Ed Orgeron
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Three games into the 2018 season, college football teams are preparing for their defining stretch of the schedule as conference play begins. While some are comfortable, others are reaching for the panic button.

Boston College and LSU are among the programs that have exceeded expectations, but Arizona, Florida State and USC are in a rough spot.

As we’ve said all along, September can’t make a season, yet it can break one. One-quarter of the way through the campaign for most schools, that’s already evident.

However, a couple of potential breakout squads deserve a closer look as league action gets underway.

Winner: LSU Tigers

To paraphrase Queen: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a hype train, no escape from reality.” An underdog in both clashes, LSU throttled Miami and put together a terrific comeback on the road to clip Auburn. For all the Tigers’ flaws on offense, they keep emerging victorious — and we ultimately care about the win column. The three-game stretch involving Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama later in the season will be LSU’s true test, but for Ed Orgeron’s team to even find itself ranked No. 6 nationally is an enormous positive.

Loser: Florida State Seminoles

Willie Taggart did not inherit a poor situation. Jimbo Fisher and his staff consistently recruited at a high level. However, it’s become readily apparent that Taggart’s system isn’t working with this personnel. The biggest problem is a shaky offensive line, which has already surrendered 27 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Throw in a paltry 22.7 third-down conversion rate, and it’s no surprise the Seminoles are 1-2. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, FSU is favored in only two remaining contests. The program’s 36-year bowl streak is in serious danger.

Winner: North Texas Mean Green

While the reigning “national champions” of UCF and Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic attract much of the non-power attention, North Texas has quietly asserted itself as a threat. Led by the country’s No. 3 passer in Mason Fine, the Mean Green have rattled off a 3-0 start and are 11th nationally with 49.3 points per game. One legendary trick play helped North Texas crush Arkansas, too. If the Mean Green can navigate the slate until mid-November — they should be favored in every tilt — there’s a real chance this is a top-20 team entering a pivotal showdown with FAU.

Loser: Arizona Wildcats

On the bright side for Arizona, it remains unbeaten in Pac-12 play. The Wildcats haven’t faced a conference opponent, but that’s beside the point. So far, not good! Arizona lost to Brigham Young, got crushed at Houston and couldn’t pull away from Southern Utah until the second half. Khalil Tate, who’s known for his explosiveness, has 41 rushing yards in those three games. He’s fought an ankle injury for two weeks, but this isn’t the Arizona offense at its peak. Since the only opponents left are conference foes, the Wildcats have no more time to waste.

Winner: Oklahoma Sooners

 

If anyone doubted whether Kyler Murray would adequately replace Baker Mayfield, that’s probably not an issue anymore. The dual-threat quarterback has guided Oklahoma to a 3-0 record, posting sensational stats along the way. Murray boasts a 67.1 completion percentage with 863 yards and eight touchdowns to one interception. Plus, he’s scampered for 169 yards and two scores. Murray — who will turn pro in baseball after 2018 — is the biggest reason the Sooners have solidified themselves as both the Big 12 favorite and a national championship contender.

Loser: USC Trojans

As expected, USC won’t be competing for the CFP this season. However, the Trojans have greater concerns than anticipated on offense, failing to average five yards per snap against both Stanford and Texas. Freshman quarterback JT Daniels had zero touchdowns compared to three picks in those losses. Head coach Clay Helton must be feeling his proverbial seat warming, though it’s not quite hot. That could change if USC drops two or more games before October ends. The Trojans can still win the stumbling Pac-12 South, but only if the offense has a rapid turnaround.

Winner: Boston College Eagles

The college football world knew about running back AJ Dillon, but Boston College has a passing attack. For real! Through three victories, Anthony Brown has completed 68.8 percent of his attempts for 626 yards and nine touchdowns with zero interceptions. In the process, he’s helped the Eagles enter the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2008. They’ll head into Week 4’s clash with Purdue ranked No. 23. Although BC has a dicey three-week stretch against Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson later this season, Eagles fans must be enjoying this terrific September.

Loser: Purdue Boilermakers

So far, no program has a greater “what if” sequence of results than Purdue. During the season opener, a penalty immediately after a third-down stop prevented the Boilermakers from having a last-minute chance to overcome a 31-27 deficit against Northwestern. In Week 2, they lost to Eastern Michigan on a field goal as time expired. The same thing happened the following Saturday against Missouri. Three losses, eight total points. What a brutal way to start 2018. As a result, Purdue needs a minor miracle to achieve bowl eligibility this year.

Winner: Stanford Cardinal

 

Though the Heisman campaign for Bryce Love isn’t looking great, Stanford is 3-0. That’s what matters. After opening the season with a victory over San Diego State — which upset Arizona State in Week 3 — the Cardinal toppled USC and dispatched UC Davis. Sure, it hasn’t always been pretty, but Stanford kept its margin for error intact entering the most important part of its schedule. With road trips to Oregon, Notre Dame and Washington over the next seven weeks, the Cardinal needed a perfect record at this point. Now, it’s time to back it up.

Loser: Arkansas Razorbacks

Head coach Chad Morris accepted a challenging job, but this is a nightmare September. Following a beatdown of Eastern Illinois, Arkansas collapsed on the road against Colorado State. The Razorbacks squandered an 18-point lead in the second half and eventually lost 34-27. In Week 3, they hardly put up a fight opposite North Texas. Six turnovers doomed Arkansas during the blowout loss. The next three weeks include Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama, and the Hogs have showed zero signs of an upset being realistic. Look out 1-5, here they come.

Winner: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Joe Moorhead has brought a high-powered scoring attack to Starkville. In three games, the Bulldogs have totaled 618, 538 and 607 yards of offense. They’ve averaged no worse than 8.15 yards per snap — a simply remarkable fact. Though the competition hasn’t been outstanding, one sign of a great roster is obliterating inferior teams. Well, 21 touchdowns scored compared to two allowed is complete domination. Mississippi State will be tested during SEC play, especially in October against Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M. But the Moorhead era is off to a dynamic start.

Loser: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Scott Frost should make Nebraska a national contender once again. That’s definitely not happening immediately. Unfriendly weather cancelled the Week 1 affair with Akron before the Cornhuskers fell at home to Colorado 33-28 in heart-breaking fashion. They gave up a touchdown in the final 75 seconds of the game. Next time out, Nebraska didn’t have a scholarship quarterback healthy and lost to Troy. That dropped the Huskers to 0-2 with trips to Michigan and Wisconsin looming within the next three weeks. This will be a rough year for Nebraska.

Winner: Syracuse Orange

Dino Babers has positioned the Orange to truly compete in the ACC’s Atlantic Division this year. To begin the season, Syracuse knocked off Western Michigan on the road, smashed Wagner and dominated Florida State. Given the likely victory over UConn in Week 4, Babers’ club should be undefeated when it travels to Clemson. You know, the team Syracuse upset in 2017. Even if the Orange fall short against the ACC power, they’re headed toward the program’s first bowl appearance in five seasons. That’s no small accomplishment for ‘Cuse.

Loser: UCLA Bruins

Dorian Thompson-Robinson looks like a future star. Unfortunately for UCLA, the future is not right now. Bruins fans must show patience as Chip Kelly overhauls the offense — and roster, for that matter. Avert your eyes in 2018, though. UCLA fell to Cincinnati in the opener before an understandable loss at Oklahoma. Fresno State deserved to be favored over the Bruins in Week 3, but a 24-point beatdown wasn’t encouraging. There’s a legitimate chance UCLA hits double-digit losses for the first time in program history. The future is bright; 2018, however, is not.

David Kenyon
Writer for Sportsnaut and Bleacher Report, mostly covering college football as well as the NFL, NBA and college basketball.