College football winners, losers, overreactions for Week 1: Alabama remains king, Clemson not playoff-caliber

Week 1 of the 2021 season proved why college football is unmatched. Not only did we see some of the top teams in the sport flex their muscles, but we saw two teams from the same conference emerge as the early favorites to win the national championship. No. 5 Georgia topped No. 3 Clemson in a battle of heavyweights and the fearsome Bulldogs’ defensive front took center stage in a 10-3 victory. In the other marquee kickoff game, No. 1 Alabama had no problem dispatching No. 14 Miami in an easy 44-13 win. 

But the action didn’t end there. Multiple FBS squads lost to FCS opponents, while a couple of playoff contenders were pushed to the limit by lesser squads. That’s what makes college football so fun: the middle of the sport is complete and utter chaos. 

For the first time in a year, we have actual games to talk about. With that said, here are winners, losers and overreactions from a thrilling Week 1. 

Winners

The Tide keep rolling: Rumors of Alabama’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. New quarterback Bryce Young was tremendous with 344 yards passing and four touchdowns in his first real action and the No. 1 Crimson Tide defense sat on D’Eriq King and the No. 14 Hurricanes offense all afternoon long. Without trying especially hard, the Tide outgained the Canes 501-266. There will be tougher games on the schedule for the Tide, but this was as definitive a season-opening performance as you’ll find in college football. Alabama is still the team to beat. 

Longhorns everywhere: It’s never too early to start the season as one of college football’s most hyped players, but Texas sophomore running back Bijan Robinson lived up to it in Week 1. Robinson touched the ball 24 times in total, exploding for 176 total yards and two touchdowns against No. 23 Louisiana. He ended up being a deadly weapon in the passing game for first-year quarterback Hudson Card. More than anything, Robinson was a mismatch and first-year coach Steve Sarkisian showed how to take full advantage of his immense gifts. If No. 21 Texas gets this Robinson every week, the Longhorns are going to be pretty good, and their fans are going to be damn happy.

The FCS: Since so few teams played nonconference games in 2020, there was a real lack of FCS upsets over FBS teams. The only one featured a horrid New Mexico State team losing to FCS transitioning member Tarleton State during the spring season. But over this first weekend of college football alone, there were six such upsets. 

Montana topped No. 20 Washington for just the fifth-ever ranked win by an FCS opponent. ETSU crushed Vanderbilt 23-3 in Clark Lea’s debut. UC Davis topped Tulsa, Eastern Washington beat UNLV, Holy Cross crushed UConn and national runner-ups South Dakota State demolished Colorado State. Not only were there major upsets, but programs like Northern Iowa and Missouri State also pushed power opponents to the brink. If anyone needs proof there is great football being played in the FCS ranks, this weekend is a stark reminder. 

Defense: Flashy quarterbacks might be the new trend in college football, but defense ruled in critical Week 1 games. Virginia Tech had an extremely Virginia Tech game to beat No. 10 North Carolina and quarterback Sam Howell on Friday night. Then, No. 19  Penn State overcame a putrid offensive day thanks to some incredible defensive plays, including a pair of critical picks on Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, in a 16-10 win over the No. 12 Badgers on Saturday. No. 18 Iowa also did its thing with three interceptions off quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and No. 17 Indiana. It was fitting that the difference in the Clemson-Georgia game also came down to defense, as Christopher Smith’s pick six for Georgia broke a scoreless deadlock. Honestly? High scoring matchups are tons of fun, but there’s nothing quite like a dominant defense asserting its will. Especially for schools working through quarterback growing pains, high-quality defensive performances can help raise the floor. 

Losers

The American: No. 8 Cincinnati still remains the favorite to earn the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid, but some truly horrid performances from conference mates sure didn’t do the Bearcats any favors. In the Thursday slate alone, AAC runner-up Tulsa lost to FCS opponent UC Davis, NC State blanked South Florida, and East Carolina was thoroughly outclassed by Appalachian State. Navy lost to Marshall, 49-7, and Rutgers smacked Temple, 61-14. UCF did pull off a nice win over Boise State, but the league is starting 2021 behind the eight-ball. Plus, Indiana getting crushed and potentially dropping out of the AP Top 25 gives the Bearcats one fewer resume point. 

Heisman Trophy hopefuls: Bryce Young aside, the rest of the college football’s elite quarterbacks didn’t have a great start to 2021. Howell threw the first fourth-quarter interceptions of his career against the Hokies. No. 2 Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler threw a pair of picks and let Tulane nearly pull off an upset. No. 6 Texas A&M’s Haynes King threw three picks to let Kent State hang around far too long. Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei was hounded all day by the ferocious Georgia defense. Even No. 7 Iowa State’s Brock Purdy was inconsistent in a close game against Northern Iowa. If any team plans to compete with Alabama for the national championship, its quarterbacks will have to do better than what we saw in Week 1.  

Overreactions

The SEC can easily get two teams in the College Football Playoff: Granted, Alabama and Georgia give the SEC two strong contenders every year, but Week 1 provided the league with a massive advantage. Beating two of the ACC’s top teams — and North Carolina losing, to boot — means that virtually any one-loss SEC team will beat out a one-loss ACC squad. Add shaky showings from Oklahoma and No. 11 Oregon in season openers against Group of Five opponents, and really any combination of Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M or any other one-loss SEC squad will be in good shape. 

2019 was the fluke for LSU, not 2020: Ed Orgeron led LSU to an undefeated 2019 national championship with one of the greatest teams of all-time. But two years into the post-Joe Burrow era, that season is starting to look like an outlier, not the disappointing 5-5 follow-up. UCLA ran all over LSU in a dominant 38-27 win at the Rose Bowl, outgaining LSU 454-378. LSU’s offensive line struggled to protect against a Pac-12 defensive front, mustering just 1.9 yards per carry and constantly allowing pressure. It’s great to know that LSU can be a championship team … if it lucks into a Heisman Trophy quarterback and No. 1 NFL Draft pick who gets play calls from a savant offensive mind like Joe Brady.   

Clemson isn’t playoff-caliber: We can have conversations about whether Clemson’s schedule is good enough for the Tigers to play their way back into the playoff conversation. That will be tough enough on its own considering the Tigers could legitimately not play another ranked opponent until ACC Championship Game. But more than that, this Clemson team does not look like a national title contender. Their offensive line was thoroughly outclassed by Georgia, and the offense just doesn’t look complete without a versatile running back like Travis Etienne to take pressure off the line and quarterback. Maybe a player can develop into that role, but getting held to the worst scoring output of the Dabo Swinney era is a bad place to start.