First & 20: Louisville soaring as other contenders wilt

Anthony Gimino

September 18, 2016 at 8:11 pm.

Sep 17, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA;  Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) avoids the tackle of Florida State Seminoles linebacker Dontavious Jackson (5) during the second quarter at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Photo Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 17, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) avoids the tackle of Florida State Seminoles linebacker Dontavious Jackson (5) during the second quarter at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Photo Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Iowa, USC and, probably you too Florida State. See ya.

The first three weeks of the college football season have washed away several preseason poll darlings and usual suspects from the playoff discussion. A few already have too many losses (two is too many) and others have one unforgivable sin — losing to an FCS team (hey, Iowa) or rolling over for a 43-point loss (hello, Florida State).

Louisville is the author of that 63-20 Seminoles’ beat down and is the team that has emerged as surprisingly strong playoff timber in the first three weeks. Quarterback Lamar Jackson — having accounted for 18 touchdowns in three games — is a combination of Michael Vick, Vince Young, Marcus Mariota and Deshaun Watson.

Speaking of Watson, his Clemson team plays host to Louisville in two weeks.

But while most of the attention, understandably, will be focused on Jackson and coach Bobby Petrino’s beautiful offensive mind, don’t forget about the Cardinals’ defense.

A trio of transfers — outside linebacker and pass-rush ace Devonte Fields (TCU), safety Josh Harvey-Clemons (Georgia) and cornerback Shaq Wiggins (Georgia) — have helped solidify a unit that is as stout and fast as it has been in years. Keith Kelsey is an All-ACC linebacker and safety Chucky Williams is a playmaker.

This is a well-rounded Louisville team that can float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

The Cardinals lead the nation in total offense (679.3 yards per game) and are 25th in total defense (302.0) after holding the high-powered Seminoles to 284 yards. Florida State star running back Dalvin Cook gained just 54 yards in 16 carries because Louisville dominated up front.

“An unbelievable job of stopping the run,” Petrino said.

Louisville has two more huge games — at Clemson on Oct. 1 and at Houston on Nov. 17. A victory over the Tigers almost assuredly puts Louisville in the ACC Championship Game.

If Louisville wins out, of course, it’s in the playoff. If it loses to Clemson and fails to reach the ACC title game, the Cardinals could end up like one-loss Ohio State last season — out of luck. But that would depend on how flawed other conference champs are.

If Louisville loses at Houston but wins the ACC, the Cardinals probably still have a playoff resume.

“We know that everything has to go through Florida State and Clemson,” Petrino said.

One down, one to go.

10 things we learned in Week 3

1. Never schedule North Dakota State. The Bison beat No. 13 Iowa 23-21 on a last-second field goal, marking the fourth time an FCS school has upset a ranked FBS team. It was also North Dakota State’s sixth consecutive victory over an FBS team. So, yeah, don’t give these guys a big check to play in your house, only to see them also take a “W” to the bank. Ooops. Oregon already scheduled the Bison for 2020.

2. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson is everyone’s Heisman favorite. That’s nice. But Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill was a Heisman frontrunner for Texas A&M at one point two years ago, and LSU’s Leonard Fournette last year was a rock-solid lock … until he wasn’t after Alabama stuffed him. Point is, there’s a long way to go.

3. Jabrill Peppers needs to be in the too-early Heisman discussion. A pure defensive player probably can’t win college football’s top award, but Michigan’s Peppers can do it all. A linebacker in name, Peppers made nine tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack, returned a punt 54 yards for a score and accrued 204 all-purpose yards, mostly in the return game, against Colorado. Wolverines QB Wilton Speight might be biased, but it’s hard to argue with his assertion about Peppers: “He’s the best athlete pound-for-pound in college.”

4. Myles Garrett is a Heisman threat, too. If Peppers isn’t the freakiest athlete in college football, then Garrett is. The Texas A&M junior had two sacks against Auburn and now has 27 in 28 career games.

5. The ball isn’t THAT heavy. Three players in the past two weeks have voluntarily dropped the ball before the goal line while going in for uncontested touchdowns — Clemson’s Ray-Ray McCloud, Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon and Cal’s Vic Enwere. Guys. C’mon. You’ve worked too hard.

6. Western Michigan could be champs of Illinois. The Broncos opened with a win at Northwestern, humbled Illinois 34-10 on Saturday and still have to play Northern Illinois next month. Makes you wonder: Which Power 5 team is going to hire coach P.J. Fleck this offseason?

7. Injuries are the worst. Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton, Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau, Oregon running back Royce Freeman, Arizona running back Nick Wilson, Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio and Alabama receiver ArDarius Stewart all left games on Saturday and did not return. A few of those injuries might be short-term, but Sutton, for sure, will be out for “an extended period of time,” coach Butch Jones said.

8. We can take a Big Ten break. The league’s top three won’t begin its round robin until Oct. 29, when Michigan plays at Michigan State. And save these dates: Ohio State at Michigan State (Nov. 19) and Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 26).

9. Christian McCaffrey owns USC. The Stanford running back amassed 260 all-purpose yards in a 27-10 win over USC, giving him 970 all-purpose yards in his past three games against the Trojans. McCaffrey has reached 200 all-purpose yards in eight consecutive games.

10. The best tribute of the week was in Tucson. Arizona wore special uniforms to remember the USS Arizona, the battleship that was sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The program honored USS Arizona survivor Lauren Bruner at halftime and raised money to help other USS Arizona survivors and their families return to Hawaii for ceremonies on the 75th anniversary. Bruner told the Pac-12 Network what advice he gave to the Wildcats: “Do your damn best; that’s all there is to it.” Perfect.

5 coaches who had a tough Saturday

1. USC head coach Clay Helton. What’s more undisciplined: A hyperactive puppy or USC? Whether it’s because of the five false start penalties in the first quarter against Stanford, the busts in the secondary to let Christian McCaffrey run free, defensive end Jabari Ruffin stomping on an Alabama player or recent off-field incidents, let’s just say Helton hasn’t established the law and order he promised to instill.

2. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. Bob’s brother is having hair-pulling issues at cornerback, and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett picked on all of them, throwing for four touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ 42-24 victory. Stoops’ troops on defense are also having difficulty against the run and creating pressure, but the big hole at cornerback is the vulnerability that the pass-happy Big 12 will continue to exploit.

3. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. The Tigers fell 29-16 to Texas A&M and can’t find a rhythm on offense. Try to wrap your head around this: Auburn is 3-12 in its past 15 games against teams from Power 5 conferences.

4. Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich. Just kick the extra point, Mark. The Ducks went 1-for-5 on two-point conversions in a 35-32 loss at Nebraska, giving up five easy points in order to gain a hard-fought two. That three-point difference seems mighty important.

5. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. It wasn’t quite an epic Nick Saban-going-off-on-Lane-Kiffin rant, but Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly stormed on the sideline as VanGorder’s defense failed to make a stop late in a 38-26 loss to Michigan State. The Irish have allowed 500-plus yards in both losses this season, which is why #firevangorder became a trending topic on Twitter and, perhaps, in Kelly’s mind.

5 games to watch in Week 4

1. Florida at Tennessee (3:30 p.m. ET). The SEC East has no favorite. The Vols are an unimpressive 3-0, haven’t beaten the Gators since 2004 and lost star cornerback Cam Sutton to injury last week. Florida hobbles in, too, with quarterback Luke Del Rio unlikely to play because of a knee injury. All in all, this battle of attrition should be fascinating.

2. Stanford at UCLA (8 p.m. ET). Christian McCaffrey versus Josh Rosen and a matchup that could very well be repeated in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

3. Arkansas at Texas A&M (9 p.m. ET). Which undefeated and ranked team will win and advance to challenge Alabama in the SEC West?

4. Oklahoma State at Baylor (7:30 p.m. ET). For offense lovers.

5. Georgia at Ole Miss (noon ET). The Rebels will be looking to play well in the second half, while the Dawgs are looking for still more from true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, who passed for 308 yards and three touchdowns, including a late score on fourth down, to beat Missouri on Saturday. Film Room Review

Analyst Rob Rang’s prospect takeaways for this week. Players listed including position, school, year (Height, weight and current overall rating and by position).

–Ohio State FS Malik Hooker, 6-2, 205, So. (#2 FS in Class of 2019): One of the more impressive players early this season, according to NDS analyst Dane Brugler, Hooker has loads of potential but also allowed too much spacing at times against Oklahoma wide receiver Mark Andrews.

–Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly, 6-2, 224, Sr. (#30 overall, #4 QB): Despite a huge statistical day in a loss to Alabama, Kelly’s draft stock took another hit. On a fumble near his goal line and an interception, Kelly showed a lack of ideal spatial awareness for the position and the mental clock in the pocket that might most resemble a sundial. He also made some beautiful throws, alternately showing the touch to drop bucket throws over the top as well as the velocity and anticipation for time routes over the middle and to the perimeter.

–Ohio State WR Noah Brown, 6-2, 222, rSo. (#5 WR in Class of 2019): Brown, who had five career catches entering Saturday, enjoyed a breakout performance with four touchdowns against Oklahoma. The unique combination of size, speed, agility and body control he demonstrated against the Sooners will leave a lasting impression on scouts. With only 10 career receptions, projecting Brown to the NFL would be premature, but he technically is eligible for next spring’s draft as a redshirt sophomore.