Teams are only two weeks through the college football season, but it already feels like the “story” of the the year is beginning to take shape. Some teams like Michigan and Georgia are better than many thought, while others like Ohio State are much worse. Of course in other places, things picked up right where they left off. Clemson once again notched a big win last week (re-establishing that Dabo Swinney is the most unappreciated coach in the sport).
Still, despite two weeks of all sorts of college football fun, there is a lot to look ahead to this week. Here are five players who could play an important role in Saturday’s biggest games.
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Call Rudolph the “Heisman candidate that America forgot” as the Oklahoma State signal caller has quietly put up monster numbers overshadowed by other quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold. On the season, Rudolph is completing an incredible 72 percent of his passes while averaging over 10 yards a completion as Oklahoma State has jumped out to a 2-0 start.
But while the numbers look good on paper, it’s not as though Rudolph and the Cowboys have faced a murderer’s row of college football competition, defeating Tulsa and South Alabama. That will change this week when Oklahoma State travels to face the Pitt Panthers.
Pitt is coming off an ugly loss to in-state rival Penn State, but the 33-14 result might be a bit deceptive, considering it was a road game and the Panthers held Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley to just 164 yards passing. This game is at Heinz Field and could be a challenging setting for Rudolph and the Panthers.
Feleipe Franks, QB, Florida
While no one has quite realized it yet, the Florida Gators are essentially the Cleveland Browns of college football. Ever since Tim Tebow left Gainesville, this program just hasn’t seemed to find a quarterback, churning through more dudes than the cast of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Franks was the latest guy who was supposed to be “the guy” but flopped in his first start against Michigan, completing just five of nine passes before he was pulled for Malik Zaire.
Now maybe Franks’ performance was just an aberration and a sign that Michigan’s defense is better than anyone expected (certainly a possibility). At the same time, Franks better turn it around quickly. One, he has Zaire and Luke Del Rio breathing down his neck for more playing time. Two, this is a secretly huge game for the Gators. Florida is the two-time defending SEC East champ, but with Georgia and South Carolina looking good early, the road to Atlanta this year will be harder than the last two seasons. The road will be especially difficult if the Gators fall to 0-1 in SEC play on Saturday.
Austin Bryant, DE, Clemson
Clemson’s defense was downright filthy last week against Auburn, recording 14 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. And the breakout star was Bryant, who had four of those TFL’s alone. He is just one cog on arguably college football’s best D-line, a group that includes players like Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence, all of whom will one day play in the NFL.
But as good as that defensive line group is, the Tigers will face their toughest challenge of the season Saturday, when they face reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. As good as Bryant — and this D-line — has been, they will need to be better than just “good” if they’re going to improve to 3-0 on Saturday.
Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
Fitzgerald was a trendy preseason Heisman dark horse and through two games has looked the part, tossing for five touchdowns and rushing for two more as Mississippi State has jumped out to a 2-0 start.
But as good as those stats look, they’re deceptive because Fitzgerald is completing just 59 percent of his passes. That’s bad news for the Bulldogs as they face the No. 1 run defense in college football when LSU goes to Starkville. Remember, the Tigers held BYU to minus-5 rushing yards in Week 1. That’s not a misprint: The Cougars had less than zero yards rushing in that game. Who knew that was possible?
It is, which is scary for the Bulldogs coming into this game. A team never wants its offense to be one-dimensional and predictable, yet that is what Fitzgerald has been through much of his career. If that doesn’t change Saturday, it could get ugly, and LSU could cruise to an easy win.
J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Hey guys, I don’t know if you heard, but Ohio State wasn’t very good Saturday against Oklahoma. And I don’t know if you heard, but Barrett once again took a big chunk of the blame after throwing for just 183 yards against the Sooners. The crazy thing is, it’s just the latest stinker from the Ohio State passing game; keep in mind that while Barrett threw for 304 yards in the Buckeyes opener against Indiana, more than one-third (133) came on just two plays. Take those out and Ohio State produced just 171 yards passing in that game.
Granted, all the blame shouldn’t go squarely on Barrett’s shoulders, but unfortunately he will be the scapegoat if things don’t get turned around. Fans already have demanded a quarterback change, and Urban Meyer might not have a choice if the situation doesn’t get solved, especially on Saturday.
Ohio State plays Army this weekend and let’s be honest: If the Buckeyes can’t move the ball through the air against the Black Knights, they might not be able to do it against anyone the rest of the season. And they might not have a choice but to put Barrett on the bench in place of a backup.