Welcome back college football. Oh, how we’ve missed you.
The first full weekend in the sport was marvelous not just because it was back in our lives after such a long offseason, but because we can finally stop projecting what teams will do and actually see them in action. After such a long layoff however, it’s a time-honored tradition to well, overreact to what we saw in a small sample size.
Let’s break a few of those down, shall we?
You can probably start in Ann Arbor, where Michigan fans are still wondering what went wrong after an offseason of hype fell flat as the team lost by an all-too-deceptive score of 24-17 at Notre Dame. There was plenty of debate recently over just how good a head coach Jim Harbaugh (above, right) is after the program came back to earth a bit in 2017 and this opening loss was fuel to that fire for critics of the quirkiest coach in the game.
But by no means is the team out of the College Football Playoff hunt nor is there cause for panic just yet. Quarterback Shea Patterson showed a few flashes, the defense made adjustments as the game went on and enough youngsters earned their stripes that there’s still plenty that this team can accomplish. It also helps that the rest of the Big Ten East, aside from Ohio State, didn’t exactly go gangbusters either.
That said, the offense — Harbaugh’s specialty — remains stuck in a different era in college football and remains plagued by a lack of clear vision. The head coach talked up the addition of Jim McElwain and Ed Warinner quite a bit this offseason but you still have to wonder if there’s too many coaches having input both in game-planning and with play-calling. It’s one thing to add new ideas to the offensive meeting room in the run up to the game, but there needs to be a direction for the players to go out and execute as the week goes on. It still doesn’t seem like that’s the case and the Wolverines certainly need to figure things out the next two weeks before that tough start to Big Ten play takes hold.
As, um, blue as the Michigan fan base is feeling entering Week 2 though, things are equally miserable for Texas after a second straight stunning loss to Maryland. There were high expectations for the Longhorns coming in as all those recruiting classes built up and Tom Herman’s “culture” was fully implemented throughout the program. While there’s little doubt the weather delay seemed to zap the team’s momentum, it goes without saying that UT shouldn’t be struggling this much against a team like the Terrapins — especially given what’s gone on in College Park the past few weeks.
Defensively, the team is probably going to be fine once Big 12 play begins but the front seven doesn’t quite look as active as it was a year ago for the Longhorns. If you’re wearing burnt orange memorabilia though, the offense remains the unit to focus on. Sam Ehlinger did make some really nice throws as the game wore on and it’s very clear there are some promising options at wide receiver that can make some plays down the field. The rushing attack appears slightly improved (mostly the result of better offensive line play) but there’s still not quite the bruising back who you can count on to rush for 120 yards a game just yet.
Above all, Herman needs to fully put his stamp on what this team is going to look like every series. There’s no question he showed too much loyalty to co-offensive coordinator Tim Beck by keeping him around this offseason and it’s more than time for the head coach to fully take over play-calling on a permanent basis. Charlie Strong only lasted three years on the 40 Acres and Herman could be in the same boat if things keep trending in the same direction. If one is going to sink or swim at this program, it’s certainly better to do so on one’s own terms.
Elsewhere, there’s quite a bit of panic in Miami after such a lackluster showing at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday. The Hurricanes' defense gave up a few, uncharacteristic big plays on the ground that coordinator Manny Diaz should get cleaned up but the big concern coming into the year along the defensive line could be a longer term fix. Gerald Willis III did make his presence felt which was a good sign and safety Jaquan Johnson was rangy coming up to help against the run. That side of the ball will be fine as the season goes on.
The offense however, never did click. The offensive line didn’t hold the line of scrimmage and while Malik Rosier had a few nice plays, the inconsistency at the quarterback position had to drive fans crazy after hearing how he’d improved over the past few months. In reality, it looked a lot like the same signal-caller we saw down the stretch in 2017. My one driving takeaway watching the game play out was that perhaps that game at Toledo will be a little tougher than first thought for this team.
All that said... it’s just one game. There’s a whole lot of season left to play and one of the great things about college football is that you can see teams grow and change quite a bit as the year goes on. Unless you’re a Kansas or UTEP fan or somebody similar, there’s still plenty of football left to be played. Overreactions from the Week 1 slate are normal this time of year, but that doesn’t mean they have to turn into truisms if you’re Miami, Texas, Michigan or many others.
Six other takeaways from the first full weekend of college football:
2. Where art thou Khalil Tate?
On paper, Tate (right) against a team coming off a 4-9 season had all the makings of a big night. Instead, there was hardly any magic in the desert — no #Pac12AfterDark here — as Arizona fell to BYU 28-23 in a game that never seemed that close. That not only ruined the debut of Kevin Sumlin with the Wildcats, but if you watched any part of the game, has to be concerning about the future of the team’s signal-caller this year too.
There was plenty of talk this offseason about Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone developing Tate’s passing skills and turning him into an even more dangerous version of Johnny Manziel (sans off-the-field antics). What we probably didn’t anticipate was the duo putting shackles on the signal-caller, almost handcuffing him to the pocket and barely even rolling him out to let him do his magic. RPO’s? Not really. Designed runs? Not in the game plan.
In fact, Tate had just eight carries for 14 yards. This is, in fact, the same player who once rushed from 327 yards from the same position remarkably.
It’s understandable that Sumlin wants to mesh his and Mazzone’s system with Tate to create a true dual threat for opponents to worry about. Based on what we saw Saturday night though, this looks like a far more one-dimensional attack from the Wildcats. Offensive line play can only be blamed so much and if this continues you have to wonder about the new staff maximizing the talents of one of the most dangerous players in college football.
Next week doesn’t get any easier either with a trip to go play Ed Oliver as the Wildcats travel to Houston to face the Cougars.
3. Pac-12’s playoff path narrows as league takes more hits
Speaking of Pac-12 teams, there’s no doubt the conference took a hit in Week 1 after already listening to seven months' worth of talk about just how bad the league was during bowl season and what kind of gap exists between Larry Scott’s league and the rest of the Power 5.
Although they resulted in wins, slow starts by Utah, Stanford, USC and Oregon didn’t help. Oregon State was run out the building as expected, but Chip Kelly lost his debut at UCLA and the aforementioned Arizona squad lost to BYU. Even with all those results, none stung more than Washington losing to Auburn down in Atlanta in a game the Huskies went toe-to-toe with the Tigers but never did quite seize control of. It was a marquee win the conference desperately needed but failed to come up with.
The Huskies still carry the banner as the Pac-12’s elite team but now need to run the table to have a shot at the playoff, as their only meaningful chance at a big win will likely come when Stanford rolls into Seattle and, perhaps, if USC/Utah/Arizona are a top-15 team by the time the conference title game rolls around. Make no mistake, the Huskies looked the part against a legitimate top-10 team in Auburn and came up just short thanks to a lot of minor mistakes. It still counts the same in the eyes of the committee though: as a loss, and not a top 25 win.
Add it all up and all the projections leaving out the Pac-12 may be on to something. It’s still a long season but the margin for error is even thinner out West after just a week. Such is life.
Speaking of Auburn, the Tigers passed their first big test of the season and are 1-for-1 against top-10 teams on the road. There are two more such games later this year and the Tigers have to be much more optimistic about their chances of a big year. Gus Malzahn going away from the run game in the second half will give folks a minor pause but the defense is once again for real and the offense has plenty of weapons.