It appears to be another chalk-heavy season in college football, but that's where the breadth and depth of the sport so greatly pay off. You can always find things that surprise or amaze you if you look for them. Let's walk through some of them.
The list of amazing things from September begins with the dominance itself.
The tippy-top tier
"The 2018 season is remembered primarily for chalk, as Alabama and Clemson appeared head and shoulders ahead of everyone else for most of the season.
If anything, this season has begun in even chalkier fashion. Alabama has won its first four games by an average of 37 points per game (down slightly from last season's 41.2), and while Clemson had to make a late two-point stop to survive North Carolina in Week 5, the Tigers saw two close calls last season before finding fifth gear.
They have company this season, though. For one thing, Ohio State looks like nuclear-grade Ohio State at the moment. The Buckeyes have not only won their first five games by an average of 43.8 points -- their plus-219 scoring margin through five games is their largest in the AP poll era (and they've had more than a few great teams in that span) -- but they've done so against a schedule that featured three SP+ top-40 teams (No. 29 Indiana, No. 38 Cincinnati and No. 39 Nebraska, whom they destroyed by a combined 141-17).
Oklahoma has looked more dominant, too. The Sooners were 5-0 at this point last season, but they had survived a tough test from Iowa State and needed overtime to beat Army. That was a bit of a tougher road than they've faced this season, but their dominance is still noteworthy: They're beating teams by an average of 36.8 points per game so far, up from 25.4 at this time in 2018. Quarterback Jalen Hurts leads the nation in QBR, and the defense is up to 42nd in defensive SP+, holding opponents to a 20% third-down conversion rate (second in FBS).
Throw in Georgia (three dominant wins and a home defeat of Notre Dame) and LSU (three dominant wins and a road defeat of Texas), and you've got a six-team top tier playing playoff-caliber football. Plus, 4-0 Wisconsin looked absolutely merciless until this past weekend, Auburn has two marquee victories (Oregon and Texas A&M) and just humiliated Mississippi State, and aside from a close call against Pitt, Penn State has won its other three games by a combined 183-20.
There are a lot of teams playing really, really well right now.
Fresh faces in the playoff?
To date, Alabama and Clemson have occupied nine of 20 total CFP spots since the playoff began in 2014. Throw in Oklahoma and Ohio State, and four teams have accounted for 14 bids.
All four teams are obvious contenders this season, too, but is there any chance of some new blood to join the 10 programs that have made at least one appearance?
Possibly. Using ESPN Stats & Information's FPI ratings, five potential first-timers currently have at least a 5% chance of making the dance: LSU (26%), Auburn (25%), Penn State (17%), Wisconsin (9%) and Florida (6%). Granted, the top five names on the list all belong to members of the CFP Club -- Ohio State (71%), Alabama (68%), Clemson (66%), Oklahoma (46%) and Georgia (40%). But there's at least a chance of some new blood.
September's biggest movers
Buechele threads TD pass to Proche
Shane Buechele puts SMU up 34-0 over South Florida with a perfectly placed touchdown pass to James Proche.
Most of the names at the top are pretty much where we expected them to be. Wisconsin and Ohio State are exceeding projections, but they both have contended for a playoff bid within the past two seasons. You can't be that surprised by their early success.
Whom should you be surprised by, though?
Biggest current improvement over 2018 SP+ rating
1. Oregon State (71st after five weeks, up 15.9 adjusted points per game over 2018)
2. SMU (37th, up 13.6 PPG)
3. Baylor (26th, up 13.0 PPG)
4. Liberty (91st, up 12.9 PPG)
5. Oregon (12th, up 11.9 PPG)
6. Navy (67th, up 10.7 PPG)
7. Illinois (56th, up 10.4 PPG)
8. TCU (19th, up 10.4 PPG)
9. Indiana (29th, up 10.3 PPG)
10. Tulsa (76th, up 9.9 PPG)
When you bottom out, as Oregon State did over the past couple of years (I would say going 3-21 in 2017-18 qualifies as "bottoming out"), your first few stages of improvement are invisible. The Beavers are just 1-3, they're projected to finish only around 3-9, and while their offense is exciting, their defense is still a miserable 112th in defensive SP+.
Make no mistake, however: They've improved. They are up to 71st after a last-second loss to Stanford, they have scored at least 28 points in each game, and while the defense is mostly moribund, it has at least one disruptive aspect in linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. (7.5 tackles for loss, five sacks).
The state of Texas is also well represented on the improved list. SMU is the surprise of the early season, not only starting 5-0 but looking dominant in the process. The Mustangs upset another improved team, TCU, in Week 4, and they've beaten four Group of 5 teams by an average of 22 points. The American Athletic Conference has itself improved quite a bit, and SMU is a major reason.
A couple of hours south in Waco, Baylor also has made a nice move in Matt Rhule's third season. The Bears are 4-0 and up to 27th in SP+ following a last-second, conference-opening victory over Iowa State. Texas, another improving Lone Star squad, might have first claim on the non-OU spot in the Big 12 title game, but if the Longhorns slip at all, Baylor could take advantage.
Biggest current regression from 2018 SP+ rating
1. Fresno State (75th after five weeks, 18.5 adjusted points per game below 2018 rating)
2. Ohio (98th, down 13.9 PPG)
3. Miami (Ohio) (113th, down 13.9 PPG)
4. Stanford (73rd, down 13.8 PPG)
5. Nevada (111th, down 12.7 PPG)
6. Northern Illinois (114th, down 12.5 PPG)
7. Vanderbilt (87th, down 12.4 PPG)
8. West Virginia (64th, down 12.2 PPG)
9. Kentucky (61st, down 11.8 PPG)
10. Buffalo (110th, down 11.6 PPG)
Two teams have new head coaches (Northern Illinois, West Virginia), eight have a new starting quarterback (Fresno State, Miami, Nevada, NIU, Vandy, WVU, Kentucky, Buffalo), and at least two have been dealing with QB injury issues (Stanford, Kentucky).
Really, the surprising names on this list are, to me, Ohio and Stanford. This really felt like the season in which Frank Solich could seize the MAC title that has thus far eluded him, and maybe it still will be. But the 1-3 Bobcats, fresh off of a 20-point home defeat to Louisiana, have to hope that they figured out a lot of what ailed them during their Week 5 bye.
Meanwhile, neither of two Stanford quarterbacks, K.J. Costello or Davis Mills, has been able to find a rapport with a new receiving corps, and the defense has picked up no slack. The 2-3 Cardinal indeed needed a last-second field goal to beat Oregon State and, barring a turnaround, might be favored in only one other game this season (UCLA).
The race to 200
Hubbard runs 84 yards for a TD
Chuba Hubbard gets loose and takes the ball 84 yards, putting Oklahoma State up 23-3.
Back in August, I took a look at some of the stats I felt had defined the 2018 season. The list began with two quarterbacks coming ridiculously close to something that hadn't been accomplished before: a 200 passer rating. Both Oklahoma's Kyler Murray and Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa became the first two passers to hit 199, but there have been no 200s thus far.
As with the national title race, this race is a bit more crowded this season.
Top passer ratings through five weeks
1. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma (249.9)
2. Joe Burrow, LSU (225.6)
3. Tua Tagovailoa (225.2)
4. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota (202.1)
5. Justin Fields, Ohio State (194.4)
6. Dillon Gabriel, UCF (190.5)
Since everyone's schedule is about to get tougher, it's safe to say that only those with a pretty big cushion (i.e., the top three) have a real shot at 200. But I included six names just to point out how well Fields and Gabriel are doing and also note how amazing Morgan was in Week 5. The Gophers' sophomore quarterback went 21-for-22 for 396 yards and four scores in a 38-31 victory at Purdue.
Safe to say, though, that Morgan probably isn't going to end the season at 200. Hurts, Burrow and Tagovailoa are your most likely candidates.
Hurts gets to face Kansas on Saturday (noon ET, ABC) before the Red River Rivalry in Week 7; Texas' secondary has been ripped apart by injury, too. While Big 12 defenses as a whole aren't nearly as bad as their reputation -- right now, the average defensive SP+ rating for Big 12 teams is 22.1, third best and only about a point behind the SEC and Big Ten (21.2 each) -- Hurts really might have a shot at this. Burrow and Tagovailoa do, too, though their defensive strength of schedule is a bit more difficult.
The race to 50
What happens when you've got an absurdly efficient passing game: You score a lot of points. Wild, right? Hurts' Sooners, Burrow's Tigers, Tagovailoa's Crimson Tide and Fields' Buckeyes are all averaging over 50 points per game, led by LSU's 57.8. (Penn State is right at 50, too.) No FBS team has averaged 50 PPG since Baylor and Florida State in 2013, but a few have a shot here. And if Ohio State is still averaging more than 50 this time next month -- after the Buckeyes have faced mighty Michigan State and Wisconsin defenses -- then its odds are probably very good.
The race to 12
We've also seen only one team allow under 12 points per game since 2012 (Alabama in 2017). Quite a few Big Ten teams are also in this race: Wisconsin is allowing 7.3, Penn State 7.5, Iowa 8.5 and Ohio State 8.6. Four others are under 12 -- Florida (8.8), Georgia (10.0), Oregon (10.5) and San Diego State (11.8). We'll see what happens as they get deeper into conference play.
And speaking of good ... er, less horrible defenses ...
How is UConn doing?
Last season, UConn's defense made history in all the wrong ways.
The 2018 UConn defense took the field for 138 drives, not including 15 that were ended by either the halftime or end-of-game buzzer. Of those 138 ...
• 28 ended in a punt. No other FBS team forced fewer than 37.
• 11 resulted in a turnover. Only four teams forced fewer.
• 81 resulted in a touchdown. Only two other teams allowed more than 68 -- Louisville (71) and Oregon State (76). Nearly three touchdowns to every punt!
Let's put it this way: Oklahoma's offense averaged 8.6 yards per play and 570.3 yards and 48.4 points per game. But really, it was at any point only the second-best offense in the country behind Whoever Was Playing UConn That Week.
This historic defense has improved significantly this season. The unit is up 30 spots in defensive SP+! And 13.9 points per game. And 2.5 yards per play. And 27 passer rating points.
Granted, those improvements have still produced bad numbers, and the offense has regressed almost as much as the defense has progressed. The Huskies are now 128th in offensive SP+ and are 123rd overall; they are single-handedly dragging the AAC down -- without the Huskies*, the league's SP+ average rating would be plus-3.7 adjusted points per game, almost identical to the ACC (4.0).
But hey, if you're going to be bad, the least you can do is be bad in a different way than last season, right?
* It's worth mentioning that the AAC indeed will soon be without UConn.
Chuba the Great
Oklahoma State is as interesting and dangerous as ever this season. The Pokes are 4-1 and coming off a victory over Kansas State. They are also 12th in offensive SP+ despite starting a redshirt freshman quarterback in Spencer Sanders.
Sanders is an obvious talent. You can't watch him without thinking about how good he might be one day. But he's also a loose cannon. His aggression, his desire to stomp on throats at all times, leads to him making some brilliant and disastrous plays, often close together. In the second half against K-State, he ripped off a brilliant 29-yard scramble into Wildcats territory; within the next 10 plays, he had thrown two foolish, overly ambitious interceptions.
When Sanders gets out of control, though, Oklahoma State still has Chuba Hubbard. The redshirt sophomore running back from suburban Edmonton, Alberta, carried 25 times for 296 yards Saturday. In the second half alone, he outran the entire Kansas State defense on an 84-yard score, then plowed through nearly the entire defense on a touchdown that was called back on a holding penalty.
The most noteworthy aspect of this performance, though? It lowered his average carries per game. No FBS back averaged over 24 carries per game last season, but Hubbard and Boston College's AJ Dillon are both on pace for more. Hubbard had 69 combined rushes in the Cowboys' two games before Saturday, and he's on pace for 400 carries. The volume, compared with the high level of explosiveness (he has four rushes of 50-plus yards), means he has gained almost 300 more rushing yards than anyone else in FBS.
If Hubbard somehow avoids wearing down, he could threaten to top 2,500 yards. But as sturdily as he might be built, that is a ridiculous load.
Over the past four seasons, since Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha recorded 19 sacks in 2014, only one player has gone over 17 sacks: Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson last season.
A foursome of pass-rushers is threatening to top 17 this fall. Ohio State's Chase Young (eight sacks in five games) is the biggest name on the board, and if the Buckeyes end up playing 14 or 15 games, he could not only top 20 but threaten 25. Going back to last season, he has 12 sacks in his past seven games; he is terrifying.
He's not alone, though. USC transfer Oluwole Betiku Jr. has given Illinois a legitimate havoc man up front; he's not only got seven sacks in four games, but he has 10.5 total tackles for loss as well. Even with Illinois unlikely to make a bowl, he's got a chance at a 30-TFL, 20-sack season in just 12 games. Boise State's Curtis Weaver (six sacks in four games) and Iowa State's O'Rien Vance (5.5 in four) are also threats to top the 17-sack mark, but Betiku and Young are sucking up most of the pass-rushing oxygen right now.