This was going to be a bizarre college football season for obvious reasons before Oklahoma and Texas were 1-2 in Big 12 play, the defending national champions gave up a combined 89 points to Mississippi State and Missouri and Cincinnati was only two spots behind Ohio State in the AP poll.
Enough games have been played at this point to start drawing some conclusions about what’s occurred. Some traditional powers look as good as expected while others are off to startlingly bad starts. A handful of conferences impressed and one in particular is hurting its cause on a regular basis.
Here are 10 takeaways from the still-young college football season.
1. There are already clear College Football Playoff favorites
There are typically five or six teams that are viewed as the favorites to compete for the four spots in the College Football Playoff at the beginning of every season. That list is now down to four: Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State. The Big 12 will need a miracle to get someone in. Washington and Oregon both represented the Pac-12 once in the six years of the Playoff, so it’s fair to assume the participants are coming from the SEC, Big 10 and ACC.
Clemson is rolling through the ACC as usual and just dispatched a top-10 Miami team by 25. The Buckeyes are arguably the most talented team in the country on paper. Of course, they haven’t actually played a game yet, but the Big 10 has gotten a team into the Playoff 75% of the time and the chaos that’s transpired only makes it more likely that trend will continue. Florida’s loss to Texas A&M put Georgia in position to claim the final spot. The way things currently stand, the Bulldogs probably make it in as long as they reach the SEC championship game, even if they suffer a defeat along the way. Jumping right into conference play has helped create a clear picture earlier than usual by cutting down the number of undefeated teams so quickly.
2. The ACC is as good as it’s been in a long time
Four different ACC teams — Clemson, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Miami — were in the top 10 of the Week 6 AP top 25 poll. The only reason that changed in Week 7 was that the Hurricanes lost to the Tigers, dropping them to 13th. You have to go back to 2016 for the last time the ACC had three top-10 teams at the same time. It has three of the top five teams in the latest AP poll. Notre Dame playing a full ACC schedule certainly boosts the conference’s standing, but this isn’t just about the Fighting Irish.
D’Eriq King has injected new life into the Miami program. Despite the beating the Hurricanes took at the hands of the Tigers, there is no disputing the progress that’s been made under Manny Diaz. North Carolina’s Sam Howell owns a career passer rating of 160.9 and is throwing 4.4 touchdowns for every interception. He’s three games into his sophomore season. At least in the short term, the years of Clemson steamrolling weak competition and facing the carousel of teams that came out of the coastal division are over.
3. Mac Jones is no game manager
Joe Burrow set an NCAA single-season record with his 202.0 passer rating as part of one of the best individual seasons in the history of the sport in 2019. Tua Tagovailoa holds the NCAA career passer rating record at 199.4. Through three games, Mac Jones’ passer rating is 220.3. He followed up a 435-yard, four-touchdown performance against Texas A&M by going 28-of-32 for 417 yards in the Crimson Tide’s win over Ole Miss. That bumped his completion percentage up to 79.5.
With Jones at the helm, Alabama leads the country in scoring at 51 points per game and ranks third in total offense with 560.3 yards per game. Then there’s what might be the most impressive stat of all: The Crimson Tide are averaging 8.66 yards per play, .85 more than any other team in college football. It’s safe to say Bryce Young is going to have to wait longer than many expected to get his chance.
4. The Big 12 is wide open
Nobody would’ve envisioned a world in which both Oklahoma and Texas would not be among the Big 12’s unbeatens when they faced each other on Oct. 10. As it stands, Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are the only teams without a conference loss. The Cowboys — who had their game against Baylor postponed — are the league’s best shot to sneak into the Playoff as the lone team without a loss. However, they could be completely out of the title race by Thanksgiving due to a brutal stretch of games.
Oklahoma State faces Iowa State, Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma in its next four contests. Should the Cyclones beat the Cowboys, their favorable schedule the rest of the way would make them the clear frontrunners. An Oklahoma State victory gives Mike Gundy’s team some breathing room and opens the door for Kansas State, whose schedule is backloaded. There are enough head-to-head matchups that a two-loss Texas or Oklahoma could be a factor as well. There is absolutely no point in trying to predict what happens next.
5. Home field is still a massive advantage
Despite there being a limited number of fans allowed into stadiums, the impact of being at home has not gone away. Ranked teams have won 26 of their 28 games at home dating back to Sept. 19. The two defeats were to Miami and Iowa State, ranked 13th and 20th, respectively, in the most recent AP poll. Seven of those 26 victories came against ranked opponents, giving home teams a 7-1 record in top-25 matchups.
ACC teams playing at home are a combined 23-10. SEC teams currently in the top 25 own a flawless 9-0 record when hosting but a 5-4 mark on the road. The takeaway here is straightforward: Good teams are typically going to beat bad teams wherever the game is being played. That’s why 11 of the SEC’s 21 games have ended in a victory for the visitors. When it comes to the matchups that will determine who wins the Power 5 conferences, however, the location is just as important as it has been in years past.
6. The AAC is in a strange place in the college football hierarchy
To suggest there’s something especially surprising about an AAC team cracking the top 10 like Cincinnati did in the Week 7 AP poll would be disrespectful to the conference and specifically to the run Central Florida put together under Scott Frost. The Bearcats were ranked 13th to start the season and have won their three games by an average of 23 points. They are very good, just like people expected them to be. Fellow AAC member No. 17 SMU is 4-0 behind Texas transfer Shane Buechele, who is the nation’s second-leading passer.
Whether it’s Central Florida, Temple, Memphis, Houston, Cincinnati or someone else, the conference typically has a team or two that spends a significant part of the season in the top 20. The variety of teams that have done so speaks to the AAC’s depth. That depth is also its biggest weakness though. The bottom half of the conference isn’t good enough for an undefeated AAC team to warrant serious consideration for a Playoff spot (see 2017 UCF). Not having multiple nonconference games in 2020 only exacerbates the problem. It appears Cincinnati will be the team to pay the price for being in a Group of 5 conference that is really closer to the Power 5 but doesn’t have the strength from top to bottom to be treated as such.
7. LSU was ahead of schedule last season and is suffering the consequences
No program in the country expects to lose nine underclassmen to the NFL draft, especially not a team that went 10-3 the year before. The remarkable development that took place last season and the graduation of Heisman Trophy winner Burrow left Derek Stingley Jr. as the lone star to return once Ja’Marr Chase opted out. The result has been 1-2 start and a defense giving up 494.7 yards per game, which ranks 71st out of 76 teams.
It bears mentioning that one of those games came against Vanderbilt, far and away the worst team in the SEC. LSU’s other two opponents were 1-2 Mississippi State and 1-2 Missouri. That means those three teams are a combined 0-7 against everyone except the Tigers. Ed Orgeron’s team is slated to face Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M in a four-week stretch from Oct. 31 to Nov. 18, so there is every chance this gets worse rather than better. The unexpected departures forced Orgeron to play a bunch of guys who are not ready yet. This group could be excellent with a year of experience, but it’s going to be a long season in Baton Rouge.
8. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are taking a massive risk
By initially postponing their seasons and starting so late, the Big 10 and Pac-12 have taken a huge gamble. They are playing an already shortened schedule that could create logistical nightmares if games need to be postponed. If the first month and a half is any indication, it’s a question of how many postponements rather than if there will be any. The ACC, Big 12 and SEC have all had to push back multiple games already. The Big 10 and Pac-12 won’t have that luxury.
There are no built-in bye weeks to allow for the schedule to be rearranged. If games cannot be made up, the implications will be significant. Say Wisconsin doesn’t have to face Michigan or USC’s game against Utah gets canceled. That could be a key factor in determining who ends up playing in conference title games. Maybe Ohio State is only able to play seven regular season games and gets one chance at a quality win before the title game. The selection committee then has to compare the Buckeyes’ resume with teams that have played more games or faced much better competition. There is no margin for error if this is going to work the way everyone hopes.
9. The Sun Belt is capitalizing on a glorious opportunity
The Sun Belt conference picked the perfect year to knock off three Big 12 teams on the road in the same week. By playing fewer nonconference games, the Sun Belt got its signature wins and then got to head straight into conference games. Louisiana-Lafayette took down Iowa State in Ames and faces Central Arkansas in its other nonconference contest on Nov. 21. Coastal Carolina followed up its win over Kansas with a victory against Campbell before starting conference play.
The Chanticleers’ upset of the Ragin’ Cajuns on Oct. 14 all but ensures they will become the second Sun Belt team to be ranked this season when the next polls come out. Coastal Carolina will be favored in every game the rest of the way with the possible exception of its season finale against Liberty. There is a world in which Coastal Carolina ends the year undefeated with two victories over Louisiana-Lafayette, who owns a road win against the Big 12 champions. This confluence of events could not have happened at a better time for the Sun Belt.
10. College football has not been able to create a safe environment
By and large, schools have failed to protect players and staff from the coronavirus. On Oct. 12, Baylor announced it had 28 positive tests on its football team and 29 symptomatic cases among athletes. On Oct. 13, Florida shut its program down following positive tests. On Oct. 14, it was announced that Nick Saban and Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne tested positive. Not all three-day stretches have been that extreme, but it’s not like these developments were some sort of aberration.
That’s not to mention all the postponements and the struggles teams such as Virginia Tech have endured. That’s not to say athletic departments and coaches don’t care about their players and aren’t doing anything to try and help them. One of the reasons COVID-19 is so scary is that you can do everything right and still catch it. But there was an obvious risk every conference was taking when they decided to play. Bubbles are the only proven way to protect athletes and that was never going to happen. These coaches and players are in danger every time they step onto the field, be it for practice or a game. We will not know the true cost of forging ahead with this season for years.
Photo by Tammy Anthony Baker / Flickr