Nix has passed every test thrown his way, shaking off a poor start against Oregon to throw the game-winning touchdown pass in Week 1 and winning his first two SEC games without making any major mistakes. But he hasn’t been asked to do too much, either, attempting just 41 total passes in wins over Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
While the job was Nix’s to lose to begin the season, Trask has been thrust into the starting role after an early injury to starter Feleipe Franks. Trask, who was the backup on his high school team, has impressed so far, completing 77.3% of his passes, but hasn’t exactly been tested against Kentucky, Tennessee and Towson of the Football Championship Subdivision.
What makes their situations so interesting is how much pressure is on their young shoulders. They’re not being asked to grow alongside a rebuilding team: Auburn and Florida have enough talent to compete for an SEC title and perhaps secure a playoff berth. If Nix and Trask can make enough plays down the stretch, their teams suddenly become a threat to Alabama and Georgia at the top of the conference.
But this game is just the beginning of a long road ahead for both teams. The Tigers and Gators both face LSU and Georgia, and Auburn also has the annual Iron Bowl against Alabama to close the regular season.
Consider this matchup an entrance exam. There’s plenty of reason to celebrate a passing grade, but the real hard work that will define the teams’ success lies ahead.
Can Michigan turn its season around?
A 52-0 dismantling of Rutgers couldn’t have come at a better time for the No. 19 Wolverines, who were able to let out some frustration and build some confidence after a disappointing loss to Wisconsin.
It’s crazy to think that a 3-1 team needs to “turn its season around,” but the performance against the Badgers — coming off a bye and a double-overtime win over Army — was so dispiriting that it raised questions about Jim Harbaugh’s coaching ability and future in Ann Arbor. Josh Gattis, in his first season as an offensive coordinator, was already deemed a bad hire.
Michigan gets a chance to prove reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. No. 14 Iowa comes to The Big House on Saturday, carrying the hopes of an undefeated season and Big Ten West title. If the Wolverines can knock off the Hawkeyes, their path to conference title contention suddenly doesn’t look so unrealistic.
Gattis said he felt “disconnected” from the team while coaching from the press box the first few weeks, so he called plays from the sideline against Rutgers. Although it’s unwise to put too much stock in a blowout win over the Big Ten’s bottom feeder, the move clearly worked, and it might be the spark Gattis and the offense needed.
Michigan might not be the top-five team many predicted it would be to start the season, but there’s still a chance the Wolverines could be pretty close to that level. We’ll find out Saturday just how close.
Can Michigan State give Ohio State its first real test?
Even considering the high expectations for new coach Ryan Day and transfer quarterback Justin Fields, the No. 4 Buckeyes have been better than anyone could have predicted.
According to ESPN, Ohio State’s plus-219 scoring margin through five games is their largest in the AP poll era. Even Urban Meyer’s best teams didn’t perform this well this early in the season.
Fields has been a revelation as both a runner and a passer, running back J.K. Dobbins is playing better than he ever has and edge rusher Chase Young has eight sacks in five games as he builds his case to be among the top picks in the 2020 NFL draft. Finding a weakness to attack will be a nearly impossible task for the Michigan State coaching staff.
Though the Spartans defense has been solid — allowing just 3.93 yards per play, sixth best in the nation — it has yet to face an offense nearly as good as Ohio State’s and probably won’t the rest of the season. And while Michigan State’s offense has shown steady improvement each week (with the notable exception of a 10-7 loss to Arizona State), there hasn’t been enough evidence that it can move the ball efficiently to keep up with the Buckeyes.
Michigan State has been blown out by Ohio State in each of the past two seasons, but Mark Dantonio’s squad has mostly played the Buckeyes tough over the past 10 years. Still, even a solid Spartans team playing up to its potential might not be enough to make this Ohio State team sweat. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten.
Who’s the best Group of 5 contender?
Despite its loss to Pitt two weeks ago, No. 18 UCF is still the odds-on favorite to represent the Group of 5 in a New Year’s Six bowl game. But there are several other teams that can challenge for that spot, including three in the Knights’ own conference.
No. 24 SMU and Memphis have both started the season undefeated, and the winner of their battle in the American Athletic Conference West division will likely face UCF in the conference championship. Meanwhile, Cincinnati is 3-1 with its loss coming at Ohio State, and the Bearcats get to host the Knights on Friday night with a chance to jump ahead of UCF to the top of the AAC East standings.
But perhaps the greatest threat to the Knights’ stranglehold on the Group of 5 is Boise State, which sits higher in the polls (No. 16) and has few challenges remaining as it seeks to go undefeated for the first time since 2009. The Broncos’ toughest test left might be at BYU on Oct. 19, but the Cougars likely will be missing starting quarterback Zach Wilson for that game as he recovers from hand surgery. Boise State will also have to get past Hawaii, Wyoming and Utah State, which have each lost just one game. Hawaii (vs. Arizona and Oregon State) and Wyoming (vs. Missouri) also have wins over Power 5 opponents, matching Boise State’s season-opening victory over Florida State.
Appalachian State, the likely Sun Belt champion, is another serious threat for that G5 bid. The Mountaineers have already beaten North Carolina (which, by the way, almost knocked off then-No. 1 Clemson) and have another chance at a P5 win when they play at South Carolina on Nov. 9.
Friday night’s UCF-Cincinnati game will tell us a lot about where the Knights stand. If they lose, the fight for a New Year’s Day bowl bid will break even more wide open.
Some smaller questions worth asking
Can Oregon do enough against Cal’s defense to avoid an upset? Oregon has been quietly impressive since its season-opening loss to Auburn, a defeat that makes the No. 13 Ducks even stronger considering how well the Tigers have played since. Cal’s brief stay in the Top 25 ended with its loss to Arizona State, but Justin Wilcox’s team is talented, and its defense can make life difficult for Justin Herbert and Co.
Is Navy the best of the service academies this year? This is shaping up to be a great battle for the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy. While Army has been the class of the three service academies in football each of the past two seasons, Navy and Air Force look poised to end the Black Knights’ reign. The Midshipmen host the Falcons on Saturday, and the winner will be an early favorite to take home the trophy.
Can SMU handle the hype? The Mustangs are ranked for the first time since 1984, and with that ranking comes expectations. Tulsa is a two-touchdown underdog, but the Golden Hurricane are coming off an impressive win over a good Wyoming team. Sonny Dykes would do well to keep his team focused.
Are we overlooking Duke? It might seem like ages ago way back in Week 1, but the Blue Devils hung around with Alabama early in an eventual blowout defeat and have won three straight games since, including a 45-10 waxing of Virginia Tech last week. If Duke can beat a solid Pittsburgh team at home, there might be a special season in the works.
Who’s in worse shape: Miami or Virginia Tech? Speaking of Virginia Tech, what’s happening in Blacksburg? The aforementioned loss to Duke was just another in a series of head-scratching results for coach Justin Fuente, who might not be long for the job if things don’t start turning around. In Miami, Manny Diaz’s job is safe in his first year, but fans and boosters likely want to see some kind of progress. A loss to North Carolina and a close win over Central Michigan does not inspire much confidence as the Hurricanes seek a return to their glory days. Saturday’s matchup can only have one winner, meaning more misery for the losing team.
Where does Baylor fit in the Big 12 hierarchy? The Bears are undefeated — for now. They play against a rebuilding, yet solid, Kansas State team that is a slight betting favorite at home. Matt Rhule’s team is probably another year away from seriously contending with Oklahoma and Texas for the Big 12 title, but early signs are encouraging. There’s a good chance Baylor can knock off a ranked opponent this season.