Southern Cal is the headliner, but the possibility that Washington State is ready — like, really ready — for playoff contention is what makes this fascinating and might startle the casual fan.
The No. 16 Cougars (4-0, 1-0) are doing some of the Leachian things you would expect, like throwing the ball all over the place (Luke Falk is the triggerman for the nation’s No. 3 pass offense) and barely attention to the run (71.8 yards per game, down more than 50 yards per contest from last year).
More curious is a defense ranked 12th in the country in yards allowed and 12th against the pass. Facing Montana State, Oregon State and Nevada in the season’s first four weeks is a contributing factor, but Washington State was largely a decent defensive team after the first month of last season.
In other words, the Cougars have a credible chance to slow down the Darnold-led Trojans. And if Falk and the offense can keep converting third downs at a prodigious rate (56.7 percent, third in the country) and continue to monopolize possession better (33:08, 19th in the country and a bit up from last year’s 32:25), Washington State could well nudge its way into the playoff conversation.
It’s also the first matchup of top-20 teams in Pullman since Nov. 9, 2002, when the then-No. 5 Cougars upended No. 15 Oregon, 32-21. Toss in a Friday night kickoff and the mysterious magic of #Pac12AfterDark, and it has the elements of a raucous environment.
Clemson-Virginia Tech is the Saturday headliner, and rightfully so. But the must-see game of the weekend comes a day early to close out the first month of the season.
It might be a bit early to suggest Notre Dame (3-1) is in the midst of a full-fledged turnaround. But it isn’t too soon to say the Fighting Irish are better than last year after mauling Michigan State last week in East Lansing.
Led by a bruising rushing attack featuring both tailback Josh Adams (499 yards, two touchdowns) and quarterback Brandon Wimbush (366 yards, seven TDs), the Irish is effectively hiding a questionable passing game. Mix that with a defense that’s largely done its job, and Notre Dame might have a team capable of going 8-4 or 9-3.
The schedule certainly helps. Four of Notre Dame’s next five (including an Oct. 21 date with Southern Cal) are in South Bend before a tough closing stretch with games at Miami and Stanford sandwiched around the home finale against Navy. No one should suggest this is a team ticketed for a New Year’s Six bowl, but it is not going to repeat last year’s 4-8 debacle, either.
NO REST FOR THE WINLESS
While it’s a bit early to break down all the remaining undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (there’s 24 of them), the group of winless programs is already into single digits.
Everyone in FBS got in the win column (eventually) last year, but there might be an unfortunate team or two that slips through without a triumph in 2017. These eight teams, though, still have a couple months to salvage something.
Baylor: The Bears (0-4, 0-1 Big 12) opened with losses to Liberty and Texas-San Antonio, but Matt Rhule’s team showed some spunk in keeping things close against Oklahoma last week. Things might get worse before they get better — Baylor will visits Kansas State and Oklahoma State in its next two games — but its showing on offense last week suggests it will outscore a few teams before the year is through.
Bowling Green: In addition to losing to South Dakota of the FCS, the Falcons (0-4) have scored a combined 30 points in three games against FBS foes (Michigan State, Northwestern and Middle Tennessee). Bowling Green has fallen off considerably since winning the Mid-American title in 2013 and 2015, but it still has three division foes it defeated last year (Akron, Buffalo and Kent State) to come.
Charlotte: There’s nothing but league play remaining for the 49ers (0-4), a fifth-year program that lost to North Carolina A&T two weeks ago and became the first shutout victim in Georgia State’s history last week. A poor offense (120th nationally in total yardage, 127th in scoring) bedeviled by turnover issues (128th in turnover margin) has to improve if Charlotte is to beat a Conference USA opponent.
Florida State: Obviously an outlier, the Seminoles (0-2, 0-1 ACC) lost games to Alabama and N.C. State and two contests to Hurricane Irma. While Wake Forest (4-0, 1-0) could be a nuisance to Florida State like it was the last two years, the Seminoles should get on the board Saturday.
Georgia Southern: There are enough struggling programs in the Sun Belt that the Eagles should find some victories before long. But that isn’t likely to pacify Georgia Southern fans, who are extremely demanding and are agitated by the school’s first 0-3 start since 1994. That doesn’t bode well for Coach Tyson Summers, who is 2-10 since winning his first three games at the school last year.
Massachusetts: The Minutemen won 10 games in their first five seasons at the sport’s top level and are stuck playing an independent schedule, so it isn’t a giant surprise to see them at 0-5 so far. They nearly won at Tennessee last week, have another winless team coming to Amherst (Georgia Southern on Oct. 21) and have a date with an FCS school (Maine) at Fenway Park in November.
Nevada: Jay Norvell’s first season with the Wolf Pack is off to a rocky 0-4 start that includes a loss at home to Idaho State. Yikes. But life in the West Division of the Mountain West is forgiving, and Nevada should find some success against the likes of Fresno State, San Jose State and UNLV (combined record: 3-10). The Wolf Pack will visit Fresno State on Saturday.
Texas-El Paso: The Miners (0-4) play five of their last eight on the road, and all three teams visiting El Paso are considered Conference USA contenders (Louisiana Tech, Texas-San Antonio and Western Kentucky). The statistical markers are bleak across the board, but considering UTEP is built for a power rushing attack, owning the nation’s worst rushing offense (62.8 yards per game) is especially troubling. This team could be winless for a while, perhaps even heading into a Nov. 25 finale at UAB.
FIVE TO WATCH
No. 5 USC at No. 16 Washington State (Friday, 10:30 p.m., ESPN): Might this be the toughest road test of the year for the Trojans? Quite possibly. They won at California last week and still have Notre Dame, Arizona State and Colorado to visit.
No. 7 Georgia at Tennessee (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS): The Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 SEC) can all but knock the Volunteers (3-1, 0-1) out of the SEC East race if they snap a two-game slide against Tennessee. And if that happens, it won’t be a fun week to be Vols Coach Butch Jones.
No. 24 Mississippi State at No. 13 Auburn (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN): Louisiana State could not neutralize Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald, but Georgia did. That explained the wildly different results the Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1) got the last two weeks. If Auburn (3-1, 1-0) defends the way it has early in the year, it could be a rough night on the Plains for Fitzgerald and his teammate.
Memphis at Central Florida (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN2): This game was originally scheduled to be played three weeks ago, but Hurricane Irma put the kibosh on that. Since then, Memphis (3-0) has knocked off UCLA while Central Florida (2-0) throttled Maryland, making this a fascinating American Athletic Conference opener.
No. 2 Clemson at No. 12 Virginia Tech (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC): A rematch of last year’s ACC title game closes out a tough September for the defending national champion Tigers (4-0, 2-0), who have already beaten Auburn and Louisville and are coming off playing one great quarter of offense against Boston College. The Hokies (4-0) have recorded shutouts in two of the last three weeks, but this will be the best team they’ve seen this year.