- Teams like Michigan, Penn State and Washington have had predictably strong starts to their seasons, but they also haven't been truly challenged yet. That will change soon.
The first quarter of the regular season has taught us quite a bit about some teams. Southern California, for example, seems very much worth the hype after trouncing Stanford and fending off Texas in double overtime the last two weeks, while it looks like Baylor is set to undergo a longer, more arduous rebuild than anticipated after sustaining losses to Liberty, UTSA and Duke.
For other squads, however, it’s too early to draw firm conclusions. Their competition has been too weak to glean much of value from their win-loss records. The smooth sailing they have enjoyed so far can be misleading. By the middle of conference play, they could well be getting pounded by opponents of similar quality—or maybe the early romps are precursors to turbulence-free runs through their league slates. We just can’t say for sure right now, which is why these teams, all of them undefeated at 3–0, still have a lot to prove.
The Wolverines look better positioned to win arguably the Power 5’s toughest division, the Big Ten East, than they did before the season began, but that has less to do with anything they’ve achieved so far than Ohio State’s inability to get its offense on track despite an offseason staff overhaul. Michigan’s season-opening victory over Florida will count for something in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s deliberation process, and the Wolverines will receive more credit if the Gators go on to beat out Georgia in the SEC East—even if winning that division could amount to a hollow accomplishment given the lackluster teams in the running for it. But we can separate the projected value of that non-conference triumph from what it says about Michigan right now. The answer: Not much.
Against the Wolverines, Florida continued to wage a quarterback battle that should have been resolved in preseason camp, and it had 10 players suspended, including its top wide receiver and running back. Michigan subsequently notched wins over a pair of Group of Five opponents picked to finish fourth in their respective divisions (Cincinnati and Air Force), and it failed to flash the firepower needed to get past its biggest challenger in the East, Penn State. The Wolverines have scored a touchdown on only 10% of their red-zone trips so far this season, good for 128th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Cowboys’ offense has lived up to its preseason billing as the program’s most prolific unit since Brandon Weeden left Stillwater. Quarterback Mason Rudolph’s 11 touchdown passes trail only UCLA’s Josh Rosen, who has thrown 13, and Rudolph has attempted 46 fewer passes than Rosen while posting an efficiency rating 40.5 points higher. None of the squads Oklahoma State has vanquished so far have been able to gum up the Cowboys’ points-producing machine, much less keep them out of the end zone altogether, and that group includes a Power 5 opponent with a head coach renowned for his defensive acumen. Now Oklahoma State has to demonstrate it can keep rattling the scoreboard during Big 12 play. Saturday’s meeting at Boone Pickens Stadium with TCU, whom SB Nation’s Bill Connelly projected to field the No. 33 defense in the country this season, will be a good gauge of how much trouble, if any, the Cowboys will have raining fire on their conference opponents.
Oklahoma State’s stiffest test would come in the playoff, if it gets there; Big 12 contests feel like a series of 100-meter heats, with teams racing into the end zone again and again. Still, the Cowboys will face more robust resistance in the coming weeks than they’ve seen so far from Pittsburgh, South Alabama and Tulsa. Watch out for that mid-October trip to Austin to face a Texas squad that largely shackled USC in Los Angeles on Saturday night.
The Nittany Lions will open conference play on the road against Iowa in essentially the same position as Oklahoma State. They’ve buried their opponents in a mountain of Saquon Barkley dashes and Trace McSorley dimes while pitching shutouts against Akron and Georgia State and yielding only 14 total points. In the meantime, Ohio State showed in its Week 2 loss to Oklahoma that its offense is way behind the curve, and Michigan hasn’t been able to consistently finish drives with touchdowns.
Before the Nittany Lions face either of their top Big Ten East challengers, though, they’ll need to shift their offense into a higher gear than they’ve needed to up to this point in order to get past Iowa and Northwestern on the road and Indiana at home. That run should tell us more about Penn State if, as seems likely, it forces the Nittany Lions into their first legitimately competitive game of the season, and it will serve as a good buildup for the season’s decisive stretch: home against the Wolverines (Oct. 21), at the Buckeyes (Oct. 28) and at Michigan State (Nov. 4).
Penn State has not in any way dimmed the playoff hopes it harbored in the preseason. Its chances actually look better now than they did a few weeks ago due to the tepid starts in Columbus and Ann Arbor. Now the Nittany Lions need to show their casual stroll through non-conference play wasn’t merely a result of weak competition.
Playing a putrid non-conference schedule worked out pretty well for the Huskies last season, and that could be the case again in 2017. After a moderate test from an improved Rutgers on the road in Week 1, Washington drubbed Football Championship Subdivision foe Montana and Mountain West bottom feeder Fresno State by a combined score of 111–23. In the preseason the Huskies were viewed as USC’s biggest obstacle to reaching the playoff out of the Pac-12, and they’ve done nothing to change that perception. Junior quarterback Jake Browning has rated out as the conference’s top passer from an efficiency standpoint through three weeks, and only Washington State counterpart Luke Falk has completed a higher percentage of his throws. The Huskies also have allowed only 3.77 yards per play and 12.3 points per game, the lowest and second-lowest figures in the Pac-12, respectively.
The Trojans’ numbers may not rival Washington’s at this juncture, but unlike the Huskies, they’ve already cleared one of their biggest league hurdles (that 42–24 win over Stanford in Week 2) and dispatched a quality out-of-league opponent in a double overtime victory that should only gain value as the season progresses. None of Washington’s wins to date will move the needle in the committee war room in the lead-up to Selection Sunday, so it needs to earn its bid by killing it in league play, starting with Saturday’s trip to 3–0 Colorado, a rematch of the Pac-12 title game last season.
No squad with a legitimate shot at making the playoff has a more favorable path in conference play than Wisconsin. The Badgers face their biggest contenders in the Big Ten West, Northwestern and Iowa, at home, and two of their crossover opponents from the East, Maryland and Indiana, will need to scrap for bowl eligibility. The third crossover opponent, Michigan, comes to Madison in the middle of November, a week before the Wolverines take on Ohio State in a potential playoff elimination game. So Wisconsin should have a pretty easy time getting to the league title game, which is going to make it difficult for it to show how good it really is at any point over the next two-plus months. And whereas last season the Badgers opened with a two-point win over LSU, this season their non-conference schedule consisted of two Group of Five pushovers (Utah State, Florida Atlantic) and an independent with a toothless offense (BYU).
Wisconsin will find itself pressed to eke out a win at some point between now and its regular season-ending battle with Minnesota, but its résumé, more than that of any other squad in the playoff picture, will depend on the nature of its wins rather than the wins themselves. The Badgers’ one chance for a marquee résumé bullet point will come against the Wolverines. Until then, they should charge through a succession of unremarkable league tilts without many speed bumps.