For those of you wanting a mulligan on your preseason Big Ten pick, feel free to take one. Ohio State has become the favorite. Through four games, a team with a rookie coach and first-time starter at quarterback has picked up where Urban Meyer left off.
Remember, this was Michigan’s year. The Wolverines, now ranked 20th, had more talent and the better, more experienced coach. That may eventually still be the case, but four weeks in, the Buckeyes have answered the questions that didn’t make them favorites during the summer.
Justin Fields has accounted for 19 touchdowns in his first four games as a starter for OSU. That’s two more than Dwayne Haskins had at this point last year. Fields 13 touchdown passes put him on pace for 45 this season. Haskins had 50 in 2018. The offense for No. 5 Ohio State looks as efficient as it was under Haskins. A defense that was so questionable against outmanned Big Ten squads on the road has taken care of business.
As for coach Ryan Day’s supposed lacking experience, we have known for quite a while that Ohio State football is bigger than whoever is coaching it. Almost a month into his first full-time head-coaching gig, you have to squint from the press box to see the difference between Day and Meyer. Looks, sure. But game-day cool and competence is still the same.
Heading to Nebraska this week, there are few, if any, issues with a football factory that continues to churn out wins like they’re assembly-line Camrys.
So much for Day being the first Ohio State coach without previous head-coaching experience since 1945. Quietly, he has assembled the second-most balanced offense in the country. The Buckeyes have passed for 18 more yards than they have rushed.
Nebraska presents another odd challenge — whether Ohio State can deliver on being a prohibitive road favorite again. (The Buckeyess are 16-15 as a road favorite against the spread since Meyer took the job.)
2. The Cornhuskers angle: It had to be more than disturbing in Lincoln, Nebraska, that they struggled last week at Illinois. The second-year turnaround under Scott Frost hasn’t exactly taken off yet despite a 3-1 start. “It seems like we haven’t been at our best in tight spots or when the pressure is on,” Frost said. “That was the message all week.” Most of the hope for an upset is based on a five-point loss last year in Columbus, Ohio. Watch Nebraska slot receiver J.D. Spielman and tailback Wan’Dale Robinson try to exploit the Buckeyes. Quarterback Adrian Martinez leads the Big Ten in total offense.
3. Pac-12 conundrum: I can’t decide whether the Pac-12 is the best conference in the country or it will simply beat each other up again. No. 15 Cal (4-0) goes into Friday night as the conference’s only undefeated team. That’s the fewest among Power Five leagues. But the Pac-12 also has five ranked teams. Three others are receiving votes.
No. 21 USC travels to No. 17 Washington in the latest so-called “elimination game” for the Pac-12 in September. The Trojans have identified themselves as the Air Raiders they were supposed to be when offensive coordinator Graham Harrell took over (13 rushing yards vs Utah). Washington has to prove it has rebounded from that one-point loss
Washington State goes to No. 19 Utah with each team trying to get its head right. The domes of Cougars fans exploded when quarterback Anthony Gordon threw nine touchdown passes and their team lost to UCLA. Utah had a similar defensive breakdown at USC. The winner gets its defensive dignity back, we think.
4. Terrapins a terror at home? Maryland’s offensive numbers need some context. I’m told the blowouts of Howard and Syracuse were a little bit of Mike Locksley getting even for some personal slights against those coaches (Ron Prince and Dino Babers, respectively). The first time Maryland took its show on the road, it failed miserably last week at Temple. So with No. 12 Penn State coming to town, is this game for the label: Team Most Likely To Challenge in the Big Ten East?
Penn State is 39-2-1 against Maryland. Most of that is from the days when Penn State was an Eastern independent and Maryland was in the ACC barely paying attention to football. This is a question of which quarterbacks will show up. Both Sean Clifford and Josh Jackson got off to good starts, but Jackson was 15 of 38 against Temple. Clifford was 14 of 30 against Pitt. Tailback Anthony McFarland has to get going for Maryland. Last year he set the Terps freshmen rushing record. He didn’t surpass 100 yards until last week against Pitt.
5. Picking up the pieces: Rutgers is Michigan’s get-well game this week after that Wisconsin no-show and a big drop in the top 25 polls. That’s the problem with evaluating the Wolverines week to week. Sometimes, the Big Ten schedule is so full of holes, of course Michigan is going to win. That 10-game winning streak last season started with wins against five unranked teams. Michigan has won the last four meetings with Rutgers by a combined 167 points. Wake us for Ohio State.
6. Hello, Newman: Quick, who is the ACC leader in passing, total offense, point responsibility, passing touchdowns and passing efficiency? His name is Jamie Newman and he, like the Demon Deacons (4-0) he leads, deserves more attention. A seventh consecutive win for Wake Forest (at Boston College) would tie the school record set in 1944 and boost it back into the AP Top 25. (It is 26th entering the week, the first team out.)
7. Don’t be so Cavalier: Looks like Ian Book is going to have shoulder the burden again against No. 16 Virginia. Book threw a career-high 47 times last week against Georgia. Virginia limits opponents to 2.2 yards per rush. UVA has come up with unique ways of winning games the last two weeks coming from behind Florida State and Old Dominion. No. 10 Notre Dame proved it belongs in the College Football Playoff conversation.
8. Air Alabama: Who am I referring to …? This team is No. 2 in touchdown passes, No. 3 nationally in passing yards. OK, take off your blindfold. It’s Alabama with the best set of receivers in the country and arguably the best quarterback in the country. Does Ole Miss have a chance? It lost a defensive battle against Cal last week. Alabama may be easier to move against.
9. S-M-Woo! Boise State you expect, but the only other 4-0 Group of Five team is SMU. The last time the Mustangs (at South Florida) were 4-0 was 1984. That was three years before the death penalty. Unranked SMU is one of only five teams with four FBS wins. The other four at No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 7 Auburn. Sonny Dykes (9-8 overall at SMU) is only the Mustangs’ second coach to have a winning record at any time since that death penalty in 1987.
Former Texas quarterback Shane Buechele is another graduate transfer success story. A year ago, Buechele — mostly a backup to Sam Ehlinger — was leading the Longhorns to a win over Oklahoma State. This week, he is leading the AAC in passing yards.
10. Wildcat strike: Another reason I love Chris Klieman at No. 24 Kansas State. In order to simulate Oklahoma State’s up-tempo offense, he had two scout team offenses (22 total players) ready to go against the defense. They ran consecutive plays — eight seconds apart — against that D. Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard continues to lead the country in rushing and rushing touchdowns.
11. Efficiency, thy name is Hurts: No. 6 Oklahoma begins Big 12 play hosting Texas Tech with this nugget to consider: Jalen Hurts is the first FBS player since at least 1996 to post a passer rating of at least 245.0 three times in a season (minimum, 18 passes per game). Hurts has done it in the Sooners’ first three games. In those contests, Hurts has posted ratings of 251.25 (Houston), 253.65 (South Dakota) and 245.88 (UCLA).
12. Jerry Whirl: One (Texas A&M) can’t run. The other (Arkansas) just lost to San Jose State. The latest Aggies-Hogs meeting at AT&T Stadium has a hint of desperation to it. Injuries at running back have hit TAMU hard. You saw that last week against Auburn as the Aggies struggled to move the ball. Chad Morris in Year Two at Arkansas is feeling the pressure after the Hogs no-showed against the Spartans. “Unacceptable,” Morris said. It will get worse if Arkansas loses for an eighth consecutive time to the Aggies.
13. Quick Hits: Minnesota (3-0) opens Big Ten play at Purdue having won all of its games in the final six minutes of regulation or overtime … Is it Garrett Shrader or Tommy Stevens at quarterback for Mississippi State headed to No. 7 Auburn? Neither has shined. Here’s a better idea: Hand it to Kylin Hill about 25 times to quiet Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Bulldogs had 249 rushing yards in last year’s win over Auburn … This is the part of the schedule that gets easy for No. 1 Clemson — playing more ACC teams. North Carolina just lost at home to Appalachian State. Clemson’s closest win has been by two touchdowns. BYOD (Bring Your Own Drama) … No. 8 Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor has only 126 rushing yards in his career against this week’s opponent, Northwestern. Taylor has run for more yards than in a single game 17 times.