Takeaways from the weeknight appetizers:
After Southern Cal suffered a deflating loss in overtime to BYU last weekend, speculation intensified as to the future of Trojans Coach Clay Helton, who entered this season under scrutiny following last year’s 5-7 finish, and whose status seemed shakier after Lynn Swann resigned as athletic director.
That Urban Meyer, a coaching free agent, was at the Coliseum on Friday night as part of the Fox pre- and postgame announcing team added another layer of intrigue heading into USC’s game against 10th-ranked Utah.
The prospects of the Trojans staging an upset appeared to take a significant hit when quarterback Kedon Slovis left with a possible head injury on the opening drive, leaving Helton to turn to third-stinger Matt Fink, a redshirt junior who had submitted his name into the transfer portal following last season.
All Fink did was complete 21 of 30 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-23 win that put the Trojans in early control of the Pac-12 South with games against ranked opponents the next two weeks. Those outcomes figure to go a long way toward determining if Helton is back next season.
The Pac-12′s playoff chances: The Utes, at least going into the weekend, were the Pac-12′s best hope to reach the College Football Playoff. The loss to USC altered those plans dramatically, leaving a dearth of contenders in the weakest conference among the Power Five.
Last year, the league eliminated itself from playoff contention by the end of September. This year, its already down to three undefeated teams — Arizona State, California and Washington State — none of whom could be considered realistic hopefuls for the national title.
Disciplined football: The Utah-USC game featured a combined 27 penalties costing both teams 237 yards.
The Utes committed 16 penalties for 120 yards, uncharacteristic of Coach Kyle Whittingham’s typically fundamentally sound teams. Those miscues in part allowed USC to win despite being outgained in total yards, 457-381, and rushing for just 13 yards.
The mistakes went beyond penalties. The Utes also lost a fumble at the Trojans 2-yard line trailing 14-10 just before halftime, and quarterback Tyler Huntley took a sack for a six-yard loss on third and goal from the 1 in the fourth quarter when a touchdown would have given the Utes the lead.
Disciplined announcing: Fox Sports analyst Reggie Bush — who, thanks to severe NCAA sanctions given to USC for impermissible benefits when he played there in the early 2000s, wouldn’t even be allowed on the field at a Trojans game were he not working — helped earn one of those penalties, for celebrating a touchdown with players in the end zone.
Boise State: The Broncos pulled away from Air Force down the stretch for a 30-19 victory in what has become one of the more entertaining rivalries in the Mountain West over the past half a dozen years.
The triumph not only kept No. 20 Boise State unbeaten (4-0) but also allowed the Broncos to stay in contention as the Group of Five representative to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Tulane: The Green Wave could have settled for overtime when it got the ball back after Houston’s tying field goal. Instead, it did this:
And then this:
The Green Wave is now 3-1 and a serious threat to post consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1997-98. Coach Willie Fritz has won everywhere he’s gone (Central Missouri, Sam Houston State, Georgia Southern), so it’s little surprise he’s revitalized Tulane as well.
High noon in Madison
Saturday night’s Notre Dame-Georgia showdown understandably has sucked up much of the oxygen in the sport: It’s a pair of schools with playoff appearances within the last two years and serious hopes of getting there this year.
But there are three other matchups of undefeated teams this week: Air Force-Boise State on Friday, SMU-TCU and Michigan-Wisconsin, which might be the most intriguing matchup of the weekend even if chances are good it turns into a 21-15 slog.
(That isn’t a randomly chosen score. Michigan has outscored Wisconsin 62-44 over the last three years, which includes a 38-point showing last season).
For Wisconsin (2-0), the Big Ten opener figures to be far more challenging than its season-opening shutouts of South Florida (49-0) and Central Michigan (61-0). As such, it will be the Badgers’ best barometer since wrapping up a disappointing 8-5 season last year.
Yet even with a loaded crossover schedule against the Big Ten East — Wisconsin also gets Michigan State and Ohio State this season — Paul Chryst’s team still dwells in the conference’s West Division, which means staying in contention for a league title won’t get overwhelmingly more difficult with a defeat.
The Wolverines (2-0), however, reside in the East and still have to deal with Ohio State and Penn State.
This was supposed to be Michigan’s turn atop the East. Ohio State has a new coach. Penn State graduated its quarterback and top rusher. Only the Buckeyes have been sharp under Ryan Day, and Penn State is averaging a healthy 47 points a game. Michigan State’s continued inability to score against capable defenses is one of the few things to make the East seem more manageable.
There are also the Wolverines’ in-house issues. The offense has struggled, and the team has had two weeks to ponder barely avoiding a loss to a quality Army team.
Some of the questions can be swatted away by noting Oklahoma needed overtime to beat Army last year and still earned a playoff berth. But a Wolverines loss, even in Madison, makes the sniping a little bit louder as they attempt to get past the 10-3 barrier — the record they’ve finished with in three of Coach Jim Harbaugh’s four seasons. With the other East powerhouses and Notre Dame still to come, Michigan could be on its way to matching that mark again if it trips up Saturday.
Teams with the most at stake in Week 4
1 and 1a. Auburn and Texas A&M. The only teams that have to face Alabama, Georgia and LSU face each other before dealing with any of those SEC hegemons. Auburn (3-0) doesn’t want to leave College Station with a loss and no margin for error the rest of the way. A defeat would also be deflating for the Aggies (2-1), whose hopes of a breakout season would fade considerably with a setback.
2. Michigan. It’s covered above, but the point is worth reiterating: If the Wolverines follow up their overtime escape against Army by sputtering at Wisconsin, the scrutiny on Harbaugh will probably peak. And that’s saying something, given what a magnet for attention he’s been since taking over in Ann Arbor.
3. Notre Dame. Would an 11-1 Notre Dame team with a loss at Georgia get the benefit of the doubt from the playoff committee? Considering the Irish’s remaining schedule, it’s not overwhelmingly likely. Notre Dame could always win out against the likes of Virginia, Michigan and Stanford, but this is Ian Book and Co.’s best chance to make an impression.
4. Georgia. The Bulldogs are on the spot, too, but at least a better remaining schedule (Florida, Auburn, possibly the SEC title game) give them more chances to make a playoff push than Notre Dame does with a loss.
5. Appalachian State. A matchup 79 years in the making, the Mountaineers (2-0) get a shot at North Carolina in Chapel Hill. It’s only the second meeting all-time between the in-state schools and the first since 1940. The good news for App State? Even if its exuberance doesn’t help it knock off the Tar Heels this time, the teams are still scheduled to play again in 2022 and 2023.