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Through five weeks of the college football season, the national championship picture feels wide open.
Though teams like Michigan, Texas and Oregon played very well on Saturday, a truly dominant team has not emerged so far this season. And several of the top teams in the country showed serious cracks in the foundation this weekend.
These are the biggest flaws we see in some of the nation’s top teams.
Georgia just does not look like its same dominant self. When you’re the two-time defending national champion, you’re held to a different standard. And that standard is definitely not falling behind South Carolina 14-3 at halftime and then needing a late touchdown to beat Auburn. But that’s what we’ve seen from the Bulldogs in their two SEC games this season.
Injuries have certainly played a part in Georgia’s underwhelming play to this point in the season, but the slow starts and uneven offensive performances leave some doubt that this team can win it all once again. The Bulldogs also seem to lack some of the first-round talent on defense they’ve had in recent years.
The Trojans added talent through the transfer portal in the offseason but some of the same underlying issues remain on defense from the 2022 season.
USC’s lack of physicality and tackling ability was exposed in losses to Utah and Tulane at the end of last season and there’s reason for concern after Saturday’s 48-41 win over Colorado. The Trojans had the game won in the first half, but the Buffaloes had far too easy of a time gaining yards and breaking tackles in the second half as USC was forced to recover an onside kick with 1:43 to go to ensure the win.
After the game, coach Lincoln Riley cited the team’s tackling as a reason why the win was much closer than it should have been and USC needs to figure out how to wrap up opponents as soon as possible. Four teams in the top 11 of the AP Top 25 remain on the schedule.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State beat Northwestern, 41-13, but the win was nowhere near as dominant as the final score may indicate. PSU trailed 10-3 late in the first half and the score was 10-10 at half. In the second half, PSU built a lead thanks to short fields provided by a few fourth-down failures by Northwestern. Later on, PSU piled on with two TDs in the final five minutes to turn a somewhat competitive game into a blowout.
The final score was misleading. Penn State had only 353 yards of offense while averaging 4.8 yards per play. Again, this is against Northwestern, one of the worst Power Five teams in the country. Penn State is 5-0 and the defense is dominant, but the offense cannot generate explosive plays. Entering Saturday’s action, PSU had only nine plays of 20-plus yards. Wyoming and East Carolina were the only two teams with fewer.
That figure is up to 12 now, but the lack of explosiveness in the run game is a major concern. The longest run of the season for Penn State is 21 yards, and that came in garbage time by backup QB Beau Pribula. Additionally, Keandre Lambert-Smith has been the only wideout to emerge as a consistent target for QB Drew Allar. With a bye week and UMass coming up, PSU needs to figure some things out before the trip to Ohio State on Oct. 21.
The Utes have played both Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson at quarterback through the first five games of the season as Cameron Rising recovers from the torn ACL he suffered in the Rose Bowl. Rising’s absence was felt over the first four weeks of the season and especially noticeable on Friday night in Oregon State’s 21-7 win over the Utes.
Johnson started the game and was replaced by Barnes in the third quarter. Neither quarterback had much success and the impotent offensive performance came a week after Utah scored just one offensive touchdown in a 14-7 win over UCLA.
The Utes are still a contender to win the Pac-12 title … as long as Rising returns soon. He shouldn’t rush back from his ACL injury before he’s ready, and it seems pretty clear that Utah is being cautious. But with games remaining against USC and Oregon in October, Utah will need him on the field to have a chance to defend its conference title.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
There’s a lot to like about Notre Dame, but there are also reasons for concern moving forward. The defense has played great, and the offensive line is one of the nation’s best. The Fighting Irish also made a major upgrade at quarterback by adding transfer Sam Hartman, the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes. However, Notre Dame is still lacking reliable pass-catchers.
Tight end Mitchell Evans has emerged over the last two weeks and some of the underclassmen wideouts, like Tobias Merriweather and Jaden Greathouse, showed flashes against lesser competition, but can these guys consistently win one-on-one matchups?
In games against Ohio State and Duke, it didn’t appear so. In the loss to Ohio State, Notre Dame’s wide receivers caught a combined eight passes for 98 yards. And in the win over Duke, ND wideouts caught four passes for 56 yards as several were sidelined by injury. That’s it.
Alabama Crimson Tide
The Crimson Tide showed how run-heavy the offense may be going forward in an easy win over Mississippi State on Saturday night. QB Jalen Milroe threw just 12 passes compared to 37 rushing attempts before he was able to watch the final minutes of the 40-17 win on the sidelines.
Milroe was efficient — he completed 10 passes for 164 yards — but it’s 2023, not 1993. It’s hard to be a national title contender without a passing game you can consistently rely on. Just ask Nick Saban. Look at the way his offense evolved over the past decade.
The offense is evolving again in 2023. The Alabama defense is elite, but as the loss to Texas and the ensuing ugly win over South Florida showed, Alabama will need to have a reliable aerial attack to be a serious contender.
Michigan: After some underwhelming performances to start the season, Michigan seemed to kick it into another gear on Saturday at Nebraska. The No. 2 Wolverines blasted the hapless Huskers 45-7 in easily their best performance of the season. The Wolverines scored touchdowns on their first three possessions and never turned back as they ended up putting up 436 yards while keeping Nebraska out of the end zone until the final five minutes of regulation. Michigan will go back on the road to Minnesota next week as it looks to continue gaining steam before facing both Penn State and Ohio State in November.
Texas: Texas quickly turned what appeared to be a close game into a dominant victory. Late in the third quarter, the third-ranked Longhorns had just a 20-14 lead over Kansas. The Jayhawks had the ball with the chance to take the lead and decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 38. UT blew the play up, causing a fumble. The Longhorns took over, quickly scored and never looked back in an eventual 40-14 win. By the time the dust settled, Texas had accumulated 661 yards of offense while limiting Kansas to only 260. It was an emphatic performance from UT with the Red River showdown with Oklahoma coming next weekend. Texas is 5-0 for the first time since 2009.
Oklahoma: Speaking of Oklahoma, the Sooners are also off to a 5-0 start in their final season in the Big 12. OU went 6-7 in Brent Venables’ first season as head coach, but this team looks much improved. In Saturday’s 50-20 win over Iowa State, Sooners QB Dillon Gabriel threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns. The defense had a slow start, but ISU’s field goal at the 9:06 mark of the second quarter were the final points the Cyclones would score in the game. Last year’s Red River game was a 49-0 Texas win. Now the Sooners can get their revenge.
Kentucky RB Ray Davis: Kentucky blasted No. 22 Florida, 33-14, thanks in large part to the phenomenal effort from Ray Davis. Davis, a Vanderbilt transfer, entrenched himself in the Kentucky record books by rushing for a whopping 280 yards and three touchdowns in the win. Davis’ rushing total was the third-most in Kentucky history and only 19 yards shy of Moe Williams’ record from 1995. Davis also caught a touchdown pass in the win. The Wildcats are now 5-0 with a trip to Athens to face Georgia next week. Can UK make noise in the SEC East race?
Texas A&M: Could Texas A&M be an under-the-radar contender in the SEC West? The Aggies are off to a 2-0 start in conference play thanks to a 34-22 win over Arkansas on Saturday. The Aggies outgained Arkansas 414 yards to 174 in the win. While the A&M defense limited the Razorbacks to only 42 rushing yards, Max Johnson threw for 210 yards and rushed for 57 yards. Johnson was making his first start of the season in place of the injured Conner Weigman, and he looked very comfortable running the offense. Will that carry over to next weekend’s home game vs. Alabama?
Clemson: It would have been easy for Clemson to pack it in after falling to 2-2 with a heartbreaking loss to Florida State last week. Instead, the Tigers went on the road and pushed Syracuse around in a 31-14 win. Clemson got a big outing from freshman receiver Tyler Brown, who caught nine passes for 153 yards in the win. Clemson’s defense also completely smothered Garrett Shrader and the Syracuse offense. The Orange, now 4-1 on the year, were limited to only 286 yards while committing three turnovers. Clemson will still be a factor in the ACC race.
Louisville: Speaking of the ACC race, Louisville looks like a viable contender in its first season under Jeff Brohm. The Cardinals improved to 5-0 with an ugly 13-10 road win over NC State on Friday night. UL fell behind 10-0 at halftime and committed some ugly turnovers, but it was able to come back and win in a very difficult place to play. Louisville will host Notre Dame at Cardinal Stadium next weekend. It will be a major opportunity for the UL program.
West Virginia: Entering the season, WVU was picked to finish last in the Big 12 and coach Neal Brown was on the hot seat. With September coming to a close, the Mountaineers are 4-1 with their only loss coming on the road to Penn State. Since that Week 1 loss, WVU has won four straight games. The latest was a 24-21 road win over TCU on Saturday. WVU trailed TCU 21-14 at halftime but shut out the Horned Frogs in the second half to get the road win.
James Madison: JMU is still ineligible for postseason play and the Sun Belt championship, but it keeps on winning. NCAA rules don’t allow teams that transition from the FCS to the FBS to be eligible for the postseason, but that hasn’t caused the Dukes to lack any motivation. JMU improved to 5-0 with a 31-23 win over South Alabama on Saturday. That win came after three consecutive road wins over Virginia, Troy and Utah State. The Dukes are 13-3 in 16 games as an FBS member. How impressive is that?
LSU: The Tigers gave up over 700 yards of offense to Ole Miss in a 55-49 loss to the Rebels on Saturday night. The second defeat of the season likely ends any chance LSU had of playing for a national title and further exposed the team’s defensive flaws as Ole Miss QB Jaxson Dart threw for 389 yards. LSU QB Jayden Daniels threw for 414 yards and four TDs himself, but his pass into the end zone as time expired fell incomplete.
UCF: UCF somehow gave up a 28-point lead with 8:08 to go in the third quarter in a 36-35 loss to Baylor. UCF led 35-7 and looked to be cruising to an easy win after jumping out to a quick 21-0 lead. But UCF’s next four drives resulted in an interception, two punts and a fumbled snap returned for a 72-yard touchdown after the Knights went to a wildcat formation. Timmy McClain made a heroic effort to get UCF into field goal range for a chance at a game-winning kick, but the long field goal attempt was wide and short. That’s a bad loss.
Virginia: Things were looking great for the Cavaliers to get their first win of the season at halftime when they led Boston College, 21-7. The final score ended up being a 27-24 Boston College win. Virginia had just 39 yards of offense in the second half as Boston College scored 27 points in the third quarter. Virginia’s second-half drives went punt, interception, punt, punt, field goal and turnover on downs. The longest of those drives went 12 yards. Maybe Virginia can get its first win next week against William & Mary.
Pitt: The Panthers are now 1-4 after a 38-21 loss at Virginia Tech. Hokies QB Kyron Drones scored five total touchdowns — three passing, two rushing — as VT had a 21-7 lead at halftime. The Panthers were just 2-of-10 on third downs and rushed for just 38 yards on 24 attempts. Some had Pitt as a sleeper in the ACC before the season but former transfer QB Phil Jurkovec has struggled in his first season with the Panthers. Jurkovec is barely completing 50% of his passes and 75 of his 225 yards passing Saturday night came on one completion.
Illinois: The Illini do not look on track to continue the success they achieved in 2022. Illinois fell to 2-3 after a 44-19 loss at Purdue on Saturday. QB Luke Altmyer continued his turnover-prone ways with a fumble that Purdue returned for a TD to take the lead in the first quarter. The Boilermakers then scored 21 unanswered in the third quarter to take control of the game. Illinois is 0-2 in the Big Ten already, and while the Big Ten West is a mess, the Illini will need to improve to be in contention. Point differential can be a good barometer of team strength and Illinois’ point differential is already at -45. Yikes.
Georgia Tech: Any signs of progress in Atlanta were blunted by 38-27 loss to Bowling Green on Saturday. Georgia Tech led 14-0 in the first quarter before Bowling Green took control of the game. The Yellow Jackets turned the ball over three times and had the ball for just 17 minutes as Bowling Green pulled off a time-of-possession masterpiece. Connor Bazelak threw for 263 yards for the Falcons while Finn Hogan had six catches for 102 yards and a score. The Yellow Jackets are now 2-3 and need to bounce back quickly with games against Miami and North Carolina looming in October.
Boise State: The Broncos are now 2-3 after a 35-32 loss at Memphis. Boise State led 17-0 in the second quarter before Memphis reeled off four consecutive TDs to take a 28-17 lead in the fourth quarter. Boise State coach Andy Avalos made a QB change after Taylen Green was 12-of-24 for 200 yards and Maddux Madsen was 11-of-14 for 175 yards and two scores in the second half. The good news for the Broncos is that the non-conference part of their schedule is over. Boise State went 1-3 against teams from outside the Mountain West.
UConn: The Huskies lost 34-33 to Utah State in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday. UConn jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter before Utah State scored 24 consecutive points to take a 24-17 lead with 3:52 to go in the third quarter. After getting the ball back trailing 34-27 with 2:41 to go, UConn went 85 yards in nine plays as 6-foot, 303-pound defensive lineman Jelani Stafford scored on a one-yard TD run. The Huskies and coach Jim Mora went for the game-tying extra point and, well, you can guess what happened next.
UTEP: The Miners dropped to 1-5 with a 24-10 home loss to Louisiana Tech on Friday night. Three UTEP QBs combined to go 9-of-28 passing for 101 yards and the Miners were a dreadful 3-of-17 on third-down attempts. UTEP was 5-7 in 2022 after a 7-6 season and the school’s first bowl appearance in seven seasons in 2021. Things have gotten even worse in 2023 and it’s fair to wonder if coach Dana Dimel’s tenure is nearing its end. UTEP is now 18-45 since Dimel took over ahead of the 2018 season.