College football is back! So are Georgia and Bama, and maybe even USC

ByDavid M. Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, September 4, 2022

To endure an offseason as a college football fan is to live within an ecosystem of daily panic, nearly constant tumult and, on the plus side, the occasional heated debate over what to name a chicken. These are fraught times for the sport, when each day brings the possibility of a star player switching teams or a marquee program swapping leagues. Since Kirby Smart hoisted the national championship trophy nine months ago, we've all been desperate for something solid -- or at least something marginally more stable than Auburn's athletic department.

And so, at long last, we were given actual football, and Week 1 delivered a necessary injection of stability. It was a reminder that sometimes the things we think we know are actually true.

Georgiais still good. After an offseason in which the Dawgs sent enough players to the draft to qualify as a better source of NFL talent than theJacksonville Jaguars, surely they would take a step back withoutJordan Davis, Nakobe Dean& Co., right? Nope. Instead, Georgia welcomed Oregon to Atlanta with an absolutely soul-crushing demolition of the No. 11 team in the country. A year ago, Dan Lanning was coaching the Bulldogs' defense. This time, as Oregon's head coach, he was on the receiving end of a thrashing that must've felt entirely too familiar. And Stetson Bennett, it turns out, is still so much better than anyone seems to understand. The Bulldogs signal-caller threw for 368 yards and then (we assume) retired to a leather chair, donned a smoking jacket and cracked open a bottle of 1945 Chteau Mouton-Rothschild.

Bryce Young and the Crimson Tide are still good too. Alabamamay have fallen in last year's title game, but it didn't fall far. Young, who finished last season with exactly zero rushing yards (Side note: Can we please stop counting sacks as rushing attempts?) showed off his wheels on Saturday against Utah State, scampering 63 yards for a touchdown as part of a six-TD day.

Young's closest competition for this year's Heisman Trophy delivered a stirring drive to save Ohio Statefrom a near upset. C.J. Stroud spent much of Saturday night frustrated by Notre Dame's stout defense, but with the game on the line, the QB came up big. Stroud helped engineer a 14-play, 95-yard drive touchdown drive that chewed up nearly seven minutes in the fourth quarter, and the Buckeyes topped the Fighting Irish 21-10.

Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams looked perfectly comfortable in their new digs at USC,picking up right where they left off at Oklahoma.Williams tossed two TDs -- both to Pittsburghtransfer Jordan Addison -- and led the Trojans to a 66-14 win over Rice.

Iowapunted 10 times and won. Utahensured the Pac-12 blundered away its playoff hopes before Labor Day. UMasslost by 32. Same as it ever was.

Oh, Week 1 had its share of surprises, but not the "Hey, is that your car rolling into the lake?" type of surprises that this offseason seemed to provide on a weekly basis. Instead, we got Anthony Richardson's star turn at Florida,helping Billy Napier win a nail-biter against No. 7 Utah in his debut with the Gators. We got the utter madness of North Carolinaand Appalachian Statescoring so much in the fourth quarter that Mack Brown lost his fine motor skills. We got a punt blocked by a guy standing too close to the punter and Delaware's coach dropping an F-bomb on live TV to celebrate a win over Navy.

It was all exactly the type of weird we expect from Week 1 of the college football season.

There's something inherently comforting about knowing that, once the season kicks off, all those pesky decisions about super conferences and transfer windows fade into the ether, like so many Notre Dame upset bids, and disappear. And what we're left with is good old college football, filled with the weird and wild and wonderful and, perhaps when we need it the most, give us exactly what we expected.

That's the beauty of this sport. For all the chaos and craziness, the glory of a fall Saturday always feels the same.

So many points -- and so many punts -- in Week 1's early slate

Week 1 occasionally delivers truly great football, an epic battle of two teams destined for a playoff run.

But it also delivers some awful football, as two teams still shaking off the rust of a long offseason wage a battle of attrition.

But Saturday's noon slate gave us something else entirely. It was a Schrdinger's cat of college football -- both great and awful, beautiful and horrifying, live and dead, all at once.

On the wide open plains of Iowa, the Hawkeyes delivered a win so gloriously ugly, the only true complaint is that the 7-3 final score was marred by a late safety that left even Iowa fans, now secure in victory, dejected. It was a game that deserved a 5-3 final. To have anything else would be like Charles Dickens writing "A Tale of Two Cities" then naming it "A Book About France."

Upon the rolling hills of western North Carolina, the Tar Heels and Appalachian State packed nearly nine full Iowa games into the fourth quarter alone. App State jumped out to a 21-7 lead, UNC roared back and led 41-21 entering the fourth quarter, and then things got fun.

The Mountaineers scored on back-to-back drives. UNC answered. Two more App State touchdowns followed before the Tar Heels scored on a 42-yard pass from Drake Maye to take a 56-49 lead with just 2:50 to play.

Then four more touchdowns happened. Seriously -- four more TDs than in the entirety of the Iowa-South Dakota State game happened in less than 3 minutes of action at App State. It's possible space-time ceased to exist for a while.

The Tar Heels appeared to have escaped when Chase Brice overthrew his receiver on a 2-point try with 31 seconds to play, but North Carolina went and did the dumbest thing it could possibly do in the aftermath. It scored again. Putting UNC's defense on the field was akin to setting off M-80s in your closet. And sure enough, Brice hit Kaedin Robinson for a 26-yard TD pass with 9 seconds remaining to give App State one last 2-point try to tie.

The ending was anticlimactic. Brice was tackled at the 1 on a scramble -- or perhaps he just collapsed from sheer exhaustion.

In all, Brice and Maye threw for a combined 10 touchdowns, with each topping 350 yards through the air. Or, as they say in Iowa, a full season of Big Ten play.

Iowa and South Dakota State combined for 16 first downs and 21 completed passes. Or, as they say in North Carolina, the stuff you missed while in line for a beer.

It was wondrous. It was agonizing. It was dizzying and terrible and electric. It defied explanation at every turn.

It was exactly the way to kick off Week 1 of the college football season.

Who's this year's Cincinnati?

It's never too early to wonder which Group of Five team spends the year complaining about being overlooked by the playoff committee. So, who might it be in 2022?

Well, probably not Cincinnati. The Bearcats still looked sharp despite the exodus of talent to the NFL after last year's Cinderella playoff appearance, but it wasn't enough to take down Arkansas, who clearly brought the good stuff to the party Saturday.

Instead, perhaps it's Houston. The Cougars opened the season ranked No. 24, and after falling behind 21-7 at UTSA, they rallied to a 37-35 triple overtime win. On the downside, three OTs was bound to interfere with Dana Holgorsen's dinner reservations, so it wasn't all good news for Houston.

A sleeper candidate might be Air Force. The Falcons crushed Northern Iowa (which, for reference, was nowhere near the ugliest team from Iowaon Saturday), and is favored, according to FPI, in each of their remaining games, too.

How about Coastal Carolina? The Chanticleers beat Army38-28, while Grayson McCall threw three touchdowns. Coastal has a manageable schedule and some delightful haircuts and it's about time the playoff committee started taking haircare into consideration.

Checking in on notable offseason storylines

Is Texasback?

Maybe! The Longhorns cruised to an easy win over Louisiana-Monroe, with Quinn Ewers throwing two TD passes in his debut. Sure, beating ULM doesn't prove much, but given Texas' history against teams like -- oh, let's say, Kansas-- this still marks an important step forward. On the other hand, parking remains an issue.

Is the Pac-12 in line for a playoff berth?

No! As always, the Pac-12 was kind enough to largely eliminate itself from the playoff discussion in Week 1 with losses by Utahand Oregon. Kevin Warren smells a buyer's market.

Is Vanderbiltthe best team in the country?

Maybe! We can't officially say no since the Commodores are 2-0 (matching last year's win total) but given its rather lackluster win over FCS Elon, it's fair to wonder if, in fact, they're still a year away from toppling Alabama.

Has Scott Frost been fired yet?

No! Frost finally got a win, even if it wasn't pretty and it came against FCS North Dakota. Nebraskawent to halftime tied at 7, but Casey Thompson found his groove in the second half and the Huskers won 38-17.

Has Bryan Harsin been fired yet?

We don't think so! Auburnwon with ease against FCS Mercer, though that doesn't necessarily mean a few Tigers boosters didn't find some cash in their couch cushions and decide to make a change anyway. We can never be sure.

Maybe just pay the up-charge next time

This season, the ACC will play 10 road games against teams outside the Power 5. No other Power 5 league plays more than three. And yet, this isn't new. By year's end, the ACC will have played nearly as many such games (64) in the playoff era as the Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC have combined (78).

The first three of these road trips came Friday, when Virginia Techfirst got stuck in an elevator then shot itself in the foot, losing to Old Dominion 20-17 in head coach Brent Pry's debut.

On Saturday, North Carolina and NC Stateboth came within inches of suffering the same fate on the road vs. American Athletic Conference foes.

UNC needed approximately 36 narrow escapes in the final moments against App State to avoid embarrassment.

NC State looked even worse. The Wolfpack blew back-to-back drives in which they had the ball at the 1-yard line with a chance to go up 14, then watched ECU score late, miss a PAT, get a stop, drive into field goal range, then miss another kick. NC State hung on for the 21-20 win that, while a victory in the standings, surely deflated much of the preseason hype the team had gotten as a possible dark-horse playoff candidate.

In all, the ACC has lost 20 road games outside the Power 5 in the playoff era -- three more than the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 combined -- and it's certainly doing little to help the reputation of a league that's in dire need of some good vibes.

So, why does the league keep doing it?

The first answer is money. Promising a home game for Group of Five opponents saves ACC teams the cost of paying for a one-off visit to their stadium, though there's a good argument to be made that the cost of taking an L in one of those games is even bigger. The ACC has essentially decided to sit on a plane with a suitcase on its lap rather than pay to check a bag.

The second answer is politics, and while the state legislature didn't directly force North Carolina or NC State to visit their small-school neighbors, critical funding from the state is often a part of the decision making. Not every state legislature rewrites laws at a coach's request (hi, Georgia!).

Still, politics and money matter to everyone, but the ACC is unique in its approach, and so the biggest answer might simply be philosophy. The league's top football brands -- Clemsonand Florida State-- have played just one road game outside the Power 5 in the playoff era. Look to the SEC, where Vanderbilt is responsible for the bulk of its road trips outside the Power 5, and Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSUhave played just two such games combined.

As one ACC administrator put it, "it's risky business" playing these games for legitimate football brands, and there's very little reward even if it all works out well.

Under-the-radar play of the day

Wyomingkicker John Hoyland had a chance to cap a wild, back-and-forth game in regulation with a 44-yard field goal try for the win. Technically speaking, he missed.

That this doesn't count as an automatic walk-off win at any point in the game feels like a real flaw in the rule book. After all, what's tougher -- kicking a football between two uprights 18.5 feet apart, or dropping that kick onto the very tip of one of those uprights? We're simply choosing to value the wrong things.

The good news is Hoyland got his shot at redemption in double OT, connecting on a 30-yarder to give the Cowboys a 40-37 win.

Under-the-radar game of the day

James Madisonofficially joined the FBS with its opener against Middle Tennesseeon Saturday, and the Dukes made sure there wasn't much drama to the festivities, marching to an easy 44-7 win.

So, if you're scoring at home, JMU now has as many wins over FBS opponents in one game at this level than UConnhas since 2018.

Heisman Five

There's little point in making any broad pronouncements after just a week of games, but we think it's safe to say Bryce Young is still good and all UMassplayers have officially been eliminated.

1. AlabamaQB Bryce Young

"The Wire" summed up Week 1's impact on the Heisman race nicely: "The king stay the king." Young threw five TD passes and ran for another, racking up 295 total yards despite barely playing more than a half.

2. GeorgiaQB Stetson Bennett

Bennet threw for 368 yards against the No. 11 team in the country. That's a pretty good follow-up to a National Championship game.

3. Alabama LB Will Anderson Jr.

This play is illegal in 17 states. My word.

4. USCQB Caleb Williams

In his USC debut, he averaged 11.3 yards per pass and also 11.3 yards per rush. That's good balance.

5. FloridaQB Anthony Richardson

Fun fact: Cam Newton once played at Florida. Fun fact No. 2: Richardson might be the second coming. He threw for 168, ran for 104 and scored three times in the Gators' win over Utah.

Hey, these guys aren't so bad

In the Pac-12, it was USC's dip into the transfer portal that drew the most attention, but there's a case to be made Arizonamay have benefited even more.

The Wildcats were a national punchline for the better part of the past three seasons, finishing 2021 with a 1-11 record. But this offseason, Arizona dipped into the deep end of the transfer portal and added some key players, including QB Jayden de Laura and receiver Jacob Cowing.

The results were felt immediately with an impressive 38-20 win over San Diego State in Saturday's opener. The passing game dominated, with de Laura throwing four touchdowns, while Cowing hauled in three of them, part of a 152-yard day.

Arizona's 38 points were the most the team had scored since November 2019, while San Diego State has now allowed 38-plus in two of its last three games after 46 straight holding opponents below that total.

The most college football thing of the week

Greg Schiano made this an impossible choice in Week 1.

On one hand, Schiano reached elite level galaxy brain coaching on Rutgers' first series of the game Saturday against Boston College, which the Scarlett Knights played without starting QBNoah Vedral.

Schiano's QB on first down: Johnny Logan, who's technically listed as a tight end. (He ran for 4 yards.)

His QB on second down: Gavin Wimsatt. (He handed off. Gain of 3.)

His QB on third down: Evan Simon. (He threw incomplete.)

Add a delay of game, and Rutgers could officially claim that its first drive included more QBs than yards gained.

But that wasn't the end of the ridiculous (or sublime, depending on your perspective) from this game.

Midway through the first quarter, Wimsatt converted a third-and-5 with a completion to the BC 10-yard line, setting up a first-and-goal. Three plays later, Rutgers punted.

Yes, you read that right.

A 2-yard run was followed by an offensive pass interference flag, a holding call, a false start and a sack. By fourth down, Rutgers set up shop at the BC 43-yard-line, and called in the punter.

The wildest part? It all worked out. BC threw a pick on the next drive, and Rutgers turned the interception into 6 points -- the long way.

And lest anyone assume all of this wasn't perfectly scripted, the Scarlet Knights pulled off a come-from-behind 22-21 win following a 12-play, 96-yard touchdown drive with 2:43 to play. Just like Schiano drew it up.

Big bets and bad beats

The total for Iowa-South Dakota State closed at 42, the lowest total for any game Saturday at the time of kickoff. And perhaps if they'd played 43 overtimes, they might've taken a run at that number. Instead, the final score -- 7-3 without a touchdown -- came up 32 points shy.

On the flip side, the total for North Carolina at Appalachian State was just 56, a number both teams covered on their own. In fact, they actually combined for 62 points in the fourth quarter alone -- a tally that, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, was just one point shy of the FBS record for a fourth quarter, set by Navy and North Texas in 2007.

Georgia is good. This isn't news. But Georgia is particularly good -- for bettors, in particular -- when it plays a non-conference game vs. a Power 5 foe. With Saturday's dominant 49-3 win over No. 11 Oregon, the Bulldogs have covered six straight against non-SEC Power 5 teams, winning by an average of 37 points. The Georgia defense has allowed just one touchdown -- vs. Michigan with 4:25 to play in a game already in hand -- in its last four.

Layne Hatcher's 10-yard TD pass on third-and-6 with 2:23 to play had absolutely no impact on Texas State's ugly loss to Nevada. But it did bring the score to 38-14 -- a total of 52 points -- in a game with an over/under set at 51.5. And if you had your under ruined because of a meaningless Texas State Bobcats TD, well... welcome to football season. We're just getting started.

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