College football Week 1 highlights: Top plays, games, takeaways

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, September 3, 2023

There were games before Saturday, but for all intents and purposes, this was the day college football finally returned to us -- and not a moment too soon.

Think of all we've endured over the past nine months. Realignment, tampering, NIL proposals from the federal government, the 2023 Yankees. It's been rough.

But then Week 1 kicked off, and all was right with the world once more.

Yes, Coloradostole the show with an Eras Tour-level performance, but Saturday had everything we've been missing since the last time TCUwas embarrassed on a national stage.

We opened the day with a grown man in Charlotte, North Carolina, covering himself in mayonnaise, which would seem to fly in the face of the narrative that the ACC isn't a great TV product.

TCU fans gave us our first epic reaction shot of the season, and a Libertyplayer gave us -- honestly, we're not sure what this is, but we're pretty sure the Liberty student code of conduct doesn't allow it.

Iowathrew a passing touchdown on its opening drive of the season for the first time since 1991. Think about that. There have been more President Bushes since then than season-opening Iowa passing TDs. And then, of course, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz's offense did so little in the second half against Utah Statethat the quest for 25 points per game is already behind schedule.

Oregon, meanwhile, had so much offense it nearly killed its mascot. Not since the KFC Double Down sandwich has a bird been so battered.

As has become tradition, Georgiatoyed with an obviously overmatched opponent like a cat batting a mouse around before delivering the fatal blow. The Bulldogs led just 17-0 at the half but ultimately beat Tennessee-Martin 48-7.

We saw a man driving a motorized garbage can.

We'd note that, had Butch Jones only thought to attach a lawnmower engine to his famed turnover trash can, his time at Tennessee might've turned out entirely different. But we're not here to pile on. Jones had a rough enough day already.

Sure, it was a little disappointing that Texas A&Mwon a game without Jimbo Fisher and Bobby Petrino coming to blows on the sideline, but there's a genuine Chekhov's gun scenario here. There will be a payoff before the show's over.

The wheels came off the Texas Tech bandwagon, as Wyoming stunned the Red Raiders in walk-off style. Though we wouldn't recommend walking far in Wyoming. There are coyotes out there.

We saw upsets -- Fresno Stateover Purdue, Northern Illinoisover Boston Collegeand, most shockingly, Texas Stateover Baylor.

We saw blowouts -- Ole Miss, Washingtonand USCall cruised.

We saw vintage Alabama, another impressive performance from Tulane,and a Quinn Ewers performance just good enough to pronounce that Texas... is ... back!

It wasn't the best Saturday of football we're likely to see this year, but that's beside the point. It was college football -- back at long last after a joyless offseason of arguments over all the things that threaten the sport's future.

But Saturday -- this one, every one -- reminds us that, for all the supposed enemies at the gates, the game itself never wavers.

Welcome to Prime Time

We doubted.

Who wouldn't have doubted this Coloradoteam. All the hoopla and hype in the world couldn't erase the utter catastrophe of 2022, when the Buffaloes were 1-11 with seven losses by at least 30 points.

We lectured.

Of course we lectured. Deion Sanders essentially upended every lofty, moral (and, yes, utterly ridiculous) notion of genuine amateurism by effectively cutting two-thirds of his team upon arrival. If Coach Prime had a constant megaphone to tout his new approach to roster building, we could at least use our soapbox to argue against it.

We learned.

Oh, yes, we learned so much Saturday, and we came away looking like fools after Colorado beat TCU, last year's national runner-up, 45-42 in Sanders' first game as the Buffaloes' head coach.

For months, the great college football punditry laughed off Prime's rollicking hype machine, knowing that, once the games began, a hard truth would be revealed. Instead, Colorado pulled back the curtain on an offense that was nothing short of miraculous, a college football reveal that was something akin to Michael Jackson's moonwalk, JR getting shot on "Dallas" and UConnmaking a bowl game all wrapped together.

If aliens had landed at midfield wearing cowboy hats, it wouldn't have been any more shocking.

Sanders' quarterback son,Shedeur,threw for 510 yards and four touchdowns.

Four different Colorado receivers hauled in 100 yards' worth of catches.

Travis Hunter was a superstar playing both receiver and corner and probably drove the team bus, too.

In a time when every new action movie, tech invention or Netflix college football documentary is hyped endlessly only to fizzle out into mediocrity, Deion Sanders and his Buffaloes delivered something truly remarkable on Saturday.

Sure, this wasn't last year's TCU. That team was like the guitar solo in "Free Bird" -- chaotic, rollicking, lasting far longer than it had any right to, but never truly earning the respect of the cultured class of critics. But those Frogs had a host of NFL-caliber players. This year's team -- well, it's a little like seeing Skynyrd today. There's no one from the original band left.

So yes, TCU's defense was a mess and couldn't get off the field despite having Colorado backed up repeatedly in the second half. But can that really explain 565 yards of Buffaloes offense?

And it's true, the Colorado defense had its own issues. TCU rushed for 262 yards in the game, including three touchdowns from the one Sanders -- Trey Sanders -- who wasn't playing for Coach Prime, but when the Buffs absolutely needed a stop in the final two minutes of action, they stuffed the Frogs at the line on back-to-back plays, setting up a turnover on downs that effectively sealed the game.

Nitpick all you want. This was a genuinely epic performance by Colorado, one that assures the Buffs' bandwagon will be replaced with a 1979 Trans Am with a big, gold Ralphie painted on the hood.

Oh, we could try to tamp down the now outsized expectations, because this was, after all, just one game. But to do that is to miss the point. In a sport that routinely churns out the same great teams year after year, this was a genuine surprise. In a week with relatively few marquee matchups, Colorado and TCU delivered the highest of drama, a game with seven lead changes and constant fireworks. And after an offseason marred by endlessly frustrating intrusions of business and economics into college football, Coach Prime gave us something we so desperately needed: fun.

So keep doubting if you must. We're done with all that. We're buying whatever Deion is selling.

After Saturday's win, he suggested Colorado has "a couple of Heisman" contenders. Hey, why stop there? Maybe three or four.

There's film on Colorado now, so its next game should only get tougher. Oh, but Colorado gets Nebraska? Buffs by a million.

The future of college football will be written by Sanders, his sons (Shilo Sandersis a safety for the Buffs), Hunter and a host of other sudden superstars who followed their coach out to Boulder?

Bring it on. If every week looks even close to this one, the future can't come soon enough.

Heisman Five

The Pac-12 might be on life support, but after Colorado's stellar start, it has command of the early Heisman race. Much will change over the next three months, but for now, the West Coast is the best coast.

1. Colorado WR/CB Travis Hunter

You know what college football needed? Its own Shohei Ohtani. Hunter played 129 snaps, caught 11 passes, had 3 tackles, picked off a pass and broke up another. The only difference between Hunter and Ohtani is Colorado actually won a game in which he did something historic.

2. Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders

He opened the week with 100-to-1 odds to win the Heisman and finished it by throwing for 510 yards and four touchdowns. The only downside to his game is autocorrect keeps trying to change his name to Shedder.

3. USC QB Caleb Williams

In the 2023 calendar year, Williams has thrown for 1,059 yards with 14 touchdown passes and one interception. For comparison, 22 FBS teams, including four of USC's future conferencemates in the Big Ten, failed to throw for 14 total touchdowns in all of 2022.

4. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.

Boise State ranked fourth nationally in defensive success rate last season. Penix torched the Broncos to the tune of 450 yards and five touchdowns on Saturday.

5. All three Alabama QBs

Nick Saban isn't into depth charts these days, which was just as well against MTSU. It didn't matter which QB was in the game. The three contenders for the starting job -- Jalen Milroe, who actually started, along with Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson--combined for 295 yards of offense and seven touchdowns.

Buckeyes start slow

Should we be worried about Ohio State?

The Buckeyes beat Indiana handilybut scored just 23 points in the process. New starting QB Kyle McCord threw for 239 yards but no touchdowns and one pick. It was just the third time since 2018 the Buckeyes didn't throw a touchdown pass -- and both of the others came against Northwestern. Less than 10 months ago, Ohio State hung 56 on the Hoosiers.

Frankly, this was a performance Michiganwas expecting Ohio State to save for late November.

Still, it's probably far from time for anyone in Columbus, Ohio, to panic. Ohio State was a woeful 2-for-12 on third down, which stunted any sustained drives. Marvin Harrison Jr. missed some time after a minor arm injury. He and Emeka Egbuka combined for just 34 yards, which they'd typically rack up before the coin toss.

After all, it was just a year ago when Ohio State -- complete with star QB CJ Stroud -- struggled to score 10 points in the first half of its opener against Notre Damebefore ambling to a 21-10 win. The rest of the 2022 season turned out OK.

So no, let's not fill the message board with doomsday (or "Fire Day") scenarios just yet.

Freeze and others nab win No. 1

A year ago, Hugh Freeze's team managed to lose to both UConnand New Mexico State, so it was fair to have a few worries as he began his tenure at Auburnagainst perennial Bottom 10 stalwart UMass.

Turns out, Auburn's win was as comfortable as a press-box hospital bed, with the Tigers rushing for six touchdowns and racking 491 yards of offense -- their most against an FBS opponent since the 2021 opener against Akron.

It was a strong start for the bulk of the other 23 first-year head coaches, too.

G.J. Kinne scored the second-biggest shocker of the day, leading Texas Statepast Baylor42-31. Former Auburn QB TJ Finley led the way, throwing for 298 yards and three touchdowns, rushing for a fourth. In 11 starts for LSUand Auburn over the past three years, Finley had never thrown for three touchdowns or racked up as many passing yards in a game.

Jeff Brohm's homecoming to Louisvillestarted brilliantly with a win over Georgia Tech. Former Louisville coach Scott Satterfield proved he knows how to get the most out of dual-threat QBs, as Emory Jones threw for five touchdowns and ran for two more in Cincinnati's win over Eastern Kentucky. And Charlotte's Biff Poggi led the 49ers to a 24-3 win over South Carolina State while, we assume, smoking a cigar, complaining about the concession lines and using the headset exclusively to tell "Yo Mama" jokes about the opposing offensive linemen.

In all, the 22 new coaches in action Saturday posted a solid 16-7 record, with Northwestern still on the docket.

M.I.A. in Michigan

Michigan played its first of three games without head coach Jim Harbaugh, who is serving a self-imposed suspension, and his players let it be known they didn't agree with it.

On the first offensive possession of the game, the players lined up in his infamous train formation and held up four fingers -- Harbaugh's jersey number as a player.J.J. McCarthy even donned a "Free Harbaugh" shirt before and after the game (despite the far more emphatic message that would've been sent by simply playing the game wearing a pair of Dockers khakis), then told reporters after the win that he was eager to support his coach.

But while Harbaugh was secluded from the action and (we assume) either calling recruits or researching crop circles on YouTube, his team thumped East Carolina30-3 behind three passing TDs from McCarthy.

With UNLVand Bowling Greenon the docket before Harbaugh returns to the sideline, there's a good chance Michigan would start 3-0 even with a magic eight ball calling plays, but the high-profile show of support certainly keeps the suspension -- and the long saga with the NCAA that preceded it -- front and center.

Tennesseewins big

No Hendon Hooker, no problem for Tennessee.

Joe Milton III opened the 2023 season proving last year's late-season highlights weren't a fluke, as Tennessee dominated Virginia 49-13.

The box score says Milton threw for just 201 yards, but we're going to assume that's only because he actually threw the ball so far so often that the yardage counter hit its max and circled back to zero at some point early in the third quarter.

Tennessee's ground game offered ample support, accounting for 287 yards and five touchdowns, too.

Since Hooker went down with a season-ending injury in the Vols' shocking loss to South Carolinain November, Tennessee's offense has put up 56, 31 and 49 points.

No luck for Nebraska

Thursday was supposed to represent the start of a new, better era at Nebraska. Instead, it was more like subsequent chapters in the John Wick series -- bloody, brutal and essentially just a continuation of the previous films.

Daniel Jackson's gorgeous 13-yard touchdown grab erased a late Cornhuskers lead, and Jeff Sims' third interception of the game handed Minnesotaa short field for a game-winning field goal and, for the 26th time since the start of the 2018 season, Nebraska lost a one-possession game 13-10.

For the record, that's seven more one-possession losses than any other team in the country over the same span.

For the record, Nebraska's .212 winning percentage in one-possession games since 2018 is also by far the worst in the nation.

For the record, Matt Rhule had one of the worst one-possession records in the NFL during his stint with the Carolina Panthers, so perhaps none of Week 1's loss should come as a surprise.

But fear not, Nebraska fans. No matter how cursed the team appears to be, we fundamentally believe in the law of averages that eventually everyone regresses to the mean, and over a long enough timeline, even the Huskers' close-game luck has to even out.

So, see your glass as, well, 21% full, and know that, buried deep below the 19-38 record Nebraska has posted over the past five-plus seasons, there's an entirely mediocre program just destined for a date with the Quick Lane Bowl.

Changes in latitudes

For the first time since 1991, Floridaleft its own state for a nonconference game, and it did not go well.

Utahwas without its star QB and a host of other key players, and yet the Utes had no trouble demolishing Florida 24-11 on Thursday.

It was a reminder that Kyle Whittingham is arguably the most underappreciated head coach in the country.

It was also a reminder that Billy Napier inherited a huge job at Florida.

Over the Gators' past 30 games, they're just 12-18. Worse, a quarter of those wins came by just a field goal, two more came vs. FCS teams, and two others came vs. a USF program that is 4-29 over the past three seasons. Indeed, Florida has lost 17 of its last 24 games vs. Power 5 opponents -- in line with the production of Missouri, Caland Syracuseover the same span.

Under-the-radar game of the week

There was a time in the mid-1990s when our country was flush with cultural doppelgngers, from the 1996 Canadian Football League season that featured both the Ottawa and Saskatchewan Roughriders to the 1997 hit songs by The Verve and The Verve Pipe to 1998's release of "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" in the same summer.

But if those glory days of hilarious glitches in the matrix are long over, Friday gave us another confusing plot overlap for the ages when Miami (the Ohio one) faced off against Miami(the Florida one).

The matchup came with its share of smack talk, as Miami (Ohio)'s QB, Brett Gabbert, announced the "real Miami" was in Oxford, Ohio -- an assertion that must've shaken Pitbull to his core.

But it turned out Miami (Florida)'s players weren't worried about geography lessons and instead inflicted a physical pounding against that other Miami.

Final score: Miami 38, Miami 3.

Miami couldn't have asked for a better start to the season. Meanwhile, Miami will be left to lick its wounds on the sandy shores of Miami ... or maybe amid the leafy trees of another cool, colorful fall in Miami.

Under-the-radar play of the week

There wasn't much drama in Oklahoma's opener, with the Sooners stomping Arkansas State73-0, but the blowout didn't mean Jayden Gibson was taking any plays off. The Sooners receiver used the defender to keep the ball alive and hauled in a 21-yard touchdown pass before tumbling out of bounds.

There are about a half-dozen amazing parts to the play, but our favorite is the reaction from defensive back Leon Jones, who made an exceptional play on the ball but offered up the most half-hearted wave off after the grab possible. Come on, Jones. You've got to sell it to the ref!

Best bets and bad beats

Colorado closed as a 20.5-point underdog but pulled out the 3-point win. That's some prime cash for at least one bettor.

Kentucky bettors owe the gambling gods a serious offering this week. Not only did the Wildcats enjoy a nice 69-yard scoop-and-score, but tailback Ray Davis racked up one of the all-time great backdoor covers with an otherwise meaningless 30-yard touchdown run with just six seconds left on the clock.

The Wildcats were 24.5-point favorites over Ball State.Thanks to Davis' late score, they won by 30.

Northern Illinoispulled the upset over Boston Collegein overtime, and the OT rules added another insult to any Eagles backers who had the over, too. NIU's OT touchdown secured the 27-21 win, but since no PAT was required, the final tally of 48 points came up exactly one point shy of the total.

Good teams win, and Penn Statehas been good for a while. But great teams? Great teams cover, which is exactly what the Nittany Lions did when second-string QB Beau Pribula waltzed into the end zone from 5 yards out with six seconds to play to give Penn State -- a 21-point favorite against West Virginia-- a 38-15 win.

Pribula was the star for the betting community, but it was Drew Allar who led the way for Penn State. The Lions have had a long line of effective QBs, including Sean Clifford, who manned the position admirably for the past 23 years. But Clifford was a bit like Paul Giamatti -- an effective leading man who churned out solid performances for years without ever once being considered a sex symbol.

Allar, on the other hand, offers Penn State hope for something more. His Saturday performance -- 325 passing yards and three touchdowns without an interception and a win -- is something Clifford did just once in his career.

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