(Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football – end-zone celebration safety gear sold separately in Athens):
JOHNNY FOOTBALL – IMPORTANT PAWN IN A FAR BIGGER GAME
After escaping serious NCAA penalty last week, Johnny Manziel (1) made a mouthy return to college football in the second half of Texas A&M's 52-31 victory over Rice on Saturday. He ran through and passed over the Owls following his one-half suspension, but it was the trash talk and gesticulating that left everyone annoyed – and wondering what it will take for the kid to get it.
He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct once, and probably should have been flagged a second time. He appeared to blow off his coach on the sideline. Even some Manziel supporters were turned off by his act.
It is reasonable to deduce that A&M has ceded control of its football program and its much-valued public image to an emotional, impulsive, coddled 20-year-old. But understanding why it might do such a thing requires a peek at the bigger picture.
Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel and Kevin Sumlin (2) came together at a most crucial moment in school history. The Aggies were breaking their 97-year league affiliation with most of the rest of the state of Texas, first in the Southwest Conference (1915-1995) and then in the Big 12 (1996-2012). The departure to the Southeastern Conference was an audacious move driven in no small measure by the opportunity to tell arrogant rival Texas (3) that much-derided A&M could stand on its own, and one day would be the pre-eminent university in the Lone Star State.
The night before A&M played its first SEC game last September, board of regents member Richard Box said, "When we do play [Texas] again, we'll be the controlling brand."
Don't underestimate the importance of that as the motive behind the move into a new era and a new league. But there was some collateral damage along the way: a lot of heavily invested A&M backers wanted Mike Sherman out as football coach before going into the SEC, and when athletic director Bill Byrne opposed that, he was overridden. Sherman was out, and Byrne retired a few months later.
In came Sumlin, a talented young guy with just four years head-coaching experience at Houston in Conference USA. His offense was the perfect vehicle for the redshirt freshman from Kerrville, Texas. Sumlin plugged in Manziel at quarterback, lit the fuse and set it off.
The result was beyond the Aggies' wildest dreams. After hearing how hard it would be to compete in the SEC, A&M went 11-2 and smashed former Big 12 rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. It upset defending/eventual national champion Alabama. And Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
Almost overnight, the quarterback became central to the master plan. While Sumlin was stocking the roster with his players, Manziel would be the guy to make the league transition work – heck, he could make them a national title contender overnight. An ambitious, identity-altering university decision has come to rest in large part on the slight shoulders, fleet feet and mercurial mind of Johnny Football.
After becoming a celebrity, Manziel also became something of a pain in the ass during the offseason: tweeting that he couldn't wait to get out of College Station; leaving the Manning Passing Academy under cloudy circumstances; landing himself in an NCAA investigation of autographed merchandise. It was the last of those things that resulted in his half-game suspension against Rice, a flimsy penalty that was just one more example of Johnny being Johnny with little or no repercussion.
Along the way, A&M leaders have repeatedly stepped in to prop up Manziel. They kept him away from the media for most of last season, and he's been off-limits this fall since news of the NCAA investigation broke. Sumlin, immersed in something much larger than he ever experienced at Houston, thinks the scrutiny and criticism of a young collegian has been excessive. The chancellor piped up, in mid-investigation, to declare Manziel innocent.
So they are all-in for Johnny Football at Texas A&M, with no apparent ability to rein him in. Not just because he is the best player on the team. Given the timing and the context, he is the most important player the school has ever had.
So your team bombed, huh? You spent all offseason buying into the hype, believing how good your team would be, investing emotionally in a great season to come … only to be let down with the opening game. And now you're freaking out.
Take heart. It could be worse.
You could be this guy, crying on live radio after the game. There is no hope for that poor fool.
Assuming you are not that guy, The Dash is here to assess how hard certain fan bases should be panicking heading out of the first week of the season and into week two.
Georgia (4). What happened: lost at Clemson, 38-35. Which is not so bad. It also lost leading receiver Malcolm Mitchell for the season to a blown knee suffered while celebrating with running back Todd Gurley after a touchdown. Which is bad.
What's next: South Carolina between the hedges Saturday.
Acceptable panic level, on a scale of 1 to Crybaby: 5. No, Mark Richt does not need to be fired – not now, and not if the Bulldogs lose to the Gamecocks to start 0-2. (That happened in 2011, and Georgia responded by winning its next 10 and taking the SEC East). An 0-2 start would hurt, given the preseason hopes of contending for the national title, but it was a legitimate possibility when opening with two top-10 opponents. The only people who didn't know the risk involved with playing this schedule were willfully deluding themselves. And if Georgia beats South Carolina, it remains very much in the national title picture.
Alabama (5). What happened: failed to utterly dominate Virginia Tech in a 35-10 victory, compiling just 206 yards of total offense and inhibiting the Heisman Trophy chances of quarterback AJ McCarron and running back T.J. Yeldon.
Acceptable panic level, on a scale of 1 to Crybaby: 2. The Dash talked to half a dozen Crimson Tide fans Saturday night and they were unanimously appalled by their team's play. That just goes to show how spoiled they've become by the level of excellence attained while winning two straight national titles and three of the last four. The offensive line is a legitimate concern, but rebuilt offensive lines often are the slowest units to coalesce. With two weeks to prepare for Texas A&M, expect to see a much better blocking effort in that game – and those that follow.
Nebraska (6). What happened: gave up 602 yards to Wyoming in a narrow, 37-34 victory.
Acceptable panic level, on a scale of 1 to Crybaby: 6.5. Some credit should be given to underrated Cowboys quarterback Brett Smith, but this is yet another porous defensive performance by the Cornhuskers. They ended last season being gouged for 70 points and 640 yards by Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, then 45 points and 589 yards by Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Even with a relatively easy schedule, a defense that bad will cost the Huskers a few games. The mystifying part is that sixth-year coach Bo Pelini is a defensive guy, but that unit has gotten progressively worse since 2009.
American Athletic Conference (7). What happened: horrific losses for South Florida and Connecticut, and not much to be impressed by beyond the reliable suspects (Louisville and Cincinnati).
Acceptable panic level, on a scale of 1 to Crybaby: 7. Nobody was predicting greatness from the American, but it under-performed against even modest expectations. Already believed to be a bad hire after two losing seasons, Connecticut's Paul Pasqualoni removed all doubt with a 15-point loss to Towson. But the real shocker was the complete face-plant by South Florida in the first game of the much-ballyhooed Willie Taggart Era. The Bulls totally imploded against McNeese State. Those losses figure to adversely affect computer rankings for the entire league.
Mountain West Conference (8). What happened: Carnage. Mountain Division favorite Boise State suffered its worst loss in years, routed by Washington. West Division favorite Fresno State needed overtime at home to survive Rutgers. San Diego State was drilled by Eastern Illinois. Colorado State was boat-raced by Colorado. And so forth.
Acceptable panic level, on a scale of 1 to Crybaby: 9. No league had a worse start than the newly expanded, 12-team Mountain West. Boise State's offensive demise continues post-Kellen Moore. San Diego State was punked by a team that lost 58-10 the last time it played an SDSU – that was South Dakota State, in the last game of 2012. And the league's dregs (New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State) look as dreadful as ever.
Ohio State (9). What happened: The Buckeyes were sporadic in beating Buffalo and got little help from future opponents.
Acceptable panic level, on a scale of 1 to Crybaby: 3. With 94 yards in penalties, a pick-six and plenty of cramps to deal with, Ohio State didn't appear prepared to sustain its effort for a full 60 minutes against an outmanned opponent. But the bigger problem could be the hits to an already suspect strength of schedule. The Buckeyes' next opponent is San Diego State, coming off the above-mentioned debacle against Eastern Illinois. After visiting California (0-1), there is a game against power-ratings anchor Florida A&M. November opponents Purdue and Illinois look softer now than they did last week, and October opponent Iowa is 0-1 after losing to Northern Illinois.
Anyone with an FCS opponent (10) on a future schedule. What happened: seven schools from the bottom half of Division I rose up to smite the FBS oppressor class.
Acceptable panic level, on a scale of 1 to Crybaby: 5. "It took every ounce of every minute in that sucker to get it done," Eastern Washington Coach Beau Baldwin said after his team's 49-46 victory over Oregon State. The true surprise is that several of Eastern Washington's brethren did not need every ounce or every minute – they dominated. McNeese State won by 32, Eastern Illinois by 21, Towson by 15. North Dakota State out-rushed defending Big 12 co-champion Kansas State 215-41 in upsetting the Wildcats. Most of FCS is no match for the power programs, but the top tier is dangerous. Which means the following teams are on upset alert this week: SMU (hosting No. 3 Montana State); Texas A&M (hosting No. 4 Sam Houston State); Colorado (hosting No. 7 Central Arkansas); Central Michigan (hosting No. 11 New Hampshire); and Fresno State (hosting No. 12 Cal Poly).
West Virginia (11). What happened: Scraped and wheezed past William & Mary, not unlike the team that lost six of its final eight games last year.
Acceptable panic level, on a scale of 1 to Crybaby: 4.5. As pointed out above, not all FCS teams are pushovers. But the Mountaineers were fortunate to win this game, rallying from 10 points behind at halftime and not scoring the winning touchdown until 3:22 remained. With a trip to Oklahoma up next, West Virginia has to improve immediately to avoid being trampled.
Virginia Tech (12). What happened: Lost 35-10 to Alabama and fifth-year senior quarterback Logan Thomas struggled.
Acceptable panic level, on a scale of 1 to Crybaby: 6. The Tide has damaged the psyche of a lot of quarterbacks in recent years, but Thomas was brutal Saturday. He completed just five of 26 passes and had his one interception returned for a touchdown. The Hokies receivers were every bit as bad, dropping at least four passes, but this was not what anyone expected from an NFL prospect. He is the key to Tech's season offensively and has to play better than that.
OPTIMISTS CLUB Then there are those on the happy side of the Labor Day weekend. Among those who should be feeling full of confidence after week one:
Clemson (14). The Tigers won the big game of the weekend, setting themselves up for what could be their best season since winning the national title in 1982. This should be a program that is now mature enough not to sleepwalk through what should be five straight games as a major favorite before hosting Florida State on Oct. 19. (Toughest test in that stretch: a Thursday night game at North Carolina State on Sept. 19.) After so many years of teasing and then falling short, it could be Clemson’s time.
Washington (15). On paper this looked like Steve Sarkisian’s best team. Then on the field it looked like it, too, steamrolling Boise State 38-6. Sarkisian needs to get over the seven-win plateau the Huskies have been stuck on three straight years, and this victory will certainly help make that a more attainable goal. Now they have to win some games on the road, which hasn’t been easy for Washington (6-21 the last five years).
Virginia (16). The Cavaliers have been all over the place in three years under Mike London: 4-8, then 8-5, then 4-8 again. The bounce-back to a winning record got a big boost by beating BYU in Charlottesville on Saturday – that’s despite being outgained by 139 yards and being a minus-1 in the turnover department. Following that up with a shocking upset of Oregon at home Saturday looks like too much to ask, but at least six wins and a bowl game is within reach.
Jordan Matthews (17). The Vanderbilt wide receiver was the best player on the field in the Commodores’ wild, 39-35 loss to Mississippi last Thursday night. Matthews had 10 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown, and his 42-yard reception on fourth-and-18 looked for a moment like it would win the game for Vandy. That came four plays after Matthews was absolutely leveled on a catch over the middle by Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt – a shot to the midsection that left Matthews vomiting in the sideline before returning to the game. “I’ll be honest, I put a lot into that tackle,” Prewitt said admiringly. “For him to get back up and come back in the game, that’s a real leader.”
Mississippi freshmen (18). No fewer than five rookie Rebels played key roles against Vanderbilt: defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, cornerback Tony Conner, offensive linemen Laremy Tunsel and Austin Golson and the most notable of the bunch, receiver Laquon Treadwell. He skewered Vanderbilt from the slot most of the night, making nine catches for 82 yards. There was a ton of hype about the Ole Miss freshmen, and it appears to be backed by plenty of substance.
Jameis Winston (19). Speaking of living up to the hype: the Florida State freshman quarterback was heralded as the next superstar at the position, and he played like it in an emphatic win at Pittsburgh on Monday night. Winston was 25 of 27 passing for 356 yards and four touchdowns, and he ran for another score. Manziel blazed the trail for a redshirt freshman to win the Heisman, and Winston put up numbers that will place him in the lead pack after week one.
Players who weren’t household names at the start of the weekend but had people talking about them by the end:
Christion Jones (20), Alabama. The big-play threat for the Crimson Tide was supposed to be Amari Cooper – and he’s still all of that. But Jones and his 256 all-purpose yards are what separated Alabama from a tense opener against Virginia Tech. Jones scored touchdowns returning a punt and a kickoff, and had one on a reception.
Collin Ellis (21), Northwestern. The linebacker made just nine tackles last year, but after getting in the starting lineup this season he made an immediate impact in the Wildcats’ thrilling win at California. Ellis grabbed two tipped passes and returned them for touchdowns, one covering 56 yards and the other 40. The second of the two iced the game.
DaVaris Daniels (22), Notre Dame. He showed signs of what was to come last season, with 31 catches as a redshirt freshman. But he’d never gotten in the end zone until Saturday, when he caught two touchdown passes – both 32-yarders – in the first five minutes against Temple. Teamed with senior T.J. Jones, the Irish have a pair of quality targets on the outside for quarterback Tommy Rees.
Paul Richardson (23), Colorado. The fleet wideout sat out last year with a torn ACL, and Sunday we found out how much coach Jon Embree must have missed him in a 1-11 season that ended with a pink slip. Richardson smoked Colorado State for 208 receiving yards, including a first-quarter touchdown of 82 yards and a fourth-quarter score of 75 yards. CSU coach Jim McElwain said before the game that Richardson was faster than anyone he saw as an assistant at Alabama. That sounded like excessive praise – until kickoff.
Daniel Jenkins (24), Arizona. The nation’s leading rusher in 2012 was Ka’Deem Carey of Arizona. But when coach Rich Rodriguez suspended him for the Wildcats’ opener against Northern Arizona, it created an opportunity for the senior Jenkins. He seized the chance by rushing for 139 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries, and added a receiving touchdown as well.
Dashette Emanuela de Paula (25). She could steal any scene you put her in.
The rivalries are all in the eyes of the beholder this week – subject to interruption, discontinuation and some disagreement. The list:
Notre Dame-Michigan (26). This will be the last meeting in Ann Arbor, at the behest of the Fighting Irish. Or Frightened Irish, if you ask Wolverines coach Brady Hoke. He said in May that Notre Dame was “chickening out” of a series that began in 1887 but was only played 11 times until the late 1970s. Since then it has been almost annual, and often excellent. But Notre Dame is more interested in maintaining its older (and easier) rivalries with Purdue and Michigan State, prompting coach Brian Kelly to say Sunday, “I really haven’t seen it as one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivalries.” That re-aggravated some in the maize and blue camp. Hoke was asked Monday whether he still stands by his May comments. His response: “I said it.” If this rivalry regrettably has to end, at least it’s going out with some spice.
Florida-Miami (27). The two programs met every year but one from 1938-87, but since then they see each other much more often on the recruiting trail. This will be just the fourth regular-season meeting in the last 25 years, and it is the last one scheduled. It is another in a compelling series of ACC vs. SEC matchups this season. The two fan bases disdain each other, but as rivalries go, this one is headed for dormancy.
South Carolina-Georgia (28). The Bulldogs are frankly overbooked with rivalries. There is the Georgia Tech game at the end of every season. There is Auburn-Georgia, which will have its 117th renewal this November, making it the oldest rivalry in the South. And there is the annual Jacksonville Cocktail Party game against Florida. But the former pushover Gamecocks are muscling their way into Big Rival status as well – certainly since old nemesis Steve Spurrier arrived in Columbia. Spurrier, who used to torture Georgia when he was at Florida, is 4-4 against the 'Dawgs as coach at South Carolina – including three wins in a row. A fourth-straight victory over the silver britches would eliminate them from national title contention – and would further Spurrier’s status as one of the arch villains in Georgia football history.
New Mexico-UTEP (29). Who cares, you ask? Several thousand fans (and a few thousand tumbleweeds) in the Southwest care, thank you. The only team New Mexico has played more than the Miners is New Mexico State. The only team UTEP has play more than the Lobos is – well, what do you know – also New Mexico State. This will be just the sixth meeting this century, though, as the two programs have taken different conference paths since their days in the WAC. One thing is sure: they both really need the win.
Bowling Green-Kent State (30). You want an actual, vibrant rivalry? One with a past, a present and a future? This is it, friend. They play for an actual trophy, however lamely named: the Anniversary Award, which was first given out to the winner in 1985 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of both schools. This is the 81st meeting of the two Mid-American Conference stalwarts. And it happens to be a pretty interesting game, with Bowling Green coming off a surprising romp over Tulsa and the Golden Flashes 1-0 under new coach Paul Haynes. It may not be the Iron Bowl – but on Sept. 7, it will be as close as we get.
FLOPPING: AN IRONIC TWIST
New California coach Sonny Dykes (31) brought the up-tempo, no-huddle offense to Berkeley this offseason. It did not take long for controversy to follow.
Dykes was angry Saturday night, thinking Northwestern was feigning injuries to slow down his team.
"It affected it a lot," he said. "You know it was just unusual, it seemed like every time we had a first down they would have an injury. I hadn't seen that, didn't expect to see that, was disappointed that I saw that but that's the way it goes sometimes."
The response from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald (32) was pugnacious: "If anyone were to question the integrity of myself, our program, or our players, I question theirs.”
The irony here is that Cal was the first school to draw attention for feigning injury to slow down a no-huddle team, doing it to Oregon (33) late in the tenure of former coach Jeff Tedford. Now the Golden Bears are the ones angry at other teams for allegedly taking a dive.
A first-time head coach undoubtedly envisions it all going smoothly in his first game in charge. The plan is perfect, the execution precise, the victory assured.
Except it doesn’t often work out like that. Three guys who found out in painful fashion how hard it can be when the buck stops with you:
Todd Monken (34), Southern Mississippi. He arrived with nice credentials as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, but in his first game the Golden Eagles committed six turnovers and scored 15 points in a loss to FBS provisional member Texas State. That’s now 13 losses in a row for a once-proud program, with consecutive trips to Nebraska, Arkansas and Boise State the rest of this month. If Southern Miss is ever going to get another win – Monken’s first as a head coach – don’t expect it before October.
Mark Stoops (35), Kentucky. Having a famous last name didn’t help much on the scoreboard, as the Wildcats trailed for nearly 56 minutes in a no-fluke beating from Western Kentucky. Kentucky’s touted return to the “Air Raid” offense netted 16 passing yards in the first half. Stoops, a defensive coach, saw his unit exploited for nearly 500 yards of offense – with no trickeration involved. The Hilltoppers simply lined up and tore up the Wildcats. That doesn’t bode well for SEC play.
Paul Petrino (36), Idaho. While big brother Bobby was enjoying his return from exile (see below), little brother Paul was getting whipped by North Texas 40-6. Paul Petrino may have the worst job in FBS football. It certainly looked that way Saturday, when the Vandals were routed by a program with an active streak of eight straight losing seasons.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Bobby Petrino (37). After a year away, the best coach this side of Bill Walsh at scripting the start of a game looked like he’d never left the sidelines. His Western Kentucky Hilltoppers went 75 yards in nine plays for a touchdown, with an anonymous quarterback in his first start completing all five of his passes. It rolled on from there, as WKU upset Kentucky 35-26. He is back, football fans. And Tennessee has a right to be nervous Saturday when the Hilltoppers visit Rocky Top.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Willie Taggart (38). The heralded new South Florida coach's description of his debut at the school: “piss poor.” There were other unvarnished appraisals of the rout at the hands of FCS McNeese State as well: “We folded,” “nightmare” and “awful” all came from the coach’s mouth. All were accurate. Rarely does a coach under-deliver this dramatically on the school’s preseason sell job.
When hungry in the delightful college town of Athens, Ga., site of this week’s South Carolina-Georgia showdown, drop in on The Capital Room (39), a swell downtown gastropub. Order the pork belly mac-n-cheese and a Terrapin Hopsecutioner (40) beer and prepare for a religious experience.