College football roundtable: What we learned from Week 3

ByESPN Staff ESPN logo
Monday, September 20, 2021

The White Out Game in Happy Valley reminded us that fans make a difference, demonstrated the depth of the Big Ten and showed how problematic officiating can be.

But there was more than just one game in Week 3.Here is what our reporters took away from this week in college football.

Ohio State's problems persist

Ohio State made some changes on defense in its 41-20 win against Tulsa, which included taking defensive playcalling duties from coordinator Kerry Coombs and giving them to secondary coach Matt Barnes. Ryan Day said he was encouraged by the changes they made and saw some adjustments in the game, but there were still persistent issues.

The defense, despite the changes, still allowed 428 yards through the air in what ended up being a closer game than it should have been. The Buckeyes had only a seven-point lead at the half and a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter. Quarterback C.J. Stroud had 185 passing yards with one touchdown and one interception. The run game helped him out, but Stroud didn't have his best game and made some poor decisions and throws. -- Tom VanHaaren

The Big Ten doesn't need Ohio State to be great

Not when Penn Statelooked as good as it did against Auburn, or when Iowahas a road win against a top-10 rival, Iowa State. Michiganand Michigan Stateare both 3-0. Wisconsincan still win the West and gets a shot at Notre Dame. The Big Ten's path to the playoff doesn't always have to run through Columbus.

While the jury is still out on football in the state of Michigan, the Nittany Lions looked capable of carrying the banner for the Big Ten this fall. There has been plenty of parity in the sport through the first three weeks, but Penn State looked the part. Can't say that about Clemson, or Oklahoma, or the Buckeyes. Strength of schedule matters in the selection committee meeting room, but so does the so-called eye test, and Penn State could wind up with both.

Sean Clifford transformed into version 2.0 of himself on Saturday night. The secondary was spectacular, and Jahan Dotson put on a highlight show. While Ohio State works out its kinks, there are plenty of other teams in the league with potential to emerge from its shadow -- and Penn State took the first step. -- Heather Dinich

Staying on campus

Already, we've had some terrific games in college football this season, and Penn State's 28-20 win over Auburn on Saturday night was right there at the top. There's nothing quite like a White Out in Happy Valley, the kind of environment that defines the sport and all of its pageantry. Here's another plea coming out of that thriller: Let's play all of these nonconference games on campus, at least most of them.

College football is supposed to be celebrated on campus, where generations of family members gather to watch their teams and alma maters take on teams from other parts of the country and then return the trip in coming years. It's heartening to see an increasing number of home-and-home series scheduled for future years. Among them: Alabama-Ohio State in 2027 and 2028, Alabama-Notre Dame in 2029 and 2030, Georgia-Oklahoma in 2023 and 2031, Michigan State-Washingtonin 2022 and 2023, Michigan-Texasin 2024 and 2027, Clemson-LSUin 2025 and 2026 and Florida-Utahin 2022 and 2023. Let's keep them coming. -- Chris Low

Does anyone want to win the ACC?

Through three games, it is obvious Clemson is not the same team that has run roughshod through the ACC over the past six seasons on the offensive side of the ball. The Tigers have scored two offensive touchdowns in two games against Power 5 opponents. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei has struggled, completing less than 60% of his passes with one touchdown and two interceptions in three games. The highly anticipated return of Justyn Ross has not helped Clemson open up its passing game, either. But perhaps most distressing of all is their inability to run and major issues across the offensive line, which has resulted in a completely disjointed effort across the board.

During its six-year dominance in the ACC, Clemson always had an excellent combination of quarterback-running back strength -- whether Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman or Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne Jr. But without a difference-maker at running back, much more has been put on Uiagalelei, and without a go-to game-breaker at receiver, the results so far have looked decidedly un-Clemson-like.

Clemson has not looked this vulnerable on offense since 2014, which should make the ACC more wide open than ever for another team to step in and fill the void. ESPN FPI bears that out -- Clemson has dipped to having a 57.8% chance to win the ACC again. But the rest of the league has had a fairly miserable start to the season, too, and there is no clear front-runner to snatch that crown. Currently, Virginia Techhas the next highest odds among the rest of the league to win the ACC at 13.4%, and the Hokies did not exactly help the overall league with a tough loss at West Virginiaon Saturday.

As it stands, the ACC has a losing record against Power 5 nonconference opponents, and it also has multiple losses to MAC teams and a loss to an FCS program. Florida Stateis off to its worst start since 1976; Miamigot drubbed at home; Pittsburghhad a letdown loss to Western Michiganafter a big road win against Tennessee. North Carolina, a preseason top-10 team, has rebounded after an opening loss to Virginia Tech, but the Tar Heels will need some help to even get to Charlotte.

Clemson has been the standard bearer in the ACC, propping up the rest of the league as its lone playoff representative since 2015. With Clemson and nearly everyone else in the league struggling, this could end up being a season the ACC would like to forget. -- Andrea Adelson

Is the Pac-12 the new ACC?

For several years, Clemson has kept the ACC relevant while the rest of the conference floundered in mediocrity or worse. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 hasn't had a high-end team capable of buoying the conference in the same way Clemson did. What the Pac-12 had was a lot of good teams in what we'll call Tiers II and III that beat up on one another, dragging down the conference's national relevance as a result.

That's not the case this year. Heading into the full slate of conference play, Oregonis the only undefeated Pac-12 team with a bunch of also-rans. The Ducks are essentially auditioning for the role Clemson has owned. It's obviously a welcomed development for the Ducks, but from a conference perspective, it puts a lot of pressure on them to stay undefeated. Because if the Ducks don't reach the playoff and the rest of the league is down, it's a worst-case scenario. -- Kyle Bonagura

Don't forget about Florida

There are no moral victories in the SEC. There are only wins and losses, and at the end of the day, Florida lost to Alabama. But how the Gators lost should tell us a lot about their chances moving forward. Despite a terrible start and despite not having one of its best offensive weapons, Florida was only a two-point conversion away from taking the No. 1 team in the country to overtime. The defense, which last season was so terrible, wasn't that bad, especially in the second half. If the Gators can cut down on pass interference penalties and make more than the occasional open-field tackle, they could be pretty good, in fact.

But it's the offense that showed the most promise. The line, despite injuries, was terrific. Emory Jones had all day to throw the football, and when he settled down after a rocky first quarter, he was fairly accurate. His ability as a runner, combined with a loaded backfield of Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay'Quan Wright, gives coach Dan Mullen a lot to work with. When quarterback Anthony Richardson comes back from his hamstring injury, that's even more firepower to call upon.

While Florida wasn't perfect against Alabama -- far from it at times -- and a loss is a loss, Mullen and the Gators appeared to find something that could challenge Georgia in the East and pave a way to a possible rematch with Alabama in the SEC title game. -- Alex Scarborough

Ole Missgives the SEC another CFP contender

Lane Kiffin's first season at Ole Miss featured plenty of points and fun, but his team never looked like it could challenge for anything meaningful in the SEC. Kiffin's second Rebels squad is poised for greater goals. Not only has quarterback Matt Corral improved to lead an explosive offense, but the Ole Miss defense has held its first three opponents to 24 points or fewer. Corral already has nearly 1,000 passing yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions, leading a balanced offense that averages 52.3 points and 635.3 yards per game. Sam Williams (four sacks) has sparked the defense early on.

The competition will get much tougher for Ole Miss, but it's possible the Rebels are the SEC's third-best CFP contender, behind Alabama and Georgia. Texas A&Mhas a case here, too, but the Aggies lost quarterback Haynes King to injury and don't boast a playmaker like Corral. Although Texas A&M's defense is better than Ole Miss', the combination of elite offense and decent-enough defense has helped recent playoff participants. Kiffin stocked up on rat poison for the next two weeks before Ole Miss visits Alabama, but the Rebels get Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M all in Oxford later this fall. -- Adam Rittenberg

Tradition matters

Eleven years after they last met and 50 years after playing perhaps the sport's most perfect game, the Nebraska Cornhuskers traveled to Norman, Oklahoma, on Saturday for a nonconference game during the 50th anniversary season of the 1971 Game of the Century. There weren't big stakes on the line other than for No. 3 Oklahoma, for whom every game is a playoff referendum. The two teams won or shared conference titles in 44 of the 48 years of the Big Seven/Big Eight era between 1948-95. They were in a conference together for 90 years and played annually for 70 of those years. In 62 of the 72 matchups between them in the AP poll era (since 1936) one has been ranked, including 45 of their past 46 games. Prior to the game, Barry Switzer made an appearance on the video board and said, "The best part of this rivalry? WINNING. CHAMPIONSHIPS."

But with the Huskers coming off four straight losing seasons and the Sooners in the top 5, the matchup didn't seem the same. The energy around the game didn't indicate that. On Friday night, packs of fans roamed Campus Corner shouting "Go Big Red!" while sporting the block N on their shirts or hats or Johnny Rodgers jerseys. A packed house of 84,659 roared in anticipation of kickoff. And the game proved tighter than expected, with the Huskers holding the Sooners to their fewest points since 2016. "Both teams rose to the occasion," Lincoln Riley said after the game. "It was a tough game that meant a lot to both schools and both fan bases." As the sport continues to pull apart at the seams, these are the kind of games and rivalries worth preserving. -- Dave Wilson

Officiating debacle at Penn State merits further scrutiny

Officiating college games is a tough gig. Calls are missed every week, and most fan/coach conspiracy theories about the men and women in stripes are completely baseless. Fans also should know that many nonconference games are officiated by crews from the league of the visiting team.

Still, there's no excuse for what happened at Penn State on Saturday night. How is it possible for a veteran SEC crew -- plus a replay official -- to lose track of the downs during a Penn State possession early in the second quarter? Nittany Lions coach James Franklin tried to alert the crew of the error, but after multiple consultations, everyone still got the down wrong, forcing a premature Penn State punt. Imagine if Penn State had lost. Franklin would have had a hard time remaining as diplomatic as he did after the game.

Officials are held accountable for their performances, although most of it comes in reduced game assignments. The best crews should get the best assignments on the biggest stages. But the SEC needs to take an especially close look at what transpired Saturday, especially from a veteran crew, and ensure an error with counting downs doesn't happen again. -- Adam Rittenberg

Blake Anderson is working miracles at Utah State

Of the 34 remaining unbeaten FBS teams, there are plenty of unexpected names -- Rutgers, Texas Tech, Arkansas -- but one deserving of some real spotlight is Utah State.

A year ago, the Aggies were a complete mess. They finished 1-5, with all five losses by at least 19 points. The offense topped 16 points just once. Gary Andersen was fired just 16 games into his second stint with the program.

At Arkansas State, Anderson was ready for a change, too, after his first losing season with the Red Wolves. He took the Utah State job in December, brought QB Logan Bonner with him and set about rebuilding a program in marked decline.

The results so far have been remarkable. Utah State came from behind in Week 1 to beat Washington State. The Aggies thumped North Dakotaa week later. Saturday, the Aggies once again erased an early deficit to topple undefeated Air Force49-45. They've scored more points in their past two games (97) than they did all of last season (93). WR Deven Thompkins leads the nation in receiving yards with 454 -- 55 more than anyone else.

Whether Utah State emerges as a real force in a crowded Mountain West remains to be seen, but the early returns for Anderson have been better than anyone could've rightly expected. -- David M. Hale

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