NCAA Football: Stanford at Southern California

There's a different energy to the 2023 college football season. While the sport will enter a new era in 2024 and look wildly different than in its current form, it feels like the change has already begun.

The Year of Back is taking shape.

Deion Sanders and No. 18 Colorado remain the season's biggest story and continue to suck up all the oxygen, but once you get past all the Prime, something more is bubbling under the surface.

No. 3 Florida State opened its season with a convincing win over LSU. It has a Heisman candidate at QB in Jordan Travis, and he has a bevy of weapons at his disposal.

Coming off a season in which its quarterback won a Heisman Trophy and nearly won the Pac-12, No. 5 USC has been one of the most dominant teams on the planet, even if it hasn't played anybody of note to this point.

No. 22 Miami entered the season as it always does: coming off a disappointing year but talking about how it finally has its swagger back. Unlike most years, it might! The Canes dominated Texas A&M in a fashion that made their 15-point win over the Aggies a bit misleading.

Then there's No. 4 Texas, which did the thing nobody does. It went to Bryant-Denny Stadium and beat mighty Alabama and did so convincingly. The Longhorns have a potential Heisman candidate of their own with QB Quinn Ewers and matched Alabama's physicality (and occasionally exceeded it) along the lines of scrimmage.

Four programs that are proclaimed back by fans and media alike the minute they show a pulse might all actually be back. I may also fall into the trap of proclaiming them back too soon. I made a habit of predicting the College Football Playoff would be Georgia, Florida State, Texas and USC (sorry, Miami, but you were 5-7 last year) on the Cover 3 Podcast all offseason. Yes, it was a bit, and I was doing it for laughs, but like every joke, there was truth in it.

So it's possible this is all confirmation bias on my part, but there's more to it than four teams starting the season well. It's how the old guard has started, too.

Just as quickly as people proclaim these schools to be back, they'll declare Alabama dead when it suffers a setback. I'm not here to do that. In the age of the transfer portal, Alabama, and every blue blood, is a few million dollars from a booster and one transfer QB away from being very much alive. If Alabama had been able to pry Drake Maye away from North Carolina during the offseason, nobody would be claiming it's dead right now. It'd probably be 2-0, and we'd be laughing at Texas instead.

But it didn't, and the Tide look a little ordinary by Alabama standards. While it may have been a shock to see Alabama lose by double-digits at home Saturday night, after witnessing it, nobody will be nearly as surprised if Alabama loses again.

Back in the ACC, as Florida State and Miami seem to be moving in the right direction, Clemson looks to be heading the other way. There was the season-opening loss to Duke - to Duke! - followed by the Tigers playing with their food for too long before pulling away in a 66-17 victory vs. Charleston Southern. D.J. Uiagelelei transferring to Oregon State and Garrett Riley coming in to call plays doesn't seem like the magical elixir some hoped for. The problems in that program may run a little deeper, and it's unclear whether they can be solved before next offseason.

No. 1 Georgia is Georgia. It won its first two games by a score of 93-10, but it hasn't played anybody yet. We'll have a better idea of what this team is after it faces South Carolina this week, but it's also possible this team's season is more likely to be derailed by off-the-field antics than what happens on it.

No. 6 Ohio State struggled with Indiana before blowing the doors off Youngstown State, and I'm not sure it knows who its QB is yet. No. 2 Michigan looks a bit out of sorts, but it's faced East Carolina and UNLV while its coaching staff draws straws to see who gets to be in charge from series to series as Jim Harbaugh watches from afar. I have no idea what to make of either right now.

There's a lot of football left to be played, and it only takes one weekend to turn everything on its head again, but through the first few weeks, it's hard to deny things are feeling pretty back around these parts.

Coach of the Week

I can't say I didn't see Texas' win over Alabama coming. I had been predicting it all offseason because while I'm not ready to say No. 10 Alabama is dead, I can see it's not in the best shape. I knew the Longhorns had the better QB in the matchup (hell, Texas may have three on its depth chart better than any Alabama has) and that it had a better group of receivers. I was also confident the Longhorns had built up their lines of scrimmage enough that, while they might not be better than Alabama or in a position to dominate, they were better suited to matchup with the Tide than most.

I also knew of Texas' ace up its sleeve: Steve Sarkisian.

I became even more confident during Week 1 when Sarkisian did a halftime interview on ESPN during the Florida State-LSU game. He was asked about Nick Saban's record of 58-2 against former assistants and quickly replied with something along the lines of, "what's the record of every other coach against Nick?"

It was funny and a peek into Sarkisian's confidence heading into the matchup.

My theory is Saban performs so well against his former assistants for two reasons. The first is that Saban is the coach at Alabama and has built a dynasty. One that usually has a lot more talent than the situations his former assistants inherited, or else those schools wouldn't have been looking for a new coach in the first place. The second is that Saban lives and breathes football, and while coaches are working for him, he is studying those coaches and their tendencies. He knows their strengths and weaknesses and how to beat them.

Where Saban runs into problems with Sarkisian (remember, Texas nearly beat Alabama last year, despite not having Ewers for the final three quarters of the game) is that Sark has long been one of the best offensive minds in the sport. He's a brilliant playcaller and spent years going against Nick Saban's defense as his offensive coordinator.

Sarkisian knows every weak spot of that defense the same way Saban understands Sark's offense, but unfortunately for Nick, a well-executed offense will beat a well-executed defense on 99% of snaps. This is not a shot at  Alabama offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who I find to be an underappreciated playcaller himself, but Texas had a significant advantage at playcaller Saturday.

Bad Beat of the Week

My condolences to anybody who had Texas Tech +4.5 vs. No. 13 Oregon on Saturday. With the Red Raiders trailing 31-30 in the final minutes, the Ducks' Jeffrey Bassa intercepted this pass from Tyler Shough. Instead of giving himself up and allowing Oregon to run out the clock -- which is what he should've done given the game situation -- Bassa did what his instincts told him and every human being ever to feel the leather of a football in their hands to do: try to score a touchdown.

He did just that, not only punctuating a 38-30 win for the Ducks (while giving Tech a shot to at least force overtime) but changing the outcome of a lot of wagers. As somebody who made Texas Tech -7 their Lock of the Week in Week 1, only to watch the Red Raiders blow a 17-0 first-quarter lead and lose to Wyoming, my advice is simple.

Don't bet on Texas Tech this year. It will only result in pain.

Caleb Williams Highlight of the Week

Listen, everybody else is going to push any player who isn't Williams as a Heisman candidate because nobody likes to vote for the same player two years in a row, but I don't care. It doesn't matter to me how well Shedeur Sanders, Quinn Ewers, or Jordan Travis are playing. Williams is, and will be, the best player in the country all season long.

Believe Check of the Week

All right, I'm probably further into this column without mentioning Deion Sanders and Colorado than my editors would like me to be, so I better get to it. Colorado looked solid again on Saturday. The Buffs started slowly but eventually blew the doors off Nebraska, winning 36-14.

There's still no run game to speak of, and the Buffaloes gave up eight sacks, which gives me some pause. But the vibes are still incredible. So, do I believe? I believe enough to think this Colorado team is more likely to make a bowl game than not.

That's a considerable change from the offseason when I believed a 6-6 season was the absolute ceiling. Now, after Power Five wins over TCU and Nebraska, failing to win at least four more games would probably be seen as a major disappointment. What's ironic, however, is one of the reasons I felt Colorado could possibly win six games before the season was that I thought the bottom of the Pac-12 would be weak.

That isn't the case. The league is now 20-3 in nonconference play, with its three losses coming to Auburn, Mississippi State and Oklahoma State. The losses to SEC schools came from Cal and Arizona (two teams expected to finish at the bottom of the league) by 11 points total.

So, I guess I'm saying that my Belief Score is rising for both the Buffs and Pac-12 as a whole.

Touchdown Pass of the Week

I know it's possible you might have missed the big game between San Diego and Colorado Mesa this weekend, and I didn't want to risk the chance of you missing this play.

Rhetorical Question of the Week

Are they still calling holding penalties? To be clear, this is purely anecdotal. I have done no research to confirm this, but I'm not seeing many holding flags this season. The ones I have seen have been egregious holds, usually by wide receivers blocking on the edge. When it comes to the big hog mollies in the middle, it feels like officials are giving those big meaty hands a bit more leeway. Unless you're tugging a jersey or dragging a defender to the ground, it seems to be a free-for-all in the trenches.

This is not a complaint, mind you. I'm simply wondering if there's been some kind of unspoken directive this season to cut offensive linemen a little more slack.

Improvisation of the Week

This is the Jayden de Laura experience in a nutshell. Arizona was lined up to spike the ball on first-and-goal to stop the clock just before halftime  vs. Mississippi State, but de Laura felt differently. He clearly decided to run the fake spike on his own. Look at his offensive linemen. They only begin to push when they realize what's happening.

Thankfully for Arizona, it worked out, but this was definitely one of those "WHAT THE HELL IS HE DOING...YES!!!!" moments for Jedd Fisch and the Arizona coaching staff as de Laura follows the ask for forgiveness, not permission, philosophy.

College Football Playoff Projection of the Week

Ranked in order of confidence in their Backness.

  1. USC
  2. Florida State
  3. Texas
  4. Miami

Until the next Monday After!