College football fans are well-known for overreacting to their teams’ season openers. Each Labor Day weekend game has the potential to spark talk of a program’s return to relevance or panic about the lost season ahead. The excitement of Week 1’s marquee matchups only adds to the risk that we all let our guard down enough to become prisoners of the moment.
In 2016, Joe Tessitore infamously claimed, “Texas is back, folks!” following the Longhorns’ 50–47 overtime win over preseason No. 10 Notre Dame, as Charlie Strong appeared primed for a breakthrough in his third year in Austin. The Longhorns proceeded to lose seven games, including a loss to Kansas that ultimately doomed Strong’s Texas tenure.
Some season openers offer real hints at the season’s biggest stories ahead, but let Tessitore’s call serve as a constant reminder: Each Week 1 brings with it a healthy supply of red herrings, and 2018 was no different. Here’s a look at the most misleading Week 1 results from last September that should serve as cautionary tales for next fall’s most anticipated games.
Maryland 34, No. 23 Texas 29
After a misleading Week 1 win over Notre Dame in 2016, the Longhorns pivoted to Week 1 losses to Maryland under new coach Tom Herman.
A 51–41 Terps win in Austin set the tone for Herman’s debut season, but last year’s rematch at FedEx Field last year gave no indication that the 2018 Longhorns would go on to win the Sugar Bowl.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger threw two interceptions during a stretch of three-straight fourth-quarter turnovers that doomed the Longhorns in a 34–29 loss. Immediately after the game, Ehlinger’s reliability in late-game situations was called into question, as was Herman’s suitability for the rebuilding job on his hands.
Both of those questions disappeared when Texas responded with a six-game winning streak, which included a last-second victory over then-No. 7 Oklahoma, and reached the Big 12 title game for the first time since the league reintroduced it.
Four months after the collapse against Maryland, Ehlinger stood on a podium in New Orleans to accept the Sugar Bowl MVP trophy following No. 14 Texas’ 28–21 win over No. 5 Georgia. Meanwhile, Maryland only won four more games to close out its turbulent 2018.
Duke 34, Army 14
This result didn’t draw much of an overreaction at the time, but it’s still mind-boggling to look back at how out of character this performance was from what went on to become the winningest team in Army history. The Black Knights’ 168 yards on the ground proved to be a season low (its 2018 average: 312.5 rushing yards per game), and they attempted 21 passes.
However, making sense of this Friday night game in Durham only became increasingly difficult as the season progressed. Army went on to win 10 of the next 11 with the lone blemish a 28–21 overtime loss to eventual College Football Playoff semifinalist Oklahoma in Norman. After the Black Knights nearly upset the Sooners on pay-per-view, Army finished the season on a nine-game win streak punctuated with a 70–14 victory over Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl.
No . 9 Auburn 21, No. 6 Washington 16
For two weeks, the Tigers thought they had emerged from this slugfest as one of the best teams in the nation. Then they lost a 22–21 heartbreaker to LSU and went on to drop marquee matchups with Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama, all by double digits. But a late October loss at home to a Tennessee team that finished 5–7 was the death blow to any remaining optimism on the Plains.
An 8–5 season capped off by an absolute thumping of Purdue in the Music City Bowl wasn’t the worst case scenario, but it was far from the expectation after Week 1.
Washington on the other hand, recovered quite nicely upon its return to the West Coast. The Huskies worked their way through the lowly Pac-12 before losing two conference games against Oregon and Cal. Even then, the 9–3 Huskies were more than good enough to earn the conference crown.
Auburn has another marquee Pac-12 opponent lined up for its 2019 season opener, this time against Oregon at AT&T Stadium. As long as both fan bases refrain from calling their team a contender until we reach conference play, last year’s misfired conclusions can be avoided. But that wouldn’t be nearly as fun.
No. 20 Virginia Tech 24, No. 19 Florida State 3
The Seminoles looked helpless in primetime on Labor Day, as Virginia Tech’s defense ruined Willie Taggart’s debut in Tallahassee. Hokies quarterback Josh Jackson finished 16 of 26 (61.5%) for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Florida State committed five turnovers. The win launched Virginia Tech to No. 12 the following week, but things turned sharply downhill on an in-state road trip to Norfolk that ended in a 49–35 loss to previously winless Old Dominion and a season-ending injury to Jackson, who transferred to Maryland this offseason.
For Florida State, the omens of the season opener were all too real: The program snapped a 36-year bowl streak with its 5–7 finish. The Hokies needed a rescheduled game to get to 6–6 and extend their own postseason streak to 26 games, the new record. That first Monday night in Tallahassee turned out to be just another game.