August angst? How else can you explain the nation’s top two ranked college football teams locked in second-half struggles against opponents expected to be little more than fodder?
Florida State and Alabama were favored by a combined 45 points over unranked Oklahoma State and West Virginia.
But the top-ranked Seminoles were unable to put away a Cowboys team that looked star-struck early and survived 37-31 in Arlington, Texas. Had Florida State not opened an early 17-0 cushion, it may have become the first defending national champion to lose an opener since Miami in 1990.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide sweated out a 33-23 victory over the Mountaineers in Atlanta, and coach Nick Saban crystallized Alabama’s problem during the halftime sideline reporter interview. “Soft,” he called his defense.
Maybe by Crimson Tide standards. West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett’s 365 passing yards were the second most against a Saban-coached Alabama team.
Saban, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher and their staffs are poring over tape to identify the flaws, but some of the factors for the unexpected drama go beyond play-calling and technique.
Opening games bring uncertainty about your team and theirs. Alabama didn’t know how quarterback Blake Sims would perform under the lights. He gotbetter as the game progressed, it turned out, but not enough to claim the position on a long-term basis. It appears Jake Coker will get his shot.
Florida State couldn’t have known much about Oklahoma State, which returns the least amount of experience among the power-five conference schools. This means the Seminoles didn’t have a book on Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State’s blur of a junior-college transfer, who lined up at wide receiver and tailback and produced 278 all-purpose yards.
Also, Florida State and Alabama didn’t tip-toe into the season like other power teams. Oh, their cupcakes await, but by accepting the neutral site and arranged-for-TV opener, they risked the upset and take the perception hit based on the narrow victory margins.
And it is a risk. We see it during March Madness, how the neutral court can tighten things between teams far apart on the seed lines. A favorite doesn’t seem as ferocious outside of its environment, and a well-prepared opponent can take advantage. West Virginia and especially Oklahoma State did just that.
Florida State might have been more primed for an upset because things came so easily early. When the Seminoles were pushed in the final three quarters, they played like a team trying not to lose.
“I think they felt the pressure of being No. 1,” Fisher said. “Now I think we can relax and go play football.”
A loss by either one would have been the biggest stunner of the opening weekend. Failing that, No. 21 Texas A&M gets the call with its shocking 52-28 win at No. 9 South Carolina. Coaches across college football rightfully will defend the uneven efforts of first-time starting quarterbacks. The Aggies’ Kevin Sumlin won’t have that duty.
His guy, Kenny Hill, could not have scripted a better performance with a school-record 511 passing yards against what was supposed to be a stout Gamecocks defense. Keep in mind the last two Heisman Trophies have been won by first-year starters, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston. Hill produced numbers that already have him in the conversation.
Skeptics who believed A&M’s offense was a product of Manziel’s ad-libbing got a look at an attack guided by a Sumlin recruit who stuck to the playbook. It was scary good.
Others went about their business in a more routine way. Oklahoma, Oregon and Michigan State won in routs with the Ducks and Spartans keeping a close watch on each other. They meet in Eugene this week.
While that game is happening, Florida State will be entertaining The Citadel, Alabama will have completed its game against Florida Atlantic, and things probably will be back on track with those programs.