In assessing what actually matters in college football today (i.e, the College Football Playoff) and the relative irrelevance of the AP poll, we have decided to shift our focus in the early part of the season to breaking down the most important results of the week and the effects they will or could have on the Playoff down the road. Don’t fret, Poll Problems will return ... but it will do so only when the poll that actually means something makes it debut later this season. Let’s give this a go.
The SEC West - Things really couldn’t have gone any better for the conference’s superior half - with Alabama throttling Louisville, Auburn edging Washington in a top-10 showdown, and LSU putting the clamps on Miami in widely viewed inter-conference matchups. Even Ole Miss picked up a decent road win at Texas Tech, while Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Arkansas bludgeoned FCS teams in their openers. Auburn’s win stands as perhaps the season’s best at this early stage and should be a nice bullet point on the resume, and we already know the Crimson Tide will be firmly entrenched in the Playoff conversation. And while we aren’t going to tout LSU as a contender after one win, they get a shot at Auburn in two weeks and can state their case.
Notre Dame - I’m far from sold on the Irish, but a high-profile rivalry win is never a bad way to open the season. They’ll have a couple more chances for quality wins down the road, and we’ll see how relevant they can remain to the conversation.
High-flying Big XII offenses - Oklahoma piled up 650 total yards on Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic team, while Will Grier threw for more than 400 yards in a West Virginia rout of Tennessee. The competition will obviously pick up for both teams, but it was a good start for what may be the conference’s top two Playoff threats, both of whom rely heavily on offensive production.
Washington - Credit the Huskies for scheduling a de facto road game against a top-10 team, as a lack of anything resembling this type of challenge has been a knock on them in recent years when it comes to resume-building. But badly squandering two chances at the goal line in a game they lost by five points is going to sting long past Labor Day for a team (and, quite frankly, a conference) desperate to prove it belongs in the Playoff conversation. Washington can still recover, but its margin for error for Playoff inclusion may be all but gone.
The ACC - It’s not that anybody thought Clemson wasn’t the conference’s best team by a wide margin (and presumably the only threat to qualify for the Playoff), but seeing just how large that divide might be was staggering. Miami looked like the same soft team it was made out to be at the end of the 2017 season in an embarrassing loss to LSU, while Florida State couldn’t even muster a touchdown in a home-field beatdown at the hands of Virginia Tech. And you’ll forgive me if I’m not buying the Hokies as anything more than average. Throw in Louisville’s predictable 37-point loss to Alabama, and it was just not a good weekend for the non-Clemson portion of the ACC.
Big Ten teams avoid disaster - Penn State and Michigan State both entered the season with hopes of competing for a Playoff berth, but both came dangerously close to suffering damaging non-conference losses in the season’s opening week — to Appalachian State and Utah State, respectively. Each needed a late touchdown to erase a deficit in the final minutes to escape, with Penn State having to do so in overtime. Fortunately for both teams, the games go in the “W” column and will all but be forgotten, but the Spartans and Nittany Lions came frightening close to ending their seasons before they started.
Quarterback controversies at the top - Alabama seems to have its situation relatively settled (Don’t ask Nick Saban about it, though), although it never seemed to be a difficult choice to begin with. Tua Tagovailoa started against Louisville and was excellent from the outset, providing clear, tangible separation between himself and Jalen Hurts, if there wasn’t plenty already from last January.
At Clemson, Kelly Bryant remains the starter heading into Saturday’s trip to Texas A&M after shaking off a rough start to post a quality performance against Furman. Trevor Lawrence came in and showed his promise after a couple missed throws early, slinging three short touchdown passes to three different receivers and hitting some crisp passes in between. It’s no surprise to see the staff stick with Bryant heading into a tough road environment, considering the returning starter led the Tigers to four road wins over ranked teams a season ago. The first couple offensive drives for the Tigers should dictate much of what you will see behind center against the Aggies. Lawrence will most assuredly get his share of playing time, but if the offense comes out hot with Bryant at the helm, it may be that we see Bryant for longer and more frequently. If the offense struggles through the first two or three drives, it seems likely the staff would move to Lawrence and see how things go. Keep in mind that Clemson elected to keep the quarterback run element to a minimum against Furman, with Bryant breaking free for a 35-yard touchdown scamper on one of his few carries. One would think they lean on that (and the running game in general) a bit more against A&M and give Bryant the chance to attack with his arm and legs. Conventional wisdom seems to be that Lawrence’s ascension is more of a “when” than an “if” thing, but assuming the “when” will be in front of 100,000-plus people in his first road game may be getting ahead of things. We’ll see how it plays out.