On his first drive as Alabama’s starting quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa led the Crimson Tide into the red zone and executed a play that underscored both his boundless potential and relative inexperience.
Tagovailoa faked a handoff, spun 360 degrees away from a Louisville linebacker and gathered himself to whiz a ball to the corner of the end zone as another Cardinals player dove at his legs.
The play was equal parts improvisational genius and calculated risk, as he lobbed the ball to receiver Jerry Jeudy while the Louisville cornerback turned his head – the defender assuredly had no idea he’d be victimized all week on highlight shows as the unsuspecting culprit on an exhilarating touchdown.
The moment also essentially ended the loudest positional debate of the offseason – Tua or Jalen Hurts as Alabama’s starter. Even with Hurts winning 26 of 28 games as a starter, it’s hard to envision him getting starting snaps again unless Tagovailoa gets injured. We are entering the Tua Era at Alabama, and the early returns show this could be the most talented quarterback of Nick Saban’s tenure.
Tagovailoa threw just one ball after halftime during Alabama’s 51-14 ragdolling of hapless Louisville. He finished 12-for-16 for 227 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
While Tagovailoa has essentially played just 1.5 games as the Tide’s primary quarterback, it’s not too early to get excited about what he could become. In his 12 seasons with the Crimson Tide, the highest draft pick Saban has had at quarterback is A.J. McCarron, who went in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft. The only other quarterback to get drafted was Greg McElroy, who went in the seventh round.
Tagovailoa has a long way to go to match the wins, command of the system and leadership of those Crimson Tide greats. But the flashes we saw of him on Saturday night – the arm talent, creativity and potential – certainly make it reasonable to project that he could give Alabama some dynamism at the position that it’s lacked during Saban’s tenure. Playing under new coordinator and play caller Mike Locksley, Tagovailoa showed touch on deep balls, efficiently spread the ball to playmakers and delivered some electricity to the Alabama passing game.
Hurts made a cameo in the first half and finished the game 5-of-9 passing for 70 yards. Saban threw a temper tantrum in his ESPN postgame interview when Maria Taylor asked a very fair and professional question about what answers the quarterbacks had provided with their performances on Saturday.
“I still like both guys,” he said to ESPN on the field. “I think both guys are good players. I think both guys can help our team. Why do you continually try and get me to say something that doesn’t respect one of them? I’m not going to. So quit asking.”
The questions that shrouded Alabama’s offseason will die down after Saturday night. This is Tua’s job for the immediate future, and the Tide season feels destined to again end with an appearance in the College Football Playoff.
Lane Kiffin redemption tour hits speed bump
FAU’s opening game at Oklahoma led to a stream of positive publicity for Lane Kiffin, who for a decade has been one of the most divisive coaches in college football. Fired by USC and the Raiders and removed at Alabama the week before the title game two seasons ago, Kiffin has always delivered delicious drama and questionable maturity.
Sports Illustrated went to church with Kiffin. The Athletic headlined a story: “Maturity and Transformation.”
The flurry of fluffy publicity came in part because of Kiffin’s remarkable debut season at FAU. He gambled on himself, took a paycut and revived a historically unremarkable program to a league title. It was impressive, as FAU went 11-3 and won Conference USA.
The jury is still out on how much Kiffin has changed. One thing is certain: He significantly hurt his chances at a better job after this season with a 63-14 face-plant at Oklahoma.
Some pundits even predicted that FAU could play with Oklahoma, which made the tenor of the loss more embarrassing. FAU didn’t belong in the same timezone with the Sooners. The final could have been worse, as Oklahoma led 42-0 at the half.
Athletic directors may be able to overlook Kiffin’s brashness. But nothing hurts a rising coaching candidate like a loss on a big stage. (Troy’s Neal Brown had one, too, as the Trojans fell to Boise State 56-20). Winning will ultimately determine Kiffin’s fate, and Saturday did little to help him develop momentum.
Is Northwestern a Big Ten contender?
Can Northwestern contend in the Big Ten with some of the traditional powers – Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State – looking pedestrian? Well, they have the longest win streak of any Power Five team. They extended it to nine games with a gritty win at Purdue on Thursday night.
The Wildcats could well shape up to be Big Ten contenders, as they have what the school is calling the best home schedule in history. Hard to top a home slate that includes games against Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. (Northwestern’s most difficult road game is at Michigan State on Oct. 6, who it beat in triple overtime last year.)
The Wildcats have a veteran defensive front seven and tailback Jeremy Larkin looked comfortable as the feature back against Purdue with 143 yards on 26 carries.
But the biggest variable from the game will be how coach Pat Fitzgerald uses Clayton Thorson the rest of the season. Thorson was on what school officials told the Chicago Tribune was a “pitch count” that was medically pre-determined after an ACL tear. He shared snaps with walk-on TJ Green. (Green closed the game, which Northwestern iced because of a foolish unnecessary roughness penalty on Purdue defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal).
If Thorson can recover and ditch his pitch count, don’t be surprised to see the Wildcats keep surging.
UCF still looking like national champs
There’s still room on the McKenzie Milton for Heisman bandwagon. The dynamic UCF junior quarterback finished eighth in the Heisman race last season and showed signs on Thursday night that he’s on a higher trajectory this season. Milton threw five touchdown passes in a 56-17 blowout of Connecticut on Thursday, completing 24-of-32 passes for 346 yards. UCF has won 14 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation.
Coming into Josh Heupel’s debut, some UCF fans scoffed at the notion that he’d run UCF’s offense at a higher tempo than former coach Scott Frost. Heupel’s offense comes from the Baylor lineage and Frost’s the Oregon, the two standard-bearers for tempo in the spread-offense ancestry. The most impressive statistic of the night may have been that none of UCF’s eight scoring drives lasted longer than 2:39.
Look for that tempo to continue to rev up, which is bad news for both North Carolina and Pittsburgh, which appear on UCF’s September schedule.
Wake Forest might have a dynamic offense
Few players authored more impressive quarterback debuts than Wake Forest true freshman Sam Hartman. He earned the starting job in the wake of the suspension of dynamic veteran quarterback Kendall Hinton, who’ll miss the first three games. Hartman led Wake Forest to an overtime victory at Tulane, completing 31-of-51 passes for 378 yards. Tulane coach Willie Fritz stacked the box and dared Hartman to beat him, and he did just that.
A majority of the passing production went to an established star, Greg Dortch (12 catches for 149), and a rising one Sage Surratt (11 catches for 150 yards). Wake’s escape sets them up for another solid season, which will pivot with a Thursday home game against Boston College on Sept. 13.
Bobby Petrino’s hot seat at Louisville
Few coaches had a worse night than Louisville’s Bobby Petrino. His new defensive coordinator gave up 51 points, as Brian VanGorder picked up where we last remembered seeing him as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator – at the intersection of overmatched and inept.
While it’s no sin to lose to Alabama, the manner in which Louisville did it will raise concerns for Petrino’s future. He has three of his family members among the 10 on-field coaches on his staff – a son and two in-laws – making $650,000. Two of those are defensive coaches. When you make a questionable defensive coordinator hire, stick him with two of your relatives and then give up 51 points, it brings the head coach’s negligence of that side of the ball into florescent view. (Also not helping matters is tight ends coach Chris Klenakis, who got arrested for DUI in August and, according to the police report, walked into oncoming traffic and was almost hit by a truck. He’s on leave)
Petrino’s buyout is around $6 million after this year, which isn’t a lot of money at a place looking to make a change in culture. (And with local hero Jeff Brohm sitting out there.) Look for this embarrassing Louisville effort to increase that drumbeat.
Ohio State delivers without Urban Meyer on sidelines
As the controversy surrounding former Ohio State assistant Zach Smith boiled over in Columbus last month, a quiet confidence permeated the Ohio State football staff. No player earned more consistent praise than redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins. When Haskins signed with Ohio State, Urban Meyer called him the most talented quarterback he’d ever signed. That seemed hyperbolic for a guy who recruited Tim Tebow and Cam Newton, but the early flashes show why there was so much praise.
Haskins showed out for interim coach Ryan Day, tossing five touchdown passes and finishing 22-for-30 for 313 yards in the Buckeyes’ 77-31 blowout of Oregon State. “He’s obviously a gifted passer,” Day told reporters after the game. “And he does that really, really well.”
Meyer will return to Ohio State on Monday to resume his coaching duties. While he won’t coach the next two games, he’ll be in the building and resume preparing the Buckeyes and leading the staff.
Could this performance and the return of Meyer deflate some of the drama that’s surrounded the program for the past month?
Rest of Big Ten East falters
The other high-end contenders in the Big Ten East didn’t fare so well on Sunday. Yahoo’s Pat Forde was in South Bend to chronicle Michigan’s continued struggles on offense in their 24-17 loss to Notre Dame. (It took 57 minutes for Michigan to score an offensive touchdown.) Michigan State barely squeaked out a victory against Utah State on Friday night, as the Spartans trailed late in the fourth quarter before scoring with two minutes remaining to win 38-31. Penn State also got taken into overtime against Appalachian State before prevailing, 45-38. (It was the 11th anniversary of Appalachian State’s upset of Michigan in the Big House, and somewhere former Mountaineers quarterback Armanti Edwards was watching his alma mater with a smile.)
What do Michigan’s loss and the two near upsets mean in the big picture? Likely more skepticism toward the Big Ten East. Michigan’s loss isn’t a big factor in perception, as they were underdogs. Michigan State has a rich history of shaking off early lethargy for 10-win seasons, and this is expected to be one of the better Utah State teams in years. The most concerning part may be Penn State squandering a 14-point second-half lead to go to overtime. It’s dangerous to make too many sweeping generalizations off a small sample size, but the supposed vaunted depth Big Ten East will be looked at a bit more cynically from this point forward.
Auburn picks up season’s first signature win
No one picked up a better victory on Saturday than No. 9 Auburn, which survived a slugfest with No. 6 Washington, 21-16. This will be the victory from the opening weekend that potentially has the most juice in the College Football Playoff race, as it’s a marquee out-of-conference victory. (This means if Auburn loses to Alabama and doesn’t play for the SEC title, they’d have one of the best résumé victories in the country.)
There’s a lot of ball left to play before that becomes relevant. In the short term, there’s a black cloud over the Pac-12. Not only did its top contender lose, but UCLA lost to Cincinnati in Chip Kelly’s debut, USC looked pedestrian against UNLV and Arizona got pushed around by BYU, losing 28-23, and the league’s top Heisman quarterback candidate, Khalil Tate, went 17-of-34 passing for 197 yards and a TD.
College football delivers … on and off the field
There were two touching moments worth mentioning on Saturday. The first came in Maryland’s 34-29 upset No. 23 Texas. On Maryland’s opening offensive play from scrimmage, they took the field with 10 players to honor deceased former lineman Jordan McNair. Texas respectfully declined the penalty in the spirit of the tribute. The victory marked the second straight season that Texas fell to Maryland in the opener. For Maryland, the victory by interim coach Matt Canada indicates the program has stayed strong internally in the wake of McNair’s death. (Head coach D.J. Durkin got suspended after an ESPN report alleged a “toxic culture” in the Maryland program. There’s no timetable on his future.)
The other touching moment came in Athens, Georgia, during halftime of Georgia’s 45-0 blowout of Austin Peay. Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s wife, Mary Beth Smart, offered a $5,000 check from the Kirby Smart Family Foundation to the family of Austin Peay offensive line coach Joshua Eargle.
In the weeks leading up to the game, there’d been a GoFundMe page started by Eargle’s family. It was dedicated to raising money for his daughter, 5-year-old Landrey Eargle, who was born with a rare genetic mutation that has required extensive and expensive medical care. (She’s the only person in the United States and the fourth in the world to have the mutation.) With the family having emptied their bank accounts, 401Ks and getting crushed with credit card debt, they reached out to the public for help.
Georgia fans, and countless others around college football, responded to where there’s been more than $136,800 raised for Landrey Eargle’s medical care. (This story by Joe Rexrode deftly sums up the family’s journey.)
“It’s already just changed her life,” said Kristen Eargle, Landrey’s mom, prior to the game. “It’s lifted a burden and moved a mountain that was unmovable. It’s humbling. I’ll cry off and on. I’ll be in the store and I’ll be crying. It’s life changing.”
Georgia fans provided a large percentage of the money raised for Landrey, but Kristen added that fans from all over chipped in: Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama, Memphis and so many other. “College football can be divisive on Saturdays,” she said. “It can also be so unifying and empowering.”
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