The first three weeks of the 2019 college football season have been fun and unpredictable, with marquee games that lived up to expectations (LSU at Texas), stunning upsets (Georgia State over Tennessee, The Citadel over Georgia Tech, Kansas over Boston College), wild rivalry games (Iowa at Iowa State) and basically all the instability we love about the sport. We've also, unfortunately, seen quite a few key injuries that have shifted the prognosis for quite a few teams.
The first three weeks also haven't done a damn thing to make us doubt our preseason title assumptions. It's feels only more likely that Alabama and Clemson will play in the national title game again, and most of the other best-looking teams (Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State) are top-five stalwarts or really close to it.
With such contradictory impressions, then, it's perhaps worthwhile to step back and take stock of what has and hasn't changed about the college football universe three weeks in.
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The national title race
Let's start with where things haven't changed much.
National title odds have remained remarkably similar thus far. Clemson and Alabama are the obvious favorites -- ESPN's FPI gave them an 84% and 72% chance, respectively, of reaching the CFP in the preseason, and those odds have shifted to 78% and 75% three weeks in. Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame started the year with between a 29% and 40% chance, and all four are now between 33% and 39%.
There has been one major shift, though: Michigan and Ohio State have traded places.
Due to the combination of head-coaching change and quarterback change, FPI was low on the Buckeyes heading into the season. This appeared to be Michigan's best chance in ages of surpassing its chief rival.
Alas. After looking merely decent against Middle Tennessee and very shaky in a near loss to Army, the Wolverines have fallen to 15th in FPI, third best in the Big Ten East. Their odds of reaching the College Football Playoff have fallen accordingly, from 41% to 1.4%. Ohio State, meanwhile, plowed through FAU, Cincinnati and Indiana and has risen into the FPI top five. The Buckeyes' title odds have improved from 6% to 44%. One rival goes down 40 percentage points, and the other goes up 38.
Three other teams have seen their odds increase by more than 6%: UCF (from 0.1% to 8.5%), Notre Dame (from 29% to 39%) and Wisconsin (from 0% to 12%), while Oregon's Week 1 loss to Auburn has dragged the Ducks' odds from 14% to 7.9%.
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The Heisman race
Tua vs. Trevor vs. Tua vs. Trevor vs. Tua vs. Trevor. It was hard to take anybody besides Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Clemson's Trevor Lawrence too seriously in the preseason Heisman discussions. Tagovailoa led most of last season's race before finishing second to Oklahoma's Kyler Murray, and after a brilliant CFP performance, Lawrence, with his blue-chip pedigree, appeared ready to make his own run at the award.
That could obviously still happen, but two new contenders have emerged in the early going this year.
Current Heisman odds, per Caesars Sportsbook:
1. QB Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma (+250, up from +1200 in April)
2. QB Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama (+250, same as in April)
3. QB Joe Burrow, LSU (+450, up from greater than +10000 in April)
4. QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (+800, down from +200)
5. QB Sam Ehlinger, Texas (+1000, up from +2500)
6. QB Justin Fields, Ohio State (+1200, down from +1000)
7. RB Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (+1200, up from +2000)
8. QB Justin Herbert, Oregon (+1600, up from +3000)
9. WR Jerry Jeudy, Alabama (+2500, up from +10000)
10. QB Jake Fromm, Georgia (+2800, down from +2500)
Hurts, who started at Alabama in 2016-17 before backing up Tagovailoa last season, is the latest transfer to fit like a glove at Oklahoma. He has torched Houston, South Dakota and UCLA thus far, and projected over 14 games, he's on pace for 4,100 passing yards, 1,700 rushing yards and a combined 60 touchdowns. Yes, the competition will get a little stiffer moving forward, but at the very least a 4,000/1,000 season is on the table.
Burrow, meanwhile, earned my first-place vote in this week's ESPN Heisman straw poll. After showing late improvement in 2018, he has responded brilliantly to LSU's offseason offensive changes. Granted, two of his three games have been against Georgia Southern and Northwestern State, but his numbers are cartoonish thus far: 83% completion rate, 15 yards per completion, 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions. In the game of the year thus far -- LSU's 45-38 win over Texas -- he threw for 471 yards and four scores.
A few names have dropped quite a bit. Clemson running back Travis Etienne and Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez were both listed at +2000 in April; they're now +4000 and +6000, respectively. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson was at +2500 in the spring; now he's barely holding on at +15000.
The quest for six wins
Kansas State's Week 3 upset of Mississippi State was big for a couple of reasons. First of all, it gave new head coach Chris Klieman an early marquee win and recruiting chip as he attempts to give proof of concept to the culture he is building as Bill Snyder's replacement. It also affirmed that the Wildcats' excellent play in their first two games (against Nicholls State and Bowling Green) wasn't just a product of bad competition.
The win also meant that K-State will pretty likely have a place to play in the postseason. SP+ now gives the Wildcats an 81% chance of finishing with six or more wins in 2019, up from just 33% in the preseason. The parity-heavy, nine-game Big 12 schedule will offer plenty of close games and loss opportunities, but odds are now quite good that Kansas State will find at least three conference wins to get to six overall.
No other sport can match the richness and depth of college football's storylines. While there are still plenty of teams involved (technically) in the national title race, there's another huge batch of teams just trying to finish .500. Reaching bowl eligibility means a lot in a lot of areas -- not only in Manhattan, Kansas, but also in Berkeley, California; Charlotte, North Carolina; Annapolis, Maryland; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, etc. -- and here are some of the things that have changed the most in this chase.
Teams that have improved their odds of bowl eligibility the most, per SP+ win projections:
1. Kansas State (up 48%, from 33% to 81%)
2. SMU (up 42%, from 51% to 93%)
3. California (up 39%, from 39% to 78%)
4. Charlotte (up 38%, from 19% to 57%)
5. Navy (up 37%, from 15% to 52%)
6. North Carolina (up 33%, from 26% to 59%)
7. Wake Forest (up 23%, from 73% to 96%)
8. Hawaii (up 23%, from 60% to 83%)
9. Louisiana (up 22%, from 66% to 88%)
10. Coastal Carolina (up 22%, from 18% to 40%)
If someone's going up, of course, someone has to go down. Tennessee took out some frustration on Chattanooga this weekend, but the Volunteers' fourth-quarter collapses against Georgia State and BYU, and subsequent 0-2 start, put them in a serious bind.
Even with a respectable No. 36 ranking in SP+*, the Vols are a projected favorite in only two remaining games (91% win probability against UAB, 74% against Vanderbilt). They'll have to avoid upsets there, then pull three of their own, to get to six wins.
Teams that have seen odds of bowl eligibility decrease the most, per SP+ win projections:
1. Tennessee (down 54%, from 70% to 16%)
2. South Carolina (down 41%, from 67% to 26%)
3. Stanford (down 41%, from 73% to 32%)
4. USF (down 39%, from 73% to 34%)
5. Texas State (down 39%, from 73% to 34%)
6. Purdue (down 37%, from 61% to 24%)
7. FIU (down 35%, from 90% to 55%)
8. UCLA (down 35%, from 38% to 3%)
9. Buffalo (down 29%, from 71% to 42%)
10. Vanderbilt (down 28%, from 36% to 8%)
* Here's your reminder that early-season ratings are still driven primarily by preseason projections, so it's hard to fall too far early on, even when you lose to South Alabama.
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It was safe to think that Walt Bell's first season as UMass head coach might be a difficult one. The Minutemen went 4-8 last year under Mark Whipple, and that was with all-world receiver Andy Isabella.
Early returns indicate that this is going to be even harder than we thought. The Minutemen bolted to a 21-7 lead against Rutgers in the season opener, but not only have they been outscored by a 138-37 margin since then, they've been outscored 138-37 by Rutgers, Southern Illinois and Charlotte. They are now 129th in SP+ and gaining ground, so to speak, on No. 130 UTEP. There are still win opportunities on the schedule -- namely, home games against No. 126 Akron and No. 124 UConn -- but if they go 1-1 in those games, they might be looking at 1-11 overall.
Teams with the best (worst?) odds of finishing with one or fewer wins, per SP+:
1. Rice (40%, up from 29% in the preseason)
2. UMass (40%, up from 6%)
3. Akron (28%, up from 8%)
4. UConn (16%, down from 22%)
5. Oregon State (14%, up from 8%)
6. South Alabama (13%, down from 18%)
7. UTEP (13%, down from 18%)
8. Rutgers (12%, down from 19%)
9. UCLA (11%, up from 1%)
10. Bowling Green (10%, same as preseason)
There is, of course, one other name of interest on that list. UCLA got smoked by Oklahoma at home on Saturday, falling to 0-3 with a No. 78 SP+ ranking. The Bruins began Chip Kelly's second season in charge with a 38% chance of reaching bowl eligibility and just a 1% chance of bombing out with zero or one win. Now those odds are 3% and 11%, respectively. This is probably not what either the school or Kelly had in mind.
Going by SP+'s average projected conference wins, here are the teams currently within one win of the projected conference lead:
• East: UCF (6.8)
• West: Memphis (6.3)
UCF is 1.9 wins ahead of Cincinnati and Temple, and Memphis is two wins ahead of SMU. These were the favorites to start the season, and their projected margins have only grown (UCF was up 1.1 projected wins in the preseason projections; Memphis was up 1.6). Upstarts such as SMU and Tulane have been intriguing, but they've got a long way to go.
• Atlantic: Clemson (7.7)
• Coastal: Virginia (5.9), Miami (5.0)
Clemson's projected lead has grown as well, from 3.3 over second-place Florida State in the preseason to 3.4 over NC State. It would take at least a couple of upsets to make this a race.
The Coastal race has flipped a bit, though. Preseason favorite Miami's unexpected loss to North Carolina dropped its projected win total, and at 31st overall, Virginia has slightly overachieved its preseason projections and moved up. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, was projected 32nd overall, with 4.9 conference wins, in the preseason; three weeks in, the Hokies are at 40th overall with 3.9 wins.
There are no Big 12 divisions, of course, but here are the teams projected within first and second place overall.
• First place: Oklahoma (7.6)
• Second place: Oklahoma State (5.6), TCU (5.1), Baylor (5.1), Texas (5.1)
The best team in the conference is and has been obvious, but the battle for second remains as blurry as it was three weeks ago. SP+ continues to like OSU more than most, but with four teams ranked between 20th and 29th (plus three more between 35th and 49th), the race for the Big 12's second spot is going to remain exciting for a while.
• East: Ohio State (7.5)
• West: Wisconsin (7.1)
Well, these were supposed to be exciting races. Both the East (Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State) and West (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa) began the season with three teams within one projected win. But Michigan's and Penn State's recent struggles, combined with OSU's dominance, have given us a clear East favorite. And Wisconsin's insanely dominant start -- against mediocre competition, yes -- and merely average performances from Nebraska and Minnesota have stretched things out in the West. Iowa (5.5 wins) lingers, though.
• East: Marshall (6.0), FAU (5.3)
• West: Southern Miss (6.0), North Texas (5.9), Louisiana Tech (5.2)
FIU's early underachievement has simplified the East race a smidge, but the West is still a toss-up. In terms of average SP+ rating, this remains the worst FBS conference. But it might have the best title race.
• East: Ohio (5.6), Miami (Ohio) (4.8)
• West: Toledo (5.7), WMU (5.2), EMU (5.0), NIU (4.8)
If Conference USA doesn't have the most wonderfully messy conference race, the MAC does. The hierarchy of conference wins hasn't really changed since the season began, and we could have quite a few high-leverage November MACtion games in our future.
• Mountain: Boise State (6.6), Utah State (5.8)
• West: Fresno State (5.5), San Diego State (5.3)
Utah State has moved up to 34th in SP+, and that has closed the projected gap with Boise. In the West, it's the same two teams as in the preseason. Fresno State heads to San Diego on Nov. 15, and Boise State goes to Utah State on Nov. 23.
• North: Washington (6.8), Oregon (6.5)
• South: Utah (6.6)
Washington's loss to Cal closed the North gap considerably, and Oregon's Oct. 19 visit to Seattle looms large. (Washington State, at 5.5 wins, isn't too far behind.) In the South, USC's up-and-down start has allowed Utah to expand its advantage from 1.2 wins in the preseason to 1.6. A Ute win over USC this weekend would darn near clinch the division, barring some crazy later-season developments.
• East: Georgia (6.5)
• West: Alabama (6.9)
The SEC landscape hasn't changed, but the gaps haven't grown, at least. Alabama enjoyed a 1.4-win advantage over LSU in the preseason, but that has shrunk to 1.2. In the East, Georgia's lead over Florida has grown from 1.2 to 1.5 (because of Georgia's and LSU's improved ratings), but the Dawgs maintain only a 1.2-win lead over Missouri, which draws the two worst West teams (Ole Miss and Arkansas) in interdivision play.
• East: Appalachian State (7.0)
• West: Arkansas State (5.7), UL-Lafayette (4.7)
App State remains the class of the East -- the Mountaineers' projected lead has increased from 2.0 to 2.2 wins thus far -- but the West race has tightened a hair. Arkansas State remains the favorite, but Louisiana has shifted from 1.9 to 1.0 wins behind. The Red Wolves and Ragin' Cajuns play in Lafayette on Thursday night in Week 8.