Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Week 1: The princess is in another castle

Week 1

The first week of a college football season is almost always anticlimactic, failing to deliver on an offseason's worth of pent-up excitement. 

The opening slate typically features an array of snoozers, like a pedestrian hotel continental breakfast. You'll get just enough, but not what you really want, like a omeleteer serving up whatever egg-based dish you like at 7 in the morning. No, you'll take the toast and wake up to the season with a generic roast and USA Today. 

Take, for example, Michigan versus Hawaii: a classic Week 1 no-doubter. The game was over before you could say "Colt Brennan." Michigan rolled, 63-3, and it was fun until it wasn't, the point where every fan of a brand-name team wonders if there is even a point to this particular contest and if it should even be played at all. When one starts to truly feel bad for the other team is the exact moment in which that realization of the game's lack of utility takes root. 

Michigan, a team of four- and five-stars, experienced and talented, versus jetlagged Hawaii, which had already given up 51 points in a game before even coming to Ann Arbor: Welcome to opening weekend. 

The Wolverines won, but like wins scored by so many other teams dotting the top 25, the win means little. I't's Level 1, a step, the initial foray into the great unknown. 

The princess is in another castle. 

Then there's Alabama. 

Alabama, winners of last season's national title, lost its usual bevy of talent to the NFL, reigniting another round of The Process. 

The Crimson Tide opened with USC, a matchup of name brands. Coke and Pepsi, Rolls Royce and Bentley, Apple and Microsoft -- you get the idea. 

Alabama even had the courtesy to let the Trojans hang around for about a quarter. USC struck first with a field goal, but they would never lead again. Alabama started the game with Blake Barnett at quarterback, but finished it with Jalen Hurts, who offers a scary thing: an Alabama quarterback who is an active playmaker for the offense, as opposed to the parade of game-managing types of recent years. 

Hurts fumbled early, but proceeded to dissect the Trojans defense like a film class recitation one might take on the USC campus. Hurts started things with a 39-yard strike to ArDarius Stewart, then Alabama added a field goal and a pick-six to enter the half up 17-3. Against anyone not named Cam Newton, that means the game is over. 

And it was. The Tide rolled to a 52-6 win. Maybe USC isn't that good, but even the most cynical observer of the Trojans program probably doesn't think they're 52-6 bad.  

Once again, everyone is chasing the team from Tuscaloosa. 

And yet, despite the Tide's aura of invincibility, they have been prone to the occasional slip-up. In recent years, that has been at the hands of Ole Miss, who the Tide face in Week 3 in Oxford. The Rebels are fresh off of a crushing collapse against Florida State in Orlando -- maybe they'll be eager to prove that was a fluke? 

Or, maybe, Alabama will see them coming this time, particularly after losses to the Rebels in 2014 and 2015. If there's one thing you don't want, it's an Alabama that sees you. 

Speaking of, Florida State seemed destined to both get blown out and get its quarterback, freshman Deondre Francois, injured Monday night against Ole Miss. 

The Rebels raced out to an early 7-0 lead, scoring in under two minutes. They eventually led 28-6 after a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Jimbo Fisher and everyone else on the FSU sideline looked bereft of answers or words, like someone who has just missed a flight. 

Francois and Co. couldn't get much of anything going, much of it the fault of an offensive line that played like five large pieces of rice paper. Even star tailback Dalvin Cook (23 carries, 91 yards), with a free run to the end zone, simply dropped the ball out of bounds at the 3-yard line (FSU would eventually have to settle for a field goal). 

Nothing was working for the Seminoles -- another top-10 team appeared ready to topple. 

Then, having enough of it, Francois started firing in the face of heavy pressure. I'm not sure what happened or what unseen switch was flipped, but the redshirt freshman started making throws even fifth-year seniors can never hope to make. 

Less than six minutes into the third quarter, FSU led, 29-28. Blink and everything can change in an instant. In the span of less than a quarter's worth of NBA action, the Seminoles turned a 22-point deficit into a one-point lead. 

Questions now abound about Ole Miss, which looked unstoppable to start and completely flustered to finish. Whatever the Ole Miss season becomes, this was a hello to the college football world from Francois (whose debut compares favorably to the guy who recently won FSU a national championship). 

A tricky trip to Louisville on Sept. 17 beckons for the 'Noles, not to mention a home game against UNC followed by a trip to Miami. Then, of course, there's Clemson on Oct. 29. 

Can they run the table? Maybe, if Francois' brilliance on Monday night is any indication. But the offensive line will need to protect him and get Cook going, or they might not even get a chance to set up a matchup of potential undefeateds against Clemson. 

And as we all know, freshman quarterbacks usually mean a slip-up is just around the corner. 


Clemson went down to Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, riding as high as one could on the heels of a national championship game defeat. After that loss to Alabama, everyone acknowledged Deshaun Watson and Co. as legitimate, an anointment that can these days only come after going head-to-head with Alabama and nearly winning on the biggest stage. This is "little ole Clemson" no longer. "Clemsoning" was once a word with meaning, but has sharply disappeared from the college football lexicon, lost in the gradually roiling seas of language transformation. "Clemsoning" is Middle English of yore -- in the dictionary, it's marked "archaic." 

Now, some might be down on the Tigers after a less-than-impressive 19-13 win. Watson went 19-of-24 for 248 yards (1 TD, 1 INT). Wayne Gallman carried it 30 times for 123 yards. Mike Williams caught nine balls for 174 yards, dismissing the Auburn secondary as if it wasn't there. Hunter Renfrow, hero of the national title game, fittingly reeled in a key touchdown grab. 

The score is not impressive, but the result and the individual performances are worthy of praise. Clemson didn't start with Hawaii or Furman or Wofford or Tumbleweed State -- they started with an SEC foe on the road. 

Now, say what you will about Auburn, a team with no offense led by an offense-first head coach, but Clemson doesn't need style points like, say, Houston does. The win is enough. 

There were hairy moments, moments when Clemson appeared destined to fall into one of Bowser's many lava pits or run into a whirling dungeon fire bar. 

But time expired, and Clemson found itself at the end, meeting Toad. The princess is in another castle, he says. 

Things lighten up for the Tigers the next few weeks; that is, until Lamar Jackson and Louisville roll into town Oct. 1. 


The madness continued Sunday night in Austin, when Texas took down Notre Dame with an 18-wheeler and a freshman gunslinger. 

Both teams used two quarterbacks, but the Longhorns were far more effective in their deployment, buoyed by freshman Shane Buechele's 280 passing yards and Tyrone Swoopes' three rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, Malik Zaire got the start for Notre Dame, and even got the first series of the second half, but proved ineffective. Deshone Kizer took over down the stretch, finishing 15-of-24 for 215 yards and five touchdown passes. Kizer, a Toledo native, makes one wonder: What if he now wore the winged helmet instead? 

After 6-7 and 5-7 seasons to kick off the Charlie Strong era, this was one he, and Texas, badly needed. It's one thing to ambush a much better Oklahoma team in a rivalry game like they did last season -- it's another to beat a team like Notre Dame in a nonconference tilt. 

Like many of the other teams discussed here, Notre Dame's fate is yet to be determined. Texas could turn out to be good, and this loss would just mark an unfortunate loss concurrent with the rise of the Longhorns. 

Notre Dame will have a chance to collect itself and get back on track with a contest against Michigan State on Sept. 17. A loss there, and the outlook for Notre Dame takes on a blue-gray hue that's more gray than blue. 


The opening weekend was full of the usual array of upsets, pseudo-upsets and near-upsets. Northwestern won 10 games last year but couldn't do enough to stem the tide that was the Western Michigan Broncos, who rowed their boats onto the shores of Lake Michigan and claimed the City of Evanston for Kalamazoo County. 

Mike Leach's Washington State Cougars proceeded to plunder the good will of a nine-win 2015 season by losing to Eastern Washington, at home. 

Oklahoma fell against Houston, much to no one's surprise. That's not to say that many would have thought a Houston win a certainty, but its possibility was seen a mile away in the pensive hours of the long, long offseason. Houston will both take its long shot at a playoff shot, plus the more likely possibility of a conference upgrade. 

Indiana led FIU 12-10 at the half. Michigan State beat Furman 28-13. Tennessee just barely avoided casting themselves in "Appalachian State: The Sequel." No. 16 UCLA crawled back from a 24-9 deficit at Texas A&M only to lose in overtime. The Aggies appear to have a quarterback, but check back later, as folks thought the same thing for the last two seasons with Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen, who both now play at different Texas schools. 

Week 1 is also about noise, much of it meaningless. Is Tennessee that bad? Probably not. Is Texas A&M "back"? Texas? Who knows. Michigan State? Well, they beat Western Michigan by 13 in 2013 and again by 13 last season, and they went 13-1 and 12-2 in those seasons, both ending with conference championship. 

At this point, you simply shrug and move on. That's all you can do. 


College football is a constantly unfolding story, with climactic moments not woven in but thrown in seemingly at random. Rather, it's a collection of short stories, anchored by a central theme but by no means wholly tethered to it. 

Results are like the stars -- sometimes you try to connect the dots, but you'll often have to take someone else's word that the Big Dipper or Orion are in fact up there. 

They are, but you have to wait .Wait for them to come into focus -- and don't get distracted by that fleeing comet, or you might lose the picture, as the sky reverts to a sea of bright lights, apart and alone. 

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