Champs until the title is taken
Surprising scores, Heisman hype, DA-BO highlight Week 1
I’ll admit it: I’d started to buy in.
The SEC’s run can’t last forever, can it? An elite team out West or up North will finally hit the SEC in the mouth and shut up those boys in their boat shoes and seersucker shorts. Those sentiments smoldered below the surface in Columbus, Eugene, Norman and in the bowels of the Coliseum. Maybe even in Ann Arbor, home of the Big Ten’s highest-ranked team and one of the game’s most dynamic quarterbacks. And maybe such blasphemous thoughts were floating about under my own roof. Maybe, I thought, the rest of the nation would finally catch up. Seven titles in a row would be too gluttonous, an embarrassment of riches, too statistically improbable.
And then the whistle blew Saturday night in Dallas.
Alabama 41, Michigan 14.
What the hell was I thinking?
And it wasn’t just the lopsided score that proved so compelling. Blowouts can happen when “elite” teams are pitted against each other. Utter domination, though, is rare. Complete physical superiority from one squad isn’t expected when titans clash. It wasn’t a beating – those you can survive. It was a mauling. Alabama was just too large, too strong, too fast at every single position. Denard Robinson, a preseason Heisman candidate, mind you, poured every ounce of himself onto that field in Jerry Jones’s palace. It didn’t matter. The linebackers could catch him. The linemen could catch him. The safeties could catch him. And they didn’t hold back when they did. Fifteen incompletions. Two interceptions. A mere 2.7 yards per carry. Several hits that made him crumple to the turf. And when he stood? The anguish in his face screamed, “What just hit me?”
The game wasn’t merely Alabama asserting dominance against Michigan. It was a bold announcement in front of a rapt nation that the SEC – at least its elite – is here to stay, that statistical improbabilities don’t matter when your entire offensive line will be playing on Sundays. Yes, USC is better than Michigan. Oregon and Oklahoma are, too. But after watching the physical spectacle this past Saturday night – grown men beating up on teenagers – how can you not envision more of the same as the season progresses? How can you not envision more of the same come January? Blur offenses and beautiful passing attacks don’t matter when you can’t get rid of the ball, when you can’t breathe after you’ve been hit, when you’re suffocating in a sea of crimson or purple and yellow.
One year, the rest of the nation will catch up. This is not that year. I only needed one week -- one game, really -- to see where the crystal football is headed.
It won’t have to travel far.
Can you pronounce “Le’Veon Bell”? I couldn’t before Friday night, but I finally figured it out: "BEA-ST MO-DE". The Michigan State junior running back surged into the Boise State defense 44 times on Friday night for 210 yards and a pair of scores (the only two Sparty could muster without the departed Kirk Cousins under center). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the six balls Bell caught for another 55 yards. Bell single-handedly accounted for 58 percent of Michigan State’s offense in a tough game. He hurdled, he spun, he bounced of tacklers and barreled through them. It was the single most impressive performance of the weekend, even though it came against a Boise State defense that lost seven starters.
"I was definitely a little tired, but everybody out there on the field gets a little tired,” Bell said after the game. You’re right, Le’Veon, everyone is a little tired after the game (let’s face it, the jalapeno poppers can get heavy by the 4th quarter) but they’re not 44 rushes tired. They’re not, “I just put this whole damn team on my back” tired. The only thing more impressive than what Bell did on the field? The 72 consecutive hours he had to spend in the cold tub afterwards.
The Fighting Irish played a road game in Ireland. I’ll let that one soak in for a moment…Make sense yet? No? Me either. All you need to know is that Notre Dame put on a show in front of the Guinness-soaked denizens of the country from which they stole their name and abducted their mascot.
A victory against “home” team Navy was expected. A 50-10 wipeout? Not so much. (My heartfelt sympathies go out to any of the brave spectators who sought to guzzle an Irish car bomb to celebrate every Irish touchdown). Last year’s starter at quarterback, Tommy Rees, was suspended for the game for having a car bomb too many one evening. Sophomore replacement Everett Gholston, performed decently in his stead, throwing for 144 yards and a score. But the game’s MVP? Famed party-crasher and environmental activist Jungle Bird, of course! You know him from his work at the 2012 U.S. Open trophy ceremony. The Irish jig he danced in the end zone early in the third quarter will probably end up being one of the more compelling highlights from Notre Dame’s season.
At Northwestern and Syracuse, hubs for academia and high-minded thought, they play football from time to time. Typically, little fanfare is given to the exploits on the gridiron (the two schools have produced more talking heads on ESPN than athletes featured in the network’s highlights) but they played the game of the week that nobody saw. Northwestern surged to a 35-13 lead in the fourth quarter, highlighted by a pair of scores from 4-foot-11 all-purpose threat Venric Mark (okay, I’m embellishing. He’s actually about 5-foot-1…in cleats). Oh, and someone named Chi Chi scored a defensive touchdown on a recovered fumble.
But the real fun began in the fourth when Syracuse stormed all the way back to take a 41-35 lead thanks to 470 yards from senior quarterback Ryan Nassib. (Chi Chi picked him off too; big game for Chi Chi.) But with nine ticks left, Northwestern’s Demetrius Fields snagged one in the back of the end zone and barely dragged his toe inbounds. 42-41. Ballgame. They could reportedly hear the roars from Chicago all the way in Syracuse.
Ed. Note: That was a blatant lie.
Geno Smith looks pretty dapper in yellow and blue, doesn’t he? Though a suit might suit him better (sorry) when he heads to New York in December for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Oh, you think I’m getting a little ahead of myself after only one game against the team that Matthew McConaughey and that guy from Lost once bravely led back from tragedy? Well, consider this stat line: 32 of 36, 323 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, one baby saved from a burning building, 65 rushing yards, three Habitat for Humanity homes built and one rushing touchdown. That is an impressive day’s work for Mr. Smith. Ready yourselves, Big 12 defenses.
Words that make any college fan shudder when used together: “star running back”; “handgun”; “weapons charges”; “3:37 a.m.”; “odor of marijuana”; “altered serial number”; “arrested”; “Bobby Petrino”. OK, that last one has nothing to do with the others, but it still makes you shudder, doesn’t it? Those were the words that UGA fans read when they woke up on the morning of June 29.
Their star running back, Isaiah Crowell, had been booked early that morning for driving around with a gun. He now plays for Alabama State. Reason for despair? The SEC East is wide open again this year and Georgia has a legitimate shot given that they avoid Alabama, Arkansas, the New England Patriots and LSU this season. But, despair not, woofing faithful (are y'all like this guy below?), the Bulldogs posted 227 rushing yards at a 5.8 per-carry clip this week (granted it was against lowly Buffalo), spearheaded by standout freshman Todd Gurley’s tidy 100 yards on eight carries. Combine a balanced rushing attack with Aaron Murray’s burgeoning stardom (and full compliance with the State of Georgia’s gun laws), and UGA’s offense shouldn’t miss Crowell this year.
Jim Mora (son of “playoffs?!”) is best known for being the guy that Mike Vick tuned out in Atlanta. Or perhaps as the guy who got one year at the helm in Seattle only to be rah-rah’d out of a job by Pete Carroll. Needless to say, Mora needed his first week at the helm of UCLA’s long-struggling program to go well. The players didn’t tune out Mora this time. The Bruins hung 49 on Rice on Thursday, winning by 25. An overwhelming victory against a worthy opponent? No. A breath of fresh air for a beaten down program and coach? Yes.
Yes, Ohio State put up 56 against Miami (Ohio), but it couldn’t muster a single point in the first quarter. Eventually Ohio State’s athletic superiority wore down the RedHawks, but its early struggles could point to problems when the Buckeyes square off against opponents who won more than four games last year. Braxton Miller had an outstanding all-around day (207 passing yards, 161 rushing yards, 3 total TDs) but asking that much of him every game -- particularly the 17 carries -- isn’t sustainable. Urban has them on the right path, but that first quarter tells me there’s no juggernaut in Columbus ... yet.
I hope, at the very least, that Matt Barkley gave Hawaii defenders one of his famed homemade Christmas ornaments after he shredded them for 377 yards and four scores. We all knew Barkley would carve up Hawaii with more malicious precision than Hannibal Lecter, but he and the Trojans may have exceeded expectations on Saturday. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have weapons like Marqise Lee, who caught the ball on an 8-yard curl route, made a quick juke, drank a Red Bull (one of the big ones) and flew 75 yards to the end zone. Oh, and that happened on the Trojans’ first play. Offensive connoisseurs, I recommend sampling the ’12 Trojans every week.
Yes, it was a season-opening game against a cupcake opponent (no sprinkles, or even frosting on Savannah State, by the way), but it’s worth taking a look at the 84 that Oklahoma State put up in Stillwater on Saturday night, especially the performance of Brandon Weeden’s replacement, Wes Lunt. Lunt is 10 years younger than his predecessor, who will be getting abused on Sundays in Cleveland this year. Things went better for Weeden last year -- he completed 72 percent of his passes, threw for 4,727 yards and 37 touchdowns. Huge shoes to fill for a freshman. In limited action, Lunt seems like he’s on the right track. He completed all 11 passes he attempted. A good start, but Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy, being the MAN that he is, admitted after the game that he won’t know what he has in Lunt until the Cowboys take the field against a real-life college football team.
DA-BO! Just say that out loud a few times in the thickest southern accent possible before you keep reading. ... Satisfying, isn’t it? Given the name assigned to Mr. Swinney at birth, becoming a successful head football coach down south seemed preordained. After an ACC championship last year, he seems to be living up to the name. On Saturday, he led Clemson -- without 7-star receiver Sammy Watkins -- past Auburn 26-19 on a neutral field. Yes, Clemson did yield 512 points (or thereabout) in last year’s Orange Bowl to West Virginia, but they swapped defensive coordinators and seemed to have righted the ship on that side of the ball. Their embarrassment of riches was evident on offense -- even without Watkins -- highlighted by senior running back Andre Ellington’s 231 yards on the ground. Gain 231 yards when running into the teeth of an SEC defense and you’ve got my attention. It seems Dabo isn’t ceding the ACC to that resurgent team from Tallahassee -- it’ll be a fight to the end this year.
On Saturday, Penn State’s winless streak extended to 14 years and one game. Adding insult to the decade and a half of wins vacated in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, Penn State dropped a game to that team from Ohio. But that happens from time to time. Ohio State is another powerhouse; Urban Meyer is there. They’re ... wait, what? They lost to Ohio? Just plain ol' Ohio? The school prides itself for throwing those startlingly large Halloween parties? Oh ... oh no. We all knew things wouldn’t be pretty in Happy Valley and likely won’t be for quite some time, but dropping a game in front of 97,186 faithful against a supposedly inferior opponent signals that things might be worse than anyone assumed. New coach Bill O’Brien implored the students to fill the stadium despite all that happened in the offseason. They did. They were vocal early. Emotions were high. It wasn’t enough. The penance, it seems, is well under way.
Stanford (I will not make a Luck pun; I will not make a Luck pun; I will not make a Luck pun) seems to have run out of luck (damn, I’m so, so sorry). They needed a fourth quarter field goal to salvage a 20-17 victory against lowly San Jose State. The No. 1 overall pick’s replacement, Josh Nunes mustered a mere 125 yards through the air against a, how do I put this, less-than-heralded San Jose State defense. Stanford’s preseason top-25 ranking seemed to be based on reputation alone. It’s not bad, but the run of success we saw under Jim Harbaugh and their departed star quarterback may have merely been a lucky streak (OK, never again).
Mike Glennon was impressive last year. He threw 31 touchdowns against only 12 interceptions. Only about five people were aware of this because he plays quarterback for NC State, the other, other, other school in North Carolina. But, on Friday, Glennon had his chance to shine in front of a national audience and under the lights in the Georgia Dome. Four picks later, Tennessee cruised to a 35-21 victory. Only 2.6 percent of his throws got snagged by opposing defenders last year, yet he gifted four to Tennessee. Glennon was expected by many to be one of the elite quarterbacks in the ACC in his senior season. Those four interceptions Friday night were a major step backward. Any thoughts, Mr. Glennon? “I’m going to go back and look at the tape and become a better player,” he said after the game. A little terse for my taste. For his sake, I hope it’s that easy.
Will Muschamp played a little quarterback roulette in his first game at the helm in the Swamp. That’s proven disastrous through the years (unless one of the quarterbacks has a proclivity to throw jump-passes) and Florida struggled more than it should have against Bowling Green. It mustered a 27-14 victory, but it was against a relative cupcake of an opponent (unlike Savannah State, BGSU came with sprinkles). Sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel split snaps and neither proved to be anything more than marginally effective. Until Florida sorts out its problems under center, it’ll struggle in a tough SEC East this year. Bowling Green shouldn’t have hung with the Gators for so long.
There’s an entire message board forum on Volnation.com titled “Dooley Sucks.” As you can imagine, most of the comments in this thread are along the lines of “Dooley Sucks” and “I can’t stand Derrick Dooley” and “this team sucks and so does he” and “Bobby Petrino is a weasel.” (One of those is made up.) I laud you for your creativity and insight, Volsnation.
Suffice to say, there’s a contingent of people residing in and around Knoxville who own a healthy collection of orange apparel and loathe the head football coach at Tennessee. Or, maybe I should say loathed? Derek Dooley’s squad stepped up for him on Friday. Tennessee looked legit on both sides of the ball, forcing Glennon’s aforementioned four turnovers and attacking the Wolfpack on the ground and through the air. That Tennessee won wasn’t a surprise, that they did so without stumbling all over itself (well, Prentiss Waggner did stumble all over himself during an interception return) was eye-opening. Keep it up and a few “Dooley doesn’t suck” threads might pop up on Volnation.
1. Vanderbilt has a football team, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, it has fielded a starting 22 since 1890, but this Vanderbilt squad has the soul of an SEC defense. The Commodores pushed top-10 South Carolina in front of a national audience on Thursday night. After the game, cheeks flushed from yelling at quarterbacks and sweating out a potential upset at the hands of the nerds the next state over, the Head Ball Coach himself offered the Commodores a compliment: "They don't have any slow dudes like they used to,” he said.
Thanks, Steve? In only his second year, Vanderbilt head man James Franklin has built a tough team in the nation’s toughest conference. He’ll be a hot name when big jobs come open this year and beyond.
2. Playing an early game against a tough opponent isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rather than scheduling a cupcake Week 1, a slew of teams opted for a test early. Derek Dooley rose to the challenge and helped rid himself of criticism by defeating a comparable opponent. No one will look down on Michigan, though they got run over, for measuring their squad against last year’s national champion. Clemson got to harden itself early against an SEC defense, which will make life easier later this season as it pushes for its second-consecutive ACC crown. Like a workout, it’s best to get the hard stuff out of the way early. It’s good for the fans, and voters will forgive an early loss to a dominant opponent. Hopefully more coaches take note and opt to test themselves early, especially when strength of schedule starts to separate haves from have-nots when the four-team tournament kicks in two years from now.
3. Keep pounding the rock. Though the traditional, between-the-tackles-running game is rapidly going by the wayside in the NFL, it’s here to stay at the college level. When favorites had their backs against the wall this weekend, they looked to the ground. Michigan State and South Carolina both took the ball out of their quarterbacks’ hands when trailing an inferior opponent late. Florida, when tested by BGSU, leaned on the run, pounding it 42 times versus a mere 21 pass attempts. Mike Gillislee sprinted for a career-best 148 yards on 24 carries for the Gators. Stanford, like Florida, leaned on the run when the game got tight -- Stepfan Taylor went for more than 100 yards on 26 carries. Even as offenses grow increasingly innovative, don’t expect the running game to vanish on Saturdays as it has begun to on Sundays.
Next week isn’t quite as loaded as college football’s delicious opening week. Still, there will be a few tasty nuggets on my television. Here are the ones that intrigue me most:
Florida at Texas A&M
3:30 p.m. ET
Welcome to the SEC! (Part 1) Texas A&M moved on up to the Southeast side; it finally got a piece of that sizeable TV revenue pie. The downside to the upgrading to the nation’s best conference? The Aggies have to play the nation’s best teams. Their odyssey begins next week when rebuilding Florida comes to visit; yes, rebuilding in the SEC means you’re a top-25 team. Florida didn’t impress in its opening-week win against Bowling Green, but it’ll prove to be a formidable SEC welcoming party for A&M.
Georgia at Missouri
7:45 p.m. ET
Welcome to the SEC! (Part 2) Like A&M, Missouri won’t have to venture into hostile territory for its SEC initiation. Even so, the hazing to get into this elite fraternity is certain to be painful. Georgia is stacked on both sides of the ball.
Michigan State at Central Michigan
3:30 p.m. ET
Yes, I’m looking forward to a game involving the words “Central” and “Michigan”. Why? Because the game also involves the words “Beast” and “Mode” (see above). I’m eager to see what Mr. Bell has in store for his second act -- against a far weaker opponent, no less. We’re not going to see 44 carries, but hopefully we’ll be treated to a few more highlights like this and the birth of a Heisman campaign (far more appealing to watch than an actual birth).
Penn State at Virginia
They’re both unranked, yes, but how can you not be drawn to a narrative this compelling? One team long-enjoyed its sunny perch overlooking the college football landscape for decades. The other has been regarded, in the best of times, as an also-ran. But after an eight-win season under the stewardship of Mike London, UVA can’t be overlooked. Penn State’s dynasty, meanwhile, has crumbled. These two will intersect on their respective rise to prominence and fall to obscurity Saturday in Charlottesville in front of what’s sure to be a raucous crowd (at least by Dave Matthews’ standards).
Views and opinions expressed here are soley those of the writer.