Alabama Survives Brawl, but Four Upsets Define Week 2
NCAA Week 2 - The Alabama Crimson Tide went into Austin and took a game from the Texas Longhorns that was far closer than the models and the experts expected. Meanwhile, four upsets of 17-plus-point favorites shook up the second and third tiers of the sport. Texas A&M, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin all harbored aspirations for at least New Year's Six Bowls, but those hopes took huge hits. Nebraska's upset loss led to a Sunday morning firing that will help define the college football coaching cycle for months to come.
- All rankings referenced are from Brian Fremeau's FEI numbers heading into the weekend.
- In the advanced box scores, EPA/play includes special teams and penalties, so combining EPA/rush and EPA/pass numbers won't give the same total as what the top line number shows.
No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide 20, No. 15 Texas Longhorns 19
Alabama went into Austin as a 20-point favorite and came out with a hard-fought victory that the Houndstooth-clad Tide fans need to savor. The Texas defense held the Crimson Tide offense in check in a way that only 2021 Georgia has done in recent years.
Bryce Young opened the game with ease, finding Jahmyr Gibbs over and over in space to produce an opening field goal. After an explosive touchdown run from Jase McClellan made it 10-3, however, Alabama was hapless on offense until the fourth quarter. Texas was running a nice blend of defensive concepts, sometimes dropping eight and blanketing the struggling Tide receiving corps while other times bringing five or six and managing to generate disruptive pressure on Young. The running back Gibbs ended the day with nine targets, five more than any Alabama receiver.
Texas started out with fireworks on offense as quarterback Quinn Ewers generated 8.0 EPA on the first few drives. Texas was committed to giving him max protection and letting two receivers find space against the Alabama secondary. His mastery was cut short by a shoulder injury late in the first quarter that is expected to keep him out a month. Backup Hudson Card did not have the arm talent to challenge the Tide in the same way, and he finished with -3.7 EPA in the passing game the rest of the way.
The Texas defense made sure that the game stayed tight throughout, though, and Card managed to lead a drive to give the Longhorns a two-point lead with just about a minute and a half remaining. The reigning Heisman Trophy-winner, Young, would not let those be the final points. After the drive crossed into Texas territory, Young's magical escape from Texas pressure kept the Tide alive and allowed them to set up a chip-shot field goal to win the game with less than 10 seconds left.
Texas acquitted itself beautifully in this game; the hope is that the defense can carry the team through an interesting stretch of three games against UT San Antonio, Texas Tech, and West Virginia and that Ewers will be ready for the showdown against Oklahoma on October 8. Right now, Alabama is still clearly a top-three team, but Nick Saban has questions to answer along the offensive line, in the receiving corps, and potentially in the secondary that will determine what caliber Alabama team this ends up being.
No. 64 Marshall Thundering Herd 26, No. 6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 21
This was no fluke. Marshall took it to the Fighting Irish and left new Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman with an 0-3 record, including last season's bowl loss to Oklahoma State. Concerns at quarterback are front and center for Freeman after starter Tyler Buchner and backup Drew Pyne both posted nearly identical marks of -0.30 EPA/dropback against the Thundering Herd. Buchner added 2.5 EPA with his legs, but he wasn't nearly dynamic enough there to offset his -10.1 EPA throwing the football. The lack of outside playmaking continues to haunt the Irish offense as Lorenzo Styles managed only 6.3 yards per target and had a significant drop when Notre Dame was driving and trailing only 19-15. Michael Mayer continues to be tremendous, but the struggling quarterbacks need one more reliable option.
For the Herd, quarterback Henry Colombi didn't light up the Fighting Irish defense, but he largely avoided mistakes, spread the ball around to his offensive targets, and led his team to a highly efficient 49% success rate. Charles Huff has developed his Marshall roster impressively in just two years. Looking forward, Notre Dame still faces huge challenges in Clemson, USC, and BYU, while Marshall looks set to contend in the impressive Sun Belt Conference.
No. 37 Appalachian State Mountaineers 17, No. 14 Texas A&M Aggies 14
The afternoon of upsets continued in College Station, where Appalachian State showed they can play a tough defensive brand of football in addition to the track meet style of last week's game against North Carolina. Texas A&M held a win expectancy advantage because of the much superior yards per play it achieved, but the Mountaineers more than doubled the Aggies in plays from scrimmage, combining that ball dominance with a superior EPA/play performance. Neither team found much in the way of explosive plays in this game, but Appalachian State produced far more disruption on defense, essentially doubling up Texas A&M in the rate of run stuffs and havoc plays created.
Texas A&M has similar concerns to Notre Dame as the quarterback question has no answer yet. Haynes King was responsible for -14.0 EPA on his dropbacks and slightly negative EPA on his rush attempts. True freshman receiver Evan Stewart was King's leading target-getter, but suffered a costly fumble. The Mountaineers were blanketing the Aggies receivers and making King's life hard all day. They join Marshall in raising the Sun Belt banner and hold firmly onto their own hopes for a conference title and potential New Year's Six bid. Texas A&M faces a gauntlet of a schedule going forward; pressure on Jimbo Fisher to figure out the quarterback situation is going to amplify, and the right answer is far from clear.
No. 45 Washington State Cougars 17, No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers 14
Note: ESPN does not have play-by-play data available for this game, which limits what statistics we can produce.
Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin lost a slog at home to a Washington State team that had to squeak by Idaho in Week 1. Unlike the first two upsets of the day, Wisconsin mostly dominated its opponent but couldn't translate that to the scoreboard. The Badgers doubled up the Cougars in first downs and nearly doubled them in total yardage, yards per carry, and time of possession. Each team had three turnovers, including a fumble that ended Wisconsin's last chance to take the lead inside of the Washington State 15 with five minutes left. Wisconsin added 11 penalties and two missed field goals to its ledger of mistakes, spoiling a chance for Wisconsin to head to Columbus, Ohio, with an undefeated record on September 24. Now in his third year as the starter, quarterback Graham Mertz hasn't developed enough to elevate the Wisconsin offense to a new plane. Meanwhile, Jake Dickert has brought newfound hope to a program that recently suffered through the confusing and frustrating tenure of Nick Rolovich.
No. 103 Georgia Southern Eagles, 45, No. 48 Nebraska Cornhuskers 42
Much like how Stanford's inexplicable victory over USC last season brought about the inevitable ending of Clay Helton's tenure, Georgia Southern performed the same honor for much-aligned Nebraska head man Scott Frost on Saturday night. Frost had the hottest seat in the country after last season's supremely unlucky 3-9 season; the opening loss to Northwestern seemed to make the eventual outcome assured, but it was Georgia Southern that put the final nail in the coffin.
The Georgia Southern program (which ironically now employs the former USC coach, Helton) has been in significant transition for several years now. Still, the Eagles went up and down the field on the Cornhuskers defense, putting up ~90th-percentile performances in both success rate and EPA/play. All four ballcarriers for the Eagles put up positive total EPA, while eight different receiving targets did the same. Georgia Southern had the game's only two turnovers, representing about 8 points of negative turnover luck, or else the outcome would have been even more decisive.
For the Nebraska offense, Casey Thompson was magnificent, putting up 21.6 EPA between his dropbacks and rushing attempts. He provides solid talent for interim head coach Mickey Joseph, but the defense and overall program health at Nebraska still need years of development. The 24-point underdog Eagles chalked up the third upset win for the Sun Belt against the Power 5 on this chaotic Saturday in September.
Some hugely important and competitive games got moved into Toe Drags this week because of the transformative upsets covered above.
No. 12 Iowa State Cyclones 10, No. 19 Iowa Hawkeyes 7
For a certain portion of the College Football Internet, El Assico lived up to its billing and more with a pitiful two-way offensive performance between the Hawkeyes and Cyclones. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has to come up with an answer for the offensive coordinator position occupied by his son, Brian, and the quarterback position currently manned by Spencer Petras. Iowa is ferocious on defense, but it's beyond fair to question the offensive plan and performance of the Hawkeyes. Averaging under 2 yards per pass attempt against a team of comparable quality does not merit continuing the status quo. For Iowa State, Matt Campbell beats Iowa for the first time in six years despite offensive woes on his side as well.
No. 17 Tennessee Volunteers 34, No. 32 Pittsburgh Panthers 27
The Johnny Majors class delivered the expected back-and-forth game, and Tennessee prevailed in overtime largely on the strength of a disruptive defense. The high-flying Volunteers offense did not find its usual level of success against the talented Pittsburgh defense. On the other side, the Volunteers defense generated an unbelievable 30 pressures against Panthers passing plays. This Pittsburgh offensive line brought back all five of its starters this season, although two of them didn't play Saturday. The line struggled to protect, but starting quarterback Kedon Slovis didn't help matters, often missing or moving into pressure and ultimately having to miss the second half of the game with an injury. Backup Nick Patti wasn't able to generate efficient offense, and Tennessee had enough going in its passing game to hold off the Panthers in a key out-of-conference battle.
No. 20 Kentucky Wildcats 26, No. 21 Florida Gators 16
After winning a thriller against Utah last weekend, Florida couldn't pull off back-to-back top-25 wins to open the season, losing a slog in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday night. Anthony Richardson had been electric and effective against Utah, but against this Wildcats defense, he was responsible for -28.9 EPA! Will Levis wasn't outstanding for Kentucky, but he hit one huge explosive for a 55-yard touchdown and avoided the catastrophic mistakes that plagued Richardson. Mark Stoops has assembled a formidable defense, and Kentucky and Tennessee look positioned to battle for the second spot in the SEC East going forward.
No. 33 BYU Cougars 26, No. 18 Baylor Bears 20
During the late-night session in Provo, BYU held off Baylor in double overtime. The Cougars found their edge in the passing game, putting up 10.1 EPA on offense while holding the passing offense of the Bears to -1.2 EPA. Jeren Hall was missing his top two targets, but Chase Roberts stepped up to catch eight balls on 15 targets and generate about 8 EPA himself. Baylor found enough success on the ground to stay close throughout, but BYU brought relentless pressure against Blake Shapen and finally found the win in double overtime. Baylor's defense held the Cougars rushing attack completely in check; that defense will be enough to keep Baylor relevant going forward, but development from Shapen will be the key to actually competing for the Big 12. BYU has a challenging schedule that includes Oregon and Arkansas, but this is clearly a team ready to compete for an at-large New Year's Six berth.
Next Week's Headliners
No. 10 Penn State at No. 9 Auburn
No. 23 Mississippi State at No. 24 LSU
No. 26 Michigan State at No. 34 Washington
No. 43 Miami at No. 14 Texas A&M