College football's opening Saturday was great for the SEC, terrible for the Pac-12 (except for UCLA) and provided some answers to key QB battles.
College football’s opening Saturday is nearly in the books. Here are the three biggest takeaways from the day:
1. Rough start for Pac-12, great one for SEC
It’s too early to know which teams will be jockeying for College Football Playoff spots, but it’s a given conference hierarchy will be part of the argument. That’s bad news for the Pac-12 and fantastic news for the SEC.
After Utah’s victory over Michigan on Thursday night, very little went right for the Pac-12 this weekend. Northwestern upset Stanford to kick off Saturday, dealing a major blow to the Cardinal’s postseason hopes. Then Arizona State’s offense stalled in the face of a physical Texas A&M defensive line as the Aggies pulled away for a 38–17 win. Although we learned from last year not to count a team out of the playoff because of one loss, Stanford and Arizona State will likely have to win out the rest of the season, a task that looks daunting given that both still must play Oregon, USC and UCLA. Stanford’s loss is particularly damaging given that Northwestern entered the season with aspirations to merely be bowl eligible.
Both teams’ losses will hurt the conference’s playoff prospects as a whole. Texas A&M’s victory in the lone regular-season matchup between SEC and Pac-12 teams gives the former conference a clear claim to supremacy. Washington State’s stunning loss to Portland State hurts the Pac-12’s stock, too. Although no one was looking to the Cougars to carry the banner for the conference, a loss to an FCS foe still damages the Pac-12’s reputation.
The SEC, meanwhile, won all of its major Week 1 showdowns. After South Carolina’s win over North Carolina on Thursday night, Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama all followed up with marquee victories of their own. With the exceptions of Vanderbilt and LSU (its matchup with McNeese State was cancelled due to lightning), every SEC team won this week. The conference is riding high to start the season.
2. UCLA looks like a title contender
Amid an otherwise dreary weekend for the Pac-12, the Bruins looked simply dominant. Entering the season, UCLA seemed to have all the pieces for a title run but faced lingering questions about its quarterback situation after the departure of Brett Hundley. Could true freshman Josh Rosen really step in right away to lead the offense?
More results are necessary to make a final conclusion, but Rosen did everything he could in his debut to assuage any fears. He completed 28 of 35 passes for 351 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34—16 thrashing of Virginia on Saturday. While the Bruins will certainly face tougher competition than the Cavaliers, Virginia does boast a solid secondary, including last year’s third-team All-ACC selection Maurice Canady and freshman All-America honoree Quin Blanding. Plus, no defense will be able to stop Rosen if he keeps making throws like this:
The rest of the Bruins looked dominant, too. True freshman running back Soso Jamabo gained 79 yards on nine carries, and the UCLA defense held Virginia to 336 yards of offense. The Pac-12’s list of potential playoff contenders may have thinned a bit Saturday, but the Bruins affirmed their spot.
3. Several playoff contenders solve QB controversies
The most eagerly watched quarterback competition won’t make its season debut until Monday night, but several other playoff hopefuls seemed to reach conclusions in their battles under center. Jake Coker earned the start for Alabama against Wisconsin on Saturday night and efficiently guided the offense to a 35–17 win. Coker threw for 213 yards on 15-of-21 passing with one touchdown and no interceptions. Coach Nick Saban praised Coker’s play after the game, and while he didn’t officially declare Coker the starter going forward, Saban said he was eager to see more of the senior passer.
Not much was asked of Chad Kelly in his first start for Ole Miss after transferring from Clemson, but Kelly certainly helped the Rebels offense churn in their 76–3 beatdown of Tennessee-Martin. The junior completed 9 of 15 passes for 211 yards (14.1 yards per attempt) with two touchdowns and one interception. He also ran 20 yards for another score.
Other new starters such as Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (23 of 33, 388 yards, three TDs), Notre Dame’s Malik Zaire (19 of 22, 313 yards, three TDs), Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson (11 of 21 passing, 137 yards, two total TDs, three interceptions), Oregon’s Vernon Adams (19 of 25, 246 yards, two TDs, 94 rushing yards) and Florida State’s Everett Golson (19 of 25, 302 yards, four TDs) all guided their teams to victories and seemed to affirm their status as starters.
The only quarterback battle on a playoff aspirant that appears unsettled after Saturday’s games is Texas A&M’s, which like Ohio State’s is more a product of too many talented options than too few. Coach Kevin Sumlin gave sophomore Kyle Allen the start against Arizona State but used true freshman Kyler Murray often.
Allen was the more effective passer, connecting on 15 of 26 throws for 198 yards with three total touchdowns and one interception. His two fourth-quarter scores helped the Aggies pull away after holding a narrow 17–14 lead entering the final period.
But Murray injected a strong dose of excitement with his legs that was not entirely unlike what Johnny Manziel brought to College Station. Murray threw for only 49 yards on 4-of-9 passing with an interception, but he was dynamic running the ball, picking up 69 yards on six carries. After challenging themselves in their debut against the Sun Devils, the Aggies won’t face another test until Sept. 26 against Arkansas, so Sumlin and his two quarterbacks have some time to sort out this renewed competition.