It’s only Week 3, and already the college football season has been rife with surprises. Can Colorado, 1-11 last season, run its record to 3-0 when the Buffaloes take on Colorado State (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) on Saturday?
Colorado isn’t the only early-season surprise, though. No. 21 Duke looks to go to 3-0 when it plays host to Northwestern (3:30 p.m. ET, ACCN), while No. 3 Florida State travels to Boston College (noon ET, ABC), No. 4 Texas hosts Wyoming (8 p.m. ET, LHN) and No. 7 Penn State opens Big Ten play at Illinois (noon ET, Fox).
Our reporters preview Week 3 with a look at teams that have surprised, quarterbacks to watch, big-picture numbers and some of the week’s best quotes.
Teams that have pleasantly surprised
Duke: The Blue Devils won nine games last season and returned 18 starters, including quarterback Riley Leonard. Yet what Duke did to Clemson in the season opener stunned the entire college football world. Well, except for one group: the Blue Devils themselves. While the 28-7 victory might have seemed surprising — considering the opponent and domination — Duke is not your grandfather’s football team. Second-year coach Mike Elko has done a remarkable job of not only transforming the culture, belief and mindset in the locker room, but he and his staff have done terrific work to instill core principles needed to win at a place like Duke: get the fundamentals right, force turnovers, keep the penalties down and accentuate the strengths of their players. They also happen to have a potential first-round NFL pick in Leonard, who was going to play basketball in college before receiving an eleventh-hour offer to play quarterback for the Blue Devils. Elko is 11-4 through his first 15 games at Duke, marking the best 15-game start to a head-coaching stint in school history. With its huge win over Clemson, Duke is ranked for the first time since 2018 and will be heavily favored in its next two contests, starting Saturday against Northwestern. After a trip to UConn, Duke will host Notre Dame on Sept. 30 in another national spotlight game for a program that is starting to get used to them. “If we can have a good season, there’s no question what type of football program we have,” Leonard told ESPN. “Coach Elko is in this thing for the long run, so I think Duke football is building a name for itself, and we’re going to be around for a long time.” — Andrea Adelson
Texas: You obviously have to highlight Texas for the simple fact that the Longhorns finally pulled off the type of win they’ve flirted with for a while. Granted, they now have to maintain that level during their final run through the Big 12, against a bunch of conference foes that will be taking home run swings at them. But anytime Quinn Ewers and the Longhorns’ defense play like they did Saturday at Alabama, Texas will probably win. Beyond that, both Kansas State and Oklahoma have backed up their status as vice favorites, which might or might not be surprising. And further down the pecking order, Kansas has shown both the offensive prowess we expected and at least a little bit of potential defensive push. The Jayhawks are better knocking teams off schedule, and the pass rush looks excellent. — Bill Connelly
Penn State: It might be a stretch to say they have surprised, because Penn State started the season ranked in the top 10. But for fans who don’t pay attention nationally or regionally, it probably has been a surprise to see the Nittany Lions playing as well as they have through the first two weeks with a new quarterback. Drew Allar has been as advertised, throwing for 529 yards and four touchdowns. The offense is balanced with Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen in the backfield. And despite losing some NFL talent on defense, Penn State has shown few weaknesses thus far. Michigan and Ohio State have gotten all the attention in the Big Ten, but the Lions are going to get more and more at the rate they’re playing. — Tom VanHaaren
Colorado: It’s too easy to say Colorado here, but it’s hard not to focus on the Buffs after they won their first two games under Deion Sanders and more or less dominated TCU and Nebraska. Things will get tougher for Sanders’ team soon enough, but the way the staff and player turnaround has paid immediate dividends is remarkable. Shedeur Sanders has looked every bit the part of an elite college quarterback, throwing for over 900 yards and six touchdowns in two games, while Travis Hunter has turned into an immediate Heisman Trophy contender by not just playing both ways but excelling on defense and offense. The Buffs certainly have holes in their roster and weaknesses to be exploited, but until a team can take advantage of those and overcome the play of Sanders, Hunter & Co., this will be the story of the Pac-12 and the college football world as a whole. — Paolo Uggetti
Ole Miss: The harsh reality for the SEC is that nobody has looked great. Two-time defending national champion Georgia has won two blowouts over outmatched opponents, and even then, some fans have grumbled about first-year offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s playcalling. Imagine that. The nod here goes to Lane Kiffin and his Ole Miss Rebels, especially coming off their 37-20 win at No. 24 Tulane. The Rebels trailed 17-7 at one point but outscored the Green Wave 27-3 in the second half. Quarterback Jaxson Dart‘s toughness has been a big part of Ole Miss’ 2-0 start. The defense also made a couple of big plays, including a fumble return for a touchdown and an interception return that set up the go-ahead field goal. — Chris Low
Quarterbacks to watch in Week 3
Sam Hartman, Notre Dame: Hartman became a touchdown-passing king at Wake Forest, setting the ACC career record with 110, so it shouldn’t be a shock he already has 10 scoring strikes through three games at Notre Dame — the most ever by a Fighting Irish QB in his first three contests. He leads Power 5 quarterbacks with 87 touchdown passes since the start of the 2021 season. Hartman has spread the ball around well, targeting six different players for touchdown receptions. “We’re able to go through a progression and not just say, ‘This is the go-to guy,'” Irish coach Marcus Freeman said. “That’s the beautiful part about how we’re playing offensively right now, is that everybody and anybody on any play has a chance to have the ball going their way.” — Adam Rittenberg
Quinn Ewers, Texas: The biggest knock on Ewers since his arrival at Texas has been his inconsistency on deep passes, allowing opponents to stack the line against the Longhorns. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ewers did not have a touchdown in his career on passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield. On Saturday against Alabama, Ewers was 3-of-5 for 115 yards and two TDs on deep attempts. Even better, in the second half, he had the most completions (five) of 30-plus yards in a half against a top-three opponent in the past 20 seasons. That’s a new wrinkle that makes Texas tough to beat. — Dave Wilson
J.J. McCarthy, Michigan: McCarthy worked this offseason to bulk up, add strength and get back to 100 percent health, and it has paid off thus far. He is completing over 87% of his passes through the first two games and now holds the second- and third-highest completion percentages in a single game for Michigan quarterbacks. With all the talk about running back Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards returning to the backfield, McCarthy has put the spotlight on himself. He has 558 yards and five touchdowns this season and has shown opposing defenses they can’t just stack the box to stop the run against Michigan. McCarthy has done all of this against lesser competition, but if he continues to play this well through the Big Ten portion of the schedule, Michigan has a great shot at making it back to the Big Ten championship game for a third year in a row. — VanHaaren
Shedeur Sanders, Colorado: Sanders has been an instant revelation at Colorado, where he is the national leader in passing yards per game (451.5) and averages over 10 yards per attempt (10.2). What’s clear is that offensive coordinator Sean Lewis has the utmost confidence in Sanders. He drops back to pass more than any quarterback in the country, and it has paid off with a completion rate (77.5%) that ranks No. 9 nationally. If the Buffaloes can get the run game going, they have the potential to remain one of the country’s most explosive offenses. — Kyle Bonagura
Jalen Milroe, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban thought about benching Milroe during last Saturday’s loss to Texas. Then Milroe threw a 49-yard touchdown to take the lead, and Saban reconsidered. But Milroe turned around and threw a backbreaking interception. So what gives? If Milroe starts against South Florida, he’ll be on a short leash. Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner would likely be next up. On Monday, Saban said of Buchner, “We feel really good about how he’s continued to improve and develop and gain confidence.” — Low
Riding high out West
The Pac-12 is rolling, with eight teams ranked in this week’s AP Top 25 poll. Two are in the top 10, with USC at No. 5 and Washington at No. 8. The others to make the cut: Utah (12), Oregon (13), Oregon State (16), Colorado (18), Washington State (23) and UCLA (24). According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, the conference has a 65% chance to send a team to the College Football Playoff, fourth among the Power 5 conferences and just ahead of the ACC at 58%.
SEC teams have dropped six nonconference games this season. It lost just seven nonconference contests during the entire 2022 campaign. Overall, it is 1-4 vs. the ACC. But Ole Miss will host Georgia Tech on Saturday and should be able to add to the SEC win column, with ESPN’s FPI giving the Rebels a 90.2% chance to prevail.
Back, back, back?
Not to speak too soon, but Texas, Florida State and Miami all have been impressive. No. 4 Texas’ defense is powering the Longhorns and is ranked No. 1 in ESPN’s defensive FPI. Miami got a solid win over Texas A&M and snuck its way into the AP poll at No. 22. And third-ranked Florida State currently has a 41% chance to reach the CFP. We’ll be keeping our eyes on these teams as the weeks go on to see if they are in fact … back.
Quotes of the week
“A lot of y’all probably want me to be gone now, but we’re still hanging in there. Like a hair in a biscuit. We’re still going.”
“I’m not going to apologize for standing up and trying to do what’s best for our young person and making sure that he understands we have exhausted every possibility that we can to help him. Because if we haven’t, then we’re not doing our job. None of this was to embarrass anybody, to get anybody threats. The only thing we’ve done is take up for our player. And I’m very proud of that. And if I had to do it over again, I’d do exactly the same thing.”
“It was like a club I don’t go to anymore.”
Tyler Booker: The Alabama offensive guard described his team’s attitude after Saturday’s home loss to Texas, which was about what most would expect.
“The mindset of the team, we’re pissed off. Not gonna lie.”