It’s literally impossible to score a longer touchdown than Houston Cougars ‘s Brandon Wilson produced Saturday. As the back of his heel came inches from touching the end line of the end zone, Wilson caught a missed Oklahoma Sooners field goal attempt and raced 109 yards and 35 inches to the other end zone, perhaps dramatically altering college football’s season in the process.
Wilson’s kick six brought back memories of Auburn Tigers ‘s miraculous Iron Bowl finish over Alabama Crimson Tide in 2013. Yes, Week 1 of the 2016 college football season produced so much drama and so many compelling games that a kick six on Sept. 3 felt like we were watching something almost as important as a kick six on Nov. 30.
Take a bow, college football. The sport finally got it right, again, on how to start the season. There was even a compellingly rough Week 1 handed to the SEC, the conference everyone loves to hate and the same one that keeps in January thanks to Alabama.
Saturday was a Week 1 unlike any other. It was college football’s version of March Madness. We bounced around from one thrilling game to another, a welcome departure from the traditional opening-week yawners. You couldn’t take a couple minutes off or you might miss UCLA Bruins scoring twice in two minutes to stunningly force overtime against Texas A&M.
College football greeted us with two top-five teams losing in the first week (No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 5 LSU) for only the second time ever. Back in 1972, No. 1 Nebraska Cornhuskers lost to unranked UCLA, and No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks fell to No. 8 USC. (Newsflash: Preseason polls are silly. We truly know very little until we actually see the teams play. That makes compelling matchups in Week 1 all the better so we can get a better feel sooner on who’s for real and who’s not.)
The SEC kicked off its ad campaign with the slogan, “It just means more.” The games indeed meant more … to many of its teams’ opponents.
South Alabama Jaguars , which was 0-8 vs. Power Five teams with a 27-point average margin of defeat, rallied from down 17-0 to beat Mississippi State Bulldogs . West Virginia Mountaineers easily handled Missouri Tigers . Wisconsin Badgers edged overrated LSU. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles outscored Kentucky Wildcats 27-0 in the second half to rally from a 35-17 deficit to win. Gus Malzahn confused his own offense by shuttling Auburn quarterbacks and philosophies back and forth against Clemson Tigers with virtually no success.
How bad did it almost get for the SEC? Arkansas sweated out a win over Louisiana Tech Bulldogs , Florida Gators only led UMass 10-7 through three quarters, and Tennessee Volunteers needed a fumble recovery in the end zone to beat Appalachian State in overtime. It wasn’t a total lost week for the SEC. Georgia Bulldogs beat North Carolina Tar Heels , Texas A&M survived UCLA’s comeback, and Alabama routed Southern California Trojans with Nick Saban providing a first by playing a true freshman ( Jalen Hurts ) at quarterback.
Still, Week 1 gave SEC critics a gift: crowing for the next seven days. If it just means more, you better just win more. Six SEC teams lost their first game, the most since 1995. Week 1 has become a mini-bowl season. High-profile games mean you’re being judged immediately.
Ask the Big 12, whose supposed top two candidates for the College Football Playoff faced a rude welcoming to 2016. Oklahoma got outmatched and outcoached by Houston. TCU Horned Frogs surviveda 59-41 shootout against South Dakota State, which went 5-3 last season in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Week 1 welcomed Georgia’s Nick Chubb back from a gruesome knee injury to run for 222 yards; Pittsburgh Panthers ‘s James Conner back from cancer to score a touchdown; Clemson’s wide receiver Mike Williams back from a scary neck injury to grab nine catches for 174 yards;Mark Richt back to Miami, which put up 70 points; Lane Kiffin back to the same field as USC; and Jim Grobe back to coaching altogether.
The games bounced us around from Western Michigan Broncos over Northwestern Wildcats to Richmond over Virginia Cavaliers to Eastern Washington over Washington State Cougars . We saw brand names playing each other one after another from noon until past midnight. We saw Dabo Swinney bizarrely pass on a field goal try late that would have iced the game — talk about no confidence in your kicker — and caused Clemson to sweat out two Hail Mary throws by Auburn.
Sadly, ESPN’s broadcaster John Saunders wasn’t there to take us on Saturday’s journey. That felt so wrong in a Week 1 that otherwise felt so right and still has Texas-Notre Dame and Ole Miss-Florida State remaining.
What we learned this week
1. Houston belongs in Big 12 on the field, but let’s wait on playoff talk: Houston is no fluke. Neither is Tom Herman, whose staff out-coached Jimbo Fisher and Bob Stoops’ teams during Houston’s past two games. Herman improved to 4-0 vs. Power Five teams as a head coach, having beaten Louisville Cardinals , Vanderbilt Commodores , Florida State Seminoles and Oklahoma by an average of 15 points.
The Cougars will now face the hype about whether they can crash the College Football Playoff. Can they? Yes. But it’s a long way from here to there. They’re going to root for Oklahoma and future opponent Louisville to have good seasons, and they’ll have no margin for error in the American Athletic Conference. It’s really hard to go undefeated, no matter who you are or the quality of your conference. Herman understandably won’t talk about the playoff now, but this is what he told me in the spring on whether the Cougars would get selected if they finish 13-0.
“I don’t know because nobody’s told me,” Herman said. “I think that’s what the problem is with the system. Nobody knows what the criteria is for acceptance. One week it’s strength of schedule, the next week it’s game control. It changes week to week, year to year. I wish somebody could tell me, ‘Hey, it’s strength of schedule that matters most.’ Fine, we’ll schedule Oklahoma and Louisville every year. If they tell me it’s going undefeated, great, I won’t schedule Oklahoma and Louisville every year. We’ll schedule wins — the Baylor Bears model. Until they define what the criteria is, I would probably say no, a non-Power Five school won’t make the playoff.”
2. Oklahoma’s mulligan is gone: If we’ve learned anything in the CFP era, it’s don’t write off any Power Five team (especially Oklahoma) after one loss. Ask Ohio State Buckeyes in 2014 and the Sooners in 2015. Oklahoma could rehab its image in two weeks by beating Ohio State at home. That said, the Sooners looked unprepared against Houston. Their defense stayed on the field due to so many undisciplined penalties. Their vaunted rushing game only provided six carries each to Joe Mixon (6.7 yards per carry) and Samaje Perine (5.2 yards).
They even allowed the aforementioned kick six when Houston, after Stoops called timeout because Oklahoma wasn’t lined up properly, set up a return for Wilson’s return. Stoops lost for the third time in Week 1 with a preseason top-10 team. Because of their tough early schedule, the Sooners could be out of the playoff race after three weeks. They didn’t look like a playoff team Saturday.
3. Nick Chubb is back: Who’s the best friend for Kirby Smart in his first game as a head coach? Nick Chubb. What injury? Chubb’s performance in the Bulldogs’ victory over North Carolina was nothing short of remarkable given that he tore three ligaments in his knee last October.Chubb ran for 222 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries in one of the most extraordinary games you’ll ever see after a devastating injury. He surpassed 100 yards for the 14th time in his past 15 games (and the one time he didn’t get 100 was when he got hurt after one carry). You’re not supposed to be able to do what Chubb accomplished Saturday. It’s a very positive sign for the Bulldogs as they figure out their quarterback situation.
4. Clemson can still grind, but it has work to do: Deshaun Watson spoke this offseason about how Clemson could have one of the best offenses in college football history. On paper, the Tigers are loaded, especially with Williams back as a red-zone and deep threat receiver. So what do we make of Clemson only scoring 19 points against an Auburn team ranked 71st nationally in total defense last season?
Maybe Auburn’s defense is actually much better. (Gus Malzahn better hope so given his offense’s serious lack of identity.) Maybe Clemson is just off to a slow start, similar to what happened in 2015. (Remember the tight Louisville road win last September?) I wouldn’t worry too much about the Tigers’ offense. Auburn’s defensive line will be one of the toughest Clemson sees all year. Clemson showed late it can grind out wins. Still, Year 2 after under-the-radar success is usually tougher for a team. Get used to grinding, Clemson.
5. Ohio State is better off with J.T. Barrett : We knew this last season, of course. Barrett is simply a better fit for Urban Meyer’s offense. That was displayed Saturday in the Buckeyes’ easy 77-10 victory over Bowling Green Falcons . Barrett threw for 349 yards and six touchdowns and ran for another. The Buckeyes set a school record with 776 total yards, breaking the mark of 718 from 1930. It won’t always be this easy for these young Buckeyes. They should roll over Tulsa Golden Hurricane next week. Looming in two weeks is a crucial road trip to Oklahoma, which now needs to win that game to salvage its playoff hopes.
Score of the day
Richmond 37, Virginia 20: Welcome to Charlottesville, Bronco Mendenhall. Brigham Young Cougars ‘s situation as an independent was so difficult that Mendenhall took more money for what is often a dead-end ACC job. The Cavaliers suffered the second most-lopsided loss by a Power Five school to a Football Championship Subdivision opponent in the past 10 years. Richmond outgained Virginia 524-302 in yards and had no turnovers. God speed, Bronco.
Stat of the day
Boston College Eagles ‘s nine-game losing streak now includes six losses by three points or less. That’s brutal for Eagles fans, which woke up by 7:30 a.m. ET to watch Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets beat BC 17-14 in Ireland. Boston College coach Steve Addazio didn’t help. He tried a late field goal that missed instead of going for it on 4th-and-1. BC, the nation’s No. 1 total defense in 2015, gave up a 4th-and-19 completion to the Yellow Jackets (the No. 124 passing offense in 2015) that kept their winning drive alive.
What was he thinking?
Part 1: USC’s Jabari Ruffin gets the classless award of the week by stomping on the groin area of Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick while Fitzpatrick was on the ground. The officials appropriately ejected Ruffin, who showed his true colors while a teammate lent his hand to help Fitzpatrick up. Now USC or the Pac-12 should suspend him, too. That was pathetic behavior by Ruffin.
Part 2: Nebraska coach Mike Riley sent 10 players on the field for his team’s first punt. The punter position was left vacant. It was a touching honor to remember Cornhuskers punter Sam Foltz , who recently died in a car accident. Fresno State Bulldogs showed class by declining the penalty. If this doesn’t give you chills, check your pulse.
Quote of the week
“If you want to know the truth about it, I wasn’t pleased with the way we played.” — Nick Saban after Alabama’s 52-6 win over USC, the second-largest victory margin ever by the Crimson Tide over a top 20 team. USC suffered its worst loss since falling 51-0 to Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 1966.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / What we learned: Week 1 lives up to the hype but preseason favorites do not