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So Far, So Good: The Tests Awaiting College Football's Pleasant Surprises

Let's talk about teams that have overachieved (or simply achieved at a high level) -- teams like Tennessee, TCU, Louisville, and Alabama -- and let's talk about the challenges that await them in Week 3 of the college football season.

Sep 8, 2012; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Tyler Bray (8) during warm up prior to the game against the Georgia State Panthers at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE
Sep 8, 2012; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Tyler Bray (8) during warm up prior to the game against the Georgia State Panthers at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE

Between talking about Paul Petrino's horrid game management, Washington's dreadful offense, and the Big Ten's generally mediocre level of play, I've spent a lot of time talking about negative events and trends this week. Heading into the weekend, however, it's time for some positivity. Let's talk about teams that have overachieved (or simply achieved at a very high level), and let's talk about the challenges that await them in Week 3 of the college football season.


Dan Rubenstein's Week 3 college football picks!

TCU was just about perfect last week. Yes, they only played Grambling State, but the Horned Frogs still played much better than anybody else in FBS has against such a lower-tier opponent this year. Quarterback Casey Pachall completed all nine of his passes for 201 yards an three touchdowns. His BACKUP, Trevone Boykin, completed all eight of HIS passes for 75 yards and another touchdown. Running backs Waymon James and B.J. Catalon gained 156 yards in 10 touches. The defense granted Grambling just 70 total yards, forced 11 punts, and never let the Tigers advance past their own 41 yard line.

Even adjusting for the lower-tier opponent, TCU's Week 2 performance was so impressive that they surged to fifth in the Football Outsiders F/+ rankings. But they will drop just as quickly if they do not perform at a similar level against Kansas. The Jayhawks can't throw and can't stop the run (two slight problems), but they can run the ball, and they shut things down on passing downs -- they rank fifth in the country in passing downs defense. Despite all of their problems (and they have many), the Jayhawks could challenge TCU in at least a couple of ways in the Horned Frogs' Big 12 debut. But TCU should still win handily if they play at the level they established last week.


Back in February, when I was originally tinkering with 2012 projections, the Vols came in disturbingly high (20th) because of one simple rule: it is almost impossible to return as much experience that Tennessee was returning without improving significantly. The 2011 Vols went just 5-7 but returned almost everybody; still … 20th? That seemed too high to me, but the Vols have backed it up so far. Quarterback Tyler Bray is completing 74 percent of his passes to a dynamic receiving corps; newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson had an amazing game (well, an amazing first quarter) against N.C. State, and Justin Hunter caught eight of eight passes for 146 yards and three touchdowns versus Georgia State last week. Meanwhile, the defense has at least been good enough, forcing four turnovers versus N.C. State and holding GSU to 3.4 yards per play.

This week, however, Florida comes to town. The Gators have plenty of unsolved offensive issues, but it only took them a few possessions to put the clamps on the Texas A&M offense last week in College Station. Opposing quarterbacks Matt Schilz (of Bowling Green) and Johnny Manziel (of Texas A&M) have averaged just 4.4 yards per pass attempt, and while Tennessee's offense is probably quite an upgrade for Florida's defense, Florida's defense is an even bigger upgrade for Tennessee. The Vols could lose this game and still have a solid season, but with an absolutely brutal October looming (at Georgia, at Mississippi State, Alabama, at South Carolina, starting on September 29), the Vols need to stock up with as many wins as possible.


Okay, so the Stanford offense has in no way overachieved this year, even if it did look better against Duke last week than it had against San Jose State in Week 1. Still, Stanford is an intriguing team because of its defense. The Cardinal allowed just 4.2 yards per play to San Jose State, then allowed just 2.4 per play to Duke over the game's first seven drives. USC obviously represents a stiff upgrade in competition, but the Cardinal defense has passed its first two tests with flying colors.

Thanks mostly to preseason projections (which still account for a good portion of the current F/+ rankings), Stanford is still a potential Top 15 team on paper, and the Cardinal are getting USC at a pretty good time. Despite all of the exploits of the nation's best receiver duo, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, star quarterback Matt Barkley really has not impressed in the first two weeks of the season, at least not in terms of his level of Heisman hype. He averaged only 5.3 yards per pass attempt last week versus Syracuse (we didn't really notice because he also threw six mostly short touchdown passes), settling mostly for quick, possession passes to Lee and Woods. Stanford should be good enough to snuff those passes out; the key to the game, then, might be whether the Cardinal can slow down what one has to figure will be a much more vertical passing attack. A Stanford win would make everybody forget just how iffy David Shaw's squad looked in Week 1 and set the table for another lovely season in Palo Alto.


Okay, so technically the No. 1 team in the country probably always has something to prove. But Alabama's near-flawless early performance (their only glitch: they struggled to protect quarterback A.J. McCarron last week) has put them far ahead of the rest of the nation thus far. Their plus-44.2 percent F/+ rating is as close to No. 2 LSU (plus-31.5 percent) as LSU is to No. 13 Stanford (plus-19.0 percent). A rating that high will almost certainly drop as the season progresses, but for now there are few reasons to wonder if the Tide will win easily against a devastated Arkansas squad this weekend. However…

…as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Michigan got some receivers open on intermediate and deeper routes. Denard Robinson couldn't deliver the ball to the targets (few can), but that doesn't change the fact that they were open at least briefly. Assuming Arkansas would be entering this game 2-0 with a healthy Tyler Wilson, I was ready to suggest that Arkansas' offense was perfectly built to take down the Tide. But Wilson's status is still a mystery following his injury against UL-Monroe, and backup Brandon Allen showed nothing to suggest that he could withstand the pressure of playing against the suffocating Tide defense. Still, watch those intermediate routes. It would be a potential hole for the Tide, even if there might not be an offense on the schedule that can take advantage of it if the Hogs can't.

Texas A&M

So Texas A&M's offense ground completely to a halt after its first three drives in a 20-17 loss to Florida last week. How in the world do they make a positivity list? Because of that pass rush. Florida attempted to throw on 11 passing downs last week; Jeff Driskel was sacked on five of them. A&M took Driskel down a total of eight times in just 25 pass attempts, an absurd total.

Long-term, it is safe to assume that the A&M defense will be alright. Redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel is going to have his ups and downs, as redshirt freshmen tend to do, but the long-term question I was most interested in was how well A&M's defense would hold up after a year of transition. Despite a rather absurd amount of youth in the secondary, the defense was pretty good in its first test. This week, it gets a unique test in facing an SMU offense that, despite June Jones' presence on the sidelines, brings a level of power ball to the table. Quarterback (and Texas transfer) Garrett Gilbert averaged only 4.8 yards per pass attempt versus Baylor, but big running back Zach Line is startlingly consistent; in 12 of his last 14 games versus FBS competition (including against A&M last year), he has gained 100 rushing yards. Only FCS teams (for some reason) and UCF have slowed him down. A&M should pass this test, but we should still learn quite a bit more about the Aggies this week.


Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has completed 82 percent of his passes in his first two games. Yes, those passes were thrown against Kentucky (19-for-21) and Missouri State (30-for-39), but as I said about TCU, you can still prove something against lesser opponents, and Bridgewater has done so. The numbers have yet to be entirely swayed by the Cardinals (they were projected 41st in the final preseason projections and have risen to just 39th), but as I like to say, they have passed the tests they have been given.

Like I said about A&M, Louisville should pass this weekend's test, a visit from North Carolina, as well. But we should still learn quite a bit more about the Cardinals. Against UNC, Wake Forest's Tanner Price averaged a healthy 8.2 yards per pass attempt, and while Wake's Michael Campanaro is outstanding (he caught 13 of 15 passes for 164 yards against the Tar Heels), Louisville has depth on its side; Damian Copeland, Andrell Smith and DeVante Parker had nice games against Kentucky, then it was Eli Rogers' and Nate Nord's turn against Missouri State. Bridgewater will probably still have a nice game, but while we've learned a lot about Louisville's ceiling thus far, this weekend might tell us a good amount about its floor.

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