College football’s first month is almost in the books. Before you know it, it’ll be November, then December, then the College Football Playoff, then about eight months of football-free boredom and solitude.
What have we learned in the Bowl Subdivision?
That Georgia is still good. So is Alabama and Ohio State.
That the best teams in the country are led by the best quarterbacks in the country.
That schools have become comfortable firing coaches in September. Why wait three months when a change is inevitable? (Why administrators brought these coaches back for another season in the first place is another great question.)
That the SEC is dominant. That Kansas is actually good. (Yes, it’s true.) That the Pac-12 isn’t awful and Clemson’s offense isn’t terrible.
Those insights and more, including the nation’s biggest surprises and disappointments, are the biggest takeaways from the opening month of the 2022 season.
We were right about the top three
Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State. Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State. Ohio State, Georgia and Alabama? No matter how you rank ‘em, September reinforced what we all knew in the preseason: There are three outstanding and potentially unstoppable teams in the FBS, and that’s the No. 1 Bulldogs, No. 2 Crimson Tide and No. 3 Buckeyes.
There’s no one else in the same conversation at this point in the regular season.
One year after winning the Big Ten, No. 4 Michigan played at a high level against overmatched non-conference competition but had to scratch out a win against Maryland in the conference opener. (In Michigan’s defense, the Terrapins may be a borderline Top 25 team.) No. 5 Clemson’s offense woke up against Wake Forest, so the spotlight now turns to the Tigers’ struggling defensive backfield.
While there are several early success stories near the top of the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll – No. 6 Southern California is one prime example – to go with the Wolverines and Tigers, no team can sniff this top three. Through one month, it seems clear the national championship will go through one of the Bulldogs, Tide and Buckeyes.
HIGHS AND LOWS:Week 4 winners and losers led by Clemson, Tennessee
The SEC keeps on dominating
The SEC has No. 1 and No. 2 in Coaches Poll. Also, No. 8 (Kentucky) and No. 9 (Tennessee). Plus No. 11 (Mississippi). And No. 17 (Texas A&M) and No. 19 (Arkansas). It’s again the best conference in the FBS and once again the one league guaranteed of having at least two teams in the College Football Playoff mix deep into the regular season. The conference has gone 37-5 in non-conference play with four losses coming against teams currently ranked in the Top 25.
The Pac-12 isn’t bad?
If not nearly as surprising as what’s happening with Kansas, the Pac-12 has bucked expectations with multiple teams rising in the Coaches Poll. That seemed unlikely earlier this month, after two closely watched flops against the SEC – Oregon was pounded by Georgia and Utah lost at Florida – gave a harsh statement about where the Pac-12 ranks among the Power Five leagues.
Since that point, however, both the No. 13 Utes and No. 15 Ducks have pulled off three wins in a row, highlighted by Oregon’s victory against No. 20 Brigham Young. No. 18 Washington has hit the ground running under new coach Kalen DeBoer. And No. 6 Southern California has started fast behind Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams, most recently earning a hard-fought win against a very good Oregon State team.
If unable to match its best against the best of the SEC, the Pac-12 has looked much deeper than originally predicted in the preseason.
Coaching cycle already in full swing
Three Power Five jobs have already come open, with a dozen or so expected to follow in the next few months.
Nebraska finally pulled the plug on Scott Frost after a 1-2 start, mercifully ending a tenure that far outlasted its expiration date. Arizona State ended the Herm Edwards experiment after an ugly loss at home to Eastern Michigan. On Monday, Georgia Tech moved on from coach Geoff Collins with the Yellow Jackets headed to another year at the bottom of the ACC.
All three schools have put themselves on the advantage by getting out in front of the coaching cycle. It’s also unlikely the three coaching searches will intersect in terms of which candidates come under consideration. Nebraska in particular has a chance to set the market by paying top dollar for either a sitting Power Five head coach or someone with recent Power Five experience.
Who is the next coach to get axed?
Bryan Harsin at Auburn might’ve bought himself a little bit of time with Saturday’s stunning overtime win against Missouri. He’s still the likeliest Power Five coach to draw a pink slip during the regular season. Others under fire include Colorado’s Karl Dorrell, West Virginia’s Neal Brown and Louisville’s Scott Satterfield.
Kansas is … good?
Not just one step above embarrassing. Not just “better than they’ve been,” though that’s technically true. Not just average. Kansas is, well, good. Maybe a little better than good, even. The Jayhawks are a shocking 4-0 and battling for a spot in the Top 25 in coach Lance Leipold’s second season, bucking more than a decade of futility and a well-deserved reputation as worst program in the Power Five.
Two things make this leap remarkable. One is how bad Kansas has been since 2010, as the program undid a fine run under former coach Mark Mangino with a series of botched hires. Another is that Leipold didn’t even arrive on campus last year until after former coach Les Miles was fired in March, putting him way behind the curve. The Jayhawks’ unbelievable improvement has put the program back on the map and significantly raised Leipold’s national profile.
Clemson’s offense improves
The breakthrough finally arrived, and with a bang: Clemson racked up more than 500 yards of offense in last Saturday’s win against the No. 21 Demon Deacons. The face of the program’s offensive struggles since last season, quarterback DJ Uiagalelei went pass for pass with Sam Hartman and tossed five touchdowns to show his growth as a second-year starter.
If no longer a headshaking concern for Dabo Swinney, the Tigers still lack the sort of go-to receiver that helped elevate offenses run by Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence to even greater heights. In other words: Clemson’s offense is better but still a work in progress.
First-year coaches off to hit-or-miss starts
Twenty-nine new head coaches populate the FBS, excluding the interims in place at Nebraska, Arizona State and Georgia Tech. Some have found success right off the bat, including Riley, DeBoer and TCU’s Sonny Dykes. It’s been a mixed bag for some high-profile hires, however, including:
- Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman lost his first two games of the year – and three in a row to get started altogether, counting last year’s Fiesta Bowl – before leading the Irish to wins against California and North Carolina.
- Former Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is 3-1 at LSU after dropping a hideously ugly opener to Florida State and reeling off wins against Southern, Mississippi State and New Mexico.
- Miami (Fla.) coach Mario Cristobal’s popularity has plummeted in recent weeks, as the Hurricanes have dropped two in a row to No. 17 Texas A&M and Middle Tennessee State.
- Former Southern California coach Clay Helton is off to a 3-1 start at Georgia Southern, which was picked to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt but has already pulled off a nice upset against Nebraska.
- No. 16 Oklahoma’s Brent Venables lost his first game this past Saturday to Kansas State, revealing potential issues on offense and a leaky defense.
- And longtime Texas high school coach Joey McGuire has made a huge impact in his first year at Texas Tech, most recently leading the Red Raiders to an overtime win against Texas to move to 3-1.
Overall, these first-year hires are 60-58 with four teams in the Top 25.
Passing offenses continue to rule
Through one month, offenses are averaging 243.6 passing yards per game and 7.7 yards per attempt while completing 62.5% of throws. Should those numbers hold, all three averages would represent new FBS single-season records. Even if inflated somewhat by non-conference play, these numbers are still ahead of the pace set during the same time frame last season, when new marks were set for completion percentage and yards per attempt.
Even usually conservative Georgia is getting into the action. The Bulldogs have opened things up with Stetson Bennett, making the senior the centerpiece of a more pass-driven offense. Overall, teams in this week’s Top 25 have tossed 248 touchdowns against just 39 interceptions.
Biggest surprises and disappointments
We’ve already mentioned Kansas. A few other surprises of note:
- James Madison has won its first three games as members of the FBS, the latest a 32-28 upset of Sun Belt favorite Appalachian State.
- After going 0-4 to open last season, No. 21 Florida State is 4-0 under coach Mike Norvell and a lock to finally get back to bowl eligibility.
- No. 23 Minnesota is the lone unbeaten in the Big Ten West and a contender for the New Year’s Six after a 34-7 win against Michigan State
- One of the worst teams in the Power Five for several years running, Arizona has found new life under second-year coach Jedd Fisch. At 2-2 with nice wins against San Diego State and Championship Subdivision juggernaut North Dakota State, the Wildcats could make a run at bowl eligibility.
On the flip side, a list of the early disappointments in the FBS begins with Houston, which was supposed to be the best team in the Group of Five but has been a major flop. Joining the Cougars are Boise State, Miami and Wisconsin.