Forward Pass: What'll happen when injuries put the elite to the test?

There has been no shortage of reminders these first two weeks why college football is so darn fun. From an unanticipated SEC (Auburn) vs. FCS (Jacksonville State) thriller to another BYU miracle (against Boise State), this past Saturday was heavy on dramatic finishes. The day's two biggest games, Michigan State-Oregon and Oklahoma-Tennessee, were both nail-biters.

But the sport's unfortunate dark side has also cast a pall in the form of an ever-growing list of season-ending injuries. No game encapsulated that dichotomy quite like Notre Dame-Virginia. The Irish won on a remarkable 39-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback DeShone Kizer to Will Fuller, but the day's enduring image was that of starter Malik Zaire being carted off the field with a soon-to-be-diagnosed fractured ankle.

On Saturday, Zaire was a Heisman candidate. On Sunday, he was a surgical patient.

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"It's bittersweet," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said afterward. "Our kids are celebrating a win. They're happy, but they lost a kid they feel really strongly about. I'm so close to him. I feel bad for him."

By Sunday, he'd turned the page. Because that's what you do in football. No. 14 Georgia Tech visits the eighth-ranked Irish this week, and Kelly's got to get redshirt freshman Kizer ready to go.

"Teams have to overcome injuries," he said. "It is unfortunate, but it is what it is, and we will find a way to put it together so we can win games with DeShone Kizer as our starting quarterback."

TCU's Gary Patterson has no time for excuses, either. He's coaching a team that many predicted to reach the College Football Playoff despite a relatively inexperienced defense. And that was before two new starters, linebacker Sammy Douglas and safety Kenny Iloka, went down in consecutive games. Another, linebacker Mike Freeze, took a leave of absence following the opener for unspecified personal reasons. Two other projected starters, defensive linemen James McFarland and Davion Pierson, have yet to play.

"I saw watching ESPN [Saturday] morning, that our linebackers and our safeties suck," Patterson said after the Horned Frogs' 70-7 win over Stephen F. Austin. "We'll see if they suck."

As insensitive as it sounds, few players in the country are truly irreplaceable. BYU's Taysom Hill probably seemed like one of them a little more than a week ago, yet his replacement, Tanner Mangum, has now thrown game-winning touchdowns to beat Nebraska and Boise State. Kizer did the same in place of Zaire.

But college teams are also restricted in the number of scholarships they can award. There are no midseason waiver wires or practice squads. Any team has a quantity of injuries that, once reached, becomes impossible to overcome. Those unfortunate injury rashes usually play an undeniable factor in any championship race.

Notre Dame, for one, knows this all too well. Its 2012 team that reached the BCS championship game enjoyed a remarkably healthy season. Its 2014 team that began 6-0 and had designs on the playoff lost its defensive leader, Joe Schmidt, halfway through the year, and found itself down to one healthy scholarship safety by its regular-season finale.

A year later, the injury gods are again toying with what was shaping up to be a potentially special season. First starting defensive tackle Jarron Jones, then starting running back Tarean Folston went down for the season. Now Zaire. The Irish go into Saturday's clash with the formidable Yellow Jackets heavily dependent on a redshirt freshman quarterback who, prior to that improbable game-winning throw, had completed seven passes for 53 yards.

"We're not going to make any excuses for it, and we believe that we've got players that we've recruited that can go in and get the job done," Kelly said Sunday. "Now it's DeShone's time, and I've got confidence in him and I know our players do."

Meanwhile, Patterson all but conceded Saturday this will not be one of his vintage defensive teams. Fortunately for him he's still got that Boykin kid on the other side of the ball.

"Some years," he said, "You try to be yardage-wise the best defense in the nation. Some years you just try to win by one point and hold the other team to one less, and that's probably with the numbers we have, going to be our job this year."

Notre Dame and TCU have done nothing so far to debunk their preseason expectations, but their biggest challenges lie ahead. We'll find out if "the numbers" can handle it.


Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has won 170 football games, including a BCS championship game, seven Big 12 title games, a Rose Bowl and a Sugar Bowl. So some jaws may have dropped Saturday night when he called his team's 31-24 double-overtime win at Tennessee "maybe my favorite of all of them."

And yet it makes perfect sense.

Stoops has come under the most criticism of his career over the past 10 months. It wasn't just that the Sooners suffered a disappointing 8-5 campaign. That OU could no longer hang with longtime punching bag Baylor and did not even compete with Clemson in last December's Russell Athletic Bowl made many wonder whether the 17th-year coach had reached the point of no return. They saw some of the same signs of desperation that rival Texas fans endured in Mack Brown's last years.

For three quarters Saturday in Knoxville, it sure looked like they were right. Tennessee's young but heavily hyped team was physically dominating the Sooners. Lincoln Riley, the heralded young coordinator Stoops bought in to fix his offense, could only squeeze three points out of Baker Mayfield, the heralded Texas Tech transfer that unseated incumbent Trevor Knight.

But a funny thing happened before those in the press box could finish filing their obits. After falling behind 17-0, coordinator Mike Stoops' oft-maligned defense stopped allowing the Vols to run the ball. Mayfield came to life in the fourth quarter. His athletic ability coupled with some imaginative play-calling from Riley allowed OU to convert 8-of-9 third downs after starting 1-of-11 and score a game-tying touchdown with 40 seconds left and two TDs in overtime. Zack Sanchez's interception in the second OT sealed the deal.

"… When you come into the season and there hasn't been a lot glowing about us, you know, as of last year, for them to hang in there, in that environment, in that situation, and to come through like they do is pretty special," said Stoops.

By no means was the result a big upset. Many were quick to downplay it given Tennessee's continued penchant for blowing close games. And of course OU is not that far removed from a Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama that marked the last round of Stoops Has Still Got It headlines.

But it's worth noting just how rare it's been recently for the Sooners to win with a dominant defensive performance. After running for 44 yards in the first quarter, Vols star Jalen Hurd managed just 62 yards on 15 carries the rest of the way. "The defense, by far and away was as good as we played in I can't remember when," said the elder Stoops. That, if anything, was the most promising sign for a team that must deal with Baylor's and TCU's potent offenses later this season.


When will this writer ever learn? Last year, this column infamously declared the SEC West "the most dominant division" in the history of divisional play only to watch said division go 2-5 in bowl games. Last week, I wrote "the SEC West is really freaking good and may send two teams to the playoff," only to watch Arkansas lose to Toledo and Auburn very nearly lose to Jacksonville State. LSU and Mississippi State did not exactly put on a football masterpiece, either.

Of course, there is a grey area between "dominant" and "fraudulent," and two West teams sitting squarely in that window right now will square off Saturday in Tuscaloosa. No. 2 Alabama thus far looks very much like Alabama. Of course the same could be said last season right up until the Tide fell 23-17 at Ole Miss. The Rebels at that point became national darlings up until they finished the year by losing to TCU 42-3 in the Peach Bowl.

So far in 2015, No. 15 Ole Miss has had no such trouble scoring. In fact, the Rebels' 73-21 win over Fresno State actually lowered their season average to 74.5, having beaten UT-Martin 76-3 in the opener. This week, though, brings a steep jump in competition, not to mention a visit to a stadium where Ole Miss has not won since 1988.

"Are we ready for SEC play? I don't know. It is hard to tell," Freeze said after the Fresno State win. "…I can't answer if we are ready or not, but we are really excited about finding out next weekend."

Ole Miss is such a chronic underachiever that even another upset this year won't likely win over its skeptics. But the fact is, Freeze has recruited at a very high level the past three years and has a team that's plenty talented enough to contend nationally. Receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche are just two of several high-round 2016 NFL draft prospects (though one, tackle Laremy Tunsil, is currently shelved due to an NCAA issue.)

The question hovering over this team all along has been the quarterback position, which Clemson transfer Chad Kelly has done everything in his power to answer. He's the nation's top-rated passer, completing 72.5 percent of his throws for six touchdowns and one pick.

Now he just has to do it against Reggie Ragland, Jonathan Allen and the rest of the Tide's star-studded defense.

I've learned my lesson. I'll spare you the hyperbole. But I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest the winner Saturday will legitimize itself as a national championship contender.


Each week, I'll update my predicted lineup for the New Year's Six bowls based on the latest week's games.

Peach: Georgia Tech (ACC champ) vs. Temple (Group of 5)

Fiesta: Notre Dame (at-large) vs. UCLA (at-large)

Sugar: Alabama (SEC) vs. Baylor (Big 12)

Rose: Wisconsin (Big Ten) vs. Oregon (Pac-12 champ)

Orange (semifinal): No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 4 Michigan State

Cotton (semifinal): No. 2 Texas A&M vs. No. 3 TCU

As I wrote Saturday night, Michigan State's win over Oregon has the potential to become the Big Ten's ticket to a second playoff berth. Mind you, last month I predicted Michigan State to go 11-1 and get edged out of the playoff by a second SEC team, 10-2 Auburn.

But after watching Arkansas lose to Toledo and Auburn barely fend off Jacksonville State, I'm no longer certain a two-loss SEC West team would have a notably superior resume to that of the Spartans. I'm also certain Auburn won't be one of the contenders if it doesn't get its offense fixed.

In the ACC, I jumped on the Georgia Tech bandwagon and off of Virginia Tech's, in part because the Jackets look terrifying thus far and in part because of Hokies QB Michael Brewer's collarbone injury.

I'll be further discussing the suddenly wide-open Group of 5 race, but for now … why not the mighty Temple Owls? Linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who notched 3 sacks against Penn State, followed it up with 13 tackles, and two interceptions (including a game-saver) in a big conference win over Cincinnati.


Bowling Green QB Matt Johnson. Back after suffering a season-ending injury in the Falcons' 2014 opener, Johnson has lit up Power 5 foes Tennessee and Maryland for a combined 915 yards, eight touchdowns and one pick.

Memphis QB Paxton Lynch. With the necessary disclaimer that Kansas is awful, Lynch's stat line -- 22-of-25 for 354 yards and two TDs -- still raises an eyebrow. He's completed 81.1 percent of his passes so far, third-best nationally.

Kentucky. The much-improved Wildcats notched their first SEC road win in six years at South Carolina. This week, they look to end a 28-game losing streak to Florida. I like their chances given the Gators' "embarrassing" win over ECU.

West Virginia. Looking for a surprise team to emerge from the Big 12? The Mountaineers have held opening foes Georgia Southern and Liberty to a combined 17 points, while QB Skyler Howard is the nation's No. 3-rated passer.

Georgia's quarterbacks. The Dawgs have a loaded backfield (not just with Nick Chubb but Sony Michel and Keith Marshall, too), but they're going to need to pass the ball at some point. Greyson Lambert started 0-of-7 against Vanderbilt and threw for just 116 yards. How soon can stud commit Jacob Eason enroll?

#MACtion 2.0?

The now-widely recognized hashtag #MACtion originated a few years back primarily because of the Midwestern conference's penchant for offensive pyrotechnics -- like the 692-yard explosion Bowling Green unleashed in its 48-27 rout at Big Ten foe Maryland on Saturday. The meme may need a little reinvention, however, after Toledo went to Little Rock, Arkansas, and out-toughed Bret Bielema's Razorbacks in a completely unforeseen 16-12 upset.

That a lesser regarded Ohio school humbled Bielema just days after he called out Ohio State's purportedly weak schedule made for quite a dose of schadenfreude. For Toledo's 35-year old coach Matt Campbell, however, holding a ranked SEC opponent to three points on five red zone trips marked more importantly a national coming-out party for a program that's rolled off five straight bowl-eligible seasons and is now looking to climb another level or two.

"I really believe Arkansas is an elite team in the country, and our kids saw an opportunity to say -- where are we right now?" Campbell, whose teams lost to SEC foes Florida and Missouri the past two years, told FOX Sports on Sunday. "This is a great measuring stick. As much as it was conference affiliation, it was knowing this is a really good football team."

With reigning Fiesta Bowl champ Boise State's 35-24 loss at BYU on Saturday, the floor is suddenly open to other Group of 5 candidates with designs on that coveted New Year's Six bowl berth. And there's quite the line already forming.

In addition to Toledo's and BG's big wins, Houston, led by first-year coach Tom Herman, knocked off ACC foe Louisville; Temple, following up its Week 1 defensive clinic against Penn State, toppled preseason American favorite Cincinnati; Memphis put up 55 points on hapless Kansas; and Brandon Doughty-led Western Kentucky, which beat Vanderbilt in its opener, topped Louisiana Tech 41-38 in a possible Conference USA title game preview.

(Independent BYU, which entered the Top 25 on Saturday, is not eligible for the automatic Group of 5 berth.)

"When we landed back in Toledo, we said that's not our crowning moment," said Campbell, the Rockets' head coach since 2012 and staff member since '09. "We've still got a lot left to prove. … How do we continue to find ways to put ourselves into the national spotlight and find a way to do what the Boise States, TCUs and Northern Illinois' have done?"

Reaching the Fiesta or Peach Bowl is ultimately that vehicle, but taking the polarizing SEC West down a peg certainly doesn't hurt.


Three games we're most excited for:

Ole Miss at Alabama (Saturday, 9:15 p.m. ET). The Alabama quarterback storyline has quieted, but we'll see how long the leash is for Jake Coker if he happens to struggle early against the Rebels' stout defensive front.

Georgia Tech at Notre Dame (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET). Those annual Navy games have Irish fans conditioned to perennially fear the triple-option. An athletic defensive front must try to bottle up Tech star Justin Thomas.

Auburn at LSU (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET). It's a prove-it game for both LSU quarterback Brandon Harris and Auburn counterpart Jeremy Johnson, both of whom could be make-or-break figures in the SEC West race.

Three games you shouldn't miss:

BYU at UCLA (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1). It's a suddenly juicy clash of standout freshman quarterbacks -- BYU's Tanner Mangum and UCLA's Josh Rosen -- though the former is four years older than the latter.

Nebraska at Miami (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET). Every game Miami plays feels like a must-win for embattled coach Al Golden. Nebraska's Mike Riley is still enjoying his honeymoon but that could fade fast if the Huskers start 1-2.

Stanford at USC (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET). Stanford's offense showed signs of life in a 31-7 win over UCF, most notably speedy freshman Bryce Love, but its defense faces a stern test against Cody Kessler and the Trojans.

One under-the-radar gem:

Memphis at Bowling Green (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET). The aforementioned Lynch and Johnson square off in a game between title contenders in two Group of 5 conferences. This result could become a committee tiebreaker come December.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to