NFL Sundays are for watching the world’s best players at their peak, executing the closest thing there is to perfect football. But Saturdays are where the real fun lies: turnover chains, inexplicable upsets, septuple overtime. Before my career took me to land-grant meccas like College Station, Texas, and Iowa City, Iowa, my early life in Lawrence, Kan., also revolved around a university. Now I’m bringing my love for NCAA sports (and my dislike of the NCAA) to D.C. My column celebrates the delightfully unpolished, hilariously chaotic world of college football. Look for it every Thursday.
Quarterbacks, including some familiar faces, dominate the race this year. Jalen Hurts transferred to Oklahoma for more playing time, a tactic that worked for the past two Heisman winners, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield. Bovada has him with the fourth-best odds to win. Last year, Hurts lost his starting job at Alabama to Tua Tagovailoa, who finished with the most points of any runner-up in Heisman history. He begins this season atop the odds. Trevor Lawrence, who led Clemson to a national title last season, is second. Third is Justin Fields, named Ohio State’s starter this month.
Team on the rise
Nebraska opens the season ranked No. 24 after a 4-8 season, making it the only ranked team coming off a sub-.500 record. The Huskers hadn’t appeared in the preseason top 25 since 2014. So what makes this year different? Nebraska’s young talent. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez is poised for a breakout season. It also manages to avoid Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State in the regular season. Watch second-year coach Scott Frost try to return his alma mater to its 1990s glory, starting with an easy game against South Alabama (noon Saturday, ESPN).
Team in decline
Week 0 did not go well for Arizona (0-1). Sure, it’s not easy to travel nearly 3,000 miles to play Hawaii in a game that ended after 2 a.m. EST and 11 p.m. Arizona time. And sure, Khalil Tate was less than a yard short of tying up the game on the final play. But the Wildcats were sloppy at times and failed to capitalize on six Hawaii turnovers. With the likes of No. 13 Washington, No. 25 Stanford, No. 11 Oregon and No. 14 Utah on the schedule, this team would be lucky to end the season with five wins. Second-year coach Kevin Sumlin has one of the hottest seats in college football.
Big test ahead
While No. 11 Oregon will travel much farther to Other Arlington (in Texas) than No. 16 Auburn will, it’s still a true neutral-site game (7:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC) that could reveal which team is ready to compete on a national level. Oregon has one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Justin Herbert and a win would likely bolster the Ducks’ strength of schedule — given how weak the Pac-12 usually is compared to other conferences. The Tigers have never lost to a Pac-12 opponent. (When they lost to USC in 2003 the conference was still called the Pac-10.)
A uniquely East Coast joy is watching West Coast college teams well into the night. An extremely online contingent of fans have dubbed #Pac12AfterDark, and this week it starts on a school night. BYU hosts No. 14 Utah at 10:15 p.m. Thursday on ESPN, a matchup still called the Holy War years after the Red River Shootout became a “rivalry” and the Kansas-Missouri Border War was downgraded to a “showdown.” The Utes are favored to win the Pac-12, and return their entire two-deep defensive line, including projected early-round NFL draft pick Leki Fotu.