Survive and advance. We usually associate the phrase with March Madness, but it broadly applies to the college football season too. With so many teams competing for so few playoff spots, the margin for error is razor thin for everyone entering the season. For some, it starts at zero. The “haves” can afford to drop one game to the right team at the right time. But for the “have nots”, the season boils down to a four-month single elimination tournament. Most of the Group of Five playoff hopefuls (Cincinnati, Houston, Boise State, Fresno State, Appalachian State) have eliminated themselves from playoff contention. Coastal Carolina nearly did (if they even have a real chance). Notre Dame politely removed themselves from playoff contention over the weekend. Wisconsin, Texas A&M and Florida all reduced their margins of error to zero. Alabama also narrowly avoided cashing out its one “Get Out of Jail Free” card over the weekend too. The big losses were the headline of week two, but today we’re here to highlight some teams that aren’t merely surviving…they are thriving.
Peach Bowl (#1 vs. #4)- Georgia vs. BYU
Georgia held pole position after the first week of play and no one displaced them from that spot. I typically punish teams for having FCS games early in the year, but Georgia’s devastation of Oregon still resonates loudly enough that it didn’t really matter. Plus, Georgia was exactly what it needed to be against Samford.
BYU survived a late-night, double-overtime thriller against Baylor. More impressively, they did it without their two best receivers. Watching that game on Saturday night, BYU looks like a disciplined team, but they face a difficult September gauntlet and have to travel to Eugene this weekend. The offense wasn’t particularly explosive, but most offenses lose some punch when you take away their two best receivers and Baylor’s defense is good.
Fiesta Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Kentucky vs. Arkansas
I mistakenly said on last week’s podcast that Kentucky plays reasonably well at “The Swamp”, then looked at the data and recanted my statement. But, I stuck with taking the Kentucky cover anyway. That was one of the picks I felt least confident in heading into the weekend, but the Cats found a way to cover the spread and win the game. Chris Rodriguez Jr. is still out with an undisclosed NCAA issue until October 1st, but that hasn’t stopped Will Levis and company from putting up enough points to win games.
Should Arkansas be considered the frontrunner in the SEC West? Alabama and Texas A&M both looked beatable on Saturday (obviously Texas A&M did lose). The Razorbacks get Alabama in three weeks. Will that be enough time for Alabama to iron out its offensive problems? Sam Pittman is clearly a good coach. KJ Jefferson is arguably the second-best quarterback in the conference. The Arkansas defense is hard-nosed and tackles well. The Razorbacks are the best team in the division right now. If that’s still true three weeks from now? They can be in the driver’s seat in the West, which historically puts you in great position for a playoff berth.
Cotton Bowl- USC vs. Marshall
One of the more hotly debated teams of the offseason, USC is off to an expected 2-0 start. They have yet to face a true test, but historically the Men of Troy play poorly in Palo Alto so that’s one feather Lincoln Riley can throw in his galea. USC has a treasure trove of talent and with every week they play together they become more dangerous. I was a USC skeptic heading into the season, but they are the Obi-Wan Kenobi to the Pac-12’s Princess Leia at this point. Given how they’ve played to date, they aren’t the worst hope for a conference’s playoff aspirations.
Marshall put the nail in Notre Dame’s playoff coffin on Saturday with an upset in South Bend. They also hold the inside track to being the Sun Belt’s first New Year’s Six team. All of the top Mountain West teams, save Air Force, have already dropped a game. Toledo is the only remaining undefeated team in the MAC, and they have a tall task with Ohio State this week. Furthermore, the conference that had the best odds, the American, is also down to two remaining undefeated teams: SMU and Tulane. One of my preseason “hot takes” was that the Sun Belt would be the strongest Group of Five conference, and through two weeks that take is scorching with Marshall setting the pace.
Orange Bowl- Duke vs. Penn State
How about the Duke Blue Devils? Full disclosure, I thought this team was going to struggle mightily this year. They opened the year by blowing the doors off of an admittedly bad Temple team. The encore performance had them beat a Northwestern team who beat Nebraska in Dublin two weeks prior. There are two ways to think about this. On one hand, maybe Northwestern and Nebraska are both just bad. Nebraska did just lose to Georgia Southern then fire Scott Frost. On the other hand, Northwestern tackled well in that game and played like a well-coached team. Essentially, I’m saying that I have no idea what to make of Duke’s 2-0 start and think there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical, nonetheless the Blue Devils are better than they were last year.
Penn State has done everything necessary to start the season on the right note. If the Nittany Lions can stay healthy, then they have the pieces to challenge Michigan and Ohio State in the conference. Sean Clifford still doesn’t seem like he’s completely returned to pre-injury form, but he has time. This weekend will mark the biggest test of the non-conference slate for Penn State with a trip to “The Plains” coming up. This is Penn State’s opportunity to signify that they are a contender in the Big Ten East.
Sugar Bowl- Tennessee vs. Oklahoma State
Tennessee was my “SEC team that makes a leap” pick for the preseason and they haven’t disappointed. The Vols went into Pittsburgh on Saturday and, even though they needed overtime, came away with a huge road win against a ranked, non-conference opponent. What’s more, the Tennessee offense looked explosive and full of skill players ready to make big plays at any given moment. The Vols will be a dangerous team this year and compete with Georgia for the East crown. (Yeah, I remember saying that about Florida last week…)
The margins of victory for Mike Gundy’s Pokes haven’t been particularly impressive to start the year, especially considering Central Michigan’s blowout loss to South Alabama last week. However, they have two comfortable wins over FBS opponents, one of which is a Power Five opponent. That’s really more than any other Big XII team can say at this point in the season. The Big XII looks wide open and will be a fun race to follow as the season progresses.
Rose Bowl- Oregon State vs. Ohio State
We can nickname Oregon State the “Mountain West killers”. The Beavers have taken down both Boise State and Fresno State, two of the Mountain West’s most likely New Year’s Six/Playoff contenders, to start the year. I would argue this gives them the best resume in the Pac-12 to date. Fresno State is going to be a good football team and is still likely the frontrunner in the Mountain West. I may have suggested that Boise State is on the decline last week, but they are still one of the more talented Group of Five teams and beating them is still a bigger accomplishment than, for example, Rice.
Ohio State, once again, did exactly what they needed to do against Arkansas State. However, their strength of resume took a hit with Notre Dame’s fall from grace. The Buckeyes are going to be fine and still, rightfully, the favorite to win the Big Ten…again.
Cover Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/John Bazemore