College football isn’t and will never be the NFL — and thank the Gridiron Gods for that.
Amateurs — even if they’re the best fraction-of-a-percent of amateurs — still are not professionals. College football is played, primarily, by 18-to-23-year-olds who are more prone to mistakes than their professional counterparts.
It’s for this reason a Saturday that appears mediocre on paper delivers some of the most dramatic and entertaining football, even if not necessarily the most well-played.
Here are Four Downs on a Week 3 that exceeded all expectations, while living up to the one expectation we as college football fans all have: Don’t have expectations.
First Down: That 2007 Feeling
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of what most media and fans of the game would agree is the most chaotic, wildly entertaining season of college football’s modern era.
The standard 2017 would have to meet in order to even approach matching 2007 for its unpredictably is remarkably high; we’re talking about a campaign in which Boston College and Kansas both ascended to No. 2, and the Eagles and Jayhawks are already disqualified from similar heights in 2017.
However, what if Wake Forest takes their place? What if Purdue wins the Big Ten West? What if Mississippi State is the most realistic challenger to Alabama in the SEC? What if San Diego State builds an compelling argument for Group of Five inclusion in the College Football Playoff?
In addition to the strange upheaval at the top tier of the sport, 2007 also marked a historic moment for the Heisman Trophy when Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the award. In the fittingly ridiculous nightcap of Week 3, Rashaad Penny made the most of his opportunity against Stanford, rushing for 175 yards and a touchdown and catching for 31 yards.
Penny is college football’s leader in all-purpose by a wide margin at 258 yards per game, leading Penn State’s Saquon Barkley by 40 yards per. The San Diego State do-everything back is 18 yards off the historic pace Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey set two seasons ago.
He’s certainly deserving Heisman buzz, and what better Heisman candidate for a year of potential chaos and unpredictability?
Second Down: Winds of Change in the SEC
Many of the early surprises emerge this season come from college football’s self-proclaimed best conference. I write “self-proclaimed,” because in 2017, the SEC isn’t the power it was earlier this decade.
SEC football built into the sport’s dominant force in the mid-2000s when coaches like Urban Meyer, Les Miles and Nick Saban were hired at Florida, LSU and Alabama to join proven winners like Mark Richt and Phil Fulmer.
You know the story from there: Meyer won a pair of national championships at Florida before a brief hiatus and reemergence at Ohio State. Fulmer’s Hall of Fame career ended when an expectation-filled 2008 season went badly off the rails, and Tennessee has not fully recovered since.
Despite their sustained successes, frustration with the standard Nick Saban set at Alabama — and maintains a decade later — led to the ousters of Richt at Georgia and Miles at LSU.
The tumult of futility in chasing Alabama damaged the SEC’s dominance, perhaps nowhere more evident in Week 3 than Ole Miss — the only SEC program to beat Alabama the past three years — losing at Cal. A #Pac12AfterDark defeat to the team picked to finish last in the Conference of Champions is the least of Ole Miss’ concerns, of course, with NCAA sanctions looming large.
Amid the turbulence, the SEC’s Have-Nots have benefited, evident in Saturday’s results.
Vanderbilt beat Kansas State in a defensive battle with historic implications for the Commodores.
Vanderbilt wins its first nonconference game over a nationally ranked team since 1946, the year after World War II ended.
— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) September 17, 2017
Mississippi State beat LSU for just the second time in the 21st century — and did so by 30 points, with first-year Tigers offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda seeing both their units completely outplayed.
Kentucky improved to 3-0 with an SEC East-opening win over South Carolina. The Wildcats host Florida next week with an opportunity to head into October well-positioned for divisional title contention. It’s the most positive outlook Kentucky football has had since — you guessed it — 2007.
That Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Kentucky are positioned for breakthroughs in 2017 is a direct result of the tumult at the top. It’s unlikely programs like LSU, Tennessee or Florida would have afforded Derek Mason, Dan Mullen and Mark Stoops the patience to steadily build winners and take lumps along the way.
Third Down: 5-Stars vs. Walk-Ons
The strong early starts for unlikely SEC teams fits within the greater framework of what constitutes a great college football Saturday. This is a sport built on the excitement of upsets; not necessarily “upset” in the Las Vegas context, but by other metrics.
Week 3’s early slate set the tone when Memphis out-dueled UCLA in a shootout, 48-45. This was a showdown Tigers standout wide receiver Anthony Miller gave a nickname that, frankly, is much cooler than the old “Catholics vs. Convicts.”
Walk-Ons vs the 5-stars 😈
— Anthony Miller (@AnthonyMiller_3) September 11, 2017
Miller came to Memphis ranked the No. 42 recruit…from Memphis. He was No. 1,749 nationally according to 247Sports.com and an honest-to-goodness 0-star recruit. His ascent from walk-on to one of the best play-makers in college football is a remarkable story, overshadowed only by his own quarterback.
Riley Ferguson’s turn mending fences (literally) between leaving the University of Tennessee and heading to a JUCO is ready-made for a sports biopic.
His six-touchdown performance against No. 25 UCLA may not be the climax — it’s a long season, after all — but it’s a worthy chapter in the story.
2 plays, 91 yards, 26 seconds.
We'd say that's pretty efficient. pic.twitter.com/UNfFdQjCEx
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) September 16, 2017
Fourth Down: #FearTheFCS
The single-season record for FCS wins over their FBS counterparts is 10. The Championship Subdivision hasn’t many more opportunities to match the mark, though with eight through three weeks, it is within reach.
This season may not feature an upset the magnitude of Appalachian State’s 2007 win at Michigan, but some of the FCS defeats of the FBS in 2017 are noteworthy for their significance.
Saturday’s additions included Idaho State snapping a 27-game losing streak against FBS opponents, and North Carolina A&T held off a second-half rally to beat Charlotte.
North Carolina A&T owns wins over the FBS each of the last two seasons, this one scored without superstar Tarik Cohen, who is fast establishing himself as a fan favorite for the Chicago Bears. This season, the Aggies are one of three HBCU with FBS victories, joining Tennessee State and Howard, which unseat Stanford for the biggest upset (Las Vegas definition) in college football history.
That upset? 2007.
The Final Snap
Tennessee Vols: Consider studying Stephen F. Austin for tips on how to defend an end-of-game last-ditch pass.
Are you kidding me?
— FCS Football (@NCAA_FCS) September 17, 2017