Week 2 came through in its big games for the most part. Oklahoma controlling Ohio State in Columbus was the only major surprise, but it helps crystallize the early season pecking order. Nothing is decided in the first couple of weeks, but teams have made their statements, while others (Notre Dame) have missed out on early opportunities to vault up the rankings. Unpredictability defines college football and the things we don’t see coming will be the things we love. Yet, there is a definite hierarchy emerging for the top award available to a team and an individual in college football. I want to look at the top of the playoff race going conference by conference before diving into the Heisman contenders, both QBs and non-QBs.
1. Alabama (SEC)
2. Clemson (ACC)
3. USC (PAC-12)
4. Oklahoma (Big 12)
5. Penn State (Big Ten)
That is a pretty easy top-5 to make. You can quibble with the order–the AP poll would–but nearly everyone would have these 5 teams. Clemson is the defending champion. Oklahoma and USC had two great wins on Saturday. Penn State has looked like their form from last season was no fluke and Alabama is Nick Saban’s Alabama. This race will come down to which team can tackle their conference’s challenges, so let’s look at what each faces.
The SEC West is always a slog, but its one that Alabama has consistently navigated with little to no damage. They have LSU at home so I only see the Iron Bowl in Jordan Hare as a potential pitfall. The SEC East is improving, but Tennessee and Vanderbilt are not on Bama’s level. Barring a major letdown, it’s tough to see anyone in this conference catching the Tide.
The Tigers will be tested quickly with Lamar Jackson and Louisville welcoming Clemson to town this week. After that, maybe Florida State will be comfortable with a new QB by then or maybe going to Virginia Tech or NC State will trip them up, but the champs will be favored all the way out. They probably can survive one slip-up (as they did last year), so a healthy Clemson team should feel comfortable after they get past Jackson.
Texas could be a tricky game this week, but the conference slate does not look bad. They just handled Stanford and they don’t have to face Washington. Going to Pullman can get crazy (ask Boise State), but they will be much better than every team they face. Their last two games (at Colorado and UCLA) will be interesting, but USC is set up nicely.
The Big 12 has had a good start to the season. The top half of the conference is off to a great start, plus having Baylor on your schedule has turned into a near-lock for a win. Oklahoma State has looked really good these first couple weeks and having to go to Stillwater and Manhattan is never fun. I would be stunned if the Sooners ran the table in a conference where a lot of talented teams will be treating them as their biggest game of the season. They will get beat, but they will also be there at the end in the conference championship game. They will likely need to avoid a second loss to make the playoff and they clearly have the talent to do that.
This conference is loaded. We knew Ohio State and Michigan would be tough, but now going to Iowa and Maryland look like major challenges. Nebraska, Indiana and Michigan State won’t be pushovers either. That doesn’t even include possibly having to face Wisconsin in the conference championship game. I really like this team, but struggle to see them getting to the end of the season with less than 2 losses. The Big Ten has the smallest difference in quality from its best team to its sixth-best team and that will hurt the Nittany Lions.
Heisman Race (Non-QB):
The Heisman will be won by a quarterback. The game has become so quarterback-centric that it takes either a lackluster year across the board or a super human effort for a non-QB to get the win. There are so many great QBs this season that its hard to imagine all the teams falling by the wayside so that a running back or someone else has a chance. BUT, if quarterbacks were suddenly ineligible to win the award, these players would be first in line.
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB
2. Derrius Guice, LSU RB
3. James Washington, Oklahoma St. WR
4. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin RB
5. Derwin James, FSU DB
Heisman Race (QBs)
This will be the race the defines the season. Two studs are out west and will meet to end the regular season. One guy in Oklahoma is planting flags in Columbus and the other has the best receiver. That doesn’t even get to the guy with the award on his shelf already who is fresh off accounting for six touchdowns against North Carolina. This one will be fun.
1. Josh Rosen, UCLA
He has the best moment (a 34-point comeback) and tremendous stats. They’re all chasing him early.
2. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Going back-to-back has only happened once and that was long before television and social media picked apart players like they do now. He will have to remain at the stellar level he’s played at and he may have to get Louisville to the playoff. That looks like a tall order right now, but through week 2 he’s done all he can.
3. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
He has the best win (at Ohio State) and that might hold up all season. Mayfield will be a media darling all year so if he can keep the Sooners on the road to the playoff, I like his chances the most.
4. Sam Darnold, USC
He looked great against Stanford and he may have the best backfield of any of these candidates. He was the pre-season favorite, which is a tough spot to win from, but he has already been somewhat eclipsed by these other great quarterbacks and is in a good spot to spend the rest of the season moving back towards the top of this race.
5. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
Rudolph is definitely on a lower tier than these other four (Penn State’s McSorley is right there with him), but the Cowboys may get two shots at the Sooners. Those high profile matchups with Mayfield combined with the help of James Washington could catapult Rudolph up this list.
Week 2 Picks:
Look for a column later this week on sleepers in each conference. Picks and Podcasts on the way too!