After some moving and shaking, the Big Ten rejoined college football’s party, which means the ESPN power rankings look a little different this week.
Ohio State vaults right into the No. 2 spot, and if the Buckeyes get all of their players back, they’re more than talented enough to stake a claim to that top spot.
And, really, whether you’re an SEC homer/hater or Big Ten homer/hater, it’s a coup for college football that the Big Ten is back in the mix. Maybe the Pac-12 will be next. As Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN this week, it makes the sport more holistic and more representative.
“The more people that play, the better it is for everybody,” Saban said.
Cracking the top 5 this week is Notre Dame, which thrashed South Florida. That Nov. 7 Clemson-Notre Dame clash in South Bend can’t get here soon enough. Nothing like “ACC rivals” going at it under the glare of the Golden Dome.
The biggest mover this week is UCF, which opened its season by decimating Georgia Tech on the road a week after Georgia Tech won at Florida State. The Knights moved up to No. 13. Of the top 16 teams this week, 10 are from either the SEC or Big Ten.
Watching Alabama play the past few seasons with Tua Tagovailoa slinging the ball all over the field was a bit surreal. And while the Crimson Tide should again be explosive on offense in 2020, it’s the defense that looks a lot closer to what Alabama defenses have traditionally looked like under Nick Saban. Up front, LaBryan Ray is primed for a big season after a foot injury sidelined him a year ago. Dylan Moses is back at inside linebacker, and Patrick Surtain II has a chance to be one of the best cornerbacks the Tide have produced under Saban. And if you’re looking for impact freshmen, outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. has been as impressive as anybody on defense this preseason.
Up next: at Missouri (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The Buckeyes are hoping to get the band back together as they point toward their opener against Nebraska and another run at the national championship. Cornerback Shaun Wade and offensive lineman Wyatt Davis, both projected first-round NFL draft picks, are planning to return after initially opting out for this season. When you throw in quarterback Justin Fields, good luck finding a better quarterback/offensive lineman/cornerback trifecta on one team in college football.
Up next: vs. Nebraska (Oct. 24, TBA)
Two weeks into the season and Clemson has yet to break a sweat after crushing The Citadel 49-0 on Saturday. That’s not to diminish how good or how talented the Tigers are, because it’s obvious that they’re one of the top teams in college football and extremely well-coached. Trevor Lawrence is going to make a lot of opposing defenses look bad this season. But as you look down the Tigers’ schedule, they might not truly be tested until their trip to Notre Dame on Nov. 7, especially when you consider that four of their next five games are at home.
Up next: vs. Virginia (Oct. 3, TBA)
Yes, it was FCS foe Missouri State. And yes, Oklahoma was going to win big regardless of how redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler performed in his first career start two weeks ago. But what was so pleasing to OU fans was how comfortable he looked, and that’s whether he was throwing the ball down the field with precision or executing a screen pass for a touchdown. Rattler is going to face stiffer competition going forward, but to nobody’s surprise, the Sooners should be just fine at the quarterback position — again.
Up next: vs. Kansas State (Saturday, noon ET, Fox)
Nobody can beat up on the Fighting Irish for not racking up enough style points in Week 2. After a so-so performance in its season-opening win over Duke, Notre Dame looked every bit the part of a national title contender on Saturday in a 52-0 dismantling of South Florida, even without multiple defensive starters. One of the most impressive things about the Irish thus far is that they have a wealth of impact players on both sides of the ball. It’s hard not to like the balance that Brian Kelly has created.
Up next: at Wake Forest (Saturday, noon ET, ABC)
You’re probably not going to get Kirby Smart to compare this Georgia defense (or any of the defenses he has had in Athens) to some of the ones he coached at Alabama, as many of those Tide defenses were filled with players now playing in the NFL. But what jumps out about this Georgia D is the speed and playmaking ability at just about every position. Sound familiar? Of the 19 defenders who played at least 200 snaps last season for the Dawgs, 14 return.
Up next: at Arkansas (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
In the SEC, it’s typically what you haven’t done that dogs a program. In Florida’s case, that’s not beating Georgia and not getting to the SEC championship for three straight years. But Dan Mullen has been building to this point. He won 10 games his first season and 11 games last season. This should be his most balanced team yet, with redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask returning and a talented defense that brings back eight starters. Something else working in the Gators’ favor is not having to face Alabama during the regular season.
Up next: at Ole Miss (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN)
Overreaction is always tempting after a first game, but senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger looked plenty comfortable spreading the ball around in Texas’ 59-3 pasting of UTEP last week, and he did so with guys who didn’t play starring roles a year ago. Ehlinger is experienced enough that he doesn’t need to depend on one or two guys, which should pay big dividends for the Longhorns this season in an offensive system designed to spread the wealth.
Up next: at Texas Tech (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox)
If anybody is going to unseat Ohio State in the Big Ten this season, it’s Penn State. The Nittany Lions have the pieces in place to be a real factor in the national championship race. Their talent pool just keeps getting deeper under James Franklin. If quarterback Sean Clifford takes off in new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s system, and especially if star linebacker Micah Parsons returns after initially opting out, that showdown with Ohio State the second week of the season in Happy Valley looms as one of the games of the year.
Up next: at Indiana (Oct. 24, TBA)
The delay in starting the season in the SEC might end up working in LSU’s favor after all. The Tigers got back defensive lineman Neil Farrell Jr. this week after Farrell previously opted out for the season, and coach Ed Orgeron left the door open that other players could change their mind and decide to play this season. Either way, there’s a new look to this LSU football team, from coordinators to players, but Orgeron and his staff are confident they’ve recruited well enough that the defending national champions won’t face a major drop-off.
Up next: vs. Mississippi State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Much of the attention in College Station has been focused on quarterback Kellen Mond and what kind of step he takes this season, but he is going to need his pass-catchers to step up, too. The Aggies’ leading returning wideout, Jhamon Ausbon, announced last week he was opting out for the season. And with Camron Buckley also out for the season with a torn ACL, that means Mond won’t have anybody returning at the wide receiver position who caught more than three passes last season. The good news is that tight end Jalen Wydermyer and running back Isaiah Spiller are two of the SEC’s most promising sophomores.
Up next: vs. Vanderbilt (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Consistency and Wisconsin football have been synonymous under Paul Chryst. In his five seasons in Madison, the Badgers have won 10 or more games in four of those campaigns. The formula for the most part will stay the same in 2020: beating teams up on defense. Even though linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr are gone, Wisconsin returns just about everybody else on defense from a year ago and should be just as good, if not better, against the run after finishing sixth nationally a year ago.
Up next: vs. Illinois (Oct. 24, TBA)
Everybody in and around college football is rooting for McKenzie Milton to get back onto the field as he continues to fight back from the catastrophic knee injury he suffered in 2018. And as Milton continues that fight, his replacement at quarterback and hometown buddy, Dillon Gabriel, is playing super football. After passing for 3,653 yards and 39 touchdowns last season as a freshman, Gabriel torched Georgia Tech for 417 yards and four touchdowns on Saturday in UCF’s season-opening 49-21 win over the Yellow Jackets.
Up next: at East Carolina (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN+)
Two games into the 2020 season, Houston transfer quarterback D’Eriq King has clearly made a difference in Miami’s offense — but so has first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. The Hurricanes went on the road Saturday night and carved apart Louisville 47-34. And in doing so, they showcased the kind of offensive balance and explosive plays that have been lacking in Coral Gables the past few seasons. King passed for 325 yards and three touchdowns. The Hurricanes averaged 5.3 yards per rush and scored three touchdowns of 47 yards or longer.
Up next: vs. Florida State (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
The Tigers lost a lot of good players in the secondary from a year ago, so it wasn’t just in the defensive line where they had some key personnel losses. But keep an eye on junior safety Jamien Sherwood, who has been hard to miss this preseason in Kevin Steele’s defense. Sherwood’s first start last season came at LSU, where he had 10 tackles and recovered a fumble. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Sherwood could be one of the top breakout defenders in the league this season.
Up next: vs. Kentucky (Saturday, noon ET, SEC Network)
There won’t be any easing into the 2020 season for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines. They open the season on the road against Minnesota, which has the firepower on offense to test any defense. Speaking of defense, Michigan got some good news last week when star defensive end Kwity Paye said he would play this season. Paye had 12.5 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks, in his first full season as a starter at defensive end a year ago. He projects as one of the top edge defenders in college football and will be the cornerstone of that Wolverines D.
Up next: at Minnesota (Oct. 24, TBA)
You could see it coming with Louisiana after the Ragin’ Cajuns opened the season by taking down nationally ranked Iowa State on the road, making their own move into the rankings and receiving a ton of fanfare along the way. They were primed for the upset on Saturday and trailed by two touchdowns in the third quarter. But to their credit, they found a way to claw back and beat Georgia State 34-31 in overtime on Elijah Mitchell’s 12-yard touchdown run. Two weeks into the season, Billy Napier’s club has been one of college football’s best stories.
Up next: vs. Georgia Southern (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN2)
It’s way too early to start making a strong case for the best Group of 5 team in college football, but Cincinnati should certainly be in that conversation. The Bearcats, coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons, opened the 2020 season on Saturday with a 55-20 rout of Austin Peay and might have found a new go-to-guy on offense. Gerrid Doaks rushed for three scores and caught a touchdown pass. His continued development will help ease the pain of losing Michael Warren II to the NFL.
Up next: vs. Army (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)
The Tar Heels’ game against Charlotte on Saturday was postponed after the 49ers announced they had too many players out due to contact-tracing protocols to safely play. That means North Carolina won’t play again until the first weekend in October after opening the season with a 31-6 win over Syracuse, a victory that spotlighted a UNC defense equipped to pick up the slack even when sophomore quarterback Sam Howell doesn’t have his best stuff. That’s good news for the Tar Heels going forward.
Up next: at Boston College (Oct. 3, TBA)
Just what everybody expected from the Cowboys this season: They’re going to grind games out on defense. Well, maybe not, but it’s a good thing the Oklahoma State defense came to play Saturday in the opener — a 16-7 escape against Tulsa. The Cowboys trailed at the half after starting quarterback Spencer Sanders went down with an injury to his lower right leg and didn’t return. True freshman Shane Illingworth was the third quarterback to play for Oklahoma State and gave the Cowboys a spark with some key completions late in the third quarter. But they never found any rhythm on offense, and star running back Chuba Hubbard was unable to get on track.
Up next: vs. West Virginia (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
If somebody not named Wisconsin is going to win the Big Ten’s West Division this season, keep an eye on P.J. Fleck’s Golden Gophers, who won 11 games a year ago. Their chances to win the division will go up considerably if star wide receiver Rashod Bateman receives a waiver from the NCAA to be able to play this season after initially opting out and signing with an agent. We won’t have to wait long to get a feel for this Minnesota team. The Golden Gophers open the season at home against Michigan.
Up next: vs. Michigan (Oct. 24, TBA)
The Vols picked up a major win off the field last week when the NCAA approved Cade Mays’ waiver to play immediately this season after transferring from Georgia. The SEC still has to clear Mays to transfer within the league. If Mays gets the green light from the SEC, Tennessee should be as good as it’s been in the offensive line in a long time, especially with All-SEC performer Trey Smith back at guard. Mays played every position on the line last season for Georgia.
Up next: at South Carolina (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
With the SMU game being postponed, TCU has had some extra time — some much needed time — to sort out its quarterback situation. Max Duggan has yet to be cleared after undergoing a procedure to correct a heart condition. Sophomore Matthew Downing also has missed some practice time. But Gary Patterson said the Horned Frogs should be at full strength by the opener. Winning that game against Iowa State will be critical for TCU, especially with two of the Frogs’ first three games in October coming against Texas and Oklahoma.
Up next: vs. Iowa State (Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)
Replacing a player as dynamic as Lynn Bowden Jr. will be a challenge, but the Wildcats are optimistic they will be more balanced on offense if quarterback Terry Wilson can stay healthy after tearing the patellar tendon in his left knee last season. Some new faces need to emerge at wide receiver, and Josh Ali is somebody who could really come on during his senior season. Finding consistency in the passing game will be important, because Mark Stoops has done a terrific job of getting the Wildcats SEC-ready on the line of scrimmage.
Up next: at Auburn (Saturday, noon ET, SEC Network)
It was a little too sloppy for Pat Narduzzi’s liking, especially some of the penalties; but he has worked hard at building the kind of culture at Pittsburgh, where the Panthers can win league games even when they don’t play their best. Their 21-10 victory on Saturday over Syracuse marked the first time since 2016 that Pitt has started a season 2-0. The defense, a staple under Narduzzi, is going to give the Panthers a chance in every game. They have to keep growing on offense, though, as they face a telltale stretch over the next three weeks against Louisville, NC State and Boston College.
Up next: vs. Louisville (Saturday, noon ET, ACC Network)