Five games featuring teams in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll. A preseason College Football Playoff contender put on the ropes by a team from the Group of Five. A matchup in prime time between two of the best teams in the country.
The 2021 college football season is already at top speed after a Week 1 slate full of implications for the College Football Playoff and the national championship.
For one, No. 1 Alabama’s brutal rout of No. 16 Miami (Fla.) showed a team in midseason form. But for the Hurricanes, the loss shows the gap between being in contention for the New Year’s Six and taking the step into true playoff contention.
No. 3 Oklahoma cruised into halftime against Tulane but barely held on for a close win. In the Big Ten, a throwback game between No. 20 Penn State and No. 15 Wisconsin wasn’t settled until the final minutes.
Those games and others lead the winners and losers from the first full Saturday of the 2021 season:
The Bulldogs’ defense dominated Clemson and carried Georgia to a 10-3 win with meaningful down-the-road implications for the playoff. There are questions about the health of the Georgia offense, especially given quarterback JT Daniels’ inability to push the ball downfield against the Tigers’ secondary. But those struggles may be a testament to Clemson, which has real issues up front on offense but could ride this defense to another ACC title. When it comes to Georgia’s defense, this is a unit overloaded with elite talent and one good enough to carry the Bulldogs past Alabama and to the national championship.
Beating LSU 38-27 is the moment UCLA has been waiting for since Chip Kelly’s return to the Pac-12. All offseason, the chatter around the Bruins was that this was by far the deepest and most solidly built roster of Kelly’s tenure. There was still a question of what improvement that would muster — whether seven wins or a real shot at the conference title — and how it would fare against LSU. By gaining 476 yards of total offense and holding the Tigers to 48 rushing yards on 25 attempts, the Bruins proved they’ve turned a corner in Kelly’s fourth year.
While not a masterpiece, the 16-10 win against Wisconsin reflects Penn State’s internal optimism that last year’s 4-5 finish was far more the product of the pandemic than any downturn from James Franklin’s program. There are still issues to address, beginning with the health of an offense still working out the details under new coordinator Mike Yurcich. While quarterback Sean Clifford rallied to throw for 247 yards and a score, the Nittany Lions ran for only 50 yards on 1.8 yards per carry, with a big chunk of that total coming via a 34-yard gain from running back Noah Cain. Clifford did avoid turnovers, however, and that meant the difference in a narrow win.
The Steve Sarkisian era got off on the right foot with a 38-18 win against No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette, the preseason favorite in the Sun Belt and one of the best teams in the Group of Five. The Longhorns got a good performance from first-year starting quarterback Hudson Card, who finished with 224 yards and two scores. Sarkisian drew up a game plan for running back Bijan Robinson, who played up to expectations with 103 yards on the ground, 73 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Few teams had a more impressive win in Week 1.
After a disappointing 2020 season defined by injuries at several key positions, Kansas State kicked off September with an impressive 24-7 win against Stanford in Arlington, Texas. With senior quarterback Skyler Thompson back under center after missing most of last year, the Wildcats ran for 200 yards on 6.5 yards per carry and averaged 10.3 yards per pass attempt.
The superstars from the 2020 team are gone. Alabama still didn’t miss a beat. Paced by quarterback Bryce Young, who completed 71% of his throws for 344 yards and four touchdowns, the Crimson Tide whipped Miami 44-13 to kick off the program’s latest championship push. If Saturday is any indication, the Tide are ready to make another run at perfection.
The Warhawks lost again, this time 45-10 to Kentucky, to extend the program’s losing streak to 12 games. But a funny thing happened on the way to another defeat: ULM actually led the Wildcats 7-0 in the first quarter. Why is that meaningful? Because that marked the Warhawks’ first lead at any point against any opponent since late in the fourth quarter of a 31-30 loss to rival Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 30, 2019. That makes new coach Terry Bowden’s debut a success.
The good news: Clemson won’t face a team of Georgia’s caliber again during the regular season. The bad news: To win the national title, Clemson’s going to have to beat a team as good or better than Georgia in January. Does that seem possible based on what we saw Saturday night? Not if the offensive line doesn’t improve. But there’s plenty of time until the postseason and enough of a track record from Dabo Swinney and his staff to expect noticeable improvement across ACC play. What the loss does, however, is remove the Tigers’ room for error when it comes to finishing in the top four.
Clemson was the final piece of an awful Week 1 for the ACC. Let’s quickly recount: Clemson lost to Georgia. Miami lost big to Alabama. Georgia Tech was upset by MAC also-ran Northern Illinois. On Friday, North Carolina was upset by Virginia Tech. In all, the top three teams in the ACC and the league’s best playoff hopes — Clemson, Miami and UNC — are already holding a loss after one week. That’s not good.
Welcome back to Vanderbilt, first-year coach Clark Lea. A fullback for the Commodores in the early 2000s, Lea’s return to Nashville was an utter dud: Vanderbilt lost 23-3 to East Tennessee State, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision. At least there will be other chances for Lea to get a win in his debut year, including next week’s trip to Colorado State and a date with Connecticut in early October. But it’s safe to say the Commodores will be substantial underdogs in SEC action.
The No. 21 Huskies lost 13-7 to Montana, becoming the first ranked team to lose to a FCS opponent since 2016. That pretty much sums up their night.
The missed opportunities against PSU will force the Badgers to play from behind in the race for the West division. Not that the loss is fatal by any means: Wisconsin has plenty of chances to rally back into Big Ten and playoff contention with future games against Notre Dame, Michigan and Iowa. Whether this team can make a run hinges on quarterback Graham Mertz and the running game. For one, there is a wide gap between the hype surrounding Mertz and the reality of his performance; he tossed two picks on Saturday, giving him seven against four touchdowns in his past seven starts.
Too close. Way too close. The No. 3 Sooners sneaked past Tulane 40-35 and raised some eyebrows along the way, especially given the preseason expectations for the OU defense. On the other side of the ball, early Heisman Trophy favorite Spencer Rattler threw for 309 yards but two interceptions, while the Sooners only averaged 3.3 yards per carry. Up 37-14 at halftime, OU brought zero energy out of the locker room and barely survived — Tulane even had the ball with a chance to win before turning it over on downs with just over a minute remaining.
What does this mean for OU? In the long run, no one will remember this narrow win come November and December, when the playoff selection committee goes through the process of choosing the nation’s best four teams. But in terms of a takeaway, the lesson for OU is to keep its foot on the gas.
There is no embarrassment in losing to Alabama. There’s not even any real embarrassment in being blown out by the Crimson Tide; it happens to more teams than not. But given the Hurricanes’ growth in 2020 under coach Manny Diaz and the team’s place among the top three teams in the ACC, to be picked clean by the Crimson Tide is a painful reminder of how far Miami is removed from being a real contender for the national championship. That’s not embarrassing, but it is a sobering reality for the Hurricanes.
Last year’s Cinderella story in the Big Ten, No. 17 Indiana’s 34-6 loss to No. 18 Iowa splashes a bucket of cold water on the Hoosiers’ hopes of putting another scare into Ohio State in the Big Ten East. The win says something about Iowa, too — that the Hawkeyes, winners of six in a row to end last year, are a legitimate contender for the New Year’s Six. But the Hoosiers committed three turnovers, gained just 233 yards and were outplayed by a wide margin by a fellow Big Ten team in the Top 25.
The Huskies are an easy pick for the worst team in the FBS after losing to Holy Cross 38-28 to fall to 0-2 on the young season. As in the 45-0 loss to Fresno State to get things started, UConn’s offense was abysmal: 262 total yards, 2.3 yards per carry and four turnovers. With the loss, coach Randy Edsall falls to 6-34 in his second tenure with the program.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg