For most College Football Playoff hopefuls, the first few weeks of the season are meant to get a few wins under your belt before conference play starts – whether they be one-sided competitions against low quality teams or high-profile résumé-building games against fellow powerhouse schools.
But for two traditional contenders, the first two weeks could not have gone much worse.
Oregon and Notre Dame were each dealt serious blows to their national championship hopes, one through inconsistent performances and the other through an unfortunate but likely crippling injury.
On Saturday, No. 7 Oregon traveled to East Lansing, Michigan, for the year’s first matchup between two Top 10 teams, a primetime battle against No. 5 Michigan State. While they were within striking distance the whole game, the Ducks were unable to muster anything on their last drive of the game, turning the ball over on downs and putting their whole season in doubt.
The game was highlighted, if you can call it that; by the inconsistent play of Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams, Jr. and the Ducks’ inability to contain the Spartans’ offense. Although Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, one of the preseason favorites for the Heisman Trophy, had a below-average game, the Spartans managed to rack up 197 rushing yards en route to a 31-28 victory.
This display against Michigan State showed a continuation of the problems Oregon exhibited in a Week 1 victory against FCS-team Eastern Washington. While the offense managed to put up 61 points, the defense was shaky, giving up 549 yards and 42 points.
While the Ducks’ national title hopes are not completely over, they no longer control their own destiny. If the defense does not improve, they will undoubtedly lose several games against high-powered Pac 12 offenses. Oregon also needs some of their conference rivals to lose, particularly No. 6 USC. The Trojans have looked unstoppable in their first two games, which is very bad news for Oregon.
The Ducks have two chances at redemption, provided they win out the rest of the season. They have a crucial home matchup with USC on Nov. 21 and if they end up winning the Pac 12 North, they will play in the conference championship game. If they win both, they certainly have a chance to make the College Football Playoffs.
No. 8 Notre Dame (2-0) is seemingly off to a flawless start to the season. They demolished Texas 38-3 and beat Virginia on the road 31-24. However, their season outlook is not optimistic. Malik Zaire, the quarterback who was supposed to lead the Irish into the promised land, rolled his ankle under a Virginia defender on a third-quarter run. Zaire broke his ankle in just his third career start and will be out for the rest of the year.
Backup quarterback DeShone Kizer stepped in and performed admirably, but the Irish are left with a big question mark under center for the rest of the year. Kizer will presumably be the starter for here on out, but his performance against unranked Virginia is too small a sample size to determine how he’ll play for the rest of the year.
Notre Dame will rely heavily on the running game for production, led by C.J. Prosise, who has totaled 253 yards and a touchdown in two games. The Irish as a whole have rushed for 467 yards and three touchdowns, but only time will tell if they can keep up that level of offense.
If Kizer can step in and be as good (or better) than Zaire, the Irish may still have a shot at the playoffs. They have plenty of big games left on their schedule, and they’ll need to be at their best to have a chance.
Their first major hurdle is this weekend, when they host No. 14 Georgia Tech. If they can conquer the Yellow Jackets’ formidable rushing attack, they might just have enough to squeeze into one of the four playoff spots.
Pete Harasyko is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.