It is always one of the most centrally fascinating aspects of a college football season: not necessarily how Week 1 reshapes the landscape, but how much Week 1 offers a true indication of how teams will perform for the remainder of the campaign.
We know that college football lacks preseason games. Accordingly, the first few games of a season can and will be messy for many teams. Pressure, youth, inexperience, new coordinators, injuries — these and other constant factors in the sport can and will create volatile performances, missed reads, blown assignments, and other manifestations of inadequacies.
Sometimes, teams are able to withstand them; they win but don’t look good (Wisconsin, Clemson, Georgia). Sometimes, teams collapse and can never find their footing once things start going poorly (Oklahoma, USC). Sometimes, teams manage to shrug off early rust and flourish in the second half (Houston, Florida State, Alabama).
The essential realization to make — and retain — is that volatility is an inherent part of September football. It’s true in the NFL as well. Professional teams, with the enormous amount of roster churn they endure each year, wade through the thicket of four preseason games merely to identify their 53 best players. When the games begin to count, a new process of discovery begins. Super Bowls aren’t won in September, but they sure can be lost. The object of September football is not to look good — most teams won’t — but to get through the patchy games when they emerge. It’s the same in college football.
Teams that disintegrated in Week 1 still have a margin for error in their conference races, but they have no margin for error in the College Football Playoff chase. Re-evaluating teams after Week 1 — with data points finally replacing preseason speculation as the basis for judgment — is not a College Football Playoff exercise. It’s best seen as a simpler attempt: to determine whether Week 1 revealed the measure of a team, or if subsequent weeks will unearth different dimensions and personalities, for better or worse.
Indicators, illusions and inconvenient truths. Let’s offer a few after a wild Week 1.
ILLUSION: Northern Illinois’ defense
Wyoming, as colleague Kyle Kensing noted here, is a better team this year. Yes, it’s also true that multiple-overtime games inflate offensive statistics. Nevertheless, it’s hard to find many people who expected the Cowboys to put a 40-burger on NIU’s defense. The Huskies are a resilient, enduring program, one imbued with staying power and one of the more admirably entrenched subcultures in the FBS. Coach Rod Carey cannot be happy with his team’s performance.
Don’t expect Northern Illinois to continue to hemorrhage points and yards in the coming season. The Huskies and Carey generally address early-season problems when they emerge.
INDICATOR: Tennessee’s offense, especially Josh Dobbs
Point-blank: If Dobbs had played nervously or tentatively — with very little feel for the game and a tendency to repeat basic (and severe) bad habits — against Wisconsin or USC or Clemson, he wouldn’t be getting buried.
However, Dobbs played poorly at home against a Sun Belt team. Yes, Appalachian State is good, but let’s not pretend the Mountaineers exist on the same plane as an upper-tier Power Five team. Dobbs offered absolutely no reason to think that he has changed as a quarterback. Butch Jones doesn’t develop quarterbacks well, something Cincinnati fans are aware of.
Everything about Dobbs’ Week 1 performance suggests he’ll continue to struggle, just as he has throughout his career.
INCONVENIENT TRUTHS: Nearly every other team or player
This category is the runaway winner from Week 1. Teams didn’t perfectly mesh with preseason expectations, but they can’t be viewed too harshly — mostly because of their opponents.
It’s easy to think the worst of USC, but Alabama will undress a lot of other teams.
It’s easy to think North Carolina has slipped, but the Tar Heels were on the short end of several objectively bad calls against Georgia which turned the game around. They also didn’t get any significant 50-50 calls, either. Wait and see what the Heels do in the ACC.
It’s easy to pile on Ole Miss after allowing 33 straight points to Florida State, but the Seminoles, Jimbo Fisher, and Deondre Francois are all really, really good. Don’t write off the Rebels, who could give Alabama’s defense problems.
Oklahoma played a road game against an excellent coach (Tom Herman) and team (Houston). Bob Stoops coached very poorly in the third quarter. That said, a 109-yard (unofficial) field goal return and other weird sequences played a part in the Sooners’ demise. They host Ohio State on Sept. 17, and they have an offense more than capable of winning that game. If they pull through, the Houston loss won’t be forgotten, but it will be minimized. Given how much TCU struggled in Week 1, the Sooners are still the Big 12 favorite beyond a shadow of a doubt. (We’ll see about Baylor, which needs a test before it can be honestly evaluated.)
Wisconsin is a fascinating team after Week 1. On one hand, the offense doesn’t look very good. Bart Houston appears to be a quarterback who will need a lot of time to grow into the position. On the other hand, he won’t face a defense of LSU’s caliber in most weeks. Moreover, the level of quarterback play in the Big Ten West isn’t that great. Wisconsin could win Big Ten West games with 16-14 scores all season long, and it wouldn’t be too much of a shock.
Texas exceeded preseason expectations, and it can fairly safely be said that the Longhorns’ offense will be competent this season. However, that doesn’t mean we should expect 50-burgers on a regular basis (37 points in regulation time). The Big 12 knows how to defend spread offenses because nearly everyone in the conference uses such an offense to begin with. Texas will be good, but it’s too early to say if Texas will be great.
After Week 1, the Longhorns are yet another team shrouded in mystery, even though so much has been revealed about their quarterback (Shane Buechele) and offensive coordinator (Sterlin Gilbert).
It’s odd, isn’t it? A team exposes itself and offers clarity on many levels, and yet still remains an entity that’s hard to gauge.
Welcome to Week 1 of a college football season.