College football’s Week 3 schedule feels kind of light, doesn’t it?
Granted, both Alabama and Clemson hit the road to face opponents that are by no means incompetent. Bama faces South Carolina, which looked great against Charleston Southern in quarterback Ryan Hilinski’s first start, and Clemson has to head north to face Syracuse, the only ACC team to beat, or really even scare, the Tigers in the past two years.
Still, the odds favor the two heavyweights (they always do), and there are no Top 25 vs. Top 25 games on the docket. Of the top eight teams in the AP poll, one is playing an FCS foe (LSU vs. Northwestern State), and the other seven are favored by an average of 28 points. Not many fireworks there.
Really, though, weeks like this can be a lot of fun. We don’t have to worry about the national title race just yet, and we get some prime opportunities to figure out which of the season’s surprising early storylines are real and which aren’t.
Let’s walk through some of the questions that might get answered this weekend.
All times Eastern
Is Maryland for real?
Week 3 game: at Temple (noon, CBS Sports)
It has been a pretty good season for second chances. LSU, led by Ed Orgeron (who went 10-25 in three seasons at Ole Miss and had to wait a decade for another major head-coaching gig) is coming off a big road win over Texas and has his team ranked fourth in the AP poll, fourth in my SP+ rankings and third in ESPN’s FPI. Meanwhile, up near the Chesapeake Bay, Mike Locksley’s Maryland is the early story of the season.
The Terrapins are coming off a 63-20 rout of Syracuse, a result that dropped the Orange out of the polls and from 40th to 70th in SP+. They embarrassed Howard 79-0 in Week 1, which means they’ve already scored more points in two games (142) than Locksley’s New Mexico Lobos did in his last seven games in charge there (118). Locksley went an astounding 2-26 in parts of three seasons at New Mexico, then set about rebuilding his career. As Maryland offensive coordinator, he couldn’t save Randy Edsall’s job, and he ended up in the Nick Saban Coach Reclamation Project, serving first as an analyst, then receivers coach, then offensive coordinator. Nearly eight years after bombing out at UNM, he got another head-coaching gig.
It seems he has learned some lessons, huh? After receiving no votes in the preseason polls, the Terps are already up to 21st, their highest ranking in 16 years. They are averaging 7.9 yards per play, they are in the top 20 in both rushing and passing success rate, and they are giving up almost no negative plays whatsoever.
The offense Locksley and offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery (another former head coach/reclamation project after four years leading East Carolina) have crafted seems based on two general principles: get your best personnel on the field — even if that means you have to, say, figure out a formation for three good RBs — and once defenses are in conflict, kill ’em with run-pass options.
“We run a style of offense that the defense can’t be right unless they out-execute us,” Locksley said after the Syracuse win. Conceptually, the offense is all sorts of logical: run well enough that the defense has to compensate, then punish them with the pass. “When you start running the football with the way we have the capability to run it,” Locksley said, “the only way you can stop it is by adding the extra guy in the box.”
According to data provided by Sports Info Solutions, Maryland has attempted 19 RPOs this year; they have resulted in 10 passes, nine runs and 172 yards (9.1 per play). The Terps made Syracuse look like it had never seen an RPO before, gashing the Orange repeatedly and punishing them for putting too many defenders in the box.
So is this surge real? Maryland isn’t going to average 70 points per game for the season — a hot take, I know — but can the Terps continue their general offensive success as opponents adjust and the Big Ten East schedule takes its toll?
SP+ is designed to not overreact to brief surges, but the fact that Maryland has risen from 68th to 37th in two weeks suggests the Terps could keep climbing. Still, with a schedule that features four current SP+ top-20 teams and only one ranked lower than 58th, there are likely lots of close games and potential losses on the schedule.
This week’s game at Temple is a perfect test. The Owls are an untested 1-0 but rank 44th in SP+ and walloped the Terps by three touchdowns in College Park last year.
No, these first two weeks probably don’t portend a Maryland national title run. But in just two weeks, the Terps have gone from having a 27 percent chance at bowl eligibility (per SP+) to a 28 percent chance of winning eight or more games. We can take a moment to marvel at that, even if reality is on its way.
Is Nebraska in trouble?
Week 3 game: vs. Northern Illinois (8 p.m., FS1)
You know the story pretty well by now. Nebraska won four of six to finish 2018 and headed into the offseason with major hype and second-year leap potential under Scott Frost. The Huskers remained among the top 15 teams in terms of national title odds as the season approached, but whichever ratings system you prefer — FPI, SP+, etc. — it wasn’t nearly as high on them as the conventional wisdom.
Thus far, it seems even the ratings were too high on them. The offense performed poorly in a 14-point win against South Alabama, then Nebraska leaped to an early lead at Colorado only to falter late and suffer a demoralizing overtime loss. Instead of a resounding 2-0, the Huskers are 1-1. With the schedule ahead, SP+ has dropped their odds of bowl eligibility to just 40 percent, and any hopes of a 2019 surge require an immediate step forward: Their three worst opponents (per SP+) show up on the schedule over the next four weeks.
The biggest issues right now: The run game has been terribly ineffective, and the defense is giving up too many big plays (and not just of the “96-yard flea-flicker” variety). That makes Northern Illinois an interesting opponent. The Huskies are 38th in marginal explosiveness on offense (a measure of mine that looks at the magnitude of a team’s successful plays and adjusts for down, distance and field position), and their defense ranks 12th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line).
The Huskies probably aren’t good enough to beat the Huskers without help, but they have plenty of leftover personnel (like linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis) from last year’s dynamite defense and will test QB Adrian Martinez and the NU offense. If the Huskers struggle in this one, they might keep struggling for a while.
Is North Carolina an ACC Coastal contender?
Week 3 game: at Wake Forest (Friday, 6 p.m., ESPN)
The Mack Brown Comeback Tour picked up its second win in as many tries last week, enduring a double-digit comeback by Miami and then scoring late to win anyway. But if SP+ has been slow to warm too much to Maryland, it’s still downright glacial when it comes to the Tar Heels. After starting the season 66th in SP+, they are only up to 56th at the moment despite two power conference wins.
The major reason is, on paper, they shouldn’t have beaten Miami. SP+ is a predictive measure and is therefore built primarily around the steadier and more predictive aspects of the game. I refer often to a measure called postgame win expectancy, which basically looks at the more predictive stats from a game and says, “based on these stats, you could have expected to win this game X percent of the time.” UNC’s postgame win expectancy against Miami: 31 percent. The Canes had the higher success rate and better field position and created more scoring opportunities. They win that game most of the time.
A win’s a win, but UNC’s stat profile isn’t particularly impressive just yet, and now the Heels are a 3-point underdog in Friday’s oddly timed, oddly nonconference game at Wake. Granted, they weren’t supposed to beat South Carolina or Miami either, but there’s justifiable reason why both Vegas and the numbers have been slow to warm. Not even Mack’s dance moves have swayed them. Yet.
So USC has an offense now?
Week 3 game: at BYU (3:30 p.m., ABC)
As I wrote on Monday, Graham Harrell’s tenure as USC offensive coordinator has already overcome a hiccup: JT Daniels’ second-ending Week 1 injury. But Kedon Slovis took over and went 28-for-33 for 370 yards and three scores against Stanford, and the Trojans closed out a surprisingly easy win on a 42-3 run.
So that’s it, then? USC has an exciting quarterback and an Air Raid-style offense, and now the Trojans are good again? We’ll see. It’s apparently a rite of passage for a hyped freshman at an L.A. school to have to go through BYU.
The Cougars gave UCLA’s Josh Rosen his first real bump (11-for-23 for 106 yards and three picks) when Rosen was a freshman back in 2015. They’ve also defended the pass reasonably well this year, forcing both Utah’s Tyler Huntley and Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano to throw short and holding them to a combined 132.5 passer rating — not terrible, but far from great.
Is Trevor Lawrence … shaky?
Week 3 game: at Syracuse (7:30 p.m., ABC)
OK, spoiler: No, he’s not.
That said, he hasn’t been great either. He has thrown three interceptions to two touchdowns, and he needed help from his amazing receivers to haul in a few off-target balls against A&M last week. After ranking ninth in QBR as a freshman and finishing the year playing as well as a college QB can possibly play, he’s just 22nd so far this year. The shame!
The obvious disclaimers apply. (A) It has been two games; (B) Even if his amazing receivers had to bail him out, he’s going to have those receivers all year, so that doesn’t really matter; (C) Clemson just beat maybe the best team on its schedule by two touchdowns with him playing “shaky” ball by his standards. Now he gets to face a shell-shocked Syracuse defense, and only a couple of other defenses on the schedule can even slightly keep up with Clemson athletically. Even if it takes him all year to find fifth gear, as long as he finds it before the postseason, the Tigers’ title hopes are probably fine.
Syracuse’s defense is pretty active, by the way. Safety Andre Cisco is as good a ball hawk as there is in the country, and a couple of early turnovers are basically the only thing that could make Saturday night’s game interesting.
Week 3 playlist
Here are 10 games — at least one from each weekend time slot — that you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both an information and entertainment perspective.
Houston vs. No. 20 Washington State (9:15 p.m., ESPN)
Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen welcomes his old mentor, Mike Leach, to town. It doesn’t take advanced stats to suggest this one’s going to be pretty high-scoring.
SP+ projection: Wazzu 46, Houston 34
Pitt at No. 13 Penn State (noon, ABC)
The Nittany Lions appear to hold most of the advantages in this one, but this might be the last game in the rivalry for a while. Watch because of that, if nothing else.
SP+ projection: PSU 43, Pitt 17
No. 6 Ohio State at Indiana (noon, Fox)
I’m not going to try to convince you Indiana can win this game, but the Hoosiers can test the Buckeyes in certain ways — namely, run defense and pass offense (QB Michael Penix Jr., a game-time decision this weekend, has looked excellent so far for IU).
SP+ projection: Ohio State 41, Indiana 23
Kansas State at Mississippi State (noon, ESPN)
The Wildcats have played two flawless games (against drastically inferior competition), and MSU QB Tommy Stevens hurt his shoulder last week but should be ready to go. This will test whether the Bulldogs are worthy of SP+’s high opinions — ranked 13th — of them.
SP+ projection: MSU 44, KSU 31
Go ahead and watch Bama-South Carolina for a bit, just in case, but flip to these games if or when Ryan Hilinski succumbs to the Bama defense.
No. 19 Iowa at Iowa State (4 p.m., FS1)
ISU has had a week to figure out what (nearly) went wrong against Northern Iowa, but if Iowa wins its fifth in a row in this series, it’s probably more because of the Hawkeyes’ own high quality than the Cyclones’ lack thereof.
SP+ projection: Iowa 29, ISU 25
Stanford at No. 17 UCF (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
The most high-tempo team in the country against the slowest. This game is fascinating from a styles-make-fights perspective, but UCF is better at its style than Stanford is at the moment, even if the Knights have a potential QB controversy on their hands.
SP+ projection: UCF 36, Stanford 20
Go ahead and watch Clemson-Syracuse for a bit, just in case, but flip to these games if or when it gets out of hand.
No. 9 Florida at Kentucky (7 p.m., ESPN)
UK quarterback Terry Wilson was lost for the season with an injury last week, but Sawyer Smith came in and exceeded Wilson’s passing production. Will Florida’s sack-heavy defense bring him to earth really quickly?
SP+ projection: Florida 39, Kentucky 28
Florida State at No. 25 Virginia (7:30 p.m., ACC Network)
FSU’s offense has found loads of success early before opponents could adjust to offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ tempo. UVA’s defense is talented and confident, and I’m extremely curious how it will choose to defend this offense. (I’m also curious about whether FSU will defend.)
SP+ projection: Virginia 40, FSU 32
Shippensburg at Slippery Rock (6 p.m., Rock Athletics)
This week’s deep cut. Slippery Rock is ranked 11th in the Division II coaches poll, but you’re watching this because of QB Roland Rivers III — he put up 405 passing yards and 67 rushing yards in The Rock’s 62-37 win over Wayne State last week, despite the fact that it was 49-13 at the half and the offense shifted into second gear.
SP+ projection (based on 2018 numbers): Rock 32, Ship 27
Saturday late shift
Texas Tech at Arizona (10:30 p.m., ESPN)
Tech outscored Montana State and UTEP by a combined 83-13 — this would be impressive in a non-Maryland universe — and while Arizona’s defense appears to be as problematic as ever, the Wildcats’ offense is also as explosive as ever. Points are what we want from Pac-12 After Dark, right?
SP+ projection: Tech 40, Arizona 36