We’re roughly a quarter of the way into the 2018 season, and so far, there are things we can say we know.
- Alabama is pretty good
- Rutgers is pretty bad
Beyond those extremes, though, there’s a range of things we don’t really know. For instance: Nebraska is 0-2, but they’ve lost two close games to teams that were decent last year, in the first year under a new head coach who won a national* title** last year. Maybe they’ll be better than their record indicates.
Then, on the other side of the coin, there’s the questionable positives.
That is, who’s built a resume that, at first blush, looks good so far - and stands to look even better over the coming weeks - but might mean nothing?
My favorite example in recent memory of this is the 2013 Northwestern team that started the season ranked, went 4-0 (with wins over 1-11 Cal, 7-6 Syracuse, 1-11 Western Michigan, and FCS Maine), landed College GameDay for their homecoming game...
... and then promptly lost seven straight, salvaging only their rivalry game against Illinois to go 5-7.
A bunch of smart private school kids built a promising front based on almost no substance and then collapsed magnificently? 2013 Northwestern was basically Theranos.
So, who might that be this year? Let’s review some options, conference-by-conference.
ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE
SUSPECT: SYRACUSE (3-0)
RESUME SO FAR: Wins over Western Michigan (1-2, 88th S&P), FCS Wagner, and Florida State (1-2, 77th S&P).
LOOKING AHEAD: Games against Connecticut (1-2, 129th S&P), Clemson (3-0, 4th), Pittsburgh (2-1, 62nd).
PROGNOSIS: They’re going to hit 4-0 and be firmly in the “receiving votes” category.
In each of Dino Babers’ first two seasons at the helm, the Orange went 4-8 (I’ll have to check the records, they’re probably the only team in the country that did that both years). This year, they’re almost certain to match that win total in their first four games. This sets up for a battle of undefeateds when they face Clemson on the road. Clemson’s always good for a stumble against a lesser team, but Syracuse filled that role for them last year, and the Tigers won’t forget.
PREDICTION: Clemson waxes Syracuse handily, but the Orange hold on for 7-8 wins and a nice bowl berth. Clemson loses to Wake Forest for no reason, but makes the playoff.
SUSPECT: MINNESOTA (3-0)
RESUME SO FAR: Wins over New Mexico State (0-4, 123rd S&P), Fresno State (2-1, 36th), and Miami-Ohio (0-3, 92nd)
LOOKING AHEAD: Games against Maryland (2-1, 81st S&P), Iowa (3-0, 34th S&P), and Ohio State (3-0, 2nd)
PROGNOSIS: They’re probably going 4-0 and could hit 5-0.
Some of us (read: me) were bullish on the hire of College Football Chris Traeger P.J. Fleck, but the results weren’t there on the field last year, as the Gophers dropped from 9-4 in Tracy Claeys’ lone season to 5-7 in Fleck’s first. Is Fleck starting to show some of the magic he mustered in Kalamazoo, or is this fool’s gold?
PREDICTION: Minnesota beats Maryland to go 4-0, then loses three straight to Iowa, Ohio State and a warming-up-by-then Nebraska. They go 7-5 and we call it progress. Some whispers start about PJ Fleck taking over at Michigan when Jim Harbaugh leaves for the Browns.
Those whispers are from me, but still.
SUSPECT: COLORADO (3-0)
RESUME SO FAR: Wins over Colorado State (1-3, 113th S&P), Nebraska (0-2, 46th), and FCS New Hampshire (0-3).
LOOKING AHEAD: Games against UCLA (0-3, 85th), Arizona State (2-1, 55th), and USC (1-2, 39th).
PROGNOSIS: I’m putting it out there: they hit 6-0 and start getting discussed as an outsider playoff contender.
The Buffaloes went 5-7 last year, following up a 2016 campaign in which they went a surprising 10-4 and won the Pac-12 South. So, which are they? They haven’t told us much, and the next three games may not be instructive either. UCLA has been extremely flat to start Chip Kelly’s tenure, while Arizona State’s Herm Edwards experiment is going to be a riddle all season long. USC means nothing. USC is a nihilistic prank at this point.
PREDICTION: No one from the Pac-12 makes the playoff this year.
HEY, LET’S TALK ABOUT A GROUP OF FIVE TEAM
Oh, really? I suppose we can. Are there any Group of Five teams who a) have a deceptively good record so far b) might not have been good last year and c) stand to improve on that record while still telling us nothing?
SUSPECT: CINCINNATI (3-0)
RESUME SO FAR: Wins over UCLA (0-3, 85th S&P), Miami-Ohio (0-3, 92nd) and FCS Alabama A&M (4-7 in FCS last year).
LOOKING AHEAD: Games against Ohio (1-1, 120th S&P), Connecticut (1-2, 129th), Tulane (1-2, 79th), Temple (1-2, 72nd), SMU (0-3, 117th).
WHAT WAS THEIR RECORD IN 2016 AND 2017: 4-8, both years.
PROGNOSIS: They could hit bowl eligibility before Halloween.
The Cincinnati Bearcats were, simply put, not a good football team in Luke Fickell’s first year as head coach. That’s not on Fickell - he was left with a massive rebuilding job after Tommy Tuberville decided to test the theory “what if you ran a program as disinterestedly as late-stage Mack Brown, but without the resources of Texas?” before being ushered out of town. This Bearcats team is young and untested. Fickell’s burnt up the recruiting trail. They genuinely look to be on an upswing. And that schedule? Oh, that schedule. We could legitimately be looking at a team somewhere between 6-2 and 8-0 before they hit a much tougher run of Navy, South Florida and Central Florida in November.
PREDICTION: I am going to be so damned obnoxious to you people when this team wins #5, and it doesn’t matter if that’s in Week 5 or Week 12.
BACK TO THE MAJOR CONFERENCES
OR AT LEAST THE BIG 12
SUSPECT: WEST VIRGINIA (2-0)
RESUME SO FAR: Wins over Tennessee (2-1, 40th S&P) and FCS Youngstown State (1-2)
LOOKING AHEAD: Games against Kansas State (2-1, 75th), Texas Tech (2-1, 51st), Kansas (2-1, 82nd), Iowa State (0-2, 59th), Baylor (2-1, 68th), Texas (2-1, 43rd).
SIMPLY PUT: Going solely by the S&P ratings, West Virginia has already played the best team they will play before mid-November, and that team is Tennessee.
PROGNOSIS: Behind Will Grier’s Heisman campaign, the Mountaineers could very well be showing up with an 8-0 record and top-10 ranking before they face TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma to finish a very back-loaded regular season. And I think they will do that, because Will Grier ending up a Heisman finalist in Morgantown is the funniest thing that could happen to Florida fans this year.
PREDICTION: West Virginia reaches 10-0 before facing fellow undefeated Oklahoma in the last game of the regular season. Oklahoma wins handily, knocking WVU out of playoff contention. They meet again the following week in the Big 12 title game, which West Virginia wins, eliminating Oklahoma. The Big 12 considers that maybe they should stop purchasing from the ACME Corporation.
AND THE SCHOOL THAT INSPIRED THIS WHOLE THING
RESUME SO FAR: Wins over Miami-FL (2-1, 24th S&P), Southeastern Louisiana (0-3 FCS), and Auburn (2-1, 14th S&P)
LOOKING AHEAD: Games against Louisiana Tech (2-0, 71st), Ole Miss (2-1, 50th), and Florida (2-1, 31st)
BUT WAIT, ISN’T THEIR RESUME PRETTY GOOD SO FAR: Yes! Yes it is. Also, nothing is less predictive in college football than results against Auburn. Auburn is a whimsical chaos demon; it is their role and we appreciate them for it, if not support them. We’re judging on a sliding scale here.
PROGNOSIS: LSU is going to be 6-0 and no lower than 6th in the polls when they face Georgia on October 13th. In fact, I’m going to predict they’ll be #4 by then, jumping ahead of Oklahoma on schedule-strength arguments and Ohio State (who will have chosen Indiana as their annual inexcusable and inexplicable loss). We will be printing columns about how Ed Orgeron could lead the Tigers to the Playoff.
PREDICTION: After getting us all good and riled up for a non-Tide SEC West contender, LSU loses consecutive games to Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama, and just for laughs, a very bad Arkansas team.
They will recover to 8-4 and face Cincinnati in the Birmingham Bowl.