Sports

As elite teams reveal flaws, opportunity arises for Ohio State, USC, others

By Bryan Fischer
FOX Sports College Football Writer

Five weeks into the season, we are no longer constrained by a lack of sample size. Now, when reflecting on various college football programs, it’s more about who they are than about who they can become.

This is especially true at the top, where the elite tier of teams no longer looks, well, as elite as expected. Flaws have been revealed. Maybe that championship chase is just a bit more wide open than anticipated.

Georgia hangs on, Michigan and Clemson impress

RJ Young discusses some of the biggest games from Week 5, including Georgia’s comeback win over Missouri.

Last year felt like an inevitable march toward an AlabamaGeorgia championship rematch. The Tide had been proven mortal on a memorable night in College Station, but even so, they still appeared to just be experiencing temporary growing pains as they reloaded ahead of schedule. The talent gap between them and the rest of college football (bar one) was still there. And Nick Saban, as always, was roaming the sideline.

As for the Bulldogs, we all knew that for whatever limitations or questions there were around quarterback Stetson Bennett, they could still fall back on the sport’s best defensive unit in more than a decade.

Now? Those two programs have come back to the pack as much as others have elevated themselves. 

Alabama faced doubts early after escaping its trip to Austin, narrowly beating a Texas team on Sept. 10 that has serious issues closing out games. Now that’s manifested three-fold after Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young suffered a shoulder injury Saturday against Arkansas. Saban is optimistic Young will play against Texas A&M this coming weekend, but such injuries can be tricky to manage when you’re just one big blow away from exiting the game.

Escape is an apt descriptor for what Georgia did against Missouri, too. The Bulldogs were down double-digits in the fourth quarter to a team that hadn’t beaten a Power 5 program. The Dawgs were allergic to the goal-line when they entered the red zone and seemed to not be aware that they had a couple of tight ends who are nightmares to cover. Bennett was just 24-for-43, neither a good percentage nor an optimal run-pass mix. The offense has also turned the ball over five times in the past two weeks against defenses likely to be closer to 100 in the national rankings than No. 1.

All of which presents a massive opportunity for others intent on contending.

RJ Young’s Top 25: Ohio State moves up to No. 1

Ohio State has moved into the top spot in RJ Young’s Top 25 after an impressive win over Rutgers. Find out who else made his list.

Ohio State

Chief among them is one of the other elite outfits in Ohio State. Some doubt the Buckeyes due to the fact they only beat Notre Dame by 11 in their season-opener. Since then, though, they’ve won by 33, 56, 31 and 39 points. They have not come close to their peak yet either.

Against Rutgers on Saturday, QB C.J. Stroud was just 13-for-22 for 154 yards. To go with a lower-than-expected seven yards per attempt, he also threw an interception along with two touchdowns. Starting tailback TreVeyon Henderson was held out of the game, and top wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba still appears to be several weeks away from a return while dealing with a hamstring.

Yet OSU has just steamrolled. Backup Miyan Williams tied a school record with five rushing touchdowns and cracked the century mark in yardage for a second straight weekend. Even with Smith-Njigba out, the Buckeyes sport three receivers with at least four touchdowns, and Marvin Harrison Jr., with six, is just two scores shy of the national lead.

More notable is the improvement in the defense under new coordinator Jim Knowles. This unit tackles considerably better than a year ago and is not quite as prone to coverage busts as it once was despite their DC’s penchant for overloading up front and bringing extra pressure. The competition level is what it is, but OSU is allowing a full touchdown less per game in 2022 (14.8 PPG) than in 2021 (22.8 PPG).

The Buckeyes have a chance to prove themselves further with road trips to Michigan State and Penn State sandwiched around hosting Iowa at the Horseshoe, too. 

This was always shaping up to be a season where the window was open for Ryan Day to get over the hump and win that national title. He’s got the veteran top-tier quarterback, a roster stocked with skill position talent, and a defense capable of getting stops when needed. There are still a few things to nitpick, but Ohio State is as advertised when it comes to not just reaching the College Football Playoff, but winning the whole thing. 

Miyan Williams dashes for long TD

Ohio State took a 35-10 lead over Rutgers after Miyan Williams ripped off a 70-yard TD run.

USC

If expectations are more than being met in Columbus, the same can be said at USC — and then some. Lincoln Riley was expected to make an impact upon his arrival in Los Angeles but has elevated the chatter from contending in the Pac-12 to a clear pathway to a semifinal in Year 1.

Quarterback Caleb Williams being fully simpatico with his head coach is a big reason. Bouncing back from a sub-standard outing in Corvallis, the sophomore was toying with Arizona State’s defense at the Coliseum late Saturday. He was borderline untouchable in the pocket with his elusiveness, completing 73% of his passes for 348 yards and four total touchdowns. 

He did have an ill-advised throw into the end zone that was picked off for his first interception of the year, but Williams still looks on his way to being the best signal-caller in cardinal and gold since Matt Leinart was tossing it around the yard with Reggie Bush.

Even the Trojans’ defense, derided as it is for giving up 5.52 yards/play, is third in the Pac-12 in points allowed and has the most takeaways in the country.

Skepticism around USC coming out of the Clay Helton era has fully given way to optimism about competing at a higher level sooner than expected.

Oklahoma State

While the Big 12’s depth has created a chaos-filled component to every league game, there’s a clear leader of the pack after Oklahoma State went into Waco and extracted some measure of revenge for their agonizing championship game loss to Baylor last season. Spencer Sanders has continued to play more efficiently than ever since taking the reins at quarterback under Mike Gundy, completing 20 of 29 passes against the Bears and using his legs for a number of chain-advancing scrambles.

Derek Mason, taking over for Knowles, has also kept the Cowboys stiff on the other side of the ball. They grabbed two crucial turnovers and limited Baylor, a team built on rushing the ball, to just 3-for-11 on third down and 112 yards on the ground.

Highlights: Oklahoma State tops Baylor

No. 9 Oklahoma State defeated No. 16 Baylor on Saturday as QB Spencer Sanders passed for 181 yards and a touchdown.

Clemson

On the East Coast, Clemson might be back to looking more like Clemson than it has at any point in the past two years. The Tigers have flaws, but are top 10 in third-down conversions and have quarterback DJ Uiagalelei looking much more like the freshman who burst onto the scene a couple of years ago.

Uiagalelei now has thrown 11 touchdowns against just one pick and is averaging nearly eight yards per attempt. He’s also a dangerous weapon with his big frame, punching it in twice against N.C. State. With their last two wins, the Tigers have all but locked up a trip to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game.

The eye test says Dabo Swinney’s group still isn’t quite up to 2015-19 vintage, but given that everybody else is similarly flawed, the door is open for them to get back to the top.

Five weeks into the season, the field of contenders has increased, not whittled down. Opportunity is surely knocking for teams like Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma State, Clemson and others. Will they take advantage? 

Contractual Conjecture

When it comes to the list of most disappointing teams in 2022, coaching contracts may weigh heavily in the discussion. 

You can begin in East Lansing, where Michigan State showed it is capable of investing plenty of resources into the program by handing out a 10-year, $95 million fully guaranteed deal to Mel Tucker, who was 16-14 at the time. 

The mega-deal came amid Tucker’s name surfacing in connection with LSU’s opening and amid one of the more impressive turnaround stories of 2021. After Mark Dantonio left the Spartans high and dry, Tucker had gotten the team back to being competitive in the Big Ten and had notched two wins over rival Michigan.

Things were certainly trending in the right direction, but skepticism was widespread — and warranted in light of MSU’s start to 2022. The Spartans were preseason top 15 in the polls and had a somewhat favorable schedule with Ohio State and Wisconsin at home.

Instead, they’ve lost three straight. Sparty didn’t just lose to Maryland 27-13, they were never competitive and got shut out in the second half. They missed a field goal, had special teams snafus, and never got any sort of push up front to protect QB Payton Thorne or establish the run.

As if that weren’t enough for fans of the green and white, being stunningly uncompetitive outside of beating up on some MAC teams has put Michigan State in a position to go from ranked in the early polls to missing a bowl game completely. They still have to play Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, and are not at all assured of sweeping the likes of Wisconsin, Rutgers, Indiana and Illinois at this point.

Not to be outdone, things are in even more of a crisis mode down in College Station after Texas A&M took one on the chin at Mississippi State. It was the Aggies’ sixth time in Jimbo Fisher’s five seasons that a ranked A&M squad has lost to an unranked team. The school extended the coach with a fresh 10-year contract that included four more years and a whopping $50 million of guaranteed money beyond the hefty amounts he was already owed. 

Hearing such figures will be hard to swallow for Aggies everywhere, as the program is not any closer to competing for a national title than it was under Kevin Sumlin. 

Relief won’t come anytime soon either as both Michigan State and Texas A&M play top-three opponents this Saturday. 

Hoops Heaven

Sometimes the basketball blue bloods are thinking about Midnight Madness this time of year. Other times, they’re fully focused on football. 2022 falls firmly into the latter.

Updating a stat first noted a few weeks ago, the six winningest Power 5 basketball programs (Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Syracuse and UCLA) are a combined 27-3 on the gridiron. One of those losses was to each other when Kansas beat Duke, another was to a top-10 team on the road. All but two are ranked in the top 25 and even that outsider pair (UNC/Duke) received votes in the polls.

UConn, which doesn’t have the sheer number of basketball wins as the teams listed above but does have 15 hoops championships — four men’s, 11 women’s — also notched a big victory by beating Fresno State, 19-14. That was its first win over an FBS team since topping UMass on Oct. 26, 2019 — 1,050 days ago.

The Huskies and Jayhawks also won a football game on the same day for just the second time in a decade. 

Make It Make Sense

UTEP won its first game ever in the Eastern Time Zone with a 41-35 victory over Charlotte. The Miners were previously 0-26-1. 

Saturday Superlatives

Best Player: Zay Flower, Boston College

Team of the Week: Georgia Tech

Goat of the Week: Bryan Harsin, Auburn

Heisman Five: 1. Bryce Young (Alabama), 2. C.J. Stroud (Ohio State), 3. Caleb Williams (USC), 4. Brock Bowers (Georgia), 5. Hendon Hooker (Tennessee).

Projected Playoff: 1. Ohio State, 2. Alabama, 3. Georgia, 4. USC

Tweet of the Week

Super 16

Here’s how I voted in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll this week.

1. Ohio State
2. Alabama
3. Georgia
4. USC
5. Oklahoma State
6. Clemson
7. Penn State
8. Michigan
9. TCU
10. Ole Miss
11. Utah
12. Tennessee
13. UCLA
14. Kansas
15. Oregon
16. Wake Forest

Just missed the cut: Kentucky

Best of the rest: N.C. State, UCLA, Mississippi State, BYU, Washington, Kansas State, Cincinnati, Baylor

Pre-Snap Reads

TCU at Kansas (Noon ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app)

The Big 12 has regressed into much more of a defensive league, but that persona will be shed when the No. 12 scoring offense in FBS tries to keep pace with the No. 2 unit. Pay particular attention to how each involves the QB in the run game and the amount of misdirection to set up big plays between the tackles. This might be the biggest game ever in Lawrence, and the atmosphere could be electric. KU has played TCU close in recent years but will need some heroic defensive plays to keep it close.

Texas vs. Oklahoma (Noon ET)

This is the first unranked vs. unranked meeting in Red River since 1998. Among the No. 1 hits that year was Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Given that this is always a heated rivalry game and the stakes are high, you probably don’t want to miss a play with the potential for chaos at every turn.

Utah at UCLA (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)

The Utes’ run defense has been uncharacteristically less sharp than in other years under Kyle Whittingham. That’s a problem when facing a team with Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet, who are both averaging over 6.4 yards a rush. Playing in the day at the Rose Bowl takes out an element of craziness that always seems to happen in late Pac-12 games, so the lean is still with Utah doing just enough to get by.

Texas A&M at Alabama (8 p.m. ET)

Nick Saban has likely been saving up a little extra for this game after the war of words with Jimbo Fisher this offseason. The Aggies can’t move the ball down the field with any efficiency and this could be a long one for the visitors, no matter if Young is full go.

Washington State at USC (7:30 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)

Wazzu is 116th in the country in turnover margin (-4) while USC leads the nation at +14. That will prove to be the difference as the Cougars just can’t keep up with the pace of the Trojans early on in what should otherwise be a tight, fun game at the Coliseum. 

Read more:

– Alabama retakes No. 1 spot in AP Top 25

– 10 incredible stats from Week 5

– Michigan shows what Iowa lacks: The ability to score when needed

– Heisman watch: Blake Corum, Adrian Martinez on the rise

– Michigan-Iowa: Highlights from Live Tailgate Party

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.


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