Heading into the final two September weekends, college football is reaching a separation point. Early season trends can either be entirely forgotten or become the prevailing narrative for an individual or a team.
Right before that happens, however, we’re taking a look at the most important stories — the winners and losers — from the opening weeks of 2017. Sample size can shift the perception, but immediate returns on the players/teams included are overwhelmingly positive or negative.
Winner: Alabama being Alabama
Borrrr-ing! We’re three games closer to the inevitable. Alabama’s defense dominated the showdown against a then-healthy Florida State team, winning 24-7 before dispatching a pair of nonconference opponents. The program’s recent and sustained excellence has become more of an annoyance than an accomplishment for many fans. But the Crimson Tide deserve credit for their 3-0 start, especially given that 20 of the 40 points allowed so far happened in the fourth quarter of decided games. Scoring on Alabama is as difficult as ever.
Loser: Florida State’s title hopes
Due to Hurricane Irma-caused cancellations, we haven’t seen Florida State’s offense since Deondre Francois’ season-ending injury. However, no reasonable person will argue the Seminoles’ pursuit of a ACC and national championships took a significant hit when Francois went down. Yes, the defense is and always was the strength of the 2017 team. The scoring attack doesn’t have a good fall-back option, though. The offensive line is already shaky, so being able to consistently run the ball is doubtful. FSU is still in the discussion until it loses again, but that leaves Francois’ replacement, freshman James Blackman, with no room for error.
Winner: Clemson’s championship defense
Does that mean defending a title? Or a championship-caliber defense? The answer is yes. Clemson’s point-stopping unit has been as powerful as advertised, carrying a team rebuilding on the other side of the ball. The Tigers limited Kent State to 120 yards and three points, then held Auburn to 117 yards and six points while posting 14 tackles for loss with 11 sacks. And during the marquee road trip to Louisville, the defense helped Clemson build a 33-7 lead en route to a 47-21 victory. Additionally, quarterback Kelly Bryant has impressed through three weeks. Given the combination of a win over Louisville and Francois’ injury, Clemson is now the undisputed favorite in the ACC.
The Matt Rhule era isn’t off to a great start. Baylor lost to Liberty 48-45 in the opener. UTSA traveled to Waco and left celebrating a 17-10 victory. Rhule changed quarterbacks, going from Arizona transfer Anu Solomon to Zach Smith, but the switch made little difference in a 34-20 loss at Duke. The offense — recently known for explosiveness and tons of points — is averaging just 375.3 yards and 25.0 points, converting a meager 20 percent of the 35 third-down conversions it has faced. Since the next five games are Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas, Baylor might not get in the win column until November.
Winner: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Dating back to 2016, Oklahoma has rattled off 13 straight wins. No victory was more important than the Week 2 triumph at Ohio State, however. The Sooners controlled the showdown beyond what the 31-16 score suggested thanks to Baker Mayfield. In three games, the star senior has posted a 76.8 completion percentage with 1,046 yards, 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions. he has thrown for at least 329 yards and three scores in each game. Mayfield seems destined for a third straight year as a top-five Heisman Trophy vote-getter, though he’s on track to hoist the trophy in 2017.
Loser: Mike Riley, Nebraska
We knew 2017 was a rebuilding year for Nebraska, but that shouldn’t mean edging Arkansas State or losing at home to Northern Illinois during the third year of the Mike Riley era. Losing on the road at Oregon wasn’t a major problem, though a 28-point halftime deficit certainly wasn’t an encouraging sign. For whatever reason, a Tanner Lee hype train picked up steam only to inevitably crash. In the last two games, the Tulane transfer has tossed seven interceptions and completed just 50 percent of his passes. It’s not like Lee is the only problem, since the defense ranks 90th in the country with 5.80 yards per play allowed. Riley’s hot seat is warming quickly.
Winner: Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
Can anyone stop Oklahoma State? Right now, the answer is a confident no. Mason Rudolph, despite not attempting a pass in the fourth quarter through three games, has passed for 1,135 yards and 11 touchdowns to just one interception — which happened with a 35-point lead, so in other words, whatever. He’s added a pair of rushing scores for a 3-0 team averaging 54 points. Yeah, that’ll work. The next six contests will shape whether Rudolph remains in the Heisman discussion and if Oklahoma State can be a factor in the College Football Playoff chase.
Loser: Kevin Sumlin’s job security
On the bright side, Texas A&M is 2-1. The problem for Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies is how they’ve reached that record. In the season opener, they coughed up a 34-point lead to UCLA over the final 20 minutes of the game. They needed a 10-point fourth quarter to break a tie with Nicholls and win 24-14. They trailed Louisiana 21-14 at the break before pulling away in the second half. As long as Texas A&M keeps winning, Sumlin will probably keep his job even though the aesthetics aren’t great. But with a rocky six-game stretch upcoming, a couple of ugly losses might mean Sumlin gets fired before the season ends.
Winner: Saquon Barkley’s award hopes
Although Penn State hasn’t garnered much attention yet, that’s not a surprise because of the schedule. The Nittany Lions shut out Akron, controlled Pitt and blanked Georgia State. A good team did what it was supposed to do without any trouble. While the start has been quiet, the same cannot be said of Saquon Barkley. The versatile running back totaled 246 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in Week 1, 183 total yards and two scores in Week 2 and 226 yards with one trip to the end zone in Week 3. Barkley took full advantage of the stat-padding opportunities before Big Ten action.
Loser: Auburn’s hype train
After an offseason loaded with praise, the early returns on Auburn aren’t entirely convincing. That’s not directed at the defense, which has surrendered just 3.2 yards per play — the best mark in the nation. Defense wins championships, sure, but the offense must at least be threatening. Kamryn Pettway rumbled to 5.9 yards per carry last season but has collected 3.6 so far. The drop in efficiency is concerning for the Tigers, considering the line’s inability to protect Jarrett Stidham at Clemson and overall struggles in a frustrating win over Mercer. Auburn is still OK, but four ranked teams are left on the schedule. Being decent isn’t going to win any championships.
Winner: Dante Pettis, Washington
Here’s some free advice for Washington’s future opponents: Stop kicking to Dante Pettis. The standout returner entered the campaign with five career touchdowns on punts, so it’s not like he’s exploded out of nowhere. Nevertheless, each of Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State kicked at Pettis, and he sliced through the coverage team each time. The senior is now tied for the NCAA career record of eight punt-return scores. Throw in his three-touchdown performance as a receiver against Fresno State, and Pettis is standing out as a premier playmaker in 2017.
Loser: Josh Allen, Wyoming
Wyoming lost a majority of its skill-position weapons from the 2016 team. That is not helping Josh Allen, absolutely. But the touted quarterback has been terrible in two games against power-conference competition. He finished 23-of-40 with 174 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions during a 24-3 loss at Iowa. And when Oregon came to town, Allen mustered a 9-of-24 clip for 64 yards, tossing one interception and running for one score in a 49-13 beatdown. Draft stock can be a fickle concept, but Allen’s prospects must be plummeting.
Winner: Oregon’s revamped offense
Well, hello, Willie Taggart. Under the first-year coach, the program has regained its high-efficiency, high-scoring fun on offense. Justin Herbert has completed 72.3 percent of his passes for 897 yards and five toutchdown. Those are great numbers, especially since Oregon isn’t relying on the quarterback. Royce Freeman has reached 150 yards in all three games, scoring nine touchdowns. The defense is still a question, but the Ducks boast the country’s No. 2 offense and third-most points per game. Taggart has immediately restored optimism for Oregon.
Loser: Michigan’s rebuilt offense
Among nationally relevant teams, Michigan’s outlook is essentially the exact opposite of Oregon. While the Wolverines are 3-0, they’ve reached the mark rather unconvincingly. Wilton Speight threw two pick-sixes against Florida. The offense, which has lost five turnovers, has scored one touchdown in 10 red-zone chances. An elite defense is saving Jim Harbaugh’s team right now — and, yes, that unit has been sensational. But if Michigan is going to compete for a Big Ten championship, Speight and Co. better start protecting the ball and finishing drives. Otherwise, the stingy defensive efforts will be wasted.
Winner: Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
Donnel Pumphrey finished each of 2014, 2015 and 2016 as a top-15 runner in the nation. Rashaad Penny is picking up where the program legend left off. Penny, who registered 1,018 yards as a reserve last year, currently leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 588 yards. His “worst” performance to this point is scampering for 175 yards in San Diego State’s 20-17 upset of Stanford. But yeah, that’s pretty good too. The versatile running back has reeled in nine receptions for 69 yards and a score, adding one touchdown as a kick returner to help the Aztecs defeat two Pac-12 teams and reach 3-0.
Loser: BYU in big games
BYU failed to upend a ranked opponent in three opportunities. After an unimpressive victory against Portland State to begin the year, the Cougars failed to reach 100 total yards in a shutout loss to LSU. Then, the offense mustered 3.7 yards per snap during a 19-13 defeat against Utah in the Holy War. To round out the deflating stretch, Wisconsin held BYU below 200 total yards and won 40-6. BYU may still reach a bowl game, but a road trip to Mississippi State is the final chance to make a statement.
Winner: Anthony Winbush, Ball State
The nation’s leader in sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles hails from an unexpected place. Anthony Winbush has been an important player for Ball State since 2015, but his game has reached a new level this season. The senior defensive end logged seven tackles with four stops for loss and three sacks against Illinois. Opposite UAB, he posted six tackles, three TFL, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Winbush frustrated Tennessee Tech with seven tackles, 2.5 TFL and two sacks, also knocking the ball loose once. Not a bad start for Winbush.
Loser: Max Browne, Pitt
We’ve seen this movie before. It’s an unfortunate reality for Max Browne, who transferred from USC after losing his job to Sam Darnold. Pitt needed to replace Nathan Peterman, so the ACC program was a logical destination for Browne. But three games into the campaign, 2017 is playing out dangerously similar to 2016. He’s mustered just 338 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. And now, the depth chart features an “OR” between Browne and Ben DiNucci, per Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Browne may be nearing the end of his starting days.
Quick, let’s talk about Vanderbilt before Alabama shows up! It’s been a wonderful year for the Commodores so far. In the opener, they limited a powerful Middle Tennessee offense to just 215 yards and six points. Alabama A&M could only manage 103 total yards in the 42-0 Vandy win. And most recently, Derek Mason’s team pulled off a terrific upset of Kansas State, surrendering just seven points to the 18th-ranked visitors. A three-week stretch that includes Alabama, Florida and Georgia won’t be friendly, but Vanderbilt has clearly improved.
Loser: Gary Andersen, Oregon State
Oregon State is going nowhere fast. One of the “lucky” teams to have played four games, the Beavers have been embarrassed every week. Colorado State, Minnesota and Washington State each smashed Gary Andersen’s team by 29-plus points, and Oregon State needed a touchdown drive in the closing minutes to stave off an upset from Portland State. Through 28 games with the program, Andersen is 7-21 — and 10 of those losses have been by at least 24 points. His future with the Beavers is full of uncertainty.