Ranking who has the most at stake in a loaded Week 3 in college football

Matt Cashore/Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The early portion of this college football season is making it difficult to pace ourselves for the full 14-week marathon. A historically loaded Week 1 required our full attention for five straight nights. Now, after a brief respite, Week 3 brings with it another juicy set of games with unusually high stakes for so early in the season.

No. 3 Ohio State at No. 14 Oklahoma. No. 1 Alabama at No 19 Ole Miss. No. 12 Michigan State at No. 18 Notre Dame. USC at No. 7 Stanford. All looked like big games before the season and all are just that – despite the fact each includes a team that’s already lost once. If anything, there’s an added element of desperation that feels like there’s even more on the line.

Oh, and also – Oregon-Nebraska, Texas-Cal, UCLA-BYU, Pitt-Oklahoma State, Texas A&M-Auburn and Mississippi State-LSU all play this weekend.

So, who’s got the most at stake?

The Big 12: It has not been the world’s finest start for the sport’s smallest conference, as seven of its 10 schools – all but Texas, Baylor and West Virginia – have already suffered a non-conference loss. (Yes, Oklahoma State’s loss to Central Michigan still counts, and no, Cincinnati’s win over Purdue does not.)

To date, the Big 12 is 5-7 against FBS foes. That’s not good. Not to mention Texas Tech’s perpetually hapless defense just allowed eight touchdowns to a single player (Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage), Kansas trailed Ohio at one point 25-0 and Iowa State lost to archrival Iowa 42-3.

So if the league has any hope of restoring its reputation before the start of league play – in turn keeping at least a few of these teams’ playoff hopes alive — it could really use a few big wins this weekend, starting most notably with Oklahoma against Ohio State. The Sooners are already in a hole due to their opening-week loss to Houston but can patch that in a hurry by beating the No. 3 Buckeyes.

Elsewhere, Mike Gundy’s Cowboys host upstart Pittsburgh and overnight darling Texas visits Cal in a game where both teams may score in the 50s.

USC: The Trojans’ season got off to the most embarrassing start imaginable with their 52-6 loss to Alabama. The one saving grace: It had no impact on their Pac-12 championship hopes. That quest begins in earnest Saturday in Palo Alto.

Needless to say, beating the reigning Pac-12 champs in their stadium would be the biggest win of Clay Helton’s interim or permanent tenure and restore some of the confidence he lost with the Alabama debacle. Lose, though, and USC is 1-2 with a tough Friday night game at Utah just six days later. The season could slide away from the Trojans in a hurry.

Notre Dame: Similarly, the Irish’s prospects for the rest of the season would take a considerable hit if they lose to Michigan State to fall to 1-2. Notre Dame is 13-9 since mid-2014, during which time it’s gone 1-5 against opponents ranked in the AP Top 15. And that’s not counting the season-opener against Texas, which soared to No. 11 following its upset of the Irish.

That 2012 run to the BCS championship game now feels like forever ago. Brian Kelly could use a win over one of the nation’s strongest programs of this decade to get back his mojo, and he might just do that with QB DeShone Kizer playing so well. If not, the 2016 Irish may be Russell Athletic Bowl-bound (or worse).

Lamar Jackson: Louisville’s spectacular playmaker is the early leader for September Heisman winner, but to win the actual trophy he needs to shine against better teams than Charlotte and Syracuse. Jackson, who’s accounted for 1,015 yards and 13 touchdowns, gets that chance Saturday when No. 2 Florida State comes to town.

Jackson can’t win the Heisman with one game, even if he racks up another 500 yards and vanquishes the Seminoles – but he could lose it. That may sound harsh, but there’s often considerable backlash when a guy starts getting mega-hype, then has a bad game. It’d be tough to recover from a three-interception day and/or an FSU blowout.

Mike Riley: The Huskers’ second-year coach had arguably the shortest honeymoon in recent coaching history by starting 3-6 last year before quieting the masses with upsets of Michigan State and UCLA. He’s off to a 2-0 start this year. Now comes a golden opportunity to truly turn the corner if Nebraska can knock off visiting Oregon.

The Ducks have been decent enough so far in wins over UC Davis and Virginia, but this is not Marcus Mariota-era Oregon by any means. The question is, has Nebraska’s defense improved enough from 2015 to contain star RB Royce Freeman, who went off on Virginia for 207 yards rushing.

And now, a few more observations as we wrap up Week 2 and reset the landscape prior to Week 3.

Arkansas inspires more confidence than Tennessee

These are strange times in the SEC. After No. 1 Alabama, the conference’s next highest-rated team in the AP poll is Tennessee – at No. 15. The Vols moved up two spots after a seemingly convincing 45-24 win over Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. But take a look beyond the score and you’ll find that Tennessee again struggled on offense (it averaged a modest 5.1 yards per play) but took advantage of Virginia Tech coughing up five fumbles. The Vols can’t regularly expect to win by three touchdowns when its quarterback, Josh Dobbs, throws for 91 yards.

Voters weren’t nearly kind enough to Arkansas, which debuted at No. 24 despite a hard-earned road win at then-No. 15 TCU. The Razorbacks shut down the Frogs for three quarters, then nearly blew the game before recovering to win in double-overtime. These are the kind of games Bret Bielema’s teams repeatedly coughed up during his first three seasons, but the Razorbacks have now won eight of their last nine and have seemingly buried those demons.

Clemson is following a troublingly familiar script

See if you’ve heard this one before: Highly ranked team returns a Heisman-caliber quarterback and nearly every other name from a team that reached the national championship game. It’s expected to be even more potent. Instead, the offense sputters. Something’s not quite right. The QB doesn’t look like himself. The receivers are dropping passes. The running game is hit-or-miss.

I could be describing 2014 Florida State or 2015 Ohio State, but through two games it describes 2016 Clemson, which ranks 102nd nationally in total offense (4.99 yards per play) and rushing offense (3.59 yards per rush). Deshaun Watson is the nation’s 29th-rated passer. It’s puzzling, but correctable – we think.

Mississippi State has found its heir to Dak Prescott

Credit to Dan Mullen for squashing a quarterback controversy before it could get started. A week after pulling starter Nick Fitzgerald early in the Bulldogs’ eventual loss to South Alabama, Mullen put his faith right back in the redshirt sophomore – and Fitzgerald delivered. The Georgia native ran for a school-record 195 yards and threw for 178 in a 27-14 win over South Carolina.

His performance doesn’t magically wash away the stench of the opener, but it does give you pause now before assuming Mississippi State post-Dak will necessarily plummet.

San Diego State is finally relevant again

Coach Rocky Long’s Aztecs won 11 games and a Mountain West championship last year, but the program’s 12th straight win marked its national coming-out party. Long’s team took down Pac-12 foe Cal, 45-40, to end an eight-game losing streak to Power 5 opponents. Star RB Donnel Pumphrey went for a career-high 281 yards on a night when he broke Marshall Faulk’s school career rushing record (4,651), and All-American CB Damontae Kazee sealed the game with his 11th career interception.

Houston is considered the head-and-shoulders favorite to secure the Group of 5 New Year’s Six berth (if not a playoff invite), but the Aztecs will be in contention as well. They and Boise State seem destined for an MWC title game clash.

In-state rivalries are great

In their first meeting in 16 years, Pitt survived a late rally from Penn State to win 42-39, much to the chagrin of some Nittany Lions fans who consider the Panthers to be beneath them.

“I would say going to next year, they’re going to think it’s a rivalry now," Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead said afterward.

Elsewhere, in the first regular-season Holy War meeting in three years, Utah edged BYU 20-19 when Cougars coach Kalani Sitake tried for a game-winning two-point conversion that Utah stuffed.

Wouldn’t it be great if certain other rivals – looking at you, Texas-Texas A&M — would get over themselves and start playing again every year?

Updated New Year’s Six bowl projections

Each week I’m updating my projected New Year’s Six bowl lineup. After picking two SEC teams in the preseason (Alabama and LSU) and two ACC teams last week (Florida State and Clemson), I’m now going with four conferences for four spots. Which four those will be, though, is unclear. Here are my projections after Week 2.

Ranking the remaining Big 12 expansion candidates

Last week, the 11 remaining candidates for Big 12 invites traveled to Dallas for presentations. Only the 10 presidents could tell us where the board-room pecking order stands, but here’s where they’d rank on the field this season if they were a league unto themselves.

1) Houston. The Cougars may hold this spot all season.

2) USF. Even without star RB Marlon Mack, the Bulls racked up 658 yards in a rout of NIU.

3) BYU. The Cougars lost a heartbreaker to Utah but they can play some defense. Up next: UCLA.

4) Cincinnati. The Bearcats notched a Power 5 win Saturday, if Purdue still counts as such.

5) Air Force. It’s a great year to be a service academy. They’re all undefeated.

6) SMU. The Mustangs hung with Baylor for 2.5 quarters.

7) Connecticut. The Huskies got stuffed short of the goal line on the final play against Navy. Here’s guessing their candidacy will end similarly.

8) Colorado State. Georgia transfer Faton Bauta made his first start Saturday and beat UTSA – technically a Big 12 market.

9) UCF. Coach Scott Frost said his team “out-hit” Michigan during a 51-14 loss Saturday. Hopefully the school is more realistic about its chances.

10) Tulane. A week after losing 7-3 to Wake Forest, the Green Wave hung 66 on Southern. You don’t just come into Yulman Stadium and hold Tulane to 50.

11) Rice. The Owls have been outscored 77-28 in two games. If a Houston school is going to make the cut it won’t likely be this one.