Last night Anthony Richardson, whom Dan Mullen couldn’t find a way to get on the field last season, put forth an exquisite performance, slicing and dicing his way through the Utah defense to the tune of 168 yards passing and 106 yards rushing. In so doing, Richardson reminded me of two players: Cam Newton on the 2010 Auburn team and Vince Young during his tenure at Texas. Richardson has better passing form than Young — you’ll recall that Young often let go of the ball in an Uncle Rico like sidearm motion — but probably isn’t as big or fast as Young. Plus, Young, certainly by the time he won a national title, had a way more talented cast around him.
Which is why the more intriguing comparison for Richardson might be Cam Newton, a player who elevated a fairly average Auburn team to a 14-0 record and a national championship. Strip Cam off that Auburn title team and insert an average SEC quarterback and the Tigers probably go 8-4 and play in a mid-range bowl game. But with Cam, Auburn became electric.
And what was intriguing about Cam in particular was how well suited he was for Gus Malzahn’s offense that year. And how much better he got as the season went along. The Cam that played in September of Auburn’s title year was a pale shadow of the Cam who willed his team back from a huge deficit at Alabama in November of 2010.
It’s very early, I acknowledge, but this Florida Gator team feels like an average SEC team around Anthony Richardson. Does Richardson have the talent to will this team to a special season — I think the answer is yes — but will Billy Napier be able to harness Richardson’s talent like Auburn was with Cam? I think that remains to be seen.
In the meantime, the Florida Gators got the biggest win of week one relative to expectations. And if you want to get the Gators, I think you’ll want to play them in September as opposed to November.
Let’s dive in to everything else we learned in the Starting 11.
1. The Pac-12 is 1-8 in their last nine opening season games against the SEC.
Including 0-2 yesterday, with each of their top two ranked teams losing.
I think Utah will be fine, as I’ll discuss below, but Oregon’s in for a world of hurt based on what we saw Georgia do to them last night. The Ducks were not close to ready for primetime and Bo Nix didn’t magically become a better quarterback by transferring from Auburn.
He was the same exact Bo Nix that Auburn fans saw for years, capable of making exquisite plays, but also capable of throwing interceptions where it looked like he was intentionally hitting the defender in stride in the chest. What I would refer to as the full Jarrett Guarantano. (Guarantano, who played quarterback for Tennessee for the past 14 years, managed to throw a pick-six on every interception. No matter where the pick was made on the field, Guarantano made sure the interceptor was hit in the chest, right between the numbers, and had a full steam head start so he could immediately hit the corner and house it.)
Combine these double losses with USC and UCLA bolting the conference and it has been a really tough few weeks for Pac-12 fans.
Fortunately the entire conference’s future stability was probably rescued by the college football playoff expanding to 12 teams. Why? Because the remaining Pac-12 teams can feel pretty good about their chance of making the playoff if they win the conference.
Which is a great bargaining chip to retain for TV going forward.
In fact, the playoff expansion news is actually incredible news for Oregon, even if they did get whipped on Saturday. Why? Because the Ducks figure to be, along with Washington, the two top programs remaining in the Pac 12. So they can feel like they have a decent chance at playoff berths most years if they just remain top tier in the reduced Pac 12.
And it feels like Phil Knight and Nike will ensure that happens.
In fact, we have to start talking about Stetson Bennett as a potential Heisman contender. Bennett was 25 of 31 for 368 yards and two touchdowns. Including a ridiculous escape from a certain sack that led to a touchdown pass to Ladd McConkey. (Stetson Bennett IV to Ladd McConkey might be the most private school quarterback to receiver touchdown pass duo in SEC history, by the way. These dudes might as well already have a Southern REIT selling great investable land three blocks off the beach. It’s inevitable.)
Anyway, if any other top 10 team’s quarterback put up Bennett’s numbers in a big game, everyone would be talking about him for the Heisman. Instead because Bennett is undersized at quarterback and doesn’t look like he’s as good as he is, he gets no respect. That’s ridiculous, the dude’s a stud. And I think he’s going to be outstanding this year, meaning he should get an invite to New York City.
This is pretty wild, but do you know how many additional current top 25 teams Georgia plays for the rest of the year? One, Kentucky at number twenty. Now I think the Wildcats will fall out of the top 25 and I think Tennessee and Florida probably are in it when the Bulldogs play them, but I just don’t see how Georgia isn’t in the playoff this year.
Especially if Bennett keeps playing like this.
In the meantime, Oregon, who probably doesn’t belong in the top 25 this week based on what we saw yesterday, is currently the highest ranked team on Georgia’s regular-season schedule.
3. Ohio State was pedestrian in taking down Notre Dame.
I love how first year Fighting Irish coach Marcus Freeman claimed he had no idea what the spread in this game was, but then punted down 11 with four minutes left and didn’t use his timeouts to stop the clock.
Notre Dame easily covered and didn’t call a timeout to end the game. If Freeman didn’t know what the spread was, he sure learned it in a hurry, didn’t he? I mean, come on, how did Notre Dame just effectively give the game away by not going for it on fourth down? I can’t believe more people aren’t talking about this.
Based entirely on what we saw on Saturday night, I don’t see how Ohio State deserves to be ranked above Alabama or Georgia. In fact, how are the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs, who just destroyed a top team from the Pac 12, not ranked number one overall?
This is one of many reasons why preseason polls are absurd. Until we’re about a month into the season, they’re virtually worthless. Which is why voters who stick to their preseason rankings deserve massive ridicule. The first couple of polls should look wildly different than the preseason poll.
As for the Buckeyes, they have two cakewalk games against Arkansas State and Toledo before Wisconsin comes to town to begin their Big Ten slate.
Let’s see how much C.J. Stroud rounds into shape with his new receivers between now and then.
4. Utah’s season isn’t over.
I know everyone, myself included, loves making grand pronouncements every week in college football, especially after week one or two, but Utah traveled down to Gainesville and went toe-to-toe with the Gators in virtually every statistical category. In fact, given that Utah got stoned at the one yard line on fourth down on one drive — after their back slipped and fell down when he would have scored two plays before — and threw an interception to end the game on second and goal, you can argue the Utes should have won this game.
That’s why it wouldn’t stun me if Utah runs the table from here on out.
Anthony Richardson is a tougher player to defend than anyone on the schedule for Utah the rest of the way.
The two biggest challenges for the Utes are USC in Salt Lake City on October 15th and at Oregon the next to last week of the season. Otherwise Utah should be a fairly decent favorite in the rest of its games.
Keep winning and Utah could find itself in the playoff mix late in the season with Georgia, Alabama and whichever team wins the Big Ten.
5. The college football playoff is expanding to 12 teams at some point in the near future.
I love this move.
I understand the people who argue this devalues the regular season, but I think that argument is bonkers. Right now almost every team in college football is eliminated from contending for a national championship by mid-October. With 12 teams making the playoffs that concern will vanish, your team can have two losses at the midway point of the season and still be able to fight their way into the playoff.
Will the top teams still probably win?
But the top teams usually win the NCAA Tournament too.
I think opening up the playoff pool to more teams will help recruiting talent spread out in college football — just as I think NIL will do the same. And I just don’t buy that fans aren’t going to care if they lose to hated rivals just because they’ll still have a chance to make the playoff too. Right now when teams start ranked in the top four or five, the field is incredibly slanted in their favor. That stinks if your team isn’t in that category to start the season.
Every sport has found out that prolonging how many teams think their team can win a title — by increasing the size of the playoff — is good for the overall health of the sport.
The same will be true for college football.
6. SEC teams went 10-2 against the spread in their season openers.
This suggests that, improbably, the SEC teams remain undervalued in Las Vegas despite nearly two decades of Southern college football dominance. Indeed, the SEC is now 14-1 on the season, Vanderbilt has played two games, and the only SEC team to lose so far is LSU.
I’d argue that week one might be the SEC’s biggest out of conference value all season long because the SEC teams beat each other up once the regular season starts and preparing each week can be a complete grind. But with a month or more to get ready for one opponent most teams are very healthy to start the year. And the teams with the best talent tend to dominate more than they do during the regular season.
It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in week two when Alabama goes on the road against Texas, Tennessee heads up to Pitt, and Mississippi State travels out to Arizona State.
7. West Virginia-Pitt, Penn State-Purdue, UNC-App State, and NC State-ECU were the four best games of the opening weekend that I watched.
And each of these four games were absolutely bonkers, perfect encapsulations of why so many of us love college football.
I mean, you head the double 2-point conversion attempts by App State en route to a FORTY POINT fourth quarter, the double near miss completions by Purdue that would have sealed their win against Penn State, the double missed kicks, extra point and field goal, that allowed N.C. State to escape ECU, and the improbable tipped ball pass that should have been a 15 yard gain to put WVU in position to win that turned into a pick six for a loss instead.
Make no mistake about it, I love going to college football games, but I love watching college football at home more than I like going to games.
Why is that? Because I’d rather watch ten games while sitting on my couch for 12 hours than watch one game in person. There’s nothing better in sports than kicking back with like four college football games on simultaneously from your house on a fall Saturday.
Which is why I think college football’s biggest issue is many of the stadiums are simply too big, but that’s a topic for another column.
8. Arkansas took down Cincinnati.
I mentioned above the SEC’s strength in week one, well, I think Arkansas is poised to be the second best team in the SEC West this year.
In fact, EARLY PREDICTION ALERT, I think the SEC East may be better at the top than the SEC West this season. Yes, I said it.
To me, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky, who I think will be the four best teams in the SEC East, look better than Alabama, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Mississippi State, who I think will be the four best teams in the SEC West.
I know, I know, it’s ridiculously early for this hot take, but I think the top of the SEC East is going to be very good this year. And that Tennessee and Arkansas are going to be two of the best surprises in college football this season.
9. Jack Harlow was a disaster as the guest picker on Gameday.
I was at home this Saturday morning not appearing on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff so I was able to watch the kickoff shows like I did for most of my life before I was a TV guy. (By the way, if you’d told me back in 2004 when I was writing college football columns from the U.S. Virgin Islands that I’d be a college football TV guy one day, I would have thought you were crazy. Yet here we are, nearly a decade into my doing college football on TV, it’s wild.)
Anyway, I’ve watched a ton of college football pre-game shows over the years and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more awkward guest picking segment than Saturday’s on Gameday. Poor Kirk Herbstreit had a rapper who appeared to know nothing about college football and have zero interest in actually being on the show, an 87 year old co-host in Lee Corso, who is a legend, but had to follow a rapper who gave him nothing to work with — Corso going not so fast my friend after Harlow picked Cincinnati to win because he used to talk to a girl from there was next level awkward — and Desmond Howard, who appears to have zero interest in sports gambling at all. I know Rece Davis is also there and Rece is a really good host, but his role, at least right now, isn’t really to make a splash.
I’ve done bad TV before, trust me. Bad radio too. (In fact, some of you who hate me and are reading this right now might argue that I only do bad TV and bad radio.) But the thing about bad TV or bad radio is when you’re in the middle of it, you know. Because it feels like it lasts forever. I once had on an NFL receiver who was so bad as a guest I asked him 15 questions in an eight minute interview. Think about how hard that math is to manage. Trust me, you know when things are going bad on radio and TV.
I don’t know how long the picks segment on Gameday was yesterday, but it felt like it lasted 20 minutes. At one point Kirk Herbstreit looked at the camera and it was like he was begging for a commercial break. He was like Michael Jordan playing with a high school team in the NBA playoffs. It was bad, really bad.
Meanwhile, I was also watching the SEC Network’s pre-game show hosted by Laura Rutledge, who for my money is probably the most underrated sports TV host on the planet, and I’m not kidding, if you were drafting ESPN college football talent for the two shows I think you’d take Herbstreit first and then every other draft pick would come off SEC Nation for like the next seven picks. SEC Nation had a drunk John Daly on as their celebrity guest — they were on location in Fayetteville and actually picked someone who was connected to Arkansas — and he was absolutely fantastic as was most of their crew.
I realize I’m not supposed to have college football morning show opinions because I’m on Fox’s Big Noon and I’m obviously biased in favor of our show, but we weren’t on this past weekend so I just watched ESPN’s two shows, and SEC Nation just absolutely trounces Gameday now. It’s not even close.
I don’t know how they remake Gameday, but putting Jack Harlow on the show as a guest picker on the same show you debut a Peloton instructor as one of your contributors — she was better than some of ESPN’s full time talent, by the way — was such a desperate bid for relevance that I presume the ESPN people know how bad their show is too. Otherwise how in the world do you have a guest picker that has no connection to either Ohio State or Notre Dame when you have such a big game taking place in Columbus on your network? Especially when they are honoring the Buckeye national title team of 2002 — by the way, that wasn’t pass interference and Miami got totally screwed in that game and should have been the 2002 champion — and you can’t put anyone from that Ohio State team on as the guest picker?
Now I get it, some of you are reading this right now and like, “You’re old, you have no idea how amazing Jack Harlow is, loser! He’s the greatest rapper alive, boomer!”
You’re right, I’m 43 years old. I’m ancient. But I’m still younger than the average College Gameday TV viewer by a decade. If I thought Jack Harlow stunk, imagine what people older than me thought. Fortunately good TV and bad TV is ageless. And this was really, really bad TV.
(Full disclosure, my 11 year old loves Jack Harlow and thought he was amazing on the picks segment. Which is fine. But also I disinherited him because he can’t be trusted to spend any of my money if he thought Jack Harlow was amazing on the picks segment.)
10. Here is my OutKick top ten.
As a preliminary, I’ve been doing this for a decade or more now and many people still don’t understand how I rank teams. Just read the comments every week, HOW DARE YOU HAVE (INSERT TEAM HERE)!
So let me state it anew for the people who won’t bother to read this explanation, I rank teams based on what they actually do on the field. That is, based on the wins they get, not what I expect them to do this year.
This means that my early season rankings can fluctuate substantially. In fact, they always do. This week our top ten, as it is after the first week of action every year, is made up of teams that won against another power five conference opponent in week one. I will adjust this top ten at the end of Monday’s game to give you a final top ten after Clemson-Georgia Tech has been played.
In the meantime, I’ve also got Utah still ranked because why should the Utes be penalized for going on the road against a tough opponent? I think, if anything, Utah should be praised for that decision, not knocked down.
So here’s my top ten:
3. Ohio State
6. Florida State
7. Penn State
11. My SEC power rankings 1-14
Again, I rank based solely on what we’ve seen so far on the field. That means I’m analyzing two things for week one: 1. Quality of the opponent and 2. Impressiveness of the win against that opponent.
To analyze the second prong here, I look at both points scored and total yardage comparisons. Admittedly, these rankings are virtually impossible until you can see everyone play against major conference opponents.
But this is my best guess so far.
5. Mississippi State
7. Texas A&M
12. South Carolina
13. Ole Miss
I’ll be on the road this week for Alabama-Texas in Austin and I look forward to seeing many of you guys there.
Then I’ll be at Penn State-Auburn on 9/17 and at Florida-Tennessee on 9/24. The rest of the schedule will be decided as the games play out.
But, as always, I’m excited to have the best jobs in the country. Thanks to all of you for helping to make that happen.