Monday, September 4, 2017

Burning Questions After Week 1

By Ross Lancaster

The first Saturday of the college football season always feels like the most consequential opening to any sports season. The playoff system doesn't allow for 30 to 50 percent of teams to get in like professional North American leagues, the season isn't nine months long like the best soccer leagues in the world, and it doesn't have an expansive, weeks-long, end-of-season tournament to decide a champion like other American college sports.

Furthermore, and most crucially in comparison to the NFL, there are no preseason games. Teams jump into their first games on the first weekend of September (or last weekend of August), and contests immediately impact the New Year's Six and College Football Playoff pictures. The first days of the 2017 season were no exception.

Yet, it wasn't necessarily an abnormal beginning to the season, and it definitely didn't feel like a freight train of constant action like last year's first week was.

There were a handful of unexpected results, like Maryland beating Texas in an outcome not even the most ardent of Charlie Strong fans could have predicted in Tom Herman's first game in Austin. Baylor was dealt some enjoyable karma at the hands of transitioning FCS program Liberty, and UNLV somehow lost to FCS Howard as a 45-point favorite, but expected January contenders like Louisville and Ohio State's woes were confined to a close game or an underdog who got outclassed in the second half.

Then, in the weekend's most consequential game, No. 1 Alabama got a super-talented opponent in Florida State to implode on the way to a 17-point opening week win. It doesn't get less surprising than that.

While the games counted and affected the national title picture, all the normal sample size caveats associated with the first week of a 14-week regular season are still there, and I'm still left with far more questions than answers. Here are the three that stick out the most in my mind:

1. Is the SEC back to being the best?

The SEC was probably the worst it's been in at least a generation in 2016. Only Alabama hit 10 wins, only four teams had winning conference records, Tennessee was a massive disappointment, LSU had to fire its coach before October even began, and the East didn't do much to overturn its run of relative mediocrity this decade.

But after Saturday of Week 1, only suspension-hit Florida was truly a disappointment for the Southeastern Conference, with its middling offense running into a buzzsaw Michigan defense that has juggernaut potential despite losing a lot of talent to the NFL from 2016.

I suspect we'll know more about this question next week when Auburn visits Clemson and Georgia (possibly without QB Jacob Eason) travels to Notre Dame. But elsewhere in the conference, South Carolina stood tough and beat projected ACC sleeper NC State in a neutral site game, LSU shut out BYU, and even Vanderbilt blew out Middle Tennessee as just a field-goal favorite.

And of course, there's Alabama's win, which probably ensures that the Crimson Tide can take one loss anywhere in the remainder of the season and still make the CFP. 'Bama also doesn't have a game away from Bryant-Denny Stadium that should be a big challenge until the Iron Bowl on Nov. 25.

2. Is this the year a two-loss team makes the playoff?

Okay, it's probably much too early to be asking this question. But after Florida State's (somewhat self-induced) handling at the hands of Alabama, I can't help but ask it.

The Seminoles definitely have the talent to run the table from here, but they also still have to play Miami, Louisville, Clemson, Florida, and a possible ACC title game, with the latter three all away from home in a three-week span at the end of the season. How do they get through all those games and not slip up once?

Then, there's the Big Ten East logjam, where Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State all play each other and seem poised to re-engage their Big Ten title fight from a year ago in a division where Rutgers is the only true automatic win.

Right now, USC, Washington and Stanford seem like the only decent bets to get 9 wins or more in the Pac-12, but upsets always happen in that league, and recent past contenders like UCLA and Oregon return stronger teams than their 2016 records would indicate.

The Big 12 feels like a mess already, and a conference championship game for 2017 in what is still a round-robin schedule for football could throw a huge monkey wrench in the playoff plans of a team that goes into December at 11-1.

History tells us that the No. 4 team in college football having two losses after the conference championships hasn't happened in a decade, but happened more often in the early BCS era. With mega-conferences and unbalanced divisions occurring in college football these days, it's only a matter of time before a team with 2 losses plays in the CFP.

3. What the heck is in store for the Group of Five New Year's Six spot?

The New Year's Six system, thankfully, gives an automatic spot in a premier bowl to a team from the Group of Five leagues (AAC, Mountain West, MAC, Conference USA, and Sun Belt), based on the highest ranked team from those conferences in the final CFP rankings. If you go by the preseason rankings, South Florida was the only team from those leagues to feature in the polls, and was thus the favorite for that spot.

The Bulls are one of the few teams to have already played twice this season, and Charlie Strong's teams has thus far struggled against Mountain West cellar-dweller San Jose State and FCS Stony Brook. Colorado State was another contender, but got held to 3 points in Denver against Colorado Friday, and plays at Alabama in two weeks.

Tulsa, Wyoming, Temple, Western Michigan, Appalachian State, and Arkansas State could all have a chance at the NY6 spot ... and have all lost already.

One team to keep a close eye on could be San Diego State, especially if the Aztecs win at vulnerable Arizona State this Saturday. A home game with Stanford follows and is an unlikely triumph, but SDSU is in the weaker of the two Mountain West divisions and gets Boise State at Qualcomm Stadium.

Even though its beginning is more substantive than any other sport, the first week of college football gives us far more questions than answers. As the Saturdays progress, we'll get clearer answers to these three questions and many more.

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