10 takeaways: Did Tennessee or Florida State have a worse Week 1 debacle?

Ten takeaways from an adventurous, occasionally thrilling and sometimes stupid first real weekend of college football:

1. It could be worse, Florida State. You could be Tennessee.

We’ll get to the Seminoles in a minute. First, we must address the worst defeat of the weekend and perhaps the worst defeat in Tennessee football history. Even by the absolutely dismal standards of the past decade, as the program has slid into irrelevance, this 38-30 loss to Georgia State was Rock Bottom for Rocky Top.

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The Panthers were coming off a 2-10 season and were picked to finish last in their division of the Sun Belt. Given the Sun Belt’s bottom-feeder status, that put Georgia State squarely in the running to be considered the worst of the 130 teams in the FBS subdivision. And yet the Panthers just went into Neyland Stadium and humiliated Tennessee, while collecting a $950,000 guarantee check along the way.

Georgia State owned the second half, racking up 24 points and 242 yards after halftime. The Volunteers looked soft, lethargic and demoralized defensively as the half wore on and the boos became more pronounced from a disgusted home crowd. Their touchdown with two seconds left made the final score deceptively close in what was the program’s first loss to a non-Power Five opponent since 2008 against Wyoming.

Forgive John Currie and Greg Schiano if they took a schadenfreude-tinged moment Saturday to enjoy Tennessee’s extended misery. This debacle is an outgrowth of letting a mob run the athletic department.

Currie was the athletic director who tried to hire Schiano in 2017, only to be thwarted by vigilante fans who exploited a thirdhand accusation about Schiano pertaining to his time at Penn State and the Jerry Sundusky scandal. In reality, the mob simply thought Schiano wouldn’t win at Tennessee — so they not only derailed the hire but started the push to oust Currie and replace him with Phil Fulmer, a comfortable name with no administrative experience.

Fulmer then hired a guy with no head-coaching experience in Jeremy Pruitt. Thus far the result is a 5-8 record — par for the pitiful course of late in Knoxville, but a hoped-for rebound season got off to a complete bust of a start. Although the tire-fire nature of much of the SEC East offers hope for better days ahead, Tennessee must pull itself up from a new low.

Tennessee Volunteers fans during the second half of the game against the Georgia State Panthers at Neyland Stadium. Georgia State won 38-30. (USAT)
Tennessee Volunteers fans during the second half of the game against the Georgia State Panthers at Neyland Stadium. Georgia State won 38-30. (USAT)

2. Now, about Florida State …

Another coach got his second season off to a nightmare start when Willie Taggart’s Seminoles blew an 18-point lead at home and lost to a Boise State team starting a true freshman quarterback. This continued the shame spiral from 2018, when the Seminoles finished 5-7 and did not go to a bowl game for the first time since 1979.

For 26 minutes, college football Twitter was singing hosannas to new Florida State offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, crediting him with being the magic elixir that cured a sickly offense. The Seminoles had 31 points on the board with four minutes left in the first half — but there was some fool’s gold involved in that. FSU had scoring plays of 75, 58 and 38 yards, yet it was 0-for-4 on third-down conversions in the first half.

When the big plays stopped coming, the offense bogged down completely. The Noles had 49 second-half yards and four first downs while finishing the game 1-of-12 on third-down conversions. So much for the magical Briles makeover.

Plenty of Florida State fans would love to fire Taggart right this instant, but it’s not realistic financially. His buyout reportedly would be $17 million, which is crazy money, especially given what it would take to buy out the rest of the staff and then hire an entire new staff.

Unless the school holds the most lucrative bake sale in history to raise money for that buyout, they’re stuck with Taggart. Make the best of it.

3. Hugh Freeze added another chapter to the most bizarre ongoing coaching tenure in the sport.

His Liberty debut came from a hospital bed that was wheeled into the coaches’ box at Williams Stadium, from which he oversaw a shutout of his Flames by Syracuse, 24-0. Other coaches may have simply sat this one out following back surgery earlier this month to deal with what he described as a potentially life-threatening staph infection. Not Hugh.

Freeze had been out of the spotlight since summer 2017, and this is a man who craves some spotlight. So there was no way lying prone in bed was going to keep him away from the stadium Saturday — or the postgame news conference, which he did via remote, and which he did while clutching a plastic bottle of Coke Zero in his right hand.

Product placement to the end, Hugh. Even while flat on your back.

Freeze is, of course, at Liberty because he sabotaged his career with phone calls to escort services and was fired by Mississippi, where his program also was hit with severe NCAA sanctions. A couple of Southeastern Conference schools were interested in hiring him as an offensive coordinator last year, but league commissioner Greg Sankey quietly put the kibosh on that. Liberty, the university founded by evangelical Christian Jerry Falwell Sr. and run by Jerry Jr., gave fellow outspoken Christian Freeze his second chance.

It began with a loss, and a shutout, and the flat-out strange arrangement to coach from bed in the press box. This may have been the most Hugh Freeze thing yet.

Syracuse coach Dino Babers acknowledges Liberty coach Hugh Freeze, who followed the game from the coaches box in a hospital bed.
Syracuse coach Dino Babers acknowledges Liberty coach Hugh Freeze, who followed the game from the coaches box in a hospital bed.

4. The biggest mover-shaker conference was the Mountain West.

The league has slumped in recent years, after TCU and Utah departed and with Boise State not where it was during the Chris Petersen glory days. But what an August the MWC has had, hanging four Power Five skins on the wall.

It started with Hawaii’s dramatic Week Zero upset of Arizona. It continued Friday night with Nevada’s stunning rally to beat Purdue (more on that below). It peaked with the Boise comeback at Florida State, as true freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier engineered a big comeback and threw for 407 yards, looking like the school's most promising quarterback since Kellen Moore. And then the MWC added one more when Wyoming rallied from an early 14-0 hole to steamroll Missouri for 297 rushing yards in a 37-31 triumph.

All four would qualify as the best wins those programs have had in several years.

All told, the Mountain West was 9-3 to start the season. Even San Jose State, which hadn’t won a non-conference game since 2017 and hadn’t won a season opener since ’15, got in the win column.

There was one sobering moment for the conference, when New Mexico coach Bob Davie was hospitalized with a "serious medical incident" after the Lobos defeated Sam Houston State. The 64-year-old Davie was in distress during the game, according to the Associated Press, and was taken by ambulance from the stadium afterward.

5. The best day of Brandon Talton’s football life began innocently enough.

The freshman walk-on didn’t even know he would be Nevada’s starting kicker against Purdue on Friday night until that morning.

By day’s end, he would be a Wolf Pack legend and the first sudden hero of the 2019 college football season. The true freshman delivered the first game-winning kick of his career at any level, and also the longest kick of his career at any level — a 56-yard bomb on the final play to beat the Boilermakers 34-31.

That capped a fierce Nevada rally from 17 points down late in the third quarter and 14 down in the middle of the fourth quarter. And while Purdue certainly did its part to throw away the game with a minus-5 turnover margin, it took one hell of a kick to win it.

It actually was a second chance. Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm called timeout to freeze Talton, but holder Kaleb Fossum knew that was coming and gave the freshman some advice: Kick it anyway. He missed, but it was helpful.

“That let me gauge the distance,” Talton told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. “[Brohm] gave me more confidence doing that.”

When the second kick went through, Talton took off in a jubilant sprint but had an existential question running through his mind: “Should I keep running? Or should I just dive on the ground and get this over with?”

Talton took the dive, his teammates swarmed, and a hero was made — but the night only got better a few minutes later in the locker room. That’s when coach Jay Norvell presented Talton the game ball and announced that he was putting him on scholarship.

That wasn’t the only clutch play of Talton’s first night of college football. In the third quarter, he lined up for his first career field goal only to see that holder Fossum wasn’t on the field. Talton kept his cool and did not call timeout, waiting for Fossum to sprint in late. The senior knelt down with his chinstrap unbuttoned, called for the snap just before a delay of game penalty, and Talton nailed the kick.

Not only were the points vital, but so was saving that timeout to help the late comeback.

“If that didn’t happen,” Talton said, “there’s no last-minute kick.”

North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown celebrates his win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Getty)
North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown celebrates his win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Getty)

6. The return of the Mack.

The first ESPN postgame question to Mack Brown — one of the most media-savvy coaches to ever schmooze a sideline reporter — was greeted by near silence. Because he was trying not to cry on national TV.

It had been six years since Brown coached. He’s 68 years old. And his hiring at North Carolina was greeted with plenty of skepticism about whether he could conjure up any of the old glory. So, yeah, there was a lot bubbling up within Brown after his Tar Heels rallied to upset South Carolina, 24-20.

The Tar Heels, coming off a 2-9 season, were rather predictably down 20-9 late in the third quarter. But Brown’s decision to start true freshman quarterback Sam Howell paid off with touchdown drives of 98 and 95 yards to secure the win.

“This will be the happiest team in the country tonight,” said Brown, looking like the happiest coach in the country.

7. Targeting remains an officiating problem.

Late in the first half of the Northwestern-Stanford game, Cardinal quarterback K.J. Costello scrambled up the middle. He went into a feet-first slide and was greeted by a flying forearm under the facemark to his chin by Wildcats lineman Earnest Brown. Costello stayed down and never returned to the game.

There was no penalty for targeting. Upon review, there still was no penalty for targeting.

This surprised virtually everyone who watched the play, live or on replay, including Fox officiating analyst Dean Blandino. It looked like textbook targeting, yet it somehow went uncalled.

Although the game was at Stanford, the officiating and replay crews for the game were from the Big Ten, which takes the much-maligned Pac-12 officiating group off the hook. But the entire sport remains on the hook if it cannot apply targeting rules even with the benefit of replay.

8. Iowa State did not appear prepared to handle its first preseason Top 25 ranking.

The No. 21 Cyclones came so close so many times to blowing their opener against FCS opponent Northern Iowa. The last huge escape was when quarterback Brock Purdy dove on a fumble at the 1-yard line in the third overtime, barely beating a UNI lineman to the ball. If it had gone the other way, the game would have been over. On the next play, the Cyclones scored the winning touchdown.

UNI is a high-quality FCS opponent, and Iowa State did the most important thing by simply avoiding losing. But this looked like a team uncomfortable in the position of wearing a target on its back.

After an open date, Iowa State can get back to playing little brother Sept. 14 in the matchup with in-state rival Iowa.

9. A quick rundown of new quarterbacks making fresh starts in new places:

Georgia transfer Justin Fields was very productive early for Ohio State, leading four touchdown drives in the first 10 minutes and finishing the game with 295 total yards and five total touchdowns — the latter a school record for a player in his first Ohio State game.

Washington’s Jacob Eason, another Georgia transfer, was similarly sharp, throwing for 349 yards and four touchdowns in a rout of FCS Eastern Washington.

Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant was good and bad for Missouri, throwing for 423 yards but also contributing two critical turnovers to a very bad Tigers loss at Wyoming.

Fellow Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson was statistically horrible in his Northwestern debut, going 6-of-17 for 55 yards and two interceptions. He also contributed a sack-fumble-defensive touchdown that was of great import to the bettors out there, tipping the final point spread to Stanford in a 17-7 slog of a game. Johnson shared time with T.J. Green, and neither moved the needle or the team.

Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush was functional for Central Florida in a blowout of Florida A&M, throwing for 168 yards and two touchdowns. But his 52 percent accuracy looked like a familiar problem, and freshman backup Dillon Gabriel (three TD passes) may push Wimbush in the coming weeks.

Michigan transfer Brandon Peters was an upgrade over most recent QBs for Illinois, throwing for 163 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a waltz past Akron. In the previous two seasons Illinois threw 19 touchdowns and 34 interceptions, so this was a major upgrade in that ratio.

Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens made the most of his first opportunity to be a non-novelty quarterback, leading Mississippi State past Louisiana. More of a red-zone thumper than a passer at Penn State, Stevens threw for a career-high 236 yards and two touchdowns while also running for 37 and a score.

10. If you’re in the mood to pick nits, Alabama offered one.

The Crimson Tide predictably rolled past Duke 42-3, looking like a team that will not have any in-game stress until October at the earliest. But one thing Alabama did not do well was run the ball, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry against the Blue Devils. Only once did the Tide rush for a lower yards-per-carry in the last 16 games, producing 3.2 yards per run last year against a Mississippi State team that was second nationally in rushing defense.

That could be explained by the fact that Alabama’s top two backs, Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, both were suspended for the first quarter. But neither of them lit it up when they did get in the game. Expect this to be an area of emphasis for Nick Saban until next week, when ‘Bama runs for five million yards against New Mexico State.

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