Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Three Preview
Shanna Lockwood/USA Today Sports
It's time to pick up the pieces for Auburn, while several other programs take their first steps into deeper waters in week three, a week that often has major implications on several conference races. The SEC features a couple of highly interesting divisional matchups, while a mix of conference and non-conference games litters the national schedule. One of the more intriguing matchups originally planned for this weekend (Miami-Florida State) has already been postponed to next month due to the lingering effects of Hurricane Irma, but the slate is still solid, if not as spectacular as it was over the first two weekends. Let's take a closer look.
The Deep Dive
Following on from last week's screed on conference politics, this week we take a look at the state of one-loss teams around the country. Obviously, Auburn joined their ranks on Saturday night, and major programs like Ohio State, Florida, Florida State, and Stanford have been tagged already as well. As mentioned last week, undefeated national champions have become rarer and rarer in college football. The playoff has featured one undefeated team among the final four each season thus far (FSU in 2014, Clemson in 2015, and Bama last year), but that team has been defeated in the playoff each time. All three champs (Ohio State in 2014, Bama in 2015, and Clemson last year) have sported a defeat. But it goes back further than that.
The first run of the BCS (from 1998-2005) featured an undefeated national champion almost every year. Tennessee in 1998, Florida State in 1999, Oklahoma in 2000, Miami in 2001, Ohio State in 2002, USC in 2004, and Texas in 2005 all won the title without a blemish. The controversies in 2000 and 2001 were about which one-loss team got to play in the title game (with the team they eventually picked losing both times), while the 2003 split-title fiasco was a debate among three one-loss teams. And of course, Auburn fans can grit their teeth through any discussion of 2004's surplus of unbeatens.
It was the second wave of the BCS (2006-2013) where things began to feel more like they feel now. This was the stretch where the BCS National Championship Game existed (as opposed to the champion being determined in one of the four BCS bowl games). While the existence of a fifth BCS game was the major difference in the format of the eras, the difference that matters here was that 2006 was also, coincidentally, the year the 12-game regular season came into permanent existence. (The idea had been trialled in 2002 and 2003, with one of them being the only season to produce a one-loss champ in the first wave.) Aside from the money the extra game added to the sport, it also encouraged the scheduling of at least one major non-conference game for everybody (something that's codified into all Power Five conference's rules), and it took away a bye week from the schedule. That extra game has made the regular season schedule that much more grueling, plus every major league now playing a conference championship game only adds another tough matchup to every potential national champion's slate.
Since 2006, only Alabama in 2009, Auburn in 2010, and Florida State in 2013 have gone undefeated and won it all. LSU famously won the title in 2007 with two losses. The introduction of the playoff then added another big-time bowl game matchup to the schedule. To go undefeated and win the national title now requires a team to go 15-0, which has never happened. Taking a look at the one loss each playoff champ sustained, Ohio State lost at home to a pretty mediocre Virginia Tech team in 2014. The game took place on September 6th of that year. The following year, Alabama lost at home to a good Ole Miss team on September 19th. Last season is so far the outlier, as Clemson lost to Pittsburgh at home on November 12th. (And yes, that's right, all three eventual champions took their L at home.) Also, only in 2014 did a one-loss Power Five champ get left out of the playoff (Baylor and TCU from the Big 12). For any of the ambitious programs that have already gone down to defeat, there's still hope. It wasn't ideal to take a loss already, but the sun's still coming up each day. The old cliche of "focus on ourselves and let everything else sort itself out" does ring true in these playoff times. Now, get to getting better.
Tigers This Week
Mercer Athletic Department
A familiar basketball and baseball opponent visits the Plains this Saturday for the first time since they reconstituted the program in 2013. The Bears did play football prior to World War II, and matched up with Auburn 11 times back then, with the Tigers winning each contest. So far this season, the Bears have blown out Jacksonville (not Jacksonville State, a better program) and lost close to Wofford, who's ranked in the FCS top ten. They are essentially a middle-of-the-road FCS program and should provide Auburn with an opportunity to get right this Saturday afternoon (3 CT on SEC Network's alternate channel).
And boy, does Auburn need it on offense. I went over, at length, my thoughts on the offense in the week two recap, and nothing has really changed my mind in the couple of days since I wrote that. To be honest, not much from this weekend will chance my mind either, but a little crispness would definitely help instill a sense of confidence before the Tigers go back out on the road to Missouri in week four. I'm eyeing that visit from Mississippi State at the end of September as a huge litmus test for the Tigers' progress, because things will get pretty tough after that. All of this team's goals are still attainable, but the margin for error has already decreased significantly. Get through this weekend healthy, give me some sharpness in the aerial attack, and give some of Auburn's younger guys some more looks carrying the football (Kam Martin, Devan Barrett, Malik Miller). Give me that this week, and I'll gladly take it.
Auburn 44, Mercer 3
College Football Game of the Millennium of the Week
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
After fattening up on Auburn's offense, Clemson now takes their show on the road to Louisville this Saturday night (7 CT on ABC). Some people keep tabs on Auburn's opponents after the Tigers have played them, and some couldn't give a rip. For those that do think that how Auburn's foes play against other teams reflects on Auburn, this game scares the H-E-double hockey sticks out of me. I know Clemson's defense looked really good kicking the mess out of us, but reigning Heisman Trophy-winner Lamar Jackson presents a whole 'nother challenge this week. He lit up the Tigers last year in Death Valley in a game that may have done more for his Heisman campaign than any of UL's wins. I was truly impressed by Clemson Saturday, and their defensive front is as stout as anybody's, but this just seems like a perfect opportunity for them to go expletive deleted all over themselves on the road. The Cardinals have looked pretty ordinary in their wins over average Purdue and North Carolina squads, but this is their home opener, and Clemson's young-ish offensive skill players may not find the confines of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium as comforting as Death Valley. I know picking Bobby Petrino in a big game is a fool's errand, but Clemson losing Deshaun Watson has to come into play at some point, and I think that point is here.
Louisville 34, Clemson 30
Rest of the Menu
Unlike last week, there is a nationally televised college game on Thursday, though it's not an especially great one. A New Mexico team that's embroiled in an investigation implicating head coach Bob Davie (former head coach at Notre Dame and barely tolerated ESPN color commentator) in a player mistreatment and drug test cheating scandal heads north to take on Boise State on the Smurf Turf (7 CT on ESPN). Boise and Washington State turned in a highly entertaining thriller late Saturday night in Pullman, but this game figures to be as boring as that game was exciting. The gridiron competition tonight from the NFL, however, also figures to be wretched, as the Bengals and Texans, two teams who were humiliated in week one, take on each other (7:30 CT on NFL Network).
Charlie Strong's South Florida Bulls are still ranked 22nd despite being far less than impressive thus far in wins over San Jose State and Stony Brook. They had an unscheduled week off last week due to Hurricane Irma, and they resume play Friday night at home against crappy Illinois (6 CT on ESPN).
The best matchup in the early viewing window on Saturday is probably Mike Gundy and Flow-klahoma State heading to Heinz Field to take on Pitt (11 CT on ESPN). The Panthers were housed by revenge-minded Penn State last week (and then burned by Nittany Lion coach James Franklin afterward), but will still be the toughest foe the 9th-ranked Pokes have tangled with thus far. Walkover matchups between Power Five schools and non-P5 competition litter the rest of the early window, though UCLA's odd trip to Memphis (11 CT on ABC) could be something to keep an eye on (emphasis on could).
The afternoon slate is far deeper, headlined by Tennessee's trip to Florida. The game will be played in the Swamp as scheduled (2:30 CT on CBS), and the winner gets a huge leg up in the SEC East. As much as it frightens to me to pick Butch Jones, gimme the Big Orange to pull out a win over a Gator program in disarray on multiple fronts. Elsewhere in the afternoon, 10th-ranked Wisconsin goes to BYU (2:30 CT on ABC), and #16 Virginia Tech travels to East Carolina (2:30 CT on CBS Sports Network), a place that's been a problem for the Hokies before. For those who care about conference pride, crappy SEC team Missouri hosts maybe-not-as-crappy Big Ten team Purdue (3 CT on SEC Network).
Bammer probably could give Colorado State their entire game plan for Saturday night's contest in Tuscaloosa (6 CT on ESPN2) and still win comfortably. So maybe watch LSU's visit to Starkvegas instead (6 CT on ESPN). That's the most interesting SEC game of the day in my opinion, and it kicks off a brutal stretch for State that sees them host LSU, then travel to Georgia and Auburn in consecutive weeks. (BTW, Ed Orgeron selling me chicken seems much more fitting than him selling me a Hummer.)
Another game involving an SEC school that highly intrigues me is Kansas State's trip to Vanderbilt (6:30 CT on ESPNU). A Vandy win would be a huge statement for Derek Mason's program. At the same time, Will Muschamp's South Carolina Gamecocks look to move to 2-0 in conference with a home date with Kentucky (6:30 CT on SEC Network). I thought highly of UK going into the season, but they've labored more in their two victories over Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky than I'd like to see. But, like the Tennessee/Florida game, the winner here has a huge leg up in the division.
The aforementioned tilt between Clemson and Louisville is the ABC night game at 7 CT, and its only real competition nationally is Texas' trip to USC (7:30 CT on FOX). Tommy Trojan looked every bit the part in its 42-24 dismantling of Stanford in the Coliseum last week, and if mighty Maryland can throw up 51 on the Longhorns, I shudder to think what Sam Darnold and his receivers will do.
The late night schedule is fairly light this week, but Ole Miss' trip to Berkeley to take on Cal is worth watching. The Rebs are 2-0, but have played no one, and the Bears have already bagged another Power Five opponent, beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill to open the season. In the age of conference jockeying, these Power Five matchups for Vandy, Mizzou, and Ole Miss will be scrutinized.
Massacre Island Weekly Forecast
While there's always someone waiting to visit beautiful Massacre Island, the amount of teams in line for a trip tends to lessen after week two. More conference games start showing up on the schedule, and fewer paycheck games dot the landscape. In the SEC this week, there are still several candidates, however. Texas A&M hosts Louisiana-Lafayette (11 CT on SEC Network), but the Aggies have looked so pitiful since halftime of the UCLA game that I don't think the Ragin' Cajuns should worry about packing their bags this week. Colorado State's actually a pretty OK team, but they're still on the radar for an excursion on account of their visit to Bryant-Denny Saturday night. The two most likely contenders for an all-expenses paid trip to the Bay of Beatdowns are Samford, who takes on a confident Georgia team between the hedges (6:30 CT on SEC Network's alternate channel), and Mercer, who we know is headed to Auburn. Will Georgia's momentum from their win in South Bend translate into a righteous walloping, or will Auburn play angry Saturday afternoon and make Mercer wish they'd never brought their football program back? I say it's 50/50.
Nationally, Delaware State's visit to West Virginia has all the makings of an unholy rout. The, um (looks it up), Hornets have already lost to Delaware and Hampton, and the Mountaineers have been known to throw up gaudy numbers against weaklings in the past. Tulane also visits #2 Oklahoma with the Sooners riding high off their win at the Horseshoe. I don't think a letdown will affect OU much here. The Big Ten also produces several candidates, with Georgia State's journey to Happy Valley most likely to be an unhappy one for the visitors. I correctly tabbed Washington's stomping of some poor unidentified team last week, and Fresno State now visits Seattle a week after getting manhandled by Alabama. Lucky them.
A notable inclusion here, though, has to be Baylor's trip to Duke (11:30 on ACC Network regional TV). The Bears were thisclose to the playoff in 2014 and now look absolutely hopeless going on the road to face the Blue Devils. With losses to Liberty and Texas-San Antonio already under their belts, this could be one of the saddest Massacre Islands trips we'll ever see. I almost feel bad for new head coach Matt Rhule, but he had to know what he was getting into. It was in all the papers.
Nick Saban Quote Bingo
Ol' Nicky's been busy this week. While he didn't give us his thoughts on Bigfoot and aliens, a la Mike Leach, he did go off on the rant I linked in the Rest of the Menu section when asked about using QB-of-the-future Tua Tagovailoa in the first half against Colorado State on Saturday. (At least he wasn't concerned about the language barrier for Tua, who's from Hawaii, which is part of the USA last I checked). He also jokingly offered to hire a reporter in the postgame presser last Saturday. (Proving truly that his favorite expletive, at least when in front of cameras and microphones, starts with the letter A. If he keeps it up, he may become the bard of the A-word, much like Samuel L. Jackson is the bard of the F-word.)
So yeah, add occasional jokes and liberal use of a$$ to the Saban quote bingo. We'll get him on the record about aliens one day.
Let's Get Ready to Rumble
I was too butthurt about Auburn's loss to include this in an already very lengthy column on Monday, so we'll get to it here. After a brouhaha-heavy week one, week two's best fight came courtesy of LSU fans, and one man in particular. (Warning: Lots of expletives and general bro-ness at the link.) Kudos to him for both color-coordinating his cast to LSU's team colors, and also for using an old defensive lineman/pro wrestler move in using his casted arm to dispense a Brad Pitt in Snatch-style knockout on some poor frat bro. Bummer, frat dude. Maybe now you'd wished Daddy was a doctor instead of a dealership owner. ($50 that Mr. One-Punch broke that arm while drunk, did this while drunk, and is drunk right now.)
The Shield (Like Fantasy Football, but for Real)
From NBC broadcast
Well, it certainly was fun to see New England get roasted so bad by big bad Alex Smith last Thursday. (Again, certainly more fun than this Thursday's crap game is going to be.) But of course, let's remember that NFL games can be wildly misleading at all times, and especially in week one. Surely, the Pats will rebound and still be the AFC favorite going into the playoffs. I'd bet your house on it. But let's all bask in the warmth of Tom Terrific's rage up there. Truly, 'tis a heartwarming sight.
The biggest game of this week, I guess, is a rematch of the last year's NFC title game, with Green Bay visiting Atlanta's new football palace. I really don't think the Dirty Birds will be quite as dirty this year, and this game should provide them a nice platform to either be the same team they were until the fourth quarter of last year's Super Bowl or prove to us that they're destined for post-Shanahan regression. Green Bay's annual defensive meltdown should still be a few weeks away, so this could go either way. However it works out, let's hope the fans can escape Arthur Blank's fever dream once the game ends. (Although if not, we could be in for another good rumble. It's not like Packer fans are never drunken and violent.)
It's a milder weekend, but any weekend with football is still a good one, to paraphrase Tony Montana. And the multiple SEC conference games should serve to provide us some clarity, especially in the hyper-muddled East. For Auburn, this week's about getting better. If there's any truth to the idea that the offense we were promised, the one that was installed and practiced in the offseason, wasn't run on Saturday night, then that way of thinking's got to go. Auburn needs confidence and cohesion on that side of the ball, and Mercer's just the kind of team to gain those against. Like I said for all the one-loss teams, worry about fixing yourself and everything else will take care of itself. That process starts Saturday. Come back Monday for the week three recap, and enjoy your weekend.