Whether you view the college football season as a marathon or a sprint, the Power Five conferences are at extremely dissimilar spots on the race track as we enter Week 4 of the 2020 campaign.
Both the ACC and Big 12 started playing two weeks ago, although four of those teams—Baylor, TCU, Virginia and Virginia Tech—still have not played a single game because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The SEC's long-awaited season debut will arrive this Saturday. The Big Ten won't kick off for another month. The Pac-12 may decide to have a fall season after all.
Keeping track of it all has been, in a word, exhausting. And given the lack of marquee matchups in Weeks 1-3, there's a good chance you've tuned out most of the noise and could use a refresher on college football's current events now that the SEC is at the starting line.
Let's tackle them one league at a time, presented in no particular order aside from saving the Pac-12's still-evolving situation for last.
SEC: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines
I don't mean to disparage the ACC, Big 12, AAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt, but the return of the SEC will make this the first almost normal Saturday of college football.
That said, this initial slate of games still kind of feels like preseason SEC action.
Seven of the conference's teams rank in the top two-thirds of the latest AP Top 25—No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 Florida, No. 6 LSU, No. 8 Auburn, No. 10 Texas A&M and No. 16 Tennessee—but there's not a single matchup this weekend pitting two of those teams against each other.
However, as the schedule stands, it's the only weekend between now and Dec. 12 when that's the case, so forgive them for trying to ease into this gauntlet.
Even so, No. 23 Kentucky at No. 8 Auburn is the most intriguing of the nearly three dozen games on the Week 4 docket.
Auburn is replacing something like 14 starters from a team that went 9-4. Nevertheless, big things are expected in the second year of the Bo Nix Experience. The quarterback gets back all three of his favorite targets from last season, but this Kentucky defense is no joke. The Wildcats would be ranked higher if there weren't so much uncertainty on offense following Lynn Bowden Jr.'s departure to the NFL.
That may well be the only SEC opener decided by fewer than 14 points, but there's plenty to watch for elsewhere.
LSU begins its title defense against a reloading Mississippi State. Sign me up for a late afternoon full of new faces on LSU's offense as well as head coach Mike Leach and QB K.J. Costello repeatedly trying to throw against what should be an excellent Tigers secondary.
Georgia is breaking in new starters at key offensive spots too. Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman was expected to be the quarterback for most of the offseason, but he opted out not long after USC transfer JT Daniels was ruled immediately eligible. But Daniels is still working his way back from a torn ACL, so it will probably be D'Wan Mathis' job, at least initially.
That shouldn't much matter against Arkansas, but between that winding journey and the need to replace D'Andre Swift at running back, it could be a weird opener for the Bulldogs.
Alabama might also have a QB battle on its hands. Mac Jones is the presumed starter, but don't be surprised if true freshman Bryce Young gets a lot of reps against Missouri and makes Nick Saban think twice about who he wants out there against Texas A&M next week.
Big 12: Just About the Worst Start Imaginable
When the Big 12 decided to roll with a nine-game schedule consisting of a round-robin league slate plus one nonconference contest, it surely presumed the "outsider" games against AAC, C-USA, Sun Belt and FCS foes would serve as a minimal-stress warm-up week that brought everyone into league play with a 1-0 record.
So, yeah, about that.
Preseason AP No. 23 Iowa State lost at home by 17 to Louisiana. The Cyclones were playing without one of their best offensive weapons, tight end Charlie Kolar (lower body injury), and perhaps that's why they looked lost on offense. While that upset was transpiring, Kansas State was busy giving up nearly 500 yards of total offense in a home loss to Arkansas State. And in the Week 2 nightcap, Kansas dropped the Big 12 to 0-3 against the Sun Belt in a game against Coastal Carolina that was never even close.
Before this season, current members of the Big 12 had a 72-3 record against current members of the Sun Belt, per Winsipedia. That means something that usually happens only once every 25 games happened three consecutive times. The odds of that are 1-in-15,625.
That's not all. Texas Tech allowed 572 passing yards while darn near losing to Houston Baptist, and Oklahoma State—which was supposed to have one of the nation's best offenses—could barely move the ball in a 16-7 win over Tulsa.
Oklahoma looked great against Missouri State. (Or so I'm told. I didn't pay $55 to watch that predictable blowout.) Texas took care of business against lowly UTEP. And West Virginia beat Eastern Kentucky by 46—which is 13 fewer points than the margin by which Marshall beat Eastern Kentucky. But with three losses to the Sun Belt, two poor showings and two teams (Baylor and TCU) that didn't even get to play yet, the Big 12 just looks bad.
If Oklahoma or Texas runs the table, that team would still go to the College Football Playoff. But if Selection Sunday rolls around and we're debating whether a one-loss Big 12 champ deserves the No. 4 seed ahead of an undefeated AAC champion and the SEC runner-up, you better believe the legitimacy of the Big 12 will be repeatedly called into question by this pathetic start.
ACC: Miami's Fun to Watch; Notre Dame in a Conference Is Still Weird to See
It's too early to say The U is back, but The U has easily been one of the most entertaining teams.
Led by former Houston quarterback D'Eriq King, Miami features the only offense that has had at least three plays go for 60 or more yards. Cam'Ron Harris had a 66-yard rushing touchdown in the opener against UAB, as well as a 75-yard TD against Louisville. On Miami's first play after Harris' 75-yard score, Jaylan Knighton had a receiving touchdown of the same distance. (Just for good measure, the Hurricanes also had a 74-yard gain negated by a penalty.)
Fun fact: In the entire 2019 season, Miami only had one play of 65 or more yards—a 67-yard Dee Wiggins touchdown against Louisville. To have three such plays in two games is a clear indicator that this offense is way better than it has been the past few years. Funny how that works when you actually have a difference-maker at quarterback.
And the other big story in the ACC remains the temporary addition to the league.
Notre Dame got out to a painfully slow start in its first-ever conference game, finishing the first quarter against Duke with just seven yards of total offense. But the Fighting Irish righted the ship for a 14-point victory and subsequently decimated South Florida.
Clemson is still clearly the ACC team to beat, but that Notre Dame running game led by Kyren Williams and C'Bo Flemister is looking lethal. Once Ian Book starts throwing like he did for the past two seasons, it's game on.
Big Ten: Schedule 3.0
For the first few months of the offseason, we had the usual 12-game Big Ten schedule to digest. Then, on August 5—just six days before postponing the season—the Big Ten released an updated 10-game conference-only schedule. And after a little over a month of not knowing when we would see the Big Ten play football again, we got yet another new schedule this past weekend.
The latest (aggressive but necessarily so for CFP purposes) plan is to play eight regular-season games in eight weeks beginning Oct. 23, followed by an innovative "champions week" in which all 14 teams will play one final cross-divisional game based on standings.
For what it's worth, I love this idea, because it gives the runner-up in the East Division one last chance to prove something to the CFP committee. If Ohio State goes undefeated and Penn State finishes the regular season at 7-1 with a loss to the Buckeyes, maybe the Nittany Lions can sneak into the playoff as the No. 4 seed with a statement win over Minnesota or Wisconsin on Dec. 19 in the conference title game.
As far as the new schedule is concerned, those first two weeks of the season (the last two weeks of October) should be dynamite.
Nebraska at Ohio State and Michigan at Minnesota right off the bat will be fun. Coming back the following week with the massive Ohio State at Penn State game, plus Michigan State at Michigan and Wisconsin at Nebraska is quite the early splash.
Things mellow out a bit for the next three weeks (especially for Ohio State, to the chagrin of many). But Penn State at Michigan and Minnesota at Wisconsin will add nicely to a Thanksgiving weekend buffet of football, and wrapping up the regular season with The Game on Dec. 12 is a can't-miss proposition.
Let's just hope COVID-19 rapid testing ensures this third iteration of the Big Ten schedule will be the safest and final one.
Pac-12: Oh No, Baby, What Is You Doin'?
The Pac-12 postponed its fall season on the same day the Big Ten did (Aug. 11). But while the Big Ten has reversed course and plans to return in a month, there's still no telling what's going to happen out west.
Local health restrictions (and ongoing wildfires) have made it a much more difficult process for the Pac-12. While schools in the Big Ten monitored the pandemic both in house and at large while deciding how to proceed, the four Pac-12 schools in California and the two in Oregon were more or less forbidden from practicing for the past six months because of a mandate outlawing "cohorts" of greater than 12 people.
Last week, Jon Wilner of the Mercury News spoke with a California health department official who suggested that mental exercises, tackling dummies and virtual reality could be suitable non-contact ways to practice for games while still adhering to local guidelines.
Still, there seems to be traction for a plan to start the season on Oct. 31, even though it's possible that half the league wouldn't be ready to play by then, per Josh Newman of the Salt Lake Tribune. And if that's the case, is the Pac-12 honestly even trying to send a team to the playoff?
It's already bad enough that the Big Ten is planning to submit either a 9-0 or 8-1 champion for the CFP committee to compare against ACC, Big 12 and SEC teams that will have played double-digit games. If Pac-12 favorites Oregon and USC can't even start until Nov. 7, their best-case scenario is six regular-season games and a conference championship on Dec. 19.
There's just no way the committee will select a team that only plays seven games, especially from the conference that is already widely regarded as the worst of the Power Five leagues.
Having said that, the Pac-12 might still give it the ol' college try.
The idea of playing a spring season fizzled the moment other leagues announced their fall seasons. Opt-outs would run rampant through those rosters as guys decide to either prepare for the NFL draft or save their bodies for the 2021 fall season. So, it's now or never. Even if the league has no realistic hope of reaching the playoff, it could minimize crippling revenue loss by at least playing a six- to eight-game season this fall.
We'll see if the Pac-12's presidents and chancellors come to that same conclusion in the next couple of days, if not hours. Time is very much not on their side.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.