Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford reacts after being tackled just short of the end zone in third quarter against Buffalo. The Nittany Lions travel to Maryland on Sept. 27.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford reacts after being tackled just short of the end zone in third quarter against Buffalo. The Nittany Lions travel to Maryland on Sept. 27. (Barry Reeger/AP)

After two weeks, the cream has started to rise to the top in college football, with LSU jumping into the playoff discussion with a statement win over Texas.

Week 3 is a bit underwhelming, with no matchups between ranked teams for the first time since October 2017. But there isn’t a lack of interesting storylines.

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Here are the most intriguing questions for Week 3:

How much of a factor will Iowa and Iowa State be in their conference championship races?

Let’s start in Ames, where ESPN’s College GameDay will be broadcasting for the first time in the show’s storied history. The annual rivalry game between Iowa and Iowa State just missed becoming a ranked matchup for the first time, with the Cyclones slipping from No. 25 to receiving votes in the AP Top 25 poll after narrowly beating Football Championship Subdivision team Northern Iowa in Week 1.

Fear not, because this matchup features two of the most talented (and overlooked) quarterbacks in the country in Iowa State’s Brock Purdy and Iowa’s Nate Stanley.

Purdy received an overall grade of 86.9 from scouting website Pro Football Focus as a true freshman last season. He helped the Cyclones win eight games for the second straight season after they won no more than three in the previous four. Stanley, meanwhile, has been excellent for the Hawkeyes, completing 63.8% of his passes with six touchdowns and no interceptions. At 6 feet 4 and 243 pounds with a strong arm, his body alone would likely draw the attention of NFL scouts. But he’s earned a look with his play, having thrown 58 touchdown passes to just 16 interceptions in 35 career games.

But there’s more to this game than the quarterbacks. Both teams have a legitimate chance of tripping up their conference’s top contenders, if not becoming contenders themselves if things break right.

Even when Iowa State hasn’t been good, a trip to Ames has often doomed some of the Big 12’s best teams. (Who can forget the double-overtime win over No. 2 Oklahoma State in 2011?) If the Cyclones beat their in-state rival, things get even more harrowing for Oklahoma and Texas at the end of the season. The same goes for the Hawkeyes, who face Michigan and Penn State in October and have a legitimate chance to knock off Wisconsin to take the top spot in the Big Ten West.

This matchup has always been intriguing (for the highlights and the lowlights). Now it has real stakes.

Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins runs the ball during a game in Charlottesville, Va., Friday, Sept. 6, 2019.
Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins runs the ball during a game in Charlottesville, Va., Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)

Is Virginia becoming an ACC power?

There might be a changing of the guard in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Florida State travels to Charlottesville to take on Virginia, and it’s the No. 25 Cavaliers who are the only ranked team in this matchup for the first time. Led by standout dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins, Virginia has a chance to start 3-0 for the first time since 2005.

It’s only fitting that that victory could come against the Seminoles, who have relinquished their grasp on the ACC since Jimbo Fisher’s departure. Last season marked Florida State’s first with a losing record since 1976 and first without a bowl game appearance since 1981. This season is already trending in the wrong direction under Willie Taggart, with an opening loss to Boise State at home and an overtime victory over Louisiana Monroe last week.

Meanwhile, Bronco Mendenhall has Virginia, the preseason ACC Coastal division favorite, on track to improve on last year’s 8-5 finish. With Virginia Tech struggling under coach Justin Fuente, the Cavaliers have a chance to gain serious ground in a fertile recruiting area with another strong season. A convincing win over a national brand like Florida State would only reinforce the progress being made in Charlottesville.

Maryland's Anthony McFarland Jr. reacts after scoring a touchdown against Syracuse on Saturday, Sept 7, 2019 in College Park.
Maryland's Anthony McFarland Jr. reacts after scoring a touchdown against Syracuse on Saturday, Sept 7, 2019 in College Park. (Gail Burton/AP)

Can Maryland and Penn State take care of business and preserve a ranked vs. ranked Friday night matchup in College Park?

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With the Terps jumping to No. 21 this week, Maryland will play a game as a ranked team for the first time since 2013. It didn’t end well last time, as the Terps lost, 63-0, to Florida State as the No. 25 team in the country.

Maryland has a much easier assignment Saturday, facing Temple on the road in Philadelphia. The Terps are favored by a touchdown, but the Owls dominated in College Park last season, 35-14, and this will be Mike Locksley’s first road game as coach. In Bill Connelly’s SP+ projections for ESPN, an analytics system described as “a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency,” Temple is slightly favored, with a win probability of 51%. Will Maryland’s high-flying offense — averaging 71 points per game — travel well?

Meanwhile, Penn State hosts in-state rival Pittsburgh, and while the Panthers haven’t been impressive, this is the game they’ve been circling on their calendars all year. Nothing would be sweeter for Pitt than spoiling the Nittany Lions’ season, especially in Happy Valley, in what could be the last meeting between the schools for a long time.

Should Maryland and Penn State avoid upsets, it sets up a massive Big Ten opener Sept. 27, in College Park, which could have Big Ten East title implications and a big impact on regional recruiting battles in the DMV. Fans want it, the Big Ten wants it, and you know Locksley and the Terps want it. All Maryland and Penn State need to do this weekend is win.

South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski and wide receiver Trey Adkins, right, celebrate with fans as they leave the field after a game against Charleston Southern, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Columbia.
South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski and wide receiver Trey Adkins, right, celebrate with fans as they leave the field after a game against Charleston Southern, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Columbia. (John Amis/AP)

Can South Carolina’s Ryan Hilinski add another chapter to his storybook season?

The touted freshman quarterback got his first start in the Gamecocks’ home opener against Charleston Southern last week and didn’t disappoint, completing 24 of 30 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing). With Jake Bentley out for the season after foot surgery, it’s Hilinski’s team now.

Hilinski is the brother of former Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinksi, who committed suicide after his junior year. Following an evaluation of his brain after his death, Tyler Hilinski was revealed to be suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries that often occur in football.

Ryan Hilinski wears the same jersey number as his late brother, No. 3, and celebrated a touchdown Saturday by holding three fingers to the sky. He was able to get his first taste of college football against an FCS opponent, but now No. 2 Alabama comes to Columbia.

The Gamecocks probably don’t have the talent or the depth to pull off an upset, but Hilinski’s story alone is worth tuning in to see how the young quarterback fares against one of the nation’s best defenses.

Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis runs against Stanford during a game Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis runs against Stanford during a game Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Some smaller questions worth asking

Would beating Stanford at home do anything for Central Florida’s resume? Probably not. The Knights were hoping the Cardinal would come to Orlando ranked, but Stanford blew that chance last week with a loss to Southern California. A victory would still be impressive for UCF, but it wouldn’t be enough to bolster their strength of schedule as they seek a possible playoff bid.

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What does USC have in freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis? The Trojans find themselves back in the Top 25 after being in danger of starting the season 0-2. Slovis set the USC freshman record with 377 passing yards against Stanford, and he’ll have to continue to put up big numbers for the Trojans to survive a tough schedule, which continues with a road game against BYU. Coach Clay Helton’s job security might rest on an 18-year-old.

Can Michigan State actually put up points? The Spartans, who host Arizona State on Saturday, got big games from quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back Elijah Collins in a 51-17 win over Western Michigan last week, the most points they’ve scored since hanging 55 on Penn State on Nov. 28, 2015. We know Michigan State’s defense is good. If the Spartans can score, look out.

Does Syracuse have any hope of tripping up Clemson? In short, no. There’s no stopping the No. 1 Tigers when they’re at full strength. Even Alabama couldn’t last season. But the Orange have played Clemson the toughest of any ACC team in recent years, beating the Tigers in 2017 and falling by just four points last season. The Carrier Dome crowd should help, if nothing else.

How will Washington respond to a stunning loss? While you were asleep early Sunday morning, the Huskies fell to Cal, 20-19, in a game that was delayed 2½ hours and didn’t end until around 3 a.m. Eastern Time. Washington’s already-slim chance at reaching the playoff is probably gone, but it can still compete for the Pac-12 title. Unfortunately, the Huskies have to face a frisky Hawaii team a week after a massive letdown. Uh oh.

How much progress is Jeff Brohm making at Purdue? An opening loss to Nevada? Discouraging. A win over Vanderbilt? Encouraging! Now the Boilermakers host TCU, and a win would be a much-desired step forward in Year 3 of Brohm’s rebuild.

Is the Chip Kelly experiment already a failure at UCLA? An 0-2 start with losses to Cincinnati and San Diego State doesn’t inspire much confidence in the former NFL coach. Neither does the attendance. Saturday’s game drew an announced 36,951, the third-smallest crowd to attend a UCLA game since it moved to the Rose Bowl in 1982. Kelly will be given plenty of time to rebuild the Bruins’ roster to his liking, but some signs of progress would be nice.

Can Kentucky rally after losing its starting quarterback for the season? Terry Wilson’s left knee injury is a big blow to the Wildcats, but not a death knell. Graduate transfer Sawyer Smith played well at Troy last season, leading the Trojans to a 5-2 record and passing for 320 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-32 win over Buffalo in the Dollar General Bowl. He’s a valuable backup, and will be immediately tested against No. 9 Florida.

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