Two of college football’s best teams took the field in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday and delivered a gift to the world.
They flipped a coin standing on a logo for a mayonnaise brand. They fought through a punishing war of attrition, delivering one punishing blow after another, when victory was measured in inches, not yards. They played a game without an offensive touchdown and managed to enthrall the sellout crowd, half in orange, half in red. We often compare these games to heavyweight fights, but the analogy feels anachronistic. When was the last time a heavyweight bout mattered so much to so many people?
What No. 5 Georgia’s 10-3 win against third-ranked Clemson lacked in explosive plays and offensive fireworks, it made up for in brilliant, gladiatorial tension that was palpable from every seat in the stadium. Defenders on both sides played with frenetic energy, like toddlers who chugged pixie sticks all offseason and were finally free to cause havoc. Two Heisman hopeful quarterbacks — Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei and Georgia’s JT Daniels — were repeatedly hit, pressured and embarrassed and, until the final drive, they kept getting up, kept surrendering to another round of frustration. At Clemson, a dynasty feels like it’s reached its conclusion. At Georgia, there is finally reason to think maybe, just maybe, this really is the Bulldogs’ year.
After a year in which the sport — heck, all sports — was little more than a mirage, a made-for-TV event amid an exhausting pandemic, Saturday’s Georgia-Clemson battle was tangible old-school college football.
Oh, how we’d missed it.
So much of Week 1 offered reminders of what was missing in 2020. There was “Enter Sandman” at Virginia Tech and “Jump Around” at Wisconsin. There were fans engaged in mayonnaise-eating contests in Charlotte. In Kansas, beleaguered Jayhawks fans charged the field after their team narrowly edged an FCS opponent to start 1-0. There were upsets (three wins by underdogs of at least 19 points) and there were dramatic comebacks.
Penn State silenced that raucous Wisconsin crowd and sent a message about the power dynamic of the Big Ten. Alabama reminding the world that the names are different but the results are every bit the same, and UCLA showed there might be an unexpected contender in the Pac-12. There was a record-setting performance at a little FCS school who hired the most outside-the-box coach in the country. And there were fans in Oklahoma helping Tulane feel at home in Norman, as Green Wave fans back in New Orleans struggled with yet another natural disaster. There were reminders of COVID-19, too. Oklahoma State was without its QB. Ole Miss will be without their head coach. But a year ago, half the country wasn’t playing. This was progress.
A year after playing in stadiums filled with cardboard cutouts, we got shots of perplexed Clemson fans offering the best visual summation of the Tigers’ offensive scheme.
When you’ve done something wrong, but can’t figure out what it is pic.twitter.com/GEzQhjdWWx
— Tom VanHaaren (@TomVH) September 5, 2021
A year after the world was forced to keep six feet apart, we got fans storming the field in Charlotte to celebrate a program-defining win.
A year after the Big Ten and Pac-12 opted out of the season, we got UCLA and LSU delivering some genuine “Pac-12 After Dark” drama.
It felt right, even if it wasn’t always pretty. Because college football isn’t supposed to be pretty. It’s supposed to be quirky and strange and filled with unexpected joys, both big (Georgia’s sideline celebrating Christopher Smith‘s pick six) and small (LSU’s Max Johnson unleashing the most mesmerizing incompletion of the year).
What on God’s green earth ????????? pic.twitter.com/xnmpGeflC1
— Richard🇬🇾Johnson (@RJ_Writes) September 5, 2021
Penn State had 43 yards in the first half. It was electric.
Georgia’s offense never found the end zone. It didn’t matter.
Rutgers won a game by 47. It was proof that miracles do happen.
If it wasn’t the perfect Saturday, it wasn’t worth considering the shortcomings. Perhaps Daniels offered the most apt synopsis in response to a question about Georgia’s offensive struggles in their win.
“Is it a half-and-half type of feeling?” he said. “Hell no. We just beat Clemson.”
Did Saturday live up to the hype, the greatest opening week of games in college football history? Perhaps not. But was it wonderful to have that feeling of college football being back, with the fans, the bands and the drama?
Hell, yeah, it was.
Lessons learned: Week 1
• Beware, The Hype: Reveling in the role of “offseason media darling” is a lot like a gender reveal party: It all seems like harmless fun until someone accidentally drives the family sedan into the pool. So it was for No. 10 North Carolina, whose offense was silenced by Virginia Tech’s dynamic pass rush and shutdown secondary, with head coach Mack Brown announcing afterward that “the shine’s off” his team.
No. 7 Iowa State nearly fell victim to an even more embarrassing fate, narrowly edging FCS Northern Iowa 16-10 at home. And then, there was No. 17 Indiana, one of the feel-good stories of 2020, which ran into a buzz saw at Iowa with QB Michael Penix, throwing more TDs to the Hawkeyes (two) than his own team (0). That wasn’t even the biggest flub of the game for, um, Indinia. The lesson? Unless you’re in Alabama, where everyone’s an expert at these things, always avoid the weight of preseason rankings.
• You don’t need to be in the SEC to have a drama-filled SEC showdown: Tulane was an original member of the SEC, but departed in 1966 (presumably to follow The Grateful Dead). Oklahoma isn’t yet a member of the SEC, but is set to join in 2025 (unless their GoFundMe raises enough for the Big 12 buyout beforehand). But when the two met Saturday — technically a home game for Tulane, though played on Oklahoma’s field due to Hurricane Ira, we got one of the best games of the day in an old-fashioned SEC heavyweight bout. The Sooners were up 37-14 at the half, but Tulane roared back behind the strength of QB Michael Pratt, closing the gap to 40-35 and held the ball with 1:50 to go. Pratt’s final fourth-down scramble came up just short. The game was so good, we suggest making Texas beat another SEC original, Sewanee, before the Longhorns can be admitted into the league.
• Always stash a ringer way down the depth chart: As any good beer-league softball manager knows, the key to winning big is to spring a surprise on the opponent at the last minute in the form of a highly trained ringer. That’s essentially what South Carolina did to Eastern Illinois when it unleashed its graduate assistant-turned-starting-QB Zeb Noland. The former backup to Trey Lance at North Dakota State opened 2021 coaching South Carolina’s QBs, but when projected starter Luke Doty got hurt in fall camp, Noland suited up and won the starting job. In his Gamecocks debut, he threw for four touchdowns in the first half alone. Now, if first-year coach Shane Beamer can just find a 6-foot-6, 320-pound hot dog vendor to play on the O-line and a team bus driver with 4.4 speed and some remaining eligibility, the Gamecocks might have a real shot in the SEC East.
It wasn’t exactly a stellar start for some of the top Heisman competitors. Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei and Georgia’s JT Daniels took turns getting walloped in their matchup. North Carolina’s Sam Howell threw three picks in a loss against Virginia Tech. Spencer Rattler tossed two interceptions as Oklahoma narrowly escaped Tulane. D’Eriq King may need an “Eternal Sunshine”-type of memory erasing procedure to forget what happened against Alabama. But while there’s plenty of time for those QBs to work their way back into the conversation, there are a few players who made an emphatic Week 1 statement.
1. Alabama QB Bryce Young: Just in case you were hoping that maybe there was a small chance Alabama would take a step back this season after losing Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones in consecutive years, we have some bad news: Young might be the best one yet. The sophomore threw for 344 yards and four touchdowns against Miami, school records for a QB making his first start for the Tide. Even more concerning for SEC opponents: Nick Saban’s acting in commercials has really improved. This team really is flawless.
2. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud: Trailing 14-10 at the half versus Minnesota, Ohio State sure looked like it perhaps had finally hit a speed bump at QB without Justin Fields. Turns out, the Buckeyes were just toying with Minnesota. Stroud was nearly flawless in the second half, throwing for 236 yards and four touchdowns, exploiting a supremely deep Ohio State receiving corps to secure the win. Now the question is whether any of those Buckeyes receivers — Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson — might be able to pull off a DeVonta Smith-type run to overtake their QB for the award.
3. Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder: Can Ridder claim to be a Power 5 QB now that Cincinnati is headed to the Big 12? Either way, he took a big first step toward Heisman consideration in the Bearcats’ demolition of Miami (Ohio). Ridder threw for 295 yards, ran for 31 more and racked up five total touchdowns. He opened the season at 100-to-1 to win the Heisman, but here’s betting those odds get a lot better entering Week 2.
4. Texas RB Bijan Robinson: Coach Steve Sarkisian’s “All Gas, No Brakes” mantra is particularly terrifying when the vehicle in question is essentially the War Rig from “Mad Max: Fury Road.” At 6-foot-1, 214 pounds, Robinson is a force to be reckoned with, and his 176 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns paced the Longhorns’ 38-18 win against No. 23 Louisiana. Dating back to last season, Robinson now has 619 yards and eight touchdowns in his past three games.
5. Western Kentucky QB Bailey Zappe: Each week in this space, we’ll try to feature one player from outside the big teams who deserves a little Heisman love, even if he’s not likely to get any votes. This week, it’s Zappe, who made his share of fans in a four-game season for Houston Baptist last season before transferring (along with offensive coordinator Zach Kittley) to Western Kentucky. Zappe got off to a shaky start against Tennessee-Martin in the opener, throwing an interception on his second attempt of the game, but he followed that up with the type of big-play fireworks the Hilltoppers were expecting by finishing with 424 yards and seven TD passes. While the rest of the WKU schedule won’t be quite so accommodating, Zappe is going make things awfully interesting for the Hilltoppers.
Under-the-radar play of the week
Wyoming narrowly escaped the embarrassment of losing to an FCS team (or “pulling a UConn,” as it’s known in the industry) when QB Sean Chambers hit Treyton Welch for a 21-yard touchdown with 56 seconds to play, upending Montana State 19-16.
FOR. THE. LEAD!💥@welch_treyton in the clutch! 💥 pic.twitter.com/kMbdpBrQ5v
— Wyoming Cowboy Football (@wyo_football) September 4, 2021
Under-the-radar game of the week
With 7:54 to go in the third quarter, Presbyterian QB Ren Hefley hit receiver Matthew Rivera for a 49-yard touchdown pass. It was Hefley’s 10th TD pass of the game, setting a new FCS single-game record, topping Missouri Valley State QB Willie Totten’s nine in 1984. Hefley checked out after that drive with Presbyterian up 70-36 and a final stat line that included 38 completions and 538 yards. Don’t be shocked if Hefley tops that mark at some point this season. Presbyterian’s first-year coach Kevin Kelley set numerous records as a high school coach in Arkansas, gaining a reputation as an analytics guru who rarely punted and executed myriad on-side kicks.
Cheers and Jeers
• Cheers to … old-school defensive football: Oh sure, we know the modern game is all about space and tempo, but there was something inherently beautiful about Penn State and Wisconsin’s 0-0 halftime score, if you managed to stay awake for it. Around the country, offenses looked a bit out of sorts, with Florida, Texas A&M, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, UCLA and North Carolina among the typically prolific offenses that struggled to find their footing early on. But rather than chalk it up to offensive ineptitude, let’s credit the defenses. After all, Texas A&M needs to justify defensive guru Jimbo Fisher’s new contract somehow.
• Jeers … to this man: He was gifted two tickets to the Clemson-Georgia game by the folks at Duke’s as a sign of appreciation for his, um, advertising. Meanwhile, we’d like to offer our sincere condolences to the poor fans sitting next to him after letting that mayo bake in the sun all afternoon.
— Duke’s Mayo Classic (@DukesMayoBowl) September 4, 2021
• Cheers to … Nebraska, which annihilated Fordham 52-7: Nebraska has now outscored its competition in 2021 by a combined margin of 74-37. That sounds pretty impressive, and coach Scott Frost would prefer you not have any follow-up questions.
• Jeers to … the Pac-12 North: Oregon needed a late touchdown to beat Fresno State. Stanford was so unproductive in a loss against Kansas State that even the local venture capitalists would’ve considered pulling their next round of funding. Washington’s offense looked lost in a 13-7 home loss versus FCS Montana. Oregon State lost to Big Ten afterthought Purdue. Washington State coach Nick Rolovich is still hoping to learn more about the long-term effects of winning before the Cougars agree to compete for the division. In other words, the Pac-12 North was a total disaster in Week 1 and, frankly, the ACC Coastal is considering suing for copyright infringement.
• Cheers to … the Tagovailoa family: Big brother Tua is already one of the best college QBs of the past decade, and now his younger brother, Taulia, appears poised to follow in his footsteps. The younger Tagovailoa led Maryland to a 30-24 upset win against West Virginia on Saturday, dropping some dimes in the process and finishing with 332 yards and three TDs. The Tagovailoas are still a few QBs away from matching the Mannings, but we do look forward to a random Tagovailoa cousin leading Saban to his 18th national championship in 2043.
Taulia Tagovailoa with a DIME 👀 pic.twitter.com/Zz1uo995an
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) September 4, 2021
• Jeers to … the ACC: Week 1 was not kind to the league. All three ranked teams — No. 3 Clemson, No. 10 UNC and No. 14 Miami — lost. Duke fell to Charlotte in what was the 49ers’ first win against a Power 5 opponent and resulted in head coach Will Healey crowd surfing shirtless wearing a mascot head. Then, supposedly up-and-coming Georgia Tech lost at home to a Northern Illinois team that went 0-6 last season. And there are still two games left in which the ACC teams are underdogs by at least a touchdown. Perhaps it’s time to call Rutgers and Kansas (combined 2-0) about expansion talks.
— Julian Council (@JulianCouncil) September 4, 2021
• Cheers to … Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock, who decided to go for two after his team scored late to pull within one of Georgia Tech: The gamble paid off, QB Rocky Lombardi connected with Tyrice Richie, NIU converted and held on to win 22-21 — its first victory since Nov. 26, 2019. By rule, Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins now has to surrender his Waffle House free coffee card to Hammock. The nearest location to NIU’s campus is a mere 230 miles away. It’s worth the drive.