The college football season may be just two weeks old, but the pressure is already getting ratcheted up on certain teams and coaches. And sadly for those teams and coaches, we aren’t afraid to flash a big bright spotlight on them here at FOX Sports with our weekly “Teams Facing Disaster” column.
For those of you who are new to “Teams Facing Disater” here’s a quick disclaimer: This article is essentially designed to highlight the “make or break” games of every week. Think of it as an “upset alert” column meets an episode of “Survivor.” This column isn’t simply about which teams can’t afford to lose this week, but more so what a loss -- or even a bad performance -- might mean for their entire season. Would it ruin their national championship shot? Bowl chances? Cause riots on campus? For every team, the reason is different. But for every team the result could be the same: disaster.
Also, just to be clear, we like to avoid the obvious in this column; it’s so obvious that Clemson losing to South Carolina State would be disaster that it’s not worth mentioning. We’re also trying to be realistic; no one expects Colorado to beat Michigan. Therefore, there’s no way it’d be disastrous for the Buffaloes to lose.
But some teams are facing true cataclysmic disaster. Who are they?
Here are seven teams entering Week 3.
Penn State vs. Temple (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET)
Earlier this week, I explained why James Franklin is NOT on the hot seat. Yes, Penn State lost to rival Pitt last weekend. But after a massive comeback against a good team, and with a chance to win the game in the final seconds, I actually took it as a positive performance. Something to build off of.
Now, if the Nittany Lions were to lose to Temple this week? It would be absolute disaster. And Franklin’s behind would be scorching hot.
For starters, there are the optics of losing a second straight game to a in-state team. Pitt is excusable; it’s a Power 5 school that recruits well, plays in an NFL stadium and has historically had success against the Nittany Lions. If the Panthers aren't on Penn State’s level, they’re not far off. But Temple? It isn't just Penn State’s “little brother,” it's barely in the same family. It’s never excusable to lose to the Owls if you’re Penn State. Yet the Nittany Lions did it last year in Phily. And if Temple pulls off the upset in Happy Valley? James Franklin will be out of excuses.
If Penn State were to lose this game, not only would it have suffered a second straight loss to an in-state school, but it also opens Big Ten play next week at Michigan. Meaning if they lose Saturday, a 1-3 start isn’t just possible. It’s probable.
We don’t call many September games “must-win.” But in this case, it’s absolutely applicable.
Oklahoma State vs. Pittsburgh (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET)
Speaking of the Pitt Panthers, for a second straight week they play in a showcase game. This week, however, the focus is squarely on their opponent, the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
You know how last week’s game against Central Michigan ended: on a wild, last-second Hail Mary that resulted in a Chippewas win. Even worse for Oklahoma State is that the play should have never happened. But whether the result was fair or not, Mike Gundy’s club has to move on.
And the Cowboys have to find a way to win this Saturday against a Pitt team that, as we learned last weekend, is darn good.
The Cowboys returned the most starters of anyone in the Big 12 and were viewed by some in the preseason as a dark horse playoff contender. But those playoff dreams could turn into an absolute nightmare with a loss to Pitt. It would give them two home losses before conference play even begins. And with the Pokes opening Big 12 play at Baylor, followed by a visit from Texas, a 1-4 start wouldn’t be impossible.
Therefore, it’s kind of incredible what this game means to Oklahoma State. A win here and the Cowboys have a solid win to build on heading into Big 12 play. Lose here and Pokes fans suddenly might have to worry about simply getting bowl eligible.
Kentucky vs. New Mexico State (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET)
We’re not even going to get into the realm of possibly that Kentucky loses this game. That wouldn’t just be a disaster; it would be a fire-able offense for Mark Stoops. Instead, we’ll raise the bar: Not only does Kentucky need to win, it needs to win big. It needs to make a statement.
In a season that started with aspirations of the program’s first bowl appearance since 2010, things have quickly spiraled out of control. Not only are the Wildcats 0-2, but since taking a 35-17 lead at halftime in their first game, they have been outscored 72-7 over the past six quarters! As a result, Stoops finds himself on the top of every hot seat list.
The Wildcats need to show everyone from prognosticators, to fans, to their own players, that the idea of going to a bowl game is still achievable. If they win big, those bowl dreams may be reignited for at least one more week.
NC State vs. Old Dominion (Saturday, 6:00 p.m. ET)
Two years ago, Dave Doeren was quietly lauded for his quick turnaround of the NC State program. A team that went just 3-9 in his first season went 8-5 in 2014, capped off with a win in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Since then, the goodwill has slowly faded. The Wolfpack went from eight wins to seven last year, finishing 3-6 down the stretch after a 4-0 start. They suffered an embarrassing loss to Dak Prescott and Mississippi State during bowl season, and last week took an L against East Carolina. As good as the Pirates’ footballl history is, a loss to them is simply unacceptable. And many Wolfpack fans are beginning to wonder whether Doeren is the right man for the job.
Thus, Saturday’s game against Old Dominion might be the most important of Doeren’s tenure in Raleigh. That might seem extreme. After all, no one expected the Wolfpack to be great this year. And no one expects them to lose Saturday. But a big win would give the school a little momentum going into ACC play.
Speaking of which, that momentum might not be long-lived, since after Wake Forest in two weeks, NC State’s next three games are at home against Notre Dame, followed by road games at Clemson and Louisville.
The Wolfpack need a win just to stay on track -- and to calm the fans before the schedule really heats up.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY SportsBob DeChiara
Auburn vs. No. 17 Texas A&M (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET)
When Auburn lost to Clemson in its opener -- as Gus Malzahn changed quarterbacks like most people change socks --- I began to wonder whether Malzahn's time on the Plains was ticking. But after settling on Sean White (and tallying 51 points and over 700 yards) against Arkansas State, the heat may have cooled on Malzahn a bit.
Of course, it would heat up with a loss here to Texas A&M.
The up-and-down nature of Auburn football has been well-documented. But if the Tigers were to lose Saturday, they would be 1-2 -- with a 1-3 start looming thanks to a visit from LSU next week. If the Tigers did start 1-3, all those losses would be at home during a somewhat manageable part of their schedule. Remember, Auburn still has road games at Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama later in the season.
Malzahn might not technically be coaching for his job. But he’s not that far off either.
USC at No. 7 Stanford (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET)
Again, every team on this list is facing “disaster” for an entirely different reason. For USC, it isn’t about “winning” at Stanford, so much as “looking better” than it did in its debacle against Alabama in Week 1. The Trojans didn’t just lose to the Tide, they got punked. After falling down early, the perception nationally was that USC quit on its way to the second-worst loss in school history.
A good showing against a Top 10 team on the road would be a good sign that the Trojans can play with anyone in the Pac-12. It would also allow Trojans fans to claim that their program hasn’t fallen that far, that Alabama is just that good. And if USC were to win? Well, wouldn’t you have to consider the Trojans on the short list of Pac-12 title contenders?
Of course, if they lose big, it would again call into question whether Clay Helton is the right man for the job, and what exactly has happened to the Trojans’ program.
Arizona vs. Hawaii (Saturday, 10:45 ET)
Was it really just two years ago that Arizona won the Pac-12 South, played in the Fiesta Bowl and seemed to be a program on the rise? Because it feels like a lifetime ago.
That 10-4 season was followed with a 7-6 campaign last year, then by the Wildcats falling flat on their faces to open 2016. Rich Rod’s club lost to BYU in a season opener in a game played in Arizona, after leading late into the fourth quarter. Even worse, they fell behind 21-3 to Grambling State last week before rallying for a win.
Going up against a Hawaii squad that has already logged tens of thousands of miles through the air this year -- from Hawaii, to Australia, to Michigan, to Hawaii and back to Arizona -- there is no excuse. The Wildcats need to not only win big, but make a statement on Saturday.