How to Watch Week 5
The sport of college football continues a disappointing trend of firing coaches early in the season. The biggest casualty was Les Miles, out at LSU after averaging ten wins per year since 2005. A two-point loss at Lambeau to a Top 10 Wisconsin team and a last-second reversal of what appeared to be a game-winning TD shouldn’t be enough reason to oust someone with Miles’ long record of success. Sure, the offense disappointed in September, but the Mad Hatter at least deserved a chance to play out the season and see where it took the Tigers. He’s given LSU enough championships that they could’ve given him a full set of games on which to be judged.
In South Bend, embattled DC Brian VanGorder took the fall for Notre Dame’s woes, and HC Ron Turner was also fired at FIU after an 0-4 start.
Enough about that unfortunate business. On to the games.
Thursday, September 29
Houston emerged from challenging early contests against Oklahoma and Cincinnati unscathed; now they’re blowing full sail through the easier portion of their schedule. UCONN at #6 Houston [ESPN 8:00] opens the week as a style-point showcase for the Cougars, who have little chance of feeling threatened by the below-average Huskies (Week 5 power rating of -4.6). This game might hurt Tom Herman’s squad more than help them, as a national audience continues to question whether an undefeated Houston deserves a semifinal berth after playing an American Conference schedule.
Don’t let anyone fool you–the Cougars control their own destiny, despite concerns about schedule strength, because of the quality of their recent wins against Power 5 heavyweights (Oklahoma, bowl win over Florida State) and, most importantly, because of prestigious teams around them continuing to fall from contention.
Our list of teams who control their playoff fate, possessing at least a 1% chance of winning out–sorry Maryland, Minnesota, and Wake Forest–includes lone Group of 5 representative Houston along with 16 Power 5 teams. Within each conference, teams are listed in order of likelihood of going 12-0 in the regular season.
- Big Ten (4): Ohio State (27%), Michigan (19%), Nebraska (19%), Wisconsin (6%)
- Pac-12 (4): Washington (22%), Stanford (12%), Utah (5%), Arizona State (3%)
- ACC (3): Louisville (22%), Clemson (21%), Miami (1%)
- SEC (3): Alabama (32%), Tennessee (27%), Texas A&M (8%)
- Big XII (2): West Virginia (11%), Baylor (6%)
- American (1): Houston (30%)
Note that these are approximate probabilities from a quick-sim engine that only considers wins and losses but not scores, but they give an accurate picture of the general landscape. Assessing all these probabilities, only 2.5 Power 5 teams are expected to finish 12-0. (At least three will fall this weekend.) With conference championship games to play after the regular season, that expectation drops further. Considering there are four semifinal slots and maybe only a couple undefeated P5 teams to fill them, Houston will be included if they win all their games.
The low number of expected unbeatens gives hope to many one-loss teams throughout the country, as well. As more and more teams suffer defeats, other squads who were burned in September will be given new life in the playoff race.
The other Thursday nighter [Kansas at Texas Tech, FS1 8:30] is a bottom-tier Big XII matchup that should see the Red Raiders post 50+ points for the fourth time this season. Tech’s problem, of course, is that they are allowing 57 points per game against FBS competition.
Friday, September 30
Probably the Pac-12 game of the year [★★★ #7 Stanford at #10 Washington, ESPN 9:00] thankfully kicks off Friday night, avoiding a primetime conflict with Saturday night’s titanic clash (more on that later). Playing one of the toughest 3-game opening stretches in the country, the Cardinal survived thanks to a late Ryan Burns-orchestrated drive on the road to topple UCLA, who had clung to a small lead most of the night. A passing attack that had sputtered all evening connected when it counted most, and now Stanford marches into Seattle as a battle-hardened bunch and playoff favorite.
Despite narrowly escaping the desert with an overtime win, Washington is the best team left on Stanford’s schedule, clearer now that Notre Dame’s and Oregon’s troubles continue to mount. The Huskies have the profile of a championship contender, generating positive net points per game in every major area except possession:
- Possession: -3.3
- Rush Offense: 3.8
- Pass Offense: 5.3
- Rush Defense: 2.5
- Pass Defense: 9.2
- Special Teams: 5.0
- Efficiency: 8.8
- Net Scoring: 31.3 (45.8 scored, 14.5 allowed per game)
While not exactly a weakness, one of Washington’s lowest point values is in rush defense, a concern against star RB Christian McCaffery. However, the predictable nature of the Cardinal offense may work to Washington’s advantage: 53% of the offensive plays directly involve McCaffery, by far the highest of any non-QB in the nation (San Diego State RB Donnell Pumphrey, the national rushing leader, is #2 at 42%).
How massive is this game? Consider it almost like a quarterfinal, and pencil the winner into your early playoff bracket. (But don’t use pen.)
If you’re up late, catch the second half of Toledo at BYU [ESPN2 10:15]. Every BYU game is a fun ride, even if the luckless 1-3 Cougars have little to show for it.
Saturday, October 1
★ Oklahoma State hosts #22 Texas [ABC 12:00] after stumbling last week against Baylor, and the Cowboys desperately need to take down the ‘Horns to keep their Big XII Championship hopes alive. An 0-2 start will knock Oklahoma State out of contention, but a big win in the early kickoff could quickly blossom into a 3-1 conference record with games against Iowa State and Kansas coming up next. They have a better-than-even chance (60%) to come away with a win over a Texas team who had an extra week to think about their disappointing defensive night at Cal.
The Longhorns were the toast of college football after their thrilling Week 1 upset over Top 10 Notre Dame, but any gleam from that win has dulled as the Irish have crumbled. Texas is left with a suddenly pedestrian 2-1 record (their other win coming against 1-3 UTEP) that probably doesn’t justify a Top 25 ranking at this point. A victory in Stillwater would reclaim some of that lost momentum ahead of the Red River Rivalry, a game that looks more winnable after Oklahoma’s rocky start than it did in the preseason.
Concurrently, Georgia Tech is in a similar spot as Oklahoma State, needing a conference win over a visiting ranked opponent [★★ #14 Miami at Georgia Tech, ESPN2 12:00] to avoid being knocked out of the ACC Coastal race. Head Coach Mark Richt’s (former Georgia HC) Hurricanes have outperformed scoreline expectations through three weeks, looking particularly impressive in the 45-10 road thrashing of a solid App State team that took Tennessee into overtime in a memorable Week 1 moment. Ahead of the Clemson – Georgia Tech game last week, we wrote about the Tigers leading the nation in tackles for loss the past three years, and that backfield aggression never allowed Tech to get its offense into a rhythm in an uncompetitive 19-point defeat. Miami, with a number of freshmen populating its defense, currently lead the nation with 13.3 negative tackles per game. A similar blitzkrieg that worked so well for Clemson may wipe the Jackets out of the divisional picture and punch Miami’s ticket to an unexpected 4-0 start and fringe Top 10 ranking.
Over in Big Ten country, the second of the weekend’s three Top 10 battles [★★ #8 Wisconsin at #4 Michigan, ABC 3:30] commands all attention in the afternoon slot, a clash of unbending, equally-matched defenses that will appeal to fans of any era. The big advantage in the Big House is Michigan’s offense, which has wildly surpassed expectations by exceeding 40 points in every game, while Wisconsin’s attack still has some question marks. RB Corey Clement is healthy again but is averaging under four YPC, as is the Wisconsin rush game overall, a number that has to be higher to spring the upset trap on the Wolverines, particularly because of the excellence of Michigan’s secondary. The season-ending injury to CB Jeremy Clark is a significant blow that may crack open some passing lanes for Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook, a superior passer to previous starter Bart Houston. Regardless of Wisconsin’s energetic D and improving QB play, it will take a significant turnover advantage to swing this game in the Badgers’ favor. Michigan on its home turf, with an ascendant offense, salty defense, and Jabrill Peppers potentially breaking things open in the return game, figures to have a great chance at 5-0 (86%).
Other consequential conference games are taking place in the afternoon slot across the nation. In the SEC East [★ #11 Tennessee at #25 Georgia, CBS 3:30], the Volunteers, riding high after a curse-busting second half for the ages in a comeback victory over Florida, have a chance to deal a knockout blow to their other primary competitor in the weaker SEC division. In the ACC [ North Carolina at #12 Florida State, ESPN 3:30], the Seminoles and their inconsistent defense need to stave off the explosive Tar Heels to stay alive in the Atlantic division. And in the Big XII [Kansas State at West Virginia, ESPNU 3:30], unnoticed QB Skyler Howard and the Mountaineers try to remain one of the conference’s two undefeated teams against dangerous foe Kansas State.
Any of those games is worth queuing up during breaks in the Big Ten feature, but consider instead the first game for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy [★ Navy at Air Force, CBSSN 3:30], as two under-the-radar unbeatens roll out their prolific option attacks (both Top 5 in rushing–fellow service academy Army is #1). This Group of 5 game may not have conference or national stakes on the line, but it’s college football at its purest and will mean everything to the Falcons and Midshipmen in uniform. While we favor home side Air Force by three, watch for excessive Falcon penalties to give Navy a boost–the Midshipmen are averaging 25 penalty yards, characteristically disciplined, but Air Force has been sloppy by academy standards, penalized 56 yards per game. In a close contest defined by execution and sustained, clock-eating drives, Air Force must avoid undercutting themselves if they want to get one hand on the coveted trophy. If you’re looking for players to watch but haven’t seen too much academy football this year, big-play RBs Jacobi Owens (Air Force, 8.8 YPC) and Chris High (Navy, 10.1 YPC) are a good place to start.
After the afternoon games wind down, catch the second half of ★★ Oklahoma at #21 TCU [FOX 5:00]. Their September swoon dropped them from the playoff conversation, but the Sooners have a chance to redefine their season by making a run at the Big XII Championship. It starts in Fort Worth against a TCU team rounding into form after the chaotic Arkansas game resulted in an overtime blemish to their record. The OU defense, shredded by J.T. Barrett and the Ohio State Buckeyes, face one of the conference’s best offensive units, led by QB Kenny Hill and multipurpose back Kyle Hicks (300+ rushing yards, 200+ receiving yards). While TCU has been the better-looking team through three games, we haven’t given up on OU’s potential quite yet and favor them by the slimmest of margins (about half a point) to knock TCU back out of the rankings. Expect a lot of second half points as both teams climb into the 30s in what should be a compelling fourth quarter.
Keep an eye on ★ #18 Utah at California [PAC12 Network 6:00], a treacherous trip for the road favorites against the ever-explosive Bear Raid offense. Cal enters the game only 2-2 but has about a 30% chance of delivering the Utes their first loss of 2016. Also mind the scores of South Florida at Cincinnati [ESPNU 7:00] and ★ Western Michigan at Central Michigan [CBSSN 7:00], two games facing off divisional favorites from the American East and MAC West divisions, respectively. The MAC game is especially interesting, as undefeated Western Michigan faces their last serious obstacle until a regular season finale versus Toledo.
★★★ #3 Louisville at #5 Clemson [ABC 8:00] kicks off during the fourth quarter of OU – TCU, the second weekend game that may prove to be effectively a playoff quarterfinal. Half the Final Four could be determined in Week 5, particularly if Louisville notches a massive road win over the rebounding Tigers and their relentless, attacking defense. With Florida State already dispatched, Houston is the Cardinals’ only serious roadblock–the ACC Champion should come from the Atlantic division for the sixth consecutive season. A home win for the Tigers vaults them back into prime playoff position, as only the road trip to Tallahassee looks threatening enough to cut down Clemson.
Can Deshaun Watson rise to the spotlight occasion and play his best game of the year against a Louisville defense that has stonewalled every opponent to date? To win, the answer must be yes.
Can electric Lamar Jackson escape from the Clemson backfield barrage and turn near-TFLs into big gains and touchdowns? To win, the answer must be yes.
Whichever star quarterback can positively answer his question will be the one who comes out on top, likely leading his team to the semifinals.
After a playoff favorite is determined in Death Valley, head out west, as a trifecta of Pac-12 night games are nicely staggered to allow you to catch the final quarters of all three. First up is Arizona State at USC [FOX 8:30], which should be in the final period and could be a great finish, as undefeated Arizona State has scored 89 of its 195 points in the fourth quarter this season. Next is Oregon at Washington State [PAC12 Network 9:30], a critical game to stay relevant in the North after disappointing Septembers for both teams. Lastly, the winner of Arizona at UCLA [ESPN 10:30] will be propelled back into contention in the South after both teams lost their upset bids (Washington, Stanford respectively) in heartbreaking fashion a week ago.
How to Watch Week 4
Sometime after 2:00 am Eastern time, Cal RB Vic Enwere dropped the ball one yard too early (picked up casually after the whistle by a Longhorn defender), despite gliding untouched into the end zone for what would have been the game winner against #11 Texas. The ‘Horns had life as the review buzzer put the last game of the night on pause, but the decision announced to the Berkeley crowd and those bleary-eyed Easterners still hanging on was Cal ball at the spot of the fumble. The Golden Bears punched it in and knocked out Texas, yet another championship-minded program swept out of the semifinal race on a Saturday that sealed the fates of several preseason playoff favorites.
The stunner of the week wasn’t that Louisville beat Florida State, as the Cardinals entered the game with nearly a 50% chance to win according to our game models…it was the 43-point destruction that sent shockwaves reverberating across the nation. Oklahoma wasn’t decimated quite so thoroughly, but they never seemed truly competitive against the visiting Buckeyes, an unexpectedly lost look for a 1-2 team that began the year with championship pedigree. In South Bend, the extremely talented young Irish led by a veteran quarterback (which sounds a lot like Ohio State), were blasted early and often by a Spartan team that hadn’t shown much offensive life in a testy Week 1 win over FCS side Furman. Also 1-2, Notre Dame, being outside the conference structure, now plays for its New Year’s Six life every week but can’t work its way back into the playoff picture.
Congratulations to Army, still grieving from the death of Brandon Jackson, for their dominant 66-14 win at UTEP. At 3-0, the Black Knights are the biggest overachievers in the nation, 1.6 wins better than expected (compared to preseason win probabilities) through the first three games. And kudos to Oregon for their touching 27-yard line tribute to deceased Nebraska punter Sam Foltz before their showdown at Memorial Stadium.
Thursday, September 22
Perhaps a tune-up against a helpless foe–the 3rd and 4th quarters against SC State were shortened to 12 minutes for mercy–was what Clemson’s sputtering offensive engine needed. ★ #5 Clemson at Georgia Tech [ESPN 7:30] is the lone Thursday nighter, and it looks trickier for the Tigers than it did three weeks ago. The resurgent Yellow Jackets are 3-0, matching last year’s unrepresentative win total, after toppling Boston College on a late TD drive in Dublin (Week 1) and wiping out Vanderbilt by a convincing 31 points (Week 3). The Tech defense has been the highlight, only allowing ten points per game, but that misleading figure has come against below-average offenses. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and star receiver trio Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, and Ray-Ray McCloud can top that in the first quarter if they overcome inefficiencies that plagued them on third downs and in the red zone during their nervy 2-0 start.
The challenge for Paul Johnson’s team will be churning out methodical rush yards against an assaultive defense that has led the nation in tackles for loss the past three seasons. It’s a system, it’s a style, it’s a mentality, it’s the Brent Venables way: Clemson will make plays in the backfield all game long. Yet, the Tech spread option has been a thorn in Venables’ side, averaging about 280 rush yards per game against Clemson from 2012 through 2014, until the Tigers finally bottled them up in 2015, holding them to 71 yards on the ground. IF Georgia Tech can run it like they did in three of the past four years, sprinkling in a few signature big-hitters in the play-action game, they can win–but that’s a very big IF (37% chance of an upset).
Friday, September 23
Warm up with Wyoming at Eastern Michigan [CBSSN 7:30], the only show in town for 30 minutes, between a pair of 2-1 teams ahead of schedule in their quests for bowl eligibility. Craig Bohl’s Cowboys have the better chance of breaking through to the postseason, beginning the year with a 5-7 expected record and already at +0.9 in win differential, putting them right on the 6-win bowl eligibility cusp.
Switch over for the kickoff of TCU at SMU [ESPN 8:00], a substantial underdog that played Baylor to a first-half draw two weeks ago before running out of gas in the second half, just dangerous enough to scare the Horned Frogs should they sleepwalk over to Dallas. The Mustangs can’t consistently stymie Kenny Hill, so the onus is on the offense to keep pace as long as it can against a TCU defense that has underwhelmed in September (#27 defensive power rating in the preseason, down to #40 heading into Week 4). SMU’s Courtland Sutton is one of the better receivers you’ve never heard of after averaging more yards per catch (17.6) than any other freshman in the country last season, and he’s off to a blazing start this year, averaging 25.9 per grab and hauling in four touchdowns. Sutton getting behind a suspect TCU secondary is the key matchup for SMU’s thin shot at the upset (8% chance).
The game of the night is in Salt Lake City [★ USC at #24 Utah, FS1 9:00], where the Trojans launch a final salvo for 2016 respectability. Losing to consistent powers Alabama and Stanford isn’t shameful in and of itself, but appearing uncompetitive in both is unbefitting a program flush with the talent and prestige of USC. Besieging the 3-0 Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium for a desperately needed victory is a tough assignment, as Utah typically plays a fundamentally sound game of football: solid running game, excellent defense, and elite special teams have been hallmarks of Kyle Whittingham’s 12-year tenure as head coach. If Utah has an exploitable weakness, it’s inexperience at the offensive skill positions. The Utes began the season with the preseason #73 offense and have since slipped a bit to #81.
Saturday, September 24
Arguably the game of the week [★★★ #11 Wisconsin at #8 Michigan State, BTN 12:00] kicks off in the early slot, a slugfest between two physical behemoths that boast Top 20 defenses (Wisconsin #12, MSU #18). Both Badgers and Spartans exceeded our nonconference expectations by posting signature wins over consensus preseason Top 10 LSU and Notre Dame, respectively, despite each measuring out beforehand at about a 20% chance to win those games. Both have also limped to the finish line against supposedly outclassed opposition in narrow wins against Georgia State and Furman, concerning struggles that cloud the picture of how good these teams can be, particularly on offense, as Big Ten play begins.
This matchup is the beginning of an especially tough slate for Wisconsin: at Michigan State, at Michigan, home vs Ohio State, at Iowa, and home vs Nebraska. Upsetting LSU at Lambeau boosted the Badgers, but a loss here could start a tailspin that quickly turns their 3-0 start into 3-3 before divisional games against the Hawks and ‘Huskers.
A pair of fringe Top 10 teams are in danger elsewhere across the country: ★ #12 Georgia @ #23 Ole Miss [ESPN 12:00] and ★ #13 Florida State at South Florida [ABC 12:00]. Last week’s rollercoaster in Oxford might have ended in disappointment for the Rebels, but only a very good team can take a 21 point lead on #1 Alabama. Despite an 11 spot deficit in the poll, we favor Ole Miss and their #7 offense by 11 points, as this Georgia team is fortunate to be undefeated after beating Nicholls State and Missouri by a combined three points. Though RB Nick Chubb and the QB situation grab the headlines, the Bulldogs’ most important player may be emerging WR Isaiah McKenzie, who is #19 nationally with a dependence rating of 7.7 points (a metric that analyzes how much a team’s offense relies on individual players), highest of any pure wideout in the country in the young season.
Meanwhile, the Seminoles can’t let Louisville beat them twice–don’t let the name or Group of 5 label fool you, South Florida is a very good team that hasn’t scored fewer than 45 points this year. A loss here puts the ‘Noles in a bad spot, as the schedule doesn’t lighten up with the firepower of North Carolina and Miami looming in Weeks 5 and 6.
Another game with potential playoff consequences [★★★ #19 Florida at #14 Tennessee, CBS 3:30] matches up a team without a starting quarterback (Florida’s Luke Del Rio injured) against a team without a pulse through the first three weeks. Tennessee has been possibly the most disappointing 3-0 team in the nation, regularly underperforming expectations and displaying a continued lack of offensive creativity and punch. The only game that looked good on paper was the 45-24 victory over Virginia Tech in the Battle at Bristol, but that score was a mirage fueled by five fumble recoveries, an unsustainable run of luck that won’t save Tennessee in a brutal 4-week stretch that also includes Georgia, Texas A&M, and Alabama. Against Florida’s stifling #5 defense, which has only allowed two scoring plays all season, RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara figure to find few holes, which will likely force Josh Dobbs to challenge the Gator secondary, where lurks superstar corner Jalen “Teez” Tabor (18 passes defended in 2015, 2 in 2016). Though questions swirl around both clubs, the victor in this divisional confrontation takes command of the SEC East, with only Georgia remaining as a viable threat to reach Atlanta in December.
Don’t overlook an ACC clash between two preseason favorites [★ Pittsburgh at North Carolina, ESPNU 3:30] in the topsy-turvy Coastal to see who gains a significant early advantage in the divisional race. Gutted by multiple injuries to defensive starters, Pitt has morphed into a team trying to outgun their foes in shootouts–successful against Penn State but falling short at Oklahoma State–and few teams in the ACC are as comfortable in high-scoring affairs as the ever-explosive North Carolina Tar Heels. Pitt’s secondary, after yielding nearly 300 receiving yards to Cowboy WR James Washington, is a major liability against efficient Tar Heel QB Mitch Trubisky, who is yet to throw an interception this season.
Check the scores of Boise State at Oregon State [FS1 3:30] and BYU versus West Virginia [ESPN2 3:30, at FedEx Field]. West Virginia is quietly one of the Big XII’s last hopes and needs to get past BYU, who seems to be playing everyone everywhere, to avoid further tarnish to the conference image. If Boise wins in Corvallis, they should cruise into their pivotal October 20th home game against (you guessed it) BYU undefeated at 6-0.
Once the afternoon games wind down, relax for 30 minutes before the next big games start by checking out Georgia Southern at Western Michigan [ESPN3, 7:00] to see how the 3-0 Broncos hold up against a tough G5 opponent who will challenge them with a triple option that has already amassed 1,000 rushing yards.
Head to Waco for the kickoff between ★★ Oklahoma State and #16 Baylor [FOX 7:30], a matchup of two teams with Big XII championship and playoff aspirations. If the Cowboys finish 11-1 (the one loss resulting from referee error), the committee might treat them as a 12-win or 11.5-win team and slot them in a semifinal, depending on the resumes of the other contenders. Baylor, along with aforementioned West Virginia, is one of two league teams still undefeated and in firm control of their playoff destiny. Allowing only 10 points per game, the Bears are surging defensively, up to #29 after starting the season at #67, while maintaining their offensive gusto under the continued direction of OC Kendal Briles.
Alternate between Waco and L.A. for ★★ #7 Stanford at UCLA [ABC 8:00], a potential season-builder for the Bruins after beginning as the Pac-12 South favorite but scuffling some in the first few weeks. The Cardinal offensive line looked back to its old self in the dismantling of imploding USC last week, a welcome sign after grinding out next to nothing on the ground most of the game against Kansas State’s surprisingly strong front. Watching Stanford do-it-all star Christian McCaffery, active in 58% of offensive plays to lead all non-QBs nationally, continues to be worth the price of admission, and this is another opportunity to build on his healthy 2016 Heisman campaign in front of a national audience. (No, it is not a foregone conclusion that Louisville QB Lamar Jackson will win it after only three weeks of football.) UCLA’s defense (#15) is better than either USC’s or K-State’s, though, so the highlight plays might require a bit more effort to produce.
When Stanford–who runs more often–has the ball, again observe the O-line to see if the K-State or the USC game was the norm. When UCLA–who throws more often–has the ball, let your eyes drift to the receivers to see if they find creases in the coverage that Bruin QB Josh Rosen can exploit.
Another big game lands around halftime of Oklahoma State – Baylor: ★★★ #17 Arkansas vs #10 Texas A&M [ESPN 9:00, in Arlington], a battle for the top challenger spot to frontrunner Alabama in the thinning SEC West. With Ole Miss a game and a tiebreaker behind the Tide and LSU underachieving, whichever undefeated squad emerges from this critical divisional clash takes a giant stride forward in the playoff and New Year’s Six race. Aggie Trevor Knight might be a bigger name and is more involved in the QB-centric offense favored by HC Kevin Sumlin, but Arkansas signal-caller Austin Allen has been slightly more efficient after three games, averaging 0.33 net points per play (including passes, runs, and sacks) compared to Knight’s 0.29. He doesn’t have the elusiveness or running ability of Knight, so the pressure is on the ‘Hawgs up front to provide enough protection against star DL Myles Garrett and a pass rush generating four sacks per game.
Close Week 4 with a major playoff contender as #9 Washington faces Arizona [PAC12 Network 10:30, at Arizona]. The Huskies have avoided the limelight thus far by playing one-sided matchups at odd times on the Pac-12 Network, but they have innocuously ascended into the Top 10 despite little early-season attention. The schedule strengthens as Pac-12 play begins in the desert against a Wildcat team that has enough firepower to test the resilience of Washington’s stone wall of a defense, tied with Alabama for the #1 stop unit in the land heading into Week 4. The defense was expected to be great; what’s even more encouraging is the rapid 20-spot climb of the offense to #43 (preseason #63) as the inexperienced youth of 2015 have matured into experienced veterans in 2016.
Washington is a strong favorite (85%) in Tucson six days before a massive Friday night clash with Top 10 Stanford at Husky Stadium, possibly the game of the year in the Pac-12 conference.
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.
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.
How to Watch Week 1
Read this article like a travel guide. You know, those books that give you 1-day or 3-day or 7-day itineraries for every location across the globe, telling you which sites to see and what to eat and where to stay. If you read them and take them with you on travel, you know how it works: the well-choreographed agenda on the page gives way to personal interests, time constraints, and oversleeping. You miss some of the feature attractions because you don’t have enough time to do it all. You pop in to see family or friends that don’t fit into the narrative of the guide book. In short, you take the information provided and personalize it to your taste and to what your schedule allows.
That’s the idea here. Adhere as closely or as loosely to this football-watching itinerary as you like. Make room for your favorite team, of course, if they didn’t figure into this week’s narrative. Utilize services like DVR and live-streaming mobile devices liberally. Don’t forget to eat something. Hopefully, this guide will help you see more of the college football landscape than usual, give you meaningful insights into games informed by relevant stats, uncover a few under-the-radar matchups you might have overlooked, and provide a useful roadmap for the dozens of games being played on any given weekend.
A note on the star system. Travel book veterans will recognize it. Michelin aficionados might roll their eyes. Here I use one to three stars to indicate games of significant interest at the time of the article (but not all featured games are given stars). You won’t agree with all the star ratings. I’ll look back at some and probably wonder why I gave such-and-such game a star, always easier in hindsight. I’ll cringe, thinking I gave out too many three-stars early in the year, or too few-one stars later in the season, or something like that. Ultimately, the stars are for fun and reflect how I viewed that game at the time, both analytically and as a general fan of college football.
The stars are subjective, just like those given to restaurants, and the criteria are fluid, but here is the general idea:
★ Interesting game because of matchup quality, upset potential, conference/rankings implications, team style, and/or setting
★★ Important game because of matchup quality, typically involving at least one ranked or highly ranked team, with upset potential or major conference/rankings implications
★★★ Critical game, expected to be highly competitive, between teams with College Football Playoff and/or New Year’s Six potential
And a final note on rankings and statistical references. Team rankings given in the game title only use AP rankings in the first half of the year and CFP rankings once available. Generally, the game title format is presented in one of the following basic formats for consistency:
Charlotte at #19 Louisville [ESPN3 7:00] OR
[Charlotte at #19 Louisville, ESPN3 7:00] OR
Charlotte and #19 Louisville [ESPN3 7:00 at Louisville]
All times are Eastern and implicitly mean PM (or 12:00 noon) if unspecified. Games that kick off in the AM hours will be noted.
All other statistics or rankings utilized in the articles refer to ratings generated by McIllece Sports, whether in the College Football Notebook 2016 preview or numbers updated throughout the year, unless otherwise specified. So when I talk generically about a team being favored, I’m referring to McIllece Sports win probabilities and score predictions, not point spreads.
I hope you enjoy this article series throughout the year, and good luck to your favorite team!
Friday, August 26
The 2016 college football season kicks off Down Under with ★ California vs Hawai’i [ESPN 10:00], a game that earns itself the season’s first star for putting college football on TV a week early and showcasing an unorthodox setting (ANZ Stadium, Sydney). Sure, this matchup wouldn’t attract much interest any other weekend, as these two teams may only combine for 6 or 7 wins, but don’t let that dilute the excitement of the gridiron sights and sounds college football fans have awaited since January.
Besides, the game is more intriguing than it first appears, as it highlights the opposing momentum of two disparate programs. Cal’s dropoff this season could be staggering: a 99th-percentile pass offense in 2015 undercut by zero-percentile returning pass offense experience for 2016 (percentiles are formed by comparing all teams nationally), thanks to departures of prolific QB Jared Goff and his top 6 receivers. Rush defense experience isn’t much better (9th percentile) from what was already a challenged unit a year ago. Various other statistical indicators, like net penalties and fumbles, point downward. Stormclouds loom; Texas Tech transfer QB Davis Webb, an air raid veteran suited to Sonny Dykes’ system, is the silver lining. Watch for timing and communication problems between Webb and an untested WR corps that portend serious trouble against the rest of a difficult schedule. With San Diego State and Texas filling out the nonconference slate, Cal may not be favored in another game all season (Oct 8th at Oregon State looks like a tossup, with the improving Beavers getting the preseason edge for playing at home).
Hawai’i breaks in a new defense, hamstrung by the summer dismissal of top DL Kennedy Tulimasealii, that doesn’t have the base talent to consistently slow Cal’s attack, but look for progress from the new-look offense, a highly experienced unit that must transition to first-year Head Coach Nick Rolovich’s (former Nevada OC) run-oriented pistol. QB Ikaika Woolsey, originally recruited by then-assistant coach Rolovich to Hawai’i out of high school, looks to be a solid fit. Fresh energy, improved fundamentals, and a new offensive style should invigorate the Rainbow Warriors, who could surprise by remaining competitive into the second half of this international affair.
Thursday, September 1
Kick off the first full weekend with some fireworks [Charlotte at #19 Louisville, ESPN3/WatchESPN 7:00], courtesy of dual-threat sophomore sensation Lamar Jackson. Don’t miss the early barrage, as Charlotte can’t keep this close against a polished, complete Louisville squad, and some starters may not play much in the second half. Keep an eye on the Cardinals’ new specialists. They rate as an unknown and could prove critical in two weeks, when the Seminoles come to town for a mammoth ACC Atlantic matchup.
Count on Louisville to cruise the rest of the way and catch the kickoff of our preseason favorite to reach the College Football Playoff, Tennessee, against better-than-you-might-realize App State [Appalachian State at #9 Tennessee, SEC Network 7:30], a team that could win 10+ games again. If the Vols have a weakness, other than a much discussed propensity to clam up in big moments, it is an underwhelming passing offense that needs to show better in ’16. See if that aspect is coming to life against a good App State defense, and don’t be surprised if the Mountaineers–behind a solid D, committed and methodical run game, and leadership of Sun Belt star QB Taylor Lamb–hang around until half time. Talent, experience, and elite special teams should help Tennessee pull away in the second half.
At halftime, check out the score of FIU at Indiana [ESPNU 7:30]. If the Golden Panthers hit the teens in the first half, consider it a bad sign that Indiana’s long-awaited defensive revival is yet another year away.
Before halftime is over, select from two rare Week 1 conference matchups: South Carolina at Vanderbilt [ESPN 8:00] if you love defense or Rice at Western Kentucky [CBSSN 8:00] if you love offense. The SEC is the SEC, but that game won’t impact the SEC East race, so we recommend swallowing your Power 5 bias and going with the CUSA game that has real conference implications. WKU was an aerial powerhouse under the guidance of QB Brandon Doughty, who led them to an excellent 12-2 season in 2015. Hang around long enough to catch a few balls with nationally underappreciated wideout Taywan Taylor, certain to be the favorite target of Doughty’s replacement, a winner yet to emerge from the Hilltoppers’ ongoing 3-man QB competition.
Head back to Rocky Top to see if the Vols pull away; if so, consider them primed and ready for next week’s Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech, under new Head Coach Justin Fuente (former Memphis HC), and settle in with a Big Ten-Pac12 cross-sectional [Oregon State at Minnesota, BTN 9:00] featuring heavy doses of the running game–Minnesota’s more compact and powerful, Oregon State’s more spread out and speedy. Expect a competitive game of contrasting run styles that doesn’t spin out of control either way, as the Beavers should be better in Gary Andersen’s second year. Minnesota has the stronger foundation and is favored (74% win probability) to start 1-0, but an upset isn’t unthinkable in the nightcap of college football’s opening Thursday.
Friday, September 2
Matt Rhule’s Temple was a revelation in 2015, winning 10 games only two years after losing 10 (his first season as Head Coach). See if that looks like the new normal for the Owls [Army at Temple, CBSSN 7:00]. A slip in quality is probable, but 10 wins is possible again in 2016 (22% chance of 10-2 or better). Army fortunately appears to have the services of option QB Ahmad Bradshaw available, which helps their chances, but their inexperienced personnel will struggle to notch more than a pair of TDs against the Owls.
Pop into Denver for the annual off-campus rivalry game between Colorado and Colorado State [ESPN 8:00], never an easy game for the Power 5 Buffaloes. There is more on the line than in-state bragging rights, as this is must-win territory for the Buffs if they have their sights on a December bowl trip. This may be the best opportunity for Head Coach Mike MacIntyre, who in his 4th season has a very experienced team–Colorado needs to convert that experience into wins, and fast. A loss to the Rams would indicate that a bounceback season is off the table in Boulder.
Don’t miss a snap of a stylistic throwback [★ Kansas State at #8 Stanford, FS1 9:00] that would have looked just fine on analog TV. Ageless wizard Bill Snyder is known to conjure teams that defy analytics, and David Shaw’s pipeline of hard-nosed trench talent does much the same in Palo Alto. Keep an eye on Stanford’s offensive efficiency after replacing undervalued 3-year starting QB Kevin Hogan, particularly on 3rd downs, for signs of future trouble against Pac12 foes. Heisman-quality RB Christian McCaffery, the country’s best all-purpose player, is the difference here and should cement the win for the home side, but Snyder’s K-State can cast a wicked spell and win in unexpected ways that look a lot like luck. This game is no gimme for the Cardinal.
You should have just enough time to catch a potentially wild finish in a cross-sectional between a pair of Group of 5 powers [Toledo at Arkansas State, ESPNU 9:00]. If it goes into overtime, remember to set your alarm, because the games start early tomorrow.
Saturday, September 3
The best opening Saturday in recent memory begins with an Irish breakfast in Dublin [★ Georgia Tech vs Boston College, ESPN2 7:30 am]. Setting and style promise enthralling early (non-EPL) football from the North Atlantic: GT’s clockwork spread option vying to outmaneuver BC’s stifling defense. The fun here is when the Yellow Jackets have the ball, watching QB Justin Thomas and his stable of RBs (a.k.a. A-Backs and B-Backs) choreograph Paul Johnson’s singular attack against playmaking DE Harold Landry and active LBs Matt Milano and Connor Strachan. BC’s offense is as anemic as its defense is smothering–17 points might be enough to win in Aviva Stadium.
The most crowded timeslot of the day hits at noon. Skip the likeliest blowouts (until next time, Ohio State and Michigan) and home in on a manageable pair: playoff ramifications abound at neutral-site NRG Stadium in Houston [★★★ #3 Oklahoma vs #13 Houston, ABC 12:00], and during commercial breaks catch the odd series between ★ Western Michigan and Northwestern [ESPNU 12:00, at Northwestern]. Why the latter? The Wildcats, fresh off 10 wins and boasting our preseason #17 defense, might seem like clear favorites, but WMU is one of the best G5 teams in the nation (#24 offense led by MAC stars QB Zach Terrell and WR Corey Davis) and has a shot at running the table and crashing the New Year’s Six party if they win in Evanston. This is a meaningful under-the-radar game. A loss in this coin-flip contest would bode ill for NW’s chances of competing for the Big Ten West division championship.
Little motivation is needed for that other game…the first of many colossal tilts that will be discussed by the CFP committee into November. The QBs are two of college football’s most captivating–Houston’s Greg Ward Jr for his electrifying open-field ability, OU’s Baker Mayfield for his unflinching competitive drive and apparent joy of playing the game. The challenge for both teams is breaking in new faces on the other side of the ball: OU’s rush and pass experience percentiles (defensively) are 16 and 28, while Houston’s are 25 and 9, respectively. So expect a bevy of explosive plays, an all-around thrilling game, and maybe even a signature moment for one of these Heisman-contending quarterbacks.
Catch your breath and check the final score of Missouri at West Virginia [FS1 12:00], which likely ended before OU-Houston. West Virginia’s offense has great potential this season. If they hang 3+ touchdowns on the stout Tiger D, consider it a good sign–that’s probably the best defense the Mountaineers will face all season.
Pass on playoff contender Washington this week (assume they’ll take care of the outclassed Scarlet Knights in Seattle) and absorb the theater of a college football kickoff at Lambeau Field between ground-and-pounders ★ #5 LSU and Wisconsin [ABC 3:30]. Wisconsin’s rush offense slipped to an un-Badger-like 40th percentile in Paul Chryst’s second year as boss, and with QB Joel Stave and #1 WR Alex Erickson gone, the pressure ratchets up on the OL and returned-from-injury RB Corey Clement to move the chains against LSU’s #10 defense (led by DC Dave Aranda, architect of the great Badger defenses from 2013 to 2015). LSU and elite RB Leonard Fournette (if healthy) should prove too much for Wisconsin in a low-scoring, rugged affair that gets a star for classic style and football atmosphere, but may fail to deliver a 4-quarter nail-biter.
Don’t overlook what should be a more competitive contest [★ #16 UCLA at Texas A&M, CBS 3:30] as the Aggies hosts the Pac12 North favorite Bruins. This would have been a shootout a couple years past, but these two teams project as top 15 defensive units with offensive question marks, so don’t be shocked if fewer points are scored in College Station than in Green Bay. Plan on settling in here for the second half with Kyle Field’s 12th Man as LSU pulls away from Wisconsin up north.
The next stop is in-progress ★★ #22 North Carolina vs #18 Georgia [ESPN 5:30] at the Georgia Dome, where new QBs will be on display for both teams: JR Mitch Trubisky operating the explosive Larry Fedora offense, and heralded true freshman Jacob Eason at the helm in Kirby Smart’s (former Alabama DC) first game as head man of the Bulldogs. UNC needs to get better stopping the run to repeat as ACC Coastal champions, and a healthy Nick Chubb should provide a great test for some new D-linemen and linebackers. The defensive star power for the Heels is at CB: watch for M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence to make life difficult on Eason in his collegiate debut. If they only break up passes, count it a win for Georgia; if they come down with an INT or two, that swings the needle in UNC’s favor. Also, don’t look away when Georgia lines up to punt (stalwart 4-year punter Collin Barber must be replaced). One of the country’s great return men, UNC’s Ryan Switzer, can change the game in a flash.
From 8:00 until 9:00, you’ll be flipping back and forth between the Georgia Dome and another neutral-site showdown from Arlington, TX [★★ #20 USC vs #1 Alabama, ABC 8:00]. More quarterback questions enter the field of play here for Clay Helton’s and Nick Saban’s squads. The Trojans are more QB dependent, which is advantage #1 for the defending champs. Check out Bo Scarbrough, who could be in store for a big night against a revamped Trojan front seven, to see if he looks like the next great Alabama running back. If USC is to have a fighting chance, a game-changing performance is needed from elite receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, perhaps the best individual playmaker on the field. USC probably can’t turn the game on special teams, where the Tide are superior, so they may need to hit +2 in turnover margin to spring the upset. That’s unlikely, and we favor Alabama at nearly 80% to kick off 2016 with a win over a strong USC team.
After Georgia – UNC concludes, ★★ #2 Clemson at Auburn [ESPN 9:00] joins the rotation from Jordan-Hare Stadium. Clemson’s biggest question is a reconstructed rush defense, steadied by LB Ben Boulware and excellent DT tandem Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins, that must replace the disruptive productions of ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, ‘backer B.J. Goodson, and safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse. Auburn has the run-first system to challenge the front line of Clemson’s defense, but must do so without last year’s leading rusher Jovon Robinson, dismissed in early August. Auburn boasts enough top-level talent on their #11 defense to slow down Clemson’s #2 offense, which features star QB Deshaun Watson and an embarrassment of skill position riches, just enough to keep hope alive in a huge opportunity game for Head Coach Gus Malzahn. An SEC West team at home, fielding potentially a very good defense, with a rushing attack that stresses Clemson’s biggest unknown, can’t be counted out. This climactic matchup of the day’s big games could be a tougher 4-quarter grind for the Clemson-variety Tigers than most anticipate.
If you have any gas left in the tank after starting at 7:30 am, catch some West Coast wildness in the second half of BYU vs Arizona [FS1 10:30] in Glendale, a game that is unfortunately washed out a bit by the magnitude of the preceding tilts. Both these teams could end up in many tight games this year, as evidenced by their wide distributions of expected records: both are about as likely to win 3-4 games (BYU 22%, Arizona 19%) as they are to win 8-9 (BYU 19%, Arizona 22%). A handful of critical moments will define the seasons of these two solid-but-flawed clubs.
Sunday, September 4
Alternatively, record the second half and watch it as a warm-up to another big one on Sunday night: ★★ #10 Notre Dame at Texas [ABC 7:30]. The Irish must be desperate for real football after an endless fall camp that recently saw the dismissal and suspension of S Max Redfield and CB Devin Butler, respectively. Texas and embattled coach Charlie Strong suddenly have a tailor-made opportunity between Notre Dame’s turmoil and an overall down year for the Big XII. It starts here, as the forgettable offseason, uncertain QB situation, and general inexperience of the Irish leave them surprisingly vulnerable to a tattered program coming off consecutive 7-loss seasons.
A snapshot of the offensive and defensive experience percentiles of these teams shows how young the Irish are compared to the Horns:
Rush Offense 65
Pass Offense 71
Rush Defense 66
Pass defense 93
Rush Offense 20
Pass Offense 11
Rush Defense 7
Pass Defense 18
The analytics characteristically high on Notre Dame are based on recent success and elite recruiting, surpassing even that of usual February juggernaut Texas. Get the first look at freshman Longhorn QB Shane Buechele, and see if the Irish two-QB system shakes out a clear starter in the second half of this tossup game (ND 55% win probability before recent roster upheaval) that is potentially a landmine for Chip Kelly and a springboard for Charlie Strong.
Monday, September 5
If all that wasn’t enough, leave room in the Labor Day schedule for Week 1’s grand finale, ★★★ #11 Ole Miss vs #4 Florida State [ESPN 8:00] from the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, a playoff-quality clash between teams rated #4 and #5 in our pure power ratings. At 53% win probability for FSU, this matchup is nearly a true tossup game and certainly a gold star on the victor’s playoff resume. For the Seminoles, steady Sean Maguire’s injury clears the path for redshirt freshman QB Deondre Francois, tasked with avoiding costly mistakes that could undermine a supremely talented and experienced offense (Recruiting 97, RushOff experience 99, PassOff experience 87 before the Maguire injury). Dalvin Cook’s the bulldozing headliner and runs behind an OL with all key multi-game starters from ’15 still on the roster.
Defensively, make note of how a retooled secondary, FSU’s biggest question mark besides the play of Francois, holds up against the Rebels’ top-flight pass offense (93rd-percentile last year) featuring the SEC’s most prolific returning QB, Chad Kelly, and talented receiving trio Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore’ea Stringfellow, and TE Evan Engram. Top 2015 producer Laquon Treadwell will be missed. In other areas, Ole Miss is counting on many first-year starters, so the team experience edge is decidedly in Florida State’s favor. Special teams can swing close games, and here Ole Miss figures to have an edge, returning their specialists–accurate placekicker Gary Wunderlich, strong-legged kickoff man Nathan Noble, and solid punter Will Gleeson–while FSU must replace theirs, including an all-time Seminole great, kicker Roberto Aguayo.
The loser of this game isn’t out of the playoff picture in Week 1, but could be as soon as Week 3: Florida State travels to rising power Louisville, and Ole Miss hosts dynastic power Alabama.