Thursday, September 15, 2016

Week 2: Close encounters of meaning, or not

Week 2 

With one more week in the books, the picture becomes clearer in some spots, blurrier in others. 

The nonconference slate is a mishmash of comfortable victories, head-scratching close calls and everything in between: Week 2 offered a diverse selection of all three. Take Clemson, Georgia, Arizona, for example -- and those were all wins. 

Thus far, Clemson looks nothing like the team that closed the 2015 season on a high note, the highest note of any team not named Alabama. Deshaun Watson passed a whopping 53 times and completed just 27 of those attempts, which is fine if you're Texas Tech or the Detroit Lions' Matt Stafford, but not if you're the No. 2 team in the country playing Troy at home. 

Meanwhile, in Athens, Kirby Smart's squad limped its way to a win against Nicholls State (which finished 3-8 in 2015). After a solid win against UNC (made slightly more solid after UNC's thumping of Illinois), the Dawgs came back down to earth, with Nick Chubb managing just 80 yards on 20 carries. Turnovers helped keep the Colonels in the game, as if often the case when the Little Guy hangs with the Big Guy. Georgia can definitely compete in the SEC East -- which, I suppose, is a lot like saying the Big Ten West winner will have a chance at winning the conference title. But this team is another Chubb injury away from some real problems ... an injury that hopefully does not happen, because he's a fun player to watch, and isn't that what all of this is about? 

Arizona, well, they scored 28 unanswered and beat Grambling State by 10. If you need a second to reread that sentence, feel free to do so and meet me at the next paragraph. 

Done? Yes, that is something that happened, yet another drop in the torrential downpour of madness that is the college game. And, really, let's be honest: Is that result even all that surprising? Does that box score move the needle in any way whatsoever? No? I'm not sure what to say about the Rich Rodriguez era in Tucson other than his teams always seem to teeter perilously on the precipice separating resurgence from oblivion. Rodriguez's squad followed his first two seasons, both 8-win campaigns, with 10 wins in 2014, but just seven last year. 

The Wildcats cap the season with trips to Oregon State and Washington State, and the rivalry tilt against Arizona State. But it's the five games prior that will decide the season and, perhaps, move the needle back in the positive direction for Rodriguez and Co. After this week's matchup against Hawaii, Arizona hosts Washington, travels to UCLA and Utah, then hosts USC and Stanford. Win three of those and close out with four straight against WSU, Oregon State, Colorado and ASU and you're looking at eight wins. 

But, you know, who knows. Arizona, like so many others, is just one of those teams that generally does not adhere to philosophical structures of order or reason. They're either firing on all cylinders, zooming down the highway, or crapped out on the side of the road, belching smoke into the pastel Arizona sky. 

Speaking of close calls, you can even look at Nebraska, which dispatched Wyoming with ease, 52-17 -- close call? The Cornhuskers held a 24-17 lead after three quarters. But hey, that's why you play four. 

If all of the above sounds like bad news for the aforementioned teams, maybe it is and maybe it isn't -- but take it all into account, hand-wringing Michigan fan, when you bemoan Michigan's "unimpressive" 37-point victory against UCF. 

That performance was far from perfect, but why is anyone expecting that in the first place? Even Alabama, the colossus from T-Town, didn't look like the same team in Week 2, besting Western Kentucky by "just" 28 points, 38-10. Jalen Hurts threw two picks and the Tide averaged 3.2 yards per carry. None of that means anything. 

Oh, right, there was also that business in Stillwater. What to say? I still lack words for the conclusion of the 2015 Michigan-Michigan State game. Things happen in college football that are spectacular for their lack of decipherable meaning. You can say "why?" but you already know the answer. 

Incredulity, thy nom de guerre is college football. 

If you're looking for sense in anything, college football is the last place you'll find it. You might as well roam the desert looking for a Wi-Fi hotspot, pining for a chance to send that Tweet about how something that happened on Sept. 10 presages either doom or success against a future opponent. 

  • Iowa State is truly bad. This is a fact that only underscores the awesome accomplishment achieved by Iowa in its 42-3 win against them. The Hawkeyes have found a way to lose to some wretched Cyclones teams over the years, but not this time. Really, I was far more impressed by this victory than one ought to be. We're not talking a hex of the late 1990s/early 2000s, when ISU beat Iowa five years in a row, but ISU did take three of the last five before this year's matchup, including the 2012 9-6 game. That ISU team finished 6-7. They also finished 6-7 in 2011, another winning year for ISU over Iowa, and 2-10 in 2014. This is probably more than you needed to know -- the point? Beating a bad Iowa State team by many points is significant for an Iowa team that has struggled to beat bad Iowa State teams. 
  • Remember Danny Etling? If you do, you're either a recruiting buff or a Purdue football die-hard. Regardless, he played most of a football game this past Saturday ... for LSU. Etling, who transferred from West Lafayette to Baton Rouge, went 6-of-14 for 100 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Which, somehow, was worse than Brandon Harris' performance in Week 1 against Wisconsin. It really is difficult to think of a program that has squandered so much talent based on its inability to get one thing even sort of right (i.e. quarterback). Gone are the glorious days of Matt Mauck.
  • The Seminoles head to Louisville to take on QB Lamar Jackson and Co. this week in what promises to be an exciting matchup. Jackson posted another big day in a Week 2 win against Syracuse. In two games, he's passed for 697 yards and completed 59.7 percent of his attempts. He's also rushed for 318 yards. Needless to say, FSU is a step or two up from Charlotte and Syracuse. But if early returns mean anything, Jackson is a step up from the quarterbacks FSU has faced to date. 
  • There's still something strange about seeing Washington sitting there at No. 8. They went 8-6 and 7-6 in Chris Petersen's first two years, yet somehow found themselves in the preseason top 10. Why? I don't know. It's not even that they necessarily don't "deserve" to be there, so much as their inclusion feels very strange, like a curly fry that finds its way into a batch of regular fries. With that said, unlike many other teams, the Huskies have taken care of business thus far, and the schedule actually looks quite manageable. UW hosts Stanford Sept. 30 and visits Oregon Oct. 8, but after that I don't see any games that are slam-dunk losses. A trip to Utah is always tough (ask Michigan), USC is the Pac-12's LSU (hey, look at all that talent) and the Apple Cup is a rivalry game still, even if the Cougars have failed spectacularly to date. If UW wants any chance at a playoff berth, it will need to sweep that Stanford-Oregon stretch. 
  • The game of the week? Arkansas-TCU, which was actually sort of a snoozer until the very end. The unsnoozeification of this one began when Arkansas missed a 22-yard field goal, then up 20-7 late in the third. TCU stormed back to take a lead, until Arkansas went 58 yards in 62 seconds to tie it with a minute to go at 28-28. TCU had a chance to win with a field goal, a 28-yarder. That was blocked, because the very notion of field goals resides in the realm of Bad Possibilities, and Arkansas went on to win in overtime. It's still unclear to me what Bret Bielema and Arkansas' path to success in the SEC West is, but one thing's certain: Razorbacks games are worth the watch. A Sept. 24 date with Texas A&M will likely be another one worthy of viewing consideration. 
  • After a rough first quarter that saw Tennessee trailing Virginia Tech 14-0, the Vols bounced back to notch a comfortable win at Bristol Motor Speedway (it's a brave new world). Tennessee gets a breather with Ohio this week -- well, in theory -- but then the schedule gets brutal before finishing with a pretty breezy five-game stretch. After Ohio, UT gets Florida at home, Georgia and Texas A&M on the road, and Alabama at home. The Vols were talked about as a playoff contender heading into this season, but that four-game stretch always loomed large. Assuming they get to the SEC title game and score an upset against Alabama, they can't afford to lose more than one of those four. Maybe Tennessee figures things out and manages to go 3-1 there, win the final five and have a shot at a play-in game in the SEC title game. Either way, like the Stanford-Oregon stretch for Washington, the Florida-Georgia tilts in consecutive weeks are must-wins. 
  • If college football can be likened to Game of Thrones, then Nebraska's 2015 season was akin to the guy who jumps on the bandwagon of the deity in vouge at exactly the wrong time. That's really the only explanation for Nebraska's insane run of bad luck last season. However, looking at their schedule, the 'Huskers have a chance to be one of the notable bounceback teams of 2016. In one of the more quietly interesting games of the week, Nebraska welcomes Oregon to Memorial Stadium, a team that is undoubtedly a few notches below what it once was. The Ducks can still score, sure, but they've given  up yards and points like they're hosting a yard sale. Excluding UVA QB Kurt Benkert's -27 yards rushing, the Cavaliers racked up 220 yards rushing on the Oregon defense this past weekend. ESPN's Power Index gives Nebraska a 74.2 percent chance at victory. If Nebraska can score a win -- which would only be an upset in terms of the arbitrary nature of early-season polls -- then a 7-0 start is not out of the question. Nebraska follows this one up with games against Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue; that is, the antithesis of the middle of Tennessee's schedule. 

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