And now, 20 Final Thoughts from the first three days of Week 1.
1. For those of you who, like me, live for fall Saturdays, the first one always feels like seeing an old friend for the first time in years. It’s been a minute, but it doesn’t take long to remember how much you enjoy each other’s company.
But this year’s felt particularly cathartic. On Saturday, after eight months writing about TV deals, exit fees, travel distances and the destruction of a major conference, I got to cover an actual football game.
Turned out I picked a good one.
2. You can read my full column about Deion Sanders’ remarkable Colorado debut, a 45-42 shootout upset of No. 17 TCU in which his son Shedeur threw for a school-record 510 yards and four different Buffs hit 100 receiving yards. I have no idea whether TCU is actually the 17th-best team in the country, but who cares? Last year’s Buffs won one game all season and got blown out by a bunch of mediocre ones. This already counts as a massive improvement.
But we really need to talk more about one of those guys in particular — because I haven’t seen a player do something like he did in at least 20 years.
3. Colorado’s Travis Hunter, the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2022, played 129 snaps (on a 98-degree day in Fort Worth) between cornerback and receiver. On offense, he caught 11 passes for 119 yards on 16 targets. On defense, he allowed just one catch when targeted, had three tackles, broke up a pass and had a crucial interception to end a TCU drive 4 yards short of the end zone.
There have been several players over the years that dabbled in double duty at various positions, but the last full-time cornerback/receiver I can remember for a major program was Ohio State’s Chris Gamble, who played 119 snaps in the Buckeyes’ 2002 BCS title game upset of Miami. And even he never had as much production in one game as Hunter.
Colorado could be extremely entertaining this season, with Hunter the biggest reason why.
4. Sanders becomes yet another high-caliber quarterback in this year’s Pac-12, all of whom shined Saturday. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. did whatever he wanted in the 10th-ranked Huskies’ 56-19 drubbing of Boise State, finishing 29 of 40 for 450 yards, five touchdowns and no picks. USC’s Caleb Williams did several ridiculous Caleb Williams things in a 66-14 rout of Nevada. Washington State’s Cam Ward, playing his first game under new offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle, lit up Colorado State (37 of 49 for 451 yards, three TDs and no picks) in a 50-24 rout. And Oregon’s Bo Nix helped led the Ducks to 57 points in a little over a half of work against FCS foe Portland State.
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5. Then the Saturday late game produced another new entrant. UCLA five-star freshman Dante Moore did not get the start against Coastal Carolina, but he came in, threw touchdowns of 14 and 62 yards, then went the rest of the way in a 27-13 win. You’d assume Chip Kelly will elevate him to QB1 next week.
It’s very Pac-12 that the Pac-12 waited until it was going out of business to put on a show worthy of linear TV.
— USC Football ✌️ (@uscfb) September 2, 2023
6. It was a whole lot of new in the Big Ten on Saturday, with Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson calling an Ohio State game on CBS and NBC airing a primetime Penn State game. And both top-10 teams were breaking in new starting quarterbacks.
One fared considerably better than the other.
7. Penn State fans waited a full year to see Drew Allar take over the offense formerly belonging to Sean Clifford. He was an efficient 21 of 29 for 325 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the Nittany Lions’ 38-15 home win over West Virginia. KeAndre Lambert-Smith (four catches, 123 yards, two touchdowns) looked the part of a No. 1 receiver. Meanwhile, new Buckeyes QB1 Kyle McCord (who had started once before, against Akron in 2021) went on the road to Indiana and did … not a whole lot: 20 of 33 for 239 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Star wideout Marvin Harrison Jr. finished with just two catches for 18 yards.
It didn’t matter, because Ohio State still cruised 23-3 over the Hoosiers, but I’d imagine there’s going to be some panic in Columbus this week.
8. Nick Saban could not have asked for much more out of opening-week QB1 Jalen Milroe in Alabama’s 56-7 sleeper over Middle Tennessee. On his first drive, Milroe picked up a bad snap that slipped behind him, turned and broke a 21-yard touchdown run. He completed 13 of 18 throws for 194 yards and became the first player in school history to throw for three touchdowns and run for two. Backups Tyler Buchner (Notre Dame) and Ty Simpson got to lead a few late drives, but expect the Tide to roll with Milroe next week against Texas.
9. North Carolina has spent much of the second Mack Brown era having to outscore opponents, but defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s unit largely dominated South Carolina in the Heels’ 31-17 win Saturday night. Helped in part by Florida State transfer pass rusher Amari Gainer, UNC sacked Spencer Rattler nine times and allowed next to no yardage on the ground. That the Tar Heels beat an SEC foe by two touchdowns even with star quarterback Drake Maye throwing two picks is both extremely encouraging for Brown and extremely concerning for Shane Beamer.
10. Saturday’s biggest upset was not technically Colorado over TCU. It was 27.5-point underdog Texas State shocking Big 12 foe Baylor 42-31 in a game the Bobcats largely controlled. The Sun Belt program had never beaten a Power 5 foe and has not won more than four games in a season since 2014. Quite a debut for both Texas State head coach G.J. Kinne and former LSU and Auburn QB TJ Finley, who lit up the Bears to the tune of 22 of 30 for 298 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.
How did Texas State do it? Well, much the same way Deion did. Kinne brought in 51 new scholarship players this offseason, second only to … Colorado.
11. So what are we to make of Baylor coach Dave Aranda now? The one-time defensive savant led the Bears to 12 wins and a Big 12 title in 2021, at which point athletic director Mack Rhoads signed him to a big contract extension. But he is also 8-15 before and since. And he only has a week to figure out what went so wrong, because a top-20 Utah team is coming to town next week. Baylor will likely be without quarterback Blake Shapen, who Aranda said afterward injured his MCL late in the game.
12. Tennessee cruised to a largely uneventful 49-13 win over Virginia, but the most notable play may have been an incomplete pass. Vols quarterback Joe Milton is widely known for his rocket arm, and on a play-action in the first quarter, he heaved a ball nearly 70 yards downfield, well past the coverage, only for a wide-open Ramel Keyton to drop it. Hendon Hooker and his receivers were so effective on those deep balls last season; if Milton can develop the same chemistry, watch out.
Joe Milton can LAUNCH it🚀
But the receiver couldn’t finish😬pic.twitter.com/PjKLb8cVPb
— On3 (@On3sports) September 2, 2023
13. Florida fans were aghast that I picked the Gators to finish 3-9, but unfortunately, nearly all of my concerns came to fruition in their 24-11 loss at Utah on Thursday. Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz looked awkward and out of place in Billy Napier’s offense, averaging just 7.6 yards per pass. He was sacked six times, his offensive line committed numerous procedural penalties and Florida converted just 1 of 13 third downs.
I suppose the silver lining is their defense held the Utes to a modest 270 yards. However, it came with star quarterback Cam Rising watching from the sideline.
14. Why on earth are the football gods still so cruel to Nebraska? Leading Minnesota 10-3 deep into the fourth quarter Thursday, it sure looked like Matt Rhule would win his Big Ten debut. And then, the ghost of Scott Frost reared his head. A Huskers fumble. Gophers receiver Daniel Jackson grabbing a game-tying touchdown on fourth and 10. A brutal Jeff Sims interception. Minnesota kicks the game-winning field goal. Nebraska falls to a miserable 2-14 in one-score games since 2021.
Huskers fans can take some comfort in a largely impressive defensive performance, albeit against a limited Minnesota offense. But Sims, the Georgia Tech transfer quarterback, did not look like a potential savior.
15. Wyoming coach Craig Bohl has been quietly winning seven or eight games a year for nine seasons with next-to-no attention, so it was cool to see the Cowboys finally get their moment in the sun (or in this case, the middle of the night) on CBS on Saturday. Following a 75-minute weather delay, Wyoming fell behind Texas Tech 17-0, rallied to take a 20-17 lead, then went to double overtime, where, on a do-or-die fourth-and-7, quarterback Andrew Peasley somehow threw a touchdown while being trucked by a blitzing safety. The Cowboys hit a two-point conversion to win 35-33, in doing so making geniuses of us all.
Not the most enjoyable Saturday for the Big 12 trio of TCU, Baylor and Texas Tech, the latter of which must turn around and host Oregon next weekend. One saving grace for the conference: Newcomer Houston held off pesky UTSA 17-14. … Oh, and Texas won.
16. But it wouldn’t be a Week 1 with only one Mountain West-over-Power 5 upset. Defending champ Fresno State had to replace standout quarterback Jake Haener, but no matter. Jeff Tedford is still the Bulldogs’ coach. His latest protégé, UCF transfer Mikey Keene, threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns to ruin Ryan Walters’ Purdue debut, 39-35. It was the Mountain West’s first road win over a Big Ten opponent since 2008.
17. I saw some preseason Hot Seat lists that included Boston College’s Jeff Hafley. That seemed premature to me, even after a 3-9 third season. But the Eagles did him no favors with a season-opening 27-24 home loss to Northern Illinois. Believe it or not, Rocky Lombardi, who made his first career start in 2018 at Michigan State, is still in college football. The seventh-year senior, who led the Huskies to the 2021 MAC championship before missing most of last season, scored on a game-winning sneak in overtime.
18. The ACC’s new Bay Area schools got off to promising starts with their new offenses. On Friday night in Hawaii, first-year Stanford coach Troy Taylor showed off his hurry-up, shotgun offense, a radical departure from 16 years of the Jim Harbaugh/David Shaw pro-style. The Cardinal beat the Warriors 37-24 behind dual-threat quarterback Ashton Daniels. A day later, Cal, which has struggled to find an offensive identity throughout Justin Wilcox’s tenure, hung 58 points on North Texas, highlighted by Jadyn Ott’s 188 rushing yards on 20 carries.
Cal’s new OC? Jake Spavital, the former Texas State head coach who Kinne replaced.
19. In the spring, I wrote about Army coach Jeff Monken scrapping the program’s traditional under-center option due to an NCAA rules change eliminating most cut blocking. The Black Knights’ first outing in in their new shotgun/Pistol-esque scheme did not go well. Army lost 17-13 to Louisiana-Monroe, averaging just 3.5 yards on its 50 rushing attempts. Army averaged 5.4 last season.
20. Finally, this may become a weekly feature, but Brian Ferentz’s Iowa offense fell one point shy of 25 in a 24-14 win over Utah State. The Hawkeyes will need to average 25.1 points over their last 12 games (assuming a bowl) for their revered OC to receive a new contract. Next up: at Iowa State.
(Photo: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)