Top takeaways from Week 1 include Tennessee loss
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We typically spend all summer judging the first week of college football by the marquee matchups, the number of times teams with rankings in front their names are playing each other because we are programmed to think those games have bigger stakes.
Everywhere you turned Saturday, it felt like something really big was happening. And often, it didn’t involve teams or matchups that we talked much about at all in the preseason. But that’s the beauty of this sport, imperfect as it is: After months and months of hype and rhetoric, we never really know what’s going to unfold once these 18-to-22-year-old college athletes get onto the field.
Nothing, of course, was more surprising than Tennessee’s 38-30 loss to Georgia State, which wasn’t even as close as the score indicated due to the Vols’ touchdown with two seconds left.
A few things about this game:
1. It’s the worst loss in Tennessee history. Bar none, not up for debate. And for a program that has spent the last decade soiling itself in every way possible, that’s a pretty remarkable thing to say.
2. The Vols’ defensive line got manhandled by a Sun Belt team and gave up 213 rushing yards to the Panthers, who were able to move the chains pretty much any time they really needed to. Tennessee’s defense looked soft and physically out of shape and got gashed over and over again when it was time to get off the field. Seriously, what were those guys doing all summer?
3. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw for 311 yards on 26-of-40 passing but didn’t really pass the eye test. He was too slow to process things from the pocket and didn’t handle pressure well when Georgia State blitzed. Also, Tennessee ran it just 31 times for 93 yards, which is just very poor against a Sun Belt team that should be physically overmatched.
4. Jim Chaney left Georgia to become the Vols’ offensive coordinator this year. Though many of the Vols’ problems were on defense, this wasn’t a confidence-inspiring debut.
5. And not to kick Tennessee fans when they’re down, but maybe that whole thing about vetoing a coaching hire by Twitter mob and running a competent athletic director out of town wasn’t the best idea? Maybe Jeremy Pruitt will eventually prove himself up to the job, but you don’t get forever in the SEC to turn things around, especially when you squander your political capital on losses to the likes of Georgia State. This is the Phil Fulmer show now, which is what the Vol Nation wanted. Be careful what you wish for?
It probably won’t break through nationally, but for Georgia State to win this game is a massive achievement for a program that played its first season in 2010 and transitioned into the Football Bowl Subdivision quicker than its infrastructure could realistically support.
But in the last few years, Georgia State has poured more resources into football and is building something that could eventually become the top program in the Sun Belt Conference. Simply by virtue of its location in downtown Atlanta, Georgia State should be able to recruit good players from the area, and moving into its own stadium — the school purchased the former Atlanta Braves stadium at Turner Field and converted it into a football venue — has given it a greater sense of identity and community. The school is also moving dorms and other athletic facilities to the area around the stadium, which is a massive upgrade from the small, cramped quarters they used to have on campus.
But most of all, Georgia State showed a real toughness in the trenches that reflects their coach, Shawn Elliott, who was a former South Carolina offensive line coach under Steve Spurrier and told me shortly after he got the job that he was going to build it from the line of scrimmage out.
Week 1 winners and losers: Willie Taggart and Florida State fall flat
“There were six or seven (offensive linemen) on scholarship when we got here, and now we’ll have 15 or 16 so there’s some pushing going on,” Elliott told me this spring.
He was also optimistic about quarterback Dan Ellington and the returning skill players and felt like there would be a big jump in performance, even though the Panthers went 2-10 last year as they transitioned from a roster that was heavy in upperclassmen to a younger group.
While most coaches at a program like Georgia State might look for a quick fix and take a bunch of transfers or SEC washouts to upgrade the talent level, Elliott has largely eschewed the transfer portal in favor of guys he’s gotten to know through the whole high school recruiting process.
“To put any program on the map and have continued success and longevity, you have to build it from the ground up, with a freshman focus,” Elliott said. “A lot of people have a guy that recruits (the portal) every day, like, ‘Oh, that guy’s on the wire.’ Hey, there’s a reason why they transfer. They probably weren’t very good and were overrecruited or they probably did something wrong. I’m not here to say every situation is the same but I would like to go and invest my own time in recruiting and really know a lot about the individual and their family. These transfer guys you don’t have a chance to go recruit like you would. Instead, you just bring them in for a workout. I haven’t had a lot of success seeing that happen.”
There’s probably something to be said for that approach.
Other observations from Saturday’s games:
Willie Taggart’s debut as the Florida State head coach in 2018 was an absolute stinkbomb of a 24-3 loss to Virginia Tech, foreshadowing a substandard 5-7 season. But as bad as that was, somehow Taggart’s second season has started in even uglier fashion.
The Seminoles had everything going their way early against Boise State but blew an 18-point lead and lost 36-31.
The list of ways in which this loss was inexcusable for Taggart is lengthy.
First of all, Boise State had to travel across the country for a game that kicked off at 10 a.m. in their home time zone (yes, bodyclocks matter) and had to play in Tallahassee rather than a more neutral environment in Jacksonville due to the expected path of Hurricane Dorian.
Moreover, the game was moved from night to day, which meant it was played in the kind of relentless humidity that Boise State really can’t simulate even with them pumping some heat into their practice facility.
So how is it that as the game wore on, Boise State looked like the fresher, more energetic, better conditioned team and Florida State looked tired and panicked?
It’s worth noting that Kendal Briles, Taggart’s celebrated but controversial offensive coordinator hire, only came up with four first downs over the game’s final 34 minutes after the Seminoles took a 31-13 lead.
Bachmeier Turnaround Overdrive
As bad as that performance was for Florida State, you have to give an equal amount of credit to a Boise State offense led by true freshman Hank Bachmeier, who threw for 407 yards on 30-of-51 attempts despite being under some heavy pressure much of the game.
Bachmeier, who committed to Boise State over California all the way back in May of 2018, is the first true freshman to start a season opener for the Broncos since 1996. He has more than justified the early hype and will be a key guy to keep an eye on the next few years out of the Mountain West, which has already notched a couple big early-season wins with Hawaii knocking off Arizona and Nevada upsetting Purdue.
Former Dawgs Debuting
Prior to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018, much of the talk at Georgia centered around how Kirby Smart would manage a quarterback room with starter Jake Fromm, injured former starter Jacob Eason and the incoming phenom Justin Fields.
Of course, that was a fantasy from the beginning. Eason left for Washington and sat out last season, while Fromm held onto the job and Fields struggled to find a niche in the Bulldogs’ offense before transferring to Ohio State.
Though you probably can’t read too much into the results Saturday based on the level of competition, both of the former Georgia quarterbacks got off to ideal starts with their new teams. Eason finished 27-of-36 with four touchdowns and 349 yards in a 47-14 win over Eastern Washington, while Fields also had four touchdown passes and 234 passing yards in a 45-21 win over Florida Atlantic.
Fields, a dual-threat quarterback, also ran it 12 times for 61 yards and a score. We’ll learn a lot more about him next Saturday against a very tough Cincinnati defense.
Ole Missing in Action
Matt Luke didn’t necessarily need to win a tough season opener at Memphis to keep himself off the early season hot seat lists, but what he couldn’t afford was a debacle. Though the final score doesn’t look too bad, Ole Miss’ 15-10 loss in the Liberty Bowl didn’t flatter Luke or his big-name offensive coordinator hire, Rich Rodriguez. On a day when Memphis looked extremely beatable, the Rebels mustered just 173 yards of offense, averaged 2.4 yards per rushing attempt and converted just one third down in 10 attempts.
Even if Memphis is much better on defense than a year ago when it ranked 89th nationally and gave up 428 yards per game, there’s really no excuse for an SEC team getting physically manhandled at the line of scrimmage by the Tigers. And it certainly doesn’t bode well for the SEC West schedule.
Though this is Luke’s second season as the permanent head coach, he’s a holdover from the Hugh Freeze staff and only got the job because he won at Mississippi State as the interim coach in 2017 to finish 6-6. Though Luke is an alum, fans who had hopes of Ole Miss hiring a big-name coach to replace Freeze have never really embraced him and have viewed him mostly as a short-term caretaker as the program rides out the impact of significant NCAA penalties.
The breaking point, though, could come quickly. Ole Miss’ season ticket sales have tanked this year, and starting the season with an ugly performance against Memphis isn’t going to rally any interest. If the Rebels lose at home next week to Arkansas, the speculation about who’s next in Oxford will begin.
Northern Iowa had plenty of chances Saturday to pull a huge shocker over No. 24 Iowa State, but you just had a feeling they wasted their biggest opportunity in the second overtime when coach Mark Farley declined to go for a two-point conversion that would have ended the game and instead decided to kick an extra point to send it into a third overtime. Sorry, Coach Farley, but that’s a bad decision when you’re a big underdog with nothing to lose and it predictably led to the Cyclones closing it out 29-26.
Given that Iowa State dominated the game statistically (463-262 advantage in offense), cutting it so close on the scoreboard is probably not something to worry about. But with so much expected from the Cyclones this season — many pundits have pegged them the third-best team in the Big 12 — it’s definitely an underwhelming start.
Saturday saw a return to the sidelines for three high-profile coaches who’ve been out of action in recent years. Mack Brown was highly emotional in a postgame interview with ESPN after his North Carolina team beat South Carolina, 24-20, in Charlotte. Much was made of Brown’s savvy coordinator hires in the offseason, and they certainly didn’t disappoint Saturday. Phil Longo did a great job preparing true freshman quarterback Sam Howell for the opener, and he delivered 245 passing yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Meanwhile, Jay Bateman’s defense held the Gamecocks to 270 yards, affirming why a lot of programs were trying to pry him away from Army after last season.
Though not nearly as impressive, former LSU coach Les Miles eked out a 24-17 win over Indiana State while Liberty’s Hugh Freeze provided one of the more remarkable visuals in all of college football by coaching against Syracuse in a hospital bed that was transported into the stadium. Freeze has been recovering from back surgery and a serious staph infection and isn’t expected to be fully mobile and operational for a few more weeks.