By Joe Vitale | UGA Football Live
College football returned to campus and a few neutral sites across the country with possibly one of the most entertaining opening weekends in history.
In this age of the Power 5 programs scheduling FCS and mid-major teams early in the season as a glorified scrimmage (and substantial payday for their guests), it was refreshing to see so many significant inter-sectional and regional games among the top programs.
Prime-time national television exposure, recruiting visibility, significant payouts by neutral site stadiums, entertainment value and the College Football Playoff committee’s emphasis on strength of schedule all played a part in so many intriguing early season match-ups.
Did anyone notice the 2016 season began in that college football hotbed of Sydney, Australia, as the California Golden Bears defeated the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors 51-31 “Down Under” on August 26. After Hawaii traveled 20,000 miles in 9 days, one can forgive the Rainbow Warriors for losing to Michigan in Ann Arbor 63-3 on Saturday.
In an exciting game on August 27, Charleston Southern (coming off their best season ever) lost in overtime to 5-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State in Fargo, 24-17.
On September 1, Sun Belt champion Appalachian State rode the bus over the Smokies and lost a heartbreaker in overtime to number 9 Tennessee, 20-13. After being outplayed for most of the game, the much hyped Vols were extremely fortunate to escape with the overtime win. Tennessee and Virginia Tech meet in one of the most unique venues for a football game….on the infield of NASCAR’s Bristol Motor Speedway next week. Upwards of 160,000 are expected to attend this ACC/SEC border battle.
The next day, Kansas State visited number 8 Stanford and Heisman Trophy-candidate Christian McCaffrey, who put on a show as the Cardinal prevailed 26-13.
Also on September 2, Army traveled to Philadelphia and took on one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2015, the Temple Owls. The Cadets shocked their hosts 28-13, behind Andy Davidson’s 121 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns.
The biggest day of the opening week began early at 7:30 AM eastern time as Georgia Tech defeated Boston College 17-14 in Dublin, Ireland. Freshman Derrick Mills capped a 59-yard touchdown drive with a 4-yard scoring run with 35 seconds left in the game. Later in the day, the ACC suffered a major upset as FCS member Richmond humiliated Virginia in Charlottesville, 37-20. The Spiders’ Kyle Lauletta passed for 337 yards and 3 touchdowns to ruin Cavaliers’ head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s debut.
In other upsets of Power 5 programs by FCS teams, Northern Iowa downed Iowa State 25-20 and Eastern Washington surprised Washington State 45-42.
The SEC lost 7 games over the weekend, it’s most opening week losses in the storied conference’s history. Missouri lost 26-11 to West Virginia in Morgantown. Both Mississippi State and Kentucky lost home games to Group of Five teams. South Alabama shocked the Bulldogs 21-20 by coming back from a 17-point deficit as State’s last second field goal attempt bounced off the upright. Southern Miss came back from a 25 -point deficit by scoring 34 unanswered points and defeated the Wildcats 44-35. The Golden Eagles had lost their previous 13 games to SEC teams.
The Western Michigan Broncos knocked off Northwestern 22-21, marking the 11th consecutive season with a MAC win over a Big Ten opponent.
Number 5 LSU traveled north to the land of cheeseheads to face Wisconsin on the not-so frozen tundra of sacred Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The Badgers picked off Brandon Harris twice and shocked the Tigers 16-14. That was the Tigers first regular season nonconference loss since 2002.
In Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, top 20 teams North Carolina and Georgia met in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game. The border battle between the two old rivals witnessed the beginning of the Kirby Smart era at UGA, the debut of highly-touted freshman quarterback Jacob Eason and the return of Heisman candidate Nick Chubb. Chubb was magnificent in his return from last season’s knee injury in rushing for 222 yards on 32 carries and scoring two touchdowns. Eason was 8 of 12 for 131 yards and a touchdown as Kirby Smart returned to his alma mater to lead the Bulldogs to a 33-24 victory over the Tar Heels.
Next up from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, two storied programs, defending national champion Alabama and the USC Trojans battled. The Trojans held a 3-0 lead after the first quarter but it was all Alabama after that. The Tide surrendered only 194 total yards and demolished the Men of Troy 52-6. Bama won for a FBS-leading 15th consecutive game.
Deshaun Watson and number 2 Clemson visited the Plains and the SEC’s Auburn Tigers. Clemson held on for an exciting 19-13 victory as two last second Hail Mary passes by Auburn into the end zone fell incomplete.
Number 16 UCLA and Texas A&M’s clash in College Station ended in a 31-24 Aggies upset over the Bruins in overtime. Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen threw for 343 yards but was intercepted 3 times.
To wrap up an exciting opening Saturday, BYU visited Arizona in Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium and the Cougars held on for an 18-16 victory.
Just as you were recovering from Saturday’s extravaganza, number 10 Notre Dame visited Texas for a very rare, Sunday night college game. The Longhorns were annihilated by the Irish last year and will be trying to improve upon a Jekyll and Hyde 2015 season. Texas welcomed the largest crowd in Memorial Stadium history (102,400) and introduced the latest Longhorn mascot, Bevo XV. In the weekends most exciting game, Texas beat the Irish 50-47 in two overtimes. Texas freshman Shane Buechele completed 16 of 26 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. Senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes rushed for 53 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner in the second overtime.
Not thinking you could handle another big game, on Labor Day from Orlando’s Citrus Bowl, the ACC/SEC challenge continued with number 11 Ole Miss and number 4 Florida State concluding the greatest opening weekend in college football history. Ole Miss jumped out to a 22 -point lead only to see Seminole freshman quarterback Deondre Francois pass for 419 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-34 FSU victory. Fittingly for the last game of the weekend, it was the greatest comeback in Seminole history.
In the best game no one saw, Texas State scored in the third overtime on a double pass and two-point conversion to defeat Ohio 56-48.
Major props to Pitt running back James Conner, who missed last season after battling cancer and overcoming a knee injury. Conner rushed for 53 yards, had 16 yards receiving and scored twice as the Panthers defeated Villanova 28-7.
Congrats Kansas! The Jayhawks ended a 15-game losing streak with a 55-6 win over Rhode Island.
WHY WE LOVE COLLEGE FOOTBALL
As great as the action on the field was this week, some moments just stand out. The pregame tribute in Atlanta to former North Carolina coach Bill Dooley who recently passed away was touching. His brother Vince was also honored.
In addition, the enthusiasm of honoree captains for the game, Georgia’s Hines Ward and North Carolina’s Jeff Saturday was contagious. I think they were ready to suit up.
But the moment that was simply heartbreaking took place during the Nebraska/Fresno State game in Lincoln. In a gesture that brought tears to many of the Memorial Stadium crowd and players, Nebraska honored punter Sam Foltz, who tragically lost his life in a car accident this summer. In the first quarter, Nebraska lined up for a punt in the missing man formation – taking the field without a punter. The stadium erupted in applause and the Cornhuskers were penalized for delay of game. Showing true sportsmanship and the utmost respect, Fresno State declined the penalty. It was a powerful moment and speaks volumes for all that is good about college football.