A year ago heading into the college football season, just about everybody was labeling Week 1 as the greatest opening act in the sport’s history. It wasn’t hard to see why with powerhouse program meeting powerhouse program just about everywhere you looked.
As good as some of the games were though, there were also a handful of duds and only a few nominal upsets along the way. While 2017’s opening act didn’t receive the same kind of hype it nevertheless delivered in a way that last year couldn’t – the mega-matchup in Atlanta delivered on the field, the greatest point-spread upset in the sport’s history came through (in Las Vegas, no less), two thrillers on Sunday night that included the second-biggest comeback ever and an overtime finale on Monday.
If the rest of the season is going to be like that, we all better buckle up. As we make the transition into Week 2, here’s a look at the lessons learned looking back from the games this weekend and what major storylines will dominate the rest of the 2017 season.
1. Sometimes it comes down to being as lucky as you are good
The old adage “better lucky than good” applies to college football more than coaches would like to admit. Sure, having an overwhelming amount of talent on your roster is going to be the deciding factor time after time but as we’ve seen each season, luck is going to play a role in the outcome of some of the biggest games no matter what the game plan is or how good your quarterback is.
We saw this clearly in several instances during Week 1 and it was a narrow flip of the coin for some teams. For Florida State, the Seminoles went toe-to-toe with No. 1 Alabama like the best of them but were let down by special teams (blocked field goal, blocked punt, fumbled return). In a game of inches, those things can’t happen against an opponent like Nick Saban and it’s often times how the Crimson Tide turns a close game into a comfortable victory.
But unfortunately for the Seminoles, their bad luck was not limited to the third phase of the game. With less than six minutes remaining in a game that was all but over Deondre Francois was chased out of the pocket and sacked. It would have been a relatively normal play, relegated to the box score or a line in a sidebar story, but the quarterback’s knee hit the brand-new turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and things changed on a dime in both the ACC race and that of the College Football Playoff.
Nobody is quite counting out Jimbo Fisher’s team just yet — there’s simply too much talent on the roster to do so — but the loss of their quarterback so early in 2017 will nevertheless be a critical blow to the team’s fortunes. Perhaps James Blackman will simply take the baton and run with it, he certainly has all the physical tools to succeed in Fisher’s offense. More likely however, is that when the team needs a big third down conversion against Miami, or NC State or Clemson, the guy who should be making the play as expected is sitting on the sideline.
On the other coast and other side of the coin was UCLA. The Bruins completed a stunning 34-point comeback, capping off their pièce de résistance with, of all things, a perfectly executed fake spike. It was the second-largest, come-from-behind victory in FBS history and it was, in many respects, the result of a case where a win literally slipped through the fingers of Texas A&M had one little thing been different.
Taking over in the fourth quarter at their own four-yard line, quarterback Josh Rosen moved the offense past midfield with a pair of chunk plays against soft coverage by the retreating Aggies secondary. Taking the snap with a fresh set of downs on Texas A&M’s 42, the quarterback felt a little pressure off his blind side but failed to see an open receiver much of anywhere over the middle of the field. No matter though, he had wideout Darren Andrews streaking toward the goal post. When you’re down 20 and have nothing else to lose, playing gunslinger is part of the game and that’s when Rosen launched a long, arcing pass on a wing and a prayer... right into the hands of Aggies defensive back Deshawn Capers-Smith.
But there was a reason why Capers-Smith plays defensive back instead of receiver, as the ball passed through his outstretched hands unobstructed. Andrews was as surprised as the rest of the crowd to see the sure-fire interception turn into the exact opposite but still managed to react quick enough to haul in the pass for a miraculous touchdown.
All of a sudden, a rout at the Rose Bowl had turned into an inconceivable two-score game and the visitors were holding on for dear life.
“The end result, the play in the end zone is what everybody is going to talk about,” dejected and bleary-eyed A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said afterward. “But it was the plays between that, which didn’t seem like a big deal (at the time), became a big deal.”
Many of those plays in the second half were misfires off the arm of his talented but fresh-faced quarterback Kellen Mond, who was forced into duty once starter Nick Starkel was carried off with a leg injury. While it was clear to everybody on the field that the freshman could run (54 yards), his arm was certainly a liability (3-of-17 on the night) and all those little incompletions in the second half added up in terms of clock stoppages that allowed the Bruins to get back into the game.
The long plane ride back to College Station gave the Aggies’ coaching staff plenty to contemplate, such as why they didn’t insert veteran Jake Hubenek under center for Mond when the latter was clearly in over his head trying to run the offense. Sumlin demurred when talking about changing quarterbacks but one could be confident in saying that had A) Starkel not gotten hurt on a relatively routine scramble and sack (somewhat similar to Deondre Francois’ injury, actually) and/or B) a defensive back had been able to come down with a ball that was literally in his hands, things would have wound up quite different in Pasadena.
But it didn’t play out that way. In the end, both UCLA, Alabama and dozens of other teams owe at least a little bit of their 1-0 records to lady luck.
2. Hot seat talk will not stop, but a coach’s fortune can change over time
The columns from nearly about every writer in the Rose Bowl press box on Sunday were just about completed by the time the third quarter came to a close, with only a few minor details such as final score and total yardage left to be filled in once the final horn sounded. Whether one was a national columnist or a local one, Jim Mora’s red-hot coaching seat was the primary focus before moving onto the ineffectiveness of the new UCLA offense and star quarterback Josh Rosen.