Nothing breeds more overreaction than the first weekend of the college football season. The recipe: Football-happy fans being treated to the sport for the first time in months after a long offseason of speculation, combined with rosters replete with required turnover and 19-year-olds playing college football for the first time. Judgments can certainly be made after one game -- after all, in college football one game makes up 8.3 percent of the regular season, and one September loss could ruin a team's chances -- but the teams we see now won't necessarily resemble the ones we see in October or November … or even next week.
So as we rush to assess long-term chances based on 60 minutes of evidence -- something which everyone can be guilty of me, including me -- let's look at some of the more notable weak spots from Week 1 to try to determine which situations require just a little patience, and which situations are ripe for panic.
Alabama's offensive line
We have been conditioned to expect all-around greatness from Alabama, spoiled by its success and surprised to see any type of failure. Alabama fans are a passionate bunch, so when a rebuilt offensive line and the offense as a whole struggle in the opener against Virginia Tech, the result may be the most negative reaction to a 25-point win in the history of college football. The offense undoubtedly was bad, gaining a paltry 3.32 yards per play (only once last year did it dip below 6.3), as AJ McCarron was sacked four times and completed 10 of 23 passes for 110 yards with a touchdown and a pick, and leading rusher T.J. Yeldon finished with 75 yards. Alabama won 35-10, but the Crimson Tide scored only 14 points on offense, with Christion Jones' two special teams scores and Vinnie Sunseri's interception return making the game a blowout. But while any type of Alabama problem may seem urgent and terrible, there's no need to panic.
Remember last season, when Alabama supposedly had one of the greatest offensive lines in college football history? They gave up six sacks and eight tackles for loss to Western Kentucky in Week 2. Bad games happen, and they especially happen to offensive lines replacing three NFL-caliber starters in the first game of the season against one of the best defenses in America. No one player was to blame for a horrible game against Virginia Tech; it was a miscommunication here, a missed block there. And the issues weren't just with the offense line -- Yeldon, fullback Jalston Fowler and tight end O.J. Howard all made mistakes too.
Young offensive lines take time to jell, especially when replacing players like Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack. And despite Virginia Tech's likely dance with mediocrity again his season, it has an active, aggressive, experienced and disciplined defensive front led by coordinator Bud Foster, end James Gayle, tackle Luther Maddy and linebacker Jack Tyler. They mixed things up, created some confusion and did not make mistakes, with the help of excellent play from Kyle Fuller and the secondary in keeping Alabama's receivers from running free.
When we look at Alabama's recent dominance, and look at Virginia Tech's 7-6 record, it's easy to focus solely on the mistakes Alabama made. But Virginia Tech helped cause those mistakes, and, except for LSU, Alabama might not see a defense as good as the Hokies all season. They'll fix the problems, like Nick Saban always does. And keep in mind the defense helped hold Logan Thomas to 5-of-26 passing for 59 yards. The sky is not falling.
Concern level (1-10): 2
It's possible there has never been as much attention paid in one college football game to a defensive lineman as there was to Jadeveon Clowney in his 2013 debut against North Carolina last Thursday. When people are watching a defensive end instead of watching the ball, the reaction is likely going to be negative, because rarely does a lineman control a game in overt ways at first glance. Despite his otherworldly ability, Clowney has gone without a sack in four of his last five games dating back to last season, including the game against Michigan in which he did still do something else quite noticeable (in the other of those five games, he had four sacks against Clemson).
Clowney did make a clear impact against the Tar Heels, though. North Carolina, which scored only 10 points, ran away from him and tried to get the ball out of Bryn Renner's hand quickly. Totally neutralizing Clowney is nearly impossible, but there are always ways to limit the chances for an impact lineman to make big plays, and doing both of those things will help. Still, Clowney has already won by making the opposing offense account for his presence on every play.
The most glaring weakness in Clowney's performance, of course, was his fatigue, whether it was from the heat, North Carolina's pace, a stomach bug or a combination of all three. And, sure, it's OK to be concerned: North Carolina may have run a lot of plays with a quick pace, but so it goes in college football in 2013. Defenders need to adjust and deal with it. Clowney will get his legs under him, though, and one of these weeks he'll record a sack or two, or four, and make us remember just how physically superior he is to most players in the game. The best player in college football isn't suddenly not the best player in college football just because he got tired in the first game of the season in August.
Concern level: 1
Michigan State's offense
Perhaps it was hard to get any worse, but I'm not sure why Michigan State was expected to get much better offensively from 2012 to 2013. Sure, most starters were back, but far and way the best player, running back Le'Veon Bell, is gone, leaving the Spartans with a handful of players who underperformed (particularly at receiver, where drops have been an issue) and a nonstop quarterback roller coaster in which no one has separated himself.
The quarterback race expanded to four late in the preseason, only to shrink back to the familiar Andrew Maxwell/Connor Cook rotation in last Friday's opener against Western Michigan. The Spartans proceeded to score 12 points on offense (two field goals, a touchdown and a missed extra point) and 14 on defense, thanks to creativity on interception returns. They punted on their first seven offensive possessions and averaged 3.76 yards per play, after ranking 111th in yards per play last season (4.88), and Maxwell and Cook combined to complete 17 of 37 passes for an average of 3.1 yards per attempt. The offense lacks creativity, not necessarily because of the play calling, but because nobody has proven to be a consistent playmaker. Perhaps freshman Damion Terry could provide a spark at QB eventually if Maxwell and Cook continue to struggle, but based on all available evidence it appears that Michigan State, again, will have to win with its defense.
That doesn't mean the situation is hopeless, of course: The Spartans won seven games last year, and five of their six losses were by four points or less. A few more bounces and they hit 10 wins. Their defense is loaded across the board, from Marcus Rush up front to linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen to cornerback Darqueze Dennard, and they're not going to give up more than 20 many times. But the lack of downfield passing especially makes it tough for Michigan State to come from behind or ever feel comfortable in a game, no matter how effective the defense is.
Concern level: 8
On the other end of the spectrum from Michigan State is fellow Big Ten Legends Division contender Nebraska, which can move the ball on anyone with Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross running the ball, but also may not stop anyone. In scoring 37 points in Saturday's home win against Wyoming, those three plus freshman Terrell Newby combined to rush 63 times for 375 yards and two touchdowns. The problem, however, is that the vaunted Blackshirt defense, which we've been searching on and off for since Black Friday of 2001, has now given up 70 points to Wisconsin, 45 to Georgia and 34 to Wyoming in its last three games. Wyoming actually has some offensive talent, particularly in junior quarterback Brett Smith, but a Big Ten defense should never give up 602 total yards -- 8.14 yards per play -- to Wyoming at home and nearly blow a 37-21 fourth-quarter lead in what ultimately turned out to be a three-point victory.
Nebraska, which returned only two of its top 10 tacklers, obviously has growing pains to go through, but even under a noted defensive coach in Bo Pelini, the Cornhuskers have been known for at least a couple bad defensive lapses every year. The good news, if Pelini is to be believed, is the defensive mistakes made against Wyoming are "very fixable," and like Alabama's offensive line, problems are going to happen early in the season with so many starters leaving. But unlike Alabama, a flood of NFL-caliber talent isn't always ready to be plugged right in. The Cornhuskers will score enough to hang with just about anyone, but they put themselves in a dangerous situation when they fall behind because, while Martinez has improved as a passer, he's always struggled in obvious passing situations, although the presence of a solid receiving corps led by Kenny Bell certainly helps. While Michigan State may be headed toward another season of 17-16 games, Nebraska could be looking at many more 37-34 type games.
Concern level: 7
An opening-game road trip to Hawaii on a Thursday night is tough to judge. It's one of the more unusual environments in college football, and it's possible that intangibles like motivation were at play in USC's sluggish 2013 debut. Then again, was anyone really surprised that the Trojans struggled? They ultimately won 30-13, but quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek combined to complete 15 of 29 passes for 172 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and the offense averaged 4.92 yards per play against a Hawaii team coming off a 3-9 season. Plus, 17 of USC's 30 points came off an interception for a touchdown and two possessions with short fields thanks to other interceptions.
It makes sense to try to manage young quarterbacks and make them comfortable, but Lane Kiffin going conservative on offense isn't exactly new. It didn't help that star receiver Marqise Lee dropped a few passes, but we know what he can do, and any early-season struggles will be corrected. What we don't know is how the quarterback situation will play out, and Kiffin is being coy, saying that not publically naming a starter will somehow prevent the media from asking questions and overanalyzing the situation. (Kessler will reportedly start against Washington State.) Whoever ultimately plays more, the job of the quarterback really shouldn't be too difficult: Get the ball to Lee, as well as Nelson and the tight ends, and things will take care of themselves. But nothing under Kiffin has ever been that simple.
Concern level: 6
Few results were more jarring over the first weekend than the dismantling Boise State suffered at the hands of Washington in renovated Husky Stadium. Broncos coach Chris Petersen had been 9-2 in games against BCS conference opponents, including a season-ending 28-26 win over Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl last December. But on top of a lot of offseason attrition, with only a handful of starters back, Boise State looked nothing like the Boise State we've grown accustomed to in its 38-6 loss.
Give credit to Washington: The Huskies' obvious talent on both sides of the ball finally started to click after several years of mediocrity, and behind players like quarterback Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey, wide receiver Kasen Williams, linebacker Shaq Thompson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (who didn't even play on Saturday) they could prove to be a thorn in the quests for perfection of Stanford and Oregon in the Pac-12 North. But instead of looking like the fun, unpredictable Boise State that can play with anyone, the Broncos turned totally vanilla, playing with a straightforward, predictable style on both sides of the ball that is usually reserved for the Pro Bowl.
Boise State offensive coordinator Robert Prince said the goal was to run a more simplified up-tempo attack, but that's not how Boise State has won so many games over the last decade. The Broncos have won by getting the most out of the talent and out-scheming opponents with motion and creativity. The offense under Prince appears to have totally lost its identity, and Joe Southwick probably isn't the type of quarterback who's going to elevate the offense on his own either. The problems aren't new, either. The offense showed signs of slipping last year after the loss of QB Kellen Moore, plummeting to 49th in yards per play after a run of top-15 performances, and things may not be getting better. As much as any coach in the country, Petersen has earned trust to make changes and figure things out, but with a tricky road schedule (Fresno State, Utah State, BYU) this could finally be the year Boise State falls below 10 wins for the first time in his tenure.
Concern level: 7
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