12:27 AM ET
David M. HaleESPN Staff Writer
- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
Nick Saban spent the second Saturday in September coaching a scrimmage, then talking to the media through an Internet connection about a game that’s still two weeks away.
Dabo Swinney checked in with ESPN’s College GameDay using FaceTime on his cell phone — which, inexplicably, he held, arm outstretched, the whole time — from his team’s training room.
Ed Orgeron spent the first Saturday that resembled anything close to real college football doing — OK, we’re just going to assume the coach was elbow-deep in some crawfish. At least that would have offered some normalcy amid one of the most unusual starts to a college football year.
But while the top echelon of the sport muddled through a patchwork Saturday, America was treated to arguably the most surprising development of a surreal 2020: The country’s best conference so far is the Sun Belt.
Really, was there any more fitting way for this season to truly get started than for the Sun Belt to pull off a pair of shocking upsets Saturday?
In Ames, Iowa, the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns used a kick return TD and a punt return TD to shock No. 23 Iowa State 31-14, ending the Brock Purdy Heisman love before it even got started. Billy Napier’s crew held Purdy to just 145 yards and no touchdowns. It was the first time Louisiana beat a ranked opponent since 1996 against Texas A&M, when Jake Delhomme was at QB.
Kidding aside, the two unexpected victories gave two programs a much-needed boost after recent personal tragedies.
Napier was emotional talking about the loss of offensive line coach D.J. Looney, who died of a heart attack at the age of 31 last month.
“It’s a special group of people in that locker room,” Napier said after the game. “I know you guys are well aware of what we’ve been through. We can talk about COVID-19, social issues and a hurricane. But when you lose family members, one of your team members, it’s a significant event. I hope my man D.J.’s up there smiling for sure.”
It was a similarly emotional win for Arkansas State, which upended Kansas State with a 17-yard TD pass from Layne Hatcher to Jonathan Adams Jr. with just 38 seconds left to play. It was Week 2 a year ago that Red Wolves head coach Blake Anderson triumphantly returned to his team after the death of his wife, Wendy. Anderson lost his father this offseason, too. But on Saturday, there was nothing but celebration in the Arkansas State locker room.
“There’s water spouting everywhere, and dudes hoppin’ and jumpin’ and dancing,” Anderson said. “Really excited but not surprised.”
Anderson said he thought his team should have won a week ago when a bevy of mistakes cost the Red Wolves against Memphis, and Saturday’s victory only underscored how talented his team is this season. And as the folks over at Reddit pointed out, it was a particularly damning indictment of Kansas State.
Kansas State is not even the best team with “Kansas State” in its name.
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) September 12, 2020
It’s worth noting that the three losses by the Big 12 — including Coastal Carolina’s late-night throttling of Kansas — didn’t have to happen. The league opted to play one non-conference game each this season, a plan that commissioner Bob Bowlsby may be rethinking today. At least Texas Tech won. By two. As a 40-point favorite against Houston Baptist. Did we mention it was a rough day for the Big 12?
For the Sun Belt, however, it was a massive step into the spotlight on a day when only two Power 5 leagues were playing games. The league played its first season in 2001, but as ESPN Stats & Information notes, this was the first time it managed multiple wins over the Power 5 on the same day. Odds of both Louisiana and Arkansas State winning Saturday? That’d be 2.1%.
Meanwhile, the Sun Belt’s defending champs got off to a slow start — forgive them, the uniforms needed time to dry — but Appalachian State rounded out a 35-20 win over Charlotte, too.
Add it all up, and the Sun Belt has earned its crown — at least for a week.
“People pay attention, there’s really good ball played in our league,” Anderson said. “If you’re not playing your best ball, you’re going to get beat. They were two really good matchups for our league and I’m hoping people start taking notice of what our league is capable of.”
Signs of the times
Saturday’s kickoff of Power 5 football in 2020 was, in a word, strange.
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) September 12, 2020
Among the most poignant was the decal worn by North Carolina on Saturday. The team’s leadership council asked Tomon Fox, Carolina’s star outside linebacker and an accomplished artist, to create a decal, and he went to work on something memorable. The design features a clenched black fist with the words “Peace,” “Justice,” “Freedom” and “Equality” stitched around it, along with the slogan “Say Their Names,” a rallying cry against police brutality.
When the NCAA said teams could wear a patch on their uniforms, our leadership council turned to @tomon_fox to create it.
— Carolina Football (@TarHeelFootball) September 11, 2020
There were also reminders of the coronavirus pandemic that has upended the country for the past six months. Many stadiums were empty or had a small percentage filled with fans.
The games on the field showed plenty of fallout from the pandemic, too. The play was — to put it mildly — sloppy.
North Carolina was flagged for a false start at the end of the first half — on a kneel down.
Louisiana nearly fumbled away its upset with a lackluster snap on what was supposed to be a spike.
There was also … whatever this was.
Citadel punter Matt Campbell succumbs to pressure and fails to deliver a successful punt as Omarion Dollison returns the failed kick for a USF touchdown.
And then there were the kickers. Missed field goals were prominent throughout the day, highlighted — or lowlighted, perhaps — by Georgia Tech, which saw two kicks blocked but still managed a 16-13 win over Florida State.
History at Notre Dame
How’s this for confidence in a head coach: Notre Dame inked Brian Kelly to a contract extension before ever seeing the guy coach a conference game. Just before the Irish kicked off against Duke on Saturday, news broke that Kelly had signed a contract extension through 2024.
The gamble paid off, too. Notre Dame hardly blew past Duke in its debut as a full-time ACC member, but the Irish eventually pulled away behind a stellar performance from tailback Kyren Williams, winning 27-13. For a program notorious for its lack of rich history, getting conference win No. 1 was a watershed moment.
So, where does Kelly’s historic win in the aftermath of a new contract rank among great Notre Dame coaching moments? Well, his pregame speech likely will be repeated for decades.
“Some time, Book, when the team is up against it, when conference logos on the field look all wrong and Duke is beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one in the ACC.”
It’s getting hot in here
Florida might not have played Saturday, but the Gators still made some news when a fire broke out at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, which generated tons of social media content — including from the Gators’ coach.
Initially, it was reported the fire was started by a faulty golf cart, which is really more appropriate in Naples than Gainesville.
Then, word spread on social media that the problem was a dumpster fire, which would’ve marked the worst such incident at Florida since the 2013 Georgia Southern game.
Finally, however, word came down from the school that the fire actually began with a tractor, adding some salt in the wound for somber Nebraska fans. If anyone was going to combine tractor fires and football this year, it should’ve been them.
Who’s got next?
Wondering how much the COVID-19 pandemic might play havoc with schedules this fall? Saturday gave us more than just a taste.
The day started with the ACC announcing Virginia Tech-Virginia, scheduled for Sept. 19, would be rescheduled because of an outbreak in the Hokies’ locker room. That caused UVA to then move up its game against Duke, initially set for Nov. 14, to Sept. 26 instead. The change was necessitated because the Cavaliers wouldn’t have had a game until Oct. 10 otherwise.
The move also prompted a pretty epic, CDC-approved burn from one rival to another.
Things got messier when an outbreak at Memphis forced the postponement of the Tigers game against Houston scheduled for Sept. 18. How did Houston respond? It’s found a replacement, Baylor, to play in six days!
We’re still at least a few weeks away from seeing many of the top candidates for the Heisman, but the expected stars who took the field Saturday all delivered big numbers. So, for our first Heisman Five, we’re looking only at guys who’ve played a game so far. There will be plenty of room for Najee Harris and Chuba Hubbard and Kellen Mond — and maybe, just maybe, Justin Fields — down the road.
1. QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Sure, he threw for more than 350 yards in a blowout win, but here’s the stat that’s really worth celebrating: 7 carries, minus-24 yards … and two rushing touchdowns. (Seriously, this has happened only three other times in the past decade.)
2. QB Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
In his starting debut, Rattler completed 14-of-17 passes for four touchdowns, which seems pretty good. But remember, that’s still two fewer TDs than Jalen Hurts had in his debut last year. Clearly Lincoln Riley has lost a step.
Spencer Rattler connects for four touchdowns in the first half giving the Sooners a 41-0 lead at the half.
3. QB Sam Ehlinger, Texas
Five TD passes in the first half against UTEP is good. But it’s not enough to get us to say it. Seriously, we’re not going to do it. Stop asking. OK, fine. Texas is back!
4. RB Kyren Williams, Notre Dame
In his first serious action, the sophomore ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns, adding another 93 yards on two catches. More impressive? All those stats set a school record in conference play.
5. WR Jonathan Adams Jr., Arkansas State
He has played two games against strong competition, and he has looked quite good. After a six-catch performance in the opener vs. Memphis, Adams absolutely dominated K-State’s secondary Saturday, hauling in eight grabs, including three touchdowns. And then there’s this fingertip grab that will definitely be on the season’s year-end highlight reel.
Arkansas State WR Jonathan Adams Jr. nearly hauls in a touchdown with his fingers, but loses control as he hits the ground.
Under-the-radar play of the week
We’re all excited to see college football back in our lives, but no one was more excited than Charlotte linebacker Peter Agabe, who took the field the same way a toddler avoids bedtime. On Saturday, Agabe was all of us.
Charlotte linebacker Peter Agabe is so pumped for football that he is flopping all over the field.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Tyler Vitt was sidelined for Texas State’s opener last week because of a positive COVID-19 test. This week, he was the Bobcats’ starter because the other quarterback, Brady McBride, was now in the quarantine protocol, too. So, how’d it work out? Vitt was excellent, completing 26-of-39 throws for 346 yards and four touchdowns, including leading Texas State to 20 points in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime. Unfortunately, the extra frames didn’t go so well, and UTSA won 51-48 in double OT, but even that was a whirlwind. Texas State kicker Alan Orona missed a potential winning PAT with 1:16 left in regulation, then missed a 20-yard field goal try in the second frame of overtime that proved to be the difference.
Big bets and bad beats
Pitt was a 30-point favorite for its game against FCS foe Austin Peay on Saturday. It wasn’t exactly safe money. Pitt hadn’t beaten an FCS team by 30 since 2014, and it narrowly edged Delaware last year 17-14. So backers should have been pleasantly surprised when the Panthers led at the half 42-0. Easy money, right? Ah, not so fast. Or, more clearly — way too fast. The teams agreed to 10-minute quarters in the second half due to the blowout, reducing the game to just 50 minutes total, which was five minutes short of the requirement for Las Vegas books to pay out, so all bets were canceled.
With less than 20 minutes to play, North Carolina led Syracuse 7-6 and the Orange looked like a cinch to cover a 23-point spread. But UNC has had a knack for big fourth quarters. In 2019, the Tar Heels outscored their opposition 130-70 in the fourth quarter and overtime — the sixth-best differential in FBS. So what happened Saturday? UNC reeled off 24 unanswered points and, less than eight minutes after leading by just one point, the Heels were covering the spread.
Last season, Clemson was favored by at least four touchdowns six times in ACC play — and covered all six. The Tigers sure seemed like they could keep the steak alive in 2020, too. Clemson was a 34-point favorite in its opener against Wake Forest and looked poised for a cover with a 37-3 lead to end the third quarter. But, alas, the Demon Deacons wouldn’t let its first visit from College GameDay end with a complete embarrassment. They scored the final 10 points of the game, including a TD pass with 2:34 to play — their first touchdown against Clemson since 2017.
Remember Keon Howard? No, probably not. He started eight games at QB for Southern Miss way back in 2016 and 2017. He lost the job midway through his sophomore campaign, transferred to Tulane, sat out all of 2018 and then threw just 18 passes last year.
But Howard returned to action Saturday, getting the start for the Green Wave, and while he wasn’t exactly great — 14-of-30 passing for 190 yards and a rushing TD — he did engineer a huge second-half comeback, erasing a 24-6 deficit to upend South Alabama.
Howard’s last win as a starter before Saturday? Oct. 21, 2017, against Louisiana Tech. He lost his job three weeks later.
Breaking 15-year records
Why is that so strange? The last time a Yellow Jackets QB completed more than 23 passes was all the way back on Sept. 10, 2005. That QB was Reggie Ball, who completed 24 in a win over UNC. Calvin Johnson had more than 100 yards. He was a sophomore then. He has been retired from the NFL for five years.
Sims’ debut was hardly a revelation. He struggled early and threw two picks in FSU territory, part of what could’ve been an ugly night for Georgia Tech that also included 10 penalties and three blocked kicks. Instead, Sims rebounded and so did the Yellow Jackets, who pulled off a shocking road win to start the year and ruin Mike Norvell’s debut as the Seminoles’ head coach. In the fourth quarter, Sims completed all four of his passes for 49 yards and a touchdown.
FSU has now lost four straight openers with three different head coaches.