After all the blindsides, end-arounds, deflections, trickery, obfuscation, NIL maneuvering, booster tampering and transfer portal traffic jams over the past nine months, a college football game finally broke out Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

For three hours and six minutes, the time it took for the 14th-ranked University of Utah football team to dispatch the unranked University of Florida football team by the score of 24-11, no new leagues were announced, no defections to other conferences, no new TV deals, no raises for the players. 

College football got back to its basics. Turns out the field is still 100 yards long, touchdowns are still six points, a first down is still 10 yards, and the rules of the game between the goal posts are still in force, meaning you can’t decide to up and play for the other team in the middle of the game. At least not yet.

It was only fitting that a walk-on and son of southern Utah pig farmers would bring things back down to earth. Bryson Barnes is the kind of story college football has long thrived on. It’s what sets it apart from the pros. Unknown comes out of nowhere and puts on a show. Not that Milford, Utah, Barnes’ hometown, is nowhere — it is in fact the world capital of rodeo, home to the amazing Wright family and their gazillion saddle bronc championship buckles.

But football? They don’t specialize in pigskin in Milford, they specialize in pigs. Barnes’ family raises pigs. Thursday night he played like he’s in no hurry to get back to the farm. On the first play from scrimmage, the first offensive play of the 2023 campaign, all Barnes did was throw a perfect 40-yard spiral to receiver Money Parks, who turned the completion into a 70-yard touchdown. The Utes were up 7-0 before Florida had a chance to complain about the altitude.

You may wonder, considering the new college culture, does Barnes have an NIL deal? Yes, he does. With Tender Belly Bacon. For an undisclosed amount. You can hear him tout it on X (formerly Twitter).

And Barnes wasn’t the only promising story coming out of the Utes’ season debut. In what amounted to a quarterback audition in front of 53,000 people, he took turns at quarterback with redshirt freshman Nate Johnson, who put on his own show.

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Johnson, from Clovis, California, a medium-sized town outside of Fresno, showed off the speed that, in addition to Utah, got him offers out of high school from the likes of Michigan, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and Oregon State, among others. In his first series, he scored on a 27-yard sprint from scrimmage to put Utah comfortably in front; in all he totaled 45 yards on six carries, tying teammate Micah Bernard for most rushing yards in the game.

As they did last year in Gainesville, the Gators rallied in the second half, but even if they are from the SEC — the first SEC team ever to play in Salt Lake City — there was just too much to overcome: they were playing at altitude, they didn’t have the quarterback who won the game for them a year ago, Anthony Richardson, who is now being paid to start for the Indianapolis Colts, and they had five new players on the offensive line in front of new quarterback Graham Mertz, a portal transfer who got no argument from the University of Wisconsin when he said he was leaving.

The fact that Utah’s two biggest stars, quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe, both near the end of recovering from ACL surgery, didn’t play didn’t matter. 

Rising is an interesting case. In the new money era of college football he’s showed just how much it matters whether you’re playing or not. Last year when he was leading the Utes to the Pac-12 title and their second Rose Bowl appearance, the online website reported his NIL deals were worth just over $500,000. This year, they report it’s less than half that. ACL surgery cost him about a quarter million dollars. It can be a cruel game in the new era.

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In winning their season opener Thursday, the Utes brought out all their Kyle Whittingham-era signatures: Sack Lake City was in full form (five sacks, two by a relentless Jonah Elliss), the rush defense was stellar (Florida had a grand total of 13 yards rushing), the Mighty Utah Student Section was at its Third Down Jump best (On 13 third downs, the Gators managed just one first down), and the U.’s punter from Down Under — Jack Bouwmeester from Bendigo, Australia — averaged 51.8 yards on six punts, with two going for 61 and 64 yards.

All of which transpired in front of a record R-E crowd of 53,644, a number reached thanks to the 1,500 fans who paid $175 apiece for Standing Room Only access.

“All in all a lot of good things for an opening game,” said Whittingham, which is high praise for a head coach.

He didn’t comment about the musical chairs college football has been playing for the past nine months, or the money conferences are throwing at schools to defect, or the boosters who keep enticing players to transfer. The talk was about the two quarterback understudies who seized their opportunities. Old school college football ruled, at least for a night.

Florida Gators linebacker Shemar James (6) and Florida Gators safety R.J. Moten (16) bring down Utah Utes quarterback Nate Johnson (13) during the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News
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