0 of 16
Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press
The “Week Zero” slim slate from a week ago eased us all into college football season, but the real opening weekend didn’t mess around. It was chock-full of showcase showdowns and not without a few surprises, either.
The scheduling gurus did us all a favor and spaced out some marquee games with Ohio State-Minnesota opening things up on Thursday with a few other games. Virginia Tech gave college football its first major upset on Friday when it dispatched North Carolina, and after a loaded Saturday, we’re still not done.
Notre Dame and Florida State battle tomorrow night, and Ole Miss-Louisville finishes us off on Labor Day.
Georgia-Clemson and Penn State-Wisconsin gave us defensive beauties. The defending national champion played like it, Oklahoma’s nail-biting narrow victory over Tulane provided drama, and much more ridiculousness happened. Iowa State and Oregon had severe scares, too.
College football is in yo face, and it’s looking like 2021 will not disappoint. Here are some of the biggest winners and losers from all the action.
Check back for updates from the later games.
1 of 16
Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press
As far as tests go, Minnesota provided No. 4 Ohio State with all it wanted Thursday night. But the Buckeyes proved up to the test in a back-and-forth battle that allowed coach Ryan Day’s team to not only gauge its mettle, but also show the world its talent.
It was on full display against an upset-minded Golden Gophers team in a 45-31 Buckeyes win.
After a hotly contested preseason quarterback battle, redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud won the job, and though his debut was not without some hiccups, he was largely brilliant with the big plays. The California native threw for 294 yards and four touchdowns. With a full arsenal, all he really has to do is be the maestro.
The nation’s best wide receiver duo performed at an elite level as Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson combined for 197 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Explosive true freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson showed the world what he’s about, making a 70-yard house call on a catch.
Running back Miyan Williams added 125 rushing yards on a 13.9 average, and it’s obvious if Stroud can just limit his mistakes, the Buckeyes have the weaponry to do plenty of damage in the race for the College Football Playoff.
This is not a team without flaws on the defensive side, but Ohio State is going to be right there in the mix, to nobody’s surprise. They flashed in a big win over P.J. Fleck’s Gophers.
2 of 16
Chris Carlson/Associated Press
The thing about showdowns between top-five opponents is there are normally athletes flying all over the field on both sides of the ball.
That definitely was the case Saturday night when the week’s marquee matchup between No. 5 Georgia and No. 3 Clemson unfolded on the ABC network from Charlotte.
What you don’t typically see, however, is one side of the ball straight-up embarrassing the other side when they’re led by a former 5-star quarterback being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy favorite. But that’s what happened as the Bulldogs defense dominated the Tigers all night in a 10-3 win.
It’s like these teams suddenly moved to the Big Ten.
With all due respect to Penn State and Alabama, though, UGA’s defense was the best to take the field this weekend by a long shot. Clemson’s offensive line had no answers, as Bulldogs defensive coordinator Dan Lanning’s playmakers swarmed to the ball all night.
They’re big, fast, deep and electric, and their leader is inside linebacker Nakobe Dean, who was all over the place and could have built a permanent residence in the Tigers backfield. Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei was on his back so much he probably memorized every light at Bank of America Stadium.
Dean was the main culprit with two sacks, and UGA had seven total and seemingly pressured Uiagalelei on every single play. In the first game of the post-Travis Etienne era, the Tigers had 23 rushes for 2 yards.
On 4th-and-5 with 4:52 left and trailing 10-3, Clemson went for it, and Uiagalelei was pursued again by Dean, causing him to rush and throw incomplete.
It was that kind of night of total domination, and while Clemson’s defense was outstanding in its own right and UGA needs to find some offensive answers, a defense like this will have the Bulldogs firmly in the mix for the College Football Playoff.
3 of 16
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Kudos to Oklahoma for making the classiest move of college football’s Week 1.
After Hurricane Ida displaced Tulane, which was supposed to host arguably its biggest-ever game against the Sooners in New Orleans, OU painted the Green Wave’s logo on Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium’s surface, making them feel as much at home as it could.
“In this extraordinarily difficult moment for the people of Louisiana, we want to do our small part by assisting Tulane with the game this weekend,” Oklahoma president Joseph Harroz said, according to CBS Sports’ Shehan Jeyarajah. “While we regret that it’s necessary for us to host it, we will welcome the Tulane family this Saturday with open arms and heavy hearts. We hope this act is one small way that we can help alleviate some of the stress the university is currently enduring.”
The hospitality wasn’t supposed to be extended to the scoreboard, though. Oklahoma did not lose, but the same glaring inefficiencies that have kept the Sooners from winning a national championship during this incredible run of consistency appear to still be present.
In what was supposed to be a walk-away OU win, the Green Wave recovered an onside kick with 2:18 left in the game after storming back to cut Oklahoma’s lead to 40-35.
Though quarterback Michael Pratt’s 4th-and-13 scramble wound up a yard short of the first-down marker and the Sooners walked away with a win, it was not impressive at all. Defensively, there are major gaps, and the Sooners allowed almost 400 yards.
They scored just three second-half points, and Heisman hopeful quarterback Spencer Rattler had a pair of picks. It was far from pretty for the Sooners, but they won, and they definitely made an impression with their pregame sportsmanship.
4 of 16
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Are Alabama fans bored by now?
Anybody who thought the defending national champion Crimson Tide were in danger of taking a colossal dip after losing so much talent off arguably the best college team ever assembled a season ago were severely disappointed watching Saturday’s opener against Miami.
The Hurricanes had no answer for Nick Saban‘s team on either side of the ball.
Despite having 10 players drafted—including eight of the first 38 players taken—in the 2021 NFL draft, Alabama is the preseason top-ranked team, and it looked like it in Atlanta, smothering D’Eriq King, scoring points at will and ultimately winning 44-13.
First-year signal-caller Bryce Young was dynamic, scrambling around the pocket and extending plays on his way to 344 passing yards and four scores, and the Tide receiving corps didn’t miss a beat. Running back Brian Robinson led a steady ground attack, and Alabama just crushed Miami’s will.
New offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien looked like he’d been calling plays for Young for years, and college football’s standard bearer is nowhere near depleted in any way.
This is still the most talented team in the sport, Saban is still the best coach, and it’s the true definition of reload. The factory just continues to plug in 5-star type prospects, and they play better than everybody else.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been that way for a decade-and-a-half now. Young looks like an electrifying star, the defense (led by Will Anderson) is much better than it’s been, and Alabama continues to just chug along.
5 of 16
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Wisconsin fans can jump around all they want in the stands.
Penn State was doing its own jumping around on the defensive side of the field, and it made all the difference for the No. 19-ranked Nittany Lions in a rugged 16-10 win over No. 12 Wisconsin. They were everywhere, all the time.
Often, it must have looked to Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz like there were 15 defenders, and when it came crunch time, the Lions defenders got better. They capitalized on some huge luck, too.
With less than 3 minutes to go, Danny Davis made a brilliant catch for the Badgers on a 3rd-and-7 play at the 1-yard line to set up a 1st-and-goal. That’s when Mertz lost the handle on the ball on an unforced error, a fumble recovered by Wisconsin way back at the 7.
Despite perhaps its best defender of the day, Ellis Brooks, getting ejected for targeting on that drive, the Lions bowed their back, and ultimately Jaquon Brisker intercepted Mertz with 2:17 left to end the threat. Wisconsin got the ball back and started another drive, but Penn State responded again.
On 2nd-and-10 from the 32, Arnold Ebeketie pressured and sacked Mertz, who tried to throw it away and drew an intentional grounding flag. His next pass was intercepted by Ji’Ayir Brown to seal the win for a Nittany Lions team that deserved it, thanks to its defense.
Neither team allowed a first-half point, and despite Wisconsin controlling the tempo of the game, holding the ball 42 minutes and 51 seconds and running 58 times on its way to 95 total plays, the Badgers averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, 5 yards per pass and converted just 7-of-22 third-down conversions.
Penn State had a rugged response to every Wisconsin jab, and it erased last year’s slow start with a big opening win.
6 of 16
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
It seems forever ago that Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams were flying around the field, wreaking havoc on the Pac-12. But you may not have to have a good memory to see it again this year.
The only difference is Kelly is now coaching at UCLA, and despite some rough seasons in Westwood to rebuild the Bruins, they may be ready to bust out with a different, rugged style.
Saturday night at the Rose Bowl certainly felt like it. Not only did UCLA beat an LSU team a year removed from a national title, the Bruins wore down, beat up and demoralized the big, bad SEC team, whipping it at its own game. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be for a conference that has struggled recently on big stages.
But get used to it. After losing four games by a combined 15 points a season ago, UCLA looks like a veteran, battle-tested team.
After opening the year with a 44-10 domination of Hawaii a week ago, they embarrassed the 16th-ranked Bayou Bengals, walloping them and coach Ed Orgeron on a field he has spent so much time on as a head coach and assistant at USC.
Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet continued to be one of the top stories of the early college football season with his powerful running and flashed some breakout speed as well, torching the Tigers. Brittain Brown was a terrific complement running back, too.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson dissected an LSU defense that was porous a season ago and doesn’t look much better this year. The Tigers could never muster anything on the ground as Kelly proved he’s adapted to this scheme, building a physical-minded Bruins team that doesn’t look like his old Ducks squads.
As long as they win like those did, it won’t matter.
7 of 16
Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
Michael Penix Jr. was one of the sport’s budding stars a season ago who led Indiana’s Cinderella Big Ten run and gave us one of the snapshots of the season with his lunging touchdown dive to upset Penn State in the season opener before his season was cut short with a knee injury.
He returned to the field Saturday to lead the No. 17 Hoosiers, but there was no similar heroics against the 18th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium.
Instead, coach Kirk Ferentz’s team swallowed anything Penix tried to do by ground or by air, and Iowa wound up walloping the Hoosiers in one of three big-time Big Ten battles in the season’s opening week by a 34-6 score.
The biggest villain and headline thief was Iowa defensive back Riley Moss, who had two pick-sixes in the first half as Iowa built a huge lead, including this beautiful break on a pass where a rusty Penix stared down his receiver.
Penix’s top receivers in the first half were Ty Fryfogle (51 yards), Miles Marshall (21 yards) and Peyton Henderson (14 yards). By comparison, Moss’s two “receptions” went for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately for Penix and the Hoosiers, they went in the other direction.
The QB finished with just 156 passing yards and three interceptions, and Indiana had no answers.
IU coach Tom Allen has a quality team that was expected to contend in the Big Ten again this year, and Penix will have to be the catalyst if that’s going to be the case. But he is off to a rough start to his season, and the Hawkeyes got a huge opening win as they look to compete in a wide-open conference.
8 of 16
John Raoux/Associated Press
First-year Central Florida head coach Gus Malzahn’s career resurgence got off a roaring first step this week after a stutter of a start.
Much like Ohio State, getting a first-game test like Boise State should provide huge dividends as the Knights try to return to the forefront of the AAC. In a season-opening game between recent Group of Five goliaths, the Gus Bus fixed a flat and then rumbled over the Broncos, 36-31.
At first glance, this looks like another shootout from the days of the Josh Heupel era. But it wasn’t; not exactly.
The Knights dug a 21-0 hole against Boise State and started grinding. They came all the way back, thanks largely to transfer running back Isaiah Bowser, whose breakout performance gives Malzahn the workhorse ball-carrier he had all those successful years at Auburn.
Bowser had 32 carries for 170 yards and a touchdown and added four grabs for 29 yards as UCF regained its composure following an early Dillon Gabriel pick-six and wound up winning a game that could be a huge catalyst to the season.
“He’s a stud,” Gabriel told Inside the Knights’ Jason Hamby of his offensive backfield mate. “I got nothing else, he’s the real deal.”
Gabriel was just fine, throwing for 318 yards and four touchdowns (despite two interceptions), and Malzahn inherited plenty of weapons. If he continues to mesh them into his system, it could be a great year in Orlando.
9 of 16
Marta Lavandier/Associated Press
One game doesn’t always make or break a season, but if Friday night’s loss to Virginia Tech is any indication, you can turn the lights out on one of college football’s dark horses before many teams even played their first game.
North Carolina looked nothing like the explosive upstart it was a season ago in a 17-10 stunning setback to the Hokies. Quarterback Sam Howell, expected to be a contender for the Heisman Trophy, could never get anything going offensively.
Simply put, it looked like coach Mack Brown‘s team caved into the pressure of expectation. Think that’s harsh? He doesn’t.
“The shine’s off,” Brown told the Roanoke Times‘ Mark Bermon. “The rating sure doesn’t matter tonight. We were overrated, with the way we played.”
Take nothing away from Tech, though. It dominated defensively.
Late in the game with North Carolina needing a touchdown to tie, Howell was being pressured and slung a fluttering hope toward receiver Josh Downs. Instead, Tech’s Chamarri Conner intercepted it to end any hopes. Howell finished 17-of-32 for 208 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
A year after an explosive offense featured running backs Javonte Carter and Michael Williams, Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler couldn’t get anything going on the ground. The Tar Heels felt the loss of departed pass-catchers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, too.
There were no redeeming qualities to a failure of an opener.
10 of 16
Jeff Dean/Associated Press
It’s far too early for favorites for college football’s top individual honor to emerge, but it’s never too soon for some of the luster to wear off guys high on the list.
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell was horrible in a season-opening loss, and his three-interception performance takes him out of the conversation for now. Oklahoma signal-caller Spencer Rattler had two picks of his own and had a very “meh” showing.
Neither USC quarterback Kedon Slovis, or Big 12 runners Bijan Robinson (Texas) and Breece Hall (Iowa State) posted massive numbers, either.
Those games open the door for others to step into the spotlight, and Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder burst through the door and right into the mix.
There’s no question Ridder belongs, and he came back to lead the Bearcats on what he hopes is a magical year that winds up in the College Football Playoff. The senior also can do a lot to bolster his pro potential, and he got off to an incredible start Saturday.
Playing against defending MAC champion Miami (Ohio) on Saturday, Ridder looked like one of the best players in the country (along with Alabama QB Bryce Young) in a 49-14 win over the RedHawks.
Ridder wound up 295 passing yards, 31 rushing yards and five total touchdowns in a sterling performance that was every bit as good as the stat line indicates. He had just five incompletions in the entire game, so he’s in mid-season form.
Watch out for him. The Bearcats’ leader looks ready.
11 of 16
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Week 1 signaled a tough start for a couple of darlings from a season ago, including one in the Power 5.
It may not even be an upset that reached your radar with the other games on the schedule, but Tulsa’s 19-17 loss to Football Championship Subdivision opponent UC Davis was a shocker, nonetheless.
Remember the Golden Hurricane made it to the AAC championship game a year ago, losing by three to Cincinnati before dropping a two-point game to Mississippi State in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Most of the Big Ten started its season playing intra-conference showdowns, and 2020 runner-up Northwestern began its year by losing a third consecutive game to Michigan State, as it had no answer for Spartans running back transfer Kenneth Walker Jr., who had 264 rushing yards and four scores.
On his first carry since transferring from Wake Forest, Walker showed some wiggle and shake, taking the ball 75 yards for a touchdown on the Spartans’ first play of the game. Michigan State followed that with a 10-play, 74-yard scoring drive on its way to a convincing 38-21 win against a porous Wildcats defense.
For Tulsa, coach Philip Montgomery had to replace a superstar defender Zaven Collins and starting quarterback Zach Smith, but it was still expected to compete in the AAC. The offense sputtered all night, and absent was that second-half, comeback magic that highlighted the Golden Hurricane’s season a year ago.
“This is a new year,” Montgomery told the Tulsa World‘s Kelly Hines after the game. “We’ve got to find our identity and who we’re going to be this year. … We’ve got to come together as a football team and get ready to excel.”
Both Tulsa and Northwestern are off to a late start.
12 of 16
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
The Pac-12 favorites this year are the same as the ones that played in the championship game a season ago, but neither the defending champion Oregon Ducks or the runner-up USC Trojans are without flaws.
They showed that on Saturday in wins over strong Mountain West Conference opponents that featured plenty of spits and starts.
Ducks starting quarterback Anthony Brown was far from perfect in his debut as the man for Mario Cristobal, but he made plays when he had to in Oregon’s nail-biting 31-24 win over Fresno State in which they trailed by three in the fourth quarter.
Not only did Brown throw a dart for a touchdown, but on 4th-and-2 late in the fourth quarter and the Ducks driving, he scored a go-ahead 30-yard keeper to put the Ducks up for good. His dual-threat ability was paramount for Cristobal’s team Saturday, even if his game wasn’t perfect.
The USC Trojans weren’t much more impressive, though they too played an exceptional Group of Five opponent in San Jose State. The Spartans stymied quarterback Kedon Slovis and the Trojans offense for a large part of the game, but they pulled away and ultimately won 30-7.
Thankfully for coach Clay Helton, the defense saved the day by quieting Nick Starkel and an offense used to tossing up a ton of points like they did a season ago on their way to a conference championship.
Perhaps it would have made the fans of both programs feel better to earn some style points, but these were quietly two quality wins against good opponents who provide early-season tests.
13 of 16
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
A major upset of an SEC opponent was right there within reach for Louisiana Tech and coach Skip Holtz.
The Group of Five Bulldogs had dominated the entire game and made Mississippi State coach Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense look more like a paper airplane and scored 34 consecutive points in the process on the other side of the ball.
But Holtz couldn’t manage the lead as Leach’s bunch stormed back with three fourth-quarter touchdowns. They turned it up on both sides of the ball, elevating their defensive play and chipping away at the lead.
Mississippi State never panicked, but Holtz didn’t show a sense of urgency as the walls closed in, either.
After MSU took the lead on a Will Rogers to Jaden Walley scoring strike following two Jo’quavious Marks touchdown runs chiseled away the lead, Tech got the ball back and started marching. Austin Kendall found Isaiah Graham for a 13-yard completion on 4th-and-11 from the 43 with a minute to play.
From there, though, Holtz laid on the ball. His Bulldogs ran three consecutive times up the middle for negative 2, zero and 4 yards instead of trying high-percentage passes for outside runs, electing to play it safe rather than try for a significantly shorter field goal.
The end result was a 46-yard field goal attempt by Jacob Barnes that never came close. MSU survived, and Holtz was left looking terrible for his decision-making.
As Split Zone Duo podcast host Alex Kirshner tweeted “That fourth quarter by Skip Holtz should be taught at coaching clinics. The class should be called How Playing Not to Lose Will Make You Lose.”
14 of 16
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
There were definitely bigger football games this weekend than a middling South Carolina program with first-year coach Shane Beamer taking on FCS opponent Eastern Illinois in his debut.
But there may not be a cooler story.
The Gamecocks elected to start Zeb Noland at quarterback, which doesn’t seem like a big deal on its surface. But if you consider just a few weeks ago, Noland was a graduate assistant coach for South Carolina who had hung up the cleats.
Beamer asked him to suit up because the team needed depth at the position. He did and wound up beating out redshirt senior Jason Brown after projected starter Luke Doty left camp with a foot injury.
Heck, Noland wasn’t even helping with the quarterbacks. He was assisting in coaching the Gamecocks receivers.
Instead, he suited up under center Saturday night against the Panthers. Though he didn’t light up the scoreboard with ridiculous numbers, Noland led the Gamecocks to a 46-0 win.
He wound up completing 13-of-22 passes for 121 yards and four touchdowns; not too shabby for a “washed-up” coach, huh? He also added 10 rushing yards.
Last year, Noland started seven games for FCS powerhouse North Dakota State after transferring from Iowa State, where he couldn’t beat out Brock Purdy. He wound up at South Carolina to start his coaching career, and he wound up playing. For how long?
Doty should be getting close to coming back, and he almost certainly will have the job when he returns. For a night, at least, though, Noland was a tremendous feel-good story. It may not quite be Disney-worthy, but it’s a nice footnote to a big week of college football.
15 of 16
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
If not for COVID-19, the Washington Huskies would have been in the Pac-12 championship game a year ago.
They looked like a shell of a contender Saturday night.
Dylan Morris threw three interceptions (two to Gavin Robertson), including a critical one driving for what he hoped would salvage a comeback with under a minute remaining in the game, and coach Jimmy Lake’s team wound up suffering an upset to the Football Championship Subdivision power Montana, 13-7.
Yes, the Grizzlies are a quality program that has won lower-level national championships, but they aren’t supposed to hang with a Pac-12 power.
The Huskies couldn’t muster anything offensively, and a lot of that was Morris’ fault. If he keeps playing like this, it won’t be long until former 5-star true freshman Sam Huard or somebody else gets a huge opportunity to unseat him.
Morris finished 27-of-46 for 226 passing yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. Yes, that was bad, but it wasn’t like the Huskies did anything on the ground, either. They ran the ball 27 times for 65 yards.
That’s the key reason why Montana went into Husky Stadium and left Seattle with a historic win.
In the history of college football, there had been four FCS wins over ranked Football Bowl Subdivision opponents: Appalachian State over fifth-ranked Michigan in 2007, James Madison over No. 13 Virginia Tech in 2010, Eastern Washington over No. 25 Oregon State in 2013, and North Dakota State over No. 13 Iowa in 2016.
Add Montana’s to the list to make it five now. It was truly the biggest stunner in a week of wackiness.
16 of 16
Eric Gay/Associated Press
How many times over the past few seasons have we all heard “Texas is back?” If Saturday is any indication, the Longhorns may just be before long.
Nobody is proclaiming No. 21-ranked Texas is a title contender this year, but new coach Steve Sarkisian calmly and meticulously led a thorough victory over 23rd-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette in his UT debut, 38-18.
Think that’s not really a big deal? Coach Billy Napier’s team is a veteran group with explosive offensive playmakers. A season ago, the Ragin’ Cajuns dispatched Iowa State to start the season and wound up with a strong year. They are one of the best Group of Five programs in the nation.
They were no match for Texas, which piled up 103 rushing yards from Bijan Robinson and 224 passing yards from Hudson Card, who beat out Casey Thompson in a tight quarterback race to start the season. Defensively, the Horns played better than at any point during the Tom Herman era.
This is a good football team that should get better as the season progresses.
With Oklahoma looking susceptible defensively in a close loss to Tulane and Matt Campbell’s Cyclones nearly choking in the opening weekend again, somehow squeaking out a 16-10 win over Football Championship Subdivision power Northern Iowa, the Big 12 looks more there for the taking than it did entering the year.
Texas has no shortage of athletes on both sides of the ball, and if everything comes together, these kids could rally behind Sarkisian, who has proven multiple times he knows how to scheme up a defense.
Look out, everybody. This Texas team may be dangerous this year.