By Matthew Soderberg | Contributor
The Powers That Be
The perennial powerhouses of college football took care of business this past weekend. Clemson defeated conference foe Georgia Tech 52-14 on Thursday night, Alabama manhandled Duke 42-3 Saturday and Oklahoma played a close one against Houston (49-31) Sunday evening.
In a sport that preaches parity, there doesn’t seem to be any coming anytime soon. Those three teams have made up 60% of college football playoff spots over the past five years, including five straight appearances by Alabama. It also doesn’t help the rest of the country that those contenders all bring elite quarterbacks to the field each week.
Some thought that maybe Oklahoma could take a step back after its second Heisman-trophy-winning quarterback was drafted first overall again, but it does not seem like that’s the case. They added Heisman candidate Jalen Hurts to their potent offensive scheme, and Lincoln Riley yet again has an electric team capable of taking home a trophy at the end of the season.
Alabama, meanwhile, has simply brought back its most prolific offense, now with a year more of experience. Tua Tagovailoa will be the No. 1 pick next April. Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs III are all on the preseason Biletnikoff Award watchlist for the best wide receiver in college football. And of course, Nick Saban is still coaching and raking in top-level recruits at record rates, so the Crimson Tide is bountiful in talent all over the field.
And then there’s Mr. Perfect: Trevor Lawrence. The long-haired, strong-jawlined quarterback heads up the defending champion Clemson Tigers. After only a year in college, Lawrence is being touted as a generational talent, with NFL talking heads already proposing teams tank next season for a shot at him. He alone would be enough to lift a mediocre team to a high level, but his supporting cast shouldn’t be looked over, either.
The Tigers return many integral pieces from their championship team a year ago, including Doak Walker Award (best running back) watchlister Travis Etienne. They have the first test of these three contenders, as Texas A&M travels to South Carolina next Saturday for a matchup of top-12 AP ranked squads.
Drawing Up the Chalk
After a week of college football, only one ranked team (Oregon) has a “one” in their loss column, and the Ducks faced another ranked team. Therefore, as many ranked squads won as possible, with the most wins by ranked teams in a single week in the history of the AP rankings.
I’m not entirely sure if that’s more reflective of the skill of the teams that are ranked, or the more likely option that nobody faced anyone good in week one. Only seven of the 25 ranked squads faced Power-5 conference opponents, and as stated earlier, there was only one ranked-versus-ranked matchup all weekend.
And while that doesn’t make for many talking points for us that enjoy the sport, it at least sets up some great contrasts with next week’s mouth-watering games.
First, Clemson faces A&M in Clemson, S.C. in a rematch of last year’s wire-to-wire surprise game, the only time I can remember a team losing and still moving up in the national rankings (A&M received more votes after losing to Clemson 28-26 than the previous week after a win).
That game is followed by a Sabine River Showdown, as No. 9 Texas hosts No. 6 LSU. Both teams finished last year strong with resounding bowl wins against Georgia and UCF respectively, and are each coming off wins against cupcakes this past weekend. Texas has its prodigious hometown quarterback Sam Ehlinger ready to take on the always feisty and well-prepared Tiger defense. This year’s LSU squad is different from past disappointments, though, as Joe Burrow leads a high-octane offense unfamiliar with the norm for the Bayou Bengals. Those games should both be very fun.
Oregon vs Auburn
This was the only matchup of ranked squads week one, and it was treated as such. The neutral-site season opener was covered by ESPN’s College Gameday and given the primetime experience. After a sluggish first half by Auburn true freshman quarterback Bo Nix, the Ducks led the Tigers 21-6 late in the third quarter, but coach Gus Malzahn wasn’t going to take that kind of beating in Fort Worth Saturday night. Auburn fought back to a one-point deficit late in the fourth and forced a punt on Oregon’s final drive, giving the Tigers great field position at their 40-yard line. Finally, Nix put his team into gear, manufacturing a 2:05 touchdown, game-winning drive, capped off with a beautiful 26-yard pass with only nine seconds remaining.
The consequences of that throw have major ramifications across the country. For the second year in a row, Auburn has knocked off the highest ranked PAC-12 team in the opening week of the season. This will predictably send the westernmost conference into a tailspin, and with USC quarterback JT Daniels tearing his ACL Saturday, the conference seems even weaker. Meanwhile, Auburn gets the first quality win of the season, a major blow compared to some of their SEC opponents’ weak non-conference schedules. This year, the Tigers started ranked behind five SEC squads, and they play all five of those teams at some point over the year. If they can manage to only lose one of those games — and it would be more helpful to them if that game came against an SEC East opponent such as Georgia or Florida — they could well be in the Playoff discussion by the end of November.