For all of the things that I love about watching football, I'm most fascinated by the chess match that takes place on the gridiron between coaches. From the creative scheming to the clever deployment of personnel, I believe the best coaches in the game find a way to put their best guys in the ideal position to make game-changing plays.
That's why I'm excited to start a new column that will break down some of the most compelling matchups of the weekend. Although the X's and O's certainly shape the action, it's the ability to capitalize and exploit favorable matchups that separate the great teams from the good ones in the college game. Given some time to analyze the top games in Week 2, here are the top matchups to watch:
Most intriguing matchup:
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota vs. Michigan State's secondary
Mariota might've been the No. 1 prospect in the 2014 class had he elected to enter the draft after a sensational sophomore campaign. However, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound playmaker returned to Eugene to refine his skills as a pocket passer. Although he is viewed as a talented thrower, there's a faction of scouts who would like to see the Oregon star display better anticipation, accuracy and ball placement on his intermediate and deep throws. Additionally, he can erase doubts about his ability to function within a complex passing game by fully working through his progressions to find the second or third option in the route.
Against a loaded Michigan State defense that features a pair of blue-chip DB prospects in Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes, Mariota will get an opportunity to show how far he has progressed as a passer. The Spartans employ an airtight Cover 4 scheme that essentially eliminates throws to the outside and forces quarterbacks to target secondary receivers in the progression. If Mariota can show poise, patience and precision attacking the Spartans' defense, NFL scouts will feel better about his readiness to handle the responsibility of being a franchise quarterback at the next level.
Most favorable defensive matchup:
BYU defense vs. Texas offensive line
Whenever an offensive line loses three starters in a week, it is a cause of concern, particularly when the front line is responsible for protecting a young quarterback (Tyrone Swoopes) poised to make his first collegiate start. That's the situation facing the Longhorns with Kennedy Estelle and Desmond Harrison joining an injured Dominic Espinosa on the sideline this week. With the Longhorns poised to trot out an offensive line with only five combined games of starting experience, it could be a rough night for the Longhorns against an experienced BYU defense that brings tremendous pressure at the point of attack.
Best wide receiver-cornerback matchup:
Michigan WR Devin Funchess vs. Notre Dame CB Cole Luke
When Funchess requested the No. 1 jersey in the spring, he certainly understood the expectations that accompanied wearing a jersey that's associated with some of the most prolific pass catchers in school history (Anthony Carter, David Terrell and Braylon Edwards). He certainly lived up to the tradition in the opener when he snagged seven receptions for 95 yards and three scores. The former tight end dominates defenders with his superior size (6-5, 230 pounds) and length, Funchess has the ability to box out defenders or win contested balls on the outside. Thus, he presents an imposing challenge to the smallish defenders on the perimeter.
Luke played well in the opener against Rice, surrendering only two completions in the game. The impressive performance comes as a bit of a surprise after the 5-11, 190-pound sophomore started the season slated for backup duty until KeiVarae Russell was suspended prior to the season amid allegations of academic fraud. While Luke enters the game with plenty of experience after logging 300-plus snaps as a nickel back and corner last year, he hasn't faced a polished, big-bodied receiver with Funchess' skills. Given the challenge of defending a big target near the red zone, Luke's performance will go a long way in determining whether the Fighting Irish will slow down the Wolverines' offense.
Best matchup in the trenches:
Stanford OT Andrus Peat vs. USC DL Leonard Williams
Scouts are expected to be out in droves at the USC-Stanford game to see the battle in the trenches between Peat and Williams. Each prospect carries a high grade heading into the battle, making this matchup a "must-see" for evaluators looking for dominant players along the line.
Peat, a 6-7, 316-pound junior, is a standout left tackle with outstanding balance and body control. He is nimble on the edge, yet flashes the strength and power to move defenders off the ball. Given his solid technical skills and impressive athletic attributes, he could be one of the most coveted offensive tackles in the 2015 or 2016 class.
Williams is a 6-5, 300-pound man-child with extraordinary physical tools. He is an athletic freak capable of defeating blockers with his explosive first-step quickness, but also displays the strength and power to win with an assortment of rugged maneuvers at the point of attack. Although he enters the game nursing a gimpy ankle, scouts want to see if he is capable of turning his game up a notch against elite competition. Thus, this tape will weigh heavily in his final evaluation at season's end.
Best coaching matchup:
USC coach Steve Sarkisian vs. Stanford DC Lance Anderson
Last week, the Trojans unveiled a fast-paced offensive attack that left their opponent gasping for air by the end of the first quarter. Not only did USC rip off 100-plus plays, it played a number of talented first-year players that produced big plays on the perimeter. With Cody Kessler playing like a pass-first point guard from the pocket, the Trojans stretched the field vertically and horizontally. Moreover, Kessler threw the ball to a wide array of talented playmakers like Nelson Agholor, JuJu Smith, Adoree' Jackson and Bryce Dixon who excelled at turning short passes into big gains.
Given the challenge of defending a fast-paced offense laced with speed and athleticism on the perimeter, Anderson must come up with a superb game plan in his first primetime game as the defensive play-caller. He must install a simplified game plan that allows the Cardinal to adjust to the Trojans' diverse formations, yet includes enough aggressive pressures to harass Kessler in the pocket. Anderson's predecessor (current Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason) was a masterful schemer adept at slowing down fast-paced offenses. USC will quickly let the college football world know if the Cardinal's new defensive play-caller is up to the challenge.
Best under-the-radar matchup:
East Carolina OC Lincoln Riley vs. South Carolina DC Lorenzo Ward
After watching Texas A&M run through the Gamecocks' defense like a hot knife through butter using a warp-speed attack, East Carolina has to be excited about its chances of lighting up the scoreboard this weekend. The Pirates utilize a fast-paced offense that features an efficient passer (Shane Carden) and a number of explosive targets (Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones) on the perimeter. Given Riley's reputation for going for the jugular early in games, the Pirates could steal a page from the Aggies' playbook and use an assortment of quick-rhythm throws from 3x1 formations to attack the Gamecocks' soft coverage.
For Ward, the thought of East Carolina ramping up the pace is certainly a scary one following his unit's disappointing performance a week ago. He couldn't come up with a suitable adjustment to slow down the Aggies, so he will need to dig deeper to come up with a solution for bottling up the Pirates' explosive attack. Whether it's blitzing more with man behind it or employing a "bend-but-don't-break" strategy, Ward's football acumen could be tested by Riley's clever scheming.
Eastern Washington QB Vernon Adams
Adams might seem like an odd selection based on the fact that the Eagles take on a Pac-12 opponent, but the small-school standout has been magnificent directing the Eagles' wide-open attack this season. Adams has totaled 662 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns in two games, while exhibiting a polished game from the pocket. Although Washington represents a stern test for the FBS powerhouse, Adams is a proven dragon slayer with a knack for knocking off Pac-12 opponents.