Forward Pass: Ohio State might be too talented for its own good

While waiting inside the interview room at the Rose Bowl late Saturday night, myself and a couple other writers tried to make sense of the many unexpected results around the country that day. One person put it best: “How do we know who’s good and who’s bad?”

Three weeks in, I can’t say that we do.

Not only have several preseason darlings (Auburn, Arizona State) failed to pan out, but even teams we wrote off after Week 1 (Stanford) have already risen from the ashes, while some teams we gushed over (you know … Ohio State?) now have questions.

“Without any preseason games, these first few games are really hard,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told FOX Sports on Sunday. “I would not try to pass any judgment on anyone until they’ve played three or four conference games.”

Clearly coaches are much more patient than sportswriters. I will now promptly ignore that advice and pinpoint the few things I feel absolutely certain about so far this season.

The SEC championship will not be decided in the state of Alabama.

Each of the past seven years, the late-November Iron Bowl held SEC and/or national championship implications for one or both teams. That streak now stands in serious jeopardy.

While coaches poll voters inexplicably kept Auburn in their rankings Sunday, the Tigers would need to magically fix their interception-spewing quarterback, subpar rushing attack and porous defense to remain a contender for anything north of the Independence Bowl. And while I wouldn’t write any Alabama obits just yet after the Tide’s wild 43-37 defeat to Ole Miss, this year’s team is not likely to run the table from here like last year’s edition did.

There’s a much better chance the Game of the Year in the SEC will include some combination of LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. In fact, new Heisman frontrunner Leonard Fournette closes out the season against the Rebels (Nov. 21) and the Aggies (Nov. 28). A&M visits Ole Miss on Oct. 24.

Ohio State is mortal.

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Alas, it appears we will go yet another season without seeing college football’s elusive unicorn – The Unbeatable Preseason No. 1 Team. Following in the footsteps of 2005 USC, 2009 Florida, 2013 Alabama and 2014 Florida State, 2015 Ohio State appears to be yet another ostensibly loaded defending national champ that, it turns out, has issues just like everyone else.

Mind you, the Buckeyes’ are particularly puzzling. How does an offense with Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett, Ezekiel Elliott, Braxton Miller, Michael Thomas and four veteran O-lineman score just 13 points against Northern Illinois? Like those aforementioned teams, Ohio State will likely remain a contender into December but hardly the overwhelming favorite it appeared a couple of weeks ago.

Notre Dame is for real.

If you weren’t sold on the sixth-ranked Irish before, you really should be now after Jaylon Smith and that defense completely shut down Georgia Tech’s normally prolific triple-option offense. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer performed admirably in place of Malik Zaire. For whatever reason this team can’t stop suffering injuries — even during seemingly innocuous celebrations – but thus far remains unaffected. Case in point, two weeks after losing No. 1 tailback Tarean Folston, replacement C.J. Prosise went for 198 yards and three touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets.

Georgia Tech was one of the four red-letter opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule. The other three, Clemson, USC and Stanford, have all looked mortal. Which means Showtime could be getting a heck of a series out of this season.

The Big 12 is going to be a hot mess again.

America’s favorite dysfunctional conference currently boasts two of the top five teams in the AP poll. What could go wrong?

Well for starters, No. 3 TCU is currently on pace to lose 12 defensive starters by season’s end (it’s averaging one a week); No. 15 Oklahoma, whose defense shut down Tennessee a week earlier, reverted to 2011-14 form in a 52-38 shootout against Tulsa, whose offense is essentially Baylor-lite; and Baylor itself sits 80th in scoring defense (in a three-way tie) despite playing three patsies. Meanwhile, Texas Tech, West Virginia and yes, Texas, appear to be improved. The ‘Horns lost to Cal in excruciating fashion Saturday night, but not before savior quarterback Jerrod Heard racked up a school-record 527 yards of offense.

No chance anyone’s running the table in that conference, so brace yourselves now for another round of, “But they don’t play a championship game!!!”

Northwestern has the best defense in the country.

IF YOU GOT IT, FLAUNT IT

What, you think I’m joking? This is a factual statement.

The 3-0 Wildcats are currently allowing 5.3 points per game, No. 1 nationally. Stanford, which put up 41 points on USC last weekend, could not get in the end zone against now 17th-ranked Northwestern in a 16-6 Week 1 loss. Duke, which averaged 46 points in its first two outings, scored just one touchdown in Saturday’s 19-10 loss. Linebacker Anthony Walker and defensive end Dean Lowry have been absolutely dominant in both games.

“It’s the most athletic defense overall that we’ve had, and it always starts up front,” said 10th-year Northwestern coach Fitzgerald, who himself played linebacker on a No. 1-ranked scoring defense (12.7 ppg) in 1995. “The chemistry and the camaraderie is back to where it was when we were going to bowl games every year [from 2008-12.]” 

Will the aforementioned statement still hold true in November? Probably not, but then, what do I know? Two weeks ago I thought Auburn’s defense was much-improved and Stanford’s offense was a trainwreck. Wrong on both counts.

But now that we’ve got a whopping three weeks of data, you can definitely take the declarations above as gospel.

ARE THE BUCKEYES OVERTHINKING THINGS?

Even before the 2014 season ended, many fans and media had already begun wondering how the heck Ohio State would manage its unprecedented wealth of accomplished quarterbacks come 2015. Over the months that followed, it became increasingly clear that Urban Meyer was still trying to figure it out himself.

Three weeks into the season, he may in fact be farther from an answer than he was when it started.

Ohio State’s puzzling 20-13 scare against NIU turned what was once a mostly fun debate – who should the Buckeyes start at quarterback? — into a full-blown headache. Meyer, who insisted for two weeks that Jones would remain his starter, benched Jones for Barrett after the former threw two first-half interceptions. But Barrett (11-of-19 for 97 yards, one TD, one INT) proved barely more effective than Jones (4-of-9 for 36 yards), and the OSU offense finished with fewer than 300 total yards (298) at home for the first time in Meyer’s tenure.

“Right now, we’re not the No. 1 team in the country,” star tailback Ezekiel Elliott said afterward. “We have the potential to be the best team in the country, but right now, the way we’re playing, we’re not.”

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On the heels of a ho-hum performance against Hawaii a week earlier, Meyer after the NIU game described his ostensibly loaded offense as “discombobulated.” Asked who would start at quarterback this week against Western Michigan, he replied, “Good question.”

Ohio State’s offense looked like a well-oiled machine in the second half of the season opener against Virginia Tech, but it’s otherwise been largely disjointed. Losing renowned coordinator Tom Herman, now the head coach at Houston, is an undeniable factor. Meyer has said that he and new coordinator Ed Warinner are still trying to figure out their play-calling system. In an unusual twist, Warinner still doubles as offensive line coach. (Tim Beck is the quarterback coach.)

More than anything, though, it may be that the Buckeyes are simply overthinking this thing. With so many shiny toys to play with – Braxton Miller as Wildcat quarterback, Curtis Samuel as a receiver, Jalin Marshall on jet sweeps – it’s almost as if they forget sometimes they’ve got a tailback, Elliott, who finished last season with three straight 200-yard games. Elliott ran 23 times for 108 yards against the Huskies with a long gain of 13.  Top receiver Michael Thomas had just three catches for 60 yards and a touchdown.

But sooner than later, Meyer is going to have to pick a quarterback and stay with him. Fortunately for both he and the Buckeyes, their defense remains an unquestioned strength, with Darron Lee’s pick-six bailing them out Saturday, and the short-term schedule remains pretty darn light.

Last year’s Ohio State offense got exponentially better over the course of the season. But of course, that team only changed quarterbacks because it had to.

PAC-12 SOUTH STILL RUNS THROUGH TUCSON

Arizona, the defending Pac-12 South champ, is 3-0 to start the season and ranked 16th in both major polls. The Wildcats’ conference opener this Saturday night was deemed important enough to merit a visit from ESPN’s GameDay. And yet Arizona, as is often the case, is an underdog to its visitor, No. 9 UCLA.

This writer, in fact, attended the Bruins’ 24-23 win over Top 20 foe BYU on Saturday and promptly declared them the Pac-12 South’s team to beat.

“I think we’re probably always going to be the underdog,” Rich Rodriguez told FOX Sports on Sunday. “The history of the school is Arizona has always been that way, and frankly, we’re probably a little better off that way, because a lot these guys came here with a chip on their shoulder.”

Rarely does a game in late September determine a championship, but it’s at least plausible that win or lose, UCLA and Arizona will be vying for the division crown come late November. Certainly No. 18 Utah (3-0) would beg to differ, and it’s too soon to write off Arizona State (though its offense is troubling) or USC (whose defense is … yeesh.)

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It’s been hard to get a true gauge on Rodriguez’s team, which has thus far beaten UTSA (42-32), Nevada (44-20) and Northern Arizona (77-13). Sophomore QB Anu Solomon sports a nifty 10-to-0 TD-to-INT ratio but against weak competition. The defense has struggled but has been playing without All-American LB Scooby Wright, who could return from his knee injury Saturday. (Rodriguez said they’ll know later this week.)

UCLA, on the other hand, is hardly hiding its identity. Paul Perkins leads a lethal rushing attack, Myles Jack a swarming defense, and freshman QB Josh Rosen will apparently swing the season. The Bruins looked like national champs-in-waiting when Rosen shredded Virginia in his first college start. On Saturday, however, when he threw three ugly interceptions, UCLA needed a late-game touchdown drive to survive a tough BYU team.

Afterward, though, Bruins coaches and players spun the close call as a positive, given that fourth-year coach Jim Mora’s teams’ penchant in the past for imploding against physical teams like the Cougars. Mora in fact called it a “significant win for our program.”

“It was a testament to our toughness,” said linebacker Deon Hollins. "Last year, I don’t think we win that game. For us as a team to come back from the three interceptions, a lot of the things on defense, it was really big for us.”

It gets bigger this week.

Pac-12 coaches I spoke to during the offseason believed UCLA to be the most talented team in the conference, and as Rodriguez noted, most of the Bruins’ lineup from last year is back, save for a different quarterback. But this will be Rosen’s first big road start, against a team that’s played on bigger stages than this.

Even if most of us seemed to forget that as soon as last year ended.

THIS WEEK’S BOWL FORECAST

Each week, I’ll update my predicted lineup for the New Year’s Six bowls based on the latest week’s games.

Alabama has not missed the BCS/New Year’s 6 bowls since playing in the Capital One Bowl following the 2010 season. The Tide went 9-3 in the regular season that year, most notably blowing the Iron Bowl against Cam Newton, but I don’t recall any bigger-picture panicking about the state of Nick Saban’s program.

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Five years later, if the Tide do finish outside the Top 10, it will surely be viewed as the apocalypse.

As I wrote earlier, don’t count me among those stomping on the Tide’s grave after losing to Ole Miss. But it does appear preseason concerns about the passing game were warranted, and the defense, while not as dire as the box score might indicate (you try defending the ‘ol double-tip touchdown), is still far from 2009-12-level dominant. A key swing game will come Nov. 7 against likely-to-be 7-0 LSU.

Finally, apologies to Virginia Tech for jumping off the bandwagon last week. Somebody’s got to win the ACC. And welcome Memphis, fresh off a huge 44-41 win at Bowling Green.

I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON…

Georgia QB Greyson Lambert. Where did that come from? The Virginia transfer, unimpressive the week before against Vanderbilt, broke an NCAA record by completing 24 of 25 passes (96 percent) in a 52-20 rout of South Carolina.

Indiana RB Jordan Howard. I included the UAB transfer on my Heisman Top 5 this week because, wow. The junior’s rushed for more yards (507) than Nick Chubb or Dalvin Cook and his 169.0 average trails only Leonard Fournette.

Nebraska. The Huskers are 1-2 for the first time since 1981. They lost to BYU on a Hail Mary, and on Saturday lost to Miami in overtime after remarkably rallying from a 23-point fourth quarter deficit. Can Mike Riley hold this team together?

Louisville. Bobby Petrino is 0-3 for the first time in his college career after an ugly 20-17 home loss to Clemson. Can the noted offensive wizard conjure up a functioning O-line and decide on one quarterback before it’s too late.

The Mountain West’s morbidity. As Bryan Fischer of Bleacher Report first noted, the conference has run up a staggering 21 consecutive losses to FBS opponents. The last win, Boise State over Washington, came on opening Friday.

THIS WEEK’S COACH OF THE YEAR

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Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury. The Red Raiders, 4-8 a year ago, are off to a 3-0 start following a 35-24 upset of Arkansas. Of course, Kliff earns this spot more for his crisply executed postgame smackdown of losing coach Bret Bielema.

THIS WEEK’S COACH ON THE HOT SEAT

UCF’s George O’Leary. The 0-3 Knights, just two years removed from the Fiesta Bowl, have now lost 15-14 to FIU and 16-15 to Furman. If this misery continues it might require a hard decision by interim AD … George O’Leary.

ON TO NEXT WEEKEND

Three games we’re most excited for:

–No. 9 UCLA at No. 16 Arizona (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET). Longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is having a noticeable impact in his first year with the Bruins, which sacked BYU’s Tanner Mangum four times Saturday.

–No. 18 Utah at No. 13 Oregon (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, FOX). The Ducks did not miss QB Vernon Adams against Georgia State, but it would be less than ideal to start the less mobile Jeff Lockie against the Utes’ always-tough rushing defense.

–Tennessee at Florida (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET): The Vols have dropped 10 straight meetings with the Gators. Needless to say, Butch Jones needs to win this one or it’s harder to believe Tennessee is in fact a rising program.

Three games you shouldn’t miss:

–No. 3 TCU at Texas Tech (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX): TCU put up 82 points in this game last year. Trevone Boykin could well have another huge game, but Tech’s offense presents legit concern for the Frogs’ injury-ravaged D. 

–No. 19 USC at Arizona State (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET): Suffice to say, this is a must-win for Steve Sarkisian after falling to Stanford. Trojans fans may mutiny if a perceived preseason playoff contender starts off 0-2 in Pac-12 play.

–No. 14 Texas A&M vs. Arkansas (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET): Everything I just said about Sark, apply to Bielema.

One under-the-radar gem:

–Boise State at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET): Boise State QB Brett Rypien makes his first start after replacing an injured Ryan Finley. Cavs coach Mike London desperately needs a win after falling to UCLA and Notre Dame.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.