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The first full Saturday of the 2023 college football season started off with a thriller in Fort Worth and ended with a four-touchdown upset in Waco. In between, there was a lot to learn, as national title contenders took the field for the first time, new coaches looked to make their mark and the season’s biggest matchups still to come gained some added intrigue. Below, as our writers react to some of today’s top lessons from around the country.
College football has no shortage of star power
College football’s biggest stars showed up for the first full Saturday of the season. The Pac-12’s trio of Heisman-hopeful quarterbacks dazzled: Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. completed 29 of 40 attempts for 450 yards and five touchdowns in a blowout win over Boise State; Oregon’s Bo Nix was 23 of 27 for 287 yards and three touchdowns as the Ducks hung 81 points(!) on Portland State; and USC’s Caleb Williams followed a strong Week 0 with 319 passing yards on 18 of 24 attempts for five touchdowns as the Trojans moved to 2-0 with a 66-14 win over Nevada.
In the Big Ten, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy — with head coach Jim Harbaugh suspended — completed 26 of 30 pass attempts for 280 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-3 season-opening win over East Carolina. North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye looked almost pedestrian compared to those four, completing 24 of 32 for 269 yards and two touchdowns but with a pair of interceptions in the Tar Heels’ 31-17 win over South Carolina.
Yet the brightest lights were focused on Fort Worth, where Deion Sanders’s Colorado shocked TCU 45-42 in the game of the day. The Buffaloes’ stud duo of quarterback Shedeur Sanders and receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter led the way, with Sanders going 38 for 47 for 510 yards and four touchdowns and Hunter playing an outrageous 129 total snaps on both sides of the ball, hauling in 11 catches for 119 yards on offense and snatching a momentum-swinging red-zone interception. Freshman running back Dylan Edwards earned his own headlines with 159 combined yards and four total touchdowns (three receiving, one rushing).
On his Bleacher Report show earlier this week, Hunter put Shedeur Sanders number two on his list of Heisman Trophy contenders behind only himself, a claim that looks much more serious after Saturday. Their head coach even stoked that collective candidacy: “We’ve got a couple guys in here who should be front-runners for the Heisman — that’s how I feel.”
Not that Deion had to make the case. It was obvious to everyone, with Hunter in particular showing the early makings of a legit two-way star, something we haven’t seen in power-conference football in a long time.
“Today was just like practice,” Shedeur Sanders said afterward. “I knew we was gonna do this.”
I’m officially excited to see what they do next. — Justin Williams
Is Texas ready for Bama?
If you’ve been a believer that Texas is going to Tuscaloosa and pulling off an upset of No. 4 Alabama next week, the Longhorns’ slow start on Saturday might’ve left you feeling a little uneasy.
There was nothing wrong with the final score — Texas 37, Rice 10 — and perhaps head coach Steve Sarkisian and his crew were trying to keep things vanilla in the opener, get through it healthy and save the Longhorns’ best for their toughest fight. The good news was Texas’ defense had a dominant day. That unit controlled the game with nine stops, including three takeaways, and gave up a net total of 23 rushing yards on 24 attempts. T’Vondre Sweat was a big problem (in a literal sense, as a 6-foot-4, 362-pound force) and he and the rest of his teammates never let veteran quarterback JT Daniels get hot.
But did Texas’ offense look ready for Bama? Tough to say. Quinn Ewers eventually settled in and had a nice day (260 passing yards, four total TDs) in three quarters of action. He still showed some inaccuracy on downfield shots and couldn’t quite get the offensive rhythm in the right place in the first half. Texas’ interior offensive line had ups and downs, and its rushing attack generated one 20-plus-yard run, a 32-yard gain by touted freshman CJ Baxter. The five-star exited the game after that carry with an injury and didn’t return.
After leading just 16-3 at the half, Sarkisian was pleased to see his offense respond with three consecutive touchdown drives and better execution and tempo after the break. But he acknowledged this team has a lot to work on in the week ahead. Texas did so many things right in its upset bid against Alabama a year ago and only mustered 19 points. To be fair, the Longhorns did start hot and then had to get by without Ewers in that game, but it was situational and red-zone issues for the offense that ended up proving costly.
Ewers will have to play better than ever next weekend, but the same can be said for the rest of Texas’ offense. They have the talent to put up a lot of points, but they better be ready for a much more physical fight in order to take down the Tide. — Max Olson
Travis Hunter and Colorado’s 2023 ceiling
Well hello, Colorado.
Head coach Deion Sanders told everyone who would listen, “We coming.” We should have listened, because the Buffaloes are real and they’re spectacular.
Sanders’ FBS coaching debut, a 45-42 road win over No. 17 TCU, could not have gone better. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders shined, with a record-setting 510-yard performance. Travis Hunter may have kicked off a Heisman Trophy campaign with his brilliant two-way performance. True freshman running back Dylan Edwards ran roughshod over the TCU defense.
And Coach Prime is 1-0.
For all the skepticism about bringing in a roster with more than 70 new players in one offseason, Deion Sanders earned validation on Saturday. Colorado played clean football and the collection of speed was dizzying. Four — four! — players surpassed 100 receiving yards.
Is this a sign of things to come? If so, watch out, Pac-12.
Coming into the year, oddsmakers set Colorado’s over-under win total at 3.5. Uh, they’re probably going to cruise past that if Saturday is any indication. Sanders said he kept receipts. We’ve provided plenty for him.
So how good can Colorado be? With Nebraska and Colorado State visiting Boulder in the next two weeks, the Buffaloes could be halfway to bowl eligibility by time they start Pac-12 play.
Are the Buffaloes conference title contenders? We’ll get a much better answer by the end of September, because they close out the month by visiting No. 15 Oregon and hosting No. 6 USC. But it looks like Colorado will be able to score with anybody. Start hammering the over for Buffs-Trojans on Sept. 30.
Making a bowl seems like a foregone conclusion after what we just saw. How much better they could be and how serious a conference title contender they are we’ll learn in the coming weeks. Before we go too far overboard, I’m reminded of how quickly Week 1 overreactions can turn. Remember Texas A&M beating a top-10 South Carolina team to kick off the 2014 season (the Kenny Trill game)?
Lastly, the biggest impression left by Saturday had to be by Hunter. The former No. 1 overall recruit, who followed Coach Prime to Colorado from Jackson State, saw 129 snaps between offense and defense and was sensational.
Hunter, who played receiver and cornerback, made one of the most important plays of the game, a diving interception of TCU quarterback Chandler Morris in the red zone to thwart a second-half scoring opportunity. On offense, he caught 11 passes for 119 yards and was running past defenders well into the second half despite all the playing time he logged.
If 100-plus snaps playing at that high a level is a regular occurrence this year, better book him a December trip to New York City. — Sam Khan Jr.
Colorado stole the headlines, but the biggest upset of the day as far as the bookmakers are concerned was Texas State’s 42-31 win over Baylor, which entered as a 27.5 favorite. For the San Marcos-based Bobcats, members of the Sun Belt Conference, it was the first win over a Power 5 program since the program made the move from FCS to FBS in 2012.
It was a memorable debut for first-year head coach G.J. Kinne, a 34-year-old former NFL quarterback who was hired to take over the Bobcats after one season at Incarnate Word.
Baylor, coming off a disappointing 6-7 campaign in 2022, kicked an early field goal but never held a lead after that. The Bears outgained Texas State 525 yards to 441, but the Bobcats won this one late and in the red zone, scoring three touchdowns on three trips while holding Baylor to a pair of short field goals and snagging an interception in the end zone. It was one of two costly fourth-quarter turnovers by Bears backup quarterback Sawyer Robertson, playing in relief of starter Blake Shapen, who was in and out of the game with an MCL injury. Robertson later coughed up a fumble on the edge of the red zone after a 31-yard scramble, cementing the victory for Texas State.
Bobcats quarterback T.J. Finley, a former LSU and Auburn transfer, looked power-conference-worthy, completing 22 of 30 passes for 298 yards and four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing). Wide receiver Joey Hobert had six receptions for 105 yards, one touchdown, and this lovely OBJ-homage.
— Justin Williams
Get ready for more Ohio State QB questions
When Ryan Day announced Kyle McCord would start against Indiana but Devin Brown would also play, it felt like a continuation of the Ohio State quarterback battle into the regular season. Play both players, evaluate them through three weeks and officially name a starter before the Buckeyes’ pivotal road game at Notre Dame on Sept. 23.
But in a 23-3 win over Indiana — a final score closer than most would have anticipated — McCord played the lion’s share of the reps. McCord played almost the entire game, while Brown played two short series, both of which ended with three-and-outs, and attempted one pass.
Yet quarterback talk isn’t going away, even if McCord is the starter head coach Ryan Day has selected for the season. Why? Because McCord failed to throw a touchdown pass in the game and had an interception. McCord finished 20 of 33 for 239 yards through the air, but Ohio State’s offense was lacking in the explosive offensive plays we’ve come to expect from that unit.
Honestly, the game was like watching paint dry. Marvin Harrison Jr., perhaps the best receiver in college football, finished with only two catches for 18 yards and had a touchdown reception called back on an illegal touching penalty.
Indiana isn’t a Group of 5 team that is physically incapable of putting up a fight, but this game had a 30-point spread, and the Buckeyes just didn’t make many plays, at least way fewer than you’d anticipate.
It’s unclear whether Brown will get more of an opportunity to play when Ohio State faces Youngstown State next week, but there will certainly be people who would have liked to see more out of McCord. It’s Ohio State football, and overreactions are a given — it happened at the beginning of C.J. Stroud’s run as the Buckeyes’ starter two years ago — but Day can’t feel great about the way his offense performed in the season opener.
Ohio State has two more games against overmatched opponents to try to figure some things out before the early-season clash with Notre Dame, which has started the season 2-0 and averaged 49 points per game behind quarterback Sam Hartman. — Ari Wasserman
Milton keeps Tennessee’s offense clicking
Joe Milton wasn’t perfect, but Tennessee’s big-armed quarterback proved he can run this offense just fine as the Vols’ post-Hendon Hooker era began in earnest with a 49-13 win over Virginia. Milton was 21 of 30 passing (a 70 percent completion percentage) for 201 yards and two touchdowns, adding a pair of rushing touchdowns on eight carries. With the redshirt senior running the show, Tennessee went a perfect 6 for 6 in the red zone with 42 points before coach Josh Heupel subbed in true freshman QB Nico Iamaleava for his first collegiate action in the fourth quarter. The Vols had 499 yards of total offense to Virginia’s 201, and Milton showed off his arm strength early with this deep launch — even if his receiver ultimately dropped it.
As SEC play approaches, Milton and the rest of the offense will need to get better on third down; they went just 5 for 13 on Saturday. The Vols will also need to clean up a few avoidable miscues. But the run game looked solid, with Jaylen Wright rushing for 115 yards on 12 carries, and Milton looked comfortable after settling in. Virginia, meanwhile, will need to dramatically improve its offensive line and rush defense if the Cavaliers want to avoid a long season. — Grace Raynor
(Photo of Michael Penix Jr.: Joe Nicholson / USA Today)