The 2023 college football season is more than a month old, with Week 5 now in the books.
It will be another 30 days until the College Football Playoff committee starts releasing its rankings (Oct. 31), following Week 9.
There is plenty of hard-hitting analysis that could be done off the latest CFB action, with the Utah Utes suffering their first loss of the season, the BYU Cougars picking up their first Big 12 conference win and the Utah State Aggies defeating their first FBS opponent this season.
Not to mention multiple Top 25 upsets in the SEC, closer than expected games for multiple Pac-12 contenders and some statement games from national title hopefuls.
But this week we are taking a different approach. One of optimism and celebration.
After all, college football is one of America’s favorite pastimes. It’s the fourth most popular sport, per Nielsen.com, behind only the NFL, NBA and MLB.
So here are six (optimistic) takeaways from the weekend in college football:
The Pac-12 race is wide open — more than ever — and Utah holds its fate (almost) entirely in its own hands
The Utah Utes lost their first game of the season Friday night, when they fell to the Oregon State Beavers on Friday night, 21-7.
But following Saturday’s action, it is more than possible to be optimistic about Utah’s chances going forward.
Highly ranked and unbeaten USC, Washington and Oregon have been viewed as the Utes’ primary competition for the Pac-12 crown, and two of those teams struggled this weekend (at times, at least) against inferior competition.
USC defeated Colorado, and the final score (48-41) made the game appear closer than it actually was. But the Buffaloes were a consistent thorn in the Trojans’ side all game long. Moreover, USC’s defense was proven again to be a real weakness, maybe even a cure-all for Utah’s offensive woes when the teams meet in Los Angeles on Oct. 21.
Washington, meanwhile, had looked like one of the best teams in the country in prior weeks but the Huskies were tested by Arizona on Saturday. UW’s high-powered offense slowed down considerably. That someone could slow down the Huskies is only good news for Utah, which boasts a top 15 defense nationally (third in the Pac-12 behind Oregon State and UCLA) and travels to Seattle.
Oregon was the lone Pac-12 title contender that didn’t show its mortality on Saturday, although the Ducks did start pretty slow against a dismal Stanford team.
Utah hosts Oregon on Oct. 28 and with games against the Trojans, Huskies and Ducks on the schedule, the Utes almost control their destiny in the conference race (Oregon State now has the head-to-head advantage and Utah doesn’t play unbeaten Washington State).
Look, there is plenty to be concerned about with Utah given the sheer number of injuries across the roster, plus how anemic the Utes’ offense has been, but the competition going forward doesn’t appear to be as unbeatable as it once did, and Utah’s defense is capable of keeping the team in nearly every game.
Oh, and all the injuries may — may — lead to fewer transfers out of the program in the winter, as guys are seeing playing time they may otherwise not have received if the Utes were fully healthy.
Four wins in September. Take a bow, BYU
Before the season started, BYU was picked by media to finish 11th in the Big 12 Conference this season. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) projected that the Cougars would win between five and six games in 2023.
Fast-forward to the first week in October and BYU is 4-1 with a road win at Arkansas and a victory over Cincinnati in the Cougars’ Big 12 home opener.
Moreover, the Cougars were competitive in their only loss thus far, at Kansas.
In truth, BYU couldn’t really have asked for a better start to the season in terms of wins and losses (even if there are plenty of things that can be nitpicked about the team’s play through five games).
Also, starting quarterback Kedon Slovis has outperformed outside expectations considerably, especially when taking into account the general struggles of BYU’s rushing attack (outside of LJ Martin).
Slovis has thrown for 1,240 yards so far this year, along with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Those 10 touchdown passes match Slovis’ total from all of last season with Pittsburgh, and they’re one off his total touchdowns thrown in 2021 (11 touchdowns).
Per Pro Football Focus, Slovis is the second-highest-rated offensive player on the Cougars this season — behind only wide receiver Chase Roberts.
At this point, Slovis has to be considered a transfer portal win.
Another interesting positive for BYU through five games is that six of the team’s top 10 defenders so far — according to PFF — play on the defensive line.
Those defenders are Blake Mangelson, Tyler Batty, Nuuletau Sellesin, John Nelson, Jackson Cravens and Bodie Schoonover.
A pleasant surprise, no?
BYU’s schedule isn’t easy going forward, with Texas and Oklahoma coming up, but it now feels less foreboding than it did before the season started. The Cougars have proven capable of competing with Big 12 competition and right now they could easily outperform preseason projections.
We just witnessed one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Utah State
Utah State, at long last, picked up its first win against FBS competition on Saturday, with a 34-33 win at UConn.
The Aggies did so without starting quarterback McCae Hillstead, who exited early in the third quarter after suffering a concussion, and via a blocked extra point with under a minute remaining by safety Ike Larsen.
Afterward, head coach Blake Anderson called it an ugly win and bemoaned the fact that the Aggies had to rally from a 17-0 deficit — USU had yet another poor start — but what a rally it was.
With Cooper Legas leading the way in relief of Hillstead, the Aggies outscored the Huskies 27-16 in the second, including a 17-0 edge in the third quarter alone.
The rally from 17 points down tied for the fourth-largest comeback in school history. It was the largest comeback for Utah State since 2015, when the Aggies rallied from a 27-7 third quarter deficit against Nevada (Utah State won that game 31-27).
The Aggies tried and nearly pulled off similar rallies earlier this season — against Iowa and James Madison — but they pulled it off on Saturday and, in the process, continued to prove clutch in tight games.
In the Anderson era, Utah State is 9-1 in one-score games (1-1 this season), has rallied from a deficit to pull out a victory 13 times and is a better than .500 team on the road (10-6).
The Aggies (2-3) have plenty of work to do going forward, especially with conference play beginning in earnest next weekend. The top of the Mountain West Conference looks fierce (Air Force and Fresno State, especially).
But what the Aggies pulled off Saturday is worth talking about.
Speaking of comebacks, wow, Baylor
Not to diminish in any way the shine on Utah State’s comeback victory, but there were even more impressive comebacks on Saturday.
Chief among them was what Baylor did against UCF.
Let’s set the stage: UCF holds a commanding lead over Baylor in the third quarter, 35-7. With the game being played in Orlando, Florida, it seems all but certain that the Knights will walk away with the win.
Except they didn’t, because the Bears outscored UCF 29-0 in the final 19 minutes and pulled out a 36-35 win.
That alone is ridiculous, and what makes CFB so fun, but there’s more.
UCF didn’t go down without a fight and, trailing by one point, it drove from its own 26-yard line to Baylor’s 41-yard line one minute and 11 seconds. It took some incredible heroics to get there too, via quarterback Timmy McClain.
With a chance to steal the victory back, UCF place kicker Colton Boomer’s field goal try from 59 yards away sailed wide right.
Bayor’s comeback was the largest in school history and ended the Bears’ seven game losing streak against FBS competition.
It quite possibly kicked off a new Big 12 rivalry and illustrated, yet again, that no team is ever truly out of it, not until the final whistle.
There were several more unexpected outcomes, statistically at least
There were notable upsets across the sport during Week 5 — Ole Miss over LSU and Kentucky over Florida, especially — but some statistically were more surprising than others.
Per ESPN’s Bill Connelly, these were the most statistically surprising upsets of the weekend (these winners had the lowest postgame win expectancy in a win):
- Buffalo over Akron — 13.4%.
- Baylor over UCF — 13.6%.
- Memphis over Boise State — 24.5%.
- Bowling Green over Georgia Tech — 24.7%.
- Cal over Arizona State — 31.8%.
- Ole Miss over LSU — 34.2%.
- Appalachian State over Louisiana Monroe — 37.0%.
Upsets will always be the best part of college football — really, sports in general — and Week 5 provided more than a few, plus some near upsets, like what happened between Georgia and Auburn.
The most satisfying upset of the weekend — thanks to Auburn being unable to hold off the Bulldogs — may have been Ole Miss over LSU.
The Tigers were preseason darlings — as always, preseason polls are the worst — but already have two losses this season, one to Florida State and now one to the Rebels.
Former Roy and Corner Canyon High quarterback Jaxson Dart, meanwhile, played perhaps the best game of his college career for Ole Miss in the upset win, throwing for 389 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing for 50 more yards and a score.
Now the fun begins
With September now in the books, conference play begins in earnest across the country.
There is special meaning to that this season, given the alterations coming to college football next year: the death of the Pac-12, the establishment of the Power 2 (Big Ten and SEC), an expanded College Football Playoff, etc.
Conference races across the sport appear pretty thrilling at this moment. And hope remains for just about everyone.
- The Pac-12, as previously discussed, appears wide open. USC, Oregon, Washington and Washington State are all undefeated, while Utah and Oregon State are both 4-1 and Arizona, Cal, UCLA and Colorado all have the potential to pull off a major upset or two.
- The SEC appears as open as it has been in years. Both Georgia and Alabama look beatable, while Kentucky and Missouri are both unbeaten. LSU, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida all are flawed yet talented. That’s a recipe for some upset victories and crazy losses.
- The Big Ten looks like a three-team race between Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, although Maryland looks frisky, Rutgers is highly improved and you cannot ever really count out Wisconsin and Iowa.
- The ACC has four unbeatens remaining — Florida State, Miami, Louisville and North Carolina — plus other legitimately good teams in Clemson and Duke. Any of those teams could win the conference and, given conference history, most will incur an inexplicable loss too.
- The Big 12 looks to be a two-team race between Texas and Oklahoma, a fitting send-off for the Longhorns and Sooners. But ... anyone who has followed the Big 12 in recent years knows the conference has as much parity as any league, so watch out for West Virginia (!!) and Kansas State, plus a surprise upset or two.
- The Mountain West looks like a three-team race (with apologies to UNLV) between Air Force, Fresno State and Wyoming. But how can you count out Boise State? Or even the much improved Rebels?
- The Sun Belt looks like James Madison’s to win, but Texas State, Marshall, Georgia State and Georgia Southern all will have a say in that (Marshall, Georgia State and Georgia Southern all play the Dukes).
- The AAC might be the most up in the air conference of all, with no undefeated teams overall, but five teams without a loss in conference play. Tulane is the favorite, but watch out for Memphis, SMU and even USF.