The first week of the college football season is in the books after last night’s thriller in Blacksburg, with Virginia Tech beating Georgia Tech in overtime 20-17, a game where each team converted must-have fourth downs in the final minute-plus of regulation.
VT-GT was also the most consequential game of college football Week 1, as the win put the Hokies in the driver’s seat for ACC Coastal Division title. I picked Georgia Tech to win this division at the start of the year and while they played well enough to believe a good year is still ahead, you have to give a major hat-tip t o Virginia Tech’s sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas. Trailing 17-14, surrounded by nine new starters, and 44 seconds in the clock, Thomas comes up with the drive for the game-tying field goal, capping a solid all-around performance. I know the game was in Blacksburg, but if Georgia Tech can’t beat a completely rebuilt Hokie offense on the first night of the season, then you have to wonder what’s going to happen as Virginia Tech gets better. Looks like we can plan on seeing Frank Beamer on the sidelines again come the first Saturday in December when they play the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte.
Michigan-Alabama was the hyped game coming in, and I’m sure you’ve read a lot of dissection of ‘Bama’s 41-14 thumping. I don’t know there’s anything I can add to this rare case where the mainstream media analysis is pretty much spot-on. The talent gap between the SEC and Big Ten is huge. Alabama ‘s defense looked like they haven’t skipped a beat after losing five high NFL draft picks. The only question left is where Michigan fits into the overall scheme of things in the Big Ten.
The answer to that question might be a little more pleasing to Wolverine fans, as it was a poor week for Big Ten football. I thought the conference would have trouble in a trio of games against the MAC, those being Ohio-Penn State, Northern Illinois-Iowa and Western Michigan-Illinois. You’ve surely heard about Penn State’s loss. Iowa barely escaped NIU, 18-17. Only Illinois looked good, holding down Alex Carder and an explosive Western Michigan offense, in a 24-17 win. Illinois might be able to challenge for the Leaders Division title. Ohio State’s on probation and Wisconsin’s pass defense nearly crumbled completely in a 26-21 escape against Northern Iowa. Michigan State barely survived rebuilding Boise. Only Nebraska was able to impress and quarterback Taylor Martinez did that in spades, throwing for 354 yards and dismantle a pretty decent Southern Miss team, 49-20.
Beyond the glitter of Alabama, the SEC might have reason to be concerned thought. The league lost Saturday night’s other showcase game, as Clemson beat Auburn 26-19. The Tigers did this without star receiver Sammy Watkins. Instead quarterback Tajh Boyd just found DeAndre Hopkins a little more often, as Hopkins caught 13 passes for 119 yards. And running back Andre Ellington was spectacular, with 231 rushing yards. Clemson’s an excellent team, but unless Auburn is going to be really bad, this is still the kind of game the SEC usually wins. The same goes for games like Kentucky-Louisville, where the Cards put a 32-14 smackdown on their crossstate rivals. Keep in mind that Kentucky has gone 13-12 the last two years, so this is not a pushover team, but pushover is exactly what a Big East team did.
The strength of a conference isn’t about the glitter at the top, it’s about the muscle in the midsection. Ole Miss’s secondary was eaten up by Central Arkansas and Florida played a very pedestrian game against Bowling Green, winning 27-14. The Gators have not had a viable passing game since a certain Heisman-winning quarterback left after the 2009 season and now is struggling to find some media attention in his NFL career with the New York Jets.
When it comes to the push for the BCS bowl games, the two big independents, Notre Dame and BYU, both put everyone on notice in nationally televised blowouts. Notre Dame hammered Navy 50-10, getting efficient work from backup quarterback Everett Golston, who got to start the game in Dublin after Tommy Rees was suspended. We know head coach Brian Kelly isn’t shy about pulling the trigger, and there are reports out of South Bend that Rees is going to have to fight to get his job back. The one thing Notre Dame didn’t do very well though was defend the pass, as Navy’s Trey Miller was 14/19 for 192 yards. Considering Navy’s a triple-option offense, we can only imagine what might happen when the Irish secondary gets a look at Landry Jones and Matt Barkley later this year. As for BYU, they were one of the best teams of Week 1, taking apart Washington State 30-6. The Cougar defense shut down what’s a potent passing combination of Jeff Tuel to Marquess Wilson. BYU’s got a tough schedule ahead of them, but for now let’s circle October 20 when they go to South Bend. If both BYU and Notre Dame keep on pace, that shapes up as an elimination game in the push for the major bowl slots.
ACC: Duke has to be happy, getting a big day from their Sean Renfree-to-Connor Vernon passing combo and beat a good Sun Belt team in Florida International, 46-26. The Dookies could at least contend for a bowl if this is a sign of things to come.
Big Ten: Michigan State might not have played well in their 17-13 survival against Boise, but at least they know what they have to fix. Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell threw three interceptions. If he can clean it up, Sparty can get back on track for a Big Ten title run.
SEC: One team that played well that I didn’t mention was Tennessee, which looked sharp in a 35-21 win over N.C. State. Against a good secondary, even one missing key ingredients, Vols quarterback Tyler Bray was 27/41 for 333 yards. Looks like this might be the season Derek Dooley needs to keep the head coaching gig in Knoxville.
Big 12: Oklahoma’s sluggish offense in their 24-7 win over UTEP can be overlooked, but giving up 207 yards on the ground to the Miners can’t be. Bob Stoops has got some fast work to do.
Pac-12: USC and Oregon delivered the obligatory blowouts, but let’s give some credit to Arizona. Going to overtime to beat Toledo 24-17 doesn’t look good, but quarterback Mike Scott was 30/46 for 387 yards. If Rich Rodriguez has his quarterback, he’ll at least steal six wins and a bowl game, even if his defensive incompetence will get his doors blown off by the powers-that-be.
Big East: Syracuse lost a heartbreaker to Northwestern 42-41, but with Ryan Nassib throwing for 470 yards, the ‘Cuse has to believe they can compete against anyone in this conference.
Mountain West: Teams were outperforming expectations, even in defeat, as measured by the Las Vegas spread. Boise covered against Michigan State. Wyoming did the same down in Texas, as did San Diego State against Washington. And if you’re looking for a big win, look no further than Nevada who went on the road to a good Cal team, pounded them for 220 rush yards and won 31-24.
Conference USA: Marshall might have taken a 69-34 drilling from West Virginia but the good offensive numbers suggest they can keep up with their own league. Rakeem Cato threw for over 400 yards in Morgantown and C-USA plays a lot of games that turn into flag football.
WAC: Texas State made Dennis Franchione’s return to college football a good one, as they upset Houston 30-13. Larry Coker had similar success at UT-San Antonio, who beat fellow FBS rookie South Alabama 33-31. And San Jose State’s near miss against Stanford give hope the Spartans might challenge the Utah State-Louisiana Tech hegemony in this league.
Sun Belt: Not a good weekend. I’ve mentioned Florida international’s debacle against Duke. Middle Tennessee lost to McNeese State because they couldn’t stop the run, while Florida Atlantic lost four fumbles in a 7-3 loss to Wagner. Troy’s victory over UAB, a battle between Alabama schools, was all about the league had to smile about.
MAC: The success against the Big Ten made a good day for the conference. And Ball State won the league’s first conference game, beating Eastern Michigan 37-26 behind 200 rush yards from Jahwan Edwards. It was a game between two schools who have realistic hopes of rising out of the muddled MAC middle and making a run at Detroit and Ford Field, where the conference championship game is held on November 30.