A full slate of college football action returned this weekend, complete with the tradition and pageantry that makes the sport so special and was largely missing last season. In raucous stadiums with marching bands blaring, some teams set themselves apart, others suffered devastating losses, and the College Football Playoff picture began to take shape.
Read below for a first down’s worth of observations and analysis from Week 1.
#3 CLEMSON vs. #5 GEORGIA: The showdown between top-5 teams Clemson and Georgia highlighted Week 1 action and showcased a dominant defensive effort by both teams. As I predicted while picking Georgia to win the game, the difference in the game came down to the matchup between Georgia’s defensive line against Clemson’s offensive line. Like in losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State last season, the Clemson offensive line was not up to the challenge, surrendering 7 sacks and 8 TFLs while QB DJ Uiagalelei was harassed all night. For most of the game, it felt like the Tigers were down multiple touchdowns, but they still had the ball with a chance to tie late in the 4th quarter due to a heroic effort from the defense.
For Georgia, though they staked a claim as a top-5 team and the primary challenger to Alabama in the SEC, there has to be concern on the offensive side of the ball as they managed only 256 total yards, 4.5 yards per pass, and 15 first downs while not scoring an offensive touchdown. Though their defense will keep them in every game, the offense needs to find a big-play threat to enable QB JT Daniels to stretch the field. Without that, Georgia does not have the firepower to last 4 quarters with Alabama or even Texas A&M.
The most surprising parts of Clemson’s performance against Georgia was how ineffective QB DJ Uiagalelei was against the Georgia defense. Given how well Uiagalelei performed last season stepping in for Trevor Lawrence against Boston College and Notre Dame, where he “only” led Clemson to the largest comeback in school history and then threw for the most passing yards ND had ever given up, the common thought was that he would pick up right where Lawrence left off. Two things were discounted though – the impact of the loss of RB Travis Etienne and the fact that Uiagalelei is a much less prolific runner than Lawrence.
Those combinations, coupled with the fact that Clemson has just an average offensive line, meant Georgia did not fear the Clemson rushing attack at all, and held the Tigers to just 2 rushing yards! Though this was aided in large part by 7 sacks, Clemson’s leading rusher had just 10 yards and there were only 9 rushing attempts by running backs the entire game. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott will need to find a way to generate a rushing attack without a great offensive line and the threat of the quarterback run game, otherwise Clemson will continue to struggle against teams with strong pass rushes.
#1 ALABAMA vs. #14 MIAMI: Despite losing first round draft picks at quarterback, receiver (2), and running back, the Alabama offense picked up right where it left off, absolutely dismantling a Miami Hurricanes team that appeared disinterested. Nick Saban teams are unstoppable when given an extended period of time to prepare, and despite making his first career start, QB Bryce Young played like a veteran, throwing for 344 yards and 4 TDs.
Alabama is once again the team to beat, and at this point, maybe the only thing that can stop the Alabama dynasty is the potential move to a 12-team playoff, because then at least the Tide won’t know their opponent until a week before the game. In all seriousness, why do teams keep signing up for these Week 1 showcase games against the Crimson Tide? If this offense remains this explosive, Alabama will run away with the SEC, as they also sport one of the top defenses in the country that limited the dangerous Miami QB D’Eriq King to just 178 yards passing and 10 yards rushing.
#19 PENN STATE vs. #12 WISCONSIN: In contrast to the explosive Tide offense, we also had the first-half rock fight between Wisconsin and Penn State, that to be fair, exploded into second half drama and a GIANT missed opportunity for the Badgers. Heralded QB Graham Mertz – who Wisconsin picked over the steady Jack Coan – handed the game away, throwing two interceptions in the 4th quarter and fumbling twice inside the 5 yard-line on handoffs, while also committing two costly intentional grounding penalties.
Despite running 95 (!) plays and possessing the ball for almost 43 minutes while gaining 29 first downs to Penn State’s 11, the Badgers scored only 10 points, due in large part to the red zone miscues (which also included a blocked chip shot field goal) and Mertz’s erratic day. The Badgers can still rebound and make the College Football Playoff, which would necessitate wins over Iowa, Ohio State, and Notre Dame, but there is no margin for error and Mertz absolutely must play better.
#4 OHIO STATE at MINNESOTA: Speaking of the Buckeyes, Ohio State outlasted Minnesota 45-31 in front of a raucous crowd in Minneapolis. Two things stood out in the game. First, wow, is Ohio State explosive on offense, even with QB CJ Stroud making his first career start. Though the Buckeyes offense wasn’t efficient, it didn’t need to be as their offensive touchdowns came on plays of 71, 38, 56, 70, and 61 yards.
Second, Ohio State will go as far as its defense can take it. Many of the problems that plagued the OSU defense last season resurfaced, as they allowed Minnesota to gain 408 total yards and go 8-14 on 3rd down. The Buckeyes vaunted defensive line was whipped up front by Minnesota RB Mohamed Ibrahim and the offensive line until Ibrahim left with an injury. Lastly, was there a bigger penalty in Week 1 than the unnecessary roughness penalty on 6th year senior captain Conner Olson? Minnesota had a 21-17 lead and was driving with 7:09 in the 3rd quarter when Olson committed the drive-killing, momentum-stopping, crowd-muting penalty by pushing an OSU linebacker over the pile. Following the punt, Ohio State scored on its next offensive play and never trailed again.
Most impressive teams of the weekend:
UCLA – Is UCLA back? They sure looked like it, with a dismantling of LSU that left little doubt the Bruins were the best team on the field. Chip Kelly’s offense was humming on all cylinders as the Bruins destroying the Tigers with crossing routes, and though UCLA gave up some big plays on defense, they played aggressively and dictated the tempo to the LSU offense all night. In a wide-open Pac-12, why not the Bruins?
Iowa – Add Iowa to the list of sleeper teams for the College Football Playoff after they crushed Indiana 34-6 in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes extended the nation’s best streak of holding opponents under 25 points to 23 games, but in addition to a strong defense (that had two pick-sixes), Iowa has some explosive playmakers on offense led by RB Tyler Goodson. The Hawkeyes travel to Ames next weekend and are on the road at Wisconsin on October 30th, but they host Penn State and Minnesota and avoid Ohio State and Michigan in cross-divisional games. This team absolutely can make some noise.
Texas – In Steve Sarkisian’s debut, Texas controlled the entire game against #23 Louisiana-Lafayette en route to a 38-18 victory. Though Texas should always beat a team like Louisiana-Lafayette, keep in mind that this Ragin’ Cajun team returned just about everyone from a team that went 10-1 last season and knocked off the 2020 Big 12 regular season champ Iowa State in Ames. If QB Hudson Card can continue to efficiently distribute the ball to playmakers like RB Bijan Robinson (176 total yards) and WR Jordan Whittington (113 yards), the Longhorns can take down Oklahoma and Iowa State teams that showed plenty of flaws this weekend.
Least impressive teams of the weekend:
Oklahoma – Speaking of the Sooners, they managed to avoid an upset this weekend but were outscored 21-3 in a lethargic second half. Tulane had the ball with a chance to win the game in the 4th quarter, in large part due to 3 interceptions by QB Spencer Rattler. With the SEC having an inside track to get 2 teams into the playoff, perception matters for Oklahoma and this performance did not help.
North Carolina – The preseason hype and top-10 ranking ignored the fact that the Tar Heels were replacing 2 thousand-yard rushers and a thousand-yard receiver and had the PFF’s 102nd ranked line in 2020. Not only can Sam Howell not do it alone; he was part of the problem, throwing 3 interceptions. Winning in Lane Stadium is never easy, and the schedule is forgiving, but there’s plenty for Mack Brown to fix.
Iowa State – For now, we’ll chalk this result up to looking ahead to the rivalry game next week with Iowa that has College Gameday heading to Ames, but squeaking by FCS Northern Iowa 16-10 isn’t a great look for a top-10 team with playoff aspirations.
With only 4 playoff spots up for grabs, perception matters – and that is a problem for the ACC and PAC-12 conferences right now. The three highest-ranked ACC teams all lost this weekend, with Clemson, North Carolina, and Miami going down, along with Duke losing to Charlotte and Georgia Tech to Northern Illinois (and Florida State and Louisville still having to play games in which they are underdogs).
Over on the West Coast, though UCLA scored a major victory, #11 Oregon looked unimpressive and needed a late rally to win against Fresno State, #20 Washington lost at home to FCS Montana, and Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, Arizona, and Washington State all lost as well. In contrast to the ACC whose major programs will be short on marquee out-of-conference matchups the rest of the season, next weekend does present a big opportunity for the PAC-12 to rebound, with Oregon going to Ohio State and Washington traveling to Michigan. However, at this point in the season, both of these conferences are on the outside of College Football Playoff discussions at this point.
Heading into this weekend, I wondered if the FCS spring season was going to give those teams an advantage in Week 1, and given the results, it seems apparent that it did. 6 FCS opponents knocked off FBS teams, with Montana beating Washington, UC Davis beating Tulsa, Eastern Washington beating UNLV, South Dakota State beating Colorado State, Holy Cross beating UConn (who I guess still counts as FBS), and East Tennessee State ruining Clark Lea’s debut by knocking off Vanderbilt (wow, he has some work to do there). In 2019, there were only 3 FCS victories against FBS opponents, a mark already doubled 1 week into the 2021 season.
The NCAA’s handling of targeting penalties will continue to be a major issue this season until the rule is updated to allow referees to take intent into account, as Joel Klatt suggested on multiple telecasts this weekend, calling the current rule a “disgrace”. Ohio State benefited from two borderline targeting calls being reversed during replay, including one in the 4th quarter that resulted in a fumble, ending Minnesota’s last change, while both Miami and Penn State had key defenders ejected in their games.
In Miami’s case, safety Bubba Bolden was tossed for making contact with the crown of his helmet on an Alabama runner who was falling to the ground, while Penn State LB Ellis Brooks was ejected after stoning Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz short of the first down marker on a crucial late-4th quarter third down (and the targeting review was initiated minutes later after Wisconsin called a timeout).
The current targeting rule places the replay booth in the unwinnable spot of determining whether a bang-bang play warrants ejection – and the player missing the first half of the next game if the foul occurs in the second half. Simply updating the rule for targeting to be just a personal foul penalty without an ejection (except for egregious head-hunting) will fix the problem.
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