Three national championship hopefuls — Ohio State, Stanford, and Oklahoma State — were in action early in Week 1 of the college football season. We watched their games and parsed their cryptic meaning, so you don’t have to.
Seriously, we watched Rice play football in Australia for you. This job is not easy.
No. 2 Ohio State def. Indiana (49-21)
Ohio State entered the season at +600 to win the national title, making them the second favorite behind Alabama (+240) and just ahead of USC (+650). This is not new for the Buckeyes, who have entered every season for the last few years widely considered at least as contenders. But recently, they’ve struggled. The offense hasn’t been quite as explosive as it was when Ezekiel Elliot and Cardale Jones teamed up to win the national title. The defense wasn’t quite as stingy. In their first game of the season, however, spoiled Buckeye fans who now see three years as a drought can find some hope that this is the year.
This was, somewhat surprisingly, a very interesting game. The outmatched Indiana gave Ohio State a run for their money in the first half, with quarterback Richard Lagow and receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. working together to dismantle the Buckeye defense. Cobbs Jr had 98 yards and a touchdown when he went into the locker room at halftime, and it didn’t look like Ohio State had any answers for a 6’4, 220-pound WR catching back shoulder fades. Some things are inevitable.
In the second half, however, the Buckeyes did figure something out, to the dismay of upset-minded fans in Bloomington. They switched from man-free to quarters coverage to double-team Cobbs Jr, and when he was no longer a reliable threat, the Hoosiers ground to a halt. Running against the Ohio State defensive front wasn’t a viable option and won’t be for most FBS teams. They held Indiana to 2.4 yards per carry, and Indiana stopped making any kind of progress.
On the offensive side of the ball, JT Barrett struggled a little (shocking, I know) but once the team started leveraging its speedy receivers in short, mesh concept plays, things started rolling. One day they Buckeyes will meet a team that can lock up the middle of the field, and it will be interesting to see how they respond.
Pithy takeaway: It wasn’t the stiffest of competition, but it wasn’t a lay-up either, especially with the game in Indiana, and Ohio State looked the part of a top-five title contender.
No. 10 Oklahoma State def. Tulsa (59-24)
In order of importance:
3. Oklahoma State might have a defense! Tulsa put up 432 yards, but the bulk of that was in garbage time and the Golden Hurricane struggled to get across the 50 when it mattered.
OK State is currently +3300 to win the national title, and while I did make a series of tattoo bets with my boss relating to their playoff prospects, that’s maybe not a realistic expectation.
They’re +300 to win the Big 12 title, which would be a better SMART goal for the Cowboys. To do that, they’ll need a defense that’s good enough to contain Oklahoma, or (failing that) an offense that’s trigger-happy enough to keep up with the Sooners in a good old fashioned shootout. They certainly have the latter, but the former could make +300 a very attractive bet.
Pithy takeaway: Don’t expect the OK State defense to play this well every week. But it’s encouraging that they did so at home, with the Cowboys getting the Sooners in Stillwater this year (Nov. 4).
No. 14 Stanford def. Rice (62-7)
Stanford’s body clocks appear to be resilient even to the rigors of the Australian Eastern Time Zone. The Cardinal defeated Rice, 62-7, and covered one of the crazier spreads (-30) you’ll see this year.
Stanford is listed at +600 to win the PAC-12, behind Washington (+180) and USC (+110). I think they’ve got what it takes to make that numbers look like a steal; there’s not that much between them and Washington, and I certainly don’t think they’re that far behind USC. While you can’t draw too much from a 62-7 blowout of a team that elicits groans from an Australian crowd, 62 points to a sympathy touchdown is certainly what a PAC-12 contender would do, given the circumstances.
I tend to think that a standard PAC-12 schedule is the kind of meat grinder that only teams with a combination of requisite talent and ample luck can survive with title hopes (either conference or national) intact. The half-dozen or so Stanford and Oregon teams that were each talented enough to contend for the national title, but denied that opportunity by an unfortunate upset loss to the other, can attest to that. While I would certainly say that Stanford is a lesser team to Washington and USC, we can say the same thing for at least three Oregon and Stanford teams that ruined their rival’s hopes for postseason glory. Thus betting a +110 favorite seems unwise, in the same way you wouldn’t accept too long of odds on a playoff hockey team, no matter how good they were. This is, after all, a violent sport played with an oblong ball by amateur students, and PAC-12 football has historically proven to be a particularly unpredictable subgenre of that.
Pithy takeaway: The difference between Stanford’s +600, Washington’s +180, and USC’s +110 is much greater than the difference between the teams, themselves. That was true before the Rice game. It’s only more evident now.