Updated: September 5, 2006 4:19:35 PM PDT

Opening weekend brings surprises, emotion


COLLEGE FOOTBALL FINAL

Our Bristol studio crew was sitting around late Saturday night, discussing how there seemed to be no real upsets on the first big day of college football.

A quick look back at the morning paper supported our observation, as only three teams listed as a favorite by the guys in the desert -- Cal, North Carolina and Army -- had left the field on the losing side, and they were each favored by approximately a field goal.

Chad Schroeder
AP Photo/Paul Zoeller
Texas A&M raced past Div. I-AA The Citadel on Saturday.

Mark May interjected that "there shouldn't be too many surprises when half the teams are playing against Division I-AA!" It was a good point, although "half" might have been a bit of a stretch.

There were 22 Div. I-A teams that played against I-AA competition on Saturday, and seven others did it on Thursday, giving us 29 (of 119) major-college teams that played out of division in Week 1. That's almost 25 percent. Four Top-25 teams were among the culprits, and four more ranked teams will be doing the deed next Saturday. Overall this season, there will be 74 games played between I-A and I-AA teams. Last season, there were 45.

You may wonder why so many schools would suddenly decide to take this approach with one of their few nonconference dates, but there's a very logical explanation -- and it has nothing to do with pleasing their fan bases. It's all about money.

This season begins a new NCAA policy of allowing I-A teams to count one win over a I-AA team toward bowl eligibility every year. In recent seasons, a I-AA win could be counted just once every four years. This is good news for teams that think they might struggle to get six or seven wins against equal competition. One easy win over I-AA opposition just might make the difference in qualifying for a bowl game, which could mean more money and greater exposure for the program. Why not take that opportunity when it's given to you?

What's overlooked is the motivation for perennial bowl teams to bring in a I-AA opponent for a three-hour sparring session. In case you missed it, the NCAA also approved the addition of a 12th regular-season game for this season and beyond, which most big-time programs have used as an opportunity to increase revenue by filling up the stadium one more time for a foe that isn't requesting a reciprocal visit the following season. In the past, these mercenaries came from the lower rungs of Division I-A, and the job paid pretty well (sometimes as much as $500,000 per appearance). Now that a win over a I-AA school counts just the same toward bowl eligibility, that contract is being given to the lowest bidder, and the I-AA teams are happy to take about $300,000 and run with it.

You might hear some coaches argue that the elite I-AA teams are actually better competition than the bottom of Division I-A, which is absolutely true. But that's not the reason for scheduling these games. As every athletic director's mother told him when he was young, "A couple hundred-thousand dollars saved is a couple hundred-thousand dollars earned." It's just good business.

BUT THERE CAN BE PITFALLS

Not all games against I-AA competition prove to be an automatic win, though. Just ask Colorado, which suffered what had to be the one true upset of Week 1. Instead of enjoying the debut of new head coach Dan Hawkins and his high-flying offense, Buffs fans watched in shock as their team fell 19-10 to Montana State. At least they scored in double figures.

Duke was shut out by Richmond, 13-0, and New Mexico managed just two field goals in a 17-6 loss to Portland State. That made three wins in 29 games for the I-AA side, which isn't too bad, and there was almost another major victory. Kansas State needed two special teams touchdowns to survive Illinois State, 24-23, and the Redbirds failed on an attempt to win the game with a two-point conversion with three minutes to play.

Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team that doesn't face a I-AA opponent this season, and based on Saturday's results, the others might be rethinking their positions.

THE REAL MCCOY?

AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas coach Mack Brown couldn't have asked for a better debut from Colt McCoy.

Not only did McCoy become the first Texas freshman quarterback to start and win his debut game since Bobby Layne was prowling the Forty Acres in 1944, but he nipped any potential quarterback controversy with backup Jevan Snead in the bud.

McCoy directed touchdown-scoring drives in six of his seven offensive possessions, finishing with three touchdown tosses and another TD run. It was the kind of victory to build on heading into Saturday's game against No. 1 Ohio State.

Colt McCoy
Brendan Maloney/WireImage.com
Colt McCoy threw for 178 yards and three TDs in his Texas debut.

McCoy said he had been dreaming of playing for the Longhorns since he was a little boy growing up in Tuscola, a small city about 20 miles south of Abilene. But he was still struck by some of the details when asked after the game.

"I'm still trying to think what I did," McCoy said. "It's kind of a blur. I don't remember much about it."

Teammates were impressed with McCoy's quick command in the huddle and the way he handled his first start.

"It was almost like practice for him," Texas running back Selvin Young said. "There was no stutter and he was performing with a lot of confidence. Colt McCoy started his legacy at Texas."

On the third play from scrimmage, McCoy hooked up with Limas Sweed on a 60-yard touchdown, showing quick command to beat a blitzing defense.

And he even broke free on a 27-yard run on a called draw play that ended up as Texas' longest rush of the game. While it wasn't exactly reminiscent of Vince Young, McCoy wasn't complaining.

"I felt comfortable out there," McCoy said. "I made some mistakes and can do some things better. But looking back, I thought it went well. It's a good start."

WHAT WAS I THINKING?

I feel so foolish. I bought into this whole Cal-is-a-powerhouse business. Fell for the Jeff Tedford could make any QB into a star, too. Got sold that the Bears could lose all those supposedly great O-linemen and not miss anything. That David Cutcliffe couldn't even hold a clipboard next to Tedford. And now after seeing the Bears fall behind 35-0 in their 35-18 loss to Tennessee and sifting through the Deleted Items bin of my e-mail to find the missive from that Cal diehard that came in late Friday night talking about how all of us media folks still aren't giving the Bears defense their due, I have seen the light.

Cal is like that girl you convinced yourself was so perfect, but then something happened, and suddenly it all became clear. You broke up. It stung, but you realized all her faults, all the ones that you can't believe you didn't notice before. Fact is, Cal hasn't beaten anyone in the last three years. The Bears' big statement game was its close loss to USC in 2004. They griped about being left out of the BCS mix that season and then were lit up by Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. Last season, they weren't much better than a middle-of-the-road Mountain West squad.

After seeing a Tennessee offense, which ranked 101st in the nation in scoring last season, post 35 points in a little more than two quarters, I doubt anyone will take Cal very seriously again for a very long time. Overreaction? Maybe. But I think if the Bears could knock off USC, they probably still would not get back into the top 15. And of course, this blowout has big-picture meaning. Whenever folks talk about the Pac-10 being soft, this Cal-Tennessee game will always come up first. It will live in infamy out here on the West Coast.

Sure, USC crushed Arkansas again, but truth is, no one, not even Pac-10 haters, have the gall to question the Trojans' legitimacy. But it's that next batch of the Pac-10's supposed heavyweights that never seems to hold up their end.
Read more of Feldman's weekend take: Feldman blog Insider

FIELD OF HONOR

ATLANTA -- Before every game for the last four years, Notre Dame guard Bob Morton has come onto the field and sprinted down to the opposite end of the field. It is the fifth-year senior's method of infusing himself with the energy of the day, a way of ensuring that the adrenaline flows from helmet to cleat.

On Saturday night, when Morton ran onto Grant Field at Bobby Dodd Stadium, he didn't sprint for long. Morton stopped immediately and turned to the small Notre Dame section directly to his right. On Aug. 22, Morton's father Bob succumbed to cancer, bringing to a close a horrible, emotional summer. Morton stopped in front of the Notre Dame section to search for, not only his mother and his brother, but the community of Fighting Irish parents who he and his family, including his dad, had come to know and love over the last four years.

"I had to stop," Morton said after Notre Dame's 14-10 victory, "because I needed to be near them. I don't believe in playing [to] a crowd but I really needed to feel the energy of some of them and see some of their faces."

Morton, standing just inside the door of the Georgia Tech weight room that Notre Dame used as a makeshift interview room, looked down and away. His voice started to break. He released a big breath and kept going.

"Every time I go out there," he said, "I go out there representing a lot of people, myself being one of them. There's my team, my university. My family's a big part, not only my dad but my mother and brother. I deal with things through faith, and I really needed to be near them at that time, just to draw on them. I was really focused on looking in the eyes of several sets of parents. I was really focusing on centering myself and having just a little talk with God, just about giving me the strength, not only to play -- that's not it -- but the strength to emotionally keep it together and have the game I needed to have."

The videos will show Morton and the rest of the offensive line that they didn't have the game they needed to have until the second half. But in this context, Morton's play on the field is irrelevant. He had exactly the kind of game he needed to have, thanks to the prayers he felt wafting down upon him from the stands. Groping for a way to explain what he felt, Morton fell back upon paraphrasing a verse from James 5:16.

"There's nothing more powerful than the prayer of a righteous man," Morton said, "and there were a lot of prayers flying my way over the past few weeks. I am scared to look at my cell phone and see how many phone calls I've gotten over the course of the game because there have been so many people who have been emotionally supporting me at times. It's been amazing. I can't even think of any other words to say."

His postgame went pretty well, too. Coach Charlie Weis asked Morton to lead the team in singing the fight song in the victorious locker room.

FIVE SATURDAY OBSERVATIONS
IVAN MAISEL
1. Starting the clock at the "ready" signal is costing us some football, and that's not right. The difference in average number of plays is noticeable. Judging by opening week, NCAA records -- game, season, career, individual, team, you name it -- are much safer than they've been in years.

Marshall 2. In preseason conference rankings, I placed the ACC fourth and wondered whether that was too low. I was wrong. It wasn't low enough. Maryland had its hands full with I-AA William & Mary before winning, which is more than you can say for Duke, 13-0 losers to I-AA Richmond. Boston College squeezed past Central Michigan. Save for Clemson, Georgia Tech looked better in its loss than the other nine teams that played their openers.

3. Colorado's 19-10 loss to Montana State, the Buffaloes' first-ever I-AA opponent, is an embarrassment in more than just the obvious way. Don't forget that the Buffaloes have lost five straight games, their longest losing streak in 22 years. The passing ineptitude (James Cox: 8-22-0, 112 yards) hearkens back to Bill McCartney's teams that played for (1989) and won (1990) national championships. The difference is that these Buffs can't run, either. If you have trouble passing and running, ESPN.com is investigating if there's anything else left to try.

Quinn
Quinn
4. One reason Georgia Tech had so much success stopping Notre Dame in the first half of the Irish's 14-10 victory is that the Yellow Jackets missed few tackles. They allowed virtually no yards after the catch by the receivers. In the first half, other than Brady Quinn's third-down scramble for 16 yards, the longest rush went for four yards. As Notre Dame controlled the line of scrimmage and the ball in the second half, Georgia Tech wearied, and Darius Walker began running through tackles.

Ben Olson
Olson
5. Based on the, uh, scientific analysis of one week, the Coach of the Year: Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. Comeback Player of the Year: Mikey Henderson of Georgia. Welcome back, Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny, UCLA quarterback Ben Olson, Notre Dame wide receiver Rhema McKnight, and North Carolina quarterback Joe Dailey. You were missed, even if, as in Posluszny's case, you were gone for only three overtimes and change.
FINAL THOUGHTS FROM THE FINAL CREW
RECE DAVIS
Mikey Henderson
Henderson
So much of coaching is understanding the emotions of your players, and Mark Richt did an exemplary job of it with punt returner Mikey Henderson. Everyone in the stadium would have understood if Henderson hadn't seen the field the rest of the day after fumbling away a touchdown with a premature celebration. To his credit, Richt put the kid right back out there and let him make amends for his mistake. A lesson was learned, and everyone went home feeling good about it.

Helmet Stickers Go To:
Ray Rice, RB, Rutgers
201 rushing yards, 3 TD vs. UNC
Colt McCoy, QB, Texas
216 total yards, 4 TD vs. North Texas
LOU HOLTZ
Pete Carroll
Carroll
I'm not reading any more preseason magazines. Great players come and go, but great programs stay on top. USC is still a national title contender no matter how much talent they lost from last year's team, because Pete Carroll is still the man in charge. I learned that from watching, not from reading.

Helmet Stickers Go To:
Steve Slaton, RB, West Virginia
203 rushing yards, 2 TD vs. Marshall
Ben Olson, QB, UCLA
318 passing yards, 3 TD vs. Utah
MARK MAY
Erik Ainge
Ainge
Erik Ainge at times last year looked like a Pop Warner quarterback. Under David Cutcliffe, Ainge looked like an all-conference quarterback in Week 1. He showed great composure and put the ball where it needed to be. If he keeps it up, Tennessee will get back to being the same ol' Vols we're used to seeing. They looked every bit of it against Cal.

Helmet Stickers Go To:
Erik Ainge QB, Tennessee
291 passing yards, 4 TD vs. Cal
Garrett Wolfe, RB, Northern Illinois
285 yards from scrimmage, TD vs. Ohio State
COLLEGE GAMEDAY RECAP
Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit break down Saturday's action.
LOOKING BACK
SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES
Things might not be so rocky on Rocky Top after all. Armed with a rejuvenated Erik Ainge and David Cutcliffe's play calling, Tennessee looked like Tennessee again in its win over Cal, writes Mark Schlabach. Story
BEST FOOT FORWARD
Notre Dame's vaunted offense wasn't what powered Saturday's win against Georgia Tech. It was a combination of Brady Quinn's legs and a strengthened defense, writes Ivan Maisel. Story
MIXED MESSAGE
Notre Dame was good enough to win Saturday, but inconsistent enough to create doubt, writes Gene Wojciechowski. Story

BUTCHER SHOP
After makin' bacon out of the Hogs for the second successive season, USC has stamped itself as completely worthy of being in the national title discussion once again, writes Pat Forde. Story

LOOKING AHEAD: OHIO STATE-TEXAS
Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Todd McShay preview the Buckeyes vs. the Horns.
LOOKING AHEAD: FLORIDA STATE-MIAMI
CHANGE IN THE WEATHER
Last year, Drew Weatherford was a rookie QB who couldn't read defenses. This year, he's a vet ready to lead FSU to a title, writes Mark Schlabach. Story
INSIDERS' EDGE: FLORIDA STATE-MIAMI
Last year's Florida State-Miami game was dominated by defense. This time, it's all about offense, writes Scouts Inc. Story Insider
FULL CIRCLE: FLORIDA STATE-MIAMI
ESPN, Inc. will provide coverage of the 'Noles vs. the Canes across every ESPN outlet on Labor Day Monday, Sept. 4 at 8 p.m. ET. More


 

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