- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATHENS, Georgia -- For the first 30 minutes of Saturday's opener against No. 16 Clemson at Sanford Stadium, No. 12 Georgia looked like a lot of other teams on the opening weekend of the college football season.
Georgia's much-maligned defense couldn't keep the Tigers off the field, and its offense couldn't seem to stay on on it.
At least the Bulldogs had junior tailback Todd Gurley.
Gurley, who was plagued by ankle injuries the past season, carried the ball only four times in the first half, but his 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown helped the Bulldogs tie the score at 21 before the half.
In the second half, Gurley showed why he's among the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy, as he ran wild to finish with a career-high 198 rushing yards on 15 carries with four total touchdowns.
"He had four [carries], huh?" Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said, when asked about Gurley's first-half workload.
With Gurley finally healthy, Georgia might be the team to beat in the SEC East and a contender for one of the four spots in the first College Football Playoff. Gurley gives the Bulldogs a commodity that a lot of other teams don't have -- a player who can change a game in an instant and do it time and time again.
"I think he's the best player in America, or at least one of them," Richt said.
Other College Football Playoff contenders struggled without their star players on the opening weekend. With star quarterback Braxton Miller sidelined for the entire season with a shoulder injury, No. 5 Ohio State started slow in a 34-17 victory over Navy on Saturday. No. 9 South Carolina seemed lost in Thursday's 52-28 loss to No. 21 Texas A&M without departed star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and quarterback Connor Shaw, and Clemson wasn't nearly as explosive as it was a year ago, when quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins were wreaking havoc.
Even No. 1 Florida State looked pretty average on defense after losing a plethora of stars to the NFL draft, before they finally pulled away for a 37-31 win over Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas. The Seminoles needed a 50-yard touchdown pass from Jameis Winston to Rashad Greene late in the fourth quarter to give them the cushion they needed.
No. 2 Alabama also showed plenty of warts in a 33-23 win over West Virginia on Saturday in Atlanta, but Amari Cooper (12 catches, 130 yards) and the combination of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry (239 yards and 3 TDs between them) were enough to see the Crimson Tide safely past the Mountaineers.
On the first weekend of the season, Georgia was better than a lot of teams because of Gurley, who looked like one of the best players in the country again.
"Todd Gurley is obviously as good as it gets," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He is a great, great football player. Gurley, and all their backs, were special tonight."
So much so that Georgia might be crazy to ever try to throw the ball again. The Bulldogs ran for 328 yards in the game, with highly regarded freshmen Nick Chubb (70 yards on four carries) and Sony Michel (33 yards on six carries) providing plenty of relief behind Gurley.
"We've got to use that passing game," Gurley said. "We get tired of running the ball every time. I'm sure the wide receivers want to get their touches, too."
Quarterback Hutson Mason, who threw for 131 yards on 18-for-26 passing, doesn't care what the Bulldogs do, as long as they keep winning.
"When you waited around for one year, and you've got one shot at this, records aren't on my mind," Mason said. "Getting to Atlanta, winning championships and dancing in confetti are what I think about."
If we're looking at every week in a vacuum while selecting the four teams for the College Football Playoff, here's where we stand based on the results after Week 1. (Disclaimer: We're not accepting résumés with FCS results. Sorry, Michigan State, Oregon and Stanford. You'll get your chances next week. As will Baylor, Miami and Louisville, who have yet to play.)
Four teams in
1. Texas A&M: Time will tell how mediocre (or bad) South Carolina's defense really is, but it's pretty clear Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital know how to coach quarterbacks and run an offense. Will the A&M defense hold up?
2. Georgia: If Gurley stays healthy, the Bulldogs will have a chance to win every game this season. Even more important: New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's unit threw a shutout in the second half against Clemson.
3. LSU: The Tigers looked far from perfect in their 28-24 victory over Wisconsin in Houston on Saturday night. But quarterback Anthony Jennings grew up a lot in the second half and made the plays he had to make.
4. Oklahoma: The Sooners picked up where they left off the past season, as quarterback Trevor Knight threw for 253 yards with one touchdown in a 48-16 rout of Louisiana Tech. Just as importantly, OU found a running game to help him.
Next four in contention
1. USC: Fresno State wasn't what it was the past season, but the Trojans might have had the most impressive offensive performance of the opening weekend. The Trojans piled up 701 yards of offense, their highest total since 2005. USC gets a huge test at No. 11 Stanford next week.
2. Auburn: The Tigers seemed to play two different halves in Saturday's opener against Arkansas. They were much better after quarterback Nick Marshall returned from a first-half suspension for his offseason citation on marijuana charges.
3. Alabama: Sure, Alabama's defense didn't generate much of a pass rush or cover West Virginia's speedy receivers very well in a 33-23 victory in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide still have plenty of firepower, though, regardless of who's playing quarterback.
4. Florida State: The defending national champions survived their opener with a victory over Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas. But FSU won't repeat as national champions if they continue to play like they did against the Pokes.
Best debut (player)
1. Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel's replacement set the Texas A&M single-game record with 511 passing yards in Thursday's 52-28 win at No. 9 South Carolina. Hill completed 44 of 60 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
2. Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona: It appears Rich Rod has a triggerman for his spread offense. Solomon, a redshirt freshman from Las Vegas, threw for 425 yards with four touchdowns on 25-for-44 passing in a 58-13 rout of UNLV on Friday night.
3. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma: Perine was the other freshman OU fans were so excited about. But with Joe Mixon sitting out this season because of disciplinary problems, Perine might become the Sooners' primary back. He ran 13 times for 77 yards with one touchdown in a 48-16 win over Louisiana Tech on Saturday night.
4. Jacobi Owens, RB, Air Force: The freshman from Las Vegas, who redshirted at the Air Force Academy the past season, ran 23 times for 233 yards in the Falcons' 44-16 victory over FCS foe Nicholls State on Saturday. It was the highest total by an Air Force player in his first game since Cody Getz ran for 218 in 2012.
Best debut (coach)
1. Steve Sarkisian, USC: Perhaps no coach needed the season to start more than Sarkisian, who was hit with a pair of off-field headaches this week. But the Trojans looked fantastic in their 52-13 rout of Fresno State and ran a Pac-12 record 105 plays with 37 first downs and 701 yards of offense.
2. Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky: Who needs Bobby Petrino? Behind Brohm, who was Petrino's offensive coordinator the past season, the Hilltoppers set a school record with 702 yards of offense in a 59-31 victory over Bowling Green on Friday night. WKU went 14-for-18 on third down.
3. Bill Clark, UAB: Clark, who was hired from Jacksonville State to replace the departed Garrick McGee, guided the Blazers to a 48-10 rout of Troy on Saturday. UAB went 2-10 the past season and lost its last six games under McGee.
4. Chris Klieman, North Dakota State: Klieman replaced Craig Bohl, who led the Bison to three straight FCS national championships and then left for Wyoming. The Bison had to replace 12 starters but still beat Iowa State 34-14 on the road on Saturday.
Worst debut (coach)
1. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: The Commodores had seven turnovers in a 37-7 loss to Temple on Thursday, the Owls' first victory over an SEC foe since they beat Florida in 1938.
2. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons managed only five first downs and 94 yards of offense in a 17-10 loss at Louisiana-Monroe on Thursday night.
3. Dino Babers, Bowling Green: Babers, one of the sport's up-and-coming offensive coaches, might want to take a closer look at Bowling Green's defense after their loss at Western Kentucky.
4. Charlie Partridge, Florida Atlantic: The former assistant head coach at Arkansas was hired to replace Carl Pelini. In Partridge's debut, the Owls allowed 498 rushing yards in a 55-7 loss Saturday at Nebraska.
1. Dee Hart, RB, Colorado State: The former five-star recruit, who suffered two serious knee injuries while at Alabama, ran for 139 yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns in his first game at Colorado State, a 31-17 win over rival Colorado on Friday night.
2. Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame: Golson, who sat out the past season because of academic misconduct, threw for 295 yards with two touchdowns and ran for three more scores in the Fighting Irish's 48-17 win over Rice. It was Golson's first game action in 600 days.
3. Aaron Davis, S, Georgia: Davis, a freshman walk-on who hadn't played since suffering torn knee ligaments in high school in 2012, had an interception, fumble recovery and four tackles in UGA's 45-21 win over Clemson.
4. Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana: Coleman, who missed the last three games of '13 because of an ankle injury, ran 23 times for 247 yards with two touchdowns Saturday in the Hoosiers' 28-10 win over FCS foe Indiana State.
1. NC State: Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett threw a 35-yard touchdown to Matt Dayes with 1:37 left to lift the Wolfpack to a 24-23 win over Georgia Southern, which was playing its first game as an FBS member.
2. Illinois: Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt passed for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, which led the Illini to a 28-17 win over FCS opponent Youngstown State. Lunt finished with 284 passing yards and four touchdowns.
3. Syracuse: The Orange were on the verge of losing to FCS foe Villanova at the Carrier Dome on Friday, before Wildcats kicker Chris Gough missed a 25-yard field goal with 12 seconds left in regulation. The Orange scored a touchdown on a fake field goal in the second overtime and then denied Nova's two-point try for a 27-26 victory.
4. Iowa: The Hawkeyes had a 24-23 lead with less than 10 minutes to go against FCS opponent Northern Iowa on Saturday, but then quarterback Jake Rudock threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Damond Powell to make it 31-23. The Iowa defense came up with a late interception to seal the win.
1. "Did anybody like that 3-4 defense? But I don't know if it would have mattered if we played a 6-6 defense. I don't know if 12 out there would have helped that much." -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier on his team's new defensive scheme, which allowed 680 yards of offense in the loss to Texas A&M.
2. "The guy's a really good coach. Ya'll need to fess up to that." -- Alabama coach Nick Saban on new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, after the Tide had 538 yards of offense in Saturday's 33-23 win over West Virginia.
3. "Everett Golson was electric. He kept his eyes down field. He knew when to run. He knew when to throw it." -- Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly
4. "The best thing about this game is we won it, and it's in our rearview mirror." - Ohio State coach Urban Meyer on the Buckeyes' 34-17 win over Navy.
Stats that matter
1. 454: Passing yards for Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg in Saturday's 26-24 win over Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, the first time a Nittany Lions player has eclipsed 400 yards in a game.
2. 365: Passing yards for West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett against Alabama on Saturday. Knight threw for 348 yards against the Tide in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, the first time a Nick Saban-coached defense has allowed consecutive 300-yard passing games.
3. 3: Defensive touchdowns scored by UCLA in the second quarter of Saturday's 28-20 win Saturday at Virginia. The Bruins are the first FBS team to have three defensive scores in a quarter since East Carolina against Tulsa in 2009.
4. 10: Consecutive losses for Arkansas, the longest losing streak in school history.
1. Eastern Michigan performs perhaps the worst stadium entrance in history.
2. Youngstown State pulls off a "butt punt" in Saturday's game at Illinois.
3. Auburn's ball boy might be the next "Red Lightning."
4. Skydiver misses his mark before Saturday's game between UCF and Penn State in Dublin, Ireland.
Tweets of the night
— Johnathan Adkins (@ostateboys) August 30, 2014
— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) August 30, 2014
Are you kidding me with this playing calling..... C'mon man...
— Thurman Thomas (@thurmanthomas) August 31, 2014
Kiffin looks like the bad guy in die hard pic.twitter.com/75TUANlRKe
— Erik Ainge (@ErikAinge3) August 30, 2014