Separation Saturday showed us who the contenders are in 2023

If you thought Colorado was going to be a serious contender in the Pac-12 before Saturday’s blowout loss to Oregon, George Strait has some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you.

The No. 19 Buffaloes entered the game as 20.5-point underdogs and failed to cover the spread in a 42-6 loss to No. 10 Oregon in a game that showed the gap between Colorado and the top teams in college football is still pretty large.

It’s obvious why Colorado has been the story of the college football season so far. Head coach Deion Sanders is one of the most magnetic personalities in sports and the way he overhauled the roster since getting to Boulder is unprecedented. Colorado was always going to be a better team in 2023. Sanders brought in significant talent. And, quite frankly, it was hard for Colorado to be much worse than it was in 2022.

But the Colorado spotlight through the first three weeks likely blinded many to the reality that the Buffaloes are not a great team. Sure, Travis Hunter’s presence would have helped on Saturday. The two-way star missed the game after he was injured against Colorado State in Week 3. But he isn’t worth 36 points on his own, no matter if he is one of the best players in college football.

Colorado entered 2023 with a preseason win total of 3.5 at BetMGM and is assuredly going to hit the over in the coming weeks. A bowl game is possible and can even be considered very likely. The Buffs are a heck of a lot better than they were a season ago.

But they aren’t one of the best teams in college football, and Saturday showed just how far they have to go.

EUGENE, OREGON - SEPTEMBER 23: Defensive back Bryan Addison #13 of the Oregon Ducks celebrates against the Colorado Buffaloes after their 42-6 victory at Autzen Stadium on September 23, 2023 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images)

Oregon players celebrate after beating Colorado 42-6. (Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images)

Conversely, No. 4 Florida State showed that it’s a serious national title contender with a 31-24 overtime win at Clemson. QB Jordan Travis threw for 289 yards and two scores, including the game-winning TD to Keon Coleman.

Much like Colorado, Florida State was an active transfer portal participant in the offseason. Coleman arrived from Michigan State and has become the team’s top receiver while former South Carolina TE Jaheim Bell had five touches against the Tigers.

But Florida State started with a much better roster base than Colorado did. And the roster was already pretty good before the transfer portal mattered. The Seminoles haven’t lost a game since they lost at home to the Tigers on Oct. 15, 2022. With home games against Virginia Tech and Syracuse up next, the Seminoles’ win streak could and should extend beyond a calendar year.

Clemson, meanwhile, has some work to do for a 14th consecutive 10-win season and needs some serious help to make the ACC title game. While the conference’s parity and decision to ditch divisions in 2023 could work in Clemson’s favor to get a rematch with Florida State in December, the Tigers will probably need to run the table to make that happen.

No. 13 Alabama showed that it still should be considered a force in the SEC West with a 24-10 win over No. 15 Ole Miss. The loss was Lane Kiffin’s fifth against Nick Saban and didn’t feel as close as the final score indicated despite the Rebels’ 7-6 halftime lead.

Alabama QB Jalen Milroe was 17-of-21 passing for 225 yards and bounced back nicely from a rough interception in the first half. As No. 12 LSU struggled at home against Arkansas in a 34-31 win, it’s easy to see how Alabama can be considered the favorite to win the West with the Tigers visiting Tuscaloosa in November.

The Big Ten looks to be Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and everyone else once again. The Wolverines easily dispatched Rutgers on Saturday while Ohio State got a TD with one second left to score a 17-14 win at Notre Dame. The Buckeyes’ win over the Irish was a slugfest and even led Ohio State coach Ryan Day to call out former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz over Holtz’s criticism of Ohio State’s toughness. The Buckeyes got pushed around in their loss to Michigan in 2022 and Saturday night’s clutch win could be pivotal for Ohio State’s swagger.

We can’t forget about the Nittany Lions either. They deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as the Buckeyes and Wolverines. Penn State shut out Iowa at home in an easy 31-0 win. The Hawkeyes could be the favorites in the Big Ten West — it’s a shame the Big Ten is in the final year of its division format in 2023. The three best teams in the conference all reside in the East and the three games between the two of them will likely serve as much more of a Big Ten championship series than the title game will.

Out west, future Big 12 member Utah showed why it will be in the mix for a third consecutive Pac-12 title with a 14-7 win over future Big Ten member UCLA. The No. 22 Bruins were just 3-of-17 on third downs and 1-of-4 on fourth downs as No. 11 Utah’s defense confounded freshman QB Dante Moore. UCLA has real potential with Moore under center. But the Bruins don’t look ready to compete for a conference title until they move to the Big Ten.

The Utah offense wasn’t great itself on Saturday either; the Utes had just 219 total yards. But there’s reason for optimism as QB Cameron Rising inches closer and closer to a return to the field from the torn ACL he suffered in the Rose Bowl. Utah’s offense should improve significantly when Rising returns. He could even be back as soon as Friday night for a key road trip against Oregon State.


Florida State: Florida State went into Death Valley and got a win. The Seminoles were outplayed by Clemson for much of the game, but they made the plays when it mattered in a 31-24 overtime win. Jalen DeLoach made the play of the game when he stripped Cade Klubnik, picked up the loose ball and ran it for a game-tying touchdown. And then Jordan Travis and Keon Coleman hooked up for a beautiful score in overtime that proved to be the game-winner. The Seminoles are 4-0 with two marquee victories and all of their goals ahead of them. Could a special season be in store?

Ohio State: It took until the final second, but Ohio State found a way to escape South Bend with a win. Trailing Notre Dame 14-10, Chip Trayanum plunged in from a yard out with one second left on the clock to give the Buckeyes a dramatic 17-14 win. It wasn’t always pretty, but first-year Ohio State starting QB Kyle McCord made several big plays down the stretch to put OSU in position to win the game. His most important throw of the night was a 21-yard completion to Emeka Egbuka on third-and-19 in the final minute to set up the winning touchdown. This is a win that could propel the Buckeyes to a huge season.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day celebrates after the team's win over Notre Dame on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

Ohio State coach Ryan Day celebrates after the team’s win over Notre Dame on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

Utah: Utah is 4-0 and starting quarterback Cam Rising hasn’t played a snap. Rising is still nursing a knee injury from last year’s Rose Bowl, but the Utes have managed to get through the first four weeks without a loss. Utah beat UCLA 14-7 on Saturday in a phenomenal effort from the defense. UCLA had only 49 yards at halftime and freshman quarterback Dante Moore threw a pick-six on his very first attempt. Moore completed just 15 of his 35 attempts and also had a costly fumble in the red zone. The Utes will look to make it 5-0 on Friday night with a trip to Oregon State.

Washington State: Washington State’s offense couldn’t be stopped. The Cougars put up 528 yards in a 38-35 win over Oregon State that wasn’t as close as the final score may indicate. WSU had a 35-14 lead entering the fourth quarter before the Beavers mounted a furious comeback that ultimately came up short. In the win, Cam Ward was 28-of-34 for 404 yards and four touchdowns. He also had a rushing score. His favorite targets were Josh Kelly, who had eight catches for 159 yards and three TDs, and Kyle Williams, who went for 174 yards and a score on seven catches. Now 4-0, the Cougars look like legitimate contenders in the Pac-12 this year.

TCU: TCU has quietly bounced back from its season-opening loss to Colorado. The Horned Frogs posted blowout wins over Nicholls and Houston before dispatching a good SMU team on Saturday. In the 34-17 win, Chandler Morris threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns while Emani Bailey rushed for 126 yards and a score of his own. Defensively, TCU made things difficult for SMU QB Preston Stone, who completed only 16 of his 35 attempts and tossed two interceptions. At 3-1, TCU will get back to Big 12 play next weekend when West Virginia comes to Fort Worth.

Duke: The biggest game of Week 5 may be taking place in Durham next weekend. Duke went on the road and blasted UConn 41-7 to improve to 4-0 on the year. In the win, Riley Leonard threw for 248 yards and a touchdown and also ran for 30 yards and a score. The Blue Devils will host Notre Dame next weekend in a marquee matchup. Duke has the chance to start 5-0 for the first time since 1994, but it’ll take an upset of Notre Dame next weekend with “College GameDay” in town for the first time ever.

Duke quarterback Riley Leonard (13) reacts to fans after their victory over UConn on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

Duke quarterback Riley Leonard (13) reacts to fans after their victory over UConn on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

Syracuse: Last year, Syracuse started the season 6-0 before finishing the year 7-6. This year, the Orange are off to a 4-0 start thanks to a 29-16 win over Army. It was a gutty win as Army jumped out to a 10-3 halftime lead. To open the second half, Syracuse scored 26 consecutive points to turn the halftime deficit into a 29-10 lead. It was an impressive performance from the Syracuse defense. Army opened the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive and scored an 80-yard touchdown in the final minutes. In the interim, the Black Knights could muster only 115 yards. Syracuse hosts Clemson next week in its toughest test of the season so far.

Kansas: For the first time in 108 years, Kansas has opened consecutive seasons with a 4-0 record. The Jayhawks spoiled BYU’s Big 12 debut by beating the Cougars 38-27 in Lawrence. Kansas completely shut down the BYU running game as the Cougars finished the game with only nine yards on the ground. On the other side, KU rushed for 221 yards while Jalon Daniels threw three touchdown passes. Kansas goes to Texas next weekend. Can the Jayhawks put an upset scare into the Longhorns?

Texas A&M QB Max Johnson: It’s never easy to come off the bench as a backup quarterback, but Max Johnson was excellent in relief duty in Texas A&M’s win over Auburn. Conner Weigman exited in the second quarter with a leg injury, opening the door for Johnson to get on the field. Once a starter at LSU, Johnson has plenty of experience. It showed. He went 7-of-11 for 123 yards and two touchdowns, including one TD thrown to his brother Jake Johnson. It was the first touchdown of Jake’s career, and it will certainly be a memorable one since it came from his brother.


Texas Tech: In the preseason, Texas Tech was being billed a potential contender in the Big 12. Through four weeks, that does not seem realistic whatsoever. The Red Raiders lost 20-13 on the road to West Virginia on Saturday to drop to 1-3 on the year. Texas Tech also has losses to Wyoming and Oregon on the year, but this may have been the ugliest one. TTU lost QB Tyler Shough to an injury, and backup Behren Morton struggled mightily. He went 13-of-37 for 158 yards. WVU was also playing with a backup QB and only had 256 yards of offense, but it was enough to beat Texas Tech.

Virginia Tech: It’s going to be another long year in Blacksburg. The Hokies fell to 1-3 on Saturday thanks to a 24-17 loss to Marshall. Virginia Tech fell behind 24-10 by the midway point of the third quarter and tried to mount a comeback, but the Hokies turned it over on downs in Marshall territory in the final minute as they were trying to tie the game. Virginia Tech went 3-8 last year, its first season under Brent Pry, and now has losses to Purdue, Rutgers and Marshall before ACC play has even begun.

Auburn: The Auburn offense has major issues. The Tigers opened SEC play at Texas A&M on Saturday and fell, 27-10. Auburn’s only touchdown was scored by its defense. In the loss, Auburn had only 200 yards of offense as the passing game struggled mightily. Payton Thorne, Robby Ashford and Holden Geriner went a combined 9-of-23 through the air for 56 yards. That’s it. Things won’t get easier next week as the Tigers host No. 1 Georgia. Good luck.

Texas A&M linebacker Edgerrin Cooper (45) gets in the face of Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne (1) after his is stopped short on a run Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

Texas A&M linebacker Edgerrin Cooper (45) gets in the face of Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne (1) after his is stopped short on a run Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

Oklahoma State: On the heels of a 33-7 home loss to South Alabama, Oklahoma State went on the road and lost 34-27 to Iowa State. Iowa State had scored a total of 20 points in its two other games vs. FBS competition, but ISU was able to drop 34 on the Cowboys. Oklahoma State somehow allowed ISU’s Rocco Becht to throw for 348 yards and three touchdowns. OSU’s Alan Bowman, meanwhile, was only 23-of-48 and tossed two ugly interceptions. The Cowboys have a bye next week. It’s come at a good time, because Mike Gundy’s team looks like one of the Big 12’s worst.

Michigan State: Michigan State has barely been competitive in two home games vs. Power Five competition. Last week, MSU got blasted 41-7 by Washington. This week, the Spartans lost 31-9 to Maryland. MSU actually outgained the Terrapins in terms of yardage, but the Spartans committed five costly turnovers, including tossing three interceptions and losing two fumbles. It was an ugly way to open Big Ten play for the Spartans, who could have a tough few months ahead as they endure a season with an interim head coach.

Minnesota: Minnesota had a 31-10 lead over Northwestern entering the fourth quarter on Saturday night, but the Gophers allowed the lowly Wildcats to storm all the way back and win 37-34 in overtime. Yikes. Northwestern scored three touchdowns in the game’s final 12 minutes, including the tying score with just two seconds left in regulation. Minnesota could only muster a field goal to open overtime and then allowed Northwestern to win it on a 25-yard Ben Bryant TD pass to Charlie Mangieri. That can’t happen.

Virginia: Virginia played NC State tough on Friday night but lost in heartbreaking fashion via a leaping penalty called on the Wolfpack’s game-winning field goal try. Virginia tied the game at 21-21 with 36 seconds to play but two penalties ultimately doomed the Cavaliers. After tying the game with a wild two-point conversion play, Virginia QB Anthony Colandrea was hit with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taking off his helmet. That backed up UVA on the ensuing kickoff and NC State only needed to move a few yards for a game-winning field goal try. It ended up being a 48-yarder, and it was blocked. However, a 15-yard leaping penalty was called and NC State’s Brayden Narveson got to try again from 33 yards. This kick was good and the Wolfpack walked it off with a win.

South Alabama: South Alabama went on the road and upset Oklahoma State last week. This week, it was upset at home by Central Michigan. Oops. CMU barely beat New Hampshire a few weeks ago, yet the Chippewas were able to go into Mobile and get the win. South Alabama actually overcame a 27-17 deficit and took a 30-27 lead with 2:42 to play. But the Jaguars gave the lead right back as CMU scored the game-winner with 13 seconds to play. Perhaps USA was looking ahead to next week’s Sun Belt opener and got caught in a flat spot.

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