Week 1 displays college football's unpredictability; Punt, Pass & Pork
Sixty minutes of actual football can render months of analysis -- and occasionally months of coaching -- completely useless.
From January through August, just about everyone except the people who speak Yell Leader assumed South Carolina would whip Texas A&M. After all, the Gamecocks had won 33 games over the last three years, and they hadn’t lost at home since 2011. The Aggies had to replace first-round quarterback Johnny Manziel, first-round tackle Jake Matthews and first-round wide receiver Mike Evans. Their offense would have to take a step back. Wouldn’t it?
Meanwhile, UCF coaches spent the offseason evaluating quarterbacks Pete DiNovo and Justin Holman as potential replacements for first-round draft pick Blake Bortles. After careful consideration, Knights coach George O’Leary announced on Aug. 10 that DiNovo would start the opener against Penn State. After all that competition, he was the best player to lead UCF’s offense, right?
Thursday’s first game and Saturday’s first game put the lie to both of those assumptions. Texas A&M’s offense, with Kenny Hill at quarterback and Cedric Ogbuehi at left tackle, didn’t look like an imitation of the Manziel days. It looked like it could be even better during a 52-28 victory that snapped South Carolina’s home win streak. At halftime in Dublin, Ireland, on Saturday, UCF’s DiNovo had passed for 18 yards. He was replaced with Holman, who nearly carried the Knights to an upset of the Nittany Lions. UCF lost 26-24 on Sam Ficken’s last-second field goal, but the idea of Holman throwing to wide receiver J.J. Worton against American Athletic Conference competition seems quite promising.
The moral of these two stories? Going into a season, we don’t really know anything. That’s the beauty of this sport. Even the safest assumptions can be turned upon their heads on an annual basis. We can’t draw any real conclusions until October, but the constant guessing is half the fun.
Unless your job depends on getting it right. Then the uncertainty can be maddening.
Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital had spent months watching film of South Carolina's defense and working with his offense. Until Thursday, however, he couldn’t be sure of anything. Would the Gamecocks use a four-man front, as they had for the past few years? Or would they try to cover up inexperience on the defensive line by switching to an odd front and putting another veteran linebacker on the field? Would Hill be as cool in a game as he was in practice and meetings? Would new receivers Speedy Noil and Josh Reynolds play as well on national television as they did during closed practices?
Spavital, who has worked with Manziel, Brandon Weeden and Geno Smith, wanted Hill as comfortable as possible out of the chute. “I scripted for high-success plays early because I didn’t know how Kenny was going to be,” Spavital said. The first high-success play was a screen to the right to tailback Brandon Williams that gained seven yards. This didn’t count toward Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards, because the throw traveled backward. The second play Spavital called was a bubble screen to the left to Williams. Ricky Seals-Jones put a crushing block on South Carolina’s Sharrod Golightly to spring Williams for a 13-yard gain. Hill had led the Aggies to a first down, and he had shown Spavital that the moment wouldn’t be too big for him.
“I did two quick screens for Kenny -- just to get him settled down and just to see how he was going to handle that,” Spavital said. “But after the first two plays, you could tell that the kid wasn’t fazed at all. So, you could just start going with the game plan.”
That took pressure off the rest of the offense. It also took pressure off the coaching staff. “It’s a lot more comfortable,” Spavital said. “You can be more multiple. You don’t have to call the perfect play at all times.”
Through 99 plays and 680 yards, Hill never seemed to be trying too hard. This, incidentally, is how Florida State’s Jameis Winston looked for almost the entire 2013 campaign. Such relentless competence can completely demoralize a defense. It can also help explain some of the Seminoles’ occasional struggles in a 37-31 win over Oklahoma State on Saturday.
Winston appeared to be trying hard, from his two interceptions on forced throws to his mind-bending 28-yard touchdown run to his double-pump, needle-threader to Rashad Greene for a score. Winston never looked to be trying particularly hard last season. Other than his Houdini-like escape for a touchdown pass in a 63-0 rout of Maryland, how many did-he-just-do-that plays do you remember from Winston in 2013? There weren’t many. Instead, there was a barrage of perfectly timed, technically sound throws that almost always found their target.
Winston and the rest of Florida State’s offense were so good they barely seemed to be trying -- which meant they were trying very hard from Sunday through Friday to ensure they were as close to perfect as possible on Saturday. That type of proficiency is what Spavital would like to see out of Hill and the Aggies.
On Saturday, Spavital and Hill reviewed the South Carolina game. “We had 99 snaps, so there’s a lot of tape to learn from,” Spavital cracked. Though Spavital isn’t much of a yeller, he did find plenty to criticize from Hill’s record-setting debut start. In fact, so did Hill. “He was upset with some things. You could tell,” Spavital said. “It’s just a different deal on how you grade the quarterbacks in this system. Obviously, he played a great game. He threw for 511 yards. School record. He played lights-out. I was proud of how the kid played. But at the same time, from a coaching standpoint, you try to be perfect at everything. It’s not like I’m sitting there scolding the kid. It’s, 'How can we keep getting better?’”
They’ll have to get better, because while many of their preseason suspicions were confirmed on Thursday, the Aggies still don’t know much after Week 1. Once it finishes playing three-fourths of Bob Stoops’ favorite out-of-conference schedule, Texas A&M will play four consecutive SEC West games, culminating with a visit to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 18. At the moment, Alabama remains an unknown, too. The Crimson Tide moved the ball against West Virginia but still appear to need work at cornerback. Also mysterious is UCLA, which required three defensive touchdowns to bail out an offensive line that struggled against Virginia. Ditto for Texas, which opened the Charlie Strong era with a dominant defensive performance against North Texas but will face much better competition in the next two weeks.
None of us really knows anything. Except this guy, who hopefully put a stack of cash down in Vegas on Wednesday and bought his own island on Sunday. The good thing for the rest of us? We get three entertaining months to figure it all out.
Projected College Football Playoff
I will project the four-team playoff field each week using only the information provided by teams from this season. That means my selections could vary wildly for two months before becoming more consistent as the sample size grows. Whether I base these selections on in-season information or preseason reputation, the picks in September will almost certainly be wrong. The picks in November will have a better chance of being correct. It just seems more fun this way.
Bulldogs tailback Todd Gurley looked like the best player in the country on Saturday, carry 15 times for 198 yards and returning a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in Georgia’s win over Clemson. But freshmen tailback Nick Chubb actually averaged more yards per carry, gaining 70 yards on four attempts.
Going into the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs led 24-21. They had attempted 26 passes and 26 rushes. They attempted zero passes and 15 rushes in the fourth. They won 45-21. Georgia’s tailback depth -- freshman Sony Michel also looked good, and Keith Marshall remains a threat -- and offensive line push suggests that the Bulldogs might be able to do what Auburn did in 2013. They may simply run until a defense is on its heels, and then start throwing to wide-open receivers sprinting past a packed box. Also promising for the Bulldogs were the halftime adjustments that first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made. After allowing 21 points in the first half, Georgia shut out Clemson in the second. The Bulldogs held the Tigers to -19 yards in the fourth quarter.
2. Florida State
I could be completely wrong here, but I think we’ll find out that Oklahoma State is quite good. The Seminoles struggled at times on Saturday, but their speed on defense remained evident, and Winston rose to the occasion when needed. The ‘Noles need to find ways to spell their defensive linemen -- maybe use whip-quick freshman defensive end Lorenzo Featherston on obvious passing downs -- and they must locate other pass-catching targets so defenses don’t load up to stop Greene. But those issues are plenty fixable given their abundance of talent.
3. Michigan State
The Spartans weren’t challenged by Jacksonville State, but they’ll be challenged plenty at Oregon next weekend. If the Ducks are in this spot instead of Michigan State next week, you’ll know what happened.
4. Texas A&M
It’s a long way between a win at South Carolina and an SEC West title, but the Aggies look like a different team than they were last year. The defense still needs work, but the addition of freshman defensive end Myles Garrett gives Texas A&M the legitimate pass-rushing threat it needed for the past two years. Opposing offenses may still gain yards, but by harassing the passer the Aggies should force more turnovers. If A&M's offense can click the way it did in Columbia, few defenses will be able to slow it.
The poll ballot
I watched Baylor beat SMU 45-0 in the first game at McLane Stadium on Sunday. The game was a little lopsided, which gave me a chance to check out one of the more unique offerings at the concession stand. I had a Texana Dog, a bacon-wrapped hot dog with jalapeño relish and guacamole. That got me thinking about the best items that can (or should) be wrapped in bacon.
4. Chicken drumstick
2. Filet mignon
1. More bacon
Play of the week
When Les Miles has a loaded team, he doesn’t take chances. This is how you wind up with scores like 9-6 for games of the century of the millennium of the week. However, when Miles must rely on a bunch of young skill-position players against a veteran opponent, things get interesting. LSU trailed Wisconsin by 17 points in the third quarter when Miles, desperate to spark his offense, called for a fake punt.
If you’re going to run behind two people on a fake punt, 321-pound offensive tackle La’el Collins and 340-pound guard Vadal Alexander make for ideal choices. Both blockers overwhelm their men at the point of attack. Meanwhile, on this play 236-pound long snapper Reid Ferguson fired the ball directly to upback Kendell Beckwith -- not so easy for a guy conditioned to snap straight back to the punter -- and then blocked 290-pound nose tackle Arthur Goldberg. The degree of difficulty here is tremendous. Unlike a center in a shotgun snap, a long snapper must keep his head between his legs while snapping the ball. Ferguson had to make the unusual snap, pull his head up, find out which direction Goldberg had moved and then seal off a man more than 50 pounds heavier than him.
Of course, it helped that Goldberg bit on an excellent fake by punter Jamie Keehn, who pretended to catch the snap and then took off running right. Keehn’s fake also momentarily fooled Wisconsin defensive end Conor Sheehy, who paused for a beat before working quickly down the line of scrimmage to tackle Beckwith. Unfortunately for the Badgers, Beckwith had gained five yards on a fourth-and-two. Had Keehn’s fake not slowed Sheehy’s progress, it’s possible Sheehy might have met Beckwith much closer to the line of scrimmage. Then we might not be talking about an LSU win, and we wouldn’t have this image seared into our memories.
Big Ugly of the Week
This week’s Big Ugly couldn’t win his team the game, but he did terrorize the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in a way no lineman has before. Oklahoma State defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah sacked Jameis Winston twice and finished with six tackles and two pass breakups in a 37-31 loss to Florida State. The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Ogbah was making his first career start for the Cowboys, but the sophomore will likely be a focal point for opposing offensive line coaches after his breakout performance. Matched against future NFL talent, Ogbah showed speed, power and a relentless motor.
On Ogbah’s first sack, Florida State left tackle Cam Erving set inside. By the time Erving turned back outside, he had no chance to catch to Ogbah, who was busy mauling Winston. Ogbah’s second sack was even more impressive. He lined up in a one technique (inside eye of the guard). He began working against center Austin Barron, then twisted toward the left side of Florida State’s line as called for by the line stunt Oklahoma State was running. Ogbah worked around left guard Josue Matias and Erving before finally dumping Winston for a 13-yard loss.
1. Congratulations to Penn State’s Ficken, whose 36-yard field goal as time expired gave the Nittany Lions a 26-24 win over UCF. It was only two years ago that Ficken received death threats after missing four field goals and an extra point in a 17-16 loss to Virginia. On Saturday, he was a team captain and the guy who kicked the game-winner. Ficken celebrated by running for his life. His explanation for this is perfectly logical. “There’s like 310-pound linemen running after you. And I didn't wanna get dog-piled,” Ficken told David Jones of The Patriot-News. “So, I decided running was the best option."
2. UCLA really missed center Jake Brendel at Virginia on Saturday. The Bruins’ line was out of sync, and linemen committed five false-start penalties. Brendel, who sprained his left knee during preseason camp, had started 27 consecutive games. He came in with quarterback Brett Hundley, and the two have been a tandem since taking over starting jobs as redshirt freshmen in 2012. It’s a safe bet the Bruins’ offense will run more smoothly when Brendel returns.
3. In its first game under Charlie Strong, the Texas defense allowed 94 yards and intercepted four passes in a 38-7 win over North Texas. Still, the Longhorns should get a more accurate sense of where their defense stands when BYU visits Austin this Saturday. Last year in Provo, the Cougars rolled up 679 yards -- including 550 on the ground -- in a 40-21 rout of the Longhorns. The day after BYU quarterback Taysom Hill rushed for 259 yards and three touchdowns, Texas fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Hill and the Cougars looked sharp in their opener on Friday. Hill threw for 308 yards with three touchdowns and ran for 97 yards with two scores in a 35-10 victory over Connecticut.
4. Whither Melvin Gordon? After a 63-yard run at the start of the third quarter to help set up the score that put Wisconsin ahead of LSU by 17 points, the Badgers tailback carried only three more times. Meanwhile, LSU stormed back for a 28-24 win. Gordon gained 139 yards on his first 13 carries. He gained a total of one yard on his final three, and Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen didn’t exactly explain why Gordon disappeared in the second half. “There was a little bit of a scenario with Melvin being completely ready to go at halftime,” Andersen told reporters. But then Gordon ripped off a long run. What happened after that? “I don’t know that,” Andersen said. Either Andersen is protecting an injured Gordon -- who told reporters on Saturday that he wasn’t injured -- or Wisconsin coaches forgot to use their most dynamic player while trying to salt away a game they had in hand.
5. The Josh Shaw drama didn’t seem to affect USC on the field. Neither did Anthony Brown’s (since deleted) parting accusation that first-year coach Steve Sarkisian is racist. The Trojans in good standing -- many of whom defended Sarkisian against the accusation -- gave their coach a happy debut by hammering Fresno State 52-13. “Nowhere in the head coaching manual do you turn to section 1302 and it tells you how to deal with the stuff we dealt with this week,” Sarkisian said. “You deal with it. You trust your gut and you go with your instincts. … I don’t know if we handled it perfectly or not, but that really doesn’t matter.”
6. If Florida International officials hadn’t decided to deny Miami Herald beat writer David Neal a credential for Saturday’s season opener, hardly anyone unaffiliated with the school would have paid attention to the Panthers’ game against Bethune-Cookman. But thanks to that public relations choice, FIU’s 14-12 loss -- its second consecutive defeat to the FCS school -- was a popular topic of conversation. This is yet another in a long line of quality decisions made by athletic director Pete Garcia, who hired Isiah Thomas to coach the basketball team, fired Mario Cristobal from coaching the football team and hired Ron Turner, who is now 1-12 at FIU after losing to the Wildcats on Saturday, in Cristobal’s place. Garcia seems to be confused in this case. The athletic director at Alabama can probably get away with denying a beat writer a credential. Garcia is not the athletic director at Alabama. His program needs all the coverage it can get. Except, of course, the kind that Garcia has proven so adept at generating.
7. What’s better than breaking down a figurative wall between futility and success? Breaking down a brick wall. Except real brick walls take a while to break down, and breaking them down tends to wear out the linemen swinging the sledgehammers. At least Eastern Michigan came back to beat Morgan State 31-28 on Saturday. Otherwise, this would have been really embarrassing.
8. At some point, programs will heed my advice that it’s much wiser to schedule an FBS doormat than an FCS powerhouse. FCS teams that win championships tend to be well-coached, game-tested and unafraid of big stadiums and bigger opponents. This is why Iowa State should never schedule North Dakota State. But Iowa State did schedule North Dakota State, and Iowa State got whipped 34-14 at home on Saturday. The Bison have now beaten their last five FBS foes. Kansas (2010), Minnesota (‘11), Colorado State (‘12) and Kansas State (‘13) are the other victims.
9. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez had to choose from a group of four quarterbacks this preseason. If Thursday’s game was any indication, Rodriguez chose correctly. Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon went 25-of-44 for 425 passing yards with four touchdowns in a 58-13 win over UNLV.
10. We’ll have to wait another week to see if new coordinator Kurt Roper has delivered a functional offense to Florida. Torrential storms and lightning caused the Gators’ opener against Idaho to be suspended indefinitely following the opening kickoff on Saturday. Fittingly, the only player to touch the ball on this stormy night was Florida’s Valdez Showers, who returned the kick 64 yards. Florida and Idaho officials have yet to decide whether the game will be rescheduled.
What’s eating Andy?
I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to the people staying below me at a hotel in Irving, Texas, this weekend. They called the front desk to complain about the noise above, which probably sounded as if a herd of hippos had taken up residence on the 15th floor. What happened? I was in the midst of an Insanity workout that required a fair amount of jumping. I don’t land softly. But in my defense, I was attempting to be less fat so that I land more quietly next time.
What’s Andy eating?
The waitress at The Southern Belly BBQ in Columbia, S.C., asked on Thursday if I was ordering one sandwich for lunch and another to take with me. Nope, I replied. I’m just hungry.
This happens fairly often.
When the sandwiches arrived, I understood why she seemed so taken aback. Southern Belly wisely did not attempt to create a traditional barbecue joint in a region oversaturated with them. The Carolinas don’t really need another place that serves various pig parts by the pound or on a meat-and-three-sides plate. There are places that have done that well for decades, and many are still thriving. But everywhere needs a place that makes great, creative sandwiches. That’s what Southern Belly does. One also happens to be massive.
I ordered the Heart Attack, which has fairly conventional dimensions despite its name. It features pulled chicken covered with pimento cheese. They put pimento cheese on just about everything in Columbia. This is a sound policy. The sandwich comes with a spicy vinaigrette the proprietors call Sherman sauce, and the concoction certainly marches across the taste buds, leaving hot spots in its wake.
What shocked my server was that I also ordered the Wookie. I realize George Lucas spells it Wookiee. I’m going by the spelling on the menu. The Wookie is a pork sandwich that apes the Big Mac structure of bun-stuff-bun-stuff-bun. The stuff? The aforementioned pork, double bacon, grilled onions and three cheeses (cheddar, Swiss and pepper jack). It comes with Pacal sauce, which is described on the menu as “an ancient secret Mayan blend.” They keep it secret for a reason. Leave it sitting in the cup. Dunk the corner of the sandwich in Sherman sauce and prepare to surrender.
The Wookie is a glistening tower of meat and cheese. It will satisfy any appetite. Do not attempt to eat it in tandem with another sandwich. I did, of course. But I’m a professional.
No wonder those people were complaining about the noise the next day.