It’s fair to say this past weekend was the most-anticipated Week 1 in the recent memory, and it lived up to its billing; No. 4 Florida State’s back-and-forth victory over No. 11 Ole Miss on Labor Day was a fitting ending to a slate of games that rarely failed to keep viewers’ attention.
There was a lot to like, but some things drove us a little crazy. Let’s break it down:
Things we liked
For the first time, Nick Saban might have a superstar at quarterback. The Crimson Tide took awhile to begin their demolition of No. 20 USC on Saturday night, but 52 points later, the nation could only nod and accept that this version of ‘Bama football is just as good as the last.
The primary difference is under center. True freshman Jalen Hurts and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett both impressed against the Trojans, with Hurts becoming the first quarterback since 1996 to put up multiple passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns against USC.
Saban’s quarterback competition is still raging after Hurts (the dual-threat wunderkind) and Barnett (the cannon-armed phenom) took center stage on national television.
Either one could be the Tide’s best player by 2017 or 2018, but right now, it doesn’t matter. As long as they make plays while avoiding costly turnovers, Alabama’s surrounding offensive talent — not to mention what is probably the nation’s best defense — will be an unbelievable flotation device.
Texas A&M’s defense collapsed in the final minutes of regulation, but everything else was a nice surprise. A scary pass rush led by the joint efforts of Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall helped hold UCLA’s highly touted offense to 9 points over the first 55 minutes. Then all hell broke loose and the Bruins somehow had the ball on their own 42-yard line with 1:18 on the clock and a chance to win the football game.
The Aggies stripped Bruins quarterback Drew Rosen and recovered the ball on the first play, but a review confirmed the referees’ initial call that Rosen’s knee was down (it could’ve gone either way). Despite the minor setback, A&M immediately rallied, as linebacker Justin Evans leapt high to pick off Rosen on the next play.
In overtime, quarterback Trevor Knight and the Aggies offense finally got back on track, and the “D” came through again; UCLA had four plays from the 7-yard-line to try and tie the game, and A&M allowed 2 total yards to seal a win that could have playoff implications down the line.
Elliott Fry is the man. If not for its senior kicker, South Carolina would be 0-1 right now.
Fry sneaked a 48-yard field goal over the crossbar to get the Gamecocks on the scoreboard in the third quarter against Vanderbilt on Thursday. Then, with the game tied 10-10 and the clock running out, USC’s offense stalled in a crucial spot for what seemed to be the millionth time. Fry drove home the game-winning 55-yard field goal with 0:35 remaining. “Cool as you like,” as soccer announcers are fond of saying.
Florida’s superfrosh kicker met expectations and crushed them. Eddy Pineiro had never attempted a field goal in a meaningful game — high school, community college, whatever — before Saturday against UMass. But his elite leg power have had some wondering if he could be the first one-and-done NFL kicker.
He shook off any nerves with a 28-yarder that split the uprights (it did not count thanks to a penalty) and then later drained his “first” career field goal from 41 yards out. His official line was 3 for 3 (1 for 1 on extra points), with a long of 49. It seems safe to say that Florida’s kicking nightmare is over. Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend might be the country’s best specialist duo.
Mississippi State had a horrible Saturday, but there’s a silver lining. The Bulldogs might have found their quarterback of the future. Junior Damian Williams was inspiring off the bench, going 5 for 5 with a touchdown pass on his opening drive against South Alabama. He finished the day with 236 total yards, including a 20 for 28 performance through the air and a 7.8 average on the ground.
Williams was unable to guide the offense into the end zone in the second half, but defense and special teams issues — including a missed 28-yard field goal to lose the game — were more to blame than his slump.
We’ll see if he can make any more progress in Mississippi State’s SEC opener vs. South Carolina next weekend, or if Dan Mullen will need to dig back into his bag of quarterbacks to try something else.
SEC teams put together one heckuva Week 1 slate. Fans got to watch some classic performances this weekend. Many of them ended poorly (LSU and Ole Miss were particularly depressing), but it was better than a weekend full of snoozers. Don’t believe us? Try watching a full Saturday of SEC football in Week 2, when Eastern Michigan becomes the average non-con opponent and TCU becomes the outlier.
Things we didn’t like
Butch Jones had good intentions after Tennessee somehow escaped Appalachian State’s clutches on Thursday night, when he went around the field congratulating the visiting team’s players for their efforts.
But there was something — off — about the timing of his grandest gesture: a quick stop into App State’s postgame huddle to point at various players and presumably give praise to the defeated Mountaineers.
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is a class act pic.twitter.com/701cr2xECC
— Sports Pics (@AmazingSprtsPic) September 3, 2016
Problem was, App State coach Scott Satterfield appeared to be in the middle of an important postgame speech (remember: this was moments after the most gut-wrenching loss a Sun Belt team can possibly endure) and the players looked wholly unhappy to see Jones butt in.
The Mountaineers were the better team on Thursday, and — in that moment Jones interrupted them — they clearly did not care for affirmation from the Volunteers coach.
Chad Kelly’s ball security was lacking throughout Ole Miss’ loss. He turned the ball over four times, including interceptions in all three of the game’s phases: Close game early. Big lead in the second half. Trailing late.
All three were particularly poor throws, especially the first and third, when Kelly left the ball behind his receivers for easy picks. He nearly did it on his second touchdown pass, too, but true freshman wide receiver D.K. Metcalfe stole the ball from the clutches of the defender in the corner of the end zone.
The margin for error in Oxford is likely zero down the stretch, which means Kelly needs to avoid those ugly mistakes. His back-to-back turnovers — an interception and a lost fumble — in the third quarter emptied a tank of gas on the Florida State bonfire, and a tired Rebels defense paid dearly.
Auburn’s offense was so frustrating that fans booed it twice — loudly — in the first quarter of a tie game against the No. 2 team in the country. How did we get here? Last preseason, Gus Malzahn was still an offensive genius with what seemed to be the conference’s best attack.
Now, his offense can’t take advantage of a 19-point Clemson output? Kudos to Malzahn and his defensive staff for stifling the visiting Tigers, but Auburn fans have to be displeased with the carousel of quarterbacks and general state of confusion that developed at Jordan-Hare on Saturday night.
3 for 17 on third downs and a 2.1 rushing average are unacceptable, no matter who’s in town.
The most mind-blowing part of Vanderbilt’s 13-10 loss to South Carolina was not the double-digit lead that vanished. It was not a passing “attack” that produced 3.2 yards per throw, or the Commodores’ failure to score in the game’s final 44 minutes, 32 seconds. It was not the defense’s late collapse against Perry Orth.
It was star running back Ralph Webb sprinting down the field to cover punts.
Yes, the man who accounted for 34.2 percent of all yards from scrimmage last season — and is Vanderbilt’s consensus best offensive player — was lined up in punt coverage during the first half on Thursday night.
In some world, I’m sure this makes sense. Perhaps Webb volunteered to be on the punt team as a sign of veteran leadership. Perhaps he is actually pretty good at covering punts! But those are bad reasons to have your star tailback play unnecessary downs that involve wind sprints and higher injury risk.
And, guess what? It took one punt for the impracticality to reveal itself. South Carolina muffed the kick, and Webb was one of many bodies to dive into the scrum. When Vanderbilt emerged with the ball, Webb was too gassed to stay in the game, and he missed the next three plays.
On the following punt, he was grabbed and violently thrown to the ground after making it 10 yards down the field. This sort of silliness is what makes me think Year 3 of the Derek Mason Era might be hopeless, after all.
It took 5 seconds for SEC officials and the SEC replay center to screw up their unblemished record in 2016.
The first play of Vanderbilt-South Carolina was a kickoff that Gamecocks returner A.J. Turner (playing in his first career game) nearly carried out of the end zone before stepping back in for a kneel down. Commodores fans were irate, as Turner clearly broke the plane with his leg, but the refs’ call initially appeared correct: The football had never fully crossed the line.
Oh my god, South Carolina. This was nearly ruled a safety pic.twitter.com/QRq2ZCHWIn
— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) September 2, 2016
However, the replay center completely whiffed due to a case of tunnel vision. Focused on whether the ball crossed the plane, the review team missed a separate factor: Turner mimed a kneeldown, but he never actually put his knee on the ground.
Because the panicked redshirt freshman ran the ball out — and was tackled at the 4-yard line — immediately afterward, South Carolina should’ve been spotted at the 4-yard line, not the “touchback” 25-yard line.
The difference might not have mattered, but it’s disheartening to know that an entire replay office could get things wrong when the answer was obvious to 35,000 people watching the video screen at Vanderbilt Stadium.
Kickers are still breaking hearts. The SEC might have the nation’s best group of placekickers, but Saturday was further proof that you can’t hide from special teams ineptitude at the college level.
The most infamous miss was Westin Graves’ 28-yard yank off the goalpost in Mississippi State’s 21-20 loss vs. South Alabama. But the most egregious? That would go to Missouri freshman Tucker McCann, who ruined a brief spell of Tigers momentum by biffing a 24-yarder near the end of the first half.
The kick would’ve brought Missouri within 7 of West Virginia, but no dice. Barry Odom has plenty of other problems to solve — starting with the passing offense — but that miss can’t be good for his 18-year-old kicker’s psyche.