There was one, single thread running almost uninterrupted through all of last season. It started on Labor Day weekend when Georgia smothered a brand-name opponent in an NFC South stadium. It continued until January with only one hiccup along the way — against a team the Bulldogs later clubbed to win the national title.
Georgia’s defense was not just a sure thing in 2021. It was The Sure Thing. And after Saturday? Sure, things look about the same.
The Bulldogs did just about everything right in a 49-3 rout of Oregon, a team coached by former Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning. If anyone was going to have a notion of what was awaiting in Atlanta, it was the guy who would have been on the Bulldogs’ sideline a year ago.
It was hardly a defense-only effort. Georgia scored touchdowns on its first seven possessions. Stetson Bennett IV threw for 368 yards and two touchdowns. The Bulldogs averaged 9.2 yards a play, and they went 9-for-10 on third down.
Still, Oregon managed a mere field goal, and padded its yardage total into semi-respectable territory (313 yards) with a 100-yard fourth quarter. And even then, even with the backups in the game during garbage time, Georgia managed a fourth-down stand inside its 5 with less than two minutes remaining.
Regardless of the numbers or the Bulldogs’ losses to the NFL (five Dawgs on D were taken in the first round), Georgia’s program is predicated on defense. It hasn’t allowed more than 20 points a game in any of the last six seasons. Its total defense rankings in the Kirby Smart era (starting in 2016): 16th, sixth, 13th, third, 12th, second.
And while it is often foolish to draw too many conclusions from an opener, it appears Georgia’s defense remains something not to be trifled with. In a sport with few sure things, it’s reassuring to have something to count on. No doubt Bulldogs fans feel the same way after that revamped unit’s striking debut.
This is not a placement the Wildcats have enjoyed much in recent seasons. They lost seven in a row to close out 2019, went 0-5 to get Kevin Sumlin fired after the truncated pandemic season and then went 1-11 in Jedd Fisch’s debut season last year.
Put another way: Expectations couldn’t be that high for a team that had lost 23 of its last 24 outings heading into its opener against San Diego State.
Instead, Arizona rolled out of Southern California with a 38-20 thumping. Washington State transfer Jayden de Laura threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns, three of them to Jacob Cowing. And the Wildcats’ defense, which quietly went from consistently poor to decent at least half the time last season, held the Aztecs to 62 passing yards and just four yards a play.
This doesn’t guarantee anything over the long haul. Mississippi State comes to town next week, followed by FCS power North Dakota State (a striking example of administrative malpractice in Tucson when the game was agreed to five years ago, since the Bison are 6-0 against FBS teams since 2010).
But it’s a start, and a whole lot better than the hopelessness that’s enveloped Arizona’s program since even before the pandemic.
The opening week of the season has more shades of gray than any other. There’s a lot everyone thinks they know, but a whole lot less that they actually know.
With only past seasons (with at least some different players populating the roster) to go with, there’s more guesswork involved. So there end up being teams who appear much better than expected, and some who wind up turning in surprisingly sloppy showings.
Only a few teams get the benefit of a simple thumbs up or thumbs down based on the result from those beyond their most fawning faithful. This year, the Razorbacks are one of those teams.
Arkansas was coming off a 9-4 season. It had honest-to-Hog-Heaven preseason buzz tied to something other than a coach’s imminent firing for the first time in at least a half-dozen years. And it had 2021 playoff participant Cincinnati coming to town.
Even if the Bearcats were down nine NFL draft picks, the barometer for Sam Pittman’s team was clear. Win, and there will be few (if any) complaints. Lose, and the college football world has at least a little reason to revisit the offseason hype.
Credit to the Razorbacks: They managed a 31-24 victory, a fairly even game that saw Arkansas play to its strengths (224 rushing yards) and convert a couple of takeaways in plus territory into quick touchdown drives. K.J. Jefferson (18 of 26, 233 yards passing, three TDs plus 62 yards and a touchdown on the ground) might not start preparing a Heisman acceptance speech this week, but he was quite, quite good.
Arkansas gets South Carolina and Missouri State (the latter bringing a reunion with former coach and noted motorcycle aficionado Bobby Petrino) before facing Texas A&M and Alabama in back-to-back weeks. The Razorbacks are going to demonstrate plenty over the next four weeks. Frankly, they already did something pretty impressive in their opener.
There’s no reason to go overboard about the Blue Devils’ 30-0 victory over Temple to begin Mike Elko’s coaching tenure in Durham. Temple was one of the most lifeless teams in the FBS in the second half of last season (hence why Stan Drayton was making his head coaching debut with the Owls), and Duke still has plenty to prove once it begins ACC play.
Still, the Blue Devils’ initial effort under Elko should be appreciated. They scored on four of their first five possessions to jump to a 24-0 lead at the break Friday, and the shutout was their first of an FBS opponent since pummeling North Carolina, 41-0, in 1989 under Steve Spurrier. Duke’s last home shutout of an FBS school? A 3-0 barnburner over Wake Forest in 1978.
There are plenty of teams that will puzzle over lackluster openers, and a few sure to be smarting from stunning losses. Duke didn’t come close to falling into either category — progress for a team whose season basically was over with an opening-week loss at Charlotte last season.
The No. 8 Wolverines weren’t supposed to have problems with Colorado State, and they didn’t. They scored on eight of their 10 possessions and didn’t give up a point until 8:59 remained in a 51-7 rout of the Rams.
Not everyone viewed as a playoff contender handles its business as methodically as Michigan did. That counts for something.
James Madison (winner)
One game in, and the whole move up to FBS is working out just splendidly for the Dukes, who crushed Middle Tennessee, 44-7, and treated their visitors like one of the many FCS programs they drubbed with regularity in recent decades.
Quarterback Todd Centeio threw for 287 yards and six touchdowns, the latter figure tying a school record. Perhaps more impressive — at least by a smidgen — was a defensive effort that limited the Blue Raiders to 119 total yards (including just 12 on the ground).
FCS-to-FBS moves aren’t uniform and require at least some sort of an adjustment, but on occasion they do go smoothly. The Dukes aren’t guaranteed to flirt with a 10-win season like they usually do, but at least at the start things are going quite well.
It was highly unlikely the Crimson Tide would face a serious threat against Utah State. Still, the visiting Aggies went 11-3 last season, winning both the Mountain West title and a bowl game against Oregon State.
It wasn’t a nobody that came to Tuscaloosa to collect a check on Saturday night. But that’s about all Alabama gave up in a 55-0 victory. Throw in Bryce Young doing Bryce Young things — 195 yards and five touchdowns passing, 100 yards and a score rushing — and Alabama looked the part of the nation’s No. 1 team.
Football itself (loser)
Look, the easy punching bag from Saturday’s early games is Iowa’s 7-3 victory over South Dakota State. Winning a game with exactly seven points without scoring a touchdown is extremely on-brand for the Hawkeyes, who collected a pair of second-half safeties to account for the winning margin.
But there’s a case to come down harder on North Carolina, which squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter and gave up 40 points in the final 12:10 of a 63-61 victory at Appalachian State.
There’s a lot to pick at there, but perhaps the most befuddling part of the whole experience was the Tar Heels collecting an onside kick after the Mountaineers pulled within 56-55 but failed to convert a two-point conversion. Rather than just falling on the ball and running out the clock, North Carolina brought it back for a touchdown — leaving time for App State to score again before flubbing another two-point try.
Throw in some questionable clock management in Thursday’s games (looking at you, Purdue), and it seems like getting acclimated to the season isn’t simply confined to conditioning, ball security and the like.
Virginia Tech (loser)
If there were any illusions about the Hokies rapidly climbing out of the ditch they found themselves in at the tail end of the Justin Fuente era, they were promptly extinguished in a 20-17 loss at Old Dominion.
Things were largely self-inflicted for Virginia Tech, which gave the Monarchs seven points when they sailed a snap for a field goal over the holder’s head that was picked up and carried into the end zone. It was one of five Hokie turnovers, including four interceptions by Marshall transfer Grant Wells.
It was a respectable defensive showing for the Hokies, but there aren’t many places to hide in a front-loaded schedule. Virginia Tech will also see West Virginia, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Miami and N.C. State before the end of October. If there are going to be fixes to help salvage new coach Brent Pry’s season, they’ll be needed sooner rather than later.
The 49ers (0-2) absorbed a 41-24 loss at home against William & Mary that was even worse than a 17-point loss to an FCS school would normally suggest.
The Tribe rolled up 303 rushing yards, 559 total yards and averaged 8.5 yards a play. With Maryland, Georgia State and South Carolina still to come, things aren’t going to get any easier for Charlotte as it wades deeper into its nonconference schedule.
The Midshipmen really wanted to illustrate how this wasn’t going to be like the last two years, when they endured consecutive losing seasons (but at least beat Army to close out 2021). A 14-7 loss to Delaware didn’t accomplish that task.
In fairness, Navy’s defense did its part. It forced the Blue Hens into a pair of fourth-down giveaways and five three-and-outs. Delaware managed only 202 total yards, and one of its touchdowns came after it was gifted possession at the Navy 21 because of a fumble.
But if the Midshipmen are going to be good, they’ll need to muster more than 2.9 yards a carry. Navy had only four runs of at least 10 yards, and none of more than 14 yards. A little explosiveness would go a long way for a team whose remaining schedule is eight American Athletic opponents, Notre Dame and its two service academy rivals (Air Force and Army).
The Utes did not play poorly in their 29-26 loss at Florida. They didn’t play as well as the Gators, but there was never a “how in the world did this happen?” moment either.
In fact, Utah looked as if it was going to respond to Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson’s two-yard touchdown run with 85 seconds left with a score of its own — at least until Amari Burney picked off Cameron Rising in the end zone to seal a victory in Billy Napier’s debut as the Gators’ coach.
So to be clear, this isn’t an embarrassing result for Utah, the defending Pac-12 champs who opened the season ranked in the top 10 for the first time. But it is probably frustrating, undoubtedly disappointing and — in the big picture — definitely a missed opportunity.
The Utes had the majority of their starters back from a 10-win team. Florida had lost 10 of its last 16 games. And while there was sure to be an opening-game bump with a new coach, this was a chance to beat a brand-name opponent on the road (even if it has seen better days, similar to how Utah dispatched Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2014).
Saturday doesn’t tarnish Utah’s Pac-12 title hopes. The Utes were at least competitive with the traditional SEC East power it faced, unlike Oregon. But any playoff talk isn’t likely to resume unless Utah can rip off a winning streak that covers a couple of months.
Is it possible? Sure. But if it occurs, it will largely happen in anonymity. Which is kind of a shame, since the Utes have a strong identity, Rising is an entertaining central figure on a good offense and the defense will no doubt respond with fury after giving up 283 rushing yards to Florida. There are worse choices to keep tabs on than Kyle Whittingham’s team as Saturday nights morph into Sunday mornings for the next three months.