Hayes: The ultimate primer for Week 1 in and around the SEC
Conference expansion. Playoff expansion. NIL and pay-for-play.
A transfer portal gone wild, and allegations of cheating.
Welcome, everyone, to college football 2022.
Now it gets real.
If ever a sport needed the games to take center stage, to overshadow the green and greed and a loss of trust and tradition, now is the time.
College football will do what it always does. The game itself, the weekend spectacle, is the great elixir.
Script Ohio and Boomer Sooner. Roll Tide and Go Blue. Hook ‘Em and Gig ‘Em and Sic ‘Em.
Pregame in The Grove, and the 5th quarter in Madison. Death Valley and Happy Valley. Running through the T, and Running Down the Hill. The Swamp and The Shoe.
Soak it in, everyone. We’ve arrived.
Ball is back. Ball is beautiful, and as always, ball is the ultimate elixir.
The Weekend Primer:
1. So you want to be a football coach …
Remember this when Ohio State reaches 40 points Saturday in Columbus against Notre Dame, and the game is out of hand: Brian Kelly did a much better job in South Bend than given credit for.
It’s a brutal job with huge expectations and minuscule margin for error. All Kelly did was become the winningest coach in school history, and finish a 12-year run by getting double-digit wins in each of the last 5 seasons — and reaching the Playoff in 2 of those years (2018, 2020).
He wanted out, no question. Didn’t even let Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick match (or attempt to match or outbid) the LSU offer, then jumped into the deep end of the meatgrinder SEC.
That leaves Marcus Freeman, who has done everything right in 9 months as the Irish coach, a high bar to not only reach but surpass. With a new quarterback (Tyler Buchner) who has thrown 35 career passes, no less.
It will be ugly in Columbus, but don’t panic. Even though he spent time this week complaining about an insultingly large betting line (what else was he going to say?), Freeman knows what’s in front of him at Notre Dame. Have patience.
2. Dan the Man
Ladies and gentlemen, Dan Mullen has spoken.
The former Florida coach, now an analyst at ESPN, tweeted Wednesday that his former backup quarterback, Anthony Richardson, is a Heisman Trophy “sleeper.” (His Heisman odds are +6000 at FanDuel.)
Mullen, of course, started Emory Jones (now at Arizona State) over Richardson for most of last season. Richardson’s only start was against Georgia, a game that Mullen essentially bowed the pitchfork mob that had seen enough of Jones.
Mullen then put Richardson in the worst possible position, in the toughest game of the season.
Richardson may very well be a Heisman sleeper — with proper coaching, he has a chance — but there’s little doubt about the underpinnings of that tweet. If Richardson pans out, it was Mullen who recruited him.
If Richardson doesn’t — and the road begins Saturday in Gainesville against Top 10 Utah — well, it has to be because of who’s coaching him.
“Anthony has done everything we’ve asked of him and more,” Gators coach Billy Napier said. “We expect him to play really well.”
3. Hide your eyes
Florida State and LSU will play tackle football Sunday in New Orleans.
That means Jordan Travis and projected starter Jayden Daniels are your quarterbacks at FSU and LSU, respectively. I’m not breaking news by declaring neither has consistently won games that matter with their arm.
Case in point: their production against ranked teams. Daniels was 4-3 as a starter vs. ranked teams at Arizona State, with 6 TDs and 3 INTs. Travis is 1-2 vs. ranked teams as a starter, with 4 TDs and 5 INTs.
Forget about FSU’s 400-plus yards rushing last week vs. Duquesne. It doesn’t translate. Or that the LSU staff believes the Tigers can run the ball consistently with Penn State transfer RB Noah Cain.
The quarterback who makes more plays in the passing game will be the deciding factor in one program feeling good moving forward — and the other facing early heat.
4. The rivalry within the rivalry
The Backyard Brawl returns for the first time since 2011, and with an intriguing subplot: this isn’t just about 2 longtime bitter rivals.
It’s also about 2 quarterbacks with a rivalry of sorts.
West Virginia QB JT Daniels was a 5-star recruit in 2018, and a consensus top-10 recruit. He graduated a year early from high school and reclassified to play for his dream school, USC.
It lasted all of one season and half a game, before a serious knee injury forced him to miss most of the 2019 season — while current Pitt QB Kedon Slovis replaced him.
Slovis, a 3-star recruit, had a huge freshman season after replacing Daniels and then-USC coach Clay Helton made it clear that Slovis was his starter moving forward, which led to Daniels to transfer to Georgia.
Then it didn’t work out for either — Slovis lost his job at USC; Daniels lost his at Georgia — and now both have one last shot to make it right.
Slovis got this started early this week, a week when Daniels was finally named starter at WVU.
My QB! Can Thursday get here already pic.twitter.com/B4C9GTAISj
— Ryan Platt (@Ryan24_34) August 31, 2022
Both were at one time projected first-day picks in the NFL Draft. Now each is simply trying to win games and get good game tape for the 2023 draft.
5. New look Troy
A quick breakdown of what can we expect from revamped USC in the season-opener against Rice, and after:
- A boatload of points (why else do you mortgage the future to hire Lincoln Riley?).
- QB Caleb Williams at the top of Heisman Trophy Watch lists.
- USC among Playoff projections.
- The Pac-12 selling itself as a legit factor in the Playoff race.
All ridiculous after Week 1. All locks to happen.
6. Big game, big implications
The most underrated game of Labor Day Weekend: Penn State-Purdue on Thursday night in West Lafayette.
Purdue is loaded with an offense as dangerous and talented as any in the Big Ten not named Ohio State. If you haven’t seen QB Aidan O’Connell, watch Tennessee try to deal with him in last year’s Music City Bowl.
(A quick aside: WR Broc Thompson will have a monster season in 2022).
Now, the real breakdown: Purdue is 8-4 against the spread as a home dog under coach Jeff Brohm, and has covered by an average of 7 points. The Boilers are 3-2 against the spread in home openers under Brohm, and 23-19 in home Big Ten games.
Meanwhile, we give you Penn State, losers of 6 of its last 8 games to finish 2021, and winners of 11 games in the past 2 seasons. And frankly, a dysfunctional mess at times in 2020-21.
Penn State, everyone, is favored by 3.5 points.
7. It’s only fair
Far be it from me to criticize Jim Harbaugh’s ride through The Bible to decide who plays quarterback at Michigan, but I feel as though his trip needs tweaking.
Harbaugh referenced King Solomon when announcing that Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy would each get 1 start to begin the season before Harbaugh decided who would start moving forward.
Well, Solomon — while a wise and gracious man — was an overly foolish man. Solomon’s teacher, Shimei, prevented him from marrying foreign wives.
So what did Solomon do? He executed Shimei and married the daughter of Pharaoh, who eventually turned his heart to other gods.
Seems to me that someone is turning Harbs’ heart to McCarthy, and moving him to forget a quarterback who won 12 games, beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten and led Michigan to the Playoff.
(McCarthy is the better QB, but that trip through The Bible just fit).
8. When the stars come out
Bo Nix was a 5-star recruit. Stetson Bennett III was a walk-on, and then a junior college transfer.
There couldn’t be more diametrically opposite ends of the spectrum in the life of a college quarterback, right?
Well, their career numbers are nearly identical.
So when Oregon and Georgia play Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, remember that stars aren’t everything.
Nix played 3 seasons at Auburn and was, at best, a decent SEC quarterback: a TD/INT ratio of 39/16, a career completion percentage of 59.4 and an average yards per attempt of just 6.9.
The ball didn’t get down the field and wasn’t accurate. And now he’s the Oregon quarterback.
Meanwhile, we give you the overachiever Bennett: a TD/INT ratio of 39/14, a career completion percentage of 62 and an average yards per attempt of 9.2.
The ball got down the field but wasn’t overly accurate.
The difference: Bennett has gotten better every season, and last year threw 29 TD passes against just 7 INTs. Nix got incrementally better, and eventually had enough of Auburn and the pressure to perform and live up to the Nix name.
What better way to reintroduce himself to college football by leading an upset of the defending national champions, in the heart of the SEC?
9. Hog Wild
Welcome, everyone, to the Momentum Game.
Cincinnati has won 33 of its past 38 games under coach Luke Fickell, and is coming off an appearance in the Playoff — the first for a Group 5 school.
Arkansas, 2 years removed from snapping a 20-game SEC losing streak, has a suped-up roster via the transfer portal, a hot quarterback (KJ Jefferson) and a hotter coach (Sam Pittman).
Fickell says his team knows who will start at quarterback Saturday in Fayetteville (Ben Bryant or Evan Prater), but he won’t reveal it publicly.
We do, however, know who’s playing quarterback for the Hogs. Jefferson worked all offseason on improving accuracy and throwing with anticipation on intermediate throws. He shed 15 pounds and is in the best shape of his career.
Plus, Sam Pittman:
WATCH: Sam Pittman on Week 1 "You gotta figure out what they're bringing to the party. Some guys bring ice tea, and some guys bring liquor. You just got to figure out what they're bringing" https://t.co/Em66ALgXVE pic.twitter.com/2W2PeHDqxS
— Pig Trail Nation (@PigTrailNation) August 29, 2022
10. The stealth signing
Lane Kiffin badly wanted him. So did numerous other SEC and Big 12 schools, but most too late.
New Washington State coach Jack Dickert found Cameron Ward early, and zeroed in on the perfect fit for his first quarterback in Pullman.
Remember the name Cameron Ward. He’s 6-3, 220 pounds, and in less than 2 years, he has gone from a quarterback no one wanted because of the Wing-T offense he led in high school, to a quarterback who could make an unthinkable rise at the FBS level — and with NFL scouts.
Ward played 2 seasons at FCS Incarnate Word (both in the same year; 2021 spring, 2021 fall), and threw for 6,908 yards in just 19 games. His TD/INT ratio was 71/14.
“He has arm talent, there’s no doubt about that,” an NFL scout told me. “He played in the Air Raid system that’s really advantageous for quarterbacks, and he’ll play in a similar offense (at Washington State). I’m really interested in how he adjusts to the next level, and how he continues to develop as a guy who reads (progressions), and throws on time and with anticipation.”