Ohio State’s voice was probably the second-loudest when it came to anti-postponement protest, but the Buckeyes made out quite nicely in the redesign. They were already scheduled to avoid both Wisconsin and Minnesota, and they lost a game with Iowa, too.
In eight conference games, SP+ projects the Bucks as a favorite of 17 points or higher in seven. The lone exception is their Oct. 31 trip to Penn State, and even that has better odds than before — since I’m using only a one-point home-field adjustment instead of 2.5 in this season of limited-capacity crowds, the Buckeyes are favored by 6.8 points, with a 65% win probability, in State College. In a neutral-field Big Ten title game, they would be favored by 8.4 points over Wisconsin and 15.8 over Minnesota.
Granted, Penn State and Wisconsin would need just one or two funky breaks to pull an upset, but if they don’t get the job done, it’s hard to see who will. The Buckeyes are easily the most talented team in the conference even if they don’t get cornerback Shaun Wade and offensive lineman Wyatt Davis — players who initially opted out for 2020 but are attempting to opt back in — back. No schedule was going to make them anything less than a commanding conference favorite, but this one is easier than it could have been. So go ahead and prepare your “Does a 9-0 Ohio State that hasn’t played as many games deserve a College Football Playoff shot over a 10-1 [insert SEC runner-up here]?” talking points. We might be fighting that fight in about three months.
Is the Sun Belt Louisiana’s to lose?
Week 3 was always going to be a light week, and it was made lighter by cancellations. That offered marquee opportunities for programs that don’t get many of those. Coastal Carolina beat Campbell in a fun Friday night battle on ESPN, while Marshall and Appalachian State squared off in CBS’ prime mid-Saturday time slot.
The Thundering Herd got the advantage over the Mountaineers, forcing two red zone turnovers and getting 138 rushing yards from Brenden Knox in a 17-7 victory. The 2-0 Herd are, per SP+, the top-ranked team in Conference USA now. App State, meanwhile, isn’t the top-ranked Sun Belt team for the first time in a while. The Mountaineers have slipped to 45th among fall teams, just behind No. 43 Louisiana and only a little bit ahead of No. 52 Troy.
After setting a really high bar recently — it was 24-4 with two top-30 SP+ performances in 2018-19 — App State has started slowly after a second coaching change in as many years. New coach Shawn Clark knows as much about the Appalachian State culture as anyone, but that’s a lot of change. Louisiana, meanwhile, looks the part of a favorite under third-year coach Billy Napier. The Ragin’ Cajuns dominated Iowa State with defense and special teams in a season-opening 31-14 win, then used offense to overcome a hung-over start and take down Georgia State 34-31 in overtime Saturday.
The Cajuns are deserving front-runners, but early indications suggest this battle will be awfully difficult. Not only does the Sun Belt have three teams in the top 55, it’s got another three in the top 70, too — No. 64 Arkansas State, No. 65 Coastal Carolina and No. 68 Georgia State. And an App State rebound could come at any moment. This is the deepest this conference has been in a while, and that could make for an ultra fun race.
Was Middle Tennessee the least ready team of 2020?
Navy pulled something of a magic trick over the season’s opening weeks: The Midshipmen were outscored 79-3 in the first six quarters of the season … and went 1-1. After a 55-3 throttling at the hands of BYU, Ken Niumatalolo’s squad found itself trailing a fired-up Tulane 24-0 at halftime in New Orleans, then reeled off 27 straight points to win at the buzzer. That saved Navy from the ignominious distinction of being the most thoroughly disappointing team of early 2020. Allow me to nominate Rick Stockstill’s Middle Tennessee for the title instead.
In terms of the difference between projections and reality, Middle Tennessee has been responsible for the second- and ninth-most disappointing performances of the season so far. SP+ projected the Blue Raiders to lose to Army by 2.8 in Week 1 (Vegas said 3.5), and they lost by 42. SP+ projected them to fall by 13.4 to Troy (Vegas said 3.5 again), and they lost by 33 on Saturday. Quarterback Asher O’Hara threw for 2,616 yards and rushed for 1,044 in 2019, but his 37 passes this season have generated just 155 yards and three picks, and Stockstill briefly benched him for backup Chase Cunningham in a desperate attempt to get something going against Troy. Cunningham went 2-for-7 with two interceptions.
Middle Tennessee started out 80th in SP+ among fall teams but has quickly dropped to 89th, ahead of only Louisiana Monroe (0-2 with a minus-51 scoring margin) and UTEP (2-1 with tight wins over two midlevel FCS teams). Stockstill has overcome funks and bad years before, but the Blue Raiders have started this tricky season in an all-caps FUNK.