Mandel’s Final Thoughts: None of this is normal, from Deion Sanders to the mediocre SEC

Sign up for the Until Saturday newsletter | Jayna Bardahl and The Athletic’s college football staff deliver expert analysis on the biggest CFB stories five days per week. Get it sent to your inbox.

And now, 20 Final Thoughts from a Week 3 that went well past everyone’s bedtimes.

1. One of the charms of a typical Pac-12 After Dark game is the feeling that you are part of a small club of sickos still awake and watching. My Twitter feed, so dizzying for most of the day, usually slows to a crawl. So, I knew Colorado–Colorado State was not your typical late-night affair when I saw that everyone from Bill Simmons to Mina Kimes to Todd Gurley to former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones to random Hollywood actresses were tweeting during and after the Buffaloes’ wild 43-35 double-overtime escape.

That, and the fact The Rock was on the sideline, ESPN reporter Quint Kessenich attempted to interview a rap star only to be interrupted by a big play, and Colorado’s coach appeared in one out of every three commercials.

None of this is normal. That’s what makes CU’s 3-0 start so wildly entertaining.

2. For most of the night, heavily favored Colorado looked like a team that may have finally gotten too caught up in its own hype, digging itself a 28-17 hole. The Buffaloes lost two-way star Travis Hunter to injury early. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders struggled to find open receivers. And the defense got repeatedly torched by Rams QB Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi.

But Colorado State, which committed a multitude of personal fouls en route to 17 penalties and 187 lost yards, left the door open just enough for Shedeur Sanders to engineer a game-tying 98-yard touchdown drive and two-point conversion to send the game to overtime. You know the rest. For all the buildup, the sunglasses back-and-forth, dozens of stories on The Athletic alone — Colorado delivered again.

3. It felt like the hype surrounding Deion Sanders ratcheted up tenfold during the week — “First Take,” “College GameDay,” “Big Noon Kickoff” and even “60 Minutes” descended on Boulder. So I can’t even imagine what this week will be like leading up to Colorado’s conference opener at No. 13 Oregon. And the more the hype grows, the more his cynics will be looking for any confirmation that his team is overrated, which it may well be. All I know is, Shedeur Sanders is a legitimate first-round NFL Draft pick with some big-time receivers, and I could not be more pumped to watch him and fellow draft prospect Bo Nix go head-to-head.

Maybe Colorado will pull off another stunner. Maybe the Buffs will lose by four TDs. The only certainty at this point is that everyone will be watching.

4. I opened last week’s column with a mostly facetious mini-eulogy for the SEC. The league had opened 3-6 against Power 5 foes; why not have some fun with that?

But after another round of troubling upsets (UNLV 40, Vanderbilt 37; BYU 38, Arkansas 31) and near-upsets this week, I now earnestly raise the question: Is anyone in the SEC good this year?

5. Tennessee entered Saturday ranked No. 11. Despite having gone 20 years since the Vols’ last win in The Swamp, Tennessee was a near-touchdown favorite visiting a purportedly mediocre Florida team that laid an egg at Utah on opening Thursday night. So, of course, the Gators jumped to a 26-7 lead and won 29-16, thanks to a monster night from running back Trevor Etienne (23 carries, 172 yards, one TD), terrific pass coverage and roughly 8,000 boneheaded Vols penalties.

6. I expected Josh Heupel to continue the momentum from 2022, but this is not the offense that led the nation in scoring last season. There were no receivers running wide-open like Jalin Hyatt did so often. Joe Milton III did not operate with the poise and precision of Hendon Hooker. And the offensive line committed five false starts.

It’s a big win for Florida’s Billy Napier, who had fallen out of favor with the fan base fairly quickly. It’s also a humbling moment for Heupel, a highly respected offensive mind. He has lost three of his past five SEC games.

7. And yet, Heupel’s offense is in far better shape right now than Nick Saban’s. You thought Alabama losing by 10 points at home to Texas was jarring? Try seeing in an ugly 3-3 dogfight with USF — a 4-29 program the past three seasons — well into the third quarter Saturday.

Saban decided to try a new quarterback, Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner, but after five scoreless drives to start the game, Saban pivoted to his third choice, redshirt freshman Ty Simpson. Alabama eventually won 17-3 but not before Simpson was sacked five times and went just 5-of-9 for 73 yards. If not for running back Roydell Williams (17 carries, 129 yards), Bama may have never reached the end zone.

Against USF.

8. Obviously, Jalen Milroe did not inspire confidence with his performance against Texas, but Buchner and Simpson were decidedly worse. It would be unfair to solely blame the quarterbacks when Alabama simply cannot pass protect. Freshman left tackle Kadyn Proctor looked overmatched for the second consecutive week. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will need to lean heavily on Williams and the run game going forward, but the Tide won’t beat top-20 foe Ole Miss next week without some semblance of a passing game. That could be difficult if Rees and Saban aren’t even sure which quarterback they should be playing.

9. No. 1 Georgia endured its own scare, trailing South Carolina 14-3 at halftime, and then remembered it was No. 1 Georgia and produced a 21-0 second half to win 24-14. It felt like offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was overly conservative in the first half before opening it up after halftime, with QB Carson Beck finishing a respectable 27-of-35 for 269 yards. Meanwhile, the Dawgs’ defense teed off on Spencer Rattler in the fourth quarter, limiting him to 3-of-19 completions with two interceptions.

Is this Georgia team as dominant as the past two? Not yet. But Beck has a lot of time to get more comfortable (and for top wide receiver Ladd McConkey to return from injury) before any postseason run.



Auerbach’s Top 10: Ugly wins and unlikely lessons from Week 3

10. Meanwhile, LSU looked much more like a preseason top-five team than the version we saw against Florida State in its 41-14 shelling of Mississippi State. QB Jayden Daniels (30-of-34, 361 yards, 15 carries for 64 yards, four total TDs) and star WR Malik Nabers (13 catches, 239 yards, two TDS) were sensational. Notre Dame transfer RB Logan Diggs, who missed the opener, had an impact (12 touches, 71 yards). And the defense, led by liberated linebacker Harold Perkins, pressured the heck out of Bulldogs QB Will Rogers (four sacks, four QB hurries).

Some teams get better as the season progresses, some get worse. I predict LSU ultimately will fall into the former category.

11. A week before its first Big 12 conference game, BYU, led by former USC and Pitt QB Kedon Slovis, got a big win in SEC territory, 38-31 at Arkansas. Kalani Sitake’s defense notched a pick and an interception and forced a turnover on downs in the second half and stopped the Razorbacks 16 yards short of the end zone on their final drive. In doing so, the Cougars avenged a 17-point home loss from last season.

Arkansas is yet another SEC program that has been shedding its momentum. Sam Pittman was the king of Fayetteville two years ago when his team went 9-4, beating Texas, LSU and Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. The Razorbacks are 9-7 since.

12. But we do have one SEC dark horse: Missouri. Wide receiver Luther Burden, a 2022 recruit who became the program’s first five-star signee in seven years, has been looking the part as a sophomore. His first two 100-yard games have come in the last two weeks, including a seven-catch, 114-yard performanceSaturday against Kansas State featuring 47- and 26-yard TDs. Quarterback Brady Cook — who was booed at some point by Mizzou fans? — finished 23-of-35 for 356 yards, two TDs and 0 INTs as the Tigers upset the defending Big 12 champions 30-27.

Mizzou’s most important player, however, was kicker Harrison Mevis, who hit a game-winning 61-yard field goal, the longest in SEC history. It was Mevis’ 11th-career 50-plus-yard field goal. Which NFL team will he be suiting up for next season?

13. If you wanted to see the nation’s most dominant team through three games on Saturday, you needed a Peacock subscription. Washington went to Michigan State and racked up 713 yards of offense while allowing no sacks in a 41-7 rout. Michael Penix Jr. did most of his work by halftime, throwing four first-half TDs and finishing 27-of-35 for 473 yards and no picks. He has thrown for 400-plus yards in each of his first three games, with eight TDs against one pick.

There are a lot of good teams with great QBs in the Pac-12 this season, but Washington, which has outscored its first three opponents 140-36, is starting to feel like the team to beat.

14. Notre Dame QB Sam Hartman has been everything Marcus Freeman had hoped for and more, completing 75.0 percent of his passes with 10 TDs and, most crucially, no picks, through four games. He had TD throws of 75 and 76 yards Saturday against Central Michigan. The Irish should go into their showdown against Ohio State feeling particularly confident. But Buckeyes QB Kyle McCord had an encouraging tune-up himself Saturday against Western Kentucky, going 19-of-23 for 318 yards and three TDs in a 63-10 rout. It truly feels like a toss-up game next weekend in South Bend.

15. The Big 12 may be looking at a worst-case scenario for its final season with Texas and Oklahoma — that being, Texas and Oklahoma may be its best teams. The Horns struggled with Wyoming for three quarters but eventually pulled away 31-10. The Sooners demolished Tulsa 66-17 to also move to 3-0. Elsewhere, Oklahoma’s next opponent, Cincinnati, lost to Miami-Ohio in overtime; Iowa State lost 10-7 at Ohio; and most bafflingly, Oklahoma State lost 33-7 at home to … South Alabama.

16. In hindsight, the first sign Oklahoma State might be courting disaster was when four-year QB Spencer Sanders bolted Stillwater to be a backup at Ole Miss. The second would have been the fact Mike Gundy has been rotating three QBs — one of them is his son — to start the season. The powder keg exploded Saturday against South Alabama — to be fair, a very good Sun Belt program, but still … 33-7? It’s going to be tough for Gundy to live this one down, and the QB situation could be increasingly unmanageable if he doesn’t settle on one.



College football is changing around Mike Gundy. Will he change with it?

17. What on earth has happened to Pitt post-Kenny Pickett? In back-to-back losses to Cincinnati and West Virginia — a ghastly 17-6 affair in the ABC primetime window — Boston College transfer QB Phil Jurkovec has completed just 35 percent of his passes. He threw three picks against the Mountaineers. Before putting it all on him, you may recall that Pat Narduzzi had a falling out with OC Mark Whipple following their 2021 ACC title season. Narduzzi tried to revert to ground-and-pound under replacement Frank Cignetti Jr. First Slovis struggled last year, now Jurkovec. It has been a puzzling descent.

18. At last, Iowa scored more than 25 points in a football game — 41 at that — thanks to an encouraging performance in the backfield. Junior Leshon Williams, used sparingly the first two weeks, carried 12 times for 145 yards in the Hawkeyes’ 43-10 win over Western Michigan. According to The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman, Iowa’s 254 rushing yards were its most in a game since 2019.

Updating the Drive for 325: Brian Ferentz is averaging 28.3 points per game and needs just 24.0 the rest of the way to collect his pot of gold.

19. No Sun Belt team has yet reached a New Year’s Six bowl, but maybe South Alabama will end that drought. If not, the Group of 5 clubhouse leader may be 3-0 Fresno State, which notched its second Power 5 win in three weeks Saturday, this one a 29-0 blanking of Arizona State. Mind you, ASU, much like Fresno’s previous conquest, Purdue, is probably not very good. The Sun Devils were without starting QB Jaden Rashada. But credit to Jeff Tedford, who is getting the most out of UCF transfer QB Mikey Keene (32-of-49 for 281 yards, two TDs, 0 INTs).

Mind you, the AAC has produced the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion each of the last six seasons, but with Cincinnati, Houston and UCF moving up, there’s a window for someone else this year.

20. Finally, I’m looking forward to Michigan finally playing a Power 5 opponent so we can learn something substantive about the No. 2 team in the country. The Wolverines beat Bowling Green 31-6 in a weird game, one in which QB J.J. McCarthy threw three interceptions. Jim Harbaugh returns for the Big Ten opener against what appears to be a much-improved Rutgers team; the Scarlet Knights moved to 3-0 with a 35-16 rout of Virginia Tech.

In fact, it might be the Wolverines’ toughest game until November. Their next five opponents after that are Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan State and Purdue, all of them somewhere between underwhelming and hapless to date.

It appears the Big Ten may have three great teams and 11 afterthoughts. That still may be a better ratio this year than the SEC’s.

(Top photo: Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top