College Football Rewind: Why Georgia could be headed for a special season

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Welcome back to College Football Rewind. This is your first look back at what happened each week and what it means moving forward. Every Saturday night, I will analyze the week’s games and the always colorful world of college football. Check back later for analysis of the late games.

ATHENS, Ga. — Todd Gurley and Jeremy Pruitt are why this could be a special season for Georgia. They’re why Georgia can win the SEC. They’re why Georgia -- not Alabama, not Auburn and not someone else in the dominant SEC West -- could be the SEC’s first representative in the College Football Playoff.

There’s a tendency to overanalyze Week 1 results, so qualifiers need to be applied when discussing Georgia’s 45-21 victory Saturday night over Clemson in a sauna at Sanford Stadium. There’s a long season, there could be better opponents, and there will be obstacles.

Yada, yada, yada. Don’t underestimate what Georgia did while rushing for 328 yards with ridiculous running back depth and shutting out Chad Morris’ offense in the second half. Georgia is not your ordinary team coming off a five-loss season. It's good enough to win the SEC.

Pruitt, the new Georgia defensive coordinator who has won three straight national titles while at Alabama and Florida State, produced a defense Saturday that hasn’t been seen in Athens for a long, long time. The Bulldogs played with swagger, flew around the ball, and beat down Clemson.

Tied at 21 at halftime, Georgia outgained Clemson 346-15 in total yards in the second half. In the fourth quarter alone, Georgia gained 211 yards to Clemson's minus-19. Yes, minus-19. Georgia had five sacks on the night, harassed Cole Stoudt into 15-of-28 passing for 130 yards, saw its secondary actually make some plays on the ball after a brutal 2013 season, and held Clemson to 2.3 yards per carry.

Good luck hearing from Pruitt on his debut. In an unusual move, Georgia said both of its coordinators will be unavailable for interviews after every home game in 2014. (Note to future reporters documenting Georgia’s special season: Go to Bulldogs away games to have a shot at quotes.) Instead, Georgia did its talking on the field.

If you didn’t know Georgia is incredibly deep at running back -- we're talking Alabama deep -- you do now. Gurley, Keith Marshall, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel — take your pick. This is what you call a quarterback’s best friend, especially with a new starter in Hutson Mason.

Mason played efficiently and looked like a Greg McElroy clone from Alabama’s 2009 national championship season. That is, get the ball to playmakers and don’t mess up. There will be future days when Mason will be asked to do more, but Saturday wasn't that day.

Chubb -- you might as well call him “Baby Gurley" -- ran for 70 yards on four carries. On one run, he plowed over a couple Clemson defenders and kept running after his helmet got knocked off. The depth at running back should allow Georgia to save Gurley during games.

But the reality is, Gurley is the difference-maker for Georgia. He’s that rare college player you see who you want to draft on your NFL fantasy football team right now. He’s the guy who leaves you stunned when he doesn’t pick up 10 yards and who can change the game in a matter of seconds. On a night when America wanted to see whether LSU freshman Leonard Fournette is the next Adrian Peterson, Gurley reminded everyone he may be the next AP. 

"I think he's the best player in America, or at least one of them," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

Gurley only got four carries in the first half. But his 100-yard kickoff return changed the game after Clemson went ahead 21-14. Gurley scored four touchdowns, yet none of those scores produced his most impressive play.

That belonged to a 20-yard run in the third quarter that looked straight out of a video game. Gurley shed a tackle from Clemson All-American defensive end Vic Beasley in the backfield, broke through another arm tackle, and then carried a defender a couple extra yards to finish the play. 

Georgia now gets a bye before a Sept. 13 game at South Carolina, a team lacking difference-makers on both sides of the ball. It’s only one game and Georgia now has two weeks to hear how great it is. But as the SEC West beats up on itself, Georgia could have a smoother path out of the East to the SEC Championship Game and the playoff.

One special defensive coordinator plus one special running back could lead to a very special season between the hedges.

What We Learned in Week 1

1. Alabama has a respectable QB. What about a defense vs. tempo? Blake Sims was more than fine at quarterback for Alabama in his debut, rendering Jacob Coker to mop-up quarterback. But it’s worth questioning the other side of the ball. Are Alabama’s struggles against tempo simply the new norm? West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards in Alabama’s 33-23 win, often beating a Crimson Tide secondary that was maligned last year.(One of the scores for the Mountaineers came on a kickoff return.) Alabama has allowed 20 points or more in three straight games after surrendering 20-plus points only three times in its previous 27 games. The last time Alabama allowed 20-plus points three straight games was its 2008-09 stretch against Florida (loss), Utah (loss) and Virginia Tech (win). Alabama won the national title in 2009 with a new quarterback after that period with a vulnerable defense. Stay tuned if history repeats itself.

2. UCLA’s offensive line is a major question mark. All of those people who predicted UCLA in the playoff will want to reassess. Brett Hundley and the Bruins’ offense should buy the defense a nice meal this week. Three of the Bruins’ four touchdowns came on defense. Hundley still holds the ball too long at times, but his protection was very shaky. Hundley got sacked five times and won’t last the season at this rate. UCLA only rushed for 116 yards (3.0 yards per play). “We have a lot of stuff to work on,” Hundley told reporters. No kidding. And it starts upfront.

3. No one has better QB options than Auburn. The beauty of Gus Malzahn is he caters Auburn’s offense to his quarterback’s skills. That was on display Saturday in Auburn’s game against Arkansas. With Nick Marshall suspended for a half, Jeremy Johnson completed 13 of 17 for 243 yards and two touchdowns before halftime. Then Marshall returned and promptly scored on a 19-yard run. The scary part: Auburn has a really talented freshman named Sean White behind both quarterbacks. Auburn may give up some points, but there’s little doubt it’s going to keep scoring.

4. Bo Pelini has no mercy for his brother’s old school. Nebraska-Florida Atlantic was originally supposed to be the Pelini Bowl, matching Bo against Carl. But Carl Pelini was forced out as Florida Atlantic’s coach last season amid allegations of drug use, which Carl denied. On Saturday, Nebraska pounded Florida Atlantic 55-7 with 779 total yards (498 rushing). Nebraska is an intriguing team but we probably won’t really know how good the Cornhuskers are until they play Miami on Sept. 20 and Michigan State on Oct. 4.

5. Oklahoma State is better than expected. Let's be honest: No one thought the Cowboys had a chance against No. 1 Florida State, but there they were hanging around for four quarters. That's a credit to the type of quality program Oklahoma State has become. The Cowboys have to be considered a Big 12 contender after Saturday's performance. Meanwhile, the Seminoles learned how tough it is to repeat. They'll get everyone's best shot. They barely avoided becoming the first Associated Press preseason No. 1 team to lose its opener since 1990, when Miami lost to BYU.

What Was He Thinking?

With less than 30 seconds remaining in the first half, Penn State faced a fourth-and-25 from the UCF 40-yard line while leading 10-3. James Franklin oddly went for it and quarterback Christian Hackenberg got sacked. UCF didn’t capitalize on the great field position with points before halftime, but it was a risky gamble for Franklin, who wants to be aggressive in everything he does. Yes, Hackenberg played very well in Penn State’s dramatic win. But Franklin will have to pick and choose his gambles this year given the limited talent he’s working with at Penn State.

Score of the Week

UTSA 27, Houston 7. Sleep on Larry Coker and the Roadrunners at your own peril. UTSA went into Houston’s new stadium and put a beatdown on a Houston team some people think will win the American. Highly-touted Cougars quarterback John O’Korn was picked off four times and completed only 49 percent of his passes. UTSA now heads home for an intriguing Thursday night game vs. Arizona.

Stat of the Week

North Dakota State beat an FBS opponent for the fifth straight season, knocking off Iowa State 34-14. Note to middle-tier FBS schools: Finding games is difficult, but you might want to stop scheduling North Dakota State. Iowa State joins Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado State and Kansas State as teams that have lost to the Bison since 2010. To put this in perspective, Kansas has only one more FBS win than North Dakota State since 2010.

This Week in Tempo

My weekly look at the evolving trends, successes, failures and all-around moaning about up-tempo offenses.

Through the afternoon games on Saturday, Week 1 had seen FBS teams average 73.7 plays per game, compared to 71.8 during all of 2013. Twenty-two teams had run 80 plays or more in Week 1. Six teams mind-bogglingly ran more than 90 plays: Northern Illinois (109), Texas A&M (99), Western Kentucky (96), Nevada (96), Arizona (94) and Nebraska (91). Some of the Week 1 play numbers can be attributed to teams facing weak opponents. But this trend isn’t going away. Tempo is here to stay. Either you adapt to this reality or risk getting left behind.

Group of Five Rankings

My weekly ranking of the four best teams from the non-Power 5 conferences.

No. 1 East Carolina: Blew out North Carolina Central 52-7. Learn the name Shane Carden, the Pirates’ talent quarterback. East Carolina has a great chance to make a national impression the next three weeks against South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina.

No. 2 Marshall: Tougher game than expected in a 42-27 win over Miami (Ohio) that was close in the fourth quarter. Rakeem Cato now has 33 consecutive games with a touchdown pass, five shy of the NCAA record held by Russell Wilson.

No. 3 UTSA: Delivered a convincing road win against Houston. The Roadrunners may not stay on this list all year, but they’re deserving in Week 1.

No. 4 BYU: Beating UConn isn’t exactly difficult. But a road win is a road win.

Week 2 Questions

1. Will the Big Ten make a major statement? Michigan State travels to Oregon for the biggest nonconference game early in the season — and perhaps all of 2014. You’ve got to believe the playoff selection committee will come back to this game in December when picking four teams. The Big Ten, which hasn’t won a national title since 2002 and last played for the championship in 2007, has a chance for a statement win. For fans who love X’s and O’s, Oregon’s tempo vs. Michigan State’s stingy defense should be entertaining to watch. 

2. Who gets the last Michigan-Notre Dame bragging rights for a while? It’s fitting that Notre Dame and Michigan both rolled in Week 1. Those two teams should be undefeated when they meet next week for the last time since, well, no one knows. It’s a shame Notre Dame’s new scheduling relationship with the ACC has put its series with Michigan on a hiatus. Emotions should be high in South Bend next week.

3. Is USC back? The Trojans were dominant in the first half Saturday while building a 31-7 lead over Fresno State. Cody Kessler had 309 yards passing and three touchdowns by intermission. Now the question is how that translates to playing Stanford, which lost to the Trojans last year. Stanford-USC is arguably the most compelling conference game in any league at this stage of the season.

4. Can Miami or Louisville challenge Florida State? OK, technically, this is a Week 1 question, but the Miami-Louisville game is being played on Labor Day during the second week of the season. With Clemson getting destroyed by Georgia, can Miami or Louisville emerge as a possible team to challenge Florida State in the ACC? It’s our first look at Miami freshman quarterback Brad Kaayla and a chance to see Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson again after his injury in 2013.

5. Will South Carolina bounce back? South Carolina’s loss to Texas A&M may not be the norm for the Gamecocks, but there’s no breathing room for them to recover. The Gamecocks have a tricky Week 2 game against East Carolina -- a team that could make an upper-tier bowl out of the Group of Five -- before playing Georgia on Sept. 13. An 0-3 start isn’t out of the question for Steve Spurrier.

Quote of the Week

“The guy’s a really good coach, now. Ya’ll need to fess up to that.”

— Alabama coach Nick Saban to the media about Lane Kiffin, whose offense produced 538 yards and went 9-of-16 on third downs with a first-time starting quarterback.

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