South Carolina-N.C. State: South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia was able to put his disastrous Outback Bowl performance behind him, playing steady and riding the wave of an energetic and talented youthful Gamecocks defense as Steve Spurrier continued his opening game dominance. Linebacker Eric Norwood is the leader of a defense that, while young, could be Spurrier’s best in his Carolina tenure. N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson displayed his cannon arm and elusiveness at times, but the sophomore was unable to get his offense untracked for a second consecutive contest against the Gamecocks. N.C. State lacked energy and execution for this first three quarters before showing any sign of line whatsoever.
Oregon-Boise State: There’s no question that the first of two major stories evolving from Week One was the LeGarrette Blount punch heard ‘round the world. But putting that instance aside—and the absurd suspension thereafter—the most shocking aspect of this game was the inability of Blount to get anything going on the ground and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli’s failure to move the ball in the air for the Ducks. Chip Kelly’s offense could never get untracked, and Boise State dominated the entire game—save for a late but failed rally by the Ducks in the fourth. Hats off to the Broncos again, who beat Oregon for the second consecutive season and are poised to make a dent in the BCS rankings at the end of the year.
BYU-Oklahoma: Obviously the injury to reigning Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford was the biggest story that came out of this Top 20 matchup. However, the determined play of quarterback Max Hall and the stellar play of its defense might have been the two biggest reasons why BYU was able to pull the upset. Hall didn’t play his best in the Cougars’ biggest games against TCU and Utah last season, but he stepped up on Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium. While he did throw two picks, he was able to lead the 16-play, 78-yard drive that culminated in the game-winning TD on fourth-and-4 with 3:03 left to propel BYU to victory. On the other side of the ball, the Cougars’ defense showed it was not intimidated by the Sooners, and the unit took full advantage of an inexperienced and nervous OU offensive line. The tough, quick and gritty defense not only kept the team in the game after a turnover-filled first half from its offense, but it also disguised blitzes nicely in harassing Sam Bradford and eventually laid the hit that knocked the quarterback out of the game. Moving forward for the Sooners, the offense should feature a healthy dose of DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown if Bradford is to miss a significant amount of time. And while I was disappointed in the play of cornerback Dominique Franks, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is definitely as good as advertised for the Sooners.
Alabama-Virginia Tech: Alabama successfully began its national championship push in Atlanta for the second straight year as running backs Roy Upchurch and Mark Ingram helped Greg McElroy survive a beating in his first game as Alabama’s starting quarterback. Despite substantially outgaining the Hokies in total yards, Alabama played sloppy on special teams and had numerous penalties and miscues that saw it having to come back in the fourth quarter before putting Virginia Tech away. Tyrod Taylor again showed that he will continue to struggle throwing the ball consistently, so Frank Beamer will be leaning on freshman running backs all season to help carry the offensive load. Alabama’s confusing looks on defense caused Taylor problems, and the Tide’s linebackers showed that they may be the most complete unit in college football. Wideout Julio Jones, by the way, is absolutely scary looking—more so than last year. Alabama looks for real if they could eliminate dumb penalties.
Missouri-Illinois: Illinois never looked prepared for this game, and the team looked as if it wanted to head for the bus at halftime. This poor effort falls right on head coach Ron Zook. No matter how good of a talent Arrelious Benn is, the Illini had more than enough talent—including Jarred Fayson—to make up for his loss in a game against a good, but not great, Missouri squad. While the defensive line showed aggressiveness early, the Illini’s secondary looked lost and undisciplined. I was impressed with Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s demeanor in his first game as Chase Daniel’s replacement, especially as the game progressed. He looked comfortable sitting in the pocket and taking off and running when necessary. Danario Alexander looks to be healthy again and—while he may not be as dynamic and explosive as Jeremy Maclin—he will score plenty of points in Columbia this season.
Nevada-Notre Dame: So maybe the performance of Jimmy Clausen and the Notre Dame offense against Hawaii to close out the 2008 season wasn’t such a fluke after all. Wideout Michael Floyd picked up right where he left off as a freshman—and looks even more ridiculous as a sophomore. Tight end Kyle Rudolph will certainly benefit from the presence of Floyd and Golden Tate, and running back Armando Allen seemed to have an extra jump in his step. The ND offensive line looks tougher, but it’s the Irish defense that really made a lasting impression. Linebacker Brian Smith may be the most talented player on that side of the ball, leading a unit that looked hungry in its pursuit of Colin Kaepernick and the Wolf Pack running backs.
LSU-Washington: It was great to see such a revived, raucous crowd at Husky Stadium on Saturday night. I expect Steve Sarkisian to do wonderful things in Seattle and bring the Huskies back to Pac-10 and eventual national prominence. Jake Locker, Chris Polk and James Johnson give the Huskies some firepower to work with in Sarkisian’s new offense. But it was LSU who was able to grab the road win as Jordan Jefferson certainly didn’t play like the youngest quarterback in the SEC, tossing three touchdowns in the victory—including two to Terrance Toliver. The Tigers didn’t play great, but they escaped a tough environment. The defense was aggressive and looked as athletic as ever, but I still worry about this unit as it struggled with giving up the big plays it allowed last year. It’ll be interesting to see if new coordinator John Chavis’s scheme could eliminate some of holes in the defense and allow the unit to get more rest, as it was on the field for a significant longer amount of time than its counterpart.
Miami-Florida State: It was nice to see both Jacory Harris and Christian Ponder answer their critics early in this game. Miami coach Randy Shannon showed faith in his offense by going for it on fourth down in the first quarter, and Harris rewarded him with an easy 38-yard touchdown toss on the next play. Ponder, meanwhile, showed that he could be just as effective throwing as running in converting two critical third downs on the Seminoles’ opening drive, including a closing touchdown. The opening possessions for both teams were a sign of things to come, as both signal callers took turns playing hero in an old-fashioned shootout. Ponder didn’t have a great second half and ultimately came up short on the game’s last play, but he gave Seminoles fans a glimpse of what certainly will be an exciting season. Harris flat out played beyond his years, and it’ll be interesting to see what they could do against an Oklahoma team that is expected to be without Sam Bradford.
Other notes: I’ll hold off on bashing the Big Ten (and believe me, I’m a lifelong Chicagoan so I’ll always be partial to the conference), but the league did not have its greatest showing this opening weekend. Ohio State’s struggles with Navy could be attributed to being out of sync defensively against the option attack, but I would worry more about its O-line if I were an Ohio State fan. Iowa should never have allowed Northern Iowa to be in any position whatsoever to win the game, while I expected a lot more from Adam Weber and Minnesota against the Greg Paulus-led Syracuse squad. I will say, however, that the Gophers’ Eric Decker might be the most unheralded receiver in the nation. Michigan has speed on both sides of the ball, and the defense that I expected to help the offense out last year has finally showed up under new coordinator Greg Robinson.