With the Red River Rivalry and No. 1 Alabama hosting Texas A&M both taking place this weekend, naturally College GameDay is heading to Lawrence, Kansas, on Saturday.
In what would have seemed like a misprint just a few weeks ago, the No. 19 Jayhawks welcome in not only GameDay but the freshly ranked TCU Horned Frogs. The game features two of the most exciting stories of the season to date, and while many eyes will be on Oklahoma-Texas in Dallas, the matchup gives the Big 12 a second marquee game in early October.
Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Alabama’s Nick Saban will finally meet after a long offseason of trading words — both nice and not-so-nice — but only Alabama comes into the game ranked. Tennessee travels to LSU in its latest SEC test, while out west UCLA faces Pac-12 defending champion Utah in a litmus test of its own.
This week’s slate is loaded with important games as conference play kicks into high gear. Here are the key storylines for the weekend ahead.
No. 17 TCU Horned Frogs at No. 19 Kansas Jayhawks (Saturday, noon ET, FS1)
TCU was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason media poll; Kansas was picked to finish 10th. So it makes perfect sense that both teams are undefeated headed into their matchup Saturday — with College GameDay headed to Lawrence, Kansas, for the first time.
It is stories like this that remind us all why we love college football so much.
“There’s probably a moment you’ve got to pinch yourself a little bit,” Kansas coach Lance Leipold said at his weekly news conference. “It says something about TCU as well — to get this type of matchup is probably surprising to a lot of people around the country, but it should be a great game.”
This is the first top-20 matchup in Lawrence since Oct. 25, 2008, when No. 19 Kansas hosted No. 8 Texas Tech. Kansas is 5-0 for the first time since 2009; meanwhile, Sonny Dykes is the first coach to win his first four games at TCU since Francis Schmidt in 1929.
Kansas receiver Luke Grimm described the atmosphere throughout the week in Lawrence as one that has “a lot of hype behind it.” He has about 30 friends and family members making the drive to the game from Raymore, Missouri.
“A lot of people are getting on board the KU football train,” he told ESPN.com in a phone interview. “It feels really good to be the change that is happening right now and putting a footprint in KU football history. We all believed we could do it, and the fact that we are right now is really fun to see.”
This game pits two of the best offenses in the country. TCU, off its 55-24 upset over Oklahoma last week, averages 549.5 yards per game, No. 2 in the nation, behind quarterback Max Duggan. On the other side, quarterback Jalon Daniels has the Jayhawks averaging 41.6 points per game — No. 12 in the nation. The quarterback matchup is one of the most intriguing in the game.
But so is the fact both these schools are undefeated right now, when not many gave them a chance to be in this spot.
“It’s nice to have a packed stadium, and a lot of noise whenever you make a play or one of your brothers makes a play, and you see them light up with joy when you hear those screams and yells for you,” Grimm said. “It’s nice to show we’re building a great football team here.” — Andrea Adelson
No. 8 Tennessee Volunteers at No. 25 LSU Tigers (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN/ESPN app)
As disappointing as Brian Kelly’s LSU debut was in a dysfunctional season-opening 24-23 loss to Florida State in the Superdome, the Tigers have rebounded nicely.
And while nobody is predicting that LSU is going to challenge for the SEC West crown in Kelly’s first season, the Tigers have a chance to go to 3-0 in the SEC on Saturday if they can knock off the favored Vols. That’s the kind of start in league play that anybody on the Bayou would have taken after seeing the Tigers commit a slew of mistakes in the opener, then storm back from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter, only to have the extra point blocked with no time remaining.
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel echoed this week what most of the league is probably thinking, that LSU is “getting better and better,” which means the Vols could be getting the best version of the Kelly-led Tigers yet.
Kelly has seen his team learning to play together and finding ways to win despite some of its self-inflicted issues and limitations. LSU is still not overly dynamic offensively, which is a huge concern against a Tennessee team tied for second nationally in scoring offense (48.5 points per game). The Vols’ fast-paced tempo and explosiveness tend to wear teams down. They already have 16 plays from scrimmage of 30 yards or longer in just four games.
“It comes down to one-on-one matchups. We have to be fundamentally sound,” Kelly said.
The Tigers could use a big game out of star outside linebacker BJ Ojulari, who will be the most disruptive edge defender the Vols have faced this season. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior has 4.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks, and five quarterback pressures in just three games. Freshman Harold Perkins Jr. is equally disruptive from his outside linebacker spot.
Putting pressure on Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker is difficult because he’s always a threat to take off and run and also gets rid of the ball quickly. Since taking over as the Vols’ starting quarterback in Week 3 last season, Hooker has accounted for 45 touchdowns, completed 69% of his passes and thrown just two interceptions.
The Vols were off last week, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Receiver Cedric Tillman underwent ankle surgery the week before the Florida game and is iffy for this game. Also, Hooker banged up his shoulder in the Florida win.
This will be Tennessee’s first SEC road game of the season, and even though it’s not “Saturday night at Tiger Stadium,” LSU has been hard to beat in the 11 a.m. Central time games. Since 2000, the Tigers are 8-0 in games starting prior to noon.
The last time Tennessee was favored in its first five games was 2016, when the Vols started out 5-0 but lost their next three games and fell to Vanderbilt at the end of the season to squander an opportunity to play in the Sugar Bowl.
As big as the Florida win was two weeks ago (the Vols had lost 16 of the past 17 meetings in the series), Heupel has repeated a familiar theme.
“You’re only as good as your next one in this game,” he said. — Chris Low
Texas Longhorns vs. Oklahoma Sooners at the Cotton Bowl, Dallas (Saturday, noon ET, ABC/ESPN app)
Texas and Oklahoma are heading into this year’s feud at the Cotton Bowl unranked for the first time since 1998. Yet when two teams have played for 117 years, that doesn’t seem to matter. There are no guarantees in the Red River Rivalry.
Sure, Oklahoma is 3-2 and has given up a total of 96 points in consecutive defensive meltdowns against Kansas State and TCU. Sure, Texas is 3-2 and lost to Texas Tech in its most recent trip away from Austin. But when the buses roll through the State Fair of Texas with fans screaming at them, all that falls by the wayside.
The Sooners are 10-3 against the Longhorns since 2010, but the Longhorns are a touchdown favorite according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Neither team is hinting who will start at quarterback. Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel is in concussion protocol after taking a blow to the head on a late hit on a slide against TCU. Texas starter Quinn Ewers is still recovering from a clavicle sprain suffered against Alabama, though Hudson Card had his best outing as a Longhorn against West Virginia last weekend, going 21-of-27 for 303 yards and three touchdowns.
Oklahoma is allowing 198.2 rushing yards per game, which is a concern facing Texas running back Bijan Robinson, who has gone over the 100-yard mark in each of the past three games, is averaging 5.9 yards per carry and has scored at least one touchdown in each of the Longhorns’ first five games this year.
Last year, Texas coach Steve Sarkisian got a rude welcome to the rivalry as the Sooners, down 28-7 after the first quarter, rallied to score 48 over the next three, including 25 in the fourth alone, to win 55-48. He said this week he was ready for another go-round.
“Last time I checked this morning when I walked in our building, the Golden Hat wasn’t there,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve got plenty to get ourselves prepared for.”
Oklahoma coach Brent Venables, meanwhile, is hoping his Sooners will keep it steady and treat this game like any other.
“Hopefully we’re not more excited to play this one than somebody else,” he said.
Here’s guessing the fans — and probably the players — feel a little differently. — Dave Wilson
No. 11 Utah Utes at No. 18 UCLA Bruins (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox)
As fifth-year quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will gladly inform you — since he said he reads and keeps up with what people are saying about his team — not many people expected the Bruins to be here: 5-0 for the first time since 2013 after taking down Washington and headed into what’s now a crucial matchup with the defending Pac-12 champion at home.
“Guys I think have tasted what success feels like now and now we’re hungry for it, we’re trying to be addicted to winning,” Thompson-Robinson said at practice this week. “So I think that’s where we’re going right now. We know what it takes.”
What it has taken, at least in the case of the dual-threat quarterback who ignited the Rose Bowl with 368 total yards and four touchdowns (three in the air, one on the ground) last Friday, is five long years for him and coach Chip Kelly to turn continuity into a strength, especially with the unit that is protecting him.
“They’ve meshed really well, there’s a lot of continuity there,” Kelly said of the offensive line, which added transfer Raiqwon O’Neal from Rutgers in the offseason. “Everybody played for us last year with the exception of Raiqwon, and you’re plugging in a kid who had 30 starts in the Big Ten so his transition has been really natural.”
The addition of transfers like wide receiver Jake Bobo from Duke (363 receiving yards and three touchdowns so far) have helped elevate UCLA on both sides of the ball, but the process that Kelly and DTR have been going through since they both arrived in Westwood five years ago is finally starting to pay true dividends.
“You can see him getting better and better. He’s playing his best football right now from my vantage point,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said of DTR on Monday. “Chip [Kelly] has done a great job of developing him and, not that he wasn’t really good before, but he’s really taken his game to another level. He seems to be very poised, makes plays, takes care of the ball, and he’s a dual threat, which is the biggest issue for us.”
This week, the Bruins and DTR are not sneaking up on anybody, including the Utes, who present their toughest matchup yet. And now that UCLA has a ranking next to its name, Kelly, for his part, has been keen on not allowing the team to take that as a moral victory.
“You don’t get a trophy, you don’t get something handed to you, you gotta go back to work,” Kelly said. “We know we beat Washington last week because of our preparation during the week. We know if we’re going to beat Utah, it’s going to be because of our preparation during the week. Things don’t just happen to you; hope isn’t a strategy.” — Paolo Uggetti
Texas A&M Aggies at No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, CBS)
Believe it or not, the defining matchup of No. 1 Alabama vs. Texas A&M will not be the head coaches. Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher had their war of words during the offseason, but they’ve since walked it back.
Fisher went from calling Saban a “narcissist” in May to telling reporters Monday that Saban is a “tremendous coach” that “people say he’s arguably one of the best ever or the best ever.” Saban, for his part, has repeatedly said he has “no issues or problems with Jimbo.”
So that’s settled, at least publicly, and we can move on to what will actually determine the outcome of the game: the quarterbacks.
Both starters — Alabama’s Bryce Young and Texas A&M’s Max Johnson — are considered day-to-day as they deal with injuries.
Young, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, sprained the AC joint in his shoulder during last Saturday’s win at Arkansas. And while there’s no expectation the injury will have any long-term impact, there’s some question about how quickly he’ll get back to 100 percent.
On Wednesday, Saban alluded to how careful they’re being, saying, “No decision is going to be made until [Young] decides and we decide from a medical staff standpoint whether he can go out there and functionally do his job.”
The fact that backup Jalen Milroe played so well, throwing for 65 yards and a touchdown and running for 91 yards and a score, gives Alabama some breathing room if it wants to be cautious with Young.
Texas A&M, which fell out of the top 25 after losing at Mississippi State, might not be so lucky, though. If Johnson, who injured his hand, can’t play, the Aggies would have to turn to either Haynes King or Conner Weigman.
King, who threw a pair of interceptions against Mississippi State, has been a turnover machine this season. Weigman, on the other hand, is a complete unknown. The former No. 1-ranked pocket passer is only a freshman and has yet to attempt a pass in college. — Alex Scarborough