by Ian Boyd
Week 1 in college football didn't hold anything particularly surprising, especially given how sloppy and uncertain things can be the first week for most college teams. Jalen Hurts' inauguration in Oklahoma went off without a hitch as the Alabama transfer quarterback put up over 500 yards of offense and six touchdowns and the Sooners overpowered Houston 49-31. Wisconsin also showed out really well with a 49-0 romp over South Florida in which star running back Jonathan Taylor had 135 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries.
The biggest story was Auburn's dramatic 27-21 victory over Oregon, engineered by a big second half from freshman quarterback Bo Nix. The question for that game was whether Oregon's veteran offensive line was going to allow them to finally control a contest against an SEC squad with NFL talent on the defensive line. The Ducks held up fairly well in that matchup, but the bigger story was the emergence of Nix as a gamer quarterback who may be able to get Gus Malzahn's Auburn offense rolling in a crucial season for the head coach.
Week 2 will have some more big games that will have ramifications for the entire season. Most programs prefer to play their marquee out-of-conference games in Week 2 so that they have Week 1 to work out the kinks, then Week 3 to ease things up before the conference schedule begins. Consequently we have a pair of big-time matchups in LSU at Texas and Texas A&M at Clemson, as well as some early Pac-12 battles like Stanford at USC.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Cincinnati at Ohio State (-16) -- 12 p.m. (ABC)
|When Cincinnati has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||60||76|
|2018 Passing SP+||92||62|
|When Ohio State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||6||54|
|2018 Passing SP+||27||5|
The opening week for Ohio State football was pretty fun and promising as Georgia transfer quarterback Justin Fields scored five touchdowns and the Buckeyes took out Lane Kiffin's Florida Atlantic Owls 45-21. The play of the Ohio State defense was also encouraging for Buckeyes fans. They sacked Owls quarterbacks four times, held their two main running backs to 47 total yards on 21 carries, and yielded the 21 points mostly late in the game when it was pretty safely out of reach.
Week 2 will give them another Group of Five challenge, and a much more local one with Cincinnati. Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell took the Cincinnati job after playing at Ohio State, then serving there as an assistant for 14 years. In Year 2 with the Bearcats he led them to an 11-2 season with a spread-option rushing attack and excellent defense. For years the Buckeyes have been the only major football program within the state of Ohio, so Cincinnati's rise and appearance in this game is interesting in terms of the state power dynamics. How close can the Bearcats get to touching Buckeyes dominance?
Over the last few years, Urban Meyer began to recruit his Ohio State teams from an increasingly national pool, which opened the door for Cincinnati to try and collect a bigger share of in-state talent. Fickell's team coming to Columbus for this contest will have eight Ohioan starters, mostly on defense, where their breakthrough success was generated. The 2019 team is rebuilding somewhat on defense, particularly up front, but the offense returns star running back Michael Warren and quarterback Desmond Ridder to power their shotgun-read rushing attack. The left side of the offensive line is rebuilt, but from center to right they have returning starters, with lots of size at right guard and tackle with a pair of 6-foot-5, 320-pound redshirt seniors.
The Bearcats may be able to make some headway on the Ohio State defense; the challenge will be in limiting the ultra-athletic Fields and the Buckeyes offense. Cincinnati can't keep up in a shootout and will need their defense to show up in a major way. The shotgun-read rushing attack from Ohio State is potent in its own right thanks to Fields' explosive running, but the Buckeyes can also use the sophomore's arm to push the ball outside and pick on the Bearcats secondary if they can't hold up in coverage. The best-case scenario for Cincinnati will be to hold up in the red zone and perhaps generate some turnovers; preventing the Buckeyes from piling up yardage between the 20s is too tall a task for their rebuilding defensive front.
- Can Cincinnati's defense slow down Justin Fields and the Buckeyes option run game?
- How will Ohio State's rebuilt defense handle the veteran Bearcats option rushing attack?
- State pride -- Cincinnati is fighting to make a place for themselves in a normally Buckeyes-centric state.
FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 17.4.
Texas A&M at Clemson (-17.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|When Texas A&M has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||16||2|
|2018 Passing SP+||29||4|
|When Clemson has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||19||8|
|2018 Passing SP+||68||13|
This was an exciting game in 2018 when Clemson visited College Station to take on Jimbo Fisher's first-year Aggies. Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond threw for 430 yards and led a furious comeback against the Tigers, who were trying to hang on and run clock with Kelly Bryant executing a quarterback run game. Shortly after that game, the Tigers would establish Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and groomed him throughout the regular season for their playoff run. Once Clemson was in the playoffs, they unleashed a fully prepared Lawrence and freshman wide receiver Justyn Ross and obliterated both Notre Dame and Alabama en route to a National Championship.
Fisher's Year 1 Aggies leaned heavily on Mond the first time these two teams faced, but otherwise they were more about a potent rushing attack featuring second-round NFL draft pick and star center Erik McCoy and 1,600-yard running back Trayveon Williams. Then they'd burn teams with play-action to dual-threat tight end Jace Sternberger in the middle of the field. Those three pieces are gone now, and the strength of the team is now more in the arm of Mond and a big, talented wide receiver corps.
The Tigers may be less susceptible to the A&M passing attack this year with a more veteran group of safeties and less to worry about from the Aggies rushing attack, but with Mond's offseason improvements under Fisher's tutelage, this is a key area to watch. A&M will also have a little less to fear from Clemson's pass rush; the Tigers defensive line sent all four 2018 starters to the NFL.
On the flip side, how A&M will fare against a now well-established Lawrence is perhaps the biggest new dynamic to the rematch. Lawrence played a few series in 2018, scoring a touchdown early before leading some stalled-out drives and giving way to Bryant. The Clemson offense with Lawrence and Ross clicking is a fearsome sight; in Week 1 Georgia Tech aimed to play everyone back on the receiving threats, only to see a Tigers offensive line with four returning starters pave a way for running back Travis Etienne to turn 12 carries into 205 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
The Aggies have some big athletes at safety and across their defense, and defensive coordinator Mike Elko will likely look to leverage that by attacking Clemson with five-man blitzes in hopes of keeping them on their heels. That means the game probably comes down to whether Lawrence can identify blitzes, then whether the A&M secondary can hold up in one-on-one matchups with receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross.
- How will Texas A&M handle Trevor Lawrence and the explosive balance of Clemson's offense?
- Can the rebuilt Clemson defensive line corral emerging star Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond?
- The Texas A&M secondary and how well they disguise their coverages and hold up down the field against the big Clemson wide receivers.
FEI Outright Pick: Clemson by 24.1
Nebraska (-3.5) at Colorado -- 3:30 p.m. (FOX)
|When Nebraska has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||7||31|
|2018 Passing SP+||63||77|
|When Colorado has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||112||109|
|2018 Passing SP+||56||82|
The stats don't love Nebraska as the potential top-25 darling they are for much of college football's media. The media remembers well the leap that Central Florida made under Scott Frost from finishing 6-6 in his first year there in 2016 to going 13-0 and declaring themselves "National Champions" after beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl in 2017. Frost's Year 1 Cornhuskers flashed promise here and there despite a 4-8 finish, including notably against Colorado. In that throwback game between these two old Big 8 conference rivals, the Huskers ran for 329 yards but fumbled three times and lost to the Buffaloes 33-28.
In Week 1 the Huskers struggled to run the ball against South Alabama but won due to a pair of defensive scores, which was encouraging given the struggles on defense in 2018. Overall the Cornhuskers forced five turnovers and shut down South Alabama's run game in an auspicious start to their season. They'll face a tough challenge against Colorado, whose new head coach Mel Tucker (formerly the Georgia defensive coordinator) inherited a lot of offensive talent from his predecessor Mike MacIntyre.
The Buffaloes have fourth-year starting quarterback Steven Montez, a big dual-threat signal-caller. at the helm. They also have explosive running back Alex Fontenot and wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., a 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior who had 1,011 receiving yards last year and 11 total touchdowns. The design of the Colorado offense is now more "pro-spread" and designed to generate matchups for Shenault off the threat of the option run game. It'll be a lot for Nebraska to try and cover up on defense.
On the flip side, Colorado has a fairly talented defensive roster as well. Their task will be to play sound defense against a Nebraska offense by Frost that includes motions, sweeps, and multiple options for the quarterback on every play. The Huskers will run the ball with multiple styles of runner, give quarterback Adrian Martinez keep and pass options on running plays, and spread the ball around to their tight end and receivers on a variety of schemes. The Buffaloes may look to try and match up in man coverage and trust star linebacker Nate Landman to diagnose it all and rack up tackles in the box.
- Can Colorado execute their new defense without assignment busts against Nebraska's spread-option offense?
- How improved is the Year 2 Nebraska defense? Improved enough to handle Colorado's balanced attack?
- Colorado receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. is one of the more unique playmakers in the nation.
- Scott Frost's offensive wizardry with all the run/pass options he gives his quarterback, Adrian Martinez.
FEI Outright Pick: Colorado by 2.2
LSU (-6) at Texas -- 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|When LSU has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||81||38|
|2018 Passing SP+||46||45|
|When Texas has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||64||98|
|2018 Passing SP+||74||43|
This is definitely a big-time contest for both of these teams, a major heavyweight battle between a pair of schools that regularly recruit against each other for players in Dallas-Ft. Worth, in Louisiana, and particularly in Houston. The "narrative victories" at stake for both teams in terms of recruiting and selling a resume and story to the playoff rankings are about as high as it gets for a non-conference game.
In 2019, LSU faces Utah State, has their typical murderer's row schedule of SEC West division teams (including a road date with Alabama), then plays Florida from the East division. If they take a loss against Texas early in the year, it may be difficult to put together a finish better than 10-2, even if they have an excellent team, so this game is almost a de facto playoff game for the Tigers. They're also looking to demonstrate their prowess in a new hurry-up, no-huddle (HUNH) spread offense that features quarterback Joe Burrow, who threw five touchdown passes in their opening weekend.
Texas has a little less at stake in terms of their schedule; they could drop the LSU game and still have decent hopes of winning out. They also may be aiming more for a Big 12 championship this season than a playoff berth anyways. However, they are looking to back up quarterback Sam Ehlinger's assertion after the 2018 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia that Texas was "back." A second consecutive upset over an SEC power would do wonders for that narrative.
For fans of the national game, this contest may also be interesting for what it says about the future of college football. Both Texas and LSU are going to be running HUNH spread offenses on the cutting edge of offensive football with talented, upperclassman quarterbacks. They both may also mix in dime defenses that play with six defensive backs on standard downs like first-and-10.
The advantages for Texas in this contest largely stem from the schematic dimensions to this game. LSU dabbled heavily in the spread in 2018 before moving fully in that direction for 2019, whereas Texas has been running the scheme and defending it for years and years. Texas' best base defensive package may be the one that puts six defensive backs on the field and takes advantage of a 2018 recruiting class that added five blue chip defensive backs to an already talented secondary. LSU is somewhat new to spread football, and facing a dime package that can bring this level of disguise and versatility for their quarterback to dissect is definitely not something they've had to deal with in the SEC.
LSU's defense looks as potent as ever and includes a few superstar pieces such as safety Grant Delpit, outside linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson, and defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence. Their talent will probably be the stiffest challenge that Tom Herman's Longhorns have faced entering his third year as the head coach in Austin. The Longhorns' hopes rest in the arms and leg of the quarterback, Ehlinger, whose ability to read defenses and add an inside power rushing component to a spread offense is truly reminiscent of Tim Tebow. One reason the Longhorns regularly outdo their statistical projections in big games such as this one is that Herman will typically up the 225-pound Ehlinger's involvement in the run game and give him 15 to 20 carries, which makes Texas into a different team.
- Which team has the greater mastery of operating spread tactics and defending them now that both teams are running the scheme?
- NFL defensive back play -- both teams have multiple future pros in the secondary and they'll all have important roles in this game facing some terrific passing attacks.
- Does either team have an edge in the trenches? Both programs have been rebuilding their offensive lines.
- Quarterbacks Sam Ehlinger and Joe Burrow may need to make the difference with their legs.
FEI Outright Pick: LSU by 11.6
California at Washington (-14) -- 10:30 p.m. (FS1)
|When California has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||96||10|
|2018 Passing SP+||123||18|
|When Oklahoma has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||29||34|
|2018 Passing SP+||10||27|
Last year this game was exactly what you'd think from looking at the statistical profiles listed in our table above. The final score was 12-10, with Cal proving victorious after picking off two passes and returning one of them for a touchdown. Both of these schools boast very strong defensive programs, and even though Washington suffered another round of NFL exits from their defense after 2018, they then opened the 2019 season by shutting down Air Raid-oriented Eastern Washington in a 47-14 victory.
Cal returns many of the key pieces to their excellent 2018 defense, including inside linebacker Evan Weaver, who had a huge 2018 season with 155 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and two interceptions. Cal's head coach Justin Wilcox quickly put together a strong unit after taking over for Sonny Dykes, and the Bears excel at keeping the ball contained inside for Weaver and the linebackers to rack up tackles with their 3-4 defensive scheme. The Bears also tend to drop their linebackers pretty conservatively and trust them to close from depth against the run and pass after forcing the ball into narrow lanes.
The challenge against Washington begin with the Huskies' new quarterback, Georgia transfer Jacob Eason. The Washington native transferred home after losing the Bulldogs job to then-freshman Jake Fromm, then sat and learned from the offensive staff and Jake Browning before winning the starting role for 2019. Eason has a big arm that will excite NFL scouts if he shows a better understanding of defenses and distribution as an upperclassman than he did at Georgia. If Washington is able to pair their sturdy ground game with a passing attack that can hit narrow windows outside the hashmarks, they can ascend to a new level as a program. In that event, Cal may not be able to hold them down.
The Bears offense has slipped under Wilcox as hard and far as their defense has risen. Sonny Dykes had the Bears executing a highly effective Air Raid attack that produced NFL quarterbacks Jared Goff and Davis Webb, whereas Wilcox has opted for a more ground-oriented, spread-option system. The Washington defensive front was retooled some this offseason after losing defensive tackle Greg Gaines and middle linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven (176 tackles in 2018). If they can be had with the Bears rushing attack, then it'll be early in the year as the new starters are working things out.
- Can Cal run the ball at all on the rebuilt Washington defensive front?
- Does Jacob Eason's physical talent give Washington another gear against a top defense like Cal?
- Are the Huskies treading water and replacing their departing talent or is that program ready to make a final leap to the elite level?
FEI Outright Pick: Washington by 17.7
Stanford at USC (-2.5) -- 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|When Stanford has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||107||68|
|2018 Passing SP+||8||35|
|When USC has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||65||78|
|2018 Passing SP+||90||60|
The 2019 offseason was huge for both of these programs. Stanford needed to beef up their defense back to a level that would allow them to win the Pac-12 championship and also needed to sort through whether they wanted to get back to the power run game or continue to rely on quarterback K.J. Costello in a spread passing attack. USC's head coach Clay Helton knew he needed to have a big 2019 to protect his job, so he hired Kliff Kingsbury to install the Air Raid offense, lost him to the Arizona Cardinals' head coach vacancy, then hired another former Mike Leach quarterback named Graham Harrell to install the Air Raid instead.
USC won their Week 1 opener against Fresno State but also lost quarterback J.T. Daniels for the entire season after he tore his ACL. True freshman Kedon Slovis will now carry the weight of the Helton era at USC this season, and Stanford will be his first challenge.
Meanwhile, Stanford had a strong defensive performance in Week 1 against Northwestern in a 17-7 win, but they lost left tackle Walker Little and, temporarily, quarterback K.J. Costello as well. Costello took a forearm to the head and has now been ruled out due to a concussion. That leaves the Cardinal with Davis Mills at quarterback against USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and his aggressive schemes. The Stanford offense operating without Costello definitely loses a gear or two, and this could be a defensive battle that hinges on whether Slovis is ready to execute the Air Raid against the Cardinal defense. The Trojans also have a solid rushing attack this season headlined by Vavae Malepeai, who ran for 134 yards agaisnt Fresno State. Overall USC has more to lean on without their original starting quarterback available and will be playing at home.
- How good can Davis Mills be againts the aggressive USC defense?
- Can Stanford get their old power run game operational again to lean on against the Trojans?
- How will freshman USC quarterback Kedon Slovis handle the improved Stanford defense in his first ever start?
FEI Outright Pick: Stanford by 0.3
FEI PICKS: WEEK 2
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|at Ohio State||16||Cincinnati||Ohio State||Ohio State||Cincinnati|
|at Clemson||17.5||Texas A&M||Clemson||Clemson||Clemson|
FEI's Picks against the spread last week: 4-2
Ian's Picks against the spread last week: 5-1
Ian's Picks against the spread last year: 64-57