ARLINGTON, Texas — It just means… weird.
The SEC’s punching bag of a motto aptly describes college football’s first full Saturday, and that includes this game here at Jerry World. It’s all been weird. Yes, the day encompassed its normal hair-raising comebacks, heart-pounding finishes and glorious blown leads, but it also included Hugh Freeze coaching from a hospital bed in a press box, Les Miles running trick plays again, Mack Brown stunning his former coach-in-waiting, Nick Saban getting flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and LSU operating an efficient spread offense without huddling. Did you catch that last part? LSU. L-S-U. Did. Not. Huddle.
It was all so very weird, and it got weirder here at AT&T Stadium, when the 12th-ranked Ducks, in full command for much of the game, floundered late to lose 27-21 to an Auburn team led by a true freshman quarterback. The No. 16 Tigers never led until that rookie, Bo Nix, found a streaking Seth Williams at the goal line with nine seconds left, a 26-yard touchdown completion that shook a one-sided crowd in this Dallas suburb and somewhat salvaged a dismal day for the SEC. Want something really weird? The nation’s most-heralded league lost games Saturday to Wyoming (Missouri), Georgia State (Tennessee) and Memphis (Ole Miss).
But here was Gus Malzahn and Auburn claiming a second straight season-opening win over a Pac-12 heavyweight. Last year, it was Washington. This year, it was Oregon. The Ducks built leads of 14-3 in the second quarter and 21-6 in the third quarter before the winds of change blew through this monstrosity. The gashing Oregon did to Auburn in the first half disappeared in the second, thanks to halftime adjustments, says Malzahn, and the Tigers offense leaned on the run in the final two quarters, another halftime alteration suggested by Auburn’s own offensive line. “Let’s try to run over them,” members of the O-line told Malzahn at the break. “We’re ready.” It paved the way for JaTarvious Whitlow’s 110-yard outing, and the line blocked well enough later for the true freshman on a heroic final drive.
These are dream-like scenarios for a kid like Nix, the son of legendary Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix. Somehow, he avoided turning this into a nightmare. Let’s set the scene: Auburn down by one, 60 yards from the end zone with 2:14 on the clock and a single timeout, a true freshman quarterback running the show. Nix wasn’t having such a rosy opening night, either. His numbers were bad. He’d thrown two interceptions. He’d taken three sacks. But on this final drive, none of it mattered. With his feet, he converted a fourth-and-3 at midfield. With his arm, he got the Tigers in field-goal range with a 13-yard strike to Williams. Rather than attempt a field goal, Malzahn elected for what he called a “50-50 ball” to the 6-3, 224-pound Williams. After all, he’d begged for the ball all night, often times locked in double coverage. Not this time. Williams, running a simple go-route, positioned himself against Oregon nickelback Verone McKinley and snatched the pass over the 5’10” defender, falling into the end zone and then… well, then he looked at the scoreboard. “At first, I was like ‘Oh it’s just a touchdown,’” Williams said. “Then I heard the crowd and looked at the clock. ‘Oh, I just won the game.’”
Weird right? Malzahn rolled his set of dice, passing on what would have been a go-ahead 43-yard field goal and putting the game in the hands of a 19-year-old kid who had already thrown two picks. “Never thought it would have ended like that, especially the first one,” Nix said afterward. “It was a huge moment for Auburn.” Anyone watching Saturday’s first full day of college football knew it might end just like that—weird, wacky, whatever. You want weirder? Look to Oregon’s game management. The Ducks called a timeout before its first offensive snap of the season, and it burned back-to-back timeouts in a key stretch of the fourth quarter, just before failing on a fourth down at the Auburn 41 that could have iced the game. Its Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback, Justin Herbert, had a solid line (28-for-37 for 242 yards and a TD) and made some nice passes, but his team finished 4-for-14 on third downs. The Ducks had their chances. Oregon missed a 20-yard field goal and lost a fumble inside the 10. The Ducks felt so dang close to giving the beleaguered Pac-12 a win it desperately needed, but alas, Mario Cristobal’s crew joined Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State in registering somewhat confounding early-season Ls.
Don’t worry, the SEC had them too. Will Muschamp and South Carolina blew a late lead to a rebuilding North Carolina, which triggered the 68-year-old Brown to break out some dance moves in the postgame locker room. Meanwhile, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Arkansas all struggled to put away the likes of Toledo, Louisiana and Portland State, respectively. All so very weird. It started weird, too. Florida State blew a 24-6 lead at home to Boise, and Iowa State needed a magical escape in triple overtime to beat Northern Iowa.
At AT&T Stadium, the weirdness traversed to the game officials. The “off” button on head referee Reggie Smith’s headset mic was malfunctioning so much that those of us in the press box got a behind-the-scenes listen for much of the game. “It's in the off position. We're obviously having an equipment issue,” Smith barked into the mic. “It's in the off position!” he screamed later on. “There's nothing I can do!” Weird, weird, weird.
And then, of course, there was the true freshman who marched his team on a wild comeback. Thing is, Nix wasn’t the only rookie to do that. Boise State’s Hank Bachmeier led the victory in Tallahassee, and Sam Howell beat the Gamecocks in Charlotte. Weird, right? In Arlington, it was Nix. He admits to experiencing nerves before kickoff. “That stadium,” he said afterward, “is huge.” Malzahn, calling plays in a regular season game for the first time since 2016, kicked himself for a host of bad play calls—“It was ugly at times,” he said—and the Tigers needed a measurement on that fourth-and-3 on the final drive just to have a shot at the victory (it was a first down by two inches). A few players later, with time ticking down, Nix found Williams for a touchdown catch that, if slowed down on replay, contained all sorts of drama. Williams actually captures the pass by using the bottom of his facemask, then completely loses the ball before retaining possession with his only free hand, the right. Man, oh man. Ain’t that weird.