College Football Viewer’s Guide

How to Watch Week 3

Oklahoma State was Victim #1 of Week #2, dropping a game controversially after an incredible Hail Mary lateral that led to a Chippewa touchdown (and shouldn’t have been allowed, according to an odd rule that encourages a team to deliberately commit a penalty to end a game, a basketball problem but not usually a football problem). TCU finally lost a rollercoaster of not-quite-down returns, missed or blocked short field goals, a reverse-pass-to-the-QB two-point conversion, and double overtime. Clemson recovered an onside kick to survive against Troy; Utah stuffed Taysom Hill’s for-the-win conversion attempt to survive against BYU; and Georgia inexplicably had to convert a 3rd and 7 pass attempt (this time from Greyson Lambert) to avoid giving Nicholls State the ball and a chance to win.

The 2016 season is off to a stellar start, and Week 3 looks to continue that momentum with a rich day of Top 25 and New Year’s Six ramifications, rivaling the Week 1 big game slate hyped by an advertising blitz as the best opening weekend in college football history.

Before delving into the Viewer’s Guide, condolences to the Army football program and the friends and family of Brandon Jackson. Yet another tragic loss in a season that has seen too many.

Thursday, September 15

Greg Ward Jr is back on center stage Thursday night [#6 Houston at Cincinnati, ESPN 7:30] after sitting out the Lamar game with a shoulder injury. Outside a testy road trip to face Navy in Annapolis on October 8th, this conference tilt with the 2-0 Bearcats is the only thing standing in the way of the Cougars marching into a critical home game against Louisville undefeated at 10-0. Houston avoids the other American East contenders–South Florida, Temple, and East Carolina–in its divisional crossover schedule, and none of their opponents before November 17th register better than a 20% win probability against Tom Herman’s squad. A win Thursday night locks Houston in as one of 2016’s primary playoff contenders, especially as the season inevitably takes its toll on the Power 5 teams surrounding the Cougars in the Top 10.

Cincinnati’s deep and experienced secondary is tied for the national lead with seven interceptions through two games and will need one or two more to hang with Houston. There is hope at receiver, where new players have delivered for proven sophomore QB Hayden Moore, but they have to continue to play at a high level, avoiding drops and timing problems typical of inexperience in the passing game, against a steep upgrade in competition. If Houston has a soft spot that Cincinnati can exploit, it’s in coverage–the ground game is apt to struggle against a Houston defense that held Oklahoma’s superior rushing attack under 100 yards.

Friday, September 16

Baylor at Rice [ESPN 8:00] kicks off a Friday evening low on drama, except to fantasy players keen to amass points behind Bears QB Seth Russell and Sun Devil RB Kalen Ballage [Arizona State at UTSA, ESPN2 9:30], who logged eight TDs a week ago in a 123 combined point fiasco against Texas Tech. Neither underdog registers much chance at an upset (less than 10% win probabilities) after starting winless against FBS competition. On a night when the favorites could both score 40+ points, good performances by the defenses would be more significant. Arizona State’s chances in the wide-open Pac12 South, in particular, would be more credible if they show they can hold UTSA’s ineffective offense (#115 preseason) to 7-10 points after surrendering 55 to the Red Raiders.

Saturday, September 17

The stakes couldn’t be higher as two of the ACC Atlantic’s big three take the field [★★★ #2 Florida State at #10 Louisville, ABC 12:00] in a momentous clash between two of the nation’s most impressive teams through the first two weeks of 2016. Before the season began, it was commonly believed that the only game of playoff consequence in the ACC would be Florida State vs Clemson in late October, but Louisville QB Lamar Jackson exploded for 13 TDs and put that notion to rest. With Clemson searching for answers to their puzzling offensive riddles after a near-miss against Troy, the Cardinals have a golden opportunity to seize the inside track to the ACC Championship and the College Football Playoff.

Despite the buzz around Jackson and the Cardinals, the battle-tested Seminoles boast a budding star QB of their own in Deondre Francois, who showed poise and playmaking panache in a comeback win against playoff-caliber Ole Miss. One area Florida State needs improvement is on the offensive line, which only generated enough push against the Ole Miss front for two median yards per carry, a dismal number for a Top 5 team bringing back all its starting linemen from last season.

When breaks allow, pick up on the action in one of two potential upsets, intriguing in their own right: ★ North Dakota State at #13 Iowa [ESPN2 12:00] or ★ #25 Miami-FL at App State [ESPN 12:00]. There is about a 2-in-3 shot that at least one of the two (FBS) ranked teams is beaten in their biggest tests before conference play begins.

The FCS #1 Bison have a mystique all their own after winning the last five national championships and beating the last five FBS teams they faced–all on the road, of course. They start an uncertain 2-0 after winning both games in overtime, including a victory against Eastern Washington, who dropped Washington State the week before in Pullman. It’s no longer a secret that the best FCS teams are better than many FBS teams, and North Dakota State is the best FCS program of them all. This is Iowa’s toughest nonconference game and may be the toughest game on their schedule until October 22nd, when Wisconsin visits Iowa City.

No one needs to be reminded of App State’s grit and quality after nearly upending Tennessee in overtime in Week 1. That was at Rocky Top, against our preseason #1, a Volunteer team full of talent and big-game experience that we expected to take the next step in 2016. This week, the Mountaineers get a rare home game against a traditional southeastern power still in transition as the Hurricanes, under first-year Head Coach Mark Richt (former Georgia HC), climb the Blue Ridge Mountains to face QB Taylor Lamb and the Sun Belt’s stingiest defense in Boone, NC. Miami shoved 23% of its statistical rush defense out the door with the dismissals of LBs Jermaine Grace and Juwon Young and DL Al-Quadin Muhammad, a matchup concern against App State’s ground game. Watch the Miami LB play, where the ‘Canes are starting three true freshmen.

Get your first look at two under-the-radar contenders as ★★ Nebraska hosts #22 Oregon [ABC 3:30], a high-scoring affair between two big-play offenses which may require 40 points for victory. The Cornhuskers are stout against the run in Head Coach Mike Riley’s (former Oregon State HC) second year in charge but have a propensity to allow chunk yards in the air. Seven INTs, tied for the national lead with Cincinnati and Ohio State, have helped erased the undisciplined play that slots the ‘Huskers into the bottom 20 nationally in total penalty yards, consistently a problem for Riley-coached teams.

Oregon, meanwhile, continues to drastically underperform its talent level defensively. In 2015, Oregon gave up five more points per game than an average FBS defense would have allowed against the same schedule. (As a comparison, Nebraska’s maligned 2015 unit was six points better than Oregon’s.) Brady Hoke (former Michigan HC, 2011-2014) was brought in as coordinator to turn the Ducks around, but with precious little experience in the front seven, the results so far have been almost exactly as expected through two games: in the preseason, UC Davis and Virginia were expected to score 52 points…they scored 54. Considering the Ducks started the year with our #93 rated defense in the country, this is not a promising sign for a quick turnaround on that side of the ball.

Not to be outdone, the SEC West showcases one of its marquee games of the year [★★★ #1 Alabama at #19 Ole Miss, CBS 3:30], the only regular season matchup the Tide have dropped the past two years. Ole Miss stymied the Seminole offense for most of the first half in Week 1, seemingly poised to emerge as a playoff favorite before the torrid charge spearheaded by Deondre Francois and a rejuvenated Seminole offense. Chad Kelly entered the season as the SEC’s best quarterback and has shown he can lead the Rebels to victory over Alabama. The Tide, though, look even better than expected on defense (18.5 points better than the national average)–quite a feat for a team that began the season with the #1 unit in the land. Playing in Oxford, with plenty of talent in a new-look defense and experienced skill players on offense, gives Ole Miss a chance, but not a great one (25%).

When the feature 3:30 games are over, check a couple key scores from other games across the country. Western Michigan is a favorite to beat a second Big Ten West team [Western Michigan at Illinois, ESPN News 4:00] on their quest for 12-0, after edging Northwestern in Week 1. And the Cowboys have another tough one in Stillwater, as the Pittsburgh Panthers come to town [ Pittsburgh at Oklahoma State, ESPN 3:30], fresh off a thrilling 42-39 victory over rival Penn State but depleted by season-ending injuries to Week 1 starters LB Elijah Zeise and DE Dewayne Hendrix . Pitt entered the season with a 21% chance to win the parity-filled ACC Coastal, second only to North Carolina’s 28%, and a 3-0 start could nudge them into the Top 25. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, is in danger of starting 1-2 after the Central Michigan controversy, with difficult games against Baylor and Texas coming up next.

Tune into the first quarter of an SEC conference game, either Mississippi State at #20 LSU [ESPN2 7:00] or ★ #17 Texas A&M at Auburn [ESPN 7:00]. Both Mississippi State and LSU have disappointed with their early-season play. Auburn has the defense to grind down the explosive Aggie attack, giving them a great chance to knock off A&M on the Plains, but must get better QB play and management than what was seen against Clemson.

Two weeks after a scare against Furman, the Spartans get help from recently eligible LB Ed Davis in a trip to South Bend [★★ #12 Michigan State at #18 Notre Dame, NBC 7:30]. MSU’s bigger problems, however, are on offense. The trio of QB Connor Cook, WR Aaron Burbridge, and WR Macgarrett Kings Jr accounted for 65% of the passing offense in 2015–all are gone, depleting the Spartan aerial attack and dropping it into the bottom 3% nationally for experience coming into ’16. Three 2015 starters from the OL are gone, along with the blocking contributions of TE Paul Lang and FB Trevon Pendleton. While there were bright spots, such as the play of senior QB Tyler O’Connor, 28 points against Furman is not enough to alleviate concerns about a serious offensive regression for the Spartans. Notre Dame has a better talent base and, despite the OT loss at Texas, looks like the stronger club early in the year. At Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish are a strong favorite at 80% to knock off the higher-ranked Spartans.

★★★ #3 Ohio State at #14 Oklahoma [FOX 7:30] gives the Sooners a second chance in a 3-star game and vaults the Buckeyes up a major notch in competition after thrashing Bowling Green and Tulsa in merciless fashion. In the Playoff Era, a highly-ranked Power 5 team like OU has a chance to rebound after a loss to a good team, but they can afford no more setbacks if they want a return trip to the semifinals. The run game must produce better than it did against Houston, but the Buckeyes are only allowing two yards per carry against teams that have some history of good offensive football. The first road start for many of the young Bucks comes in a tough environment against a preseason playoff favorite with a Heisman-quality QB. But a 4-year recruiting percentile of 100, matched only by Alabama, with the elite coaching of Urban Meyer tips the scales in Ohio State’s favor (60%).

The juggling act gets tricky with ★★ USC at #7 Stanford [ABC 8:00] kicking off 30 short minutes after the pair of ranked 7:30 matchups. Alabama knocked all the luster off USC, expected to be a tougher out for the defending champs, and because of the lopsided loss to open the season, the Trojans are now in the unexpected role of being underrated. USC isn’t suddenly a bad team because of a bad loss to the Tide, and they’ll play much better than many expect in Palo Alto.

QB Ryan Burns answered one of Stanford’s questions in Week 1, playing a sharp game against the won’t-go-away Wildcats, but the new offensive line did not, being stuffed for a meager 1.3 median yards per carry that looked nothing like the Stanford standard. Two big runs by star RB Christian McCaffery saved the day, most notably the game winning TD scamper after K-State couldn’t recover a second onside kick, but the run blocking must improve to survive the week-in, week-out onslaught of one of the country’s most grueling schedules.

Despite Stanford’s lofty ranking and USC’s fall from grace, this game is a pure toss-up, one of the true 50-50 games on the slate this week.

For the nightcap, catch the second half of UCLA at BYU [ESPN2 10:15] to see which of these aspirational clubs can avoid a crushing second loss in September. Taysom Hill and the Cougars are always entertaining, producing final-second thrillers in both their games this year, while Josh Rosen and UCLA look to head into conference play on a higher note after losing at A&M in overtime and allowing an uncomfortable 21 points to UNLV a week ago. UCLA looks like a solid TD favorite with nearly a 70% chance of scoring the road victory, but never count out the cardiac Cougars.

If there’s time, flip over for the ending between #11 Texas and California [ESPN 10:30, at Cal]. The Golden Bears haven’t shown the ability to stop the run yet this season, which will likely cost them a chance at upsetting the Longhorns, but they have enough offensive firepower to make things interesting if Texas isn’t firing on all cylinders.

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