The forecast for Week 2’s college football slate was dreary and yet, the scheduled delivered.
The Sun Belt rose to the occasion as Marshall knocked off then top-10 Notre Dame 26-21 and Appalachian State — this week’s host for College GameDay — went into College Station and handed Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M an unexpected early season loss. And, of course, Georgia Southern capped the night off with a win over Nebraska that ultimately led to a coaching change in Lincoln. Not bad for a “dull” week, eh?
Unfortunately for college football fans, Week 3 only features two games where both teams are ranked but — if last week showed us anything — the storylines will be abundant Saturday, regardless of initial perception.
What does Nebraska look like against longtime rival No. 6 Oklahoma after firing Scott Frost? How do Jimbo’s Aggies bounce back while facing a talented Miami team? And will we find out who the true Oregon Ducks are as they welcome No. 12 BYU to Eugene?
These are the key stories as we get ready for another week of college football.
No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners at Nebraska Cornhuskers (Saturday, noon ET, Fox)
It goes without saying that the conversation surrounding Nebraska this week has been less about its game against Oklahoma and more about where the program goes from here after firing Scott Frost.
Interim coach Mickey Joseph, a former Nebraska quarterback himself, said his major focus inside the program has been to make changes that will help the team play better than it has during its 1-2 start. To that end, there are several defensive changes — including tackling in practice and moving defensive coordinator Erik Chinander to work more closely with the safeties.
Nebraska ranks No. 124 in the nation in total defense, allowing an average of 492 yards per game — uncharacteristic of its “Blackshirts” moniker. Last week was a low point, as Nebraska gave up 642 yards in a 45-42 loss to Georgia Southern. Next up is a huge test against Oklahoma, a team that is typically one of the most difficult to defend.
“I met with Coach Chinander and we are going to play faster,” Joseph told reporters in Lincoln this week. “We are going to tackle in practice. We are going to detail what we are doing with our kids. We are going to make our kids hold themselves accountable.”
Last season, Nebraska played Oklahoma tough, losing 23-17 — one of the many games the Cornhuskers lost by one score under Frost. Being involved in so many close games is part of the reason why Joseph feels there is still potential to save the 2022 season. Beating Oklahoma would go a long way toward building the confidence and belief that can happen.
“We move everything to the past and we start from here,” Joseph said. “We have nine more opportunities and we are capable of winning games, and that is why they understand the first opportunity is this weekend against OU.” — Andrea Adelson
No. 12 BYU Cougars at No. 25 Oregon Ducks (Saturday, 3:35 p.m. ET, Fox)
Following its exciting 26-20 win against Baylor in double overtime last week, BYU heads to Eugene with a chance to make another statement. A win would likely propel the Cougars into the top-10, at which point they would be on trajectory to reach, at minimum, a New Year’s Six bowl with the College Football Playoff a reasonable objective.
There are enough respectable opponents left on the schedule (Notre Dame, Arkansas, Boise State, Stanford) for BYU to build an impressive résumé during its last year as an independent before joining the Big 12.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge because it’ll be a good defining moment for our guys,” BYU coach Kilani Sitake said.
It’s strange to hear the stakes laid out like that this early in the season, but he’s right. A loss would effectively eliminate the Cougars from the national conversation after just three games. That dynamic is what’s so problematic about conference independence. For a program of BYU’s caliber, games that have tangible implications deep into the season are rare. Still, a win wouldn’t make the season by any means, it would prolong the possibility for a special season.
With a 45-point loss and an FCS win on its résumé, Oregon remains an unknown. The Ducks came into the season with high expectations under first-year coach Dan Lanning and Saturday’s game should provide the best glimpse into the type of team this will be when it opens Pac-12 play the following week at Washington State. — Kyle Bonagura
BYU students and fans storm the field after they seal the deal with great defense in the second overtime to finalize a 26-20 win.
No. 22 Penn State Nittany Lions at Auburn Tigers (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
We know this about Bryan Harsin: He doesn’t back down from a fight and doesn’t flinch even under the most dire of circumstances.
As he told ESPN prior to the season, months after the university-directed inquiry into the program and coup to run him out of town failed: “Everything we went through was bulls—. Let’s be clear on that. We’re not folding our tent whatsoever.”
In January, there weren’t many people on the Plains or anywhere else who thought Harsin would be around for a second season at Auburn. But here he is heading into Week 3 and facing perhaps the most important game of his Auburn career on Saturday when Penn State visits Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Simply looking down Auburn’s schedule is proof of how pivotal this game is for the Tigers if they’re going to improve on last season’s 6-7 finish. A win over Penn State would set up a very manageable pathway for Auburn to be 5-0 and take advantage of five straight home games to open the season. The Tigers face Missouri and LSU over the next two weeks at home.
It’s a similar situation for James Franklin and Penn State, although Franklin’s offseason was nowhere near as rocky as Harsin’s. Franklin had the comfort of inking a 10-year contract extension last November — paying him $7.5 million annually. And yet, on the field, the Nittany Lions didn’t fare much better than the Tigers. Penn State finished 7-6, and that’s after going 4-5 in 2020.
So both coaches (and teams) could use momentum-building wins.
Auburn has been pedestrian on offense in its first two games, and Harsin is the first to say that the Tigers need to make more plays in the passing game. Quarterbacks T.J. Finley (the starter in the first two games) and Robby Ashford have combined for one touchdown pass. The absence of a more explosive passing game would make it easier for Penn State to stack the line of scrimmage and stop Auburn star running back Tank Bigsby, who’s averaging 6.8 yards per carry. No Auburn wide receiver caught more than three passes in last week’s 24-16 win over San Jose State, a game in which Auburn trailed 10-7 at the half.
“I’ve challenged our offense. I’ve challenged our team,” Harsin said. “When we have opportunities to make plays, we’ve got to go make them.”
One of the key matchups will be how Auburn defends Penn State’s passing game. Quarterback Sean Clifford, in his sixth season, isn’t likely to be rattled by a Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd that can be ear-splitting. He overcame a fourth-quarter pick-six in the season opener to lead Penn State on an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes in a comeback 35-31 road win over Purdue. Clifford finished with 282 yards and four touchdowns.
A year ago in Penn State’s 28-20 win over Auburn in State College, Clifford was 28-of-32 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Auburn’s strength on defense is its front, but the Tigers have yet to force a turnover in their first two games this season. Teams have used the quick passing game to move the ball.
“We have a whole group of guys who can really get after the passer. … We just have to be consistent and not get frustrated when they do throw quick routes,” said Derick Hall, who had 10.5 tackles for loss a year ago, including seven sacks.
One of the big developments for Penn State last week in its 46-10 win over Ohio was freshman running back Nick Singleton breaking out with a 179-yard rushing appearance, including touchdown runs of 78 and 44 yards. It’s the first time Penn State has produced a 100-yard rusher since Week 6 of the 2020 season. Auburn, which has held teams to just 2.1 yards per rush in its first two games, could really make it hard on itself if the Nittany Lions establish the run early.
“I think you saw what [Singleton] brings to the offense. … It was just a matter of time,” Clifford said last week. — Chris Low
No. 11 Michigan State Spartans at Washington Huskies (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN app)
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker has utilized the transfer portal to quickly rebuild his roster and took the team to an 11-2 season in 2021. He once again brought in some key transfers and is off to a 2-0 start this season.
One of the big standouts so far has been linebacker Jacoby Windmon, who leads all FBS players with 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Windmon transferred from UNLV and has been a big part of the Spartans defense this season.
“He’s a mature player, mature young man, and he understands opportunity. He understands what it takes to play great football,” Tucker said. “We ask our players to be in the best condition and so that’s the foundation of what we do. When you’re in shape, there’s no reason why you can’t give 100 percent when giving 100 percent is totally your choice. … When you see Jacoby play, that’s how he plays. He knows what to do, he plays hard and he’s physical and he has success on the field.”
Washington has only allowed two sacks this season, but the Spartans have 12 as a team, the most of any FBS program. That pass rush and defense will be a big part of the game, and which team has success, but Michigan State will have its hands full with Washington’s defense, as well. The Huskies are giving up an average of 121.5 pass yards per game so far this season and the Spartans might have a banged up Jayden Reed at receiver. When asked if Reed would be ready to play for Saturday’s game, Tucker was less than committal.
“He’s sore,” Tucker said. “So, he’ll be ready when he’s ready.”
In addition to the potential of Reed playing while not 100%, Tucker said the team has focused on mitigating any effects from traveling across the country. He said they have consulted with professionals and even asked the players to go to bed an hour earlier this week in preparation for the travel.
“Our sports science team and strength coaches and our trainers laid out some points of emphasis for our players and some protocols that we’re going to use this week and on the trip,” Tucker said. “We’re going to make sure those things get done and make sure we’re in the best position to be able to compete at a high level and be at our best physically and mentally.” — Tom VanHaaren
UTSA Roadrunners at No. 21 Texas Longhorns (Saturday, 8 ET, Longhorn Network)
Texas is coming off a heartbreaking 20-19 loss to No. 1 Alabama, but it can’t afford to dwell on it with UTSA coming to town. The Roadrunners may be a UT system school (and the gulf in the athletic budgets — $35 million for UTSA, $187 million for Texas — is about as big as the 80 miles separating the two campuses) but that doesn’t mean the Longhorns expect to roll.
For one, there’s still some mystery about who will start at quarterback for Texas (“That’s for me,” coach Steve Sarkisian said), with Quinn Ewers out and Hudson Card suffering an ankle injury against the Tide. Third-stringer Charles Wright would be next up if Card couldn’t play, Sarkisian said, though backup running back Roschon Johnson was an All-American QB in high school and took a few snaps out of the wildcat formation during the game.
But the Roadrunners were also one of the hottest teams in the country last year, going 12-2 and winning the Conference USA title while making the school’s first appearance in the AP poll.
“You turn on the tape of UTSA, and they get your attention quickly with their schemes, personnel and the way they play the game,” Sarkisian said this week.
UTSA QB Frank Harris leads FBS in total offense at 394.5 yards per game, and the Roadrunners are coached by Jeff Traylor, a former Texas assistant under Charlie Strong who was a wildly successful Texas high school coach. Traylor knows exactly what he’s up against and what buttons to push with his players.
“It’s the University of Texas, right?” Traylor told ESPN. “I doubt every one of my players came in to play for me over Sark. They all know that they were overlooked. Everybody in the state knows they probably would have gone there, but they didn’t want ’em. That’s a tremendous motivating factor for people, to know that you’re not wanted and you get the opportunity to go play that team.” — Dave Wilson
No. 13 Miami Hurricanes at No. 24 Texas A&M Aggies (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app)
There are no easy fixes for Texas A&M after it was upset by Appalachian State last Saturday. Jimbo Fisher, who was once hailed as a quarterback guru, now faces questions about whether he will continue calling plays or hand that duty over to his offensive coordinator.
His answer: maybe one day, but not now.
But with Miami coming to town on Saturday night, there is one area where we could see a change: at quarterback.
While Haynes King won the job out of preseason camp, his performance through two games has been uninspired. First, he threw two interceptions against Sam Houston in the season opener. Then, against App State, he threw for less than 100 yards (97 to be exact), including no touchdowns and no interceptions.
King’s 33.0 Total QBR is the lowest among qualifying SEC quarterbacks.
So naturally there have been calls for LSU transfer Max Johnson or prized recruit Conner Weigman to supplant him.
Johnson would be the most likely pick; he has 14 career starts under his belt and last season threw for 27 touchdowns and six interceptions. Fisher even said after Saturday’s loss that he considered putting Johnson in.
But this week Fisher is giving up nothing. On Monday, he told reporters it was a possibility they make a change.
“We’ll evaluate everything this week,” he said.
On Wednesday, he was asked whether Johnson was working with the first team in practice and would only say this: “We’re repping them.”
So the waiting game it is.
Whoever it is faces an uphill battle. According to FPI, the Aggies are underdogs in seven of their final 10 games, including each of the next four (Miami, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Alabama), and have only a 53% chance of reaching bowl eligibility this season. — Alex Scarborough