From national statements to overtime thrillers to late-night offensive fireworks, Week 2 of the college football season had it all. A day with just two matchups of Top 25 teams still had a lot to teach us about the season ahead.
Below, our writers weigh in on several of Saturday’s top stories.
The Pac-12 is stacked
You don’t know what you got ’til it’s (almost) gone. In what will be its final season, for all intents and purposes, the Zombie Pac-12 looks like the class of college football thus far. The conference entered Week 2 with seven ranked members and started the year 18-0 before Arizona lost a 31-24 heartbreaker on the road to Mississippi State in overtime. Still, it was another stellar Saturday out west.
Washington State provided the biggest surprise, upsetting No. 19 Wisconsin 31-22 in Pullman, led by quarterback Cameron Ward and a defense that forced three fumbles. No. 22 Colorado, the darlings of Week 1, took care of business against Nebraska, as Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter showed out again on a big stage. No. 12 Utah and No. 13 Oregon both rallied late to pull out tough road victories against Big 12 foes, with the Utes edging Baylor thanks to a pair of touchdowns in the final two minutes and the Ducks overcoming a two-score fourth-quarter deficit in Lubbock.
Arizona State and Cal saw their late-night upset bids fall short against Oklahoma State and Auburn, respectively, but both look competitive enough to trip up at least one conference contender later on this fall. Many of those contenders avoided serious scares on Saturday: No. 8 Washington, No. 16 Oregon State, No. 6 USC and UCLA all cruised to victory. The Pac-12 as we know it might not be long for this world, but it’s certainly making the most of the time it has left. — Justin Williams
Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss pass Tulane’s tough test
If you’re just box-score scrolling, this one looks about right: Ole Miss 37, Tulane 20. The 20th-ranked Rebels scored the first touchdown just 48 seconds into the game and the 24th-ranked Green Wave were without starting quarterback Michael Pratt, who has accounted for nearly 8,500 yards and totaled 95 touchdowns in his career.
But make no mistake, Ole Miss had to fight for this one. After that opening score, Tulane and its incredibly competent backup QB Kai Horton rattled off 17 straight points to lead at halftime. The Green Wave gave a rowdy Yulman Stadium crowd reason to hope when it entered the fourth quarter tied and still trailed just 20-17 with under five minutes to play. They had the Rebels in a tough spot, facing fourth-and-4 with a rusher coming free for Rebels quarterback Jaxson Dart.
But Dart made the play of the game, side-stepping the rush, rolling right and finding a man down the sideline for a hop-skipping 21-yard touchdown. Lane Kiffin’s aggressive approach paid off all day for Ole Miss. The Rebels went for it on fourth down three times and converted all three. They got stuffed on another fourth down, leading by a touchdown with under two minutes to go, but were bailed out by their own false start penalty. Kiffin doubled down on the aggression.
Instead of punting and making Tulane go the length of the field in about 100 seconds for a game-tying touchdown, Kiffin sent out his kicker, Caden Davis, for a 56-yard field goal, on which a miss or a block could have set the Green Wave up with great field position. It might’ve been good from 70. Game over. Jared Ivey’s 26-yard scoop and score with 1:25 to go made that final score look a lot more comfortable than it really was. Tulane, which went 12-2 and beat USC in the Cotton Bowl last season, acquitted itself quite well playing without a star quarterback. If Pratt comes back, Tulane can beat anybody.
On the other side, Ole Miss fans should allow themselves to dream, because Dart looked like he’s taken another big step forward. He was 17 of 26 for 267 yards and two passing touchdowns and ran 10 times for 58 yards, excluding sacks. Most notably, he made the biggest play in the most critical moment of the game. Having a quarterback like that allows Kiffin to be his best, dice-rolling self. And we’re here for it. — Kyle Tucker
Texas’ strengths look like strengths vs. Alabama
Texas badly needed this 34-24 win over Alabama for proof of concept, and the Longhorns had to get the most out of Steve Sarkisian’s pass attack to get the job done — not just from quarterback Quinn Ewers, but from all the talented pass catchers on the roster, too.
Alabama’s offense is going through some change, and its offensive line is very young. But the Crimson Tide still have plenty of firepower defensively, notably on the back end. Texas’ receivers had some hiccups, to be sure. But Adonai Mitchell also beat Kool-Aid McKinstry down the sideline on a beautiful go-route, then beat him again for a touchdown on a slant later in the game. Xavier Worthy got loose for a 44-yard touchdown and was routinely available for Ewers. Perhaps most important was tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders’ involvement. Sanders, who is possibly TE2 in the 2024 NFL Draft behind only Georgia’s Brock Bowers, put up five catches for a career-high 114 yards.
Ewers needed to perform on this stage, and he did it. His footwork consistency still needs work, and he’s always thrown a pretty deep ball, but Ewers’ decision making was so much better in this game than it was in big spots a year ago, and he stayed even-keeled to came up with huge answers for both of Alabama’s late touchdowns. To me, he has looked like a first-round pick for a while. Tonight was more evidence of that. — Nick Baumgardner
James Madison makes another FBS statement
James Madison’s 1982 win at Virginia was one of the biggest moments in program history. On Saturday, playing at Scott Stadium for the first time in 40 years, the Dukes did it again, rallying from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit to beat UVA 36-35. But this time, it wasn’t a surprise. The Dukes, now in their second season as an FBS program, were a six-point favorite, a testament to the state of each program.
JMU led by two scores for much of the first half, but Virginia opened the second half with three third-quarter touchdowns. Trailing by 11 in the fourth, JMU scored a touchdown with 8:34 left and missed the two-point conversion. The Dukes followed up with a second consecutive eight-play, 80-yard drive, getting in the end zone with a minute to play.
JMU is now 10-3 as an FBS team since moving up from the FCS level last year, with a Sun Belt East Division crown. But because of the NCAA’s two-year FCS transition rules, the Dukes again aren’t eligible for the postseason this year. Their only chance at a bowl game is if there aren’t enough 6-6 eligible teams. But beating an in-state ACC opponent is its own big statement. — Chris Vannini
No. 200 in true Kirk Ferentz fashion
Iowa did some serious Ferentzing against its in-state rival. With only 235 yards of total offense, the Hawkeyes leaned on their opportunistic defense, didn’t commit a single penalty all day and won despite having only nine first downs in a 20-13 win at Iowa State, Kirk Ferentz’s 200th victory as the Hawkeyes’ head coach.
The Iowa offense under Michigan transfer quarterback Cade McNamara still has warts it must sort out. The Hawkeyes have a total of four offensive touchdowns through two games, which might cut it against Western Michigan next week but absolutely won’t against Penn State on the road two weeks from now.
The Iowa-Iowa State rivalry is always primed to treat fans of both teams and casual viewers to punishing hits, dropped wide-open passes and a general lack of rhythm. The disdain on both sides is thick in the Hawkeye State, and for the sixth consecutive visit to Ames, Iowa emerged victorious. — Christopher Kamrani
Colorado rolls even without Heisman moments
Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders is still a super-early Heisman Trophy favorite, and his final stat line against Nebraska did look great: 31 of 42 for 393 yards and three total touchdowns, two through the air and one on the ground. But things didn’t come nearly as easy for Sanders in the Buffaloes’ 36-14 win over Nebraska as they did a week ago against TCU. Nebraska sacked Sanders seven times on Saturday, and the Huskers’ secondary did a good job in coverage for most of the first three quarters. Travis Hunter, the Buffs’ two-way Swiss Army knife, was less prolific on the offensive side of the ball on Saturday, with just three catches for 73 yards and zero touchdowns, leaving the heroics to Xavier Weaver (10 catches, 170 yards and a touchdown) and Tar’Varish Dawson (48 all-purpose yards and two total touchdowns). So, there are ways to slow and — at times — stop the most prominent pieces of the Colorado offense’s explosiveness. Stopping it entirely is still uncharted territory.
Other defenses on the Buffs’ schedule will likely try to replicate the aggressiveness they saw from Nebraska. Had the Huskers not busted coverage a couple of times, the damage Sanders did on Saturday would have been significantly less; he made the most of each mistake and hit his playmakers for big gains. The Nebraska defense did all it could to keep the visitors in the game for as long as they were, and it contained Colorado as much as possible after the outcome was no longer in doubt. Sanders and company can probably learn a lot from the way they were defended on Saturday. — Nicole Auerbach
Utah buying time before Rising’s return
The two-time defending Pac-12 champion came into the season lacking hype relative to the rest of the conference. But Utah is now 2-0 with two Power 5 wins against Florida and Baylor without the services of starting quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe.
It wasn’t pretty on Saturday, but the Utes overcame a 10-point second-half deficit and outscored Baylor 14-0 in the fourth quarter in Waco for a 20-13 win.
Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson split time at quarterback for Utah, but it was Johnson who got the call on Utah’s final two drives of the game, both resulting in touchdowns. Johnson finished 6-for-7 passing for 82 yards, with 32 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground. Barnes, who got the start against Florida, finished 6 of 19 for 71 yards and an interception. Running backs Ja’Quinden Jackson and Jaylon Glover carried the offense with 169 rushing yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, including 129 yards from Jackson.
Baylor had its own quarterback injury to deal with, starting backup Sawyer Robertson in place of the injured Blake Shapen; Robertson finished 12 of 28 through the air for 218 yards, with a rushing touchdown and two interceptions. Baylor got one last shot to tie the game on the final play, but Robertson’s 22-yard pass attempt fell incomplete amid a lot of contact in the end zone. The Bears dropped to 0-2 with the loss. They play LIU next week before hosting Texas.
Utah has Weber State next week before opening Pac-12 play against UCLA. That latter game appears to be the target return date for Rising, who did practice this week and traveled to Waco but was never going to play as he continues to recover from the ACL injury he suffered during the Rose Bowl loss to Penn State. Given the injuries and the schedule, Utah has to feel great about this 2-0 start. This is a program that always gets better as the season goes on, and Rising retuning for Pac-12 play would be a huge boost toward that effort. — Vannini
Stuck in stormy weather
Saturday got off to a slow start across the Southeast, as a band of thunderstorms caused delays in several of the early kickoffs, from NC State–Notre Dame to Virginia Tech–Purdue to Virginia-James Madison to Georgia Tech-South Carolina State to Vanderbilt-Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons and Commodores kicked off at 11 a.m. local but got only five plays from scrimmage in before being sent to their locker rooms due to lightning strikes within eight miles of the stadium in Winston-Salem. (Wake Forest won, 36-20, after a roughly two-hour delay.)
The most visible effects of the storms were seen in Raleigh, where NC State’s video board briefly lost power during the lengthy delay.
NC State’s brand new scoreboard got struck by lightning and shorted out pic.twitter.com/9xZ7WN9r42
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) September 9, 2023
Purdue secured its first win under new coach Ryan Walters despite delays of nearly six hours on the road at Virginia Tech.
— Purdue Football (@BoilerFootball) September 10, 2023
(Photo: James Snook / USA Today)