Texas A&M's biggest question mark coming into this season -- even more so than its quarterback -- revolved around its defense and whether it could show significant improvement after a brutal 2013 campaign.

One game into the 2014 season, there is sufficient reason for optimism in several areas the Aggies struggled a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMyles Garrett and Dylan Thompson
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M's defense, including true freshman Myles Garrett, showed significant improvement from 2013 in its season-opening win, harassing South Carolina QB Dylan Thompson all night.
Overshadowed by the record-breaking starting debut of sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill was the fact that the Aggies showed signs of progress on defense in their 52-28 dismantling of South Carolina on Thursday.

The most noticeable difference was the Aggies’ ability to rush the passer. A sore spot last season (the Aggies had only seven sacks in their first seven games in 2013), Texas A&M showcased its increased depth and athleticism on the edge and harassed South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson to the tune of six quarterback hurries and three sacks.

One of those sacks and two of those hurries came courtesy of the Aggies’ prized 2014 recruit, true freshman Myles Garrett.

“Myles can run with the best of them,” junior defensive end Julien Obioha said.

At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, Garrett showed why he was pursued by most major programs in the country. He displayed strength, athleticism and determination that made him a factor in his collegiate debut.

He wasn’t alone. Defensive ends Daeshon Hall and Jay Arnold and defensive tackle Hardreck Walker also recorded hurries, while linebackers Donnie Baggs and A.J. Hilliard got sacks of their own.

Texas A&M’s much-maligned run defense held up well, too, though it got some assistance. Standout running back Mike Davis played sparingly because of a rib injury, and the Aggies’ put up points at a pace that forced South Carolina to abandon the running game to some extent.

Still, when the Gamecocks did run the ball, they were largely ineffective, averaging only three yards per carry and finishing with 67 yards on 22 attempts.

“I think we just came out and showed that we can stop the run against an experienced offensive line, one of the best offensive lines in the country,” Obioha said. “They have a great group of backs. Mike Davis couldn't play that much [Thursday], but we came out and stopped the run against a very good offense."

The night wasn’t without its flaws. Thompson beat the Aggies’ secondary deep for two long first-half touchdown passes of 69 and 46 yards, and in both cases there were errors in Texas A&M's young secondary that contributed to the big plays.

“We had a safety jump a route and get the first touchdown open and didn't get any help for [cornerback] Deshazor [Everett] and then [we had] a bust [in coverage],” Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Those two big plays really kind of changed the complexion of the first half and it was a different ballgame because of two plays.”

But one encouraging sign for the secondary was the play of true freshman safety Armani Watts, who recorded an interception and two pass breakups. Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder stressed multiple times this offseason that the Aggies needed upgraded safety play, and Watts showed signs Thursday that he might be the one to help provide it.

It wasn’t a perfect night, but given the lack of outsider expectations and last season’s forgettable performances, 2014 has already given the Aggies reason to believe this year will be better.

Opportunity missed for Clemson, ACC

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
10:30
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Dabo SwinneyAP Photo/David GoldmanDabo Swinney and Clemson will try to move on after a Week 1 loss to Georgia.
Before Todd Gurley ran roughshod over his defense, and before Jeremy Pruitt thwarted his offense yet again -- long before Saturday’s stumble at Georgia even kicked off, in fact, Dabo Swinney was preaching the message that one game wouldn’t define Clemson’s season. And of course, that’s true. In fact, Saturday’s 45-21 loss between the hedges won’t even define Clemson’s September, with No. 1 Florida State still looming in a few weeks.

“Every goal that we have is still in front of us,” Swinney said after the game. “We’re 0-1, and we have a long way to go. The season starts tomorrow. That’s the mentality that we have.”

But of course, the season started Saturday, and it started with a loss, no matter how Swinney wants to frame it.

Swinney is an optimist. It’s his nature. It’s how he shrugged off a thumping by Florida State last season by explaining that the lopsided score wasn’t indicative of the true talent difference between the two teams. It’s how he made peace with yet another loss to South Carolina last season, selling the notion that Clemson was the better team, undone by just a few too many turnovers.

And so Swinney was back to work Sunday, 11 games still left on the schedule and a litany of “what if” moments already in his rearview mirror.

If Clemson could’ve just tackled better, Gurley might not have run for 198 yards and three touchdowns, utterly embarrassing the Tigers’ defense for the second straight season.

“Todd Gurley was the best player on the field, and it wasn’t close,” Swinney said. “He’s a special player.”

It was Gurley who returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown to even the score at 21, and if Clemson could’ve brought him down before he reached the end zone, things might’ve been different.

All offseason, Swinney lamented the kicking game as his biggest concern, even with the losses of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and of course, Ammon Lakip missed his lone field goal try that could’ve sent the Tigers to halftime with a lead. If only there hadn’t been so many dropped passes, so many mental errors in that first half, maybe that missed kick wouldn’t have loomed so large, anyway.

Clemson’s average starting field position in the second half was its own 17, and Swinney said the offense became too conservative while pinned deep in its own territory. If only that field position had been better, perhaps there wouldn’t be lingering questions today about Cole Stoudt and an offense that looked sharp early but disappeared late, mustering a woeful 15 yards and just one first down in the second half.

It’s Week 1, after all, and the “what ifs” are as meaningful a statistic as anything. But no matter what happens in the next 11 games, Week 1 did matter for Clemson and for the conference.

Yes, Gurley is a special player, but Clemson will face more of them, starting with Jameis Winston on Sept. 20. That the Tigers knew just what to expect from Gurley and still were incapable of slowing him down isn’t an aberration.

Yes, a few plays swung the game, but that’s how it goes against great teams -- and indeed, Georgia may be a great team. In fact, the Bulldogs will move forward with eyes on the College Football Playoff, and even if Clemson manages to upend Florida State later this month, it may find itself on the outside looking in thanks to those few bad plays between the hedges.

Yes, the field position was a problem. Adversity strikes in every game, but a team is measured not by the size of the obstacle but by its response. Clemson had none. For the second straight year, a Pruitt-coached defense appeared to have all the answers for the Tigers' up-tempo scheme.

Swinney said he’s learned more about his team from those rocky 60 minutes than he might've expected to learn in four weeks of a normal season, but there are still so many questions.

The offense had its moments, but Clemson had nine three-and-outs, and 12 of its 15 drives lasted six plays or fewer. That vaunted defensive line recorded just a single sack, while Georgia ran for 328 yards -- the most the Tigers’ defense has surrendered to a non-option team since Swinney took over as coach. Whether Stoud’s line -- 16-of-29 for 144 yards and an INT -- was indicative of poor performance or too many drops by his receivers is of little consequence. Clemson needs to improve in both areas. Deshaun Watson looked impressive on one drive, perplexed on another, and the impact the freshman will make this week remains frustratingly unclear.

And then, of course, there’s the biggest question: What does it all mean for the ACC?

Fair or not, Clemson bore the weight of this new system, in which each team is evaluated within the context of its conference. A win over Georgia would've meant credibility for the endlessly discredited ACC. The loss removes perhaps the biggest safety net the conference might've had on what promises to be a razor-thin line it must walk for the next three months.

Florida State looked flawed against an unranked Oklahoma State team. NC State, Syracuse, Georgia Tech and North Carolina all struggled, to some degree, against FCS-level competition. And Clemson lost by 24 points to Georgia in a game that probably was far closer than the score indicated. The problem, however, is that no one knows whether the playoff selection committee will remember how close the Tigers came when it’s time to make a decision on who’s in and who’s out.

A lot can happen in the next 11 games, and Swinney is right to focus on what’s ahead. But the path to the playoff grew more narrow with Saturday’s loss, and for all the data Swinney accumulated and for all the film there is to study, there’s really only one thing that’s certain.

“All we know about our football team right now,” Swinney said, “is we’re not going to win them all.”
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- All of that drama surrounding the Notre Dame Fighting Irish the entire month was seemingly reduced to a pair of plays Saturday that yielded different results.

There was the first Everett Golson bomb to C.J. Prosise, which Prosise dropped. And there was the second Golson bomb to Prosise, which Prosise caught.

The 55-yarder was Golson making something out of nothing before launching a rocket that went right through the unguarded receiver's hands. The 53-yarder, two plays after a turnover and just five seconds before halftime, was Golson again making something out of nothing -- avoiding a sack, barely setting his feet and absorbing a hit as he threw the ball roughly 62 yards through the air and into the hands of Prosise for his first career touchdown.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNotre Dame will need Everett Golson's big arm and big plays when Michigan visits on Saturday.
"He has a cannon, as you can see," Prosise said of Golson. "He winds up and that thing flies. It's really nice to have that."

That Golson shook off the small bit of in-game adversity to deliver Prosise his first career touchdown is one thing. That the Irish's quarterback made a pair of otherworldly throws look so routine is quite another.

Notre Dame was entering its 48-17 season-opening win against Rice under the cloud of four players being suspended as part of an internal academic probe. The Irish learned Thursday that a fifth would be held out. The same day, they lost another safety, this one a captain in Austin Collinsworth, who will also miss at least Saturday's game against Michigan with a Grade 2 MCL sprain.

They turned in about as complete of an opening-game performance as coach Brian Kelly could have hoped for, with Golson looking every bit like the key piece that can finally make this offense roll. They enter Michigan week, their last Michigan week for the forseeable future, uncertain about their five suspended players, three of whom would almost certainly be factors in a game as big as this one. The game is, seemingly, the biggest obstacle before October. It's part of a slate Kelly himself described last week as "manageable" before the heavy-hitters line up, and a game the Irish absolutely need to have if they are to go on to a successful season.

There is the anticipation of the last meeting for a while against the Wolverines, whom Kelly knows best as a team that has beaten him three times in four years. There is the Notre Dame Stadium night-game atmosphere, which has not exactly been kind to the home team since it returned in 2011 -- first with an embarrassing loss to USC, then with two strenuous wins against Michigan and USC by a combined 27-16 margin.

But the Irish should have little trouble avoiding the noise, as Kelly likes to say. They graded out spectacularly in that area in Week 1, and they had much more on their plates going into Rice than they do going into Michigan.

Kelly's answer Sunday when asked about avoiding this week's outside influences was telling:

"Similar to what I've done in past years," he said. "We really keep our focus on what our technique and our own individual work needs to get better at. For example, (Elijah) Shumate and Max Redfield, they can't be thinking about Michigan because they have to learn how to communicate better, really focus on that. Chris Brown has to do a better job of getting in and out of his breaks. We're really, really focusing on the individual and what they have to get better at this week.

"If we really focus on those things and really drill hard on those, it keeps their mind at what they need to get better at instead of thinking about big-picture items. That's kind of how we go about it. It keeps the guys so much on what will help them win."

So he mentioned Michigan, once. He mentioned little else as it relates to peripheral opponents. On the same day-after-opener teleconference last season, he had more or less fueled week-long hate talk by suggesting the Wolverines weren't a rival. Last season's Irish team, fresh off a title-game appearance, probably needed the fire lit under it more than this season's team does.

Kelly saw what this group did Saturday with bigger distractions when facing an inferior opponent. Now comes a truer test that will likely dictate what kind of season this could be.
Marcus Mariota and Connor CookAP PhotoThe performances of Marcus Mariota, left, and Connor Cook will go a long way in determining the outcome of Saturday's Oregon-Michigan State game.
There will be no "real" Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015. The "real" Rose Bowl, whose purity previously had been diluted by the BCS, is a casualty of the College Football Playoff this season. While that will make many of us old fogies wince, the only constructive response is to embrace change and recognize the fulfillment of decades-long clamoring for a playoff was inevitably going to kill off some cherished institutions with its birth.

As a consolation prize, however, the college football gods have given us No. 8 Michigan State visiting No. 3 Oregon on Saturday. It's a Rose Bowl matchup the first weekend of September, with the (alleged) Big Ten best versus (alleged) Pac-12 best. With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season and UCLA's less than scintillating performance at Virginia, this one has gained further traction as a potential CFP selection committee barometer for both teams and both conferences.

No, there will be no sunset behind the San Gabriel Mountains at Autzen Stadium, but there likely will be rosy fingers of meaning extending from whatever happens Saturday. For one, an early-season victory over a top-10 team in a nonconference game is exactly what the selection committee claims it will pay homage to. As an optional challenge boldly undertaken outside of the rote bureaucracy of conference scheduling, this game should serve as a badge of honor for teams trying to distinguish themselves to 13 judges in a conference room Dec. 7.

Ah, the committee. We can be fairly certain that, for better or worse, the great "Transitive Property of College Football" will play a role in its deliberations, and that is the perception prize the Spartans and Ducks will battle over in addition to the scoreboard numbers.

If Oregon wins, it will thereby -- transitively -- be better than any team the Spartans beat over the remainder of their season. If Michigan State ends up the Big Ten champion at 12-1, the Ducks will be viewed as the de facto Big Ten champs -- at least if the Ducks do well enough over the rest of their season to merit such an overreaching (overreacting?) designation. This playoff math would be rendered less relevant if Oregon, in this scenario, meanders to a 10-2 finish and fails to win the Pac-12's North Division.

The same goes for Michigan State, perhaps even more so because the rest of its schedule is not as demanding. If the Spartans beat a Ducks team -- in fearsome Autzen Stadium, the Pac-12's toughest road venue, no less -- that goes on to win the ostensibly SEC-ish Pac-12, their bounty could be a defensible claim to the top perch in two Power 5 conferences. That is, of course, if they take care of business over the entire season.

So the function is almost a transference of the Rose Bowl's typical season-ending meaning, just without any of the cool pageantry. A further twist is that both teams after the game become each other's biggest fans, with both winner and loser wanting the other to make the result a more impressive measure of itself.

Not that you'll hear Ducks coach Mark Helfrich or Spartans leader Mark Dantonio celebrating this sort of curlicue thinking. They've got teams with big goals, including playoff goals, but placing this game on such a pedestal could make a loss feel catastrophic within the locker room. Then what about the next 10 or 11 games?

“[This is] game No. 2. We have 10 games after that. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves," Dantonio said. "It’s not an end-all either way. That’s going to be a measuring stick game for us. Where are we at? Who are we? It will give us a little more of a sense of identity early in the season.”

Once you get past going John le Carré on potential selection committee intrigues, the football part of this football game is pretty cool, too. Although the teams share a team color of green, that's pretty much where the commonality ends, and even then, Oregon long ago went ludicrous speed on the notion of team colors and sartorial standards.

Speaking of ludicrous speed, Oregon, you might have heard, plays fast and furious on offense and piles up yards and points like a frenzying school of pirañas. Meanwhile, Michigan State, as you know, plays defense like a thick wall of titanium. Wall? It's more like an impregnable box -- with walls slowly closing together.

Last year, Oregon ranked No. 2 in the nation in total offense (565 yards per game) and No. 4 in scoring offense (45.5 ppg). Michigan State ranked No. 2 in total defense (252.2 ypg) and No. 3 in scoring defense (13.2 ppg). The Spartans also enter the game knowing they beat the Pac-12 team that beat the Ducks, given that they dispatched Stanford 24-20 in the 2014 Rose Bowl.

Of course, an over-reliance on what happened the past season is one of the greatest weaknesses in so-called college football punditry. The first weekend has already shown us that projecting forward based on returning starters and extrapolated improvement is an inexact science. Both Oregon and Michigan State are missing key players from 2013 on both sides of the ball. They also have shiny new players ready to glow.

Still, the circumstantial evidence suggests both teams will lean on their obvious strengths on Saturday. The Ducks and quarterback Marcus Mariota, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, rolled up 673 yards without really trying in an opening win over South Dakota, while Michigan State's defense throttled Jacksonville State 45-7 yielding just 244 yards.

The obvious only goes so far. The game ultimately might swing on the secondary quantities. Spartans quarterback Connor Cook has been surging since the middle of the past year, and he was darn near perfect in the opener and actually earned a perfect rating of 100 in ESPN.com's Total QB Rating. Oregon's defense has long been given short shrift, despite ranking among the nation's leaders and sending numerous players to the NFL.

The sum conclusion is that, while we will go Rose Bowl-less this season, this is a game that has plenty to offer, both in football on Saturday and in potential micro-analyzed meaning as the season progresses.
The Alabama Crimson Tide couldn’t handle the hurry-up. Clint Trickett might as well have blown kisses to Nick Saban the way he paraded West Virginia's offense up and down the field.

The Auburn Tigers struggled with the power running game. The same Arkansas Razorbacks' offense that ranked last in the SEC a year ago manhandled the Tigers’ front seven, posting 21 points by halftime.

The South Carolina Gamecocks just didn’t show up. Steve Spurrier’s defense laid down for the Texas A&M Aggies. His star running back, Mike Davis, shouldn’t have bothered dressing out.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsLes Miles and LSU joined several SEC teams who won their openers, but looked flawed in the process.
They all entered their season-openers with hopes of competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the SEC’s three highest-ranked teams showed significant flaws in Week 1. The Gamecocks had their doors blown off. The Tide and Tigers won, but it wasn’t pretty. Even the LSU Tigers, a popular dark horse pick to reach the final four, had to be bailed out by a bit of Les Miles magic and the Wisconsin's' abrupt aversion to the running game.

By the time Monday rolled around, the dust settled and the big picture of the SEC became clear, it wasn’t what anyone expected. Somehow it was the Georgia Bulldogs and Texas A&M left standing as seemingly the league’s best hope of reaching the playoff.

But with all due respect to Todd Gurley’s inhuman exploits and Kenny Hill’s inspired performance, should we be sold? For that matter, should we be ready to call anyone the class of the SEC?

Right now there are far more questions than answers. Everyone, it seems, has flaws.

The East is a toss-up. Georgia certainly holds promise, but quarterback Hutson Mason still needs to show he can carry an offense, Gurley has to stay healthy and the secondary must continue improving despite missing so many starters from a season ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, has to do a complete 180 or it will lose to Georgia in two weeks and find itself in an insurmountable hole. Then there are the Florida Gators, who are a complete unknown given Mother Nature’s refusal to let them finally turn the page on 2013.

The West is even more convoluted. Texas A&M might be the real deal, but its offense is so young and it is still too early to say whether Mark Snyder has orchestrated the most impressive turnaround in history with that defense. Alabama has serious questions on defense, too, and at quarterback we might be jumping the gun a bit in proclaiming Blake Sims the answer. LSU could very well settle on Anthony Jennings under center, but he has the potential to be a reboot of Jordan Jefferson, which isn’t a good thing. Then there is Auburn, stuck with too many quarterbacks and not enough defenders, not to mention its brutal schedule.

If you’re looking for one of the favorites to run away with it, don’t hold your breath. In fact, if Week 1 showed us anything, it’s that while there are a bunch of good teams in the SEC, there is no one dominant team like in years past.

The Missouri Tigers won handily, the Ole Miss Rebels turned it on in the second half and the Mississippi State Bulldogs cruised to victory. All three should feel good about their dreams of reaching Atlanta.

Arkansas looked improved. So did the Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers. Though none of the them should go booking trips for the postseason, they could play the role of spoilers.

The only real slouch is the Vanderbilt Commodores.

When it comes time for playoff jockeying and the "my conference vs. your conference" disputes, parity will be the SEC’s No. 1 point of emphasis. But it will also be the reason it doesn’t yield an undefeated or even a one-loss team.

Alabama will get better. So will LSU and Auburn. Even South Carolina should improve with time. It is, in fact, only Week 1 we’re talking about.

But first impressions do mean something, and the first look we had of the SEC revealed a pack of teams loaded with potential but saddled with problems.

Until we find out who is ready to take a step forward and lead, it will continue to be a wide open race.
Louisville opens its first season in the ACC tonight, but there is nothing unfamiliar about the setting or the opponent.

The Cards beat Miami the last time they played, nine months ago in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December. "Beat" might not be a strong enough word to describe what happened in Orlando, Florida. Louisville embarrassed Miami, a school in a bigger conference with more football tradition and much more at stake, too.

Nobody on either side has quite forgotten the 36-9 final. Louisville linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin still has a “U” logo hanging in his room with a big red X through it. Miami players, meanwhile, talk about getting revenge, about feeling “disrespected” in the bowl game. Animosity between the two already is jacked up, and they haven't even played a league game yet.

[+] EnlargeLouisville
AP Photo/John RaouxStacy Coley and Miami don't have to wait to exact some revenge on Louisville after their Russell Athletic Bowl defeat last December.
“Our practices have been more electric,” Mauldin said. “Everybody just wants to beat Miami.”

It's easy to see why the ACC selected this as its prime-time Labor Day showdown. The subplots are so juicy, it's hard to pick the juiciest one. Is it the bitterness between the sides, exacerbated by all the Florida players on the Louisville roster who want to show Miami what it’s missing? Is it the Miami disrespect card, exacerbated when former quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did the throat-slash gesture late in the bowl game last year?

Is it Bobby Petrino making his return to the Louisville sideline? Is it Miami starting true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya? Is it Miami running back Duke Johnson finally returning to the field after missing the end of last season with a broken ankle? Is it Louisville’s official ACC debut?

The matchups might be completely different, the Louisville coaching staff and schemes might be totally different, but that does not change just how much both teams look back on what happened in December.

Louisville wants a repeat. Miami wants revenge.

“The guys just want to come back and do it again,” Mauldin said. “It was a great feeling, and they just want to feel like that again. The preparation leading up to it has been good. I feel like we’re going to have a lot of fun on Monday night.”

Miami coach Al Golden tried to downplay his team’s emotions, saying: “Louisville played really well. They had an exceptional team. They had a team that -- they only lost a couple times in two years, so that was a great team, played really well. But no, in terms of our program and their program, this is a different team for both, and clearly we have to take care of our business, not worry about anybody else's.”

Petrino, who was not even on the sidelines for the Louisville win last season, had a different view. He said his players do have extra motivation going into this game, a rare rematch that pits the same teams in a bowl and season opener.

“I think that's human,” Petrino said. “Got a lot of guys from that same area that played against a lot of players on their team in high school, have known each other for a long time. It's going to be real important for us to focus on the process, focus on our performance one play at a time.”

It sounds like a cliché, but Mauldin said the team has worked on trying not to get too emotional leading up to kickoff because “when you get too riled up, you can forget what you learn, and you don’t want to get complacent.”

The Louisville defense will have a far different assignment in this game. Priority No. 1 is stopping Johnson, who has the ability to change the game with one play. Then, the Cards can focus on rattling Kaaya, a wild card in the matchup. Louisville has no tape to study on him, so it has just been focusing on the offensive scheme. The defense will have to adjust on the fly to what Kaaya brings to the table.

Miami also faces unknowns on the Louisville offense. Will Gardner replaces Bridgewater, and leading receiver DeVante Parker is out. Petrino runs a vastly different scheme than former coach Charlie Strong did in the bowl game. Coaching adjustments are always important, maybe more so in openers, when there are so many unknowns.

Still, there is enough from both sides to go on. Most especially, all that emotion.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
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What a weekend of college football. The SEC kicked off the festivities with three games on Thursday night and wrapped it all up with the Tennessee-Utah State game on Sunday night. Here's a look at the five best performances from Week 1.

Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: The award for most obvious helmet sticker goes to the Aggies' sophomore quarterback, who dazzled in his first start. Hill broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record with 511 yards passing. His 44 completions (on 60 attempts) broke another Manziel record and were the second most in SEC history. We'd give a special sticker to head coach Kevin Sumlin if he only wore a helmet, because Sumlin's offense might be the biggest story of the league's opening weekend.

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another obvious sticker recipient, Gurley carried his Bulldogs to a huge statement win against Clemson. His 293 all-purpose yards broke Rodney Hampton's school single-game record. Gurley had 198 yards rushing with three touchdowns as well as a 100-yard kickoff-return TD that wrestled momentum back for UGA after Clemson had taken a 21-14 lead. As a precaution, Georgia limited his carries to 15, and Gurley still averaged 13.2 yards per carry. Imagine what he could do with a full load.

Alabama running backs: With a new quarterback and a feisty opponent, the Crimson Tide needed every ounce of effort from their stellar backfield tandem. When the final whistle blew and Bama had edged West Virginia, there was little to distinguish between the results of junior T.J. Yeldon (126 yards rushing and two touchdowns) and sophomore Derrick Henry (113 yards and one touchdown). Sometimes Yeldon starts a drive, sometimes Henry does. It's anyone's guess which back finishes them.

Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: In his second career start for the Tigers, the senior and former juco transfer showed little drop-off as the replacement for star running back Tre Mason. Artis-Payne proved capable of being Auburn's bell cow with a total of 26 carries. After scoring a first-quarter touchdown, he helped the Tigers wear out the Razorbacks defense in the second half with 122 of his career-high 177 rushing yards.

Cody Core, WR, Ole Miss: There were plenty of worthy candidates for Week 1 helmet stickers, but Core deserves to bask in the limelight after dealing with the tragic loss of his mother in late July and then fighting his way up the depth chart in preseason camp to win a starting job. Core had four catches for 110 yards, including the Rebels' two biggest plays of the night -- a 30-yard TD grab in the first quarter to open the scoring and a decisive 76-yard catch-and-run TD in the fourth quarter.
It was a brand new feeling for Art Briles.

For the first time since he arrived in Waco, the Baylor Bears' head coach stepped onto the field in a brand new stadium with a team considered a national title contender.

He couldn't have even dreamed of this.

"I don't dream big enough, don't think big enough, don't foresee big enough," Briles said. "It was unbelievable. The atmosphere was everything we hoped it could be."

[+] EnlargeMcLane Stadium
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBaylor opened McLane Stadium with a 45-0 win against SMU on Sunday night.
The Bears opened McLane Stadium with a 45-0 win against SMU on Sunday night. Playing in an on-campus stadium for the first time since Nov. 9, 1935, Baylor looked comfortable in its new digs, cruising to a season-opening win with a dominant defensive performance. Yet many people left thinking the Bears had an off night, a sign of the rise in expectations surrounding the green-and-gold.

Those expectations could be seen and heard around the stadium as the pregame festivities led to an exceptional atmosphere for a season opener.

"The atmosphere was unbelievable," tackle Spencer Drango said. "We had the 'Walk of the Bears' and we had to stop before we were supposed to because there were so many people. It felt like it went on forever. It was an amazing environment. It was something special. I can't find the words to describe it."

Sitting alongside I-35 as the on-campus jewel of Baylor, the $266 million, 45,140-seat stadium is a physical representation of how far Briles program has come since he took over the Bears prior to the 2008 season.

Few college football cathedrals can match McLane. Fans can arrive by boat and tailgate on the Brazos river before entering one of the most innovative venues in the nation, one which also features an in-game app that can be downloaded to enhance the game-day experience.

Just outside the stadium's South entrance, a statue of Robert Griffin III sits just yards away from the Brazos river, serving as another representation of a new era in Waco.

"It's not a representation of me," said Griffin, who was in town to experience the opening of the picturesque facility first-hand. "It's more a representation of what we've done at Baylor."

After a pair of 4-8 seasons to begin his tenure, Briles' Bears have put together four straight winning seasons, including double-digit wins in 2011 and 2013. He is 44-32 during his six seasons in Waco, including 29-10 in the past three seasons as the talent he recruited started to really put its stamp on the program. The Bears won 21 total games in the six seasons prior to Briles' arrival.

It's ideal that the two men who have become the face of Baylor's rise were reunited to open BU's new home. Griffin played an integral role in the rise, leading the Bears to a 23-17 record in 40 starts including a 10-win season in 2011. And he continues to play an active role.

"He had a nice little talk with us during summertime, basically saying we have to keep this trend going," tight end Tre'Von Armstead said.

The bulk of Baylor's success was all built upon the vision Briles had for the Big 12's second-smallest school. He's no longer selling a vision.

Seven years later, reality is finally on Briles' side. The Bears do have a recent Heisman Trophy winner, the Bears do have one of the nation's nicest stadiums and, most importantly, the Bears do have one of the nation's best teams.

"The sky is the limit for this team, for this program, for this university," Griffin said. "It's only going to get bigger, it's only going to get better."

They don't have to dream anymore on BU's campus. All the pieces are in place to cement a spot among the nation's best, year in and year out. Thus, the focus has turned instead to another dream: A berth in the College Football Playoff and the first national championship in school history.

"We plan on, we are going to, go all the way," Armstead said. "We'll take it one game at a time, but we have big goals."

Baylor 45, SMU 0

August, 31, 2014
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video Bryce Petty threw for 161 yards and two touchdowns as No. 10 Baylor defeated SMU, 45-0.
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting news across the country. Today’s offerings: Despite losing to Florida State, Oklahoma State could end up being a winner on the recruiting trail because of its effort. Plus, Oregon brought in two key official visitors for its first game of the season and was rewarded with an ESPN 300 commitment, and we continue our tour of the top recruiting happenings on social media.

There’s been quite a bit of excitement in Knoxville recently, and it was easy to see why with Tennessee’s opening-day performance Sunday. In front of a capacity crowd -- the first sellout in a home opener since 2007 -- the Volunteers dominated a dangerous Utah State team who many thought could pull off the upset, 38-7.

A little old, a little new

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After scoring the opening touchdown, Tennessee’s special teams came up with a big play, and it was fitting that senior linebacker A.J. Johnson made the play. Johnson, an All-SEC talent who could’ve left early for the NFL, ran down on kickoff coverage and jarred the ball loose from the Utah State returner. To nobody’s surprise it was Todd Kelly Jr., one of 21 UT true freshmen (and 32 newcomers) to play Sunday night, who was there to recover the fumble.

Fourth-down stand

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All we’ve heard about this offseason is how the Volunteers are having to replace every starter on both their offensive and defensive lines. Well, the defensive line is tired of hearing about it. They held Chuckie Keeton and Utah State to 34 yards rushing in the first half, and when the Aggies tried to go for it on 4th-and-1 early in the second quarter, Jordan Williams and Derek Barnett were there to fill the hole and stuff Utah State, forcing a turnover on downs.

Welcome to Rocky Top, Von

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Everybody saw the sick one-handed touchdown grab that junior college transfer Von Pearson made in spring practice, so it should come as no surprise that Pearson caught a touchdown in his first game as a Volunteer. No, the catch wasn’t an instant SportsCenter Top-10 nominee, but it was certainly more meaningful. The play capped off a 13-play, 69-yard drive that ate up six minutes of clock and gave Tennessee a 24-0 lead.

More from Johnson

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Did you think Johnson was done just yet? The guy didn’t turn down the NFL and come back to Tennessee to not make plays. With the Volunteers already up 31-7 early in the fourth quarter, Johnson got the capacity crowd back into it when he intercepted Keeton and nearly took it back for a touchdown. It’s safe to say he’s not regretting his decision to stay. If anything, his stock will continue to rise with more games like this.

Playoff picture: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
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There is one thing the College Football Playoff didn’t change, and that’s the importance of the regular season. The playoff picture has already been affected. Here’s a look at how the biggest games impacted the postseason in Week 1:

NOBODY LOOKED INVINCIBLE

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsHeisman candidate Brett Hundley looked rather ordinary against Virginia on Saturday.
Nobody looked as good as Florida State did a year ago -- including this Florida State. The No. 1-ranked Seminoles got a good scare from Oklahoma State. No. 7 UCLA traveled across the country and ran into a shockingly good Virginia defense. No. 5 Ohio State’s defense looked like it had one week to prepare for Navy’s triple option -- not all summer. No. 2 Alabama looked vulnerable on defense and had its hands full with West Virginia. Two Heisman hopefuls – FSU quarterback Jameis Winston and UCLA’s Brett Hundley -- looked more average than they did spectacular, and were overshadowed by the likes of Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley and – surprise -- Kenny Hill. Nothing came easy in Week 1 -- including any indication as to who the best team in the country might be -- but that's typical. Look for significant improvement and more clarity in Week 2 now that the nerves have settled and the rust is off.

GAMECOCKS WENT SOUTH

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier had no answers following his team’s 52-28 loss to Texas A&M, one of the most surprising results of the week. The Aggies looked in midseason form against a porous South Carolina defense that allowed a school-record 680 yards. Hill outplayed South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson, and while South Carolina’s playoff stock plummeted, the Aggies’ rose. Consider this: The next four opponents for A&M are Lamar, Rice, SMU and Arkansas. The Aggies should be 5-0 heading into October and a trendy playoff pick – especially if Hill continues to play with that poise and accuracy. It was a rough opening for the entire state of South Carolina, as Clemson lost to Georgia, which looked very capable of winning the SEC East. The Bulldogs, led by Gurley’s school-record 293 all-purpose yards, scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to break away for a 45-21 win.

GOOD NOT GREAT

Ohio State doesn’t look like it’s going to bulldoze its way through the Big Ten with J.T. Barrett at quarterback and a young offensive line paving the way, but it certainly isn’t going to roll over for anyone, either. The loss of Braxton Miller to injury was a game-changer, but the team’s relentless performance against Navy showed that the Buckeyes can’t be counted out just yet. Barrett threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns in his collegiate debut, and coach Urban Meyer used a conservative game plan to keep his rookie comfortable. Ohio State has three straight home games against unranked opponents (Virginia Tech, Kent State and Cincinnati) before opening league play at Maryland on Oct. 4. The Hokies’ defense should present the biggest challenge, but the Buckeyes can still enter their Big Ten schedule in exactly the same place everyone thought they’d be with Miller -- in the playoff conversation.

PERCEPTION PROBLEMS

The Big Ten was oh-so-close to gaining some respect this weekend until Wisconsin squandered its 10-point halftime lead against LSU. With the exceptions of Wisconsin and Northwestern, the conference won all of its games. League newcomer Rutgers found a way to beat Washington State in Seattle, and Penn State beat UCF in Ireland, but the Badgers missed their opportunity on the biggest stage. They had the best chance at making a statement for the entire conference. Instead, it was an underwhelming debut for quarterback Tanner McEvoy, who completed 8 of 24 passes for 50 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Melvin Gordon had 140 yards -- but only had 16 carries. With Wisconsin’s schedule -- the Badgers don’t play Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan -- a win over LSU would’ve pushed them into the playoff conversation. Now? The Big Ten better hope the Spartans or Buckeyes can live up to the expectations.

BUH-BYE BOISE (and UCF)

The Broncos had one chance to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee against a Power 5 opponent, and it disappeared with a 35-13 loss to Ole Miss on Thursday night. If an undefeated Boise State couldn’t get into the title game in the old BCS system, a one-loss Broncos team probably isn’t going to sneak into the four-team playoff. The same can be said for UCF, which had high expectations for this season coming off its Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. A tough 26-24 loss to Penn State in Ireland was hardly an embarrassment, but it’s going to be nearly impossible to overcome as a member of the American Athletic Conference.

That’s not to say that Boise State or UCF won’t play on New Year’s Day. The highest-ranked conference champion not from the Group of 5 will earn a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowls, but that’s a consolation prize to two programs that have already been there, won that.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 1 in the Big Ten:

Rutgers RB Paul James: It sure looks as if we can add James to the growing list of solid running backs in the conference. James was the constant in the Knights’ offense Thursday and, whenever it faltered, he was the one to pick it up. His stat line: 29 carries, 173 yards, three TDs. He was the workhorse against Washington State, and he was the reason the Knights were able to match the Cougars’ high-scoring offense. Maybe Leonte Carroo was a bit flashier -- maybe -- but James was Mr. Consistent.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: All he did was set a single-game school record with 454 passing yards. And, oh yeah, he went 4-of-6 for 55 yards and ran for another 8 yards on the game-winning drive. He took his share of hits in the pocket and didn’t get much run support, but he did just about everything he could for the win. Did he force it at times? You bet. But he was the main reason PSU moved the ball downfield, and he is now the only player in the 127-year history of the Nittany Lions to reach the 400-yard passing plateau. How could we not give him a helmet sticker?

Penn State K Sam Ficken: It’s only fair. Hackenberg drove the offense; Ficken won the game. After missing four field goals in the 2012 loss to Virginia, Ficken redeemed himself by going 4-of-4 on Saturday -- and by nailing the last-second, game-winning 36-yard field goal. Kickers don’t earn helmet stickers all that often, but kickers don’t have days like Ficken too often, either. It’s a true underdog story.

Michigan WR Devin Funchess: Tell me if you see a pattern here. First score, first passing TD -- Funchess. Second score, second passing TD -- Funchess. Third score … OK, OK. You get it. Funchess finished with seven catches for 95 yards and scored the game’s first three TDs. He helped ice this game before it really started. Props to Devin Gardner for getting him the ball, but Funchess has to get most of the credit on those last two tosses. He leaped, made an adjustment and broke a tackle for the second TD. And he came up with a catch in double coverage for the third.

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: His video game-esque stats are a bit misleading, since a lot of his yards came after the catch. But Barrett didn’t let up in his first career start. He kept a cool head in the second half and helped lead the Buckeyes to a comeback win. His final numbers? Check this out: 12-of-15, 226 passing yards, two TDs, one interception, 50 rushing yards. He really earned this helmet sticker with his final two quarters, going 4-of-4 for 130 yards and two TDs. It was a memorable first start.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: The impressive part? Abullah rushed for 232 yards and a TD on just 21 carries. The more impressive part? He was pulled in the middle of the third quarter when the game was in hand. He was nearly perfect after the first drive; nine of his last 15 carries went for at least 10 yards. He’s shifty, he’s quick, and he just outright confused the hapless Florida Atlantic defense. We see many more helmet stickers in Mr. Abdullah’s future.

Big 12 helmet stickers: Week 1

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Well, that was a pretty great day of football in the Big 12, all in all (sorry, Cyclones). We were on the lookout for guys who surprised in this first week of college football, and we had no trouble finding enough guys worthy of the coveted helmet sticker. Yes, Baylor still has to play, but here's who we're handing stickers out to for big games on Saturday:

ATH Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State: The best compliment you can offer Tyreek Hill might be that, without a doubt, Florida State wishes that guy was on their team. The heavily-hyped junior college transfer might've actually exceeded his electric expectations with 106 yards of offense on 14 touches and, including returns, 278 all-purpose yards in the 37-31 loss to Florida State. We tried to warn you all about him. Hill is going to be special and he's going to give Big 12 defenses fits.

QB Clint Trickett and WR Kevin White, West Virginia: What a gutsy performance from the Mountaineers and especially this duo during the 33-23 loss to Alabama. Trickett came out firing and finished with 365 passing yards and no turnovers. White might've been even better. He took it to the Alabama secondary with 143 yards on nine receptions, including a 19-yard score, and evoked a lot of talk about his NFL future. Trickett and White were put on a big stage and they stepped up.

WR John Harris, Texas: Welcome back to the big show. Harris, a senior who was seldom used last season, had an eye-opening, career-best performance as David Ash's go-to guys during a 38-7 win over North Texas. He hauled in seven receptions for 110 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown in which he trucked through a defender near the goal line. Harris caught five passes in all of 2013 but could be poised to do big things if he and Ash keep up this rapport.

QB Jake Waters, Kansas State: Waters kicked off his senior-year campaign with another typically steady showing, leading K-State on a 55-16 rout of SF Austin while putting up some nice numbers: 223 yards on 19-of-28 passing, two passing TDs, 55 rushing yards, two rushing TDs. He's becoming an excellent distributor. KSU's offense won't ask him to put up crazy Air Raid stats, but this was a nice performance.

RB Keith Ford, Oklahoma: Freshman Samaje Perine finished with more yards and Alex Ross chipped in two scores, but Ford did some really nice things with his touches. He finished with 116 total yards (65 receiving, 51 rushing) and punched in two first-quarter touchdown runs to get the Sooners rolling to a 48-16 win over Louisiana Tech. OU's inexperience stable of backs got the job done.

DE Mike Tuaua, TCU: The Horned Frogs' defensive line fared just fine without Devonte Fields thanks to a breakout performance from Tuaua. The former juco transfer went wild on Samford with 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles during TCU's 48-14 win. A three-game starter last season, Tuaua almost matched his entire TFL output from last season in one night. He won't get to catch folks by surprise anymore, that's for sure.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
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Football is back. That means helmet stickers are back! Here’s who gets one of college football's most coveted honors for Week 1.

Kaelin Clay, KR, Utah: The Pac-12 blog is always hesitant to dole out too much praise for victories in FCS games. But Clay went above and beyond in Utah’s 56-14 win over Idaho State. He returned a punt 46 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona: Not a bad night for the new guy. He threw for 425 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start (also adding 50 yards on the ground) as the Wildcats totaled a school record 787 total yards in their 58-13 win over UNLV.

Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State: This is getting to be a troubling trend. Halliday has a monster game, but the Cougs lose in the fourth quarter. Sort of how we ended last year. Still, he threw for 532 yards and five touchdowns against a Big Ten team, a 41-38 loss to Rutgers. That has to count for something.

UCLA’s defense: While the offense significantly underwhelmed, the defense kept the Bruins alive with three defensive touchdowns in the second quarter, which was ultimately the difference in their 28-20 win at Virginia. Interception returns by Ishmael Adams and Eric Kendricks, with a Randall Goforth fumble return in between, gave the Bruins a big enough lead.

Jalen Jefferson, LB, Cal: Been a while since we tapped a Cal defensive player for a helmet sticker. Feels weird. Feels good. Jefferson led all players with 16 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and a critical 11-yard sack on Northwestern’s penultimate offensive play of the game. On the final play, it was Jefferson who snagged an interception, sealing a 31-24 win. He was Eh-vre-where.

Cody Kessler, QB, USC: I know, I know. We could do three or four quarterbacks every week. And just an FYI, we probably will, because they’re that good this year. Kessler picked up where he left off against Fresno State last year and posted a career high 394 yards on 25-of-37 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the 52-13 win over the Bulldogs.

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