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Column: What have we learned through one week of conference play?

Biggest takeaways from across the Power Five.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

As of last week, every team in the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC has played at least one conference game. As a result, we have some more normalized data to understand where programs actually stand, since everyone has played at least one game against an opponent on a similar level (we’ll talk about Michigan momentarily…).

So, what have we learned? Let’s take a lesson from each conference.

Big Ten: Sell Michigan, double down on Ohio State

NCAA Football: Maryland at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll start in our own backyard. The Big Ten entered this week with two teams ranked in the top five of the AP Poll: No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan.

Going chronologically, Michigan kicked off against Maryland at noon. The Wolverines continued to be highly touted entering Week 4, having put up monster numbers against (drumroll) Colorado State, Hawai’i and UConn. In other words, no one from the Power Five. Offensively, Michigan averaged more than 55 points per game while allowing just 17 points defensively — all season.

When all was said and done, Michigan limped away with a 34-27 win over the Terps. The heady hype surrounding the Wolverines was doused with a bucket of cold water.

It would have been easy, for non-Ohio State fans at least, to look at the result and say sure, Michigan had its first real test, came away with a W and got a wake-up call before entering conference play in earnest — had it not been for what happened Saturday night in Columbus.

Facing a Wisconsin team widely picked to win the West, Ohio State didn’t miss a beat in its absolute throttling of the Badgers. The game, broadcast in primetime on ABC, was over by the end of the first quarter. Questions around Jim Knowles’ defense were generally answered, as the Buckeyes held the Badgers to just 296 yards of offense (aided largely by a 75-yard TD run by Braelon Allen against mostly backups), and the test of Ohio State’s offense against an objectively good defense went in favor of the Buckeyes.

In short, the Buckeyes won the weekend.

ACC: Surviving, not thriving

Clemson v Wake Forest Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Out of the ACC, Dabo Swinney and the Tigers have returned after a brief hiatus to make Clemson the hot team in the conference once again. In what seems to be a competitive ACC this year, Clemson remains the cream of the crop and the conference’s best hope for a Playoff berth after missing the four-team field entirely in 2021.

Last week, Clemson beat Wake Forest in what was a phenomenal game to watch. But let’s be real: No offense to Wake Forest, but should it really have taken overtime to beat them for a Clemson team that’s allegedly “back”? A Clemson team that earned a top-five ranking this week?

The Tigers face 10th-ranked NC State this week, so we’ll see if what happened against Wake Forest was just a wake-up call, or if maybe we should hit pause on the Clemson welcome party.

Big 12: The future of the SEC is 0-2

Kansas State v Oklahoma Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Have Oklahoma and Texas simply given up ahead of their eventual departure from the Big 12? The Sooners, who were ranked sixth in the nation heading into last week, fell to Kansas State 31-34. While such a loss feels embarrassing for the Sooners, Oklahoma is actually just 1-3 against the Wildcats in the last four seasons.

Texas, meanwhile, was competitive against Alabama in their high-profile Week 2 matchup. And then what? Credit the Longhorns for scheduling, but alas, Texas is sitting at 2-2 with wins against Louisiana-Monroe and UTSA. Most recently, the Longhorns fell to Texas Tech 37-34 in overtime, blowing a 14-point third-quarter lead.

Texas has been irrelevant for a while, but Oklahoma’s loss highlights a more recent trend in the Big 12: one where Kansas, Oklahoma State and TCU are the only undefeated squads coming out of the non-conference season. The Big 12 is not good, but it’s interesting to see the up-and-comers fighting to fill the void that will eventually be left by Texas and Oklahoma.

It will be intriguing to see where the Big 12 falls come the release of the College Football Playoff rankings. Both the Big 12 and the Pac-12 have a lone representative in the latest AP Poll top-10. In the case of the Big 12, it’s Oklahoma State. We’ll get to the Pac-12 in a minute.

However, the previously unbeaten Sooners do have one advantage: a more impressive win over Kent State than Georgia does.

Pac-12: The transfer portal a new team makes

USC v Oregon State Photo by Ali Gradischer/Getty Images

USC scraped by with a win against Oregon State last week, coming away with a 17-14, physical victory over the Beavers. Why is a win over Oregon State impressive? Because just last year, the Trojans finished 4-8, including 3-6 in the Pac-12, and were absolutely dismantled by the Beavers 45-27 in Los Angeles. Yikes. And yes, impressive is a strong word.

The Pac-12 and Big 12 are arm wrestling for the bottom spot in the Power Five, but the weight of the conference’s reputation seems to be resting squarely on the shoulders of USC. Oregon and Utah, the pride of the Pac-12 heading into the season, have already disappointed, both having incurred high-profile losses to SEC teams in their season openers.

Meanwhile, USC started the season 14th in the AP Poll, but the Trojans have risen to No. 6 on the back of their 4-0 record and wins over Rice, Stanford, Fresno State and Oregon State. Admittedly, USC would likely be in the same boat as the Ducks and Utes had they also played a challenging out-of-conference opponent, but alas, we’ll have to wait for bowl season to find out.

But what is particularly impressive is how USC is this year’s Michigan State: The Trojans, again, were really bad last year, but they leveraged two things:

  • Lincoln Riley, arguably the greatest offensive mind coaching college football today besides Ryan Day, is now in Pasadena
  • The Trojans were super-users of the transfer portal

Naturally these two points reinforced one another and now, USC is actually a different team than they were in 2021.

UCLA also happens to be 4-0. It’s a stronger early season showing than the future SEC members had, at least.

SEC: The bottom of the SEC is, like, really bad

Missouri v Auburn Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

We get it, Georgia and Alabama are good. In fact, Georgia looks significantly better than Bama, though the Bulldogs allowed 22 points against Kent State. But we’re not going to deal with that now, because the bottom of the SEC is super stinky.

That fact was on full display when Auburn took on Mizzou Saturday. The Tigers (from Auburn) emerged with a 17-14 overtime victory in a game neither team seemed keen to win. It took a fumble in overtime to finally decide the game. In the second half, the two teams punted a dozen times and scored a total of zero points. But the first half was no picnic either. Overall, from poor play on the field to terrible coaching decisions to absolute anemia on offense, it was among the most painful games of the weekend to watch.

Neither Auburn nor Mizzou had much going for them before Saturday. Auburn was destroyed by Penn State in its premier out-of-conference matchup earlier this month. Mizzou, meanwhile, only has wins over Louisiana-Tech and Abilene Christian.