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Forde-Yard Dash: Gauging Michigan and 10 Other Intriguing 2–0 Teams

What should we think about these programs’ encouraging starts—and when will they get a more definitive test?
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Southern Mississippi baby gear sold separately in Hattiesburg, where a mom went into labor and nearly delivered during the Golden Eagles’ game against Grambling Saturday):

MORE DASH: Time to Panic? | 10 Breakouts | USC Wish List

SECOND QUARTER: BELIEVE IT OR NOT?

Twenty-nine teams have started 2–0 with at least one victory over a Power 5 opponent. Some are likely on their way to excellent seasons; some will inevitably flame out; some will be a mixed bag. The Dash offers an appraisal of 11 of them.

Michigan (11). Who the Wolverines have beaten: Western Michigan, Washington. Average margin of victory: 27 points. America absolutely cannot wait to get excited about blueblood programs whenever they show the slightest hint of promise, and Michigan is one of them. But with the Wolverines, talk is cheaper than Jim Harbaugh’s Walmart khakis. Take it from running back Blake Corum, who said this after beating the Huskies: “We're going to remain humble because we really haven't done anything yet.”

Washington is winless and lost to FCS Montana. Western Michigan defeated FCS Illinois State. We go down this road annually with the Wolverines, and there is annual disappointment lurking out there, waiting for them.

Michigan's Blake Corum celebrates a TD with his teamamtes

That said: This is the first time since 2017 that Michigan didn’t appear obviously flawed two games into the season. (There was the upset loss to Michigan State last year, the narrow escape over Army in 2019, the opening loss to Notre Dame in 2018.) So the Wolverines have made it at least one week farther than that. The coaching staff changes seem to be working well. Corum gives the offense some juice. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson is a beast. We’ll see about the long-term viability of the passing game, especially after the season-ending injury to Ronnie Bell.

When we will know more: Rutgers (also on this list) visits Sept. 25, and then Michigan goes to Wisconsin. The Badgers have embarrassed the Wolverines two years in a row and won three of the last four.

Michigan State (12). Who the Spartans have beaten: Northwestern, Youngstown State. Average margin of victory: 22.5 points. Expectations for the Spartans were at their lowest ebb in a long time, so this is a very pleasant start. Michigan State led the Wildcats 21–0 and cruised to victory, then led the Penguins 28–0 Saturday. After living in the transfer portal this offseason, coach Mel Tucker has emerged with some new weapons who have upgraded the roster on both sides of the ball.

Much like Michigan, the quality of the opposition to date is lackluster. Northwestern wheezed past Indiana State on Saturday, and Youngstown State defeated Incarnate Word in overtime. Even with a Big Ten road win in the opener, there is no guarantee that the Spartans are ready to push back into the upper half of the Big Ten East.

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At least Michigan State has shown a reluctance to beat itself, which is a step in the right direction after excelling in that area recently. After averaging 1.8 turnovers per game the previous five seasons—and peaking at 2.9 last year—these Spartans have only turned it over twice thus far.

When we will know more: Michigan State visits Miami Saturday, in what looks like a winnable game on paper. Las Vegas, however, has established the Hurricanes as 5 1/2-point favorites.

Kentucky (13). Who the Wildcats have beaten: Louisiana-Monroe, Missouri. Average margin of victory: 21 points. Kentucky’s offensive makeover has been pretty dramatic, with its passing game morphing from anemic to explosive thanks to new coordinator Liam Coen, new quarterback Will Levis and new receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. At 11.7 yards per attempt, the Wildcats are fifth nationally; last year, at 5.5 per attempt, they were 122nd. Kentucky has consecutive games of 500 or more yards total offense for the first time since 2016.

UL-Monroe is one of the worst FBS programs in the country, but Missouri probably is a bowl team. And frankly, the Tigers were fortunate to be in the game late after being pushed around defensively most of the night. The Wildcats haven’t played a great defense yet, but they appear to have the goods for when they do face one.

Kentucky will have to become more buttoned up in terms of turnovers. It is a minus-4 through two games and has been fortunate to recover several of its own fumbles thus far. The UK defense has only forced one turnover to date.

When we will know more: A three-game stretch to start October will define Kentucky as either an SEC East contender or an also-ran. The Wildcats go Florida-LSU-at Georgia from Oct. 2 to 16

Virginia Tech (14). Who the Hokies have beaten: North Carolina, Middle Tennessee. Average margin of victory: 14 points. Virginia Tech scored one of the first big upsets of the season, taking down top 10 North Carolina on Sept. 3. They aren’t very explosive offensively at this point, but the defense has been nasty. Embattled coach Justin Fuente has new life in his sixth season.

North Carolina was overrated to begin the season, but remains a quality team that could record its highest victory total since 2015. To date, Tech’s victory over the Tar Heels is better than anything anyone else has done on this list. Conference USA member Middle Tennessee is at least a step up from most FCS competition.

Coordinator Justin Hamilton’s defense has been disruptive, recording nine tackles for loss in each of the first two games and sacking North Carolina star quarterback Sam Howell six times. The Hokies also have allowed just one play of 30-plus yards in 139 defensive snaps.

When we will know more: If Tech can get past West Virginia in Morgantown on Saturday, go ahead and circle the Oct. 9–16 double in Lane Stadium against Notre Dame and Pittsburgh.

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Pittsburgh (15). Who the Panthers have beaten: Massachusetts, Tennessee. Average margin of victory: 25.5 points. Pitt’s 92 points is its most through two games since 2014, with quarterback Kenny Pickett establishing himself as the hub of that offense.

The quality of opponent remains dodgy at this point. UMass is decidedly not good. Tennessee threw a lot of Neyland Stadium atmosphere and emotion and some early adversity at the Panthers, but after that wore off the Volunteers looked like a team that could finish as low as sixth in the SEC East. Credit Pitt for withstanding that, but there will be tougher tests ahead.

Pitt seems likely to go as far as Pickett and the trademark pressure Pat Narduzzi defense can take it. The Panthers have just one run from scrimmage longer than 20 yards, so Pickett’s arm will be the key on that side of the ball. Defensively, Pitt leads the ACC in sacks with 10.

When we will know more: There’s a trip to Georgia Tech Oct. 2, then the game at Virginia Tech two weeks later.

Kansas State (16). Who the Wildcats have beaten: Stanford, Southern Illinois. Average margin of victory: 12.5 points. K-State dominated the Cardinal, which in turn went on to dominate USC, so that may end up resonating. It also trailed FCS Southern Illinois at halftime and didn’t put that game away until the final play, but lost starting quarterback Skylar Thompson early in that one.

Diminutive Deuce Vaughn has been the engine thus far, rushing for 244 yards and four touchdowns. Thompson went down in the first quarter against the Salukis with what looked like a potentially major knee injury, but he’s expected to play again this season (not this week against Nevada). Will Howard filled in against SIU and remains a limited passer, as he was last year. K-State has been very good defensively, especially against the run, allowing just 2.24 yards per carry.

When we will know more: Saturday against the Wolf Pack is a significant test, especially without Thompson. The winner will be 3–0 and feel good about itself.

Maryland (17). Who the Terrapins have beaten: West Virginia, Howard. Average margin of victory: 34 points. Routing Howard is a toss-out, signifying very little. The triumph over the Mountaineers was much more substantial, pushing the Terps’ winning streak against nonconference Power 5 opponents to four (Texas twice, Syracuse, now WVU).

Mike Locksley’s recruiting successes are paying dividends. He landed Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa, and after an O.K. season in 2020 he’s off to a blistering start in ’21. Tua’s younger brother is third nationally in completion percentage and 10th in efficiency, with two touchdown passes of 60 yards or longer against West Virginia. One of those, which clinched the game, was to wideout Rakim Jarrett, a five-star coup from the recruiting class of 2020. Defensively, Maryland hasn’t allowed a run of 20 yards yet.

When we will know more: The Terps open Big Ten play Friday night at Illinois, and the last team to go into Champaign for a league game came out with a loss. (Hi, Nebraska.) And even if the Illini have looked terrible since that game, remember this: Maryland is 0–7 on the road against Big Ten West opponents since joining the conference.

Rutgers (18). Who the Scarlet Knights have beaten: Temple, Syracuse. Average margin of victory 28.5 points. Every 2–0 start at Rutgers is a great start, because it happens so rarely. (Last time: 2014.) It was a slog at Syracuse Saturday, but the Knights will take all slogs that end in victory in Year 2 of Schiano 2.0. They’re a whopping plus-eight in turnover margin, with zero giveaways thus far.

The Orange could be moving toward firing Dino Babers, and the Rod Carey era at Temple has not been pretty. But Rutgers’s brisk acceleration to competence and competitiveness under Schiano is a noteworthy development in the Big Ten East. The days of taking the Knights lightly are long gone.

When we will know more: At Michigan, Sept. 25. This will be a legitimately interesting Big Ten game. Rutgers lost to the Wolverines in triple overtime last year.

San Diego State (19). Who the Aztecs have beaten: New Mexico State, Arizona. Average margin of victory: 21 points. San Diego State was quite shaky against perennially poor NMSU, then came out and jumped all over Arizona on Saturday. It was 21–0 in Tucson after eight minutes, and the lead expanded to 38–7 after three quarters. The likelihood is that the Aztecs have simply beaten two very bad teams, but the manner in which they dominated a Pac-12 opponent was at least noteworthy.

This is going to be a ground-and-pound team under Brady Hoke 2.0, with SDSU out-gaining its first two opponents by 420 yards in the rushing department. What happens when the Aztecs have to throw consistently is where it will get interesting.

When we will know more: SDSU hosts Utah on Saturday. That will tell a lot.

The state of Mississippi (20). The Rebels are 2–0, beating Louisville and Austin Peay by an average of 28 points. The Bulldogs are 2–0, beating Louisiana Tech and North Carolina State by an average of 7.5 points.

Is there reason for excitement in both Oxford and Starkville? Sure. Ole Miss has flashed a little defense to go with that high-octane offense. State, after falling behind Louisiana Tech by 20, finished that game on a 21–0 run and started the next one on a 24–3 tear. Combined with Arkansas’s start, there might officially be no easy games left in the SEC West this season.

When we will know more: Ole Miss hosts Tulane, and Mississippi State goes to Memphis on Saturday. Beware the dangerous American Athletic Conference underdogs.

MORE DASH: Time to Panic? | 10 Breakouts | USC Wish List

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