Two weeks into the season, and we’re already getting playoff-type matchups. Not a bad way to ease into the college football year. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Week 2:
1. Michigan State scores the first playoff-résumé win
Yes, it’s still very early, but the No. 5 Spartans’ 31–28 victory over No. 7 Oregon is very likely to be part of the playoff discussion come December. Michigan State’s only two losses last season were to the national championship game participants, and now it has avenged one of those defeats while picking up likely the top nonconference victory of the season.
The Spartans’ Big Ten schedule is a bit more difficult than Ohio State’s, but they’ll likely be favorites in every game except their Nov. 21 meeting with the Buckeyes. That’s what makes Saturday’s win so pivotal. If Oregon proves to be a quality opponent and Ohio State goes undefeated, Michigan State could lose to the Buckeyes and still make the playoff. This is especially true if Oregon wins the Pac-12. Yes, Michigan State wouldn’t be a conference champion, but it would have a head-to-head win over another Power Five conference champ. How could the committee include the Ducks but not the Spartans?
2. The SEC race begins to take shape
Last week was all about thinning the field for the Pac-12 championship as Arizona State and Stanford suffered critical nonconference losses. While those defeats didn’t directly impact conference standings, they were the first indication that the Sun Devils and Cardinal might not live up to expectations to contend for division titles.
This week’s action cut down the SEC’s field. Key conference matchups between LSU and Mississippi State and Kentucky and South Carolina started filling in the conference standings, boosting the Tigers and Wildcats’ chances while putting the Bulldogs and Gamecocks in early holes.
In nonconference play, Tennessee and Arkansas both suffered damaging defeats. The Volunteers looked to have Oklahoma put away, going up 17–0, but they couldn’t hang on to the lead and lost in overtime. Butch Jones’s squad revealed its youth, which will likely keep it from contending in the SEC East this year. Arkansas squandered its preseason hype with a confounding 16–12 loss to a Toledo squad that returned zero starters on its offensive line and was without its star running back. The Razorbacks already faced an uphill battle to go from last in the SEC West last year to division contenders this year while battling a brutal schedule; they’ll certainly play better this season than they did Saturday, but expecting the consistent dominance required to win the SEC seems farfetched.
As for Auburn, the Tigers remain undefeated, but that’s about the end of the positives on the Plains. New starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson has shown at times that he has the skills to be the elite quarterback he was expected to be. But too often so far, that brilliance has been hidden by incomprehensibly bad decisions, helping to contribute to his five interceptions. The Tigers’ rebuilt defense is clearly a work in progress, too, as it allowed FCS Jacksonville State to pass for 277 yards. Auburn needed a last-minute touchdown to force overtime before escaping with a 27–20 win. A team viewed as a playoff favorite entering the season has looked nothing like it so far. Louisville’s upset loss to Houston on Saturday only further damages the Tigers, as their narrow Week 1 win now looks worse, too. Without significant improvement on both sides of the ball, it’s hard to imagine them contending in the SEC West.
3. Notre Dame can’t catch a break
A year after defensive injuries derailed a promising start to the season, the Fighting Irish look poised to repeat that fate, only because of offensive ailments this time. New starting quarterback Malik Zairefractured his ankle in Notre Dame’s 34–27 victory over Virginia, joining running back Tarean Folston on the season-ending injury list.
Since replacing Everett Golson as the Irish’s starter, Zaire had thrived and looked likely to enter the Heisman race after completing 86.4% of his passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns in Notre Dame’s season-opening thrashing of Texas. He followed that up with another solid outing against the Cavaliers, passing for 115 yards and rushing for 87 before his ankle was pinned underneath a tackler and he crumpled to the Scott Stadium turf.
The Irish survived on Saturday thanks to a game-winning touchdown pass from DeShone Kizer, but it’s hard to see them making it through their next five games. That stretch includes visits from Georgia Tech and USC and a trip to Clemson. It’s too much to ask C.J. Prosise, who didn’t switch to running back until this spring, to carry Notre Dame on the ground, and Kizer, a sophomore, is too inexperienced to give Prosise balance on a week-to-week basis. Notre Dame is bound to trip up somewhere, likely sooner than later, and a season that began with playoff dreams will likely end in an air cast once again.