I’m not here to say Northwestern’s 16-6 upset of Stanford and Illinois’ 52-3 thrashing of Kent State didn’t matter. Of course they mattered. They mattered a lot.
The Wildcats must feel reborn, with a defense that put on a dominant performance and a new starting quarterback, Clayton Thorson, who rose to the moment as well. And the Illini must feel unburdened, their interim coach, Bill Cubit, off to a fruitful start and their fans not nearly as gloomy as they were during a storm that washed away a scheduled Friday night game until Saturday afternoon.
But let’s be real about this: It was a terrible Week 1 for the Big Ten.
If there was any hope that the conference might be more than a League of Two — Ohio State and Michigan State — in 2015, that hope is all but out the window already.
It wasn’t such a big setback when Michigan lost at Utah on Thursday in Jim Harbaugh’s debut as coach and savior. But the Wolverines played like a team very much at Square 1 offensively. At least the Big Ten had a chance to dust itself off on Saturday.
Yet Saturday was grisly. It was more than a reminder that there’s a substantial gap between the top-ranked Buckeyes (who play at Virginia Tech on Monday) and the No. 6 Spartans and the rest of the conference. It was a strong indication that none of the rest of the league’s banner programs will bring any positive intrigue to the current campaign.
Many expected Penn State, with a highly favorable schedule, to start the season on a 6-0 tear. Given coach James Franklin’s glowing reputation and quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s NFL future, who knows what sort of noise the Nittany Lions might’ve made from there?
Yet there they were at Temple — a team they’d beaten 31 straight times and hadn’t lost to since 1941 — on the business end of a horrific 27-10 beating. Hackenberg, who has run for his life throughout his time at Penn State, was sacked an almost unbelievable 10 times.
Geez, 6-0? The Nits will be lucky to win six, period.
“I’m not going to come in here and be defensive and make excuses,” Franklin told reporters afterward. “We’ve got to get it done.”
Nebraska, meanwhile, was getting all it could handle from unranked BYU in Lincoln. The offense sputtered at times; the defense was run over for 24 first-half Cougars points, calling to mind some of the more exasperating days under coach Bo Pelini. But at least the Huskers appeared set for an FBS-best 30th straight opening-game win in the debut of Mike Riley, Pelini’s successor. Until …
No one who watched it will forget BYU’s Hail Mary on the final play to upend the Huskers. It was thrown by a backup quarterback, Tanner Mangum, who forever shall be a hero in Provo, Utah. It was a special moment in college football — the play for which Week 1 will be remembered — yet it was merely the latest disappointing result for a Nebraska program that used to be far too fierce to allow such an outcome, especially on its home turf.
Minnesota played well on Thursday in a 23-17 defeat against No. 2 TCU. Two nights later, No. 2 Wisconsin gave third-ranked Alabama a tough ballgame — for a half, before it all went downhill in a big way, the Crimson Tide winning 35-17. By the end of a long, hard day for the Big Ten, it felt worse than that.
GAMES OF THE WEEK/WEAK
Week: No. 6 Auburn 31, Louisville 24. Jeremy Johnson came in with so much hype, yet Auburn’s new starting quarterback threw three interceptions and looked every bit like a work in progress.
Instead, the spotlight in Atlanta found guys like Justin Garrett, who scored on an 82-yard fumble return, and new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who failed as head coach at Florida but could be just what the Tigers need to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Also hugely impressive: Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, who played most of the game despite not having been considered a major player in an offseason-long QB competition.
Weak: South Dakota State 41, Kansas 38. There’s no such thing as a sure thing for the Jayhawks, who fell to a lower-division opponent as though Charlie Weis were still running the show. And how about the perfect ending? KU’s Montell Cozart, attempting to spike the ball to stop the clock on a last-ditch drive, fumbled the snap instead. Game over.
Weak: Portland State 24, Washington State 17. They’re calling it a new low in Pullman, Wash. Whether or not that’s true, the Mike Leach era has been an absolute disaster. It’s almost hard to remember when Leach was the toast of the Big 12 at Texas Tech. Meanwhile, who knew Portland was a state?
Brandon Allen, QB, Arkansas: Is 18th-ranked Arkansas still a true up-and-comer without star running back Jonathan Williams, who was lost for the season in training camp? Allen eased concerns with a career day, throwing for 308 yards and four touchdowns — on only 14 pass attempts — in a 48-13 victory over UTEP.
Taysom Hill, QB, BYU: He didn’t complete the miracle pass that took down Nebraska, but the Cougars wouldn’t have been in position to pull the upset without Hill’s 340 total yards and three touchdowns before his 2015 campaign was cruelly ended by the third season-ending injury of his career.
Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple: The senior stalwart, who has had a great career in Philly — even if few would know it — had three sacks and led the Owls in tackles as they upset traditional bully Penn State.
Up: Derrick Henry. The Alabama running back left bruises on Wisconsin’s defense that might not heal until deep into the offseason. He’s huge, he’s fast — he’s a machine. And he’d better be prominently on everybody’s early list of Heisman hopefuls.
Down: No. 15 Arizona State. The Sun Devils will be on the fringes of the top 25 after being thoroughly outclassed by soon-to-be-ranked Texas A&M 38-17. Is ASU still good enough to compete for the top spot in the terrific Pac-12 South? Maybe. But there was little question about it prior to Saturday.
Down and out: No. 21 Stanford. After their no-show at Northwestern, the Cardinal can forget about being ranked for a while. Worse, they looked ill-prepared, unmotivated and even unfit against the Wildcats — a really poor look for David Shaw and the coaching staff.
• Read this name out loud, OK? Here it is: Josh Rosen. And why did you just do that? Because Rosen, a UCLA freshman, is potentially college football’s brightest star.
In his first game, a 34-16 victory for the No. 13 Bruins over Virginia, Rosen was simply spectacular, throwing for 351 yards and three touchdowns and completing 80 percent of his passes. Better still, he looked like Andrew Luck doing it. Or maybe he looked like Peyton Manning. Either way, those were the two comparisons showing up all over Twitter Saturday. Mighty impressive.
• Speaking of impressive, kudos to Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit for beginning to pull his starters midway through the third quarter of a blowout victory over Kent State. Cubit may or may not have a realistic chance to earn the job on a permanent basis, but he did what was in the interest of the program — give extended reps to second- and third-stringers — rather than what would reflect best on him on the scoreboard.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.