After a wild Week 1 that featured five consecutive days of games, ranging from Appalachian State scoring 40 points in the fourth quarter alone and still losing to North Carolina to Iowa scoring seven points (on two safeties and a field goal) in four quarters and winning, what does the second full weekend of games hold for college football?
An SEC matchup featuring two ranked teams, the first regular-season meeting between Alabama and Texas in a century, a familiar Pac-12 contest and those same high-scoring Mountaineers taking on a much stingier defense in Texas A&M.
Here’s a full rundown of the key matchups and most compelling storylines for the top games in Week 2.
No. 20 Kentucky at No. 12 Florida (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App)
Even mentioning Kentucky’s name in context with the Top 25 rankings or the SEC football race was at one time pure fantasy.
Come on, at a basketball school? Don’t get football coach Mark Stoops started on that one, especially this week, as his Wildcats take on Florida in the Swamp, a game that in the past barely caused a ripple in the SEC. After all, Florida won 31 consecutive games in the series before the Wildcats finally broke through in 2018.
But on Saturday, it will be the first SEC matchup of the 2022 season pitting two nationally ranked teams against each other. Coming into this season, most would have predicted that Kentucky would be the only team ranked among the two. That’s before Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson went into full Cam Newton-mode last week in the Gators’ 29-26 upset of then-No. 7 Utah.
“It’s tough to single out any one thing,” Stoops said of how to slow down Richardson. “He has a talented arm. Everybody is going to say what an athlete he is, but he can rip it and throw the ball, as well.”
The quarterback matchup in this game should be a treat. Kentucky’s Will Levis is a projected first-round NFL draft pick, and with the Wildcats again expected to be without star running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., Levis might have to carry an even heavier burden if Kentucky is going to beat Florida for the third time in the past five years. The Gators gave up 230 rushing yards to the Utes, and Levis is plenty capable of doing his own damage on the ground. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Levis passed for 24 touchdowns and ran for nine more last season.
“When you have that franchise quarterback, it changes everything,” Stoops said.
Stoops has completely changed the football landscape at Kentucky, to the point that he can pass Bear Bryant on Saturday as Kentucky’s all-time wins leader. That’s something that would resonate for a long time no matter the opponent, but doing it on the road against Florida?
“People underestimate how hard it is to build a program in the SEC from the bottom,” said Stoops, who is 60-53 at Kentucky and has guided the Wildcats to four straight bowl victories. “There’s been a lot of investment here by a lot of different people.”
And look at the return.
Kentucky has won 10 games twice in the past four years. Prior to that, the Wildcats hadn’t won 10 games in a season since 1977. Stoops’ ability to develop players, maintain a staff that fits the program’s culture and create a steely toughness that permeates the entire program are all factors that have led to Kentucky’s sustained success.
“That’s the main thing, because there’s nobody interested in going backward in this league,” said Stoops, the second-longest-tenured coach in the SEC, behind Alabama’s Nick Saban.
Over the past five seasons (going back to the start of 2017), only four SEC teams have won more games than Kentucky: Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M. With 42 wins, the Aggies have only one more victory than the Wildcats during that stretch.
Stoops, who took over at Kentucky in 2013, has seen 22 head coaches pack up and leave the SEC since his hiring, and only two of those left to take another job. Stoops has had his own opportunities to leave and would have been a real possibility at LSU last year had Brian Kelly not decided to leave Notre Dame.
“I feel very connected here, very connected to this fan base. I feel like there’s mutual respect because we built it from the ground up,” Stoops said. “You don’t get that everywhere. And no matter what school you’re at or what level, it’s hard. You want to be somewhere that you’re rooted. Look at Bob [older brother Bob Stoops] and how rooted he was at Oklahoma.
“You don’t ever escape how hard it is to win, maybe for a honeymoon period when you first leave, but that’s it.” — Chris Low
No. 1 Alabama at Texas (Saturday, noon ET, Fox)
Texas and Alabama, two of college football’s biggest brand names, will meet Saturday for just the 10th time in history, and the game has almost always meant something huge is on the line.
Take the 1965 Orange Bowl, the first played at night and the first live national network telecast of a college football game in prime time. Texas handed a 21-17 loss to Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide, who had been crowned national champs before the game was even played.
But this time is different. For one, Alabama is No. 1 and Texas is unranked. It’s also the first time since 1922 the two have played in the regular season. There’s not much on the line other than bragging rights for the future SEC rivals. The two programs have gone in different directions since their last meeting at the conclusion of the 2009 campaign, when Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was injured in the first quarter en route to a 37-21 loss as Nick Saban claimed his first national championship at Alabama. Texas has been adrift with three head coaches since then.
The Longhorns were 20-point underdogs as of Wednesday at Caesars Sportsbook, and they are likely to close with their longest odds to win at home since the 1978 FBS/FCS split, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Coach Steve Sarkisian already has said his focus is on making it to the Big 12 title game on Dec. 3 and indicated this game won’t define his progress of rebuilding the Texas program.
Sarkisian knows what he’s up against, arriving in Austin last year after serving as Saban’s offensive coordinator for two seasons. Matching wits with his old boss will be a big test, but Sarkisian said he is more concerned with how Texas plays its own game.
“One thing we have to be careful of is not overanalyzing and overthinking it too much,” Sarkisian said Monday. “Sometimes you have to be like a pitcher and throw your best pitch. We have to throw our best pitches and see if it’s good enough.”
With a redshirt freshman at quarterback in Quinn Ewers and in an effort to slow the Tide’s pass-rushers — fueled by Will Anderson Jr., who led the nation in pressures the past two seasons — those pitches will likely involve plenty of Bijan Robinson. The Longhorns’ stellar running back ran for 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games last season before being sidelined by injury. He’ll likely test the middle of the Tide’s defense behind Texas’ young offensive line after averaging 6.1 yards per carry and scoring seven of his TDs between the tackles last season, when Alabama allowed 4.0 yards per carry up the middle.
The Longhorns are anxious to see how their defense has improved after allowing 31.1 points per game last year, 99th nationally. And Alabama likely is too, with Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young coming off a 55-0 win over Utah State in which he threw five touchdown passes and ran for 100 yards and another score.
Saban is 25-2 at Alabama against his former assistants, with 23 of the wins coming by at least 14 points. But both losses were last season, in the regular season to Texas A&M and Jimbo Fisher and in the national championship to Georgia and Kirby Smart. Sarkisian said Monday that this game will be similar to one from 2009, when Sarkisian’s upstart Washington squad upset then-No. 3 Southern California, coached by his former mentor Pete Carroll.
But Saban said the familiarity works both ways.
“We’ve seemed to play several teams now that kind of know us,” Saban said Monday. “But you act like we don’t know them. So just because somebody knows you when they play you doesn’t mean they’re going to beat you. And just because you know them when you play them doesn’t mean you’re gonna beat ’em either. It’s gonna come down to how you execute.” — Dave Wilson
No. 24 Tennessee at No. 17 Pitt (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App)
When Tennessee heads up to Pittsburgh, it will mark the first time in school history the Panthers will host a team from the SEC.
But these teams have familiarity with each other, after Pitt went on the road last year to beat the Vols 41-34 — a game that set the early tone en route to an ACC championship season. Yet despite having recently proved Pitt can beat Tennessee, the Vols enter the game as favorites.
When asked how the Panthers could be underdogs in this game, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said in a phone interview with ESPN.com on Wednesday, “They’ve got players, and I guess everybody’s saying we don’t have Kenny Pickett, so Kenny Pickett must have been the difference last year in the win.”
Narduzzi then pointed to the turnover margin: Pitt had three takeaways to zero for Tennessee. Pitt also won the turnover margin in a 38-31 win over West Virginia the previous week, but the defense did not play as well as Narduzzi wanted. West Virginia gained 190 yards rushing — the highest total Pitt has given up since the final regular-season game in 2019 — and its bigger receivers often had success against the smaller Pitt defensive backs.
That is one of the biggest keys to watch in this game, as Tennessee wideouts Bru McCoy (6-3) and Cedric Tillman (6-3) both have size advantages. Narduzzi also pointed out Jalin Hyatt and his speed, in particular. When asked about this matchup, Narduzzi said, “I feel good; otherwise, I’d forfeit the game and not play. There’s always going to be challenges. We have to play great defense, that’s for sure. It’s not going to be easy.”
Then there is Volunteers quarterback Hendon Hooker, who came into their matchup a year ago in relief of Joe Milton III and nearly rallied Tennessee for the win. Once Hooker entered the game, Tennessee averaged 6.2 yards per play, as compared to 4.2 with Milton behind center.
There is more than just their game last year that provides familiarity. Narduzzi’s Panthers played against Tennessee coach Josh Heupel when Heupel coached UCF, and Pitt faced Hooker when Hooker was the starting quarterback at Virginia Tech in from 2019 to 2020. — Andrea Adelson
Appalachian State at No. 6 Texas A&M (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App)
App State heads to College Station to face Texas A&M coming off of arguably Week 1’s most exciting game, a 63-61 loss to North Carolina in which the Mountaineers scored 40 points in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Chase Brice led App State with 361 yards passing for six touchdowns with one pick.
Texas A&M, on the other hand, shut out Sam Houston State 31-0 in its opener. It’s not a risky bet to say that App State won’t be putting up 40 points in a quarter this week, but who knows after the opening week we just saw in college football?
During his Monday news conference, Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher praised Brice, saying, “He knows ball, and he played great there last year. He can throw the ball down the field, can create plays with his legs and he’s got a … savviness to him. Just body language, and throw the ball here, and flip the ball there. Man, he can just really play the game.”
Fisher added that his defense will have to continue to play disciplined to have success on Saturday.
Offensively, Fisher was asked about putting more emphasis on running the football this week in practice and said, “That’s what we do. We’re going to run the football.”
Texas A&M going up against an App State defense that gave up 6 yards per rush against the Tar Heels will be a matchup to keep an eye on Saturday afternoon. The Aggies had just 110 yards and 3.4 yards per carry against Sam Houston State.
Asked Monday for his review on Texas A&M’s offense, App State coach Shawn Clark replied with a smirk and left it at “good.”
Defensively, Clark said, “They recruit at the highest level in college sports. … They have great playmakers. They have an exceptional offense, defense; schematically, they give you a lot of tough situations on both offense and defense. We have our work cut out for us, but the guys are excited to get down there to College Station.” — Harry Lyles Jr.
USC at Stanford (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App)
If beating Rice 66-14 thanks to four interceptions was the appetizer to open USC’s season, then traveling to Stanford feels like the Trojans sitting down at the dinner table for the start of their main course. The Cardinal aren’t exactly expected to be a force this year, but the early-season matchup is almost always a barometer for what kind of campaign USC can put together. Over the past 10 years, USC is 3-5 against Stanford in the month of September, including 1-3 in Palo Alto.
Like many things he has changed since he arrived, Trojans coach Lincoln Riley is hoping to reverse that trend too. And both he and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch know four interceptions in a game, including three returned for touchdowns, is not something they can always rely upon. Yet for a defense that is made up of several new faces and remains the biggest question, the role the unit played in last weekend’s victory bodes well heading forward. Stanford, however, will provide a more proper test.
“You’re going to have to be clean in the [defensive] run game,” Riley said, adding that despite the turnovers, it is one area where he felt the Trojans’ D could be more consistent. “On top of it, you’re facing a really high-level quarterback [Tanner McKee], so coverage has got to be sharp. It’s going to take a little bit of everybody.”
“It’s going to take a little bit of everybody” might be the theme of this USC season, even on offense, where Caleb Williams already looks as comfortable as can be behind an line that’s still rotating between two left tackles in Courtland Ford and Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins.
“Just seeing how well he knows [the offense] and how well he can translate it to the field, it gives confidence to the offense,” Trojans running back Travis Dye said of Williams, who not only had just three incompletions but was USC’s leading rusher with 68 yards on the ground, displaying the kind of offensive balance that might be necessary once again this Saturday. “He can literally do it all. He can pass, he can paint your back porch, he can walk your dog and he can run the ball.”
The matchup against the Cardinal will provide Riley & Co. with a clearer view on several positional battles given that, as he put it, the three pick-sixes last weekend affected the number of reps the coaching staff expected some players to get. Saturday’s contest also will give the college football landscape a better sense for just how good USC is. One game in, the Trojans already have jumped from No. 14 to No. 10 in the AP poll to become the highest-ranked team in the Pac-12, and expectations aren’t getting lowered any time soon. — Paolo Uggetti
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