Everything you need to know in college football following Week 1 action
The greatest opening college football Saturday is in the books, along with two additional great games headlined by a double-overtime stunner.
These are our 12 biggest takeaways from an exciting Week 1:
1. Charlie Strong has turned a corner at Texas, and he may have had to swallow some pride to do so
As a proud defensive coach, it may be difficult entering the Big 12 land of up-tempo offenses, 90-play games, and a conference where holding a team to 30 points is often seen as a win. Texas head coach Charlie Strong would almost certainly rather wake up today after a low-scoring, 17-13 win against Notre Dame in which his hard-hitting defense set the tone for a grind-it-out victory, rather than a high-scoring affair. Instead, Strong had to adjust with the times — enter offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert.
Gilbert runs the “Baylor offense” that needs more than just one line to sum up its philosophy, but it essentially spreads the field as wide as any spread offense while creating a numbers advantage in both the run and pass game as well as any offensive system. This results in big plays, quick scoring, and a weekly track meet that leads to a philosophical approach that overtakes the program. Gone are the days of the 17-13 game, and Charlie Strong deserves credit for making this move as a defensive-minded coach. The numbers may not look as good for Strong’s defense, but it was a necessary move to keep up with the high-powered offenses in the Big 12. True freshman quarterback Shane Buechele looks like a great fit for the new system, and if nothing else, Texas has became one of the nation’s most exciting teams overnight.
2. DeShone Kizer should be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame
This was blatantly obvious early on against Texas, but Kizer had the superior night to co-starter Malik Zaire. As much as I like what I’ve seen from Zaire in his limited time in the past, Kizer was making NFL throws all over the field last night in perhaps the best game of his young career. He showed zip and accuracy on back shoulders and dig routes, touch to throw it over a linebacker and under a safety on a post, and even more touch on a wheel route for a touchdown. Kizer had the attention of NFL scouts coming into the season and he now as the attention of the nation, and a heart-breaking loss to Texas should not overshadow an outstanding performance. It’s only one game into the season, and I’d still like to see Kizer show that he’s improved in a few key areas – namely his decision-making and his taking too many sacks – but he’s off to a great start and he’ll be the Notre Dame quarterback moving forward.
3. Bama is still the nation’s top dog
Everyone loves blanket statements when it comes to assessing a conference’s standing, so let’s make one right now. The SEC had a bad weekend, showing that they may not be as top-to-bottom strong as they’ve been in the past, but Alabama is still doing the conference proud with their 52-6 thrashing of USC.
We’ve been touting Alabama’s defense as perhaps the best Nick Saban has trotted out there during his tenure and they set the tone early on. Potential first-round pick Jonathan Allen was unstoppable, finishing with an 88.8 grade to go with a sack, two QB hits, and two hurries on 25 rushes. The rest of the defense lived up to the hype, whether it was outside linebackers Ryan Anderson (sack, two QB hits, two hurries) and Tim Williams (two QB hits, three hurries) or linebacker Reuben Foster who finished with a game-high six stops. Alabama’s defense made a statement in Week 1. (Check out the chart below to see just how much pressure the Tide were able to get on USC starting QB Max Browne, and the effect it had on his play.)
Offensively, after a slow start, freshmen quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Blake Barnett moved the ball at will while a plethora of playmakers – WR ArDarius Stewart, TE O.J. Howard, WR Gehrig Dieter, RB Damien Harris – showed off Alabama’s depth. After a 52-point performance, it’s difficult to say that the offense may have their speed bumps along the way, but there’s still room to improve from an efficiency standpoint and that’s scary for future opponents. A dominant defense will carry Alabama, but the offense showed that they’re capable of creating big plays at any time.
As for the rest of the conference….
4. The SEC may not have the same depth as previous seasons
On to another blanket statement. The SEC struggled as a whole this weekend, either squeaking past lesser opponents or losing altogether. It started with Tennessee escaping Thursday night with an overtime win against Appalachian State while LSU looked horrible on offense in a loss to Wisconsin. Both preseason top-10 teams did not look the part. Looking at the rest of the SEC roster, Kentucky lost to Southern Miss, Mississippi State lost to South Alabama, Missouri showed the same offensive woes in a loss to West Virginia, Florida was in a close game with UMass into the fourth quarter and Arkansas survived with a one-point win against Louisiana Tech.
This is not the dominant SEC we’ve come to know, and while their top-to-bottom depth may have been overstated in the past, it’s most concerning when the conference’s top teams struggle. This story has been written before, so we’re not having a funeral for the SEC just yet, but after one week, it looks like it’s Alabama and everyone else when it comes to the balance of power in the conference. Keep a close eye on Ole Miss against Florida State on Monday night.
5. Houston is a legit contender, Greg Ward Jr. is a Heisman contender
On the biggest opening weekend in history, Houston had the nation’s attention at noon eastern and they made a monster statement. It started out with Oklahoma looking like the top-5 team everyone thought they were, as the offense was a fine mix of Heisman hopeful Baker Mayfield spreading the ball around at quarterback to one of the best two-headed monsters in the backfield in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. However, the Houston defense cracked down to hold the Oklahoma offense in check, while QB Greg Ward Jr. stated his early case for the Heisman.
Starting on defense it was a coming out party for cornerback Brandon Wilson, who displayed some “kick-six” magic with a 109-yard return for a touchdown on a short Oklahoma field goal. Howard Wilson also impressed by posting the team’s top defensive grade. True freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver introduced himself to the nation as well as one of the top recruits in the class, posting the top grade in the front-7 to go with two sacks and a team-high six stops.
As for Ward, last year’s top-graded running quarterback moved the ball with his arm as the run game was limited, but he finished 23-for-40 for 321 yards with two touchdowns. While he’s still inconsistent from an accuracy standpoint, Ward’s dual-threat ability puts the defense in a bind, creating a number of open throws. He also did a fine job of spreading the ball around, showing that he’s capable of leading the offense even if he’s held in check in the running game (14 yards on 16 designed runs). Check out his passing performance in the chart below:
Houston got through their toughest challenge, so keep an eye on their quest for an undefeated season and a playoff berth.
6. Lamar Jackson is one of the nation’s most exciting players
Speaking of dual-threat, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson carried last year’s late-season surge right into 2016. He went full video game on the stat sheet with six passing touchdowns and two more rushing, and while it came against an overmatched Charlotte defense, the opening-week statement was made. Jackson’s development could turn Louisville into a special team as they put two defensive players in the PFF College 101 while returning 91 percent of their offensive snaps from last season — second-highest in the nation. Jackson was one of the top-graded runners among quarterbacks last season and it’s all about his development as a passer that can take Louisville from a good team to a playoff contender. Thursday night was a step in the right direction.
7. J.T. Barrett has improved as a passer — can he keep it going?
An early misread of coverage that led to a pick-6 did not slow down J.T. Barrett, who finished 21-for-31 for 349 yards and six touchdowns while adding another score on the ground. Like the other previously-discussed quarterbacks, Barrett has yet to show the week-to-week consistency as a passer as his accuracy and decision-making led to a 62.0 passing grade last season. He looked much-improved yesterday as he carried a young Ohio State offense to a dominant performance.
The question now centers around his ability to do this on a weekly basis as we’ve seen top-notch passing performances from Barrett in the past – 2014 Michigan State and 2015 Rutgers come to mind – but it’s all about his follow-up performances that will determine if he’s ready to rank among the nation’s top signal callers. Even with their loss yesterday, the Oklahoma Sooners will be huge challenge for the Buckeyes in Week 3.
8. The top Heisman candidates had a pedestrian weekend
No one has a September Heisman sitting on a mantle anywhere, especially not a Week-1-Heisman, so without completely overreacting, let’s assess the play of the top Heisman candidates. It certainly wasn’t a bad weekend, but not a dominant one for the Heisman favorites.
- Clemson QB Deshaun Watson overcame early accuracy and decision-making issues to make enough big-time throws to win, but it wasn’t his best showing.
- Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey showed his big-play ability on two runs and a negated punt return but he was largely held in check by Kansas State’s defense.
- Mayfield put up good overall numbers, but they didn’t tell the story in his average passing performance.
- LSU RB Leonard Fournette had a similar performance, creating big plays when available, but finding little room to run otherwise
The Heisman should be much more than just a team’s record, but that’s usually not the case with voters, so even after a week it’s an uphill battel for both Mayfield and Fournette to get back to the top of the race. If nothing else, Week 1 opened up the field for other names to jump into the fray.
9. Nick Chubb is back
The No. 12 player in the PFF College 101, Georgia running back Nick Chubb answered all health questions with a dominant performance against North Carolina. He ran for 222 yards on 32 carries to go with two touchdowns, showing the same quickness, speed and tackle-breaking ability that made him one of the nation’s top running backs before his season-ending injury last season.
While we were hopeful that Chubb we regained his form quickly, seeing it in action is important for Georgia as backup running back Sony Michel is battling injuries of his own and the offense clearly wants to keep the ball on the ground as Chubb’s 32 carries dwarfed the combined passing attempts of quarterbacks Jacob Eason and Greyson Lambert (20). Chubb was the No. 6-overall running back in the nation as a true freshman and it looks like he’ll be right near the top once again in 2016.
10. LSU has serious issues to iron out
Perhaps we blindly assumed that LSU’s quarterback situation would improve with more experience and strong skill-position talent, but it’s once again a major issue for the Tigers’ offense. Brandon Harris’ accuracy kept LSU from sustaining drives before he threw a game-ending interception directly to Wisconsin defensive back D’Cota Dixon, who was remotely in the same area as an LSU receiver. Harris’ inconsistency, combined with subpar run blocking, made LSU’s offense difficult to watch. Here’s how Harris performed overall and when throwing under pressure versus from a clean pocket:
Fournette’s best runs came more as a result of shoddy defense by Wisconsin rather than the offensive line opening up holes. Defensively, it wasn’t bad, but inside linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley struggled. They were a step slow in the running game, often getting sealed off at the second level, and they were often the culprits on Wisconsin’s biggest gains on the ground. If LSU is going to bounce back and compete in the SEC, they need to improve at quarterback, along the offensive line and at linebacker.
11. The ACC will be exciting to watch
We already touched on Lamar Jackson making Louisville must-see television, and Deshaun Watson already does the same for Clemson. Florida State has yet to play, but they’re loaded with young talent and perhaps the best running back in the country in Dalvin Cook. But perhaps it’s time to throw Virginia Tech into the mix as WR Isaiah Ford is among the best receivers in the nation while Miami boasts potential first-round quarterback Brady Kaaya. Despite North Carolina losing to Georgia, they’re still talented enough to bounce back and make things interesting in the ACC Coastal. It’s a good mix of potential elite teams combined with depth, and that should make the ACC one of the nation’s most exciting conferences this season.
12. True freshmen will play a big role in the playoff picture
We already mentioned Houston DT Ed Oliver’s performance as he made his mark in their front-7, but there were a number of other true freshmen playing important roles on playoff-caliber teams. Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence posted the top grade on their defense, finishing with a team-high seven stops. The 6-foot-5, 340-pounder immediately lived up to his five-star hype.
Alabama QB Jalen Hurts didn’t get the start, but he got the offense going with his ability to make plays as both a runner and as a passer and he casually finished with two rushing and two passing touchdowns in his debut. Yet another five-star defensive tackle to play up to expectations was Michigan’s Rashan Gary, who graded well in the run game and as a pass-rusher on his 32 snaps. He may not be relied upon as heavily as some of the others due to Michigan’s deep defensive line, but he can contribute as part of the rotation up front.