The key storylines for Week 2’s best games, including Kentucky-Florida and Alabama-Texas
Sep 8, 2022
After a wild Week 1 that featured five consecutive days of games, ranging from Appalachian State scoring 40 points in the fourth quarter alone and still losing to North Carolina to Iowa scoring seven points (on two safeties and a field goal) in four quarters and winning, what does the second full weekend of games hold for college football?
An SEC matchup featuring two ranked teams, the first regular-season meeting between Alabama and Texas in a century, a familiar Pac-12 contest and those same high-scoring Mountaineers taking on a much stingier defense in Texas A&M.
Here’s a full rundown of the key matchups and most compelling storylines for the top games in Week 2.
No. 20 Kentucky at No. 12 Florida (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App)
Even mentioning Kentucky’s name in context with the Top 25 rankings or the SEC football race was at one time pure fantasy. Come on, at a school of basketball? Mark Stoops, the Wildcats’ football coach, won’t let that happen, especially since Florida beat them in the Swamp. This game has not been a big deal in the past, but it will this week. After all, Florida won 31 consecutive games in the series before the Wildcats finally broke through in 2018.
But on Saturday, it will be the first SEC matchup of the 2022 season pitting two nationally ranked teams against each other. Most people predicted that Kentucky would be the top-ranked team among the two teams going into this season. That’s before Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson went into full Cam Newton-mode last week in the Gators’ 29-26 upset of then-No. 7 Utah.
” “It’s difficult to single out any one of these things,” Stoops stated about Richardson’s slowdown. He has a very talented arm. Everyone will be raving about how talented he is as an athlete, but he can also throw the ball. This game’s quarterback matchup should be an exciting one. Kentucky’s Will Levis is a projected first-round NFL draft pick, and with the Wildcats again expected to be without star running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., Levis might have to carry an even heavier burden if Kentucky is going to beat Florida for the third time in the past five years. The Gators gave up 230 rushing yards to the Utes, and Levis is plenty capable of doing his own damage on the ground. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Levis passed for 24 touchdowns and ran for nine more last season. “When you have a franchise quarterback, it changes all.” Stoops stated.
Stoops is the one who has changed the football landscape in Kentucky to the point where he can surpass Bear Bryant as the state’s all-time win leader. It’s something that would be a lasting impression no matter who the opponent is, but it’s even more impressive when it happens on the road against Florida.
“People underestimate how hard it is to build a program in the SEC from the bottom,” said Stoops, who is 60-53 at Kentucky and has guided the Wildcats to four straight bowl victories. “There has been a lot invested here by many different people. “
And look at the return.
Kentucky has won 10 games twice in the past four years. Prior to that, the Wildcats hadn’t won 10 games in a season since 1977. Kentucky’s continued success is due to Stoops’ ability develop players, keep the staff in line with the program’s culture, and to create a steely toughness throughout the team.
“That’s the main thing, because there’s nobody interested in going backward in this league,” said Stoops, the second-longest-tenured coach in the SEC, behind Alabama’s Nick Saban.
Over the past five seasons (going back to the start of 2017), only four SEC teams have won more games than Kentucky: Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M. With 42 wins, the Aggies have only one more victory than the Wildcats during that stretch.
Stoops, who took over at Kentucky in 2013, has seen 22 head coaches pack up and leave the SEC since his hiring, and only two of those left to take another job. Stoops has had his own opportunities to leave and would have been a real possibility at LSU last year had Brian Kelly not decided to leave Notre Dame.
” I feel very connected here, and very connected with this fan base. Stoops stated that there is mutual respect because it was built from the ground up. “You don’t get it everywhere. It doesn’t matter what level or school you attend, it’s difficult. You want to be rooted. Look at Bob [older brother Bob Stoops] and how rooted he was at Oklahoma. You can’t escape the pain of winning, except for a honeymoon period. But that’s it. — Chris Low
No. 1 Alabama at Texas (Saturday, noon ET, Fox)
Texas and Alabama, two of college football’s biggest brand names, will meet Saturday for just the 10th time in history, and the game has almost always meant something huge is on the line.
Take the 1965 Orange Bowl, the first played at night and the first live national network telecast of a college football game in prime time. Texas handed a 21-17 loss to Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide, who had been crowned national champs before the game was even played. But this time, things are different. Alabama is No. Alabama is No. 1 and Texas is Unranked. It’s also the first time since 1922 the two have played in the regular season. The stakes are not high, other than bragging rights for future SEC rivals. The two programs have gone in different directions since their last meeting at the conclusion of the 2009 campaign, when Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was injured in the first quarter en route to a 37-21 loss as Nick Saban claimed his first national championship at Alabama. Since then, Texas has been in disarray with three head coaches.
The Longhorns were 20-point underdogs as of Wednesday at Caesars Sportsbook, and they are likely to close with their longest odds to win at home since the 1978 FBS/FCS split, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Coach Steve Sarkisian already has said his focus is on making it to the Big 12 title game on Dec. 3 and indicated this game won’t define his progress of rebuilding the Texas program.
Sarkisian knows what he’s up against, arriving in Austin last year after serving as Saban’s offensive coordinator for two seasons. Sarkisian stated that while it will be difficult to match wits with his former boss, he is more concerned about how Texas plays its game.
“We need to be careful not to overanalyse and overthink it,” Sarkisian stated Monday. Sometimes you need to think like a pitcher and throw your best pitch. We must throw our best pitches to see if it’s enough. “
With a redshirt freshman at quarterback in Quinn Ewers and in an effort to slow the Tide’s pass-rushers — fueled by Will Anderson Jr., who led the nation in pressures the past two seasons — those pitches will likely involve plenty of Bijan Robinson. The Longhorns’ stellar running back ran for 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games last season before being sidelined by injury. After running for 6.1 yards per run and scoring seven touchdowns between the tackles last year, the Longhorns’ star running back ran for 1, 80 yards in the Tide’s
The Longhorns are anxious to see how their defense has improved after allowing 31.1 points per game last year, 99th nationally. And Alabama likely is too, with Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young coming off a 55-0 win over Utah State in which he threw five touchdown passes and ran for 100 yards and another score.
Saban is 25-2 at Alabama against his former assistants, with 23 of the wins coming by at least 14 points. Both losses were in the regular season to Texas A&M, Jimbo Fisher, and in the national championship against Georgia and Kirby Smart. Sarkisian said Monday that this game will be similar to one from 2009, when Sarkisian’s upstart Washington squad upset then-No. 3 Southern California, coached by his former mentor Pete Carroll. But Saban said that familiarity works both way.
” We’ve been playing with several teams that seem to know us,” Saban stated Monday. “But you act as if we don’t really know them. It doesn’t matter if someone knows you well enough to beat you. You don’t have to know them in order to beat them. It all comes down to how you execute. — Dave Wilson
No. 24 Tennessee at No. 17 Pitt (Saturday, 3: 30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App)
When Tennessee heads up to Pittsburgh, it will mark the first time in school history the Panthers will host a team from the SEC.
But these teams have familiarity with each other, after Pitt went on the road last year to beat the Vols 41-34 — a game that set the early tone en route to an ACC championship season. Despite having proven that Pitt can beat Tennessee, the Vols are favorites to win the game.
When asked how the Panthers could be underdogs in this game, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said in a phone interview with ESPN.com on Wednesday, “They’ve got players, and I guess everybody’s saying we don’t have Kenny Pickett, so Kenny Pickett must have been the difference last year in the win. “
Narduzzi then pointed to the turnover margin: Pitt had three takeaways to zero for Tennessee. Pitt also won the turnover margin in a 38-31 win over West Virginia the previous week, but the defense did not play as well as Narduzzi wanted. West Virginia gained 190 yards rushing — the highest total Pitt has given up since the final regular-season game in 2019 — and its bigger receivers often had success against the smaller Pitt defensive backs.
That is one of the biggest keys to watch in this game, as Tennessee wideouts Bru McCoy (6-3) and Cedric Tillman (6-3) both have size advantages. Narduzzi also pointed out Jalin Hyatt and his speed, in particular. Narduzzi answered a question about the matchup and said that he felt good. There will always be challenges. We must play great defense, that’s a fact. It won’t be easy. “
Then there is Volunteers quarterback Hendon Hooker, who came into their matchup a year ago in relief of Joe Milton III and nearly rallied Tennessee for the win. Hooker’s entry into the game saw Tennessee average 6.2 yards per play compared to Milton’s 4.2. It’s not just their game last season that gives them familiarity. Narduzzi’s Panthers played against Tennessee coach Josh Heupel when Heupel coached UCF, and Pitt faced Hooker when Hooker was the starting quarterback at Virginia Tech in from 2019 to 2020. — Andrea Adelson
Appalachian State at No. 6 Texas A&M (Saturday, 3: 30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App)
App State heads to College Station to face Texas A&M coming off of arguably Week 1’s most exciting game, a 63-61 loss to North Carolina in which the Mountaineers scored 40 points in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Chase Brice led App State with 361 yards passing for six touchdowns with one pick.
Texas A&M, on the other hand, shut out Sam Houston State 31-0 in its opener. It’s not a risky bet to say that App State won’t be putting up 40 points in a quarter this week, but who knows after the opening week we just saw in college football? Jimbo Fisher, Aggies coach, praised Brice during his Monday news conference. He said, “He knows football, and he did great last year.” He can throw the ball downfield, create plays with his legs, and he has a… savviness. Use body language to throw the ball here and flip it there. He can play the game. “
Fisher said that his defense must remain disciplined in order to be successful on Saturday.
Offensively, Fisher was asked about putting more emphasis on running the football this week in practice and said, “That’s what we do. We’re going run the football. Texas A&M will face an App State defense that allowed 6 yards per rush against Tar Heels. This will be a matchup worth watching on Saturday afternoon. The Aggies had just 110 yards and 3.4 yards per carry against Sam Houston State.
When asked Monday by for his opinion on Texas A&M’s offense Shawn Clark smiled and said that it was “good”. “
Defensively, Clark said, “They recruit at the highest level in college sports. … They are great playmakers. They are a great offense and defense. They can put you in difficult situations on both offense as well as defense. Although we have a lot of work ahead of us, the guys are eager to get down to College Station. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Calen Bullock, Shane Lee and Ralen Goforth find pay dirt on each interception to extend the Trojans’ lead.
USC at Stanford (Saturday, 7: 30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App)
If beating Rice 66-14 thanks to four interceptions was the appetizer to open USC’s season, then traveling to Stanford feels like the Trojans sitting down at the dinner table for the start of their main course. Although the Cardinal aren’t expected to be a force in this year’s season, they are a good indicator of what kind of campaign USC can create. Over the past 10 years, USC is 3-5 against Stanford in the month of September, including 1-3 in Palo Alto. Like many things that have changed since his arrival, Trojans coach Lincoln Riley hopes to reverse this trend. Both he and Alex Grinch know that four interceptions in a single game, including three returned for touchdowns is not something they can always count on. The win last weekend was a positive sign for a defense that has many new faces and is still in the forefront of the game. Stanford will be a better test. Riley stated that the Trojans’ defense must be consistent in this area, despite some turnovers. “On top of it, you’re facing a really high-level quarterback [Tanner McKee], so coverage has got to be sharp. It’s going take a little of everyone. “
“It’s going to take a little bit of everybody” might be the theme of this USC season, even on offense, where Caleb Williams already looks as comfortable as can be behind an line that’s still rotating between two left tackles in Courtland Ford and Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins.
“Just seeing how well he knows [the offense] and how well he can translate it to the field, it gives confidence to the offense,” Trojans running back Travis Dye said of Williams, who not only had just three incompletions but was USC’s leading rusher with 68 yards on the ground, displaying the kind of offensive balance that might be necessary once again this Saturday. He can do it all. He can pass, he paints your back porch, and he can also walk your dog. “
The matchup against Cardinal will give Riley & Co. a better view of several positional battles, given that the three pick-sixes from last weekend had an impact on the number of reps some players were expected to get. Saturday’s game will also give college football a better idea of how good USC really is. Already, the Trojans have leapt from No. 14 to No. 10 in the AP poll to become the highest-ranked team in the Pac-12, and expectations aren’t getting lowered any time soon. — Paolo Uggetti
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.