College football is back. At long last.
After months of discourse about which teams would be the best, whether or not the results of the 2020 season even mattered at all and some recent conference realignment chatter thrown in, talking season is officially over and competition has begun.
For the BYU Cougars, Utah Utes and Utah State Aggies, all of whom now have Game 1 under their belts, the return was largely positive. The same can’t be said for some other teams across the country though, and the preseason rankings — those of the AP and Coaches varieties — may have finally been rendered obsolete.
Here are six takeaways from Week 1 of the college football season.
The Utes looked the part, Charlie Brewer especially
While the first action of the college football season actually took place last weekend in what is affectionately known as Week 0, Week 1 kicked off Thursday night with a slate of four games. Included among those was Utah’s opener against in-state FCS power Weber State.
The Utes were victorious, per the usual — excluding last year’s COVID-crazy start that included back-to-back canceled games, Utah hasn’t lost a season opener since 2007 — and defeated the Wildcats 40-17.
Looking back over the years, that final score was just about what the Utes have always done against FCS foes to open the season. In 2018, they beat Weber State 41-10. In 2017 it was North Dakota by a score of 37-16 and the year before that Utah beat Southern Utah 24-0.
Despite a host of miscues, particularly in the first half — head coach Kyle Whittingham told the Deseret News that the Utes “have a whole laundry list of stuff to work on this week to keep us busy” — Utah looked mostly like a team capable of contending for the Pac-12 South Division title.
“It’s good to get a win, but I definitely think that we need to improve in a lot of areas headed into next week, which I think we will,” starting quarterback Charlie Brewer said. “It felt really good. It starts with me. I feel like I can play a little bit better. It was a good start. A good starting point. Now we can figure out exactly what we need to do better at.”
Speaking of Brewer, the Baylor transfer was accurate, poised and effective from the get go. He would have had one of the best stat lines by any quarterback in the country had some surefire touchdowns not been dropped, and he more than validated the decision to name him Utah’s starting quarterback over incumbent Cameron Rising.
“(Brewer) did a good job. His numbers were good, not great,” Whittingham said. “He had great poise in the pocket and he did a nice job keeping his eyes downfield. He was accurate, close to 70% (completion percentage). He did a good job running the offense.”
BYU earned a Power 5 win, but the Cougars need to improve in a hurry
Under head coach Kalani Sitake, BYU has made noise against the top tier of college football, otherwise known as the Power 5. There have been victories over USC, Tennessee and Wisconsin in recent years, and BYU added another win over a P5 opponent Saturday night when it took down Arizona in the season opener in Las Vegas.
The Cougars battled through some major adversity against the Wildcats, particularly injuries, including a devastating one to cornerback Keenan Ellis that led to him being rushed to the UMC Trauma Center.
In light of that, the Cougars did what was needed to defeat the Wildcats. The defense surrendered only a single touchdown, starting quarterback Jaren Hall had moments where he looked like a capable replacement for Zach Wilson and running back Tyler Allgeier justified a lot of the praise he received a season ago.
“We will just take this dub and go on,” Allgeier told the Deseret News, and Sitake echoed that sentiment.
“Obviously, there are a lot of things we can improve on,” he said, “but I was really proud of the fight from our team, to get the win.”
To be fair, though, BYU has lost plenty of games against P5 opponents under Sitake as well, and the Cougars need to improve across the board with the rivalry game against Utah up next.
Tackling was poor much of the game — the secondary has to be singled out — especially in the second half, and the offense was really only effective for a single quarter.
BYU let Arizona, which was inarguably the worst Pac-12 team a season ago, move the ball down the field with ease and Wildcats quarterback Gunner Cruz completed 34 of 45 pass attempts for 336 yards.
Some of that is how the Cougars play defense — bend but don’t break — but a lot of it was simply poor execution.
“There are a lot of things that we can fix,” defensive lineman Lopa Leiataua said. “Open-field tackling is one of them.”
Utah State has a defense. One more time, Utah State has a defense
There is no other way to put it, Utah State’s upset win over Washington State late Saturday night was historic.
Not only did Blake Anderson become the first Aggie head coach to win in his coaching debut in 48 years, but Utah State recorded its first road win over a Power 5 opponent since 1971 and the program’s first win over a Pac-12 team since the Aggies defeated rival Utah in Logan in 2012.
The Aggies did it in dramatic fashion, too, scoring 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, wiping away a 12-point Cougar lead. It is the kind of win that is unforgettable.
“It means everything,” wide receiver Deven Thompkins said (Thompkins caught the game-winning touchdown pass). “My first year here we lost to Michigan State. The next year we lost to LSU and Wake Forest. I’ve lost to three Power 5 schools since I’ve been here, so this one is going to stick with me forever.”
Key to the victory was the Aggies’ defense, which was statistically awful a season ago, one of the worst defensive units in the country. They were anything but that against Washington State and held the Cougars to only 23 points and 360 yards of total offense.
Much of Utah State’s success was because of returners such as linebacker AJ Vongphachanh, defensive linemen Nick Heninger and Marcus Moore and defensive backs such as Andre Grayson and Dominic Tatum, though transfers such as linebacker Justin Rice and edge rusher Patrick Joyner Jr., were invaluable.
The Aggies’ defense looked like a completely different unit, one capable of keeping Utah State in any game this season.
“Considering what everybody has said about our defense leading up to this, how they finished a year ago and even what the people here in Pullman were saying about them all week leading up to the game, they couldn’t have played any better,” Anderson said.
“To be able to force field goals after the turnovers and be able to force that three-and-out late in the game that got us the ball back (for the final possession), it’s hard to expect them to have played any better than they did.”
It is time for preseason rankings to disappear
Since the creation of the College Football Playoff, traditional polls like the AP and Coaches Poll have taken a hit. Once the CFP committee begins ranking teams, all other polls are rendered completely obsolete.
The only thing going for the traditional polls of late have been early season rankings, as well as the final rankings to end the year. Those rankings don’t have any impact on the CFP poll, but they have held the attention of fans and media alike, especially through the opening weeks of the season.
That should end. Right now.
Seven teams ranked in the Top 25 lost in Week 1, with No. 9-ranked Notre Dame still to play Sunday. Some lost to fellow ranked teams, like No. 14 Miami to No. 1 Alabama, No. 17 Indiana to No. 18 Iowa and No. 3 Clemson to No. 5 Georgia, while others fell to unranked opponents, like No. 10 North Carolina to Virginia Tech and No. 16 LSU to UCLA.
All of which begs the question, how does anyone know if any of those teams are any good?
Alabama obliterated Miami and UCLA embarrassed LSU. Why were the Hurricanes and Tigers ranked in the first place? North Carolina came into the season with loads of hype, while Virginia Tech looked like a team with a coach about to be fired, and while the script didn’t flip, the storylines heading into the game proved completely wrong. Iowa took down last year’s darling in Indiana, but does that make this year’s Hawkeyes good?
Polls make sense from an entertainment perspective. A top 5 showdown between Clemson and Georgia looks much more interesting to the casual fan than a game of unranked opponents, even with the Bulldogs and Tigers’ respective brands.
But for the purposes of educating fans as to which teams are the best in the country, that is better served for later in the season, once teams have actually done things.
Has anyone been eliminated from College Football Playoff contention?
Week 1 isn’t even done until Monday, but a few teams that had playoff hopes may have already been eliminated from contention.
Can Clemson still make the playoff after losing to Georgia? Most observers would say yes. The Tigers have been a playoff mainstay, and a loss to a top-ranked SEC team shouldn’t be a problem.
That being said, Clemson’s schedule does it little favors. Right now, the Tigers aren’t slated to play a ranked team, and while that can change, would a single win over a ranked opponent be enough? Would two, if one of those is the ACC championship game?
Then there is Washington. The Huskies weren’t a favorite to make it to the playoff or anything, but after a season-opening loss to Montana, an FCS program, Washington’s chances for postseason glory have all but been eliminated, and that is before a Week 2 showdown with Michigan, to say nothing of Pac-12 competition.
Then there is LSU. Only two years ago, the Tigers won a national championship, but after losing to UCLA, and with the gauntlet of the SEC West waiting, any hope of a return to the playoff seems dead.
Then there is North Carolina, a trendy preseason pick to make some noise at the end of the year. The Tar Heels could still make a run in the ACC, but with the loss to Virginia Tech, they are already playing catch up in the Coastal Division and the ACC doesn’t have the cache to have a non-division winner make the playoff.
Conference prestige matters and some conferences have already taken a hit
Speaking of conferences... reputation has mattered a great deal in the playoff era. There is a reason the SEC always has a team in the playoff, whereas the Big 12 and Pac-12 haven’t always consistently made it into the final competition.
Conferences have needed top tier-teams that dominate while also boasting a solid collection of mid-tier teams that have success against other conferences.
How do the conferences look after Week 1?
The Big 12 is riding high after going 9-1 with wins over a ranked opponent (No. 23 Louisiana) and a P5 foe (Stanford).
The SEC is right there, too, with an 11-2 record, highlighted by Alabama’s and Georgia’s wins, though LSU’s loss to UCLA hurts.
The Big Ten went 5-1 in Week 1 action, but the only non-conference wins of note were Maryland over West Virginia and Purdue over Oregon State.
Group of 5 conferences like Conference USA and the Mountain West had great success, with Charlotte upsetting Duke, Utah State taking down Washington State and Nevada taking down Cal.
The ACC had a rough go, thanks to Miami, Clemson and Duke losing, and Georgia Tech fell to Northern Illinois, a MAC team.
Still the worst weekend probably belonged to the Pac-12, despite UCLA’s strong showing. The Pac-12 North was a disaster, with only Oregon winning (and just barely over Fresno State). Washington, Cal, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington State were all upset and only the Cardinal and Beavers lost to P5 opponents.
The Pac-12 can turns things around Week 2 with showdowns against Ohio State, Michigan, Texas A&M and TCU (even Utah beating BYU would help), but right now things aren’t trending all that well for the conference as a whole.