College Football

College football storylines, Week 3: A tale of embattled QBs in Auburn vs. Penn State, why Florida has a chance vs. Alabama and more

Week 3 of the college football season is here, and with it comes some interesting tests for some of the nation’s top teams. Here are the biggest storylines to watch this weekend, starting with a huge prime-time matchup:

A tale of embattled QBs: No. 22 Auburn and No. 10 Penn State meet in Happy Valley’s annual “White Out” game Saturday night at an interesting inflection point for both programs. The Tigers have rolled to two easy victories in coach Bryan Harsin’s first season, but those wins have told us little other than that the running game could be among the nation’s best behind Jarquez Hunter and Tank Bigsby. The Nittany Lions have put a disastrous 2020 season in their rearview mirror with a season-opening upset of Wisconsin and an easy win over Ball State, but rumors swirl around the long-term future of coach James Franklin now that the USC job is open.

Quarterback Sean Clifford, delivering a pass against Ball State on Saturday, and Penn State will host Auburn in a ranked showdown this weekend.

What makes this game even more fascinating is the matchup of two enigmatic starting quarterbacks. Bo Nix came to Auburn with much fanfare but struggled to live up to his status as a five-star recruit in his first two seasons. Sean Clifford showed promise as a sophomore in 2019, but a disappointing junior season raised questions about his ability to lead Penn State to a bowl game, let alone a Big Ten championship. Both players have been solid to start the season, but have mostly been coddled by their offensive coordinators. (Nix has only attempted 39 passes through two games, while Clifford’s 7.69 yards per attempt ranks 58th in the country.) Whichever quarterback can make more plays under pressure, buy time in the pocket and use their running ability to scramble for a first down will be the difference in an expected defensive slugfest.

This game is going to tell us whether Penn State has a real chance to compete for its first playoff berth under Franklin, or whether Auburn might be a surprise contender in the SEC West. More than anything, we’ll know which team has the quarterback who can get them over the hump. National college football writer Matt Hinton said it best: “Bo Nix-Sean Clifford is an elite embattled QB matchup.”


Wild card for Florida: No. 1 Alabama appears headed toward another SEC championship, a seventh playoff appearance in eight seasons and a seventh national title under coach Nick Saban. This is a team that wins with ruthless efficiency, dethroned only by truly elite teams with elite quarterbacks. So why should a Week 3 game against No. 11 Florida be a reason to worry?

One reason: Anthony Richardson. The current backup quarterback for the Gators has been electric in two games, throwing for 192 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 attempts and rushing for a team-leading 275 yards on just 11 carries. That’s an average of 21.2 yards every time Richardson touches the ball. Coach Dan Mullen has not publicly committed to starting the 6-foot-4, 236-pound redshirt freshman over junior Emory Jones, but it stands to reason he’ll see the field plenty against the Crimson Tide as long as his injured hamstring is OK. If Florida’s defense can keep Heisman Trophy front-runner Bryce Young in check and limit Alabama’s big plays on offense, Richardson is enough of a wild card that the Gators have a puncher’s chance of springing the upset in Gainesville.

Warning signs for Notre Dame: You probably didn’t see it on NBC’s online-only streaming service Peacock, but Notre Dame needed a last-minute touchdown to beat Toledo, 32-29, on Saturday to avoid a stunning upset. In Week 1, the Fighting Irish needed overtime to beat a Florida State team that just lost to FCS Jacksonville State on a Hail Mary in the final seconds. As steady as Wisconsin transfer quarterback Jack Coan has looked through two games, there are major questions about whether coordinator Marcus Freeman’s defense can keep Notre Dame in the playoff conversation.

Up next for the Irish is Purdue, which is quietly 2-0 after wins over Oregon State and Connecticut. The Boilermakers offense ranks 22nd in the country in efficiency, according to ESPN’s SP+ ratings, which means Notre Dame might have to win another shootout to stay undefeated. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm badly needs a big win, and this could be his best chance.

Michigan State means business: Second-year Spartans coach Mel Tucker has already matched last season’s win total with victories over Northwestern and Youngstown State. Led by quarterback Payton Thorne (465 yards, five touchdowns) and breakout running back Kenneth Walker III (321 yards, five touchdowns), Michigan State might have a potent offense to pair with its always-steady defense, a unit that ranks 12th in the country in efficiency. If the Spartans can upset No. 24 Miami on the road — a strong possibility according to the oddsmakers and the statistical projections — they might be a surprise contender in the Big Ten East.

Reality check for Virginia Tech: The Hokies entered 2021 with low expectations for coach Justin Fuente’s sixth season. In fact, it seemed more likely that the program would part ways with the former Memphis coach than produce a winning season this year. After an upset win over then-No. 10 North Carolina in Week 1, Virginia Tech all of the sudden sits at No. 15 in the AP poll, which carries much higher expectations for a potential ACC Coastal championship. A road game against West Virginia this week should be telling, with the Mountaineers actually favored by the oddsmakers. If Virginia Tech can win this week and get to its Oct. 9 meeting with Notre Dame at 4-0, there might be optimism about the future in Blacksburg for the first time since Fuente took over in 2016.

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, looking to hand off the ball against Arizona during the second half on Sept. 4 in Las Vegas, has been sharp for the Cougars through two games.

BYU is bringing it: Little was expected of BYU this season after losing star quarterback Zach Wilson to the NFL, but coach Kalani Sitake’s squad has burst out of the gates with wins over Arizona and then-No. 21 Utah. Up next is a home game against No. 19 Arizona State, which has been largely untested in victories over Southern Utah and UNLV. This should be a fun quarterback battle between BYU’s Jaren Hall and Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels, both of whom can threaten defenses through the air and on the ground. They’ve combined for more than 1,000 total yards already this season.

Show us what you got, Cincinnati: The No. 8 Bearcats entered the season as a trendy pick to crack the playoff field, which would make them the first Group of Five team to do so since the playoff format began in 2014. It’s all gone according to plan so far, but this week will be Cincinnati’s first big test. Indiana looked unprepared in a season-opening 34-6 loss to Iowa, but this is still a team that returns 83% of its production from a 6-2 season and has a quarterback in Michael Penix Jr. who’s capable of making some big-time throws. The Bearcats not only need to win, but prove they’re a clear step above the Hoosiers before next week’s showdown against Notre Dame.


Look out, UCLA: With one of the nation’s most potent rushing attacks and a talented quarterback, coach Chip Kelly has the No. 13 Bruins looking like a legitimate Pac-12 championship contender. But a matchup against feisty Fresno State might spell trouble if UCLA is looking ahead to the start of its conference schedule. No. 4 Oregon only beat the Bulldogs by a touchdown in Week 1, and we saw what the Ducks are capable of last week in an upset victory over Ohio State. Running back Zach Charbonnet and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson should be able to lead the Bruins to an easy victory, but Kelly can ill-afford letting a promising first two weeks be undone by an upset loss to a Mountain West team.