The first night of college football is in the books, with 19 games producing plenty of predictably ugly results, from Jim Harbaugh's debut loss to a merely OK win by TCU to an ugly South Carolina win. Here are five things we learned.
1. Opening night is usually sloppy. This was no exception. The only team that really played well on Thursday night was No. 16 Georgia Tech, who went on a rampage against helpless Alcorn State, beating the Braves 69-6 with 476 rushing yards. Among the 19 games, almost everything else was messy, and nowhere was that more evident than in the red zone. North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams threw three interceptions in the red zone, handing South Carolina a 17-13 win. Gamecocks starting quarterback Connor Mitch went 9 of 22 for 122 yards. Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky nearly went scoreless in the first half, and the Hilltoppers won 14-12 in part because of a bad goal-line interception thrown by Vandy quarterback Johnny McCrary. Minnesota blew a big opportunity at the doorstep against TCU with a Rodrick Williams fumble into the end zone.
The sloppiness was everywhere, really. UCF inexplicably lost at home to Florida International 15-14, which should make George O'Leary want to get out of coaching even more quickly. Oklahoma State managed only 24 points in its bizarre road trip to Central Michigan, winning by 11. Utah State, in the return of quarterback Chuckie Keeton from two season-ending injuries, beat Southern Utah 12-9, in a game in which the two teams converted a total of two third downs. Arizona held off a very inexperienced UTSA 42-32 at home. Toledo's 16-7 lead over Stony Brook won't even count, as multiple weather delays forced the game to be suspended. And so on.
This is Week 1. There is no preseason in college football, and new quarterbacks are being broken in with new supporting casts, as part of rosters that often feature opening-game suspensions and new coaches. It is frequently sloppy, although Thursday might have been even sloppier than usual.
2. The biggest news of opening night is Scooby Wright's injury. The star Arizona linebacker, who won the 2014 Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player, was sidelined early in the Wildcats' UTSA, with his knee wrapped. In the second half, he switched to street clothes and was walking with a cane on the sideline. After the game, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said that he didn't think it was an MCL or ACL injury, but they wouldn't know the extend of Wright's injury until he underwent an MRI.
Few players are more important to their team's success than Wright, who led the nation with 163 tackles last season and had 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles. With Wright sidelined most of the game, Arizona allowed 525 total yards to the Roadrunners, including 332 passing yards by Blake Bogenschutz. The Wildcats have a couple more should-be layups on the schedule (at Nevada, Northern Arizona) before a two-game run against UCLA and Stanford. Wright is essential to them competing for another division title.
3. We knew this already, but Jim Harbaugh can't fix Michigan overnight. There were some positives to take away from the Wolverines' 24-17 loss at Utah. Redshirt freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers had a few hiccups but was all over the place, showcasing his blue-chip athleticism and flying to the ball. Tight end Jake Butt was unstoppable at times, catching eight passes for 93 yards, including a double-coverage touchdown. The defensive front, expected to be a strength of the team, held star Utah tailback Devontae Booker to 69 yards on 22 carries. There are pieces to work with here. Still, in many ways the team looked a lot like last year.
Harbaugh is one of the best coaches in all of football. He has a strong record working with quarterbacks and engineering team-wide turnarounds. He cannot, however, work miracles. Iowa graduate transfer Jake Rudock completed 27 of 43 passes for 279 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He came alive a few times, but with his new receivers he missed throws all night. And the first touchdown, again, went to Butt in double coverage, only after Utah bailed Michigan out with a late hit penalty on third down. Rudock and his receivers were out of sync, and the running game found no consistent rhythm, with interior offensive line struggles against a physical defensive front.
There is no reason to panic: A seven-point loss to a good Utah team is about what everyone expected, and the difference came on a pick-six. There were some positive signs, and after a tough opener against a good team with an excellent defense, there are many opportunities for wins on the Michigan schedule until Michigan State comes to Ann Arbor on Oct. 17. Rudock, or whoever is playing quarterback, will likely improve as time goes on under Harbaugh, which is something we couldn't see about the last few Michigan teams. There's just going to be plenty of frustration along the way. Not even Harbaugh can prevent that.
4. South Carolina still has a lot of room to grow. Thursday went a lot better for South Carolina than last season, when the Gamecocks got blown out by Texas A&M at home in the opener. But beating North Carolina 17-13 did little to prove that South Carolina is going to snap out of its 2014 funk and become an SEC East contender again. The Gamecocks played well on defense in holding North Carolina to 13 points, but then again the Tar Heels shot themselves in the foot by 1) not giving the ball more to tailback Elijah Hood and 2) quarterback Marquise Williams making poor decisions on his three red-zone interceptions.
Under new defensive coordinator Jon Hoke (older brother of Brady), South Carolina allowed 6.98 yards per play, which was just about identical to what it allowed in its 52-28 loss to Texas A&M a year ago (the Aggies ran many more plays in that game, 99 to 63). This time, however, the Gamecocks benefited from poor decision-making by the opponent, both in Williams' interceptions and the coaching staff taking the ball out of the hands of Hood, who ran 13 times for 138 yards. All of which means that the jury is still out on the South Carolina defense, and the offense get only 9-of-22 passing for 122 yards out of new quarterback Connor Mitch, who left the game with a hip pointer. There is no easy game to fix things, either, as the Gamecocks now dive right into SEC East play with Kentucky and Georgia.
5. TCU's win was fine. We shouldn't be rushing to take anything definitive away from TCU's 23-17 win at Minnesota. The second-ranked Horned Frogs failed to put Minnesota away. Minnesota struggled to consistently move the ball. Based on Item No. 1 in this list, this is probably what we should have expected. While TCU does have one of the most proven, seasoned offense in the country with Heisman candidate Trevone Boykin one of 10 returning starters, Minnesota -- with a solid line and an excellent secondary -- has the type of defense that can put the clamps down and frustrate a team like TCU for a while, especially when the Frogs are on the road. Boykin averaged only 5.9 yards per pass attempt, but he helped make up for it with 92 yards on 18 carries, including a touchdown. Minnesota didn't have the explosiveness on offense to close the gap. Minnesota will likely be similar to the eight-win team it was last season, and Ohio State came away with a similar one-touchdown lead in Minneapolis last November. The Gophers will be solid, and this may be the biggest challenge TCU faces until the second half of a backloaded schedule.