The first week of the college football season provided a shock factor. Last weekend exposed a few top teams and gave us a few thrills in an otherwise dull slate of games. College football Week 3 is where the rubber meets the road for many of the top programs in the nation.
Greg Ward Jr. and the Houston Cougars get things kicked off on Thursday night. From there, we’ll launch into a whirlwind weekend full of rivalry games with end-of-season implications galore.
These are the biggest stories to follow as the action plays out from Thursday to Saturday night.
1. Greg Ward Jr. makes his return on Thursday night
Thankfully Houston (No. 6) didn’t need Ward to get past Lamar last week. He was able to rest his shoulder without much fear of the Cougars dropping a game.
But make no mistake about it, Cincinnati, at home and on a short week, presents quite a test for this team. Houston will need all hands on deck to ensure it remains a playoff contender. One slip-up could doom the team’s chances.
Ward has been practicing with the Cougars this week after being given the game off.
“He was out in pads (Sunday) night and practiced,” head coach Tom Herman said on Monday during his weekly media session (via Stats LLC). “He’s still sore, but the soreness is all muscular, so we’re doing everything we can, from massages to dry needling, to make sure that the muscles that surround the shoulder are ready to go.”
He’ll be joined by running back Duke Catalon, who was also held out of last week’s game.
Cincinnati isn’t a powerhouse, but it’s no pushover, either.
The Bearcats have won both their games thus far, relying on a balanced offensive attack and stifling defense. Houston significantly ups the ante, but this game should still provide some tense moments for both teams.
2. Can Clemson find itself before it’s too late?
It’s no secret Clemson (No. 5) has been dreadful this year, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Entering the season with high expectations, Deshaun Watson appears to have wilted under the pressure (in-depth look here).
Troy put up a heck of a fight last week in Death Valley, forcing Watson into two bad interceptions. The Tigers managed to win by the narrow margin of just seven points.
That kind of apathetic approach won’t next week when Clemson hits the road to take on Georgia Tech.
That means the time to fix things is now or never. South Carolina State will be looking to finish what Troy started last weekend.
If this program has a chance at getting back into the championship game to avenge its loss to Alabama last year, it’s time for a big win at home against a team that has no business hanging around.
3. Florida State vs. Louisville is must-see TV
Those on the west coast will want to avoid sleeping in to catch every minute of this early game. Florida State (No. 2) hits the road to clash with ACC rival Louisville (No. 10).
It’s going to be fun to see which young quarterback can lead his team to victory.
Florida State’s defense is stout, but can it stop Lamar Jackson from going off? In less than six full quarters this season, the sophomore has totaled 1,015 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Louisville’s defense has been palatable this year so far, but it hasn’t faced the likes of Deondre Francois and Dalvin Cook.
Of the two programs, Florida State came into the season with higher expectations in the eyes of most experts. After surviving a scrap with Ole Miss in Week 1, it’s back to the grindstone again for this upcoming contest.
On the other hand, Louisville was highly regarded but is really playing with nothing to lose. And the Cardinals are at home.
It’s going to be a fascinating battle to watch when these two ACC powerhouses clash.
4. Can Royce Freeman carry Oregon past Nebraska?
One of the most unheralded superstars in college football, Freeman is about to get his first big test of the year.
Both Oregon (No. 22) and Nebraska enter the game without having faced much of a challenge to this point.
Oregon still presents a potent offensive attack these days, and Freeman has averaged 9.2 yards per carry through two games. He has totaled 328 yards in two games on just 36 touches, and he’s always game to bust a long one.
On the other side, Nebraska’s defense has absolutely shut down the run, barring two long ones by Austin Conway of Wyoming, a freshman receiver. Taking away the 70 yards he piled up on three attempts last week, the Cornhuskers have allowed just 92 yards on 56 carries (1.64 yards per carry).
Something’s got to give.
Nebraska is favored to win at home, but a big outing from Freeman could put Oregon over the top.
5. Ole Miss with a huge statement game against Alabama
Alabama is the top dog in college football, and for good reason. Through two games this season, the Crimson Tide haven’t really done anything to disprove that fact after winning the national championship in 2015.
Ole Miss (No. 19) enters the game already having taken one on the chin during Week 1 against Florida State. Another loss would almost certainly erase the slight hope the Rebels still have of making it into the playoff conversation.
But an upset Saturday isn’t out of the question. The fans at Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium will be in for a heck of a game.
Alabama and Ole Miss match-up against each other incredibly well. Strengths vs. strengths. Weaknesses vs. weaknesses. This will be a game.
— Clint Lamb (@ClintRLamb) September 13, 2016
The biggest key to the game is whether or not Ole Miss can move the chains and pick up first downs on a regular basis. Alabama’s defensive front seven is among the best in the nation at wreaking havoc in both the run and the passing game.
Chad Kelly had better bring his A-game to this one. He’s offered a mixed bag of tricks so far this season, Sometimes he displays atrocious decision making, while other times he shows outstanding touch and ball placement.
If Kelly struggles, it’s likely ‘Bama will roll. If he plays well and the Rebels can shut down the run, we could have an upset on our hands.
6. Who starts behind center for LSU?
Through two games it’s abundantly clear Les Miles has a quarterback problem.
After letting Brandon Harris spray stray footballs during the Wisconsin game, Miles had him on a very short leash last week. After only four passing attempts, Harris was benched. He completed just one pass, and the misfires were not even close.
Purdue transfer Danny Etling looked like he had all the answers the LSU offense was seeking when he threw a perfect pass, in stride, into the waiting arms of DeSean Smith for a 46-yard touchdown (watch here). The next two drives also resulted in touchdowns, and the rout was on.
Unfortunately, Etling didn’t complete any of the six passes he attempted in the second half. Suddenly the offense was back to square one.
Thankfully for the No. 20-ranked Tigers, running back Leonard Fournette is going to be playing Saturday when they host Mississippi State Bulldogs.
But the question remains: Who will be taking snaps behind center?
Miles is keeping his options open at this point and has yet to make a public statement about who will start. But based on how Etling played in the second quarter last week, and based on a recent tweet by Harris, we’re betting Ettling will be the man until further notice.
Regardless of who starts, LSU is going to need a strong outing at home to avoid falling to 1-2. The Bulldogs aren’t a powerhouse, but they’ll bring plenty of fight.
7. Michigan State and Notre Dame duke it out for The Megaphone
In one of the best rivalry games on display Saturday, Notre Dame (No. 18) will host Michigan State (No. 12), 50 years removed from the famed “Game of the Century” that ended in a 10-10 tie. While overtime would be a thrilling way to commemorate the 50-year anniversary game, no doubt both sides would rather win in regulation.
It’s been two seasons in between the last game contested in this famed rivalry, and both teams have a lot to play for.
The Fighting Irish lost a stunner to Texas to open the season and bounced back against Nevada. The Spartans have only played one game, and it was not their best effort. They needed to scratch and claw their way to a 28-13 win against Furman.
Michigan State is going to try and run the ball down Notre Dame’s throat all game long, with LJ Scott being the primary ball carrier. And this strategy might work. The Irish have allowed 336 yards on the ground the first two games, though they did a better job against Nevada than they did against the Longhorns.
Offensively, Notre Dame will rely on Deshone Kizer to make things happen both running and throwing the ball. He’s been a scoring machine and should have a big game at home.
8. Oklahoma with chance at early-season redemption against Ohio State
After getting stunned by Houston in Week 1, the No. 14-ranked Sooners took out their frustrations on Louisiana Monroe. But their upcoming matchup will be the pivotal moment of the season.
Ohio State (No. 3) can score points in bunches, through the air and on the ground. The Buckeyes also feature outstanding talent at all three levels of their defense. Baker Mayfield better have his head on a swivel, because Ohio State’s secondary is rock solid, and Robert Landers, Sam Hubbard and Co. will be hunting for sacks.
Oklahoma’s defense is really up for a test against J.T. Barrett and his never-ending stable of skill position guys.
The biggest advantage the Sooners have is running the ball against Ohio State’s young defensive line. If they can establish the run early, then Mayfield might be able to find some creases in coverage downfield for some quick scores.
It’s likely going to be a very tight contest early, with both teams having a lot to lose.
9. Stanford on upset alert against Pac 12 rival USC
The USC-Stanford rivalry goes all the way back to 1905, making it one of the oldest in college football. Historically, USC has a huge advantage, having a 61-31-3 record in the series.
However, Stanford won both contests last year, scoring 41 points each time while USC could muster 21 and 31, respectfully, in those games.
Given the way USC was routed by Alabama in Week 1, one might expect a similar result this weekend when Stanford (No. 8) hosts the Trojans. But this rivalry doesn’t typically produce blowouts. It’s far more likely that it will be a very close game that will be decided in the final minutes or seconds.
The rivalry itself is enough of a reason to watch this game. But the biggest perk is that Christian McCaffrey will be on display.
The Heisman hopeful is the most electric running back in the nation and is a divine treat to watch. Whether he’s running, catching or returning kicks, McCaffrey is a threat to take it to the house every single time he touches the ball.
On the other side, USC needs Max Browne to show up big. He was under constant assault against Alabama in Week 1 but bounced back a bit last week against Utah State with two touchdowns. Unfortunately he also threw an interception, and the vertical game is nearly non-existent at this point.
On paper, the Cardinal should rule. But anything goes when these two schools clash.
10. Potential late-night shootout at Berkley when Texas comes to town
Texas (No. 11) and Cal are the featured schools for ESPN’s late game, which starts at 10:30 p.m. ET. Those of us who have nothing better to do than watch football late on a Saturday could be in for quite a treat.
Both schools feature exciting offenses led by gunslingers who aren’t afraid to go deep.
Texas freshman Shane Buechele has nerves of steel, and he’s already thrown for 524 yards and six touchdowns.
Cal senior Davis Webb will produce almost all of his team’s offense. Through two games he has tallied 963 passing yards and nine touchdowns.
The Longhorns do feature quite a strong rushing attack — one that will likely punch some serious holes into Cal’s weak defensive front. Whether by air or on the ground, we could witness a stampede of offensive production from Charlie Strong’s team.
Texas should win, and perhaps it will produce a blowout. But don’t discount Webb in this one. He is a resilient quarterback who transferred from Texas Tech and knows how to engineer an aerial assault. His favorite target, receiver Chad Hansen, already has 28 receptions for 350 yards and three touchdowns. In two games.
So if you’re a fan of offensive shootouts, staying up late Saturday night will likely tickle your fancy.