When Texas beat USC to win the national title in 2006, it was the last year a team from the SEC did not win the BCS title. This year, both programs are embattled, with USC coach Lane Kiffin and Texas coach Mack Brown under fire after disastrous losses in week two. I wrote in my college football preview that Stanford had a chance to be to Alabama what Texas was to USC, which, like Alabama, was going for a three-peat the year they lost to Texas in the Rose Bowl, the site of this year’s national title game. Since Texas won the national title, the SEC has dominated dominated the college football landscape, and college football’s game of the year will put an even greater focus on the all-powerful conference when Alabama travels to Texas A&M for the rematch the college football world has spent nine months anticipating. Here are ten storylines to watch in week three.
1. Alabama-Texas A&M Showdown — The first two weeks of the season really have been nothing more than a build-up to this colossal showdown on Saturday (3:30 PM EDT, CBS). Alabama’s offensive line did not look to be in sync against Virginia Tech, and Texas A&M’s defense has looked porous against Rice and Sam Houston State–hardly powerhouses. To be fair, though, both teams probably did not want to reveal wrinkles in their respective game plans for the showdown both have spent the offseason preparing. Though Alabama struggled against Bud Foster’s talented Virginia Tech defense–by Alabama’s standards–they still won the game convincingly. Alabama’s young defense, though, may be prone to giving up big plays, as they did on Virginia Tech Trey Edmunds’ 77-yard touchdown run in the opener. This is something Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel can exploit perhaps more than any other player in the nation.
I still contend that LSU–and not Texas A&M–defeated Alabama last year, as Alabama looked exhausted–and emotionally spent–after a come-from-behind victory in the waning seconds the week before at Death Valley. Alabama kept Manziel in check for most of the second half in last year’s loss, and Manziel’s “Heisman moment” only came about because Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri left his zone to pursue what he thought was a Johnny Manziel fumble, leaving Ryan Swope wide open in the vacated area in the middle of the end zone for the memorable touchdown. The team that wins this game looks to, on paper, only have LSU in the way between a trip to Pasadena to play for the BCS title game.
2. Stanford — The Cardinal were the last FBS team to start play, and they showed they will be just as tough and nasty as they were last year. There is a huge difference this season, though. Stanford has a dual-threat quarterback and a better vertical passing game that will finally take some pressure off its stellar defense and give its defenders some rest. The showdown with Oregon later in the year looms, but Stanford looks like the team that may be Alabama’s toughest challenger should they meet for the title game.
3. Georgia, South Carolina Trading Places — In my college football preview, I wrote that the team that lost between Clemson and Georgia in week one had to be careful not to spiral downward. Georgia lost that game, but won a huge game after that heartbreaking against South Carolina. Now South Carolina, a team many thought would play Alabama in the SEC title game and have a Heisman Trophy contender in Jadeveon Clowney, trades places with Georgia and is on disaster watch. The Gamecocks now must be careful they do not lose this season in the next month.
4. Teddy Bridgewater is the Heisman Frontrunner — Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. The Cardinals’ easy schedule will allow him to put up video-game like numbers while dynamic threats like De’Anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota of Oregon will split stats and votes. As Yahoo News’s Pat Forde, who has written a lot about Charlie Strong over the years, observed, though, Strong will have to decide whether to keep putting up style points in lopsided victories, which may not be in his nature. That is a dynamic that will be interesting to watch going forward and started to rear its head last weekend, as Strong lit into Bridgewater when the quarterback waived off the punt team late in the second quarter. All Bridgewater has done in two games is throw for 752 yards and nine touchdowns. Louisville–and Bridgewater’s–dominant performance against Florida in last year’s Sugar Bowl will not be diminished because Louisville returns nearly every starter from that game.
5. Clemson-Florida State — The showdown between Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and Florida State redshirt freshman sensation quarterback Jameis Winston on October 19th may have national title ramifications for a conference that has been far from relevant for too long.
6. Miami and the ACC – Miami jumped into the AP Top 25 at number 15 with a win over a Florida (I thought the Gators were overrated and that is why they were not in my Top 10 in the my preseason Power 10), and with Florida State and Clemson looking dominant, a strong but inexperienced Miami team could lose games it should win while slaying teams like Florida State and potentially Clemson in the ACC title game, which would lessen the chances of an ACC team making it to Pasadena. Miami can cause good–and perhaps bad–disruptions this year.
7. UCLA — Quarterback Brett Hundley is a legitimate dual-threat option who is as effective a pocket passer as he is a runner, which is saying a lot given how elusive he is outside the pocket. UCLA has a tough defense, young recruits who are contributing significant minutes, and a coach in Jim Mora who is reminiscent of Pete Carroll when he revived crosstown rival USC. UCLA tragically lost walk-on wide receiver Nick Pasquale this weekend, and the team will surely rally around his memory. They face a strong test against Nebraska on Saturday that may also be a sign of how strong both the Pac-12 and Big 10 conferences are.
8. Ole Miss/Texas — Backed by one of the best recruiting classes in the nation and in the program’s history, Ole Miss seems poised to make a statement this Saturday in Austin, and Texas seems like a program that is on the verge of reeling. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, though, has to do a better job getting his playmakers the ball in the clutch, and his inability to do so may ultimately be the team’s downfall in close games. The matchup with Texas looms large for both teams, and it looks like a game that will either vault Ole Miss to the upper echelon of the SEC or be the beginning of Mack Brown’s potential end at Texas.
9. Washington – The Huskies were better than Boise St. was bad in Washington’s dominant win in week one. And with USC’s struggles, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who was a co-offensive coordinator with Kiffin during the latter part of Pete Carroll’s tenure at USC, will be coveted by the USC faithful just like UCLA fans wanted Washington basketball coach Lorenzo Romar when the program struggled in Westwood. Boise State’s running back Jay Ajayi looks impressive. Boise quarterback Joe Southwick is not as dynamic as Kellen Moore or some of others from their past–like Dan Orlovsky and Jared Zabranski–but he is an effective game manager for a team that will continue to get better. Boise’s potential success may make Washington’s win look more impressive, as Sarkisian, quarterback Keith Price and renovated Husky Stadium were electric. Before Autzen became what it is today, Washington may have been the toughest stadium in which to play in the then-Pac-10. But this week Washington heads to Illinois to prove whether they will really be a team that Pac-12 teams will have to reckon with this season.
10. Ohio State at Cal — California and true freshman quarterback Jared Goff were two fluke interceptions and a questionable “targeting” call, which left Cal without their best pass rusher for much of the second half, away from upsetting No. 22 Northwestern in week one. This team is different from former head coach Jeff Tedford’s teams, and new head coach Sonny Dykes is a riverboat gambler. Cal had plenty of talent under Tedford, the former Oregon offensive coordinator who built California’s program. But often, superstars like Desean Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, Jahvid Best, and even Aaron Rodgers played tight, and the Bears had trouble winning big games against teams like USC the last decade. This team is not nearly as talented as those Bears teams as of now, but they seem to play freer and will disrupt the Pac-10 and perhaps even the national title picture if Ohio State does not watch out. Ohio State had trouble against Cal last year in Columbus and could not put the Bears away easily, and the uncertain status of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller will be a concern for the Buckeyes. Though Cal’s secondary looked extremely vulnerable in their win against Portland State, it may get a break if Miller cannot play this week, as Miller’s running ability actually opens up more big-play opportunities for the Buckeyes.