Which Group of Five school had the most impressive Week 1?

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The College Football Playoff selection committee will guarantee one spot in a big revenue bowl game at the end of the season to the highest-ranked conference champion from the so-called Group of Five — American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West Conference, Sun Belt Conference. With no team from any of those conferences starting the season ranked in the top 25 polls, it was crucial for one team to step up and state its case for consideration early on. The opening weekend of the college football season saw more whiffs than home runs by schools fighting for that big bowl game at the end of the year.

Boise State and Utah State, perhaps two of the perceived leading contenders, came up small in their battles with SEC schools. Boise State was taken down by Ole Miss on a neutral field in Atlanta on Thursday night. On Sunday night Chuckie Keeton and Utah State were rolled by Tennessee in Knoxville. If either Boise State or Utah State would have won, they would have become the leader in the clubhouse for the guaranteed bowl spot. So who had the most impressive season debut from each of the Group of Five conferences? Is there a favorite at this point?

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE

The favorites in the AAC did not get off to a great start this season. Houston was embarrassed by UTSA in the grand opening of Houston’s new football stadium. Defending champion UCF was sloppy for most of the afternoon in Ireland against Penn State. A change at quarterback gave the Knights a spark and UCF took a late lead on the Nittany Lions but a field goal by Penn State as time expired dropped UCF to 0-1. Cincinnati, the media’s preseason favorite, did not play this weekend due to some bizarre scheduling. East Carolina held up their end of the bargain with a home blowout of a FCS program, but you don’t win points for that.

Temple may have had the most impressive season debut out of the American Athletic Conference. The Owls opened on Thursday night on the road at Vanderbilt. After sitting through a lengthy weather delay, Matt Rhule‘s program blew away Vanderbilt and ruined Derek Mason’s debut on Nashville. Temple gets a chance to build on that start this weekend at home against a Navy team that gave Ohio State a battle until the fourth quarter.

CONFERENCE USA

In the opening weekend of the season Conference USA teams did not fare well against power conference competition, but the conference did score some big wins by picking on other Group of Five conferences, which is equally important in this conversation. UTSA’s win against Houston raised plenty of eyebrows and has thrown UTSA into contender status in Conference USA as a result. Perhaps just as shocking was Western Kentucky’s blowout of defending MAC champion and 2014 favorite Bowling Green. UTSA’s victory over Houston on the road against an offense that is supposed to put up plenty of yards and points may be the more complete victory in my book, but Western Kentucky smacking around Bowling Green the way they did should not go unmentioned. These two wins alone may have been enough to suggest Conference USA is ahead of the MAC early on. Conference USA is still full of young, growing programs though so let’s see how the season plays out.

MAC

The two most convincing victories in the MAC this weekend happened to come against a pair of FCS opponents. Akron and Northern Illinois had no problems with their season-opening opponents, but they will hardly do anything to convince voters to place them above the performances of schools like Temple, UTSA or Western Kentucky (naturally). There was one MAC contest played this weekend, resulting in Ohio getting a jump in the standings following a road win at Kent State.

MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE

On a weekend that saw Boise State, Utah State and Fresno State all lose to power conference opponents, Colorado State’s win against Colorado could not have come at a better time. Colorado State’s 31-17 victory over in-state rival Colorado put on display every reason why the Rams are expected to make a run in the Mountain West Conference this season. Having Dee Hart at running back will be a nice luxury after rushing for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Colorado may not be a great program, but Colorado State will take it. The Rams, right now, may be at the top of the pack among Group of Five contenders thinking about the big bowl reservation.

SUN BELT

It was not a great weekend for the Sun Belt Conference. Louisiana Monroe’s home victory over a weak Wake Forest team may be the best victory in the books in week one. Georgia Southern nearly pulled an upset at North Carolina State, which would have been the top win among Sun Belt teams this weekend. If not ULM, then Texas State should probably get the nod following a 65-0 victory over Arkansas Pine-Bluff, but again, no points for blowouts of cupcakes, even in the Sun Belt.

WHAT ABOUT BYU?

Under the new structure of the College Football Playoff and the associated bowls, there is not automatic way for BYU to be invited to the party. BYU is not eligible to be considered for the reserved spot among Group of Five champions, even if the Cougars are ranked and no Group of Five conference champion is ranked. BYU’s only way to gain a spot in the bowl rotation is to 1) be selected to play in the College Football Playoff as a semifinalist or 2) be selected as an at-large team in the remaining bowl spots that are open after conference champions and automatic bids are selected.

BYU had one of the most impressive wins of the weekend from any school not in a power conference, dominating UConn in Connecticut. It was just the Huskies, but it was a show of dominance by Taysom Hill and the Cougars that would fare well with any other victory from the Group of Five schools on the opening weekend.

Spinal condition forces Northwestern’s leading rusher to retire

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Harsh and decidedly unexpected news coming out of Evanston Monday afternoon will have a significant impact on Northwestern’s football team moving forward.

The football program confirmed earlier today that Jeremy Larkin will be forced to retire from the game of football as a result of a recent diagnosis of cervical stenosis.  The good news is that the condition is not considered life-threatening even as it precludes any future participation in the sport.

Obviously, the sophomore running back’s decision to retire, which came as the football program was coming off its one bye weekend of the season, is effective immediately.

“Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won’t be on that field again, given I’ve played this game since I was five years old,” said Larkin in a statement. “I’m extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first. I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline.”

“This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete,” head football coach Pat Fitzgerald. “But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him. The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can’t wait to see the impact he makes in our world.”

Through three games, Larkin’s 346 yards rushing were easily tops on the Wildcats.  In fact, Larkin currently accounts for an astounding 98.6 percent of the Wildcats’ 351 rushing yards as a team.  Additionally, he has five of their seven rushing touchdowns on the season.

Northwestern will open up Big Ten play this weekend as they host No. 14 Michigan.

Virginia Tech QB Josh Jackson set for surgery, out indefinitely

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Virginia Tech’s embarrassing weekend came with a rather substantial personnel loss.

This past Saturday, starting quarterback Josh Jackson went down with a lower-leg injury in then-No. 13 Tech’s historic loss to Old Dominion; it was the Conference USA program’s first-ever win over a Power Five school after nine straight such losses over the last decade.

Monday, the Hokies’ worst fears were realized as Justin Fuente confirmed that Jackson suffered a fractured left fibula during the game and will be sidelined indefinitely.  The signal-caller is set to undergo surgery on Tuesday to repair the damage.

This season prior to the injury, Jackson completed a little over 62 percent of his 58 passes for 575 yards, five touchdowns and an interception.  His 170.3 pass efficiency rating is currently 18th nationally and second among ACC quarterbacks (Boston College’s Anthony Brown, 175.5).

With Jackson sidelined for the foreseeable future, the keys to Tech’s offense will be handed off to Ryan Willis.  The Kansas transfer had to sit out the 2017 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules, and has attempted 25 passes for the Hokies this season.  In that limited action thus far, he has thrown for 195 yards and a touchdown.

The good news is that Willis isn’t exactly new to the starting game at the collegiate level.

Willis started two games during the 2016 season; after throwing three interceptions in each of those mid-October starts, Willis was benched and never played another down for the Jayhawks. In his first season in Lawrence in 2015, Willis set a KU freshman record by throwing for 1,719 yards and nine touchdowns as part of his eight starts.

“I feel badly for Josh,” Fuente said in comments distributed by the school earlier today. “He’s a competitive, tough young man. He just kind of got landed on wrong on the play, but know he’ll come back better than ever.

“We turn to Ryan Willis and he performed pretty well last week when he went in there. He’s competitive and he’s been training and working for this opportunity and it’s up to everyone else to step up their game as well and help him out and support him.”

Nick Bosa’s parents indicate star Ohio State DE won’t even be reevaluated until November

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Instead of when will Ohio State gets it’s star defensive end back, perhaps the question should be will they.

Nick Bosa suffered a core muscle injury in the Week 3 win over TCU, with surgery subsequently confirmed by head coach Urban Meyer that left the All-American defensive lineman’s availability in the near future up in the air.  Not long after Meyer confirmed Monday that Bosa would indeed miss this weekend’s huge matchup with Penn State, both of the third-year junior’s parents indicated that it could be quite a while, if at all, before their son returns to the playing field — at least at the collegiate level.

John Bosa told the Columbus Dispatch “the reality of what’s going on [is that] Nick won’t be evaluated by the surgeon until November”; Cheryl Bosa stated as much to ESPN.com as well.

While Bosa’s head coach stated that “we expect him back” this season, his mom intimated there’s a chance her son, widely expected to be a Top Five pick in the 2019 NFL draft if/when he leaves OSU early, could opt not to return at all in 2018.

“Cheryl said her son wants to return for Ohio State this season,” ESPN.com wrote, “but that they’ll discuss his situation (NFL) as a family before making a decision.”

Regardless of whether he returns to the Buckeyes or not, the good news is that, per the father, the injury “is 100-percent fixable.”

OSU will play four regular season games in the month of November: Nebraska (Nov. 3), at Michigan State (Nov. 10), at Maryland (Nov. 17) and Michigan (Nov. 24).  The Big Ten championship game is set for Dec. 1.

It’s unclear if Bosa’s decision will be impacted by the Buckeyes qualifying for the conference title game or, further down the road, the College Football Playoffs if they’re one of the four semifinalists.

Larry Scott defends Pac-12’s late night TV schedule

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Judging from the outsider’s perspective, the Pac-12 seems like the angriest of the Power 5 conferences right now. Or at least the most angst-ridden. The league is angsty about the state of its product on the field after going 1-8 in bowl games and missing the College Football Playoff last year. It’s angsty about its place in the world, literally and metaphorically, isolated from the other four Power 5 leagues. And it’s especially angsty about its TV contract.

Twenty-four of the league’s 80 conference games started at or after 7 p.m. local time in 2017, 30 percent. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but that feels like a higher number than the other conferences (and Pac-12 coaches and fans would likely agree).

There’s one reason for that: TV. In 2011, the Pac-12 announced a joint 12-year contract with ESPN and Fox worth a collective $3 billion. At the time, it felt like a game-changer. In time, we’ve learned that it wasn’t. The Pac-12 is still the only Power 5 conference in the Pacific time zone, and as such, it’s the only conference the networks are going to schedule in the 10:30 p.m. ET time slot.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was asked about the TV deal on Saturday:

“The reason we play almost a third of our games at night is that was a way to unlock significant value from television in our last negations,” Scott said, via The Oregonian. “ESPN and Fox placed a high value on us giving them a little more flexibility and being willing to play more night games.”

Translated from businesspeak to English, here’s what Scott is saying: Look, you like all that money, don’t you? The only way ESPN and Fox were paying us all those billions was if we played at 10:30 Eastern, because they’re certainly not playing SEC games at that time.

The economics here is simple: ESPN and Fox draw higher ratings for live college football games than they do for SportsCenter (or whatever the FS1 equivalent is). The Washington-Utah game drew 1.589 million viewers for ESPN on Sept. 15, while Fresno State-UCLA drew 301,000 for FS1. Both of those numbers are higher than anything else those networks could show at that time. As such, ESPN and Fox can charge higher prices for advertising, and then share some of that money with the conference. If there were no #Pac12AfterDark games there would be no (or significantly less) #Pac12AfterDark money. And everyone likes money, especially when they’ve already spent it it on coaching salaries and new facilities.

And, let’s face it, given the chance to show, say, Alabama-Ole Miss or Washington-Utah at 7 p.m. ET, ESPN is going to pick Alabama-Ole Miss every time. In fact, ESPN did that exact thing on Sept. 15, and Alabama-Ole Miss drew 4.109 million viewers.

The Pac-12 does own its own network, so if the league’s fans and coaches are truly that miserable in their current arrangement, the option to go it alone and pick its kickoff times will become available to the conference starting in 2024. In fact, the Pac-12 stands more to gain than any other conference by placing most or all of its TV inventory on its own network. The Pac-12 wholly owns all of Pac-12 Network, which means it would stand to keep all of the profits in the event its carriage fees skyrocket by putting every USC, Washington, Oregon, etc., football game on its network. But, of course, it would stand to take all of the losses the conference passed on the guaranteed money from ESPN and Fox and the carriage fees didn’t skyrocket.

The guess here is the Pac-12 will take the guaranteed money again.