Notre Dame AT virginia (SaturDAY 3:30ET, ABC)
Wow, is Notre Dame really that good? Is Texas really that bad? Is UCLA a top 10 team? These are all textbook week two questions because as nice as it is to finally have some answers, there isn’t a big enough sample size to really conclude anything. We know that Notre Dame is definitely better than Texas. But outside of that, we can’t definitively say anything. However, Malik Zaire certainly inspires confidence after throwing for 313 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 interceptions. Zaire, who was thought to be a lesser passer than Everett Golson (but a better decision maker and runner) showed his true potential as a passer. He was flawless. And his supporting cast wasn't half bad either; Will Fuller looked like a Heisman candidate on the perimeter with his electrifying speed and the offensive line was immovable. It was a good day in South Bend.
Saturday was not so kind to the Cavaliers. Not only did Virginia lose to UCLA, but former Virginia QB Greyson Lambert looked like an All-SEC quarterback for Georgia. The Lambert experiment wasn't working in Charlottesville, and most fans probably realize that he wouldn't have looked quite as good if he were playing for UVA. He does have a better supporting cast at Georgia, but that wasn't the reason he played the best game of his career. No, Georgia's offensive coaching is far superior to Virginia's and that has to concern fans. Will Muschamp was fired for his inability to produce an offense at Florida, and you have to wonder if Mike London will one day share the same fate.
Notre Dame looked like a playoff contender on Saturday, but we will have to wait one more Saturday to find out if the hype is real.
NOTRE DAME 30 VIRGINIA 15
Iowa at Iowa State (SATURDAY 4:45ET, FOX)
Iowa and Iowa State have played every year since 1977 for the Cy-Hawk Trophy and the state bragging rights that come with it. Although the Hawkeyes lead the all-time series 38-19, the Cyclones have won 3 of the last 4. Iowa has had higher expectations than their in-state rivals but has been restricted by an 8-win ceiling since the Orange Bowl appearance in 2009. Both teams opened up with big wins over FCS foes, and their roster strengths appear to be opposites. Iowa is built in the stereotypical Big Ten mold, a rushing-based offense and a stingy defensive front seven. The defensive line is strong and is bookend by the star tandem of rush ends: Drew Ott and Nate Meier. Multi-year starting quarterback Jake Rudock transferred to Michigan, meaning the keys to the offense were handed over to CJ Beathard who has more of a gunslinger attitude in comparison to the usually conservative Iowa signal-callers.
Meanwhile, Iowa State has some promising weapons at the skill positions - something that the Hawkeyes appear to lack. Quenton Bundrage and Allen Lazard are dynamic playmakers at reciever, but the weak offensive line will struggle to give Sam Richardson enough time in the pocket. Advantage in the trenches clearly goes to Iowa, and I expect Beathard to continue to improve with more starting experience. Iowa State has lost to an FCS team in their last two season openers; yes, they handled Northern Iowa, but that does not prove their legitimacy on the Power 5 level.
IOWA 26 IOWA STATE 20
Oklahoma at Tennessee (SATURDAY 6:00ET, ESPN)
This game certainly has a little more flair than it did a year ago, doesn’t it? Tennessee has been talked about all offseason as the SEC Freshmen Team matured into sophomores. Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, and Alvin Kamara looked as good as advertised in the Vols win against Bowling Green (who we picked to win the MAC East). The defense wasn’t quite as good as I expected, and the transition away from AJ Johnson was not seamless. But the talent was evident, and there is no doubt that Tennessee will put up a better fight in year two of this series.
However, Oklahoma did indeed stomp the Vols in 2014 for one of only eight wins last year, the worst finish since 2009. And with players like Samaje Perine, Sterling Shepard, Eric Striker, and Zack Sanchez returning, there is a lot of optimism in Norman. However, the two biggest question marks on this team are the quarterback and the offensive line. You would think that with Baker Mayfield dethroning Trevor Knight as the starting QB, the position will improve. And against Akron (who we picked right behind Bowling Green in the MAC East), Mayfield was flawless, completing 70% of his throws for 388 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 interceptions. We can basically say “check” about the QB position. However, the offensive line was a different story. After losing three All-Big 12 performers from a line that allowed the running backs to average an astounding 6.1 yards per carry, this unit could only muster 3.0 yards per carry in week one. And while the Tennessee defense was anything but impressive, its rush defense was actually very solid. So unless this is an all-time great air raid, the Sooners could have difficulty being one-dimensional against a team of Tennessee’s caliber.
While Tennessee was able to rely on its well-balanced offense last week, I do not anticipate near the same level of success this week. You can expect Joshua Dobbs to be reliable week in and week out, but he will not win games on his own. Last week, the Vols were able to run for 399 yards, a truly impressive number against a good FBS opponent. The offensive line was a question mark going into this season, and any doubts were erased in week one. However, Oklahoma has one of the best front sevens in the Big XII, including dominant linebackers. Its best linebacker, Eric Striker, is wondering why everyone is “blowing gas up [the SEC’s] ass.” And while I think the SEC is the best conference in the country, conferences don’t play football games. The hype is real at Tennessee, but the hype has been real at Oklahoma for much longer. And this year is no different.
OKLAHOMA 33 TENNESSEE 23
OREGON AT MICHIGAN STATE (Saturday 8:00ET, ABC)
Michigan State is seeking revenge for last season’s 46-27 loss in Eugene, a game that they led in the second half until Marcus Mariota escaped the pressure and converted an unlikely third-and-long to shift the complexion of the game. The rematch is here, and is the most important non-conference game of the 2015 season. Oregon is attempting to replace its first Heisman winner, and despite just a few weeks with the team, EWU-transfer Vernon Adams looks ready. He is not Mariota, but brings creativity and elusiveness to extend plays. His style and shorter stature may remind Duck fans of Jeremiah Masoli, and the national fan of Russell Wilson. But this is not a typical Big Sky defense that he played against for 3 seasons. Yes, the skill positions are fully stocked, and yes they are still Oregon. But this is the type of team that causes fits for the Ducks’ high-octane attack. Think Stanford.
As I break down this 2015 Michigan State team, that Stanford comparison holds true. MSU has one of the best offensive lines in America featuring two All-Americans in Jack Allen and Jack Conklin. Yet, the defensive line may be even stronger! The trenches are elite, and given Dantonio’s track record (despite the loss of Narduzzi) I expect the back seven to reload. The offense features a reliable quarterback in Connor Cook, and some inexperienced, yet promising talent at RB and WR. The Stanford comparisons are clear (yes, I mean the stronger 11-win Stanford teams of a few years back, not the squad that just lost to Northwestern).
Oregon’s defense was pushed around by FCS Eastern Washington and allowed 41 points. Look for Michigan State to dominate the lines of scrimmage, and eventually use the ground game to open up some crushing strikes off of play-action. Much like the Stanford bouts a few years back, I think Oregon has met its match. The winner Saturday night will launch into the top 4, and I am calling for a special night On The Banks Of The Red Cedar.
MICHIGAN STATE 31 OREGON 26
LSU AT MISSISSIPPI STATE (Saturday 9:15ET, ESPN)
Mississippi State was excellent a season ago, but is now being forgotten in the SEC West. However, they enter the top 25 as the SEC's 10th team (all-time record). I am a firm believer that the SEC is the best conference in America, but the SEC is not home to 10 of the nation's best 25 teams. Now, I am not saying that Mississippi State doesn't belong, but I am saying that in a few weeks we will know which teams are currently being overrated. If I had to guess, however, Mississippi State would be one of those teams. A well-balanced attack a season ago with a strong running game, a great QB, and a huge, stout defense, this team was loaded. Now, all of those elements are gone except for the star QB. Ryan Brown and Chris Jones could be difference makers along the defensive line, but Preston Smith and LB Benardrick McKinney were two irreplaceable studs and their impact will be felt in the run defense. Unless Dak Prescott took his game to a whole other level, I can't envision this team competing for the SEC West crown like they did a season ago.
And unfortunately, the LSU Tigers are not a good matchup for a team breaking in a fresh front seven. We didn't get a taste of the Tigers last week as their game with McNeese State was canceled, but it would have been interesting to see how QB Brandon Harris looked in his second season under center. Les Miles mentioned that Harris has been throwing the ball about as well as any LSU quarterback ever has over the past week or two. Is he trying to raise the young QB's confidence as he heads into the season, or has the former four-star recruit turned the corner? If he has taken his game to the next level, watch out. Leonard Fournette took his game to the next level midway through last season so we know what he is going to bring to the table. And the offensive line is littered with large talented road graders. This offense has the potential to be one of LSU's best ever. I can't remember a unit with more (potential) balance. Clearly, I like LSU's offense over Mississippi State's green defense.
The other side of the ball is a little more unclear. If Mississippi State's offensive line can reload, there is no reason why this offense cannot be just as potent as last season. As mentioned, Prescott returns with another year of experience, and wide receivers Fred Ross and De'Runnya Wilson return at wide receiver. However, against LSU's defense, I don't anticipate any records being broken on Saturday night. LSU runs away with it late.
LSU 38 MISSISSIPPI STATE 22
BOISE STATE AT BYU (SATURDAY 10:15ET, ESPN2)
After opening week wins over Power 5 opponents, these two meet in what looks like the non-AQ Super Bowl. Boise State defended the Blue Turf in Chris Petersen's return by out-muscling Washington 16-13. Meanwhile, BYU went into Lincoln, Nebraska and snapped the nation's longest home-opener win streak (29-0 since 1985). Of course, BYU trailed 28-27 with one second remaining and completed a game-winning "Hail Mary" as time expired. Although the Cougars left the Midwest with a win, they did suffer two MAJOR losses in star quarterback Taysom Hill and space-eating nose tackle Travis Tuiloma (4-6 weeks). You could sense an immediate impact when Tuiloma left the game, as Nebraska's offense started to gain more traction. His loss weakens the core of the defense, which needs to rebound quickly to face Boise State's smashmouth attack. And on offense, quarterback mobility is gone with Hill's absence. Freshman Tanner Mangum will need to get the ball into his playmakers hands, and luckily for him, they are huge frames in 6'6" Mitch Matthews and 6'5" Terren Houk.
The two things missing from last season's Fiesta Bowl Champion team are quarterback Grant Hedrick (70% completion in '14) and RB Jay Ajayi (1823 yards, 28 TDs) as 17 total starters return. Ryan Finley completed 16 of 26 for just 129 yards and an interception, while the team rushed for a poor 3.5 yards per carry against a depleted Washington defense that lost 4 starters to the NFL Draft's top 44 picks. I do expect the offensive line to improve on that opening performance and grind out yards in Tuiloma's absence. Look for a lower scoring game with Boise State doing enough to earn the road victory. This win will add to the Broncos' resume as the leading candidate for the non-AQ spot in the New Years Six bowl games (like last season).
BOISE STATE 20 BYU 16