Forde-Yard Dash: How freshmen stole show in Week 1 and four picks for the playoff

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (hospital coaching beds sold separately):

[More Dash: Gurus gone bad | 5 games we need | Ugly coaches get paid]

FRESHMEN — EMPHASIS ON MEN

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If you started a freshman quarterback in Week 1, congratulations. It probably worked out — even if circumstances might have appeared dire for some of the winners for quite a while.

Twelve freshman QBs started over this Labor Day weekend stretch: Hank Bachmeier of Boise State; Sean Chambers of Wyoming; Matt Corral of Mississippi; Jayden Daniels of Arizona State; Brett Gabbert of Miami (Ohio); Wiley Green of Rice; Sam Howell of North Carolina; Matt Myers of Buffalo; Bo Nix of Auburn; Michael Penix Jr. of Indiana; Spencer Sanders of Oklahoma State; and Carson Strong of Nevada.

Nine of them won. Most impressively, five of the freshmen led winning comebacks from double-digit deficits, showing poise and resilience to go along with the requisite talent. Four of them were upset winners.

In general, quarterbacks are ready to play college football at younger ages today than ever before, and these boys-to-men showed it. The comeback kids, and how they did it:

Bo Nix (1), Auburn. The comeback: From down 21-6 to Oregon with 20 minutes left to a 27-21 victory.

The true freshman’s numbers were not great against a quality opponent: 13-of-31 passing for 177 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. It was Auburn’s lowest-rated pass efficiency game in two years. For much of the game Nix looked like a deer trying to cross an interstate, bounding recklessly in and out of trouble.

But the son of former Auburn QB Patrick Nix did it when he absolutely had to do it, leading a dramatic 60-yard touchdown drive in the final minute. Along the way he converted a fourth-and-3 with a run, a third-and-10 with a pass, and then a stunning 26-yard TD throw with nine seconds left to obviate the need for a field goal attempt.

“When the game is on the line, he found a way to win the game,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “And I think that was real special for his first start.”

Auburn QB Bo Nix led the Tigers to a surprising comeback win over the Oregon Ducks on Saturday. (Getty)
Auburn QB Bo Nix led the Tigers to a surprising comeback win over the Oregon Ducks on Saturday. (Getty)

Sam Howell (2), North Carolina. The comeback: From down 20-9 in the fourth quarter to South Carolina to a 24-20 victory.

One of Mack Brown’s first orders of business after becoming coach of the Tar Heels last winter was flipping four-star QB Howell from a Florida State commit to UNC. (It helped Carolina’s cause when FSU offensive coordinator Walt Bell left to become the head coach at Massachusetts.) That recruiting coup paid dividends in a big way Saturday against the Gamecocks in Charlotte.

Howell led touchdown drives of 98 and 95 yards to pull out the victory, completing all five of his passes. He finished each drive with a touchdown pass, and added a two-point run on the first drive. “I just think he really showed his chest hair,” North Carolina running back Michael Carter told Tar Heel Illustrated, providing perhaps the best quote of the season to date.

Hank Bachmeier (3), Boise State. The comeback: From down 31-13 late in the first half to a 36-31 win at Florida State.

Bachmeier was no under-the-radar Boise recruiting scoop — he was a four-star California kid with plenty of Power Five offers. But the Broncos won out by offering him both a winning program and the shot at immediate playing time. Bachmeier seized that opportunity, won the starting job and then found himself starting a hurricane-relocated game in one of the storied stadiums in the sport. He also found himself knocked around, sacked five times and trailing by three scores, but never flinched.

Bachmeier’s 407 passing yards were seventh-most in America in Week 1, and by far the most among freshman quarterbacks. On the day he led seven scoring drives of 50 yards or longer. “What a gutsy performance for him for a first game,” Boise offensive coordinator Zak Hill told the Idaho Statesman.

Carson Strong (4), Nevada. The comeback: From down 31-14 late in the third quarter to a 34-31 win over Purdue.

The redshirt freshman had three yards passing after the first quarter of his first college start. He had 67 passing yards at halftime. He had 131 after three quarters. And then he unleashed a 167-yard assault in the fourth quarter alone to lead the Wolf Pack’s dramatic rally, plus another 30 on the ground. Strong also punted four times for a 45-yard average, with three of them being downed inside the 20-yard line.

Strong was a lightly recruited two-star prospect out of Vacaville, California, who missed his senior season due to a knee injury. He threw four passes in Nevada’s opening game a year ago, then never saw the field again until Friday night. A rough start gave way to a flying finish. “He really competed,” said Nevada coach Jay Norvell. “He put this team on his back and fought through at the end when we needed the will to win.”

Sean Chambers (5), Wyoming. The comeback: From down 14-0 to Missouri in the second quarter to a 37-31 victory.

No Week 1 game turned more abruptly than this one, as Missouri went from cruising to being clobbered by 34 straight Wyoming points in a span of less than 20 minutes. The redshirt freshman Chambers contributed a team-high 120 rushing yards (including a 75-yard touchdown run), plus 92 passing yards.

After a 2-5 start last year, Cowboys coach Craig Bohl played Chambers in four late games while still wisely preserving his redshirt year. Despite being billed a pro-style quarterback as a two-star recruit out of California, Chambers’ first talent is running — he had three straight 100-yard rushing games last year against Utah State, Colorado State and San Jose State. Now he’s added a fourth, in Wyoming’s biggest win in years.

NEXT (FRESH)MAN UP AT USC

The season-ending knee injury to USC starting quarterback JT Daniels is a potentially devastating blow. The early schedule is difficult, and this does not appear to be a team with much margin for error.

The next guy entrusted with saving Clay Helton’s job is freshman Kedon Slovis (6), who played the second half against Fresno State Saturday night after Daniels went down. Slovis completed 6-of-8 passes for 57 yards with one interception, a cavalier deep throw into double coverage.

He also was put into a difficult situation by an insane Helton decision to go for a fourth-and-1 around midfield with 2:44 left and the Trojans up eight points. Any rational coach punts at that point, but Helton went for it and Slovis bobbled the snap, then was dropped for a five-yard loss. USC then had to stop a Fresno drive with an interception in the end zone to hang on.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) gestures with a "Fight On" sign after the Trojans' win over Fresno State. (USAT)
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) gestures with a "Fight On" sign after the Trojans' win over Fresno State. (USAT)

Slovis was a three-star Rivals.com recruit out of Arizona who was not urgently sought after by most of the marquee football powers. Per Rivals, his only other Power Five offers were from North Carolina State, Oregon State and Vanderbilt. Now he’s prepping to start for the Trojans against Stanford on Saturday.

"We will go ahead and get Kedon Slovis ready for the upcoming week,” Helton said after announcing Daniels’ injury status. “We've got all the confidence in his ability to move the offense."

We’ll also see whether Jack Sears comes back from Transfer Portal Limbo to be part of the new USC QB equation. Sears fell to fourth on the Trojans’ depth chart in August and announced late last month that he would put his name in the portal to explore his options, while tweeting that he will “continue to train and work out and have told Coach Helton I am available if the team needs me.”

Well, the team may need him. Sears played just one game in 2018 when Daniels was injured and performed well, throwing for 235 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in a shootout loss to Arizona State.

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

Now that Talking Season has finally given way to Playing Season, it’s time for a blank slate approach to the College Football Playoff. What happened in 2018 doesn’t matter. What we projected all summer doesn’t matter. We now have game data to base our judgements upon.

One game in, The Dash used the following priorities in constructing the first playoff bracket: games against Power Five opponents, and games played away from home. If your team opened against an FCS scrapper or another non-Power Five opponent, wait your turn until you’ve picked on someone your own size. If you played a Power Five opponent at home, you also can line up behind those who went somewhere.

If Selection Sunday were today:

Peach Bowl: No. 1 seed Auburn (7) vs. No. 4 seed Virginia (8).

The Tigers had the biggest win of the week, the aforementioned rally to beat Oregon in Arlington, Texas. Most impressive part of that victory: They held the Ducks to just seven points in the final three quarters. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is being paid a whopping $2 million a year, and he’s earning it.

The Cavaliers went to defending ACC Coastal champion Pittsburgh on Saturday and won by 16 points, pitching a second-half shutout. Virginia didn’t do a lot offensively — its 4.63 yards per play were 98th nationally — but the Cavaliers were plus-two in the turnover department and allowed just 78 rushing yards.

Fiesta Bowl: No, 2 seed Alabama (9) vs. No. 3 seed Georgia (10).

The Crimson Tide did what it always does to start the season, remorselessly grinding a Power Five opponent to dust on an allegedly neutral field. This time it was Duke, the score was 42-3, and the site was Atlanta. Alabama didn’t perpetuate the shock-and-awe start of 2018 but was never in any danger of not winning handily. Tua Tagovailoa did his thing, producing the week’s top passer rating of any quarterback playing against a Power Five team (217.5).

Georgia opened on the road for the first time since 2013, and against an SEC opponent for the first time since 1995. The Bulldogs looked the part of a title contender, rolling Vanderbilt 30-6 in Nashville. They jumped to a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter before lapsing offensively and failing to finish drives. Georgia’s defense allowed just one play from scrimmage longer than 20 yards.

Dropped out: Oregon.

Also considered: North Carolina, Boise State, Oklahoma State, Florida, Clemson, Cincinnati, Stanford, Boston College, Wyoming, Nevada, Hawaii.

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