College Football: Winners and Losers from Week 0
College football simply teased us Saturday. There wasn't a lot of action, and with no top-25 teams playing, we were all eased in gently as our true fandom was tested. Only the diehards stuck close to the television.
But those who did were rewarded with some storylines, even in a slim slate.
Despite a new-look Nebraska, we got the same ol' result from the Cornhuskers in a baffling 31-28 loss to Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland that makes Huskers coach Scott Frost's job security extremely dicey moving forward.
Defending Mountain West champion Utah State received a huge test from UConn, of all programs. The Huskies have a familiar name in Jim Mora leading the program now, and it looked like a different team. Illinois made easy, thorough work of Wyoming, too.
Along the way, there were some morsels of takeaways. Here are the winners and losers from Week Zero of action.
Winner: Northwestern's Offensive Resurgence
The biggest national storyline that came from Saturday's 31-28 Northwestern victory over Nebraska undoubtedly will be the painful, gradual downfall of the Scott Frost tenure with the Cornhuskers.
But don't let that detract from the Wildcats' brilliant bounce-back.
A steady, methodical comeback win over a Huskers team that was favored by double digits erased last year's 56-7 debacle, and coach Pat Fitzgerald's team dominated the final quarter and a half of the game, scoring 14 unanswered points to pull out the win.
The Wildcats' biggest shocker was their offense. Remember, they failed to score more than 14 points in seven of the team's final eight games a season ago and was consistently abysmal. That wasn't the case against Nebraska.
Ryan Hilinski was outstanding in orchestrating a faster tempo. His mistake-free play led to 313 passing yard and a pair of scoring tosses, and the junior looked more like the player Fitzgerald thought he was getting when he transferred from South Carolina following a strong debut season in the SEC.
With the game on the line, though, the 'Cats leaned on what they're known for: controlling the clock on the ground and running the ball behind a bruising offensive line that dominated.
All-American candidate left tackle Peter Skoronski often was the best player on the field, and Northwestern liberally ran behind him. Evan Hull had 119 rushing yards and a score, and Cam Porter added 94 as the Wildcats salted away the fourth quarter.
Despite going 3-9 a season ago, Northwestern looked like a different team Saturday, so this could jump-start a rebound season.
Loser: Scott Frost's Baffling Call Turns Up Hot-Seat Temperature
Scott Frost's embattled return to his alma mater feels like its on its last leg. Following Saturday's inexplicable collapse against Northwestern, it's easy where to squarely place the blame.
It belongs directly on the Nebraska coach's shoulders for one of the biggest bone-headed decisions we'll see all year.
Following a touchdown with 9:09 left in the third quarter to put the Huskers firmly in control with a 28-17 lead, Frost called for an unsuccessful onside kick in a "What was that?" mental-hiccup moment. His team had just scored two touchdowns in 28 seconds, was firmly in control and he tried to go for the jugular.
Instead, he strangled Nebraska's momentum.
Northwestern marched right down the field to score a touchdown, and the Huskers never recovered. Quarterback Casey Thompson had been clicking leading up to that moment and wasn't the same afterward, and Nebraska's defense was reeling from that point, too.
The Cornhuskers' five offensive possessions after that debacle of a call went three-and-out, three-and-out, interception, four-and-out and an interception in the game's closing couple of minutes.
It didn't matter that Nebraska overhauled its team through the transfer portal, brought in a new quarterback and up-tempo offensive coordinator Mark Whipple from Pittsburgh, the outcome was the same. The Huskers lost yet another one-possession game (5-21 in Frost's tenure in those) and failed to win after trailing at halftime (3-21 in the Frost era).
The Huskers may have new faces, but they've got the same ol' coach and the same ol' issues.
Winner: Chase Brown Running Bret Bielema's Blueprint
When Bret Bielema was leading Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls 2010-12, you never had to wonder what you were getting when you played the Badgers.
Even after a failed tenure at Arkansas, the veteran coach hasn't changed his power-football formula, and he's trying to ride it success in his second Big Ten stint. This time, his Illinois Fighting Illini are trying to build back from a dismal decade.
The Illini hasn't had a winning record since 2011, but while there is still a ways to go in Bielema's rebuild, it's obvious what he's doing is working. They finished last year a surprising 5-7 with four conference wins. Though they didn't play a juggernaut to start this season, 2022 got off to a resounding start with a 38-6 dominance of Wyoming.
The Cowboys showed the after-effects of losing elite playmakers such as quarterback Levi Williams (Utah State), receiver Isaiah Neyor (Texas) and running back Xazian Valladay (Arizona State), as Illinois shut them down.
But the biggest evidence of Bielema's handprints is in the tough, rugged running game where Chase Brown looked every bit the Doak Walker Award dark horse with 151 yards on 19 carries and a pair of touchdowns.
Bielema is known for producing running backs, and while the coach likes several players in his running back room, Brown became the school's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2018 last year, so he's expected to be the offensive centerpiece again this season.
Enjoying success in an early-season schedule that features winnable games against Indiana, Virginia and Chattanooga is vital for the Illini's bowl hopes, and Saturday's one-sided slug-fest was a strong start.
Loser: UConn (...But This Was Different)
UConn's football team lost Saturday. Nothing about that sentence should surprise you.
The Huskies now have lost 33 of their past 37 football games, and they haven't enjoyed a winning season in 12 years.
But in former UCLA coach Jim Mora's first game trying to lead the program out of the doldrums Saturday, this wasn't the same team. They went on the road to Logan, Utah, to take on defending Mountain West Conference champion Utah State Aggies and stuck tight before falling 31-20.
They actually jumped out to a two-touchdown advantage and never really went away. It was a four-point game in the fourth.
Of course, 0-1 is 0-1, and Mora is concerned about some big playmakers on his offense. According to the Hartford Courant, Mora expressed worry about starting quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson and receiver Keelan Marion, who were hurt in the first half.
Either of them would be a huge blow, but especially Roberson, who suffered a leg injury on the second drive following a scoring drive to start the game. He is a difference-maker who could help escalate the program, but true freshman Zion Turner—who had several early SEC offers in his recruiting process—had some flashes in reserve. He'll need to continue to develop and take care of the ball, but he has ability.
Defensively, UConn was opportunistic and, most impressively, they allowed just seven points in the second half, and that scoring drive was aided by a questionable pass interference call on 3rd-and-long.
They've also found a game-changer at running back in Nathan Carter, who shredded USU for 190 rushing yards. So, even though it was yet another loss for the Huskies, there is more reason to hope than at any time in perhaps the past decade.
Mora may build a program from the ashes.
Winner: UNLV (and Those Who Had the Guts to Lay Money on the Rebs)
College football players are trying to get into midseason form. So are college football bettors.
So, if you had the guts to lay heavy on the UNLV Rebels, who were 23.5-point favorites over the Idaho State Bengals in Saturday’s season opener according to DraftKings, you had a fun day.
It isn’t every Saturday the UNLV football team gets to run around like those old Jerry Tarkanian hardwood heroes, lighting up scoreboards like a pinball machine, but this was one of those days.
Despite a 2-10 record a season ago for former Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo in his second year as the Rebels' head coach, there were glimmers of hope like one-score setbacks to quality programs like Fresno State, UT-San Antonio, San Jose State and San Diego State.
Arroyo had a full-fledged quarterback battle entering the season, but Doug Brumfield took the bulk of Saturday's important snaps after beating out Tennessee transfer Harrison Bailey for the job. If Brumfield can keep playing like he did against the Bengals, there won’t be any controversy ahead.
He was terrific, completing all but four of his 25 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns. His primary target was Michigan State transfer receiver Ricky White, who finished with eight catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
The game was over by halftime, and while UNLV allowed a pair of second-half touchdowns, the game (nor the spread) was ever in doubt. Final score: 52-21.
Arroyo is in an interesting situation with the Rebels, sitting on a recruiting gold mine of a city with a strong base around him. He has run some dynamic Ducks offenses in the past, so if he can get things moving in the right direction, the Rebels could have a better year.
Beating an FCS team isn’t a surprise, but this was a big step forward.
Winner: Vanderbilt's Tropical Business Trip
A year ago, the Clark Lea era at Vanderbilt got off to an embarrassing start as the Commodores were stunned in a 20-point loss to FCS foe East Tennessee State.
Traveling across five time zones, the 'Dores looked discombobulated early against Hawaii, but there would be no repeat, season-opening misery.
Despite allowing a quick, easy first-possession touchdown to the home team in Rainbow Warriors coach Timmy Chang's debut, Vandy flexed its SEC muscle from that point forward and had no trouble in dispatching Hawaii, 63-10.
This was the most points Vanderbilt scored in a game since 1969, according to the CBS Sports Network telecast.
It's likely going to be a long road for the 'Dores to navigate the SEC, but they were clearly the best team on the field in a late-night battle that was billed as one of the couple of biggest games of Week Zero. Instead, the business trip to the islands wound up a walk on the beach.
Dual-threat sophomore quarterback Mike Wright was the best player on the field, passing for 146 yards and rushing for 163 more while piling up four total touchdowns.
Perhaps more important to Lea—a former Vanderbilt player and defensive coordinator at Notre Dame—the Commodores defense played with the type of tough-minded mentality the second-year coach wants to instill in Nashville.
Following that snappy first-quarter drive, Hawaii's offense stalled often. They played two quarterbacks, turned the ball over twice, and Vandy returned both fumbles for touchdowns.
Competition is going to tick upward very soon for Vanderbilt, but for one night, it looked like a much-improved team from a season ago against a rebuilding team that was clearly overmatched.