Pitt, Baylor Seek Big Wins in Crowded Playoff Hunt
NCAA Week 2 - There has been something of a formula for most seasons in the college football playoff era. While there are four postseason spots up for grabs, only two or three teams really look capable of winning the title when all is said and done, leaving a gap for a team with less depth or recruited talent to eke out a playoff appearance. The downside is that this pattern has contributed to a number of blowouts on the CFP stage. Last year, for example, when only Georgia and Alabama had the résumés and rosters to win a championship, fun seasons for Michigan and Cincinnati came to disappointing ends as the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide blew them out.
On the upside, the mad scramble for those last postseason bids is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the college football season. While actually winning a title has a long list of requirements—good coaching, great talent, and elite depth—just getting in is a lot more achievable for most FBS teams. Cinderella stories such as Cincinnati's improbable 13-0 bid in 2021 and Washington's 12-1 run in 2016 take center stage for the last few weeks of the season, once the obvious contenders begin to lock down their places. With the 12-team playoff coming in a few years, hopefully stories like these will become even more plentiful.
In the meantime, the 2022 season is shaping up to feature those second-level combatants even more prominently. Why? Well, throughout the offseason, the consensus was clear that Alabama, Ohio State, and Georgia were a step stronger than the rest of the field. The Tide brought back Bryce Young, added Jahmyr Gibbs, and have pieced together one of the best defenses ever assembled. The Buckeyes countered with CJ Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba helming one of the best offenses ever seen. And the Bulldogs—the defending national champions, remember—had a little bit of everything, from superstar tight ends to strong lines to a young, talented defense.
Usually the first few weeks shake up our preconceptions about the national title picture ... but at least in Week 1, that wasn't the case. Alabama and Georgia both steamrolled their opponents, solid Utah State and Oregon teams that were expected to at least muster a bit of a fight. Ohio State battled with Notre Dame for a while, but pulled away and won ugly despite the Fighting Irish presenting the worst positional-strength mismatch they'll face this season. The road to the playoff is long—and if both SEC teams are going to make it, they'll need to be particularly solid—but you wouldn't be crazy to pencil in that trio of teams as the top three seeds now.
Only one of those three—Alabama, facing a Texas team that needs a major rebound from last year to compete with them—features in this week's top games. If the Tide win convincingly, the select group who appear to be true contenders will each have passed their early tests with flying colors. But even if their championship odds are slim, the pathway to the playoff has opened up for plenty of teams, with CFP stalwarts Clemson, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma all looking vulnerable (or already having lost, in the Irish's case). So who knows? While the top three are chasing the ultimate glory, perhaps this week's games in Provo, Iowa City, or Corvallis will carry postseason weight when we look back in November. In the chaos of college football, anything is possible.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Alabama (-20.5) at Texas—Saturday, 12 p.m. (FOX)
|When Alabama has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Texas has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Nebraska got a lot of attention for their dismal luck (or horrible coaching, depending what you make of it) amid a 3-9 season last year in which every loss came by single digits. But the Cornhuskers' close-game futility overshadowed a similarly depressing season by another blueblood: Texas, which lost by single scores five times in a 5-7 season, including to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor in three consecutive games. On the other hand, the Longhorns beat TCU and Kansas State by one score each, and two of their one-score losses really shouldn't have been close at all. Kansas and West Virginia both finished under .500, yet they beat Texas in back-to-back weeks by narrow margins, and a middling Iowa State also blew them out. The Longhorns may have been unlucky, but they were ultimately not all there in Steve Sarkisian's first season at the helm.
This game is seen as one of Week 2's biggest for a number of reasons—it's the closest thing Alabama will face to a competent non-conference opponent, it's a game between two of football's most storied programs, and it's a matchup of teams who will both be in the SEC in a few years. To a certain extent, the game actually being competitive is secondary; fans will tune in to see those points of intrigue regardless of how lopsided the result may be. But Texas is still coming at it with every intention of finding a way to stun the Crimson Tide—so can they actually do it?
Beyond Alabama being a reigning national championship participant and Texas being a reigning stuck-on-the-couch-in-December participant, the big mismatch that makes the Tide a heavy favorite is up front. Sarkisian was initially hesitant to reveal a depth chart for the Longhorns' opener (in which they beat ULM 52-10), but he eventually did, and it featured an offensive line with one upperclassman—not just among starters, but among all players. Admittedly, youth alone isn't a bad thing; three of the four starting underclassmen are former blue-chip recruits, and true freshman Kelvin Banks Jr. may actually be the Longhorns' better starting tackle, not senior Christian Jones. But it's going to take a lot to hang around with Alabama, considering their wealth of talent in the front seven. Obviously, there's edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., whose 17.5 sacks last year were the most by any non-senior for a Power 5 team this century, let alone a sophomore. Henry To'oto'o, Alabama's leader in tackles last year, is also back to lead the Tide in the second level, and Byron Young and Dallas Turner also star in an elite group. On paper, Texas will have to deal with far too much pressure to keep up.
The catch, though, is that the vaunted Alabama pass rush ... didn't really do much against Utah State, despite an equally massive advantage over the Aggies. Alabama didn't sack Logan Bonner, Copper Legas, or Levi Williams, of whom only Williams has averaged more than a yard per carry in his career. Anderson was held to just five tackles and a tackle for loss, and To'oto'o mustered just three tackles. There are reasons for all of that, of course—Alabama's defensive starters didn't play the whole game, considering they were already up 41-0 at halftime—but against an offensive line that was bad in 2021 and should have been physically overmatched, it's cause for at least minor concern.
On the other side of the ball, there are some lingering questions about how well Alabama's offense is put together. The Tide averaged 40 points per game last season with the Heisman Trophy-winner under center, but they're replacing all three thousand-yard players from that team (which saw no other skill players reach 500 yards). Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs, who rushed for 746 yards and added 465 through the air, gives Bryce Young one established star to work with, but Alabama's acclaimed ability to reload will be tested against Texas—and as they approach SEC play, with a stretch of games against Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Tennessee lurking in early October.
Against a defense that surrendered 31 points and 426 yards per game last year, moving the ball shouldn't be too difficult, but the Longhorns have some players who could catch the Tide out in the backfield. Demarvion Overshown and Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey, a versatile James Madison transfer, are a threat at linebacker, and D'Shawn Jamison is targeting a breakout season, having picked off his first pass of the year last week. It's hard to bet against a Nick Saban team—even considering as much trouble as Alabama had with weaker competition last year—but their meeting with Texas will be one worth watching, if only to see where they stack up in the title hunt.
- Will Bryce Young's ability as a rusher be a factor in this game, as it was against Utah State (100 yards on five carries)?
- Can a revamped Texas defensive line make things happen against Alabama, whose offensive line was a significant weakness last season?
- How much of a factor will Bijan Robinson be against a dominant Crimson Tide run defense?
FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 18.2.
Tennessee (-6.5) at Pittsburgh—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|When Tennessee has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Pittsburgh has the ball||Defense||Offense|
The ACC already looked muddled going into 2022, and Week 1 did little to clarify matters. Virginia Tech managed to lose to Old Dominion while NC State and North Carolina struggled with East Carolina and Appalachian State, respectively. Boston College dropped a home game against Rutgers, Syracuse crushed Louisville, and Florida State pulled off an unlikely win over LSU. At least Clemson won big, though it took them longer than it should have to put a bad Georgia Tech team away.
In all the chaos, Pitt's dramatic rivalry win over West Virginia turned out to be far from the most concerning game of the week. The Panthers overcame a late deficit, driving 92 yards with just over six minutes remaining to tie the game, then used a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown to take the lead and eventually the win. Perhaps it shouldn't have been so close against a team that went 17-18 in Neal Brown's first three years, but Pitt lived to see another day, which is all you can really hope for in the Backyard Brawl.
Beyond the narrow margin, what stood out most about Pitt's opening game was the way they moved the ball on offense. The Panthers' tempo was much slower, with only 67 offensive snaps at a sluggish 29.1 seconds per play, and they leaned on the run as much as expected after losing Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison. But the bulk of their offense came from new quarterback Kedon Slovis, who racked up 308 yards through the air despite attempting only 24 passes, down over 15 from Pitt's average per game in 2021. In a receiving corps that seemed shallow after losing its top contributors from 2021, Slovis spread the ball around with passes to seven players, six of whom averaged 14 yards per catch or more. As for the run game, it wasn't presumptive starter Israel Abanikanda who led the way—he totaled just 15 yards on eight carries—but Rodney Hammond Jr., who showed out with 74 rushing and 55 receiving yards.
None of it really looked like what was expected, but almost all of it worked. The Panthers would certainly like some more punch from their run game, and an injury that may keep Hammond out in Week 2 only exacerbates that concern, but Slovis looked look like a piece the offense could build around. And it's not unreasonable to assume the rushing attack will rebound, especially with Vincent Davis (he of back-to-back 700-yard seasons) available to step up if Abanikanda's struggles or Hammond's injury woes persist. Against a Tennessee defense that allowed 29 points per game last year—and 41 to Pitt in a home loss—the Panthers will score enough to hang around.
Still, the Volunteers have the more complete offense in this game, which a 59-10 shellacking of Ball State reinforced. Where Pitt seems to have settled back into a standard offensive tempo after last season, Tennessee worked even quicker in their opener than they did last year. Their 87 plays per game are currently tied for second in the Power 5, and their 20.6 seconds per play is a blistering pace. Against the Cardinals—admittedly not a defense that was ever expected to keep up—that offense led a dominant performance. Hendon Hooker and backup Joe Milton III combined for 9.8 yards per pass and three touchdowns, and the Volunteers saw three players carry the ball 10 or more times, combining for 5.1 yards per carry. All told, Tennessee gained 83% of available yards (sixth in FBS) and put together a glittering 55% success rate.
Stop me if you have heard this before, but Pitt's defense didn't look the way it was expected to against West Virginia. With the return of Habakkuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey, who combined for 25 tackles for loss last season, the defensive line looked to be the strongest unit going into 2022. The linebacker corps was shuffled but still had strong pieces, and the secondary seemed likely to be the main weakness—the 2021 Panthers ranked third in yards allowed per carry but 75th in yards allowed per pass, after all. But the Mountaineers nearly rushed for more yards than they passed for, putting up 190 yards on the ground and only 214 through the air. Pitt gave up a ridiculous 250 yards on 14 carries to running back CJ Donaldson, but they held quarterback JT Daniels to a mere 5.4 yards per attempt—and, of course, secured the go-ahead pick-six off of him. Against a Tennessee team that relied on an efficient pass game last year, Pitt should have every chance if they can keep Hooker contained; to upset the Volunteers and establish themselves as a clear ACC contender, though, they'll have to make a stronger stand on the ground.
- How much pressure can the Panthers produce against a Tennessee offensive line that surrendered a 10.1% sack rate (121st in FBS) last season?
- Which team will be more disciplined in a rematch of a game that was defined by penalties (nine on Pitt, 13 on Tennessee) in 2021?
- Can the Volunteers repeat the previous meeting's uncharacteristic stand against the run, in which they allowed just 96 yards on 45 carries?
FEI Outright Pick: Tennessee by 4.8.
Iowa State at Iowa (-3.5) —Saturday, 4 p.m. (BTN)
|When Iowa State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Iowa has the ball||Defense||Offense|
In theory, Iowa State is the better team in this game. The Cyclones dispatched Southeast Missouri State with ease in their opener—not a guarantee given their past struggles with early FCS opponents—while Iowa bumbled their way to an unwatchable 7-3 win over South Dakota State in which those seven points came not from a touchdown, but a field goal and two safeties. Admittedly, the Jackrabbits are a strong team at their level, and they have scared quality FBS teams in the past, but ... well, it's hard not to look at Iowa's offense and wonder how they're going to score on any defense of reasonable strength.
To a certain extent, though, outside context doesn't matter much in the Cy-Hawk game. Two things have been constant in the last three meetings: the Hawkeyes have won, and it has been ugly. In 2018, Iowa eked out a 13-3 win that saw zero touchdowns in the first 55 minutes; in 2019, they escaped with an 18-17 victory thanks to two Iowa State players running into each other and muffing a punt; in 2021, they pounced on four Cyclones turnovers to pull off a 27-17 win. It's easy to write the script for 2022's edition based on recent history.
The Cyclones do have a lot on offense to feel good about, though, and as much as Iowa excels at dragging teams into rock fights, their defense may have its hands full. Hunter Dekkers was as good as advertised in his debut as a starter, in which he completed 25 of 31 passes for 293 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception. Running back Jirehl Brock was likewise excellent, looking every bit a worthy successor to Breece Hall with his 117-yard day. Xavier Hutchinson rounds out the Cyclones' top skill trio, picking up where he left off last season with an efficient 128 receiving yards. Those are numbers to be expected against a low-level FCS foe, but it's encouraging that Iowa State took care of business so effectively on offense.
Iowa's defense should hold Iowa State back quite a bit on offense, but in a game where seven or 10 points might be enough to win, they'll need to do everything they can. Jack Campbell dominated South Dakota State, posting double-digit tackles for the sixth time since the start of 2021 and forcing a safety that gave Iowa the lead. The Hawkeyes' swarming defense up front was vital, allowing a minuscule 1.1 yards per carry and forcing four sacks. The secondary was strong as well, allowing a ridiculous 3.3 yards per pass and a 38.5% completion rate.
There was one thing missing, though: Iowa neither picked off a pass nor recovered a fumble. The Hawkeyes only had two games with no turnovers forced last season, and it hadn't happened in a non-conference game since 2019. The way takeaways yield great field position is one of Iowa's biggest strengths, allowing them to tack on field goals and put together short touchdown drives. And while Iowa State hasn't typically had a problem with ball control under Matt Campbell, it's an issue that has cropped up repeatedly when they have faced Iowa, particularly last season. To be the better team not just on paper, but on the field, the Cyclones have to keep Iowa from creating turnovers.
Put all that we know about Iowa State together—a solid but thin rushing attack, a talented but inexperienced quarterback, an Iowa game plan centered on disrupting the backfield—and it's clear how much this game hinges on the Cyclones' offensive line. It's a unit that has been cause for concern throughout Campbell's tenure, and while turnovers haven't been a consistent problem for Iowa State, they have been decisive not just against Iowa, but in other big games as well. (In 2020, for example, the Cyclones only had three multiple-turnover games—but they were losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and Oklahoma, as well as a narrow escape over 2-7 Baylor.)
Passing and ball-carrying are always going to assume most of the blame for interceptions and fumbles, but the Cyclones' troubles up front have been part of the problem too. And while it's hard to read much into an FCS win, the line held its own against the Redhawks, giving up no sacks and only one quarterback hit. Can they stand up to an Iowa front seven led by Campbell, Logan Lee (1.5 sacks last week), and Joe Evans (two sacks, one safety last week)? It'll be a much taller task, but that's what the Cyclones may need to finally get one over on their in-state rival.
- Can Dekkers stay steady against the pressure Iowa will bring and deliver another strong showing?
- With Jaylin Noel averaging just 4.2 yards per catch on six receptions last week, will he remain a primary target for the Cyclones?
- Will the Hawkeyes muster a threat on the ground (1.8 yards per carry against South Dakota State) or through the air (4.4 yards per pass)?
FEI Outright Pick: Iowa State by 2.3
Kentucky at Florida (-6)—Saturday, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|When Kentucky has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Florida has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Between Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee, most of the SEC East consists of teams for whom the 2022 season hinges on their quarterback, and the first of several meetings between those teams takes place in Week 2. The Gators' Anthony Richardson took the starting reins with authority in their opener, passing for 168 yards and rushing for 106 en route to an upset win over Utah. There are, however, still questions about his ability as a passer—he averaged only 7.0 yards per attempt last week, and his career 7:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio is far from stellar. Meanwhile, the Wildcats' Will Levis led the way in a win over Miami-Ohio, passing for 303 yards on 32 attempts with three touchdowns and an interception. On the downside, the four sacks by the RedHawks against Levis, a normally adept scrambler, are cause for concern.
Richardson and Levis are intriguing through the air, but the more interesting element of this game is how both teams will perform on the ground, and how both quarterbacks factor into those matchups. For Florida, placing their passer at the center of the run game won't be a significant adjustment from 2021; Emory Jones led the team with 143 carries and 759 rushing yards last season, and Richardson ranked fifth and fourth respectively in his brief appearances. But where Jones was merely a strong rusher (5.3 yards per carry in 2021), Richardson has been largely defined by his performance on the ground, where he has averaged 8.2 yards on 69 career attempts. His passing performances have been up and down, to say the least, but he sparked Florida's offense with some spectacular runs last week, and there's no reason he can't be an effective quarterback with that ability.
The rest of the Gators' run game has been a work in progress during the offseason, but almost everything clicked against Utah. Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Montrell Johnson led the non-Richardson rushers with 75 yards, and true freshman Trevor Etienne made a splashy debut with 64 yards on five carries. Nay'quan Wright wasn't particularly efficient (39 yards on 10 carries) and wasn't targeted through the air once, which has only happened four times since the start of 2020; beyond that, though, it's hard to find fault with what Florida did on the ground.
Kentucky was strong against the run last year, ranking 33rd in EPA allowed per rush and 36th in yards allowed per carry. There was, however, a ton of turnover up front for the Wildcats, who lost key players such as Josh Paschal (52 tackles, 15 tackles for loss) and Abule-Fitzgerald (13 tackles, 2.5 sacks) on the line. It showed against Miami-Ohio, a game in which the Wildcats' top tacklers on run plays were linebacker DeAndre Square and safety Alex Afari. Considering the way the Gators ripped off long runs against Utah (five that went for at least 15 yards), Kentucky will need to be a lot more solid up front to keep Florida from scoring at will.
There are questions about the Wildcats' rushing, too. Chris Rodriguez Jr., one of the SEC's best running backs in 2021 with 1,377 yards and 6.1 yards per carry, was held out due to an offseason DUI against Miami-Ohio and is off the depth chart against Florida as well. In his place as the lead back is Kavosiey Smoke, and while he was decent in Week 1 (32 yards on 4.6 yards per carry), the rushing corps as a whole was painfully thin. In addition to Levis' -18 yards due to those four sacks, Jutahn McClain, La'Vell Wright, and Ramon Jefferson toted the ball 11 times for just 36 yards between them. Kentucky had no rushes for double-digit yardage, and they didn't score on the ground once.
The good news for the Wildcats is that Utah's offensive line more or less had their way with Florida's front. Despite no rushers posting more than 2.5 yards after contact per carry, the Utes still ran for 142 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Miami-Ohio wasn't a tough matchup on paper in many regards, but they did bring a strong defensive line to the table, which may have been part of the problem for Kentucky's dismal rushing in their first game. If the Wildcats can get physical up front, they may have a legitimate chance to pull off an upset in the Swamp, but it won't be easy to beat a Florida team that enters this game with momentum heavily on their side.
- Can Florida get pressure on Levis after struggling to threaten Cam Rising in the pocket (no sacks, two quarterback hits)?
- After a strong performance against Miami-Ohio in which they allowed only 5.6 yards per pass, can Kentucky's secondary limit Richardson through the air?
- How will the Gators adjust to contain dynamic receiver Tayvion Robinson (1,555 yards in three seasons at Virginia Tech, 136 yards last week)?
FEI Outright Pick: Kentucky by 0.3
Baylor at BYU (-3)—Saturday, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)
|When Baylor has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When BYU has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Few teams were more dominant in Week 1 than Baylor and BYU. The Bears took on an awful Albany team and dealt with them in short order, taking a 35-7 lead into halftime and ultimately winning 69-10 with some 8.4 yards per play. Meanwhile, the Cougars stomped USF 50-21 in a game that wasn't even as close as the score, with quarterback Jaren Hall and running back Christopher Brooks leading the offense to 8.3 yards per play. Both teams were already in good shape entering 2022, and their fantastic openers established a late-night meeting in Provo as one of the best games of Week 2.
Both teams still have a lot to prove in this matchup, but Baylor in particular will be watched closely. The defending Big 12 champions returned only 45% of their production from a spectacular 12-2 season, the seventh-highest roster turnover in the nation. The Bears still have a stout offensive line to line up behind, but rushers Trestan Ebner and Abram Smith as well as receivers Tyquan Thornton and RJ Sneed are all gone, and Baylor also bet on Blake Shapen over primary 2021 starter Gerry Bohanon at quarterback. The defense is recalibrating as well, with players such as linebacker Terrel Bernard and star Jalen Pitre gone. The team sent out against Albany shared little with the group that won the conference and the Sugar Bowl last year, but they did take care of business about as effectively as possible.
Shapen's strengths lie in his downfield passing: in 2021, he completed 15 of 22 passes for 14.3 yards per attempt when targeting receivers 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or further. He completed 75% of his passes between 10 and 20 yards downfield, third in the nation among passers with 10 or more such attempts, and he picked up where he left off against Albany. On intermediate and deep passes, Shapen completed 7-of-8 attempts for 145 yards and both of his touchdowns—stats that, even against a handily outmatched opponent, reinforce how accurate a passer he is.
BYU entered the season with some obvious questions at safety, and Shapen presents an obvious mismatch if they don't have the middle of the field locked down. Against USF's offense (manned by Bohanon, who transferred there in the offseason), the Cougars' safeties allowed one 27-yard catch on four targets, which says little about how they stack up against Baylor. The projected starters against the Bears are Malik Moore and Ammon Hannemann, who allowed a 71% completion rate and 9.0 yards per target last season; if Shapen can take advantage of BYU's secondary, which seems likely, Baylor should be able to score without much difficulty.
As for the Cougars' offense, they're looking to do something few teams managed last year: hold off Baylor's defensive line. The Bears averaged three sacks per game in 2021, 15th overall, and had three of the 14 Big 12 players to produce over 30 quarterback pressures. Bernard may be gone, but Gabe Hall and Siaki Ika are an intimidating force in the pass rush, combining for 11 sacks and 67 total pressures last season. Amid turnover in the linebacker corps and secondary, the strength of Baylor's defensive line will be key throughout 2022, but it's especially significant early in the season.
BYU's offensive line may be the toughest Baylor faces all year, though. Blake Freeland allowed just five pressures last season, tied for sixth among linemen with over 400 pass-blocking snaps; Clark Barrington was no slouch either, giving up just 11 pressures (of which only one was a sack or quarterback hit). Altogether, the Cougars surrendered sacks on only 4.1% of plays, 16th in FBS. And even when Hall is pressured, he's a strong passer, averaging 8.2 yards per pressured pass in 2021, tied for 10th among quarterbacks with that many pressured dropbacks alongside CJ Stroud. To pull off a win that could establish their strength in the Big 12 of the near future, BYU will need to rely on their pass protection and their experienced quarterback to match Baylor blow-for-blow.
- How much of a factor will Brooks be against Baylor's strong line following his 135-yard rushing performance against USF?
- Will the Bears maintain Taye McWilliams (3.8 yards per carry last week) as their primary back, or look to Richard Reese (6.9 yards per carry) and Qualan Jones (9.8 yards per carry)?
- Will star BYU receivers Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua be available against Baylor after injuries before and during last week's game, respectively?
FEI Outright Pick: Baylor by 4.5
Fresno State at Oregon State (-1)—Saturday, 10:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
|Overall||Fresno State||Oregon State|
|When Fresno State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Oregon State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Simply based on the quality of the teams involved, Baylor-BYU is probably the best game of Week 2, or possibly second behind Kentucky-Florida. It's rare enough for one marquee matchup to end up in the late-night slot, but in this case, there are arguably two. Just 800 miles northeast of Provo, a Fresno State team that went 10-3 and stunned UCLA last season meets an Oregon State team that went 7-6 and shocked Utah. Under the watch of Jeff Tedford and Kalen DeBoer, the Bulldogs have built themselves into a Mountain West powerhouse; meanwhile, the Beavers have improved steadily under Jonathan Smith and are primed for a breakout after breaking through for a bowl last year.
Adding to the intrigue, both teams are suddenly in position to reach milestones that would have felt impossible just a few years ago. For Fresno State, the pathway to a possible New Year's Six bowl got a lot easier in Week 1: Cincinnati and UTSA both lost, and Houston looked fairly suspect in their narrow win over the Roadrunners. There are still plenty of contenders, and it's not out of the question that the two big names beaten last week could make a comeback, but Fresno State looks about as good as anybody to secure the Group of 5 bid.
Meanwhile, Oregon State is eyeing a possible run at the Pac-12 title, which they haven't won outright since 1956. Oregon and Utah's losses in Week 1 won't hurt them in the conference standings, but they did clearly show that two of the top teams in the league are fairly vulnerable. The Pac-12 is so muddled that USC, which went 4-8 last year and has only a blowout over Rice to their name in 2022, now stands atop it in the AP Poll. Making a run at the championship still won't be easy, but the Beavers have as good a chance to do it now as they have in years.
This game was going to be fun anyway, given that setup—it's Fresno State and Oregon State in a legitimately great game, what's not to love about that?—but adding to the interest are some of the most exciting players in the west. Jake Haener is the headliner for the Bulldogs, having pulled out of the transfer portal to lead the offense again. He passed for over 4,000 yards last year, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt with 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was also more than willing to air it out downfield, lobbing 71 passes for 20 yards or more, eight of which connected for touchdowns. Explosive slot receiver Jalen Cropper (6.7 yards after catch per reception) and running back Jordan Mims (3.5 yards after contact per carry) flesh out an offense that ran off 216 plays for 10 or more yards last year, 16th in FBS.
Not to be outdone, Oregon State brings an offense spearheaded by Chance Nolan, who brings to mind an early career Dorian Thompson-Robinson with his dangerous deep passes and high ceiling. Nolan tied for second in the Pac-12 in interceptions thrown last year, but he also ranked fourth in touchdowns thrown and was second in yards per pass with 8.4, just a hair behind Thompson-Robinson himself. The Beavers do have a bit of recalibration to do at running back, with star rusher BJ Baylor (1,337 yards) departing after a fabulous 2021, but the unit looked strong against a usually solid Boise State run defense. Four players took carries, and all of them ran for over 30 yards—most notably Jack Colletto, a linebacker who has moonlighted as a quarterback and has stormed to 17 touchdowns on just 87 carries in limited use as a power rusher.
It's anyone's guess who will actually come out on top in this game, as the close odds reflect. Oregon State ran roughshod over Boise State in Week 1, but the Bulldogs should be a different level of competition given how well they performed against top Pac-12 opponents in 2021. Neither team is bringing a whole lot of defense to the table—Fresno State's was strong last year but rarely stood up to their toughest tests, and Oregon State's held only three teams under 24 points. If you take a chance on one of the unlikeliest big games of the year, you're sure to see a lot of points, some deeply impressive (and questionable) deep balls, and all the energy these teams have brought to the game as they have risen to the top. But though you might not know it, there's a decent chance you'll also see a team with the Cotton or Rose Bowl in their prospects. In college football, after all, just about anything is possible.
- Can the Beavers get an edge on the ground against a Fresno State defense that struggled against the run last year?
- Will Haener have his hands full with an experienced Oregon State secondary that held Taylen Green and Hank Bachmeier to 5.1 yards per pass in Week 1?
- How much have the Beavers improved on the defensive line after a rough performance in 2021 (81st in line yards allowed per carry, 120th in sack rate)?
FEI Outright Pick: Oregon State by 0.1.
FEI Picks: Week 2
|at Iowa||-3.5||Iowa State||Iowa State||Iowa State||Iowa|
|at Oregon State||-1||Fresno State||Oregon State||Fresno State||Oregon State|
FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 2-4.
Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 3-3.