What’s the Point of Damn Polls?

One of the worst aspects of the 16-year BCS era was the pre-eminence of the polls, especially in the latter eight years, when the polls accounted for two-thirds of the formula and essentially decided who’d play for the BCS title every year.

The best thing about the Playoff era just might be the obsolescence of the polls. And considering how the polls have been hijacked by one particular conference, that is a welcome change.

Consider the latest AP poll. Is there any justification that eight – EIGHT! – SEC teams are ranked in the top 25? This after the SEC went 6-6 against nonconference opponents in Week 1 and has yet to defeat a Power 5 opponent currently ranked in the top 25?

Even after near escapes at home against Appalachian State and Nicholls State, Tennessee and Georgia are still ranked 12th and 14th, respectively. With wins over UMass and North Texas, Florida is deemed good enough to crack the top 20. Ole Miss, despite two losses, is still ranked.

The residual effect of such rankings is that, since the SEC is about to begin conference play, it guarantees that SEC teams will continue to be disproportionally represented in the polls – as most of the conference matchups will pit “ranked teams” against each other. And based on the performance of its teams in the season’s first three weeks, there’s no justification that more than half of SEC’s 14 teams should be ranked.

Thankfully in the Playoff era, the selection committee is free to dispense with any influence from the polls. In the two years so far it has largely done that, fashioning its own rankings without any preconceived bias from the very flawed voting process.

The problem with the polls – the coaches poll is even worse than the AP, but I digress – is that their voters are now greatly swayed by a narrative presented by ESPN and its affiliates, which includes the SEC Network. ESPN has a fiduciary duty to pump up the SEC because of its business relationship, and most writers and coaches (and their proxies) for the most part eat up the propaganda presented by the “Worldwide Leader” as if it’s just plain information.

The lack of effort and independent thought by by the voters are astounding. How else do you explain the following in this week’s AP poll:

  • Alabama is overwhelmingly ranked ahead of Louisville, even though the Tide barely got by Ole Miss, a team that was beaten more soundly by Florida State, which was routed by Louisville
  • Tennessee is ranked one spot in front of Miami, which routed Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., while the Vols needed OT to beat the Mountaineers at home
  • Texas is one spot ahead of San Diego State, which is unbeaten and beat Cal whereas the Longhorns lost to the Golden Bears
  • Ole Miss and Oklahoma are still ranked even though both are 1-2

No need to answer that. It’s a rhetorical question anyway. Trying to make sense of these polls is a waste of time. Fortunately, they no longer have a hand in deciding the national championship.

Game of the Week

Wisconsin at Michigan State (-6), noon ET, BTN

Both Wisconsin and Michigan State are unbeaten, with wins over LSU and Notre Dame, respectively. Yet this game is relegated to the noon window on BTN, instead of on ABC later in the day (you can thank Jim Harbaugh for that, as Michigan somehow ended up as the 3:30 p.m. ABC telecast). Mark Dantonio will take this as a personal affront, but he had better find a way to solve new Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook, who’ll be making his first career start.

Also keep an eye on

Stanford (-3) at UCLA, 8 p.m. ET, ABC

UCLA has been touted as an emerging power ever since Jim Mora was hired as coach five years ago. Yet every Bruins season in his tenure has ended in disappointment. UCLA made the Pac-12 title game in his first season but has failed to win the South Division since. He has also never beaten Stanford in five tries, losing by double digits each time except in the 2012 conference title game.

Upset special

LSU (-3.5) at Auburn, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN

Les Miles is very much back on the hot seat a year after he was nearly fired. The Bayou Tigers are off to a shaky start this season, having lost to Wisconsin and struggled against Mississippi State, thanks to subpar quarterback play once again. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is likewise in trouble and he may need an upset of LSU to fend off the mob that’s calling for his job three years after he led War Eagle to the 2013 BCS title game.

Player to watch

Penn State at Michigan (-18.5), 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Only one primarily defensive player has ever won the Heisman Trophy – Charles Woodson in 1997, beating out the likes of Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf and Randy Moss. His alma mater might very well come up the next one in Jabrill Peppers, a former defensive back converted into linebacker who can do it all. Last week, he nearly single-handedly brought Michigan back from an early deficit against Colorado, punctuating his performance with a punt return for a touchdown. Expect more of the same this week against Penn State.

Big 12 Has a Houston Problem

It looks like Houston will be the Big 12’s best bet for a spot in the 2016 College Football Playoff.

Just three weeks into the season, it appears all but certain that the conference will be missing out on the four-team playoff for the second time in three years (since expansion candidate Houston is still technically in the American Athletic Conference). The Big 12’s last best hope died in Strawberry Canyon late Saturday night as Texas was buried under an avalanche of half-a-hundy Cal points.

There are only two unbeaten teams left in the Big 12 – untested West Virginia and tarnished Baylor. The conference so far this season is 2-10 against teams from Power 5 conferences, the American and the MAC. In the latest AP poll, only Baylor (No. 16) is in the top 20, but nowhere near sniffing the playoff.

All of this makes Houston that much more attractive as an expansion candidate. After beating Oklahoma in the season opener, the Cougars rallied to defeat Cincinnati, 40-16, the other favorite to land a spot in the Big 12 expansion game. Houston also has a Nov. 17 date with Louisville, which might be a contest pitting two top 5 teams with a playoff berth on the line.

Cincinnati missed its best chance to make a case for inclusion in the Big 12 by blowing a fourth-quarter lead against Houston. The rest of its schedule doesn’t move the needle much, except for a Nov. 5 showdown against BYU in a game pitting the two best expansion candidates after Houston. It might even be viewed as a play-in game of sorts.

BYU, meanwhile, lost another close game to a Pac-12 foe, this time 17-14 against UCLA a week after losing 20-19 to Utah. The Cougars visit Morgantown next week and the Big 12 will get a good chance to evaluate them. BYU also still has games remaining against Power 5 teams Michigan State and Mississippi State, so there are opportunities to score style points.

But for now the absurd expansion show is pretty much all Big 12 has going for it the rest of the season. After the third weekend of September it’s already played itself out of playoff contention – there are no more games against Power 5 opponents left and no conference title game to provide a “13th data point” as the selection committee likes to reference.

It’s pretty safe to say that, Houston, you don’t have a problem. Your membership invitation is in the mail and please sign and return, pronto!

Irish Famine: Notre Dame also has played itself out of playoff contention. After losses to Texas and Michigan State in their first three games, all the Irish have to look forward to is nine meaningless games and at-best an outside shot at a New Year’s Six bowl game.

This is what Notre Dame bargained for when it opted to remain independent in the age of power conferences. The school signed a 10-year extension with NBC through the 2025 season to televise its home football games at $15 million per season, but that number is already dwarfed by new deals struck by Power 5 conferences. Members of the Big Ten and SEC are expected to collect north of $40 million each annually beginning this season.

Without a conference affiliation, the Irish have little to play for the rest of the season as its remaining schedule is dotted with low-wattage ACC games and a pair against the service academies. Other than an Oct. 15 date against Stanford in which Notre Dame may play spoiler to the Cardinal’s playoff hopes, don’t expect much more ink spilled on or eyeballs tuned to the Irish the rest of the season.

Game of the Week

Alabama 48, Ole Miss 43: The Rebels had beaten the Tide in each of the last two seasons and seemed headed for a third straight victory after taking a 24-3 early lead. But just as they did against Florida State in the season opener, they fell apart soon after. Ole Miss did rally late to make a game of it, and in the process exposed some glaring weaknesses of the still top-ranked Tide.

Player of the Week

Lamar Jackson, Louisville: Orchestrating the Cardinals’ sensational destruction of Florida State, Jackson announced himself as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner by throwing for 216 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 146 and scoring four more TDs. The Louisville QB spearheaded an attack that shredded the then-No. 2 Seminoles with 530 yards on offense.

The Weak

First, it was Cal running back Vic Enwere, in what seems to be a weekly occurrence in college football now, casually dropping the football before he crossed the goal line late in Cal’s 50-43 victory over Texas. (And don’t call it a potential game-clinching TD, because the Bears would’ve been better off if he had just gotten a first down and not scored.)

But then, the Big 12 officiating crew added to the farce first by failing to notice that Enwere did not cross the goal line with the ball, and then compounding the error by claiming that there was no “immediate recovery” of the fumble, when Texas clearly possessed the ball before the whistle was blown. The Longhorns should’ve had possession at their own 20 with 1:20 to play with a chance to tie/win the game.

Our Rankings

1. Louisville, 2. Ohio State, 3. Alabama, 4. Houston, 5. Stanford, 6. Michigan, 7. Washington, 8. Michigan State, 9. Clemson, 10. Texas A&M, 11. Wisconsin, 12. Florida State, 13. LSU, 14. Nebraska, 15. Miami.

College Football Back on Schedule

We now rejoin programming already in progress.

A week after college football seemingly took a break – saved only by the fantastically absurd finish in the Central Michigan-Oklahoma State game – the 2016 season is back on schedule. Conference games are on the slate for three Power 5 leagues and several heavyweights are taking on foes of their own size.

There are four matchups featuring ranked teams (in the AP poll), all with playoff implications. Three ranked teams do face FCS opponents, but one of them – Big Ten title contender Iowa – should tread very carefully. The Hawkeyes host North Dakota State, the five-time defending FCS champion who has beaten an FBS opponent in each of the last five years (an FCS record).

So this isn’t the weekend to get all that yard work done. Instead, get ready for a good workout – for your remote control:

Game of the Week

Ohio State (-1.5) at Oklahoma, 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX

These two college football blue bloods don’t face each other much, but when they do, it’s worth your rapt attention. The first time the Sooners took on the Buckeyes it came down to a 41-yard field goal by Uwe von Schamann, who brashly led the Ohio State crowd on a “block that kick” chant before drilling it for a 29-28 OU victory in Columbus in 1977.

An OU loss to Houston in the season opener might have taken a little shine off this blockbuster, but make no mistake, plenty is still at stake in this game. The Big 12’s playoff hopes may well be riding on a Sooners victory whereas Ohio State has little margin for error either, with Michigan and Michigan State still looming in its own division in the difficult Big Ten East.

Also keep an eye on

Florida State (-2) at Louisville, noon ET, ABC

This game might’ve been overlooked before the season began, when Clemson and Florida State were considered the class of the ACC. But no more, not after Louisville QB Lamar Jackson’s virtuoso performances in the season’s first two games. Against Syracuse last week, Jackson put up video-game like numbers, passing for 411 yards while rushing for 199.

But Florida State has found a quarterback of its own in true freshman Deondre Francois, who led the Seminoles to a pair of impressive victories, including a come-from-behind win in the season opener against Ole Miss in Orlando.

Upset special

Alabama (-11) at Ole Miss, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

Speaking of Ole Miss, it’s the only team to have beaten Alabama in each of the last two seasons. Could the Rebels do it for three in a row? Sure, why not?

While the defending national champions cemented their hold on the No. 1 ranking after the season-opening pasting of USC, many questions remain with regard to their offense, so much so that Nick Saban chewed out offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin near the end of last week’s game against Western Kentucky.

Though Ole Miss isn’t quite the same team as it was last season, which featured three first-round picks in the 2016 NFL Draft, it has veteran Chad Kelly back at quarterback. Kelly shredded the Alabama defense with 341 passing yards in last year’s 43-37 thriller therefore the question is whether the Tide’s sputtering offense can keep up.

Player to watch

Texas (-8) at California, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Cal quarterback Davis Webb spent his last three seasons playing for Texas Tech, but he never got to face Texas. In his freshman season, he sat behind Baker Mayfield (now with Oklahoma). As a sophomore, he was injured and watched Vincent Testaverde Jr. (now with Miami, his namesake father’s alma mater) took over. Last year he was benched in favor of Pat Mahomes II.

Through two games this season, Webb is second in the nation with 963 passing yards, behind only Mahomes’ 1,023. As a graduate transfer and able to play immediately, Webb chose Cal over Colorado and so far has found Sonny Dykes’ Bear Raid offense to be a perfect fit. Last week Webb threw 72 times for 522 yards in a 45-40 loss at San Diego State. The Longhorns defense will be in for a long day, maybe even more so than it did against Jared Goff last year when the top pick of the NFL Draft led Cal to a 45-44 win in Austin.

 

How a Game Should End?

Cupcake Saturday played out mostly as expected, with lots of snoozers and routs. There were a few close calls, but every ranked team that were favored by double digits won – except for one.

By now you’ve probably heard everything about Central Michigan’s miraculous victory at Oklahoma State that shouldn’t have happened. Whether it’s officiating malfeasance or incompetence, that last play – the Hail Mary-hook-and-ladder – was granted based on an erroneous application of the untimed down.

Sure, the rule is actually pretty clear on this. The game CAN end on a play involving an offensive penalty, even one that results in a loss of down. But if you think about this a little harder, does the rule actually make sense? Or is it fair?

Let’s go back to the 2006 season, when the NCAA adopted an absurd new rule that required the clock to start when the ball is kicked on kickoff (as opposed to when it’s put into play by the receiving team). Bret Bielema, coaching at Wisconsin at the time, decided to willfully send his team to go offside twice to prevent a Penn State return and waste time at the same time. What Bielema did was perfectly legal within the letter of the rule, which the NCAA scrapped after just one season.

Now will the NCAA consider tweaking this particular rule in question, regarding how a game can end on an offensive penalty? It should.

You can actually see why the MAC officials in the Central Michigan-Oklahoma State game erred – even if they should’ve known better. It’s unjust that a team should be able to run out the clock on a foul. If a team couldn’t do that on defense, why should they be able to do that on offense?

Think about last year’s Debacle at the Big House, when Michigan State ran back a blocked punt to beat Michigan as time expired. What if Jim Harbaugh decided to put 15 guys to protect the punter, knowing a penalty wouldn’t hurt him but help him to drain precious seconds?

Or even in Oklahoma State’s case, instead of calling a timeout to figure out how to run out the final four seconds, Mike Gundy should’ve just told his offense to hurry up to the line and commit a false start, thus triggering an automatic 10-second runoff. (I’m not even sure if Central Michigan could decline the penalty in this case.)

If you’re a college football coach, you have an obligation to start figuring how this rule might work to your advantage, just in case you have a few critical seconds to run off at the end of a game. But if you’re advising the NCAA on its football rules, it’d be incumbent on you to close this loophole before coaches make a mockery out of this entire enterprise.

At this point, the letter of the rule and its spirit are grossly misaligned.

Game of the Week

Arkansas 41, TUC 38 (2 OT) – Speaking of Bielema, his Arkansas team was the only one to beat one of the 23 ranked teams this weekend without an asterisk. After blowing a 20-7 third-quarter lead, the Hogs scored a touchdown late and added a two-point conversion to send the game into OT. The victory should cool Bielema’s hot seat considerably after Arkansas opened the season with an uninspiring 21-20 win over Louisiana Tech.

Player of the Week

Kalen Ballage, Arizona State – We have more than several worthy candidates, particularly Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who accounted for over 600 yards of offense by himself in a rout over Syracuse. But it’s hard to top what Ballage did. ASU’s junior running back tied an NCAA record with eight touchdowns – on just 15 touches! Ballage ran for 137 yards on 13 carries with seven TDs and added two catches for 48 yards and another score.

The Weak

Ray-Ray McCloud of Clemson could’ve had a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown but decided that he couldn’t bear the thought of carrying the oblong object for one more nanosecond, dropping it just before he crossed the goal line. His gaffe added to the difficulties of the Tigers, who had to sweat out a 30-24 victory over Troy at home.

Our rankings

1. Alabama, 2. Florida State, 3. Ohio State, 4. Michigan, 5. Houston, 6. Stanford, 7. Wisconsin, 8. Washington, 9. Iowa, 10. Clemson, 11. Texas, 12. Oklahoma, 13. LSU, 14. Louisville, 15. Notre Dame.

College Football Ready for Cupcake Wars

My 11-year-old daughter’s favorite TV show is “Cupcake Wars.” So naturally my little baking savant was thrilled when I told her I’ll be watching that this weekend.

Except that my version of the Cupcake Wars won’t be on the Food Network. They’ll be carried live on ESPN, FS1, BTN and SEC Network instead.

A week after being treated to one of the best opening weekends in college football history, we’re back into the doldrums of early September schedule. But this particular weekend coming up really takes the cake (pun-intended) in terms of just how distasteful it is.

Of the 25 teams currently ranked in the AP poll, 23 will be playing this weekend (Stanford and Michigan State are idle), but check this out:

  • None of them will be facing each other
  • Only one is playing on the road (Louisville in a conference game at Syracuse)
  • 22 of the 23 ranked teams are favored by double digits
  • TCU is in the most competitive game, favored by only 7.5 over Arkansas
  • Six are facing FCS teams while only five are playing Power 5 opponents

Thankfully, this appears to be an anomaly as several high-profile matchups will dot the schedule the following weekend. But in the meantime, this is the best of the slim pickin’s for Saturday:

Game of the Week

BYU at Utah (-4), 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX

The “Holy War” will be contested for a second time in a span of just nine months, as these two bitter rivals also faced each other in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl, which Utah won 35-28 after nearly blowing a 35-0 lead.

The Utes have won the last five meetings (though the series was on hiatus during the regular season in 2014 and ’15) and the Cougars have not won in Salt Lake City since 2006, when both teams were still members of the Mountain West Conference. This game is now of heightened interest especially for BYU in its Big 12 expansion bid. It looks to go 2-0 against the Pac-12 this season after beating Arizona in Glendale in the opener.

Also keep an eye on

Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee (-11.5), at Bristol, Tenn., 8 p.m. ET, ABC

A crowd of 150,000 is expected to pack into Bristol Motor Speedway for an unusual game played at a NASCAR racing venue. It should be a lock to break the current college football attendance record set in 2013 when 115,109 witnessed Michigan beat Notre Dame at the Big House.

But beyond the hoopla is a Volunteers team reeling from an OT victory over Appalachian State last week when they barely survived at home, thanks to late-game blunders by their supposedly overmatched Sun Belt opponent. Tennessee dropped from the top 10 to No. 17 in this week’s AP poll and will need to rebound against a rebuilding Hokies team under first-year coach Justin Fuente.

Upset special

Washington State at Boise State (-10.5), 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Just like a year ago, Mike Leach’s Cougars opened the season with a loss to an FCS team. But instead of going into the tank, Washington State rebounded in 2015 with a 9-4 season, nearly beating Stanford for the Pac-12 North title and went on to defeat Miami in the Sun Bowl. Wazzu is looking for more of the same in 2016 after losing last week to Eastern Washington.

Boise State is also coming off a 9-4 season, but it was a disappointing one after opening 2015 with wins over Power 5 opponents Washington and Virginia. The Broncos will be severely tested by the aerial assault of Wazzu QB Luke Falk in the first of their back-to-back Pac-12 showdowns (Oregon State on Sept. 24).

Player to watch

Penn State at Pitt (-5.5), noon ET, ESPN

A year ago in the season opener against Youngstown State, Pitt running back James Conner was sidelined by a knee injury. Little did he know at the time that’d be the least of his problems as he was later diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a blood cancer.

Conner won that battle and triumphantly returned to the field in last week’s 28-7 win over Villanova, running for 53 yards and scoring a touchdown. But this week he’ll be leading his Panthers in a national-TV matchup against their historic rival Penn State at Heinz Field in a series that had been on hiatus since 2000.

Big 12 Should End Clown Show Already

The Big 12 expansion drama has turned into a reality show resembling “The Bachelorette.” Every week, a couple of schools are told they’re no longer being considered, sending them back to the deep, dark corner of the “Group of 5” to weep.

There are still 11 schools alive for two expansion slots, according to various sources. The Big 12 has not clarified a timetable on when formal invitations will be extended, but most likely it’ll happen by November, if not sooner.

It’s certain that the Big 12 intends to use at least some part of this season to evaluate its potential suitors, so every week’s games serve as auditions for those 11 remaining schools. It might be a short-sighted way of going about this, but it certainly heightens the importance of games involving the 11 teams.

In that case, it should be abundantly clear which two teams should be added by the Big 12 after the first weekend of the 2016 season. In fact, it’s not even close.

Big 12 expansion candidates went 7-4 in their openers, but only two teams defeated Power 5 opponents – Houston over Oklahoma at NRG Stadium and BYU over Arizona in Glendale. The rest of them either faced FCS teams or minnows of FBS football.

Let’s break this down, separating the 11 candidates into three categories:

Contenders

  • Houston: defeated Oklahoma, 33-23
  • BYU: defeated Arizona, 18-16
  • Cincinnati: defeated Tennessee-Martin (FCS), 28-7

Pretenders

  • UConn: defeated Maine (FCS), 24-21 (on last-second FG)
  • UCF: defeated South Carolina State (FCS), 38-0
  • USF: defeated Towson (FCS), 56-20
  • Air Force: defeated Abilene Christian (FCS), 37-21

Longshots

  • SMU: defeated North Texas, 34-21
  • Rice: lost to Western Kentucky, 46-14
  • Tulane: lost to Wake Forest, 7-3
  • Colorado State: lost to Colorado, 44-7

In all likelihood, only the “contenders” are under serious consideration by the Big 12. Houston is backed by Texas and Texas Tech, Cincinnati by Oklahoma and West Virginia, BYU is backed by the league’s TV network partners. The politics will eventually settle this expansion saga, but the reality on the football field is becoming crystal clear.

SEC’s Difficult Weekend

The self-professed “toughest conference” in college football laid a giant egg on the opening weekend. SEC teams went 6-6 in nonconference games – and it was lucky that it didn’t finish 3-9.

Other than Alabama, which announced itself ready to defend its title with an annihilation of USC, the rest of the SEC mostly wallowed in mediocrity, or worse. Mississippi State lost to South Alabama and Kentucky was beaten by Southern Miss. Tennessee, which is touted as a playoff contender, needed late blunders by Appalachian State to survive in overtime at home.

Then there was LSU, which many picked to supplant Alabama as the SEC heavyweight, lost to Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in a game that featured desultory quarterback play. The same could be said for Auburn in its loss to Clemson despite the fact that the Tigers (of the War Eagle variety) employed two QBs and found the end zone just once. Ole Miss had decent QB play, but had no answer defensively as Florida State stormed back with a 39-6 barrage.

What the SEC is finding out is that when it goes on the road and faces opponents of its own size, it suddenly isn’t as easy to amass undefeated records before the conference season starts. And now even the perceived cupcakes are biting back.

It might be that what’s happening in the SEC is a rerun of what happened to USC in the 2000s and Florida State in the 1990s – a powerhouse team presiding over a mediocre conference. While Alabama is every bit as dominant as it’s been in the Nick Saban era, the rest of the SEC is now merely riding on the Tide’s coattails.

Game of the Week

Texas 50, Notre Dame 47 (2 OT) – The Longhorns and the Irish had the spotlight all to themselves Sunday night and they treated the nation to an epic performance, combining to amass nearly 1,000 yards of offense and almost 100 points.

The victory should cool the hot seat of Charlie Strong considerably, as the embattled Texas coach may have finally found a quarterback in freshman Shane Buechele, who calmly led the Horns to stand toe-to-toe against the high-powered Notre Dame offense.

For the Irish, the loss isn’t fatal to their playoff chances but it leaves them no margin for error the rest of the season with Michigan State and Stanford still left on the schedule.

Player of the Week

Sam Foltz, Nebraska – The late Cornhuskers punter was killed in a car wreck that also claimed the life of former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler on July 23. Foltz was not only an outstanding player but also a beloved teammate and friend of the Nebraska team.

In their Saturday game against Fresno State, the Huskers lined up in a Missing-Man Formation on their first punt, with 10 players on the field without a punter, as a tribute to Foltz. Nebraska was given a delay of game penalty that was promptly declined by Fresno State in an equally classy display.

The Weak

While we celebrate all that’s fun and good in college football, sometimes guys also do dishonorable things and they deserve to be shamed for their indiscretion.

Unfortunately we have not one, but two recipients for this week’s booby prize. LSU’s Josh Boutte delivered a blindside cheap shot on Wisconsin’s D’Cota Dixon after the latter sealed the victory for the Badgers with a late interception. USC’s Jabari Ruffin, not to be outdone, stomped on the privates of Minkah Fitzpatrick during a punt return while his Trojans were being mauled by Alabama.

Both Boutte and Ruffin were promptly ejected by the officials. LSU followed with a one-game ban for Boutte against Jacksonville State (FCS) and USC merely suspended Ruffin for one half of its next game against Utah State. You can call those disciplinary measures weak, too.

Our Rankings

1. Alabama, 2. Florida State, 3. Ohio State, 4. Michigan, 5. Clemson, 6. Houston, 7. Stanford, 8. Wisconsin, 9. Washington, 10. Iowa, 11. Oklahoma, 12. LSU, 13. Michigan State, 14. Texas, 15. Notre Dame.

A Smashing Opening Weekend

The 2016 college football season got off to a rollicking start Down Under last week. With neither team much interested in playing defense, Cal emerged as a 51-31 winner at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium.

That was hors d’oeuvres, and this week the main entrees will be served. For a change, the opening weekend of this season actually features more than a few significant matchups already with playoff implications. The games start Thursday night and continue every day through Labor Day on Monday.

The most intriguing matchup is our game of the week, but there are plenty of others worth watching, so get your remote ready and get busy …

Game of the Week

USC vs. Alabama (-11.5) at Arlington, Texas, Saturday 8 p.m. ET, ABC

There are eight matchups featuring ranked teams (by AP) against Power-5 competition, but nothing is going to beat USC vs. Alabama at Jerry World.

Sure, the Trojans are not the juggernaut of the 2000s while Alabama is still in the midst of a dynastic run under Nick Saban, but USC still is loaded with NFL-caliber talent. The question is if Clay Helton, the Trojans’ fourth head coach in as many seasons, will have his players primed to face the defending champions, especially with depleted offensive and defensive lines.

For certain, it’s an unusual opening weekend for the SEC, which typically loads up its nonconference schedule with cupcakes and rarely travels out of its home region. In 2016, seven SEC teams will face Power -5 nonconference opponents with only two playing at home in their respective openers.

Also keep an eye on

Oklahoma (-12) at Houston, Saturday noon ET, ABC

Don’t snicker, but this game has playoff and perhaps national championship implications. Houston, coming off a 13-1 season that culminated with a rout of Florida State in the Peach Bowl, is by far the best non-Power-5 team. A victory over Oklahoma may set the Cougars up for a real run at one of the four playoff berths.

The Sooners, of course, are looking to return to the playoff after being dumped by Clemson in the semifinals last year. Oklahoma has little margin for error as it will host Ohio State in two weeks before playing nine Big 12 conference games.

Upset special

UCLA at Texas A&M (-3), Saturday 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

The host Aggies are favored even though they’re not ranked and the Bruins are (at No. 16 by AP). But this matchup, more than the USC-Alabama game also played in Texas a few hours later, will reveal more about the relative strengths of the SEC and Pac-12.

UCLA, with much-hyped sophomore QB Josh Rosen, is probably the favorite to win the Pac-12 South while Texas A&M is decidedly an also-ran in the difficult SEC West, with head coach Kevin Sumlin on the hottest of hot seats. Frankly, UCLA can’t afford to lose this game if it wants to entertain any thoughts of making the playoff.

Player to watch

Kansas State at Stanford (-15), Friday 9 p.m. ET, FS1

Last season’s Heisman runnerup really should’ve been its winner. Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey narrowly lost to Alabama’s Derrick Henry in 2015 and now has another shot at succeeding Jim Plunkett as the school’s second honoree.

McCaffrey will need to put together command performances from the get-go. Remember, it was a season-opening loss at Northwestern a year ago that ultimately cost the Cardinal a spot in the playoff. With a new starting quarterback for the first time in four years, Stanford will need McCaffrey to be as good as he was last season, and then some.

Our rankings

Unlike most voters in the AP and coaches polls, we’re not wed to our previous rankings, so there’s a fresh look every week. Here’s what we see on the eve of the 2016 season:

1. Clemson, 2. Oklahoma, 3. LSU, 4. Ohio State, 5. Michigan, 6. Stanford, 7. Alabama, 8. Houston, 9. Florida State, 10. Michigan State, 11. Notre Dame, 12. Tennessee, 13. Washington, 14. TCU, 15. USC.