Like any good television pilot, the first month of college football featured enough twists and turns to leave viewers anticipating what shocking revelations await as the season winds toward its inevitably chaotic conclusion.
Will Clemson rebound from last week’s scrape with North Carolina to defend its national championship? Can Alabama maintain its torrid offensive pace? Is there an underdog lurking in the wings, waiting to pounce upon the established powers atop the Amway Coaches Poll? Tune in next Saturday, as this season of the Bowl Subdivision continues!
Next comes October, and with it the true start of conference play. This weekend brings us No. 14 Iowa at No. 19 Michigan, in a game that will decide whether the Wolverines remain in the College Football Playoff hunt, and a matchup of unbeaten rivals from the SEC in No. 7 Auburn and No. 8 Florida. November brings the release of the Playoff rankings, along with a series of games with seismic postseason implications.
Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins breaks away from Nebraska Cornhuskers Lamar Jackson during the first half at Memorial Stadium. (Photo: Bruce Thorson, USA TODAY Sports)
August and September can held provide a road map for how the season may unfold. Here are the lessons from college football’s first month: what we learned, what we know and what to expect.
The top six has played to form
No surprises here: In some order or another, the projected top six teams from the preseason have held serve through one month. No. 2 Clemson has four wins against Power Five opponents, the most of any team in the FBS. No. 1 Alabama’s offense, led by an outstanding start from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, has been as potent as any in program history. No. 3 Georgia has a resume-building win against No. 10 Notre Dame.
No. 4 Oklahoma has been driven by the play of former Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts, who has put up video game-like numbers through his four starts; Hurts’ performance stands out even when compared to his two Heisman Trophy-winning predecessors, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. No. 5 Ohio State — see below for more on the impressive Buckeyes — has hit the ground sprinting under coach Ryan Day. And No. 6 LSU has found something unexpected: an offense capable of utilizing the Tigers’ wealth of skill talent.
POWER RANKINGS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
RE-RANK: Alabama and Ohio State at No. 1 and No. 2 ahead of Clemson
WINNERS AND LOSERS: Highs and lows from Week 5 in college football
Chaos may ensue; this is college football, after all. But after one month, it’s a safe bet to assume teams from this group constitute at least half of the four teams in this year’s national semifinals. Half may be selling it short.
It’s the year of the quarterback … again
Tagovailoa. Hurts. Ohio State sophomore Justin Fields. Georgia junior Jake Fromm. LSU senior Joe Burrow. Texas junior Sam Ehlinger. Alone, these six quarterbacks have combined to throw for 7,650 yards with 86 touchdowns against four touchdowns while completing 75.4 percent of their attempts. Across the FBS, teams are averaging 243.4 passing yards per game and 7.6 yards per attempt while completing 62.4 percent of attempts. Each would represent a new FBS season record. Yeah, quarterbacks are better than ever in college football, and more central to offensive success than ever before. And the best of the best are putting together seasons for the record books.
Everyone is chasing the SEC … again
Others are giving chase. The Big Ten is solid. The Big 12 is deep. The ACC has Clemson. (OK, so the ACC as a whole isn’t in the conversation.) The Pac-12 is balanced. But everyone is still chasing the SEC, which has five teams in the top eight of the current Amway Coaches Poll and six teams in the Top 25. While the league will soon cannibalize itself — beginning with one of Auburn and Florida losing this weekend — the SEC has been the best conference in the country, and seems destined to have at least three teams head into November at the forefront of the playoff conversation. Prepare for this question to swamp your television and your Twitter feed: Can the SEC get two teams into the playoff?
Auburn running back JaTarvious Whitlow against the Mississippi State defense during their game in 2018. (Photo: Matt Bush, USA TODAY Sports)
The Heisman race has taken shape
Quarterbacks have taken the early lead, to no surprise. Tagovailoa, Hurts and Burrow have been the top three in the USA TODAY Sports Heisman survey, with Tagovailoa and Hurts alternating turns in the top spot. Fields has been knocking on the door. At this point, look for these passers to drive the Heisman chatter in October. Two underdog candidates to consider: Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor continues his assault on school, conference and national records, while Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard leads the country in carries, rushing yards, touchdowns and yards per game.
There’s a heated Group of Five race
No. 19 Central Florida’s loss to Pittsburgh shook up the race for an access-bowl bid to the New Year’s Six. For now, the road goes through No. 15 Boise State. But there are others to monitor in a crowded field. The American has a second ranked team in No. 23 Memphis and a third knocking on the door in 5-0 SMU. Cincinnati sits at 3-1 with its lone defeat coming to Ohio State. Appalachian State is unbeaten under new coach Eli Drinkwitz. And the Mountain West touts another trio of impressive contenders in Hawaii, Utah State and San Diego State.
The Pac-12 is better than you think
It hasn’t been that bad, even if no Pac-12 team leaves September unbeaten. The conference is 7-4 against the rest of the Power Five, including Notre Dame and Brigham Young. No. 16 Washington suffered a potential catastrophic misstep in a loss to California but seems capable of playing with any team in the country. No. 13 Oregon and No. 17 Utah have time to overcome early-season setbacks. In all, seven Pac-12 teams have just one loss, including pleasant surprises in Arizona, Colorado and Arizona State.
There’s nothing wrong with Clemson
To repeat: There’s nothing wrong with Clemson. In the past, in fact, the Tigers have lost in the sort of games seen Saturday against North Carolina — think about recent one-possession contests against Pittsburgh and Syracuse. While there has been some national hand-wringing over Trevor Lawrence, already anointed the next great quarterback, much of that stems from the supersize expectations heaped on his plate entering his sophomore season. Besides, consider this: If the Tigers’ biggest perceived worry is Lawrence, doesn’t that say something about this team’s current production and future potential?
Ohio State has been ridiculously good
Fields has been a revelation since transferring from Georgia. Running back J.K. Dobbins has regained his freshman form after a sluggish sophomore season. The offense has identified five reliable targets in the passing game. But what has refashioned the Buckeyes into a Big Ten-devouring juggernaut under coach Ryan Day is the significant improvement play on defense: Ohio State’s defense, a disaster a year ago, has played as well as any unit in the country.
While the list of opponents is overly daunting — though it does include two conference opponents, the latest Nebraska — Ohio State is allowing just 3.5 yards per play, good for second in the country. The run defense is giving up 2.4 yards per carry and has allowed just 121 rushing yards in the first half through five games, including minus-17 yards in the second quarter. The Buckeyes have allowed two touchdown passes against seven interceptions. It’s this improvement on defense that makes facing Ohio State such an intimidating proposition for the rest of the Big Ten.
Taking stock of first-year coaches
There are 25 first-year head coaches in the FBS, not counting the two coaches — Ryan Day and Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell — who previously held the same position in a temporary role. (Day coached the first three games of last season and Chadwell was the Chanticleers’ interim coach in 2017.) Of those 25, eight have a winning record through September, with Drinkwitz the only new coach with an undefeated record; six are sitting at 2-2, including Maryland’s Mike Locksley and Miami (Fla.) coach Manny Diaz; and 11 have a losing record, with Akron’s Tom Arth the only first-year coach still in search of his first win. (It may be a little while for the Zips.)
In all, the 25 first-year coach are 53-57. Mack Brown is a highly competitive 2-3 in his first year back at North Carolina. Kansas State coach Chris Klieman, formerly of powerhouse North Dakota State, is 3-1 with a nice road win against Mississippi State. Mel Tucker is 3-1 at Colorado, giving early reason to be optimistic about the Buffaloes’ strong offseason hire. Former LSU coach Les Miles is 2-3 at Kansas, which is impressive given the Jayhawks’ decade-long trudge through the wilderness. Miles led KU to a 48-24 win at Boston College for its first road win against a Power Five opponent since 2008.