How to Watch Week 2
If Week 1 was the party–and what a party it was–Week 2 feels a bit like the hangover, but fortunately there is no such thing as a bad weekend of college football. Sometimes the most unexpected moments occur on these most maligned Saturdays, when analysts bemoan the lack of games between ranked opponents, and fans expect all the early kickoffs to end in blowouts. Every now and then, on weekends like these, a David slays a Goliath.
If you closely followed the Viewer’s Guide last week, you got a good look at 40 of the 128 FBS teams already. Twenty new teams are featured in this edition to put you near the halfway mark only two weeks into the 2016 season.
Friday, September 9
Remarkably, FIU hosts a Big Ten East team [Maryland at FIU, CBSSN 7:30] for the second straight week. (Indiana at FIU was incorrectly listed as a Hoosier home game in this column last time.) Despite rush and pass offensive experience percentiles of 89 and 70, respectively, the CUSA side couldn’t break through against what has been a porous Indiana defense, promising another year of point-scoring futility for the Golden Panthers.
Maryland posted a solid though relatively uninformative 52-13 victory over Howard that failed to answer any questions surrounding the Terps in D.J. Durkin’s first season as coach. Chief among them is remedying the ineptitude of the passing game, among the least productive in the nation last season, and shoring up the secondary play–in one year under Durkin as their defensive coordinator, Michigan’s pass defense was elite, rating in the 97th percentile for efficiency. The FIU pass game isn’t potent enough to test the improvement of the secondary, but pay attention to QB Perry Hills and the receiving corps, who put up pedestrian passing numbers against Howard last week. Continued struggles against FIU, who lost their two best secondary players from 2015 in CBs Jeremiah McKinnon and Richard Leonard, confirm that the Terrapin offense isn’t ready for the rigors of the Big Ten East.
The only significant contributor lost from that Maryland pass offense was wideout Amba Etta-Tawo, who transferred to Syracuse and nearly matched his season total from ’15 (216 yards) in his first game with the Orange (210 yards). Check out Etta-Tawo [Louisville at Syracuse, ESPN2 8:00] in the pass-friendly offense implemented by first-year head coach Dino Babers (former Bowling Green HC) as they host red-hot QB Lamar Jackson and Bobby Petrino’s surging Cardinals in an ACC Atlantic clash. Jackson won’t uncork eight touchdowns as he did on the hapless Charlotte 49ers, but he could strike for half that if Syracuse’s defense doesn’t exceed the #76 national ranking projected for it in the preseason.
For Louisville, the greatest danger may lurk in looking ahead to newly-minted star Deondre Francois and the Seminoles in Week 3. Syracuse enters this game with a one-in-five shot at an upset, so the Cardinals can’t lose their focus in the Carrier Dome.
Saturday, September 10
Points are at a premium in the first star game of the week [★ Penn State at Pittsburgh, ESPN 12:00] between two solid defensive outfits. Pitt RB James Connor is one of the inspirational stories of the season but struggled, along with the Panther line, to churn out yards against Villanova Week 1. They’ll need to raise their level on the ground, as the passing game is unlikely to produce against Penn State’s secondary, which rated in the 97th efficiency percentile a year ago and showed no signs of weakness in their opener against Kent State. On the other side of the ball, watch for pressure on first-year starter Trace McSorley from DL Ejuan Price, DB Avonte Maddox, and the deep Pitt LB corps, as the Nittany Lion OL needs to prove it can finally keep its QB upright after years of leaky play. Home turf and defensive experience give Pitt the edge (70%) in this traditionalist’s tilt.
Don’t overlook a game that may be surprising for its competitiveness as Purdue hosts Cincinnati [BTN 12:00] with a rare opportunity to emerge from the shadows of Big Ten afterthought. Senior DT Jake Replogle has been the Boilermakers’ rock on defense for three years and will be counted on, along with a front seven that returns all its primary players from ’15, to bottle up the running game and force a host of new Bearcat receivers to beat Purdue through the air. On offense, Boilermaker QB David Blough has begun his second season in concerning fashion, averaging only 5.7 yards per attempt (#94 in the country)–a familiar, frustrating look to fans in West Lafayette after averaging 5.4 in 2015. For Cincinnati, a team with some buzz and hopes of competing for the honor of likely facing Houston in the conference championship, a loss here spells doom for their chances of winning the American East.
Keep an eye on the scoreboard. Last week, it was Western Michigan out of the MAC West who took down Northwestern (thanks to a questionable turnover-on-touchback call), and this week the strong Group of 5 division has another, slimmer chance as Central Michigan travels to Stillwater [Central Michigan at #22 Oklahoma State, FS1 12:00]. Make some time for a matchup that could as easily erupt into a four TD romp for the home team as it could threaten an upset, but games like these on seemingly docile Saturdays can be more dangerous than most expect. The Chippewas play stouter defense than is usually found in the MAC, and Oklahoma State, for all its offensive firepower (#5 preseason), continues to display surprising weakness in the run game after averaging 3.6 yards per carry in ’15 and only 3.8 YPC against SE Louisiana in their opener.
After the conclusions of the noon games, get your first look at Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes [Tulsa at Ohio State, ABC 3:30] after the young-but-elite talent, led by veteran QB J.T. Barrett, throttled a Bowling Green team that is one of the country’s most diminished compared to last season (19-point drop in preseason power rating with the loss of HC Dino Babers, QB Matt Johnson, and WR Roger Lewis). No matter how far the Falcons have plummeted, what the Buckeyes did was undeniably impressive, producing touchdowns on 11 of 14 drives.
Tulsa arrives with the preseason #25 offense and a defense, expected to be bottom 10 in the FBS, that offered a cautious glimmer of hope in a 45-10 rout of San Jose State. Ohio State’s offense is a different animal, which the Tulsa defense can’t hold long enough to give the Golden Hurricane much hope of an upset (4%), but three-year starting QB Dane Evans has enough skill talent and wherewithal to exploit chinks in the Buckeye armor and score enough points to sour Meyer’s gameday mood.
Flip back and forth to catch a conference clash between Wake Forest and Duke [ESPNU 3:30], two teams expected to finish near the bottom of their respective ACC divisions. There is little reason to believe in Wake after eking by Tulane 7-3, so use this slot to evaluate freshman Duke QB Daniel Jones, forced into action because of another unfortunate injury to dual-threat senior Thomas Sirk. Against overmatched NC Central, Jones put up big efficiency numbers without needing to put in much work (15 pass attempts, 2 carries). Though the Demon Deacon offensive woes will spoil their season, they do have a Top 30-caliber defense that provides the perfect litmus test for Jones and the Blue Devil offense before Duke hits the road to close out September against Northwestern and Notre Dame.
The most consequential games kick off Saturday evening, starting with the potential upending of a Big XII favorite [★★ Arkansas at #15 TCU, ESPN 7:00]. Both the Razorbacks and Horned Frogs hobble into this game blemished by uninspiring Week 1 performances: TCU’s hyped defense surrendered 41 points to FCS power South Dakota State, and Arkansas barely survived an inexperienced Louisiana Tech team that shouldn’t have given them any problems in Fayetteville.
Arkansas must get substantial improvement from the OL (2.8 median yards per carry vs LA Tech) and the running game, which limped to a shocking 132 yard output, excluding sacks. Meanwhile, TCU’s new-look offense had no problems moving the ball under Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill’s guidance, but Arkansas fields a borderline Top 10 defense that has the ability to stonewall the TCU ground game and force them to be one-dimensional.
The Holy War [★ BYU at Utah, FOX 7:30] got bigger thanks to a middle-of-the-night BYU field goal with a few seconds remaining to edge Arizona, 18-16. A week ago we wrote about BYU’s season being defined by a handful of plays in close games–the first went in their favor and notched them a win. Now they have a shot at another Pac12 South school, this one with greater current stature than Arizona. Kyle Whittingham’s Utes consistently play fierce defense (24-0 Week 1 shutout of FCS Southern Utah) and elite special teams (97th percentile in 2015), which means they can win with mediocre offense. New QB Troy Williams, replacing 4-year starter Travis Wilson, played well in his debut, but the run game post-Devontae Booker was largely stymied and may struggle against the Cougar front. Utah is the favorite at 70% win probability due to home field, defense, and special teams, but BYU has a gamer at QB in Taysom Hill and a flair for dramatic finishes.
A game overshadowed by the others currently in play is the annual in-state rivalry between Iowa State and #16 Iowa [BTN 7:30]. The Hawkeyes are strong favorites, but don’t count out the Cyclones because of their Week 1 loss to Northern Iowa, a quality FCS team that could give plenty of FBS schools trouble. Give ISU a one-in-seven shot at the Hawks, just enough to keep the channel ready if the score is close heading into the 4th quarter.
With Arkansas – TCU and BYU – Utah already in the rotation, try to make room for a third as the Battle at Bristol [★ Virginia Tech vs #17 Tennessee, ABC 8:00] kicks off in front of the biggest crowd in college football history (that hopefully brought binoculars, particularly from the speedway end zones). A week ago, we wouldn’t have given the Hokies much chance in this one, but then App State dragged the Volunteers into an overtime scrum that left them wounded and bleeding. A team that appeared lethargic, unmotivated, and far too plodding offensively given its 93rd-percentile talent rating has an opportunity to write Game 1 off as an aberration with a big win over Virginia Tech.
The Hokies, in their first year under Justin Fuente after the retirement of program-builder Frank Beamer, remain untested and may actually not match up as well with Tennessee as App State did. Virginia Tech’s rush defense last year was uncharacteristically poor and this year is low on game experience, an unsettling combination against a Tennessee ground attack that has every reason to play with a renewed sense of purpose this week. A return to predictable playcalling–in the first three quarters, the Vols ran on 17 of 20 first downs and threw on 9 of 11 third downs–will hamstring any offensive rejuvenation against Bud Foster’s defense.
After the primetime slate concludes, look past the Power 5 track meet between Texas Tech and Arizona State, who may combine for 90 points, and settle in with a pair of Pac12 road trips to the Mountain West: ★ Washington State at Boise State [ESPN2 10:15] and ★ California at San Diego State [CBSSN 10:30]. Both MWC divisional favorites entered the season as two of the likeliest teams in the nation to go undefeated in the regular season (each with a 19% probability of 12-0) and will not play each other until the MWC Championship. Despite their slip-up against FCS Eastern Washington, Washington State (28% win probability) presents a bigger threat to Boise than Cal (18%) does to San Diego State–the powerful Aztec running game will hit the Golden Bears where they’re most vulnerable after allowing Hawai’i to gash them for 6.7 yards per carry. And San Diego State boasts a Top 20-caliber defense featuring ballhawking DBs Damontae Kazee and Malik Smith, who combined for 29 passes defended last year and will challenge the Cal receivers for balls in the air in ways Hawai’i was unable. DL Alex Barrett and LB Calvin Munson will put pressure on Cal QB Davis Webb and disrupt the timing of the Bear Raid passing game.
If the Mountain West standard-bearers emerge victorious, the chances that the New Year’s Six includes the MWC champion increases substantially.