USC, NC State, more thrive amid college football’s chaos

Fifteen years ago, college football witnessed one of the greatest strings of upsets in sports history. Then-FCS Appalachian State opened the festivities by stunning No. 2 Michigan, launching a season in which the second-ranked team lost eight times over the course of the year. Among the teams that reached that ranking only to stumble against an unranked opponent were California, USF and Boston College; in the last two weeks of the season, Kansas and West Virginia held the position but lost to rivals Missouri and Pitt. When the dust settled, the national champion was an LSU team that somehow made it back to No. 1 twice after losing to unranked teams in triple-overtime twice.

The chaos of 2007 will probably never be matched, but it’s often invoked when we catch a glimpse of a particularly wild week. Last season, it was brought to mind by the week of Oct. 9, in which unranked Texas A&M stunned Alabama, Oklahoma outdueled Texas behind Caleb Williams and Ole Miss survived Arkansas in a shootout, among other tense matchups. The week’s aftershocks were vividly felt in a season with numerous unusual teams in the playoff hunt, and at the time, it felt like it could be years before we saw another day with so much drama.

Instead, it took just 11 months. Week 2 of 2022 matched Week 6 of 2021 and then some, turning from a schedule that seemed uninspiring into a day of constant drama. It started with Alabama-Texas, presented as the marquee game of the day despite a 20-point spread, which turned into a genuinely gripping slugfest as the Crimson Tide struggled to dispatch the Longhorns. Alabama survived by a single point on a game-winning kick, but the game raised some serious questions about how the Tide offense would function moving forward. At the time, it looked like it might be the only real highlight of the day. And then…

In the afternoon, two top-10 teams went down to unranked opponents, with Notre Dame and Texas A&M shocked by the Sun Belt’s Marshall and Appalachian State. That almost managed to overshadow the further dramas of Wisconsin losing to Washington State, Tennessee outlasting Pitt in overtime and Iowa State snapping its losing streak to Iowa through the rain. As the evening wore on, Nebraska suffered the worst and last loss of Scott Frost’s tenure, surrendering 45 points to Georgia Southern. Two fantastic games out west capped the night as BYU survived Baylor in double-overtime and Oregon State walked off Fresno State on a quarterback draw.

Will the rest of 2022 follow in the footsteps of 2007? That’s an extremely lofty bar to pursue, but at least right now, the sport is as muddled as it has ever been. The top three—Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State—are still fairly clear, but there are reasons to doubt at all of them: Georgia’s biggest win is of indeterminate quality, Alabama very nearly lost to Texas and Ohio State’s escape from Notre Dame looks a lot worse than it did a week ago. Beyond the leaders, there’s no telling how teams stack up. USC (4-8 last season) is No. 7, and Arkansas (3-7 two seasons ago) is No. 10; Oregon (which peaked at No. 3 last season) is unranked, as is Notre Dame (which peaked at No. 5). Week 3 may be one of the schedule’s least interesting slates on paper, but after last week, any game can turn into a must-watch thriller.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Purdue at Syracuse (-1.5)—Saturday 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Purdue Syracuse
2022 F+ 28 48
When Purdue has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 26 49
2022 EPA/pass 37 108
2022 EPA/rush 108 113
When Syracuse has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 32 57
2022 EPA/pass 69 14
2022 EPA/rush 34 10

Thirty-seven of the 64 teams in Power 5 conferences remain undefeated after two weeks. Many of the names in that group are unsurprising; the AP Poll is, of course, composed largely of this group, with 17 of its 25 teams selected from among the undefeated P5s. A further 10 received votes, and here we start to see some more unfamiliar names, such as Oregon State and Texas Tech. Among the last 10, the undefeated teams in power conferences that nonetheless didn’t get a single ranking, there’s a range from teams you wouldn’t expect to get zero votes (UCLA didn’t get any after going 8-4, really?) and others you wouldn’t expect to be 2-0 (yes, Kansas really is).

Somewhere on the latter end of the spectrum, sharing space with the unusually unblemished Hoosiers, Scarlet Knights and Blue Devils, is Syracuse. The Orange’s hot start has come against Louisville and UConn, admittedly not the most daunting opponents, but the way they thoroughly dominated a Cardinals team that rebounded to beat UCF looks more impressive in hindsight. Only three teams beat Louisville by multiple scores last year—Ole Miss, NC State and Kentucky—and all of them finished ranked. If that’s anything to go by, the way Syracuse shut down Malik Cunningham and stormed to an easy 31-7 victory bodes well.

If this team was ever going to match the 10-win season from early in Dino Babers’ coaching tenure, Sean Tucker was bound to be a big part of it. In just 23 career games, he has racked up 2,334 rushing and 469 receiving yards, and he finished sixth nationally with 1,496 yards on the ground last season. While Tucker has been solid so far in 2021 with 212 rushing yards and 101 receiving yards, he hasn’t been the key to the Orange’s unexpected success. That would be Garrett Shrader, who had thrown 387 career passes entering this season—more than enough to write him off as an unremarkable journeyman quarterback with an uninspiring 6.8 yards per pass, 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Despite the lack of arm talent (Shrader averaged just 140 passing yards per full game last year), Syracuse liked the spark he added on the ground in 2021, rushing for over 130 yards on three occasions and leading a shootout win over Virginia Tech in the last of those games. He was kept on for 2022, and thus far, he has more than rewarded the Orange’s trust in him. Shrader ranks fifth nationally with a staggering 11 yards per pass, and he has added over 50 rushing yards per game, which no other quarterback in the top 25 can say. Whether this stunning surge will persist deeper into the season remains to be seen, but thus far, it has been one of the most enjoyable stories of the year.

Louisville is a decent enough win to believe in Syracuse, but how the Orange perform against Purdue will tell us a lot more. The Boilermakers went 9-4 last year and beat two then-top-five teams, an impressive season that didn’t receive the plaudits it deserved. They lost to Penn State in Week 1, but just as it remains to be seen how good a win Louisville is, it also remains to be seen how bad losing to the Nittany Lions will be. Even if the Boilermakers fall to Syracuse, it’s not hard to see Purdue finding a way to eight wins or more in a messy Big Ten West.

Of course, a win over a non-conference opponent that might turn out to be fairly good is a feather the Boilermakers would like in their cap too. The Purdue offense left much to be desired despite scoring 31 points in the opener, as a weak run game (2.8 yards per carry on 22 rushes) led to a heavy reliance on the passing attack. Aidan O’Connell passed 59 times, a career high, completing 30 passes for 365 yards (6.2 yards per attempt). He looked far better against Indiana State in Week 2, averaging over 10 yards per attempt, completing 17 of his 19 passes and throwing four touchdowns, but the Syracuse defense will test him. The Orange are thin up front, but they bring a strong secondary led by Garrett Williams (16 tackles, one interception). Purdue should have more success against this defense than Louisville and UConn—which had more turnovers than touchdowns against it—but how much will depend on O’Connell’s ability to carry the attack.

Watch for:

  • Can any of Purdue’s running backs—King Doerue, Dylan Downing, Devin Mockobee or Kobe Lewis—take over as a true threat on the ground?
  • Will the Boilermakers feature secondary receivers more after Charlie Jones (286 yards) caught nearly half of O’Connell’s completions in the first two games?
  • If LeQuint Allen’s struggles continue (24 yards on 10 carries), will Syracuse add Juwaun Price (692 yards at New Mexico State in 2021) to the running back rotation?

FEI Outright Pick: Purdue by 4.9.

BYU at Oregon (-3.5)—Saturday 3:30 p.m. (Fox)

Overall BYU Oregon
2022 F+ 26 35
When BYU has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 13 51
2022 EPA/pass 35 127
2022 EPA/rush 53 123
When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 34 18
2022 EPA/pass 11 77
2021 EPA/rush 111 52

Week 1 is all about overreactions, and few games produced more of them than Oregon-Georgia. The Ducks lost 49-3, gave up literally every possible yard and tumbled from 11th to unranked entirely despite facing a top-three team. You’d have to suspend your disbelief to think they could lose to Eastern Washington—a strong FCS foe but still an FCS foe—but the way they utterly demolished the Eagles, 70-14, did a lot to reaffirm that the Ducks will still be at least decent.

Having faced the most dominant force in college football in Week 1, then a team they easily overpowered in Week 2, the Ducks now take on an opponent that will tell us far more about where exactly they stack up this season. BYU is fresh off a dramatic double-overtime win over top-10 Baylor, and with this game against Oregon, plus mid-October meetings with Notre Dame and Arkansas, there has been some talk that the Cougars could be a playoff contender if they go undefeated. This should be their biggest road game of the season, and they catch the Ducks at a fairly good time—perhaps still reeling somewhat from their loss to Georgia and still laying the groundwork under new head coach Dan Lanning. Still, Oregon is hardly a pushover, especially in Eugene, where the Ducks have won 20 games in a row dating back to 2018.

BYU had the Bears comfortably beat in yards (366 to 289) and penalties (nine to 14) last week. By rights it should have put the game away earlier, but a woefully inconsistent run game made it closer than it should have been. Christopher Brooks, Lopini Katoa and quarterback Jaren Hall all rushed nine or more times; none of them averaged so much as 3 yards per carry, and as a team BYU totaled just 83 rushing yards. The Cougars came up big to hold Baylor to 2.9 yards per carry and 4.9 per pass, but their own offense failed to capitalize repeatedly before finally doing so in overtime. BYU’s passing was unexceptional, but that’s something it hopes to fix by returning one or both top receivers: Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney, who didn’t play last week but will be game-time decisions this week. The lack of a threat on the ground, though, isn’t so easily amended.

Brooks has a long history of success from his days at Cal, where he racked up 1,734 rushing yards on 4.5 yards per carry, and one bad game (after a great BYU debut against USF) shouldn’t shake the Cougars’ faith in him too much. The fact that Baylor so effectively shut down long runs—only allowing one longer than 10 yards all game—is cause for some concern in the long term, but it may also be a good sign against Oregon. The Bears have a swarming run defense that cuts off explosive plays before they can really get going, and that’s a trait the Ducks haven’t possessed at all so far. Three different players broke off 10-yard runs on their defense in the opener, and while that comes with a grain of salt due to facing the defending champions, it’s hardly a point in favor of their second-level run defense.

On paper, though, this is something Oregon should be good at. Noah Sewell hasn’t been as much of a factor against the run as the team would like—he made 50 tackles on run plays last season, seventh in the Pac-12, but has only two so far this season. Justin Flowe, a former top-10 recruit, has been more of an anchor at linebacker so far, but Oregon needs both of them to lock down the middle of the field and force BYU to rely on its passing game. Leaving things up to the secondary creates uncertainty in its own right, not only because Nacua and Romney may or may not play, but also because the Ducks faced significant turnover at the position this offseason.

As with everything else, we only have two games of data against opponents that aren’t really comparable, and they tell us what we’d expect: Stetson Bennett blew up Oregon’s defense for 439 yards, but the Ducks held Eastern Washington’s Gunner Talkington to just 87 yards and picked him off twice. It’s reasonable to predict that Hall’s performance will fall somewhere between those extremes, but it’s difficult at this point to say how much of a match the Ducks secondary will be, even ignoring BYU’s injuries at receiver. We’ll know much more about both of these teams once they play each other, but for now, it’s easy to see this game going any number of different ways.

Watch for:

  • Will BYU’s talented secondary shut down Bo Nix as effectively as Georgia’s (173 yards on 37 passes, two interceptions)?
  • How much of a threat do the Ducks pose on the ground behind five rushers (Nix included) with double-digit carries who have combined for 6 yards per rush?
  • If one or both of Nacua and Romney are unable to play again, can Chase Roberts (163 yards, 14.8 yards per catch) remain a go-to-target for BYU?

FEI Outright Pick: BYU by 5.2

Penn State (-3) at Auburn—Saturday 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Penn State Auburn
2022 F+ 7 23
When Penn State has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 36 18
2022 EPA/pass 57 74
2022 EPA/rush 59 19
When Auburn has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 7 39
2022 EPA/pass 72 45
2021 EPA/rush 31 68

Penn State has reached the top 10 in six straight seasons. Its odds of making it seven look decent after a 2-0 start and a fairly light run of games coming up against Auburn, Central Michigan and Northwestern, but the Nittany Lions have also finished out of the top 25 entirely in back-to-back years. When they play No. 4 Michigan, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 11 Michigan State in their last seven games, they’ll need to put up more of a fight to avoid making it three unranked finishes in a row. This visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium isn’t that tough a game on paper, but it’s an opportunity for Penn State to establish itself as a legitimate contender rather than a paper tiger.

Few quarterbacks’ career arcs match more neatly to their teams’ recent narrative than Sean Clifford. As a sophomore, the Lions passer averaged 8.3 yards per attempt with 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions—all of which remain his career-best marks over a full season. After that 2019 season, in which Penn State went 11-2 and finished ninth overall, Clifford regressed in 2020 and 2021 to 7.3 yards per attempt with 37 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. As a 5-0 start last season dissolved into a 2-6 finish, his particularly dismal play (6.4 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns, five interceptions) was difficult to overlook. Due to injuries, backups Ta’Quan Roberson and Christian Veilleux both got chances to serve as Penn State’s primary passer for a game, but neither convinced head coach James Franklin that Clifford should be replaced.

Now Roberson has transferred to UConn, and Veilleux has taken his role as the least impressive of the Lions’ quarterbacks, with 37 yards on seven passes this season. Taking over for Veilleux as the backup whom fans have clamored for is Drew Allar, a five-star true freshman with a glittering 9.5 yards per attempt and two touchdowns on 12 passes. Small sample sizes can be deceiving, but Allar has looked more than capable of leading an offense that has evident talent everywhere else. At least for now, though, Clifford remains the starter. Is that the right call?

It would be a much tougher decision if Clifford hadn’t made such a strong start to 2022. He’s only averaging 7.7 yards per attempt, but he has thrown five touchdowns and just one interception—four of those touchdowns coming against Purdue, a game in which he passed for 72 yards on the game-winning drive. Some people value clutch play against a strong opponent very highly, and for them, that’s a convincing argument in favor of keeping Clifford under center until he comes up short in a key spot. On the other hand, you could just as easily point to the dreadful three drives before that effort, in which he went 2-for-7 with 13 yards and a pick-six. The game was arguably only in question because of Clifford, and it’s hard not to speculate that having a skilled five-star leading the offense would have made it a much less tense win. It’s easy to want Allar to take over, as it always is when a backup shows so much spark, and it’s not an unreasonable thought. But for better or for worse, Clifford has the reins of the offense to start this game; it’ll be revealing to see whether he’ll stay in if Penn State struggles to score.

Auburn presents a particularly intriguing matchup for the Nittany Lions because of how well the Tigers have limited the run so far. The Tigers have allowed just 128 yards and 2.1 yards per carry on the ground, and while Mercer and San Jose State are hardly the toughest competition, that’s notable because their defense has struggled more through the air. While they have only allowed 6.2 yards per attempt, the secondary has also failed to produce an interception against Fred Payton and Chevan Cordeiro, who each threw an average of one per game in the SoCon and Mountain West, respectively.

It’s a decent bet that Penn State will have to lean on its passing in this game—standout freshman Nick Singleton has 210 yards on 20 carries this year, but 179 of those came against Ohio—which will give Clifford and perhaps Allar every chance to prove they can handle a secondary that should be overmatched. Will the Lions actually be bold enough to pull their multi-year starter for an inexperienced (though evidently talented) freshman, or will Clifford finally capitalize on the upside he has always had and lead Penn State to the excellent season it’s capable of?

Watch for:

  • Can Singleton do enough against Auburn’s stout run defense to put the offense’s success in the hands of the passing game?
  • How much will Robby Ashford (10.1 yards per attempt, one interception) play for the Tigers due to TJ Finley’s struggles (8.2 yards per attempt, one touchdown, three interceptions)?
  • Will Auburn’s strong run game, led by Tank Bigsby (198 yards, 6.8 yards per carry), present a challenge to a strong Penn State defensive line?

FEI Outright Pick: Penn State by 3.5

Kansas at Houston (-9)—Saturday 4 p.m. (ESPNU)

Overall Kansas Houston
2022 F+ 100 50
When Kansas has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 67 46
2022 EPA/pass 13 34
2022 EPA/rush 30 50
When Houston has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 121 65
2022 EPA/pass 118 92
2021 EPA/rush 75 83

Bear with me here: Is Kansas good? Well, not on defense, certainly; the Jayhawks gave up 10 points to an FCS team that was shut out twice last season, then 42 to a West Virginia team that hadn’t scored that much in an FBS game since 2019. Yet the Jayhawks are 2-0 for the first time in 11 years, having scored 111 points in two games. They have played four consecutive Big 12 games in which they haven’t lost by multiple scores; the last time they had a streak that long, it ended with a conference game against Colorado.

It feels weird to talk about Kansas facing a test and getting a chance to prove itself, but that’s what it has with a visit to Houston, which took a narrow loss to Texas Tech in double-overtime last week. The Jayhawks offense picked up steam last year, highlighted by a 57-point explosion in a program-defining win over Texas; that was the first of three 50-point showings in a five-game span, as many as in the previous 155 games combined. The Jayhawks have pieced together, if not a good team, at least half of a good team, which could be enough to win quite a few games this year.

After years of failing to find a single good quarterback to lead the offense, the Jayhawks found two last year, both of whom are back in 2022. Jason Bean threw the majority of their passes last season for 6.9 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and six interceptions—not the prettiest numbers, but in his defense, it was his first year with the team, and he improved as he went on, to the point that he very nearly keyed a titanic upset over Oklahoma with 246 yards on 23 passes. The future looked fairly bright under Bean; then, in one half of football against Kansas State, he and backup Miles Kendrick were both injured. Enter Jalon Daniels, who started six games in 2020 and authored an improbable rebound from his dreadful debut season (4.7 yards per attempt, one touchdown, four interceptions) by passing for 7.4 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

Daniels led the strong finish to 2021—including the stunner over Texas—and he has been even better this year, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt with four touchdowns and an interception. With 114 yards on 15 carries, he’s also one-third of a Kansas rushing attack that’s been extremely potent thus far, featuring three of the Big 12’s top four qualified rushers in yards per carry. The other stars are Devin Neal, the Jayhawks’ standout running back last year, and Daniel Hishaw Jr., who has returned from injury with all the promise he showed in a strong 2020 season. The year is still young and the schedule has been light for Kansas, but the offense looks as capable as any in the Big 12 so far.

On paper, Houston is capable of keeping pace, but little has stood out for the Cougars beyond star receiver Nathaniel Dell (170 yards, 14.2 yards per catch). Vaunted quarterback Clayton Tune is averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt, though a high drop rate (10.6%) and pressure rate (33 pressured dropbacks, tied for eighth) are part of the problem. Alton McCaskill’s season-ending injury in spring practice has been particularly keenly felt, with primary rusher Brandon Campbell averaging 4.2 yards per attempt and the Cougars overall averaging only 113 rushing yards per game. Still, Houston has navigated its way to 33.5 points per game by means of a high third-down conversion rate, reliable red zone offense and five overtime periods in two games.

You almost start to wonder if it’s Houston that can’t keep up with Kansas on offense, but it’s worth noting that the Jayhawks had their hands full defensively with a worse opponent last week. In a quarterback battle designed to confuse anyone who wasn’t paying attention, JT Daniels outpassed Jalon Daniels with 365 yards on 39 passes, three touchdowns and one (game-ending) interception. Kansas did limit the run well, which will be a comfortable mismatch against Houston’s depleted rushing attack, but this game is a prime opportunity for Tune to get right against a beatable secondary. The Cougars will be favored, but they may need to win a shootout to escape Lawrence unscathed.

Watch for:

  • Can the Jayhawks’ Kenny Logan Jr. be as much of a disruptive force at safety as he was last year (110 tackles, four tackles for loss, six interceptions)?
  • Will Houston’s offensive line, on which six regular starters have combined for 21 pressures allowed, step up and show its experience?
  • How much pressure can talented Kansas edge rusher Lonnie Phelps (three sacks) get on the Cougars—and how will Tune handle it?

FEI Outright Pick: Houston by 14.7

Texas Tech at NC State (-10)—Saturday 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Texas Tech NC State
2022 F+ 45 32
When Texas Tech has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 30 20
2022 EPA/pass 100 68
2022 EPA/rush 102 70
When NC State has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 58 58
2022 EPA/pass 16 69
2021 EPA/rush 57 96

NC State has been billed as a dark-horse College Football Playoff contender entering this season, but there’s understandable skepticism about that possibility. It has only grown after a nail-biting win over East Carolina in Week 1. The Wolfpack are a talented team, and they’re certainly capable of knocking off Clemson when they visit Death Valley at the start of October. However, their schedule presents numerous lower-level challenges that they’ll have to clear to put together a playoff-caliber season. The first nearly ended in disaster, as NC State was held scoreless throughout the entire second half and won by just one point thanks to a missed PAT and a blocked game-winning field goal try. Ahead lie games against Florida State, Syracuse, Wake Forest and North Carolina, among others that will test the Wolfpack’s consistency, but first they must make it past a 2-0 Texas Tech team coming off an impressive win over Houston.

The Red Raiders overhauled their staff this offseason, but they’re still carrying forward momentum from last year’s bowl season. Upsetting the Cougars marked a good first step in their 2022 campaign. Going into Raleigh and beating a talented team with a ton of continuity will be much more difficult, but they have the players to hang with NC State. Quarterback Donovan Smith has been, while not exceptional, a steadying force for Texas Tech’s offense, averaging 8.2 yards per attempt with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions since taking over in 2021. The Raiders are anchored on the ground by Tahj Brooks, who’s approaching 1,000 career yards early in his third season, and SaRodorick Thompson, who has re-emerged as a receiving threat after catching only six passes last year. The offense is overseen by one Zach Kittley, who rose to prominence as the coordinator behind Bailey Zappe’s astounding 2021 season at Western Kentucky.

NC State is solid on both sides of the ball. The Wolfpack look particularly strong on defense, and they have the depth to shut down just about any opponent if things go well. Five different players have already totaled 10 tackles for the Wolfpack, including expected leaders such as Drake Thomas, Derrek Pitts and Tanner Ingle, as well as breakouts at defensive back (Cyrus Fagan) and linebacker (Jaylon Scott). They’re doing everything right on the back end, but what hasn’t come through yet is the defensive line. NC State has produced just one sack through two games, tied for last in FBS. Players whom the Wolfpack hoped would make noise against opposing offensive lines, such as Davin Vann (four sacks last year) and Savion Jackson (23 tackles in nine games last year), simply haven’t produced. It is, at least, encouraging that NC State’s pass-rushers have put up quarterback hits and hurries, but they need to get deep into the backfield the way they did last year, when they ranked 24th overall with 2.9 sacks per game.

Texas Tech might be a good team to do that against, with a lot of movement on its offensive line entering this season. The Red Raiders surrendered 13 tackles for loss and five sacks against Houston last week, with most of the damage dealt against Caleb Rogers, a left tackle who has already allowed more sacks this year than in all of 2021. Of course, NC State doesn’t have a massive pass-rushing threat to send after Texas Tech’s line, a role that Derek Parish (17.5 career sacks, including five this year) served for the Cougars last week. It’s evident that this is a weakness that can be exploited, and if the Raiders can’t stop the Wolfpack in the trenches, they’ll have little chance against the rest of their defense.

Texas Tech will, however, have a lot to throw at NC State on the other side of the ball, particularly up front. The Red Raiders have racked up six sacks in their own right, led by a strong start to the season for junior Philip Blidi (4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks). However, the rest of the defense is still recalibrating beyond the line after losing numerous key players from 2021—such as Colin Schooler and Riko Jeffers at linebacker as well as Eric Monroe and DaMarcus Fields in the secondary. Krishon Merriweather has been a force at linebacker, leading the team with 14 tackles, and defensive backs Reggie Pearson Jr. and Dadrion Taylor-Demerson have done their job well, but holding down a Wolfpack offense with plenty of explosive potential will still be difficult.

Watch for:

  • Will Devin Leary continue to spread the ball around (six NC State players have three-plus catches) or hone in on top targets Thayer Thomas and Devin Carter?
  • Can Texas Tech contain the dangerous dual threat presented by Jordan Houston (81 rushing yards on 20 carries, 72 receiving yards on five receptions)?
  • How well will Donovan Smith bounce back from an up-and-down, two-touchdown, three-interception game against Houston?

FEI Outright Pick: NC State by 2.3

Fresno State at USC (-12.5)—Saturday 10:30 p.m. (Fox)

Overall Fresno State USC
2022 F+ 51 34
When Fresno State has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 54 70
2022 EPA/pass 51 28
2022 EPA/rush 16 112
When USC has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 54 12
2022 EPA/pass 86 8
2021 EPA/rush 118 23

It has been nine-and-a-half months since Lincoln Riley was named head coach at USC, following a season-long coaching search and weeks of speculation. It feels like an eternity—fraught with playoff predictions, impact transfers, first-year skepticism and everything else a big-name coach brings to the highest degree. The Trojans dominated Rice and pulled away from Stanford in their first two games; now, against a strong Fresno State team fresh off a thrilling battle with Oregon State, they face their first real test.

There’s little precedent for a team in USC’s situation. The obvious facts are unique on their own: There hasn’t been a team in the transfer era to accumulate as much proven talent as the Trojans did this offseason, let alone one coming off a 4-8 season and undergoing a coaching change. To muddle matters further, it’s important to consider that most of the top transfers added to the offense, while not much was done to repair a defense that let up 32 points per game last year. USC has looked mostly excellent in its first two weeks, but it did gain 23 points of turnover luck in a win by 13 points—though the Trojans held a 27-point lead before garbage time. Is last week’s game something the Trojans should be concerned about? The answer, as with everything else we have learned about this team since Riley’s hire was announced, is painfully unclear.

What we can say with confidence is that USC will have the weapons to do damage on offense all year. The three biggest transfers added for 2022—quarterback Caleb Williams from Oklahoma, receiver Jordan Addison from Pitt and running back Travis Dye from Oregon—have all exceeded lofty expectations thus far. Williams has thrown six touchdowns, tied for second among passers who have yet to throw an interception; he’s also averaging 12 yards per pass (third nationally) and has more yards on his 49 passes than any other quarterback with fewer than 60 attempts. Addison has been central to that passing success, with some 226 receiving yards on just 12 catches. Relative to the Trojans’ other leaders, Dye’s 125 yards are less impressive, but he’s still fourth in the Pac-12 in yards per carry, well ahead of stars such as Zach Charbonnet and Tavion Thomas.

Fresno State’s defense, while good on paper, has consistently struggled in its biggest games, and it undid the team against Oregon State. Despite concerns about their defensive line, the Bulldogs actually stopped the Beavers well up front, allowing only 1.65 line yards per carry—but on the runs where their line didn’t stand up initially, their second-level run defense was gouged for 4.59 yards per opportunity. That’s a mismatch USC can exploit with a physical advantage on the offensive line. Fresno State’s pass defense is stronger—it stood up to solid Power 5 passers against Oregon and UCLA last year, with only one game in which it allowed more than 303 yards—but it’ll have a tall task to deal with the dynamic Williams-to-Addison connection. Ultimately, the Bulldogs’ changes of hanging around are going to rely heavily on what their offense can do.

There are those who believe USC will contend for the playoff this year and those who believe the Trojans will be fighting for a bowl, but pretty much everyone agrees that their losses will result largely from defense. Stanford racked up numbers after the Trojans had already gone up 41-14 last week, but their overall stats are nevertheless cause for some concern: a 56% success rate, 490 total yards and particularly 221 rushing yards, Stanford’s most in a game since 2018. Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener is a strong passer (with 8.5 yards per attempt, three touchdowns and no interceptions this year), but the Bulldogs’ strength has been on the ground behind star rusher Jordan Mims, who has 197 yards and four touchdowns through two games. With its three primary rushers—Mims, Malik Sherrod and Nikko Remigio—averaging 6.1 yards per carry, Fresno State has an edge to match USC and add to its recent history of taking Pac-12 opponents down to the wire.

Watch for:

  • Will USC’s secondary have as much success against Haener as in its first two games (177 passing yards per game, one touchdown, six interceptions)?
  • Can star linebacker Levelle Bailey anchor Fresno State’s defense and prevent the big runs that the Bulldogs allowed to Oregon State?
  • Will penalties continue to be a problem for either or both teams, with Fresno State having been flagged 16 times and USC 15 times?

FEI Outright Pick: USC by 4.5

FEI Picks: Week 3

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
 Pick ATS
 Pick ATS
at Syracuse -1.5 Purdue Purdue Purdue Syracuse
at Oregon -3.5 BYU BYU BYU BYU
Penn State -3 at Auburn Penn State Penn State Penn State
at Houston -9 Kansas Houston Houston Kansas
at NC State -10 Texas Tech NC State Texas Tech Texas Tech
at USC -12.5 Fresno State USC Fresno State Fresno State

FEI’s picks ATS in 2022: 5-7

Preston’s picks ATS in 2022: 4-8

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