College football Week 3 preview: Games to watch, Heisman Trophy watch

There is only so much to go off for any team after two or three games. There are only so many definitive conclusions about a college football season that can be made in mid-September.

Here’s one: Notre Dame is off to a dramatically different start in Marcus Freeman’s second full season as head coach than it endured in his first.

The ninth-ranked Fighting Irish (3-0) has pummeled Navy, Tennessee State and North Carolina State by a combined margin of 143-30. Its offense is flourishing with Sam Hartman at quarterback. Audric Estime leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing yards with 345 (he’s 14th on a per-game basis). And a defense that generally held up well last year when it wasn’t facing offenses led by eventual Heisman winners continues to thrive.

It is a dramatic shift from 2022, when Notre Dame opened with an inert offensive showing at Ohio State in a 21-10 loss, then lost at home to Marshall before squeaking past California, 24-17, in a game featuring little-to-no memorable moments on offense for either team.

So what changed? Hartman’s arrival certainly helps this year, and it provides some reason to think the Irish could be better prepared to deal with Ohio State (Sept. 23) and Southern California (Oct. 14) in a pair of high-profile home games. But the Irish had already started figuring things out last season.

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This was a team that blasted Syracuse to help trigger the Orange’s unraveling in the back half of the season then exposed Clemson for not being especially great its next time out. And while non-playoff bowl games reveal only so much, Notre Dame upended South Carolina in the Gator Bowl as the Gamecocks came off defeats of Tennessee and Clemson.

Since starting the Freeman era 0-3 (he oversaw a Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State in the wake of Brian Kelly leaving for LSU after the 2021 regular season), the Irish have won 12 of 14. While Notre Dame still has to build its playoff credibility and this week’s visit from Central Michigan won’t help do that, it is trending in the right direction before the team’s true bellwether games over the next month.

Be careful what you wish for …

The testiest off-field story of the season involves North Carolina wide receiver Tez Walker, who was denied immediate eligibility by the NCAA after transferring from Kent State. The decision was later upheld on appeal, Tar Heels Coach Mack Brown blasted the NCAA, and the NCAA fired back by suggesting North Carolina’s criticism had led to threats against the organization’s regulatory committee members.

The basics on Walker: He spent a semester at North Carolina Central in 2020 but never played for the Eagles after the Football Championship Subdivision season was shifted to the spring because of the pandemic. He transferred to Kent State, played there two years and had 921 yards and 11 touchdowns receiving last season. Golden Flashes coach Sean Lewis was named the offensive coordinator at Colorado on Dec. 6, and Walker entered the transfer portal a few days later.

The basics on the transfer rules: The NCAA voted in 2021 to allow immediate eligibility for first-time transfers in all sports. Given how waivers for immediate eligibility were handed out like candy in the pandemic era, schools and especially coaches grew cantankerous about what amounted to annual free agency for everyone. The NCAA, which at the end of the day is an organization that represents the schools, has tried to limit waivers for second-time transfers this summer.

So the NCAA does what its schools ask, only to be excoriated for doing so. It’s a heck of a no-win scenario.

In the defense of coaches such as Brown, having to re-recruit your roster every year is a bonkers way of doing business. There is a reason pro sports — after much prodding and unionizing and collective bargaining over the years — have multiyear contracts. A player trades the ability to go where he pleases every season for long-term security. A franchise makes an investment but knows who its cornerstones will be.

College is different, with a five-year window to squeeze in a career. But perhaps multiyear scholarship deals, which could only be broken if both sides agreed to it, would help here?

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As for Walker’s specific case, there is a mitigating factor that has snarled plenty of things in college sports since 2020: a once-in-a-century pandemic. The guy didn’t play at N.C. Central, and then he left Kent State after a coaching change. He should be on the field for the Tar Heels this season, and his own complaints are valid.

But Brown and by extension North Carolina — which had a closed session of its board of trustees this week to figure out how to respond to Walker’s eligibility denial — might want to proceed a bit more carefully. They got what they wanted; they’re just not happy it was applied to them.

Just four programs in the five autonomous conferences are still seeking their first victory of the season. The old Yogi Berra maxim “It gets late early out there” comes to mind, though these winless teams face varying degrees of urgency in the hopes of salvaging their seasons.

Setting up the season: After slipping from 12-2 to 6-7 last season (including a four-game skid to end the year), the Bears were picked sixth in the 14-team Big 12.

Past two weeks: The Bears were roasted by Texas State (whose new coach, G.J. Kinne, dramatically overhauled the Bobcats’ roster) to begin the year and then played Utah tough before the Utes did everything right (and Baylor did some things wrong) in the fourth quarter.

Is it basketball season yet in Waco? Assuming Baylor beats Long Island on Saturday, we won’t know for a while. The path to a mid-pack Big 12 finish will be much clearer with a four-game stretch starting Sept. 30 (at Central Florida, Texas Tech, at Cincinnati, Iowa State) that’s sandwiched around an open date. And if the Bears happen to stun Texas when it comes to town next Saturday, so much the better.

Setting up the season: After six consecutive losing seasons (all or parts of the past five under Scott Frost), Matt Rhule was hired fresh off his own disastrous coaching stint (with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers) to turn around a former national power.

Past two weeks: Nebraska opened with a loss at Minnesota on a last-second field goal, which did plenty to stir the echoes of Frost’s tenure. Then it didn’t have nearly enough answers to deal with Colorado on the road.

Is it basketball season yet in Lincoln? Nebraska still has the benefit of a Big Ten West schedule, so getting to six wins isn’t impossible. But it’ll be time to turn attention to Fred Hoiberg’s bunch — or just focus on the school’s wildly popular volleyball program — if the Cornhuskers lose to Northern Illinois or Louisiana Tech in the next two weeks.

Setting up the season: The Red Raiders went 8-5 in Joey McGuire’s college coaching debut last year, picking off Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi along the way. With nearly everyone back on offense, Texas Tech was picked fourth in the Big 12.

Past two weeks: Texas Tech wasted an early 17-point lead before losing in double overtime at Wyoming, then squandered a nine-point edge entering the fourth quarter in last week’s 38-30 loss to Oregon at home.

Is it basketball season yet in Lubbock? Let’s not get too carried away here, because the Red Raiders haven’t faced a multi-possession deficit and did play an imposing Oregon team tough. A visit from FCS school Tarleton State could provide a chance for quarterback Tyler Shough and Co. to get well.

Setting up the season: The offseason was all about healing and reestablishing emotional equilibrium after three players were shot and killed on campus after returning from a class trip in November. Not much was expected externally over the summer; Virginia was picked to finish last in the 14-team ACC.

Past two weeks: The Cavaliers lost, 49-13, to Tennessee in Nashville, not a surprising development for a Virginia bunch that went 3-7 last year. Then came the home opener, a 36-35 setback against second-year FBS program James Madison.

Is it basketball season yet in Charlottesville? The path to six victories and bowl eligibility was daunting to begin with, and losing to James Madison didn’t help that calculus. Virginia doesn’t have to deal with Clemson or Florida State this year, which is a plus, but it could easily find itself 0-4 with Maryland (on the road) and N.C. State (at home) looming in back-to-back Friday games. Cavaliers fans might be discussing the intricacies of the pack-line defense sooner rather than later.

Five with the most at stake

A look at teams with the chance to prove plenty in Week 3.

1. Michigan State. There are what people like to call distractions, and then there are distractions — ugly, sordid, nauseating stuff like what has landed Spartans Coach Mel Tucker on administrative leave. Michigan State still has a game to play, and it’s against quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and Washington. That would have been a tough task even if this hadn’t been the week accusations of sexual misconduct against Tucker became public. What frame of mind the Spartans are collectively in is anyone’s guess.

2. Tennessee. The Volunteers clobbered Virginia in their opener then toyed with Austin Peay in a forgettable 30-13 victory. Tennessee makes its only trip beyond the state line before Oct. 21 when it visits the Swamp to take on 1-1 Florida, which couldn’t muster much against Utah in its first game before routing McNeese State, 49-7.

3. TCU. The Horned Frogs (1-1), ambushed by Colorado in Week 1, drubbed FCS program Nicholls, 41-6, this past Saturday. A trip to Big 12 newbie Houston will provide a sense of whether last year’s national finalist can set a good trajectory, especially with a manageable schedule on the front end of league play.

4. Syracuse. It’s flown under the radar — in part because the Orange went 7-6 last season and in part because it played Colgate and Western Michigan to start the year — but Syracuse has clobbered its first two opponents. Dino Babers’s bunch heads to Purdue (1-1), which should provide a much better barometer on whether the Orange has the goods to make life tough for Clemson, North Carolina and Florida State in a three-week stretch (Sept. 30-Oct. 14) that will arrive before long.

5. Rutgers. Yes, the Scarlet Knights are just a little bit intriguing after beating Northwestern and Temple to open the season. Truth be told, their inclusion on this list is also an indication the entire slate lacks some juice. But former Big East foe Virginia Tech (1-1) is coming to town, and this is the sort of game Rutgers probably should win if it really is improved over last season’s 4-8 run (which it seems to be).

A weekly look at the race for college football’s favorite stiff-arming statue midway through the first month of the season.

1. QB Caleb Williams, Southern California (878 yards, 12 touchdowns, zero interceptions passing; 61 yards, one TD rushing). The Trojans didn’t need Williams at his very best to trounce Stanford, 56-10, and he has had more prolific days. But he was undeniably efficient, completing 19 of 21 passes for 281 yards and three scores while tacking on a rushing touchdown. (Last week: 1)

2. QB Quinn Ewers, Texas (609 yards, six TDs, zero INTs passing; 23 yards, one TD rushing). A good way to get on the board? Throwing for 349 yards and three touchdowns in a victory at Alabama. (LW: Not ranked)

3. QB Michael Penix Jr., Washington (859 yards, eight TDs, one INT passing). The sixth-year college player did get picked off in the Huskies’ 43-10 throttling of Tulsa last week, but no matter. He has topped 400 yards in back-to-back games to open the season and gets his first road test of the season back in familiar territory for a guy who began his career at Indiana: A visit to Big Ten East member Michigan State. (LW: 4)

4. QB Shedeur Sanders, Colorado (903 yards, six TDs, zero INTs passing). While Heisman voters might not be drawn in by raw numbers the way they were 30 to 35 years ago, the data doesn’t hurt. Which is why Sanders might be the most sustainable Heisman candidate on the Buffaloes’ roster, even if Travis Hunter’s two-way exploits are arguably more impressive. Time will tell. (LW: NR)

5. QB Sam Hartman, Notre Dame (731 yards, 10 TDs, zero INTs passing). The Wake Forest graduate transfer turned in his third consecutive ultra-efficient outing, throwing for 286 yards and four touchdowns in the Irish’s rout of N.C. State. Another slick game could be on the way with Central Michigan making the trip to South Bend. (LW: 6)

6. QB Cameron Ward, Washington State (663 yards, five TDs, zero INTs passing; 83 yards, one TD rushing). Why not another Pac-12 quarterback? Ward helped the Cougars pull off one of Saturday’s more intriguing results, a 31-22 defeat of visiting Wisconsin. (LW: NR)

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