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Sunday, October 24, 2021

College Football Week 1 Takeaways: Alabama’s Bryce Young is Heisman worthy; Clemson’s tough road ahead

Leading question: Is Bryce Young the Heisman front-runner?

Yes. Rivals national recruiting director Adam Gorney told SN this about Young earlier this summer: “He is a dynamic playmaker and incredible decision-maker. He will run on the field and you will say ‘Wow, that kid is small’ and he will go dominate.'”

That summed it up in a 44-13  blowout against No. 14 Miami in Atlanta. Young looked the part in yet another neutral-site beatdown under Nick Saban. Young finished 27 of 38 for 344 yards and four TDs in an impressive debut that left little doubt the Crimson Tide offense is fully operational in 2021.

You had concerns about Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator? Young hit eight different receivers en route to a first-half. where he finished 19 of 27 for 201 yards and three TDs. Young then hit Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams for a 94-yard TD on a corner route in the third quarter on a throw where he was leveled in the pocket. That gave the Tide a 34-3 lead.

Couple that with a defense that dominated in the first half, and this has the potential to be Saban’s most-diabolical creation yet.

Young will be in position to be the first Alabama quarterback to win the Heisman, and that would be yet another accomplishment in the Saban era.  A.J. McCarron (2013) and Tua Tagovailoa (2018) finished second,
and Mac Jones (2020) finished third. At a minimum, Young took the lead over some of the preseason favorites, and Alabama Heisman campaigns write themselves.

ALABAMA HEISMAN TOP-10 FINALISTS UNDER NICK SABAN

Year Player Pos. Finish
2009 Mark Ingram RB 1st
2011 Trent Richardson RB 3rd
2013 AJ McCarron QB 2nd
2014 Amari Cooper WR 3rd
2015 Derrick Henry RB 1st
2016 Jonathan Allen DE 7th
2018 Tua Tagovailoa QB 2nd
2018 Quinnen Williams DE 8th
2019 Tua Tagovailoa QB 10th
2020 DeVonta Smith WR 1st
2020 Mac Jones QB 3rd
2020 Najee Harris RB 5th

Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and North Carolina’s Sam Howell were the presumed favorites, and both struggled in Week 1.

Rattler finished 30 of 39 for 304 yards, a TD and two interceptions in a game where Tulane had the ball with a chance to take the lead in the final minute. The Sooners won 40-35, but if anybody was the hero it was OU kicker Gabe Brkic. He hit three field goals of 50 yards or more in the 40-35 victory. Rattler had a slow start last September, too, so there’s time to recalibrate.

Howell might not have that luxury. North Carolina was the first top 10 team to lose on Friday, when it fell 17-10 at Virginia Tech. Howell finished 17 of 32 for 208 yards, a TD and three interceptions, and he could not establish a connection with a receiver outside of Josh Downs (8 catches, 123 yards, TD).

Who is the Heisman front-runner among quarterbacks? Young makes the most sense because he is on the best team.

Clemson’s challenge: Go 12-0 from here

Clemson built a national championship program by beating SEC heavyweights.

Will a close loss to one of those heavyweights be enough to save that reputation in 2021? That is the uncomfortable situation the Tigers are in after a 10-3 loss to No. 5 Georgia in the Duke’s Mayo Classic on Saturday.

BENDER: Georgia defense looks championship worthy

Now, No. 3 Clemson will have to hope another ACC championship is enough to get another chance. That is, Clemson needs to go 12-0 from here on out to make a seventh straight College Football Playoff appearance under Dabo Swinney.

Was the Duke’s Mayo Classic a risk worth taking? After all, there is such a thing as a “good loss.” The problem is the Tigers didn’t look good doing it, at least on one side of the ball. Clemson’s defense did not give up a touchdown, but Georgia’s defense sacked sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei seven times, and he finished 19 of 37 for 178 yards and threw a pick six that was the game’s only TD.

Uiagalelei’s five-star talent will materialize, but he has lost to two top-five teams in three starts dating back to last year’s 47-40 loss to No. 4 Notre Dame. The Tigers won the rematch in the ACC championship game, but Saturday’s loss marked the fourth Clemson loss to a top-five team in five games.

The defense was lit up in playoff losses to LSU and Ohio State the last two seasons. This time, the offense couldn’t get started and the offensive line took the hit after the Tigers had 23 rushing attempts for two yards.

Does this mean Dabo is on the downslide? No. This is the fallout from losing a top-five non-conference matchup in Week 1, a phenomenon that was forgotten in the COVID-wrecked 2020 season.

But the loss to a SEC school carries weight. Clemson’s evolution as a program started with a victory against LSU in the 2012 Chick-Fil-A Bowl and the corresponding win against Georgia in the 2013 regular season. Swinney won national championships by beating Alabama twice. Clemson was 14-5 against SEC teams since that run started heading into Saturday’s game.

If there is one playoff spot remaining at the end of the season and the choice is between a second SEC school and Clemson, then that could get dicey.

The Tigers’ schedule leaves a lot to be desired. The remaining non-conference schedule is South Carolina State, UConn and South Carolina.

The ACC had a rough opening weekend. North Carolina and Miami were supposed to be the ACC Coastal favorites and both disappointed. They were among four teams in that division that lost in Week 1. Charlotte upset Duke 31-28, and Northern Illinois upset Georgia Tech 22-21. Virginia Tech, Pitt and Virginia won their openers.

The Power 5’s most unpredictable division almost never disappoints, but that will provide the same nondescript stage in Charlotte when/if Clemson returns for the ACC title game.

That will not be the same heavyweight fight. Clemson can only hope it gets another chance at an SEC school this season.

Resetting the Big Ten

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Give the Big Ten credit. The Week 1 schedule was fantastic. Four crossover games shook up the pecking order in both divisions.

Minnesota briefly threw an upset scare into Ohio State before C.J. Stroud settled in behind an embarrassment of playmakers in a 45-31 victory on Thursday. The Buckeyes scored five offensive TDs that covered an average of 59.2 yards per score (remember this stat for later) against the Gophers. Can anybody keep up with that offensive firepower?

Well, Penn State and Wisconsin were tied at 0-0 at halftime. The Nittany Lions averaged 2.8 yards per carry. The Badgers missed a field goal and had three turnovers. Somebody has to win a rock-fight, and
Penn State intercepted Graham Mertz twice in the final five minutes for a 16-10 victory. Penn State now has won seven of the last eight meetings against the Badgers.

That’s a bad loss for Wisconsin, but it was worse for Northwestern on Friday night.

Michigan State throttled the defending Big Ten West champion Wildcats at home. Wake Forest transfer running back Kenneth Walker rushed for 264 yards and four TDs; a breakout performance that started on the first snap.

“We see that every day in practice from him,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “That’s what he does.”

The Spartans haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 1,522 yards and 22 TDs as part of an 11-2 season where Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl in 2014.

Iowa saved the Big Ten West’s face by routing Indiana 34-6 and slowing the roll on last year’s feel-good story in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes intercepted Michael Penix Jr. in the first half three times to build a 31-3 halftime lead. Iowa won up front in systematic fashion by limiting the Hoosiers to 2.5 yards per carry.

What did we learn? As far as potential challengers for the Buckeyes, the top undercards are now Iowa and Penn State. Michigan State and Michigan (we’ll get to them in a bit) are next, and Wisconsin, Indiana and Northwestern have work to do to get back into the ring.

Week 2 team to watch

Will Michigan be ranked for its Week 2 matchup against Washington in the Big House? The Wolverines routed Western Michigan 47-14; a victory tempered by senior receiver Ronnie Bell’s leg injury.

How will you know if Michigan is real? We say this every time against ranked opponents: Watch the running game next week against the Huskies. Michigan rushed for 334 yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry against Western Michigan. Blake Corum (111 yards, TD) and Hassan Haskins (70 yards, TD) were an effective tag-team, and that is the key for Cade McNamara, who hit 9 of 11 passes for 136 yards and two TDs.

Michigan fans will spend the entire week, however, talking about the throw five-star freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy made in the fourth quarter:
 

Michigan’s six offensive TDs averaged 47.5 yards per score, which is at least in the Buckeyes’ zip code. Yeah, it’s too soon for that. Better news: The Wolverines have a quarterback controversy brewing because of talent, not necessity. Will the big plays be there in a must-win game for sixth-year coach Jim Harbaugh or will the hot-seat talks return?

Transfer QBs have mixed results

A total of 19 transfer quarterbacks started for Power 5 teams in Week 1, and that included 10 first-time starters with their new team. If McKenzie Milton starts for Florida State against Notre Dame on Sunday, he will join that list.

Who were the biggest winners among the transfer QBs?

– Kentucky’s Will Levis, a Penn State transfer, went bananas with 308 yards and three TDs in the first half in a 45-10 blowout against UL-Monroe. Levis finished with 367 yards and four TDs, and he worked the ball effectively to Josh Ali (136 yards) and Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson (125 yards).

– Kansas’ Jason Bean, a North Texas transfer, led a 17-14 victory, which broke a losing streak that extended back to Oct. 26, 2019. The Jayhawks will look to build a winning streak against Coastal Carolina
in Week 2.

– Utah’s Charlie Brewer (Baylor), Tennessee’s Joe Milton (Michigan) and Texas Tech’s Tyler Shough (Oregon) also picked up victories in their first start, though the results were mixed.

– And finally, South Carolina’s Zeb Noland, who went from graduate assistant to starting QB in just a few weeks, threw four TDs in the Gamecocks 46-0 rout of Eastern Illinois.

Sneak peek at Week 2

– It’s Iowa! Is this the biggest game in Iowa-Iowa State history? Iowa has won the last five meetings, and Iowa State has not beaten the Hawkeyes in Ames since a 44-41 overtime thriller in 2011 when Paul Rhoads was a third-year coach and Tom Herman was the offensive coordinator.

– Ohio State-Oregon and Michigan-Washington put the Alliance on display. The Buckeyes have won eight straight games against Pac-12 opponents, and the Wolverines are 2-1 against Pac-12 teams under Harbaugh. The shine came off Michigan-Washington a bit with the Huskies’ stunning 13-7 loss to Montana.

– Seven teams that were ranked in the Preseason AP Top 25 are playing FCS teams. We can’t wait for Saban to preview Mercer in Week 2.

– BYU-Utah in the “Holy War” at 10:15 p.m. ET. Will the Cougars be in the Big 12 before they try to break a nine-game losing streak to the Utes?

Extra Points

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– Steve Sarkisian won his debut at Texas with a 38-18 victory against Louisiana, and the first-year coach kept it simple: Get the ball to Bijan Robinson. The Longhorns sophomore running back had 20 carries for 103 yards and a TD and added four catches for 73 yards and a TD. That’s 7.4 yards per touch, and the same formula Sarkisian used to perfection with Najee Harris at Alabama, who averaged 6.4 yards per offensive touch while scoring 50 TDs his final two seasons. Robinson is that kind of special talent and a big reason why the Longhorns aren’t trending on Twitter after Week 1.

– Maybe LSU coach Ed Orgeron shouldn’t have called out that UCLA fan.

Orgeron hot-seat talk is easy conversation fodder, but this is about UCLA with Chip Kelly, who was 10-21 coming the last three seasons. The Bruins outplayed LSU in a 38-27 win at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins’ offense finally looks flashy with Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the running back tandem of Zach Charbonnet and Britain Brown. Don’t be surprised if UCLA makes the biggest jump in the Week 2 AP Poll among the previously-unranked teams.

What was even more surprising: LSU could not run the ball. The Tigers had 48 yards on 1.9 yards per carry.

Where can we find one of those blue shirts?

– Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux did this in the first half against Fresno State:

Then Thibodeaux left with an ankle injury and spent the second half in street clothes. The Ducks survived a 31-24 upset bid against the Bulldogs, but his health will be monitored closely leading up to the top-10 showdown against Ohio State.

– Holy Cross beat UConn 38-28, and Jason Modak scored a big-guy TD in the FCS upset. This is the perfect time for a Gordie Lockbaum reference .

– Another Group of 5 upstart from Louisiana nearly pulled an upset Saturday. In last year’s opener, Mississippi State’s K.J. Costello threw for a SEC record 623 yards in a 44-34 victory against defending national champion LSU. It looked like Mike Leach had brought “60 Minutes of Hell” to the SEC . This time, the Bulldogs rallied from 17 points to beat Louisiana Tech 35-34. Will Rogers hit 39 of 47 passes for 370 yards, proving once again there is never a dull moment with Leach.

– Is Cincinnati the toughest game on Notre Dame’s schedule? Wisconsin and North Carolina lost, so it is not a bad question. Desmond Ridder passed for four TDs, and the Bearcats routed rival Miami, Ohio 42-14. The RedHawks converted 3 of 19 conversions on third or fourth down. Maybe USC is the tougher out for the Irish, but U-C is the better bet to be unbeaten when they come to South Bend on Oct. 2.

– Three teams put up 60 spots in Week 1, including two first-year coaches.

Auburn beat Akron 60-10 in Bryan Harsin’s first game. Buffalo routed Wagner in Maurice Linguist’s opener as head coach. The other? Rutgers pounded Temple 61-14 in a game that was pushed from Thursday to Saturday due to flooding in New Jersey.

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