Making sense of all that happened in a jam-packed opening slate that featured a little bit of everything
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 piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance 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.
Thaaat's gonna be a tough one in the film room pic.twitter.com/yAP84AfoF4— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 4, 2017
“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.
Yet not one of those columns made the light of day, sent to that giant receptacle in the sky of good words gone unread by the keystroke of CTL+ALT+DEL. As euphoric a comeback it was for the Bruins, Mora’s status didn’t change much all things considered and only brought temporary bliss to his job status. The fact remains that his hot seat remains 10 times toastier with his fan base than the UCLA administration. Things can still go south in Westwood over the course of a long season (trips to Stanford, Washington, Utah and USC still to come) and the allure of potentially grabbing Chip Kelly will never go away for some in powder blue.
But Mora was never in the danger he was portrayed in at halftime against Texas A&M for a variety of reasons, many of which center around his large buyout. Counterpart Kevin Sumlin is in a thornier situation, with school regents already coming out against him. He understands the situation but also that things are not final just yet though — even if everybody knows the current path is untenable. Being on the wrong end of such a comeback won’t help things when it comes time to sit down with athletic director Scott Woodward but Sumlin can still save his job with wins over Alabama, Auburn and/or LSU (the latter two especially important as they come in November).
Finishing 10-2 is still in play for the maroon and white and there’s still a realistic scenario where UCLA goes 4-8 again. It’s a reminder not to overreact to coaching hot seats during September (unless you work at LSU). Think back to last year, where USC’s Clay Helton was done a month in, Charlie Strong had righted the ship at Texas after beating Notre Dame and Les Miles was business as usual despite getting upset by Wisconsin.
It’s not over until it’s over, after all.
3. Alabama isn’t invincible, but the Crimson Tide look just as dangerous as they always do
Does anything really need to be said at this point? Nick Saban wasn’t happy with the effort on Saturday night and he has a right to be upset at all the little things that prevented some more breathing room on the scoreboard against Florida State. But this is still Alabama and the Crimson Tide proved once again why they are a default choice to be No. 1 in the polls and have a concrete lock on a playoff spot.
I mean, five-star freshmen like Dylan Moses are making key special teams plays and tailback Najee Harris should see more snaps as the season goes on. Against the best team on the schedule and the one many pegged as the third best in the country, the Alabama won by 17, controlled the game throughout, and held Jimbo Fisher’s offense to just 250 yards. Things were not perfect by any stretch and this doesn’t appear to be as good of a team as last year’s version but, at this point, we might not find out how good this group really is until the Sugar Bowl.
That’s not to say that LSU, Auburn or a surprise team like Arkansas can’t mix the right ingredients together and pull off an upset. But for right now, there does not appear to be anybody close to Alabama at the moment — in their own conference or elsewhere.
4. Texas-sized rebuilding projects
There was no more desolate stretch of college football than a weekend trip up I-35 from Austin to Waco, then back down to College Station along Highway 6. Texas kicked off the Tom Herman era with a loss to 18-point underdog Maryland, with Longhorns fans watching a replay of the past few years instead of a tougher, more competent team. As rough as things were in the capital though, it was a downright picnic compared to what happened at a few of their ex-SWC rivals.
You can start in Baylor, where Matt Rhule opting to coach the Bears instead of going to Oregon is looking suspect after just one game — a 48-45 loss to a Liberty program transitioning to the FBS ranks. The outcome prompted many to wonder if the school was returning to also-ran status quicker than expected and it’s not hard to see a long road back in the pass-happy Big 12 with Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and West Virginia all on tap the next six weeks for a team that gave up 581 yards to an FCS team.
“This was not what we wanted tonight, but that does not mean I'm not proud of them, not proud of their effort,” said Rhule after the game. “I put this on me, I put this on the coaches, it's our job to get it fixed.”
Ten true freshmen played for the Bears on Saturday and four started. We knew the team would take a while to get going under Rhule but you mix that with a new coaching staff unfamiliar with the state (for recruiting) and the conference (for games) and things could be rough in 2017. Baylor doesn’t have enough shiplap in the world to cover that up.
Add in Texas A&M (see above) blowing a 34-point lead while losing their starting quarterback and it could be a long year in the Lone Star State. While the Aggies and Longhorns have enough talent on the roster and play in conferences where the talent gap isn’t too significant, that doesn’t appear to be the case in Waco.
5. Will early signs of progress continue elsewhere?
While the state of Texas was struggling, the early returns at other programs hoping for a bounce back were a lot more positive.
Notre Dame shellacked a solid Temple team in a fashion that at least rustled up a few echoes of echoes. New quarterback Brandon Wimbush looked electric and guided an offense that looked much more potent than a year ago. The Irish defense was stout and appears to have the pieces they did not have a year ago. Even if the team follows up all that encouraging news with a loss to Georgia, this squad looks much more competitive in a pivotal year in South Bend.
They weren’t the only ones to look a lot better than their 2016 selves. Rutgers gave Washington a lot more than expected and look a lot faster and better coached than they were a year ago. Purdue still has to work on holding onto the football but gave a talented Louisville squad just about everything they could handle in Year 1 of the Jeff Brohm era. Given the opponents, one can’t take away too much from nice wins by Oregon and Michigan State but there were still some encouraging play heading into big Week 2 tests.
No team stands out more than Cal however, which secured head coach Justin Wilcox a victory over North Carolina in his debut despite the cross-country trek to play at 9 a.m. pacific time. The Bears looked (with only slight exaggeration) 1000x better on defense than they have for the past five years.
One notable exception? Look no further than Oregon State, where many expected Gary Andersen to get his team in position to grab a bowl bid but the Beavers seem to have taken a serious step back in terms of their play and just might be the worst Power 5 team next to Illinois.
6. The Lane Kiffin experiment will definitely not be boring
Come hell or high water, Lane Kiffin wanted to finish his debut at Florida Atlantic and he certainly got his money’s worth at nearly six hours in a loss to Navy. The problem was that his team was down 42-19 and had to suffer through three lightning delays, wrapping things up around 2 a.m. local time. Navy officials said they would have been fine calling the game early and heading back to Annapolis but that did not end up happening because the Owls wanted to continue and finish the game.
That the Midshipmen won should come as no surprise as the struggles USF is having might just make them the early favorite in the AAC. One thing looks certain though, the Kiffin era is going to play out just about how many of us expect and it won’t be boring down in Boca.
7. Heisman race will be wild, and wide open
It’s always tough limiting your Heisman selections to just five players and that’s especially true early in the season. Already though, it just feels like one of those years where the race to take home the trophy is going to be wide open and come down to a handful of votes in the final weekend.
Prohibitive favorite Sam Darnold struggled against Western Michigan by throwing two interceptions but he can get right back on the radar with a win over Stanford. Across town the following day, Josh Rosen entered his name into the running with a virtuoso performance in an incredible comeback. Tailbacks Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice both looked sharp in their openers but it won’t be until conference play before they can make a statement. As much as Lamar Jackson seemed to go under the radar this offseason, he had a ho-hum 485 yards with little help from his teammates.
Even the loser of the Baker Mayfield-J.T. Barrett showdown is by no means out of the running. While the oddsmakers suggested a race like 2014 (Marcus Mariota) or ‘13 (Jameis Winston), the reality is the field is large, diverse and prone to plenty of wild swings as the games tick on.
Stat of the Week
I was shocked to see that Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins was only the sixth true freshman to start for the Buckeyes in the first game of the season. Right guard Michael Jordan did so in 2016, but before that you would have to go all the way back to… running back Maurice Clarett in ‘02. That’s fitting as Dobbins set a school record with 181 yards in his first game, breaking the old mark of 175 yards set by Clarett. Urban Meyer appears to have another good one on his hands.
Tweet of the Week
Clemson's band trolling Ohio State in its halftime show... pic.twitter.com/obTPrLz6jD— #DaHale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 2, 2017
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Josh Rosen, UCLA
Heisman five: 1. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 2. Saquon Barkley (Penn State), 3. Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State), 4. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 5. Josh Rosen (UCLA)
Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. Clemson, 4. Oklahoma State
Team of the week: Howard
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Quote of the week: “They whooped us. I mean, plain and simple.” — Florida head coach Jim McElwain
Play of the Week
Blind USC longsnapper Jake Olson on the extra point. Been part of the program for a long time, special moment. pic.twitter.com/wEQxeqc4Uk— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) September 3, 2017
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 2.
3. Ohio State
5. Oklahoma State
6. Penn State
8. Florida State
16. Washington State
Best of the rest: Louisville, Kansas State, Miami, Notre Dame, Colorado, Boise State, Virginia Tech, TCU, Tennessee
Oklahoma at Ohio State
The juiciest of a terrific Week 2 slate is a lovely rematch between college football powerhouses. This game looks to be much more competitive than last year’s edition in Norman and you can be sure that the Sooners will be properly motivated after that 45-24 loss. There are enough questions over OU’s receivers and OSU’s secondary that things could be pretty tight and decided by who gets the running game going more efficiently. The Buckeyes will be the pick but don’t be shocked if this one is close into the fourth quarter.
Auburn at Clemson
Good luck to the offensive coordinators in this one because both pairs of Tigers look like they have a top-notch defense. The focus will be on the two quarterbacks in this one but it seems like the bigger question mark might be along the offensive lines. It’s hard to win in Death Valley as is and you can bet the defending champions will one to remind everybody that they are no one year wonders when it comes to winning titles. You can make the case for just about any kind of result in this one but we’ll go with the home team by 10.
Stanford at USC
The Cardinal have won seven of the last nine in this series and have been the better coached side of this rivalry for nearly a decade now. Talent still favors the Trojans and they’ll get the advantage of playing at home, where they’ve been a little more competitive. USC getting blown off the ball by Western Michigan does not inspire confidence after the opener but we’ll still go with the playoff contender by a field goal as the Trojans look to right the ship in a big conference test.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.