After opening weekend, Alabama fans are feeling even better about the 2012 campaign than they were all offseason. Oklahoma fans, however, may already be counting down the days until the Thunder return.
It's always dangerous to read too much into season openers, but a number of major programs either stubbed their toes or had unusual difficulty walking in Week 1. In most cases, it's too soon to go into panic mode. In others, however, it may be wise to start bracing for the worst.
With that in mind, here is the Week 1 Panic Meter.
Don't worry, be (somewhat) happy:
• Iowa (beat Northern Illinois 18-17): The Hawkeyes didn't overtake the Huskies until 2:15 remained, but the result hardly seems worth sweating. In fact, a blowout would have been more surprising. Sophomore running back Damon Bullock allayed fans' biggest preseason concern with a 30-carry, 150-yard performance. Remember, three years ago the Hawkeyes needed two blocked field goals to survive Northern Iowa in their opener and wound up in the BCS. Who knows whether 2012 will mirror 2009, but this wasn't a terrible start.
• Boise State (lost 17-13 to Michigan State): Putting up just 13 points at Michigan State is easier to stomach if we concede that this Broncos team was never going to approach the dominance of Kellen Moore's squads. In fact, it's a testament to Chris Petersen's continued wizardry that Boise was in it until the end despite getting outgained 461 yards to 213. Moore's replacement, Joe Southwick, looked light years removed from his predecessor, but that was predictable. While Mountain West foe Nevada got off to a better start by beating Cal, Petersen's team will improve throughout the year.
• Michigan (lost 41-14 to Alabama): Expecting Wolverines fans to stay happy after a nationally televised humiliation is admittedly asking too much, but it's probably for the best if they forget this game ever happened. Alabama's really, really good. No further explanation needed. While it's true Denard Robinson showed no discernible improvement as a passer and a rebuilding defensive line got run over even worse than anticipated, it's not worth getting too depressed unless the same thing happens against Air Force.
(Update: Starting cornerback Blake Countess is out for the year with a torn ACL. On second thought, maybe Michigan fans should start panicking.)
Try not to take up smoking:
• Oklahoma (beat UTEP 24-7): The circumstances were admittedly weird. Somehow a preseason top five team wound up playing its opener in El Paso at seemingly 1 a.m. But it's never encouraging when a team dealing with questions on the offensive line and at receiver goes out and scores one touchdown in three quarters against UTEP. On the bright side: Mike Stoops' defense pitched a shutout (the Miners' touchdown came on a blocked punt). "We just weren't in synch," said Landry Jones, a disturbingly familiar refrain from late last season.
• Cal (lost 31-24 to Nevada): There was no surer way to ruin all the positive energy from the Bears' debut in their freshly renovated stadium than losing to the Wolf Pack for the second time in three years. Quarterback Zach Maynard's three-series benching for missing a tutoring session may have created some bad mojo, but Maynard wasn't the problem; it was the Bears' defense, which Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo shredded. And so, the Jeff Tedford Job Security Watch begins.
• Pittsburgh (lost 31-17 to Youngstown State): Wisconsin's Rose Bowls must suddenly seem so long ago for new Pitt coach Paul Chryst. The ACC-bound Panthers provided some karmic fodder for Big East followers in a lopsided loss to an FCS foe. The best hope is that things will get better as star running back Ray Graham's ACL recovery continues (he was limited to 14 carries) and/or touted freshman Rushel Shell isn't suspended.
Get a Xanax prescription immediately:
• Penn State (lost 24-14 to Ohio): While many outsiders anticipated this upset, any notion among Penn Staters that the players' collective unity/anger/hunger would overcome such hindrances as losing the star running back to USC was rendered moot after about the first quarter. Losing to a mid-major at home was not the ideal debut for new coach Bill O'Brien, but an 0-2 start would be even worse, and next week the Nittany Lions travel to Virginia.
• Stanford (beat San Jose State 20-17): How much do the Cardinal miss not just Andrew Luck, but All-America offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro? In the span of a year they went from beating the Spartans 56-3 to a largely even four-quarter fight. One of the hallmarks of Luck's teams was their ridiculous success on third down (57.5 percent in 2010, 52.6 last season). On Friday night, Stanford converted 2-of-13 third downs.
• Florida (beat Bowling Green 27-14): New year, same ugly offense for Will Muschamp's Gators, who produced three touchdowns and 14 penalties against their MAC foe. Muschamp spent the first half alternating quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel before settling on Driskel in the second half. But it's not all bad. Tim Tebow's Jets kick off next week.
The 2012 season had just seen its first notable upset. A MAC team had just knocked off a traditional Big Ten power at its 100,000-seat stadium. And so of course, ESPN cut to ... Tom Rinaldi interviewing the losing coach.
Certainly, Penn State's first home game post-NCAA sanctions and first home opener in a half-century without Joe Paterno merited some unique and intensive media coverage. But there seemed to be little mention of the Nittany Lions' opponent Saturday, even after Ohio pulled out a 24-14 comeback win.
"Obviously there was huge story behind [the game]," Bobcats coach Frank Solich said Sunday. "That story got portrayed almost on a daily basis. But we also knew those that turned on the game, and those that attended it, weren't going to watch Penn State play themselves. They were going to watch Penn State play Ohio. It was a tremendous opportunity to show what we're all about."
Solich, who's been the head man in Athens since 2005 (now longer than his 1998-2003 Nebraska tenure), hopes the exposure from Saturday's victory marks the next step in his program's continued rise. The Bobcats reached their first MAC championship game in Solich's second season and returned again in 2009 and '11. Last season Ohio won 10 games for the first time since 1968 and notched the first bowl victory (over Utah State in the Idaho Potato Bowl) in school history.
Solich noted Sunday that the Bobcats' rally from a 23-10 deficit in that bowl game to a 24-23 victory very much paralleled Saturday's game in Happy Valley. Penn State, buoyed by the emotion of the day, outgained Ohio 173 yards to 52 in the first quarter, and took a 14-3 lead in the second. But Solich's team dominated the last three periods, notching 447 yards to Penn State's 173. Touted quarterback Tyler Tettleton was particularly poised and accurate, finishing 31-of-41 for 324 yards while rushing for 47 yard on nine carries.
"That's him," said Solich. "He's obviously the catalyst."
That may be, but Solich has been the key to Ohio's consistency. In a league where coaches routinely jump to a major conference at the first hint of success, Solich, 67, isn't going anywhere.
"I enjoy coaching so much it doesn't matter where I'm coaching," Solich said. "Obviously the financial rewards may be greater at one school over another, but I'm at the point in my career where I feel pretty comfortable with what I'm doing."
Not surprisingly, Alabama coach Nick Saban found flaws in his team's beatdown of eighth-ranked Michigan at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday. "I don't think there's one player that could sit in the locker room and tell you now there's not something that we could work to improve on," Saban said following a game the Tide led 31-0 in the second quarter.
We won't get bogged down in the minutiae of missed assignments or cornerback footwork. An interesting takeaway Saturday was that despite Alabama's apparent wealth of talent at running back, which grew greater after freshman T.J. Yeldon's electrifying debut, one of Saban's biggest critiques was that the Tide ran too much. Beyond a 51-yard first quarter touchdown pass, quarterback AJ McCarron put up much the same ordinary stat line (11-of-21, 199 yards, two touchdowns) he often did last season.
"I think we're capable of throwing the ball more effectively," said Saban. "... If we're going to be the kind of team we're capable of, we're going to have to be able to create balance on offense, because AJ's really too good of a quarterback for us not to utilize his talents in throwing the football."
That's a much different mindset than Alabama employed last season, but that's in part because circumstances have changed. For one thing, McCarron is no longer a first-year starter. He was the offensive MVP of the national title game. But also, the Tide's defense was so ridiculously dominant last year (leading the nation in all major categories), there was no real need for McCarron to do much more than hand the ball to Trent Richardson and stick largely to high-percentage short throws. This year's defense is still awfully good, but it's going to inevitably give up more big plays than a year ago, so why not unleash McCarron and try to jump on teams like the Tide did Saturday night?
Saban will always win first and foremost with defense and a strong running game, but as I wrote Saturday night, this year he seems to have a more explosive offense in mind.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest games. Here's my current edition:
Title game: LSU vs. OregonRose: USC vs. Michigan StateFiesta: Oklahoma vs. WisconsinSugar: Alabama vs. TexasOrange: Florida State vs. Louisville
There's no reason to change anything yet, but here's one thing to keep an eye on: Can Ohio can make a 2007 Hawaii-like run to the BCS? Its remaining schedule, quite frankly, is a joke, with a Sept. 15 game at Marshall possibly the closest thing to a tough road game. That means it may take a while for the Bobcats to crack the Top 25, and even then they'd need to rise into at least the top 16 (and possibly the top 12) to make the BCS lineup. It could be a couple of months before we know whether that's realistic.
We're going to try a little experiment this year. It may or may not become a weekly staple, but here's the idea: A real-time top three Heisman ballot in which the only consideration is the players' performances to date. Neither preseason buzz nor actual realistic chances of winning will come into play, but the quality of competition to date will.
What I'm curious to see is how many weeks it takes before my top three (which could seem rather unorthodox early on) intersects with the mainstream top three.
This week's ballot:
1. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: In his first game as the Spartans' primary ball carrier, Bell ran 44 times for 210 yards and two touchdowns and caught six passes for 55 yards against Boise State. Oh, and he did this.
2. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: He completed 32-of-36 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 65 yards and another score against Marshall. What went wrong on those other four passes, Geno?
3. Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson: Tough call here between Ellington (26 carries for 231 yards) and USC receiver Marqise Lee (10 catches, 202 yards), but we're presuming Auburn has a better defense than Hawaii.
• You think Big 12 quarterbacks put up video game numbers? They've got nothing on Sam Durley of Division III Eureka (Ill.) College, who set an NCAA record with 736 passing yards in a 62-55 victory Saturday over Knox. He did it on 34-of-52 completions. He had no idea while he was doing it, either. "I thought maybe high 300s," said Durley. Zamir Amin of Menlo College held the previous record since 2000. Personally, I would have guessed Timmy Chang.
• For UCLA fans who had to watch the Bruins' quarterbacks the past several years, it was a sight for sore eyes: On his first college play Thursday night, redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley broke off a 72-yard touchdown run against Rice. Johnathan Franklin rushed for 214 yards himself as UCLA scored its most points (49) since 2005. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone must be very popular in Westwood today. But that was Rice. Next up: Nebraska.
• Speaking of Nebraska, Huskers fans had their own cause for encouragement Saturday. Oft-maligned quarterback Taylor Martinez looked like a real, honest-to-goodness passer, going 26-of-34 for 354 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-20 rout of Southern Miss. "It's what I expected from Taylor," said coach Bo Pelini, who's spent much of the past three years defending his quarterback. Nebraska's offense will be much tougher to defend if the passing game finally poses a legitimate threat.
• Chances are, Tennessee's going to throw the ball around plenty this season. Quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter were already proven commodities, but the breakout star of Friday night's 35-21 win over NC State was juco transfer Cordarrelle Patterson. A hulking 6-foot-3, 205-pound specimen, Patterson hauled in six passes for 93 yards, beating Wolfpack All-America cornerback David Amerson on a 41-yard score. Hunter-Patterson is a tough tandem to defend.
• The Vols weren't the only SEC East team with new talent on display. Georgia hopes it has a new weapon in freshman running back Todd Gurley. The Tarboro, N.C., native ran for a 55-yard touchdown and had a 100-yard kick return in a 45-23 win over Buffalo. He finished with 100 yards on eight carries. "He averaged about what he averaged every scrimmage, about 12.5 yards per carry," said Dawgs coach Mark Richt. Sophomore Ken Malcome started at tailback but left with a hand injury, so Gurley may be the guy against Missouri.
• Before boarding the bus to Autzen Stadium, Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn told a reporter: "I know what we're fixin' to run into." As in: a buzz saw. New Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota went 18-of-22 for 200 yards and three touchdowns and De'Anthony Thomas notched 119 total yards as the Ducks jumped to a 50-3 second quarter lead. Considering its lightweight early schedule, expect a long string of 45-plus point performances from Oregon over the next several weeks.
• Assuming the role formerly held by a certain Honey Badger, LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown against North Texas and broke another 76-yarder that got called back for an illegal block. New quarterback Zach Mettenberger's debut could have gone better; he threw for 192 yards after briefly leaving the game following a hard sack. But Mettenberger may have a new big-play receiver in sophomore Jarvis Landry, who had eight catches for 82 yards.
• Northwestern jumped to a 35-13 lead on Syracuse thanks in part to the dynamic Venric Mark (who had 82- and 53-yard punt returns plus a 21-yard touchdown catch), proceeded to give up 28 unanswered points to fall behind 41-35, then watched backup quarterback Trevor Siemian lead a last-minute 75-yard touchdown drive to win 42-41. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Kain Colter, who suffered a shoulder injury, remains the starter, but it may be hard to keep Siemian off the field.
• Five-star Miami freshman running back Duke Johnson lived up to the hype Saturday, breaking off 54- and 56-yard touchdown runs in a 41-32 win at Boston College. That's the good news for Al Golden. The bad: His uber-young defense allowed Eagles quarterback Chase Rettig to throw for 441 yards. Rettig did make one crucial mistake, however, throwing an interception that Miami sophomore Denzel Perryman returned 41 yards for a touchdown to wipe out an early 14-0 BC lead.
• Rich Rodriguez has had his fill of Toledo. Four years ago he lost at home to the Rockets in what may have been the low point of his disastrous Michigan tenure. Saturday night in his Arizona debut, also at home, the Wildcats needed overtime to survive Toledo, 24-17. Among the coach's most immediate concerns: kicking. Previously reliable senior John Bonano missed a 24-yard field goal early, then a 25-yarder that would have won the game in regulation.
• Virginia Tech's athletics communications department tweeted this very ominous public service announcement for Monday night's game against Georgia Tech: "Remember no umbrellas allowed in Lane [Stadium]. Game forecast: Tropical Rains, heavy at times, ponding water."
• It's not too late to jump on the Duke bowl bandwagon. The Blue Devils pummeled a respectable FIU team, 46-26, in their opener.
• Former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain became the first Colorado State head coach in 42 years to win his debut with a 22-17 victory over still-hapless Colorado.
• Maryland went 2-10 in Randy Edsall's first season. Maryland is starting a true freshman quarterback. Maryland has 13 players out with injuries. Maryland beat William and Mary, 7-6.
• Merchandise suggestion for the Savannah State bookstore: "We Lost 84-0 to Oklahoma State and All We Got Was This T-Shirt (and a $375,000 check)."
Welcome back to the big leagues, Dennis Franchione.
Coaching Texas State in its first game as an FBS member, the former coach of New Mexico, TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M orchestrated by far the biggest upset of opening weekend -- and technically, one of the biggest in history. The Bobcats, 36.5-point underdogs, routed Houston -- a 13-team win team last season -- 30-13. It's believed only Stanford's 2007 upset of USC involved a larger Vegas point spread.
"I thought we could find a way to win the game," Franchione said Sunday morning. "I didn't quite anticipate we'd do it the way we did ... when you're playing a team that went 13-1 and put up points like an arcade game."
Franchione, the Bobcats head coach back in 1990-91, said he returned to San Marcos two years ago (after three seasons out of coaching) in part because the 36,000-student school was better equipped than most to make the FBS transition. Texas State has invested $70 million in its facilities since 2004, including expanding its stadium capacity from 16,0000 to 30,000. Still, when he took over, "we probably had 10, 12, maybe 15 guys that could play on an FBS roster." After just two recruiting classes, he now estimates he has "18 or 20 that could get on the two-deep" at one of the major programs he previously coached.
One of those players is undoubtedly running back Marcus Curry. Dismissed from Navy in 2010, the senior ran for a career-high 131 yards and scored three touchdowns. But the real stunner was how the Bobcats' defense held Houston's previously record-setting offense (albeit now without Kevin Sumlin or Case Keenum) to 13 points. One of the Bobcats' top pass-rushers, defensive end Chase Harper, is also the starting tight end.
For Franchione, whose previous track record of successful rebuilding jobs ended with his mediocre stint in College Station, Texas State's trajectory feels more familiar, albeit far ahead of schedule. "When I looked at the challenge of moving up a division," Franchione said, "I thought, this had Coach Fran's name on it." Beating Houston is not like winning the Iron Bowl or the Texas-Texas A&M game, but from Franchione's current seat it's a far more impressive achievement.
Mind you, the strangest part is not that Kent State's linebacker tried to run a muffed punt 58 yards in the wrong direction. It's that his teammates blocked for him and Towson players tried to tackle him!
Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller (who had 161 rushing yards, the school record for a quarterback) began their Ohio State marriage in triumphant fashion Saturday, but it helps when one's receiver morphs into a human magnet field.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:
• Florida at Texas A&M, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Welcome to the SEC, Aggies. The bad news: Your warm-up game got postponed and you have no earthly way of knowing how freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel will respond to live action. The good news: You know exactly what to expect from Florida's signal-callers.
• Georgia at Missouri, Saturday (7:45 p.m. ET): Welcome to the SEC, Tigers. The bad news: Georgia has very good players. Aaron Murray. Jarvis Jones. You'll see the tape. The good news: Mark Richt's team lost its last two games in (former) Big 12 country (at Oklahoma State in 2009 and at Colorado in 2010).
• Washington at LSU, Saturday (7 p.m. ET): Welcome to SEC country, Huskies. Washington's revamped defense performed admirably in a 21-12 win over San Diego State, notching four sacks and a touchdown return. But the Huskies must find a way to protect quarterback Keith Price from being eaten by Barkevious Mingo.