CHARLOTTE – The overreaction to an opening weekend snapshot is a staple inherent to college football. Remember Kenny Trill? Or Texas being back under Charlie Strong? Or Josh Rosen’s epic UCLA comeback? All faded quicker than they arrived.
On Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, the familiar trappings of college football returned. There were color-coded cocktail dresses, a full day of libations and the type of searing energy, hope and optimism that comes with a giant stadium of 74,187 coming uncorked at opening kick.
By the time that Clemson and Georgia slogged through 60 minutes with no offensive touchdowns, pass interference doubling as the day’s most consistent explosive play and punting to win, the unfortunate became obvious. The takeaway from No. 5 Georgia toppling No. 3 Clemson, 10-3, is that both have so far to go on offense that it magnified just how far Alabama is ahead of the competition in college football. Again.
This observation isn’t finite, as in no one can catch Alabama this year. But it’s obvious after the first weekend that all of the usual suspects who could play foils to the Crimson Tide are all distinctly flawed. (None more than typical Tide foil LSU, which is retreating from the championship mainstream at Chizikian speed.)
And it should give all of the commissioners, TV executives and other dignitaries engrossed in the discussions for the future of the College Football Playoff a reminder of the necessity of expansion as discussions heat up later this month. Alabama would still be ahead of everyone on the field, of course. But it would inject an adrenaline shot of something that’s increasingly missing in everywhere but five or six zip codes around the sport – hope.
Surely, Georgia fans poured out of Bank of America excited that the Bulldogs didn’t invent a painful way to lose. The Bulldogs blitzed with savvy, including pressuring D.J. Uiagalelei on the 74-yard interception return by Christopher Smith in the second quarter that provided the game’s only touchdown.
Surely, we could list off the key fourth-down stops, penalties or game-management decisions that shaped this slobberknocker. But we’ll save that for the next time we see Vince Dooley or Danny Ford, who perhaps appreciated this taffy pull.
The main takeaway from 30,000 feet wasn’t the grit that Georgia showed in winning, however. It was more obvious that they still lack the missing pieces to traverse the final step to become a championship program. Georgia’s longest offensive play from scrimmage was 22 yards. Its longest pass was 21. “To be elite, we’ve got to hit some explosives,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We have to work on that.”
The look was a pinch more pessimistic for Clemson, which in consecutive games against elite competition has shown that its offensive line has regressed from pedestrian to a liability. Clemson’s offensive line got manhandled, giving up seven sacks and finishing with just two rushing yards (sacks included). Clemson rushed for just 44 yards against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff last year, an average of 2.0 yards per carry (sacks included). When going up against elite fronts, Clemson’s offensive line has been a vulnerability, and that’s the primary reason it has backslid from the tip top of the sport. “I’m disappointed certainly that we didn’t play better,” Swinney said of the offensive line.
This all played out juxtaposed to No. 1 Alabama, which one year after running through and away from the competition in college football looked on Saturday like the same clinical machine in dispatching No. 14 Miami, 44-13. Alabama arguably upgraded at offensive coordinator in bringing in Bill O’Brien and they have another former NFL coach, Doug Marrone, coaching the offensive line.
Smart didn’t mention the Tide by name, but acknowledged that Georgia’s offense needs to improve and develop an identity for the program to win the SEC and beyond. “We have to score points,” Smart said. “Defense is hard to play now. You have to score points to win games. We know that. We’ve worked hard on that.”
There will be plenty of time for Georgia and Clemson to work things out. They each play as soft of a regular season schedule that you can play in modern college football. Clemson’s toughest remaining game will be at NC State on Sept. 24. Georgia plays Florida on Oct. 30. It’d be a surprise if either team is favored by less than a touchdown the rest of the way. Most games they’ll be favored by more.
So there will be time for Georgia to work out kinks and overcome the key injuries (George Pickens) and disappearances (Arik Gilbert). Others skill players like Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson are overcoming injuries and need to regain form, even after playing. There will be time for Georgia to have some skill players emerge, as a true freshman tight end named Brock Bowers led the team Saturday in receiving with 43 yards, twice as many as the next closest player. That’s not exactly on par with Waddle and Smith.
Georgia quarterback J.T. Daniels finished 22-for-30 for 135 yards and an interception, as Clemson surprised Georgia by playing soft coverage, taking away explosive plays and making UGA grind out drives. No one was going to take away his joy from the ugly win, even if the offenses didn’t reach the end zone. “Hell no, we just beat Clemson,” Daniels said. He added: “If the defense does that every day, we don’t need to score much more than four points.” Nice spirit. Flawed strategy.
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei finished 19-for-37 in his third career start, and Smart used the word “rattled” three different times to describe how Georgia’s defensive front and blitzes impacted him. He has room to grow, and the most encouraging sign for the Clemson offense was the sight of oft-injured receiver Joseph Ngata returning to make six catches for 110 yards. Elite talent Justyn Ross returned quietly to receiver with four catches for 26 yards, but that could be still viewed as a building block considering the severity of the spine injury that forced him out of last year. “We got a lot of explosive guys,” Swinney said. “We’ve just got to put it all together.”
After watching Ohio State’s defense get gashed by Minnesota and Oklahoma nearly lose to Tulane, it’s hard to leave the opening weekend thinking that this season will play out much different than the last.
And that’s why the playoff argument, which will be discussed in earnest among the poohbahs in the next month, becomes more vital. If there’s a reasonable way to handicap the season on the first Saturday night, the sport needs to be shaken up. As flawed as we’ve just discussed Georgia and Clemson being, it’s also hard to predict either of them will miss the playoff.
There’s a need to inject interest, optimism and new blood from coast to coast – and the Pac-12 could use a pick-me-up after Washington and Stanford flopped. Even if the ending is the same, a better path with more participants keeps more people locked in and keeps the sport healthier. If the alliance commissioners didn’t like the process that got them to playoff, they still need the added access and increased interest that comes with it.
It’s glorious to have college football back with fans in the stands and tailgates jumping. But the sport’s early direction in 2021 remains predictable at the top. Maybe Georgia finds some dynamic receiver skill and evolves into the SEC champs. Maybe Clemson’s offensive line grows up and matches its elite defensive front.
But the new college football movie looks a lot like the old one. And that’s why in the pivotal upcoming months for the sport’s future, a jolt of optimism, access and diversity at the highest levels is needed.