Andy Staples
Monday September 21st, 2015

USC had already fallen 41-31 to Stanford. UCLA was on the ropes against BYU, and at that point we didn't know whether every game that featured Cougars quarterback Tanner Mangum would end in a successful Hail Mary. (Spoiler alert: Not every one.) It was early Sunday morning on the East Coast, and a reader named David wondered if one league had already played its way out of College Football Playoff contention.

"Will the Pac-12 be the first conference eliminated from the playoffs?" David asked on Twitter.

This question came a few minutes before Alabama fell 43-37 to Ole Miss, and it got me thinking. I can answer David with reasonable certainty that having a bevy of one-loss teams does not eliminate a Power Five league after only three weeks. Didn't we learn that lesson with Ohio State and the Big Ten in 2014? But David's is pretty much the only playoff-related question anyone can answer at the moment.

When I wrote this in August, I assumed actual games would bring clarity. Instead, we know less three weeks into the season than we did before the season began. Consider the following questions.

Who is the favorite in the SEC?
Who is the favorite in the Pac-12?
Will the Baylor-TCU game decide the Big 12?
Can the ACC produce a playoff team?
Who is Ohio State's starting quarterback?

These seem even tougher to answer now than they did in August, and that's great news to those of us who love watching high-stakes games. For those of us who don't make our living gambling on large groups of 18- to 22-year-olds, this uncertainty spices up what already was shaping up to be one of the most interesting college football seasons in years.

Let's unpack those questions. After LSU tailback Leonard Fournette finished running over, under, around and through Auburn's defense Saturday, and after quarterback Jeremy Johnson did his best Garo Yeprimian impression, we can safely assume most of us were wrong about the Tigers from the Plains. A few of us—checks watch, whistles, runs screaming from last week's staff picks—were terribly mistaken predicting the demise of the Bayou Bengals. I wrote in July that Fournette would need help from LSU's quarterback to unlock his vast potential, and even though sophomore Brandon Harris has apparently made a drastic leap, it appeared in Saturday's 45-21 rout that Fournette and LSU's offensive line may be able to dominate a defense with no need for air support. If Harris has indeed improved as much as it seems, LSU could be an absolute force in the SEC.

But what about Ole Miss and Alabama? The Rebels forced five turnovers Saturday but also benefited from a once-in-a-lifetime—well, except for Auburn in 2013—miracle touchdown in a six-point win in Tuscaloosa.

Afterward, Alabama players were quick to point out that they shook off a loss to Ole Miss last season and still won the SEC. "You guys have no idea how bad this hurts, but we are going to get back at it," Crimson Tide junior defensive end Johnathan Allen told reporters. "The same thing happened last year, and we ended up going to the playoffs. We are going to get another chance and get another time to prove ourselves, so we can't do anything now other than move on to the next team."

But is it the same as last year? Last year, Alabama had chosen a starting quarterback at this point in the season. Saturday, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban opted to start sophomore Cooper Bateman before replacing him with senior Jake Coker, who had started Alabama's first two games. Coker nearly led Alabama to the best come-from-behind victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium since the one Cam Newton led in 2010, but Coker was outdueled by Ole Miss counterpart Chad Kelly, who was booted off Clemson's roster in '14, played a season in community college and joined the Rebels this past off-season.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 seems as wide open as ever after the same Stanford team that lost to Northwestern 16-6 in its season opener beat USC at the Coliseum. But it wasn't the same Stanford team, and that's what makes college football fascinating and maddening in equal turns. The fingerprints of the person named Kevin Hogan who completed 20 of 34 passes for 155 yards with an interception at Northwestern would match the fingerprints of the person named Kevin Hogan who completed 18 of 23 attempts against USC for 279 passing yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. In this age group, the same person can turn in completely opposite performances two weeks apart.

Sometimes, it only takes an upgrade in competition. UCLA freshman Josh Rosen looked like a senior as he carved up Virginia in a 34-16 season-opening win on Sept. 5. He looked his age Saturday as he threw three interceptions against a BYU defense loaded with much older returned missionaries. But because the Bruins escaped with a one-point win, those miscues look more like teachable moments than reasons for despair.

Meanwhile, in Eugene, graduate transfer quarterback Vernon Adams sat out with a broken finger as the Ducks bounced back from their Week 2 loss at Michigan State with a 61-28 win over Georgia State. Adams played—and progressively improved throughout the game—with that broken finger against the Spartans. The Ducks begin Pac-12 play next Saturday against Utah, and now Adams and redshirt junior Jeff Lockie have starting experience. Oregon will likely have its say in the conference race.

As for the Baylor-TCU question: The Big 12 may yet prove it has more than two elite teams to offer. After a frustrating few years, Oklahoma finally has an offensive identity under new coordinator Lincoln Riley. The Sooners rolled up 773 yards in a 52-38 win over Tulsa, but one potential problem raised its head. Tulsa's new head coach is Phillip Montgomery, the former Baylor offensive coordinator. The Golden Hurricane averaged 6.6 yards a play against the Sooners. If Baylor Lite can do that, imagine what actual Baylor can do. But even if Oklahoma's defense still has a weakness against Art Briles-based systems, the new-look offense at least gives the Sooners a fighting chance against the Bears.

After this weekend, it appears most of the ACC has a fighting chance at winning the conference title, but the results of the games involving the two most recent rulers of the league might be misleading. Thursday, Clemson escaped Louisville with a 20-17 win. Friday, Florida State's defense led the way in a 14-0 victory at Boston College. Does this mean the two perennial favorites are ripe to be knocked off? Maybe. But take those scores with a grain of salt. It's awfully difficult to be the road favorite in a weeknight game. The host team is probably more amped for that game than any other that season. So is the home crowd. The locals know the nation is watching, and that tends to raise the home team's level of play. Let's see the Tigers and Seminoles in some more conventional Saturday contests before we throw that race wide open or declare the ACC incapable of producing a playoff contender.

And as for the Ohio State quarterback race, let's all maintain our Twitter bios (more on that in First-and-10) and take a deep breath. It isn't easy choosing between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett when both are playing well. It might be even tougher when both are playing poorly.

The only way to truly answer these questions is to keep playing games. But let's hope they don't all get answered in the next few weeks. The sheer volume of intrigue made the first three weeks of this season ridiculously fun. Another two months would be thrilling.

Projected College Football Playoff

1. Michigan State (3-0)

The Spartans followed their win over Oregon with a 35-21 victory over a tricky Air Force team. Remember, these rankings are based on what has happened so far this season, not what happened last year or what might happen on, say, Nov. 21 in Columbus. That's why Michigan State sits above a certain fellow Big Ten East member. Ohio State will have to earn its way back.

2. Ole Miss (3-0)

The Rebels went into Tuscaloosa and won for only the second time in school history. The last time Alabama lost at home was in 2012 to the Texas A&M team that was led by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. This was a huge win, and Ole Miss did it without All-SEC offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, who remains benched because of an ongoing NCAA investigation.

3. Notre Dame (3-0)

Despite a rash of injuries, the Fighting Irish keep right on rolling. The 30-22 final against Georgia Tech wasn't reflective of the game. The Yellow Jackets scored two touchdowns in the last minute of the fourth quarter. For most of the way, Notre Dame's defense dominated against one of the most difficult offenses to prepare for in the country. Meanwhile, converted defensive back C.J. Prosise ran for 198 yards with three scores. DeShone Kizer, who replaced injured quarterback Malik Zaire, completed 21 of 30 passing attempts for 242 yards with one touchdown and an interception in his first start.

4. UCLA (3-0)

This spot could have just as easily gone to LSU or Georgia, but UCLA gutted out a 24-23 win over BYU, a victory that could look even better by season's end. The quality of opponent is the reason the Bruins get the nod over the other two. Auburn and South Carolina haven't been as impressive as BYU to this point. As for Ohio State, the Buckeyes have to prove by the way they play this fall that they deserve to be on this list. I still suspect they will, but they'll need to clean some things up first.

A random ranking

Friday is National Comic Book Day, so here are the top 10 comic book villains.

1. The Joker
2. Darkseid
3. Magneto
4. Galactus
5. Lex Luthor
6. Dark Phoenix
7. Two-Face
8. Juggernaut
9. Kingpin
10. Loki

Big Ugly of the Week

Eventually we're going to honor an offensive lineman in this space, but some interior defensive linemen are playing huge roles in big wins. Saturday, Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche's stat line didn't explain how much he affected the game. The junior had six tackles, including 2 ½ for loss, but Nkemdiche was in the backfield regularly, blowing up running plays and pressuring Alabama's quarterbacks.

I know Kirk Herbstreit took some ribbing for mentioning several times during the game that Nkemdiche weighs 300 pounds. Still, when you see him up close and see him move, it's pretty shocking that he is that big.

First-and-10

1. As of Sunday evening, Ohio State quarterback Jones had an empty Twitter bio. On Saturday night, after Jones was pulled from a 20-13 nail-biter against Northern Illinois in favor of Barrett, Jones's bio said this:

Then, after Jones started getting complaints from people who hate fun and probably make lousy party guests, he changed his bio to this:

That didn't last long, either. Jones wiped his bio later in the night.

What's the moral of all this? There isn't one. I put far sillier stuff on Twitter than Jones, so I wouldn't dare criticize what he does. But this likely means he is just as confused about Ohio State's quarterback situation as anyone. Even Urban Meyer doesn't seem sure what he wants to do. After Saturday's game, a reporter asked Meyer if the coach thought quarterbacks splitting first-team reps hurt the continuity of the offense. "There might be some truth to that," Meyer told reporters. "Not that I'm going to call some armchair guys and ask them what they think, but I do believe in game reps. That's how players get better, and that's something that I'm going to spend a lot of time thinking about."

Neither Jones nor Barrett looked particularly great against the Huskies. So, Meyer will have to decide whether he wants to choose a player in practice or see how the quarterbacks perform against Western Michigan.

And you thought the Buckeyes wouldn't have any drama until they played Michigan State.

2. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema doesn't have a lot of friends in the up-tempo offense world. So, it isn't surprising that one of them finally unloaded on the head Hog. After leading his team to a 35-24 win over the Razorbacks in Fayetteville on Saturday, Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury fired back at some of Bielema's previous comments.

3. Since preseason camp, Notre Dame has lost a starting defensive tackle, a starting tailback, a starting tight end and a starting quarterback to season-ending injuries. Saturday, it may have lost a starting safety to a celebration. During the Irish's 30-22 win over Georgia Tech, sophomore Drue Tranquill chest-bumped linebacker Joe Schmidt after a pass break-up. Tranquill landed, crumpled to the ground and grabbed his right knee. "Doesn't look very good right now," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told reporters. "We'll get an MRI here. We only have a manual exam to go on right now. The manual exam was not a good one. But we'll get an MRI [Sunday] morning and then we'll have definitive results. But we're not optimistic at this point."

4. The only team that has had worse injury luck than the Irish might be TCU. At halftime of Saturday's 56-37 victory over SMU, Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson told TCU's radio broadcast team that sophomore cornerback Ranthony Texada would probably miss the remainder of the season after injuring his knee. Five of TCU's projected preseason defensive starters missed the SMU game with injuries, and Texada's injury makes a bad situation worse. "With the numbers that we have in specific places, it's tough, but I'm not going to make this about how we have people hurt," Patterson told reporters after the game. "It's not what this program is built on. The next guy has to step up."

5. After Saturday's win over Air Force, some Michigan State players revealed that starting cornerback Vayante Copeland is out for the season. (The redshirt freshman injured his neck in the fourth quarter of the Oregon game in Week 2.) "It was shocking, especially a younger guy who has come so far," Michigan State safety Demetrious Cox told Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press. "He's making plays, obviously, and it was tough. But it's the next-man-up mentality. No matter what happens, somebody's got to be able to step up and make plays." Senior Arjen Colquhoun started in Copeland's spot Saturday.

6. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield accounted for a school-record 572 yards of total offense and six touchdowns in the Sooners' 52-38 win over Tulsa. Those are Manziel-at-A&M-type numbers. Mayfield threw for 487 yards with four touchdowns and ran for 85 yards with two scores. Given the defenses Oklahoma still has remaining on its schedule, this might not be the only time Mayfield sets this record in 2015.

7. A plane flew over SunLife Stadium on Saturday pulling a banner that said "C'MON #FIREALGOLDEN. THESE BANNERS ARE EXPENSIVE." The person who funded the banner might have felt terrible by halftime, when the Hurricanes led Nebraska by 17 points and appeared to be the far superior team. That person might have felt vindicated by overtime—after Miami had gagged away a 23-point lead—but the Hurricanes won 36-33 thanks to junior cornerback Corn Elder's interception of Tommy Armstong Jr. and Miami's ensuing field goal. Former 'Canes offensive lineman Joaquin Gonzalez might not have ordered any planes, but he made his feelings about Golden clear after the game.

8. Meanwhile, Florida State assistant Tim Brewster took a shot at Miami's home crowd. "Wow....Is anybody at Miami game??" Brewster tweeted. That drew a swift rebuke from former Hurricanes tailback Jarrett Payton, who apparently wasn't impressed with the Seminoles' offense in their 14-0 win at Boston College Friday.

9. This is the play Memphis used to tie Bowling Green at 41 in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 44-41 win. Yes, that's a reverse flea-flicker.

10. Sports.

What's eating Andy?

When I was in college, I could stay up all night watching football—and possibly enjoy a few adult beverages—and be ready to roll the next day. Now, I stay up all night watching football—with zero adult beverages—and need a week to recover. Heed this advice: Never get old.

What's Andy eating?

A regular corn dog is fine. Sweet cornbread, which is delicious, envelops a tube of questionably sourced meat. The meat isn't what we would conventionally consider good, but it is a combination of animal parts and spices, and therefore is generally pleasing to the palate. But what if someone replaced that tube of mystery meat with a carnivorous treat of less dubious origins? What if someone used sweet cornbread—which, as we've established, is delicious—to envelop a thick hunk of proto-bacon?

Pork belly, when cured, becomes bacon. Bacon exists because there was a time when refrigerators did not. But since we have the capability to keep food fresh for longer, we can cook pork belly without curing it first. So, the tastiest part of the pig doesn't get dredged in salt. Its natural savory flavors can shine through.

At The Pig & Pint in Jackson, Miss., juicy chunks of pork belly are fried inside a sweet cornbread jacket. This is an appetizer, though no one would fault you for eating 10 and calling it a meal. But don't do that. Because then you wouldn't have room for a sandwich that is called The Bacon Melt but actually features more of that pork belly along with brisket, collard greens, Swiss cheese and smoked tomato aioli. (And, yes, I know aioli is just a churched-up word for that condiment that tastes like all the sadness in the world. But the tomato tang elevates it above common mayo.) This sandwich is a perfect Southern meal between two slices of toasted bread.

So, please try to save room for that sandwich. But if you can't stop eating the pork belly corn dogs, no one would blame you.

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