Hey, this is a pretty sweet column. Looking forward to reading it throughout the season. Good work.
Conference Wars 1.1
What this is: I’ll be running down the nationwide results from the week that was, in particular the P5 vs. P5 games, with an emphasis on the race for the playoffs.
This isn't SEC land where "who's got the best conference?" is asked before and after every meal. The point is to run down the five Power 5 conferences, since with four playoff spots it’s become very important to track the rare data points in that otherwise mundane argument.
Everybody’s pretty much fine
College football’s opening weekend was conspicuously devoid of significant upsets: not much of CFB’s upper echelon was challenged significantly in their opening wins and the highest ranked team to lose its opener was #15 Arizona State in a de facto road game against a tough Texas A&M team. Consider the preseason top 10:
3. Alabama beat Wisconsin 35-17. More below.
Pretty boring. It’s more of the same as you run down the list. With a week mostly devoid of glamorous matchups (Alabama/Wisconsin, TCU/Minnesota, A&M/Arizona State, and Auburn/Louisville were the only ones to feature playoff hopefuls and/or reasonable division title contenders in power conferences), not much changed in the court of public opinion. Nobody provided the type of baffling loss that calls into question everything we thought we knew about that team. Conference play still most frequently features marquee games with significant implications for the playoff picture. There weren’t many chances, but nobody put up a black mark on their resume for week one.
Alabama wins neutral site opener; water is wet.
Alabama 35, Wisconsin 17
As Grantland’s Michael Weinreb notes:
The beauty of college football, after all, is that it is so inherently unpredictable, which is why what Alabama does at this time every year feels so militantly contrarian.
If you commence in 2008, Nick Saban’s second season as coach, Alabama has (usually soundly) defeated a ranked team nearly every year within the first couple of weeks of the season: In 2008 it was Clemson, and in 2009 it was Virginia Tech, and in 2010-11 it was Penn State, and in 2012 it was Michigan, and in 2013 it was Texas A&M, and this year it was Wisconsin.
…As is always the case with Alabama, the Tide proved to be the constant in this bizarre and unpredictable equation.
It didn’t really matter who the opponent was – Alabama went through its paces without much evident effort and took down the Badgers in front of a crowd that was surely pro-Alabama down in Dallas. Ultimately, Wisconsin’s signature style played right to Alabama’s strength: the Tide’s ridiculous run defense stifled any chance the Badgers had of controlling the line of scrimmage and UW somehow only managed 64 yards on the ground before counting sacks. Joel Stave looked fairly comfortable behind the Wisconsin OL and played a decent game but they had no chance without their running game.
Fortunately for the Badgers, they won’t play anybody remotely as talented or well-coached as Alabama unless they make the Big Ten title game. The non-conference schedule gets significantly easier and Wisconsin draws the unintimidating newcomers – Maryland and Rutgers – from the East. Minnesota and Nebraska are the toughest tests on Wisconsin’s schedule, so it’s not a stretch to think that they could easily win ten games regardless of how they looked against Alabama.
Speaking of Alabama, it was just business as usual: Jacob Coker won the starting job and summarily performed well in a offense that still looked restrained; Derrick Henry did what we’ve come to expect from the Tide’s vaunted assembly line of fast, powerful tailbacks and scored three touchdowns; the massive amounts of talent in the trenches dictated the game on both sides of the ball; any cracks on defense – however small – were filled at halftime and most criticisms of the team as a whole miss the forest for the trees. Alabama looks just as good as they usually are and should be the default favorites in the loaded SEC West.
Don’t overreact to TCU’s offensive inconsistencies.
TCU 23, Minnesota 17
Gary Patterson has made TCU into the big winner of realignment: the Horned Frogs became a stellar mid-major program, which they parlayed into an invite to the the Big XII. TCU is a program built on defense, but with the move up to the Power 5, TCU has an explosive offense fueled by the rich recruiting ground in Texas. Now, after several years in Fort Worth, Patterson could very well have his best ever team – as evidenced by their lofty preseason ranking. After the scorched-earth end to the 2014 season (and with key personnel returning), it’s easy to see TCU as part of the group of contenders a half-step behind Ohio State.
Ultimately, TCU’s win over Minnesota wasn’t as close as it looked, but it wasn’t as impressive as expected. The vague pursuit of “style points” seems to be less important than it once was under the BCS, but, if anything, it feels like TCU should be commended for scheduling the Minnesota game in the first place, even if it resulted in what probably will amount to a lackluster result relative to their exploits in the Big XII. Jerry Kill paid his dues in the lower levels of the college coaching ranks and has done well with the Minnesota job, cultivating an old-school identity with an anachronistic insistence on the power run game equipped with modern formations.
The Gophers held TCU to their lowest point total last season and it’s not likely that the Frogs will score 23 points or fewer in the foreseeable future. Trevone Boykin carried the burden offensively for TCU – running the ball better than expected and showing early-season rust on a few of his touches. The game was never really in doubt: TCU went up 10-0 in the first quarter and attempted four field goals on the game (making three) – usually they convert more opportunities into touchdowns, but Minnesota’s defense deserves credit. This game doesn’t really change the perception of either team: TCU is a playoff contender and Minnesota is the best to third-best team in the Big Ten’s West Division.
Will Muschamp and John Chavis earn their paychecks.
Auburn 31, Louisville 24; Arizona State 17, Texas A&M 38
After a disappointing regular season at Auburn, they fired defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. The Tigers had conceded 38, 41, 34, and 55(!) points in losses to Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Alabama respectively – Johnson didn’t last 24 hours after the embarrassment in the Iron Bowl. Will Muschamp didn’t survive the season at Florida and wisely took a step down to become a defensive coordinator again. Theoretically, the combination of Gus Malzahn’s offensive acumen and Muschamp’s defensive bona fides turns Auburn into a playoff contender, even with a new quarterback at the helm.
Elsewhere, Kevin Sumlin’s characteristically poor defenses at Texas A&M finally caught up with him in a disappointing 7-5 campaign. The boosters shelled out money for a top-tier defensive coordinator, and they got one in LSU’s John Chavis. Chavis was the architect of many dominant defenses in Baton Rouge and while it might seem like a lateral move, A&M has clearly made a significant financial investment in Kevin Sumlin’s success there. Just like Auburn, the Aggies are betting that the collaboration between a head coach with a spread offense background and a proven defensive coordinator capable of turning around those two units quickly should pay huge dividends.
Auburn had a bizarre win over Louisville in Atlanta – they entered halftime up 17-0 behind an early touchdown set up by an interception and an 80-yard scoop-and-score off an unforced UL fumble. Jeremy Johnson put up a hideous line – 11 of 21 for 127 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions – but should improve as the season wears on (not that Auburn has much time, as they travel to LSU in two weeks). Louisville eventually made the game close by scoring two touchdowns late in the fourth, but the Tigers were in control throughout despite an unexpectedly mediocre offensive performance.
It’s convenient that last season’s cautionary tale about week one overreaction is the same team that pulled the most significant upset of the first week this season. Texas A&M torched South Carolina last year on the opening Thursday night, leading to playoff and Heisman talk for Kenny Hill (who transferred to TCU); it turned out that neither A&M nor Carolina were any good. Odds weren’t bad that we’d see titles like “Now there's no denying Texas A&M is a legit playoff contender” after they beat Arizona State in Houston, but maybe we should pump the brakes a little bit.
Still, A&M played very well against a team that should be in the thick of the Pac-12 South hunt. Most impressively, the Aggies totaled 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks; a fumble recovered deep in ASU territory was effectively a defensive touchdown. Kyle Allen started the game at QB and played most of the snaps, but rotated some with the electric-but-raw Kyler Murray. True freshman and Arizona native Christian Kirk looked like a star – he scored two huge touchdowns for the Aggies: a long punt return and a game-sealing catch and run on a bubble screen to put A&M up by two scores late.
Ambivalence, Pyrrhic Victories, and a Mormon Hail Mary.
BYU 33, Nebraska 28
Now stuck in uncharted territory after the wild realignment saga of like five years ago, BYU must find marquee programs to play them, especially early on in the season during non-conference play. This year the Cougars draw Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA, and Michigan in the season’s first four weeks – three of those are on the road in some of college football’s most storied stadiums. With the news that star QB Taysom Hill is out for the season, it’s not likely that BYU will reach its loftier goals this season, but at least they earned some respect after going into Lincoln and shocking Nebraska in the opening weekend’s wildest game.
It was a back-and-forth contest – BYU led by 10 at halftime, Nebraska scored 14 points in the 3rd quarter to pull ahead, and BYU responded with a game-winning touchdown as time expired. Tanner Mangum was once a highly-touted recruit, but spent two years on a Mormon mission before attending BYU – he was forced into action after Hill went down and threw this gorgeous ball for the win. As a small consolation for what eventually may be a lost year in Provo, the Cougars gave us the best highlight of the young football season and notched the type of miracle win that doesn’t come around often for many programs.
Had that miraculous pass fallen incomplete, Nebraska would have survived with only a one point win. The game was essentially a toss-up and even though the Huskers wound up giving the game away, there’s enough there to think that they may contend for a division title if things are shored up a bit on both sides of the ball. Mike Riley wasn’t ever a thrilling hire – he went a combined 29-33 in his last five years at Oregon State – and he’s off to an incredibly unlucky start at Nebraska. It’s fair to say that while Riley certainly paid his dues enough to warrant a job like Nebraska’s, but his star did start to fade a little bit before he finally pulled the trigger on an upward move through the coaching ranks. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Huskers continue to stumble and finish with a worse record than the program was accustomed to under Bo Pelini.
Other results from games between Power Five teams:
- South Carolina 17, North Carolina 13. Not really a whole lot to note from college football’s opening game: the UNC offense was surprisingly punchless -- returning starting QB Marquise Williams threw three interceptions, including two into the endzone. Third-string RB Shon Carson ripped off a fifty yard touchdown run halfway through the fourth to give South Carolina the decisive margin.
- Utah 24, Michigan 17. Welp.
- Northwestern 16, Stanford 6. Northwestern put up an impressive-looking upset win at home over a Stanford team that played a hideous dystopian version of the offense that Harbaugh built the program with. Stanford may or may not be any good, but the NU Wildcat defense was stingy all game and handled the Cardinal like any garden-variety cupcake. Redshirt freshman QB Clayton Thorson played a good game for Northwestern and should ably lead the program for several years.
- UCLA 34, Virginia 16. The Mike London era in Charlottesville has been a failure and it’s a surprise that he’s even still around, so this home win isn’t exactly noteworthy for UCLA, other than that their true freshman starting QB – who’s surrounded by experience and talent everywhere on offense – Josh Rosen looked like the star he’s hyped to be.
- Notre Dame 38, Texas 3. For everyone else, it’s always a joy to watch a blue-blood program struggle. This year, the early candidate for the “how the hell are they this bad” award is Texas! The Longhorns slipped into a country club malaise in the waning years of the Mack Brown era and Charlie Strong has yet to make strides in turning the ship around. Notre Dame looked really good – Malik Zaire was sublime in the Irish’s opening weekend win.
Losses by Power Five teams against the Group of Five or FCS:
Sometimes in those not-supposed-to-be-challenging non-conference scheduling agreement games, the underdog jumps out to an early league. Usually they fall into line after the heavily-favored big boys assert their will on both lines and the poor underdog slinks away, sometimes without making much of a fuss at all. Those games get ugly.
Penn State came into the year with talk of a cakewalk schedule and a potential run at ten wins and, despite being favored by two scores, was beaten up by Temple in a game that just wasn’t close. Expectations in Happy Valley need to undergo drastic readjustments, mostly because of a still-impotent offensive line. The Nittany Lions managed just 180 total yards against the Owls, converted 2-13 third down opportunities, ran the ball for 2.9 yards per carry, and Christian Hackenberg was sacked ten times, including once on a play when Temple dropped 9 men into coverage. After two early PSU scores (and the debut of a gloriously fat kicker), Temple pretty much dominated en route to 27 unanswered points and an emphatic win.
Historically one of college football’s sadly adorable doormats, Temple now looks like they might make some noise in what’s left of the corpse of the old Big East (with CUSA Frankenstein parts). Memphis is maybe the frontrunner? Not much to be learned from the
AAC “American” after the first week outside of the Owls taking James Franklin’s lunch money and UCF somehow losing to FIU at home by the wonderful football score of 15-14.
* * *
That Marshall won a home game over Purdue elicited a pretty much universal reaction of “well, Purdue played pretty well, but it’s no surprise they lost” is not a good thing for Purdue.
Even less surprising is South Dakota State beating Kansas. Charlie Weis truly salted the earth in Lawrence and the Jayhawks have so very far to go.
Chris Petersen’s return to Boise to face his former team flew under the radar and probably for good reason. Washington may struggle to become bowl eligible and they lost a 16-13 snoozer to Boise State.
I actually stayed up to watch the entirety of Colorado @ Hawaii (with a 1 A.M. EST start time) and that night of beautifully silly football kind of blended together into a surreal memory of horribly mindless turnovers and occasional noteworthy score here or there. At 5 Eastern, Colorado ran out of time as the officials spotted the ball too slowly in the redzone going in to try to tie an eight-point game. Crazy island WAC magic still lives, people.
Mike Leach may find the clock striking midnight soon in Pullman after his Washington State Cougars lost to Portland State, a bad FCS team. Unless he has a ridiculous buyout – oh, wait, never mind. Things look bleak for Wazzu.
“Western Kentucky Defeats Vanderbilt: Hilltoppers Promoted to the SEC”
I’ll leave this here for future reference:
My only #take for the week is that its too early to start comparing the conferences. Once we have a few more data points, I promise.
That was my initial thought, but then I started wondering what it's going to look like once we enter conference play and every P5 conference goes a cumulative .500 against P5 competititon every week...
This will be a fascinating column to look at going forward and tracking throughout the season. The one suggestion I will make is maybe including FEI or line or whatever your favorite ranking index is to give more depth to the write ups. Its easy to laugh at the B1G or ACC for their losses but--at least in the ACC's case all of their losses were to far superior teams and likely.
As for the more advanced metrics, I'm going to wait a while to use them because I feel like there should be plenty of opportunity for teams to vastly exceed or fall short of expectations and I don't want to overrate / underrate a win / loss that could look better / worse in hindsight.
Yep the advanced stats can't be looked at really in the first half of the year - they need time to fester as you need broader sample sizes and the vast variability of non conf schedules really move them all over the place. Week 3-4 of the conf schedule is when you start sniffing them.
"Prior weights" are still a part of the metric for several weeks.
I love FEI, it's a grea stat, but we have a long way to go. Games vs. non-FBS foes also don't count in FEI, so about 50% of FBS teams still have no stats at all.
not nearly hot enough. Being rational with a #TAKE eliminates the point of the #Take. Come on, Alex, you'll never get that ESPN phone call if you can't Fake it
(Really excited for another column here)
Leach is a putrid coach...how he did so well at TT is beyond me. They are not winning at Rutgers thats for sure, I hope they lose and we can start this "fire Leach" talk. And this is very weird to say but I think Hoke is a great candidate for that job. He can recruit, very low expectations...and Roy Manning is already there.
Anyway, been some rough years for me with Michigan and the Cougs...I see the sun on the Michigan side, apocalypse for the Cougs.
Dear lord, I hope we beat OSU
And you think WSU would improve with Hoke as a coach? Do you want Dave Brandon to take over their athletics too? Mike Leach may not work out due to his stubborness and what I believe is his trouble with adapting his old version of the air raid like his apprentices Sumlin, Holgerson, etc. have, but I wouldn't call him a terrible coach. And I wouldn't replace him with a guy who can't put 11 guys on the field in archaic punt formations.
I see Hoke at WSU being like a Hoke at San Diego State type situation. He can recruit, will get some players there and will live below that national radar where he can do whate ever he does slowly and not be in the spotlight.
If you would've watched that Portland State game you would say Leach is a terrible coach, that team was completely unprepaired. We have seen enough of his shitty coaching antics for the past 4 years...for instance the bowl game against CSU a couple years back...wont get into specifics but thats when the fan base turned on him. If you watched everyone of his games you would say the same thing.
Please spare me those little smart ass comments..... Did I mention Dave Brandon in my post?
I thought they never should have fired Wulff. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Palouse Cougars...even own a t-shirt and a hat. But when they fired Wulff (who had to tear down the mess left by Mike Price's regime and try to build it back up) before he could get things going, and THEN went out and hired the jackleg Leach...I couldn't pull for him. They've painted themselves into a corner with Leach, for sure. I'd love to get your take on Wulff and what they should/could have done with him.
He was so ahead of the curve when it came to spreading the field and picking defenses apart with the pass when he was at Texas Tech, and by the end there he'd built a brand that allowed him to get some really top talent at key positions in his offense despite Texas Tech's limitations.
Well, fast forward a few years and all the other air raid guys run the ball a lot more, especially with packaged plays. New coaches have come along and become the go-to guys to play for if you're a HS WR or QB from an Air Raid system. Leach hasn't really adopted any of those innovations, so his offense is a bit old fashioned now compared to where the rest of college football is going.
And on top of all that, EVERY school in the Pac 12 invested heavily in facilities coaching staff in recent years. SOMEONE had to be the loser though, and it appears to be Wazzu and Colorado. Maybe Leach would have fared better at Purdue.
Now I don't have to go to the dregs of the internet for my weekly CFB roundup.
21 P5 vs. FCS games in the first week makes me sad.
Are you not including ND as an ACC?
the answer is obvious, I know. But what does "G5" mean? I get power 5 conference = p5.
Essentially it's a classification for mid-majors. The "Group of 5" gets one collective bid in the New Years 6 bowls. Conferences are AAC, Sun Belt, Mountain West, CUSA, and our favorite, the MAC. Boise State was the highest ranked G5 team last year and won the Fiesta Bowl against Arizona.
If you commence in 2008, Nick Saban’s second season as coach, Alabama has (usually soundly) defeated a ranked team nearly every year within the first couple of weeks of the season:
Interestingly in the last 20 years Alabama has played only four power 5 type schools on the road (as opposed to neutral sites) and has only a 1-3 record in those games. Lost to UCLA in 2000, Lost to Oklahoma in 2002,Lost to Florida State in 206 and beat PSU in 2011. That PSU game is the only game they have played in the North in all that time.
This is awesome. I'll be here every week. I like that this is a national take on college football...while the content on here is great, it of course is loaded with Michigan- or Big Ten-specific topics. A staffer's review and take on national happenings is nice to intermingle every now and then.
It was also refreshing to see that I wasn't the only one who stayed up for Colorado-Hawaii, after attending Alcorn-Georgia Tech and then watching Michigan-Utah on DVR.
How on earth does a 5'10" 250 lb guy get a D1 soccer scholarship? Did he gain a ton of weight in a single summer?
Now, he didn't graduate that long ago --- April 2014!
So he is evidently (a) shrinking and (b) widening. The latter at a rather alarming late.
If those trends continue, he will soon by a 5 foot 9, 300 pound senior.
Somewhere, Jared Lorenzen is smiling.
Good stuff. Like the coverage of the other conferences; that helps to put some of the games in perspective.
Texas being this much hot garbage continues to astound me. I know UT had fallen a bit under Mack Brown, but I never imagined it was this bad. Of course, Strong may just be a mediocre coach, but who knows.
Charlie Strong is purging the entitled mindset that permeated the program at the end of Mack Brown's run. It doesn't happen overnight. If they allow Strong two more seasons after this one, they will be playoff contenders, IMHO.
1. You touched on it in the column, but Penn State is this year's reminder that if you are talking yourself into a team because, "BUT THE SCHEDULE IS SO EASY!" and nothing else, they will find a way to lose games. You can't schedule yourself out of mediocrity.
2. Stanford may end up winning the Pac 12 North and being in the playoff hunt even with that nasty loss to Northwestern. David Shaw is Lloyd Carr 2.0, for better and worse. "Losing to Northwestern because you choked your own offense out" is the Bad Lloyd. But the Good Lloyd part is "rallies team, plays great defense, still wins 9-10 games." Get ready for it.
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