|Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports|
|Despite not having a big night statistically, the mere presence of Jadeveon Clowney impacted the UNC-South Carolina game.|
Saturday's Clemson-Georgia game was supposed to be the big shootout this weekend. But that contest may not be able to top two Thursday games that got the college football season off to a fantastic start.
Clemson-Georgia seems almost certain to be a shootout; both teams are loaded offensively and both teams are questionable defensively, especially in the secondary. But who knew Ole Miss-Vandy would turn into a high-scoring nail-biter than wasn't determined until the final 30 seconds? And who knew Rutgers' visit to Fresno State would go into overtime and not be decided until the Scarlet Knights missed a two-point conversion?
Ole Miss prevailed 39-35 in a game that saw two TDs scored in the final 1:30 -- both came in a span of 23 seconds -- and the outcome wasn't sealed until the Rebels picked off a pass at their 29 with 26 seconds left.
Fresno State outlasted Rutgers 52-51 in a game that saw both quarterbacks throw five TD passes and the teams combine for 1,080 yards of offense.
There also were two instances of a FCS program beating a FBS team: Southern Utah beat South Alabama and Towson whipped Connecticut.
Here are 10 things we learned on the first night of the season (and, oh my, if every game day is as exciting as Thursday, this will be a season to treasure):
1. Gamecocks have other defenders, too
South Carolina's defense may be Jadeveon Clowney-led, but it's not Clowney-dependent. North Carolina's offensive game plan clearly was to stay as far away as possible from the star defensive end despite the presence of an All-ACC left tackle (James Hurst). The Heels ran screens, draws and various other plays designed either to get Clowney out of position or stay out of his way. UNC double-teamed him at times, cut-blocked him on others and even ran rollout play-action to his side to draw him in and throw over his head. Forget that he got winded near the end of the first half and at times in the second half. North Carolina wasn't going to let him make big plays anyway. In other words, his presence impacted the game more than his play did. The Tar Heels dared South Carolina's other 10 defensive starters to beat them, and they did.
2. USC's offense falls flat
If not for new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's aggressive 5-2 scheme, USC coach Lane Kiffin might have been left behind on the islands holding a pink slip. The Trojans had four interceptions and seven sacks to help make up for a lackluster offense in a 30-13 win over Hawaii. Among the beneficiaries of the new approach were DT Leonard Williams and hybrid S/OLB linebacker Dion Bailey, but senior Devon Kennard was the biggest winner. Kennard (6-feet-3, 255 pounds) looked completely energized as a de-facto 3-4 outside linebacker, finally delivering on the promise that made him one of the nation's most sought-after recruits. If Kennard can stay healthy and be this productive, NFL scouts will have to take notice. Meanwhile, now we know why Kiffin declined to name a starting quarterback until the last minute. Cody Kessler (10-of-19 for 95 yards, one touchdown and one interception) was timid and ineffective, not getting any help from the offensive line or the play-calling. Max Wittek (5-of-10 for 77 yards) was slightly better, but he still missed some opportunities to put the game away. All five of Pete Carroll's USC opening-game starters -- Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley -- were drafted in the first five rounds, but based on Thursday night, that streak is coming to an end.
3. Carr has monster game
Fresno State QB Derek Carr put up huge numbers in the first game of his senior season, going 52-of-73 for 453 yards and five TDs in the overtime win over Rutgers. It was Carr's fourth career five-TD performance. He didn't get much help from his rushing attack, and he basically was in a throw-every-down mode in the second half; three Bulldogs caught at least 13 passes. Rutgers QB Gary Nova also threw five TD passes. Each quarterback threw two TD passes in the fourth quarter and one each in overtime. Weirdly in a game with this many points, the teams were just a combined 8-of-30 on third-down conversions. This was Fresno's toughest non-conference game of the season (the others are Cal Poly, Colorado and Idaho). Boise State is getting most of the attention as the potential BCS-buster from the Mountain West, but Carr and Fresno play host to the Broncos on Sept. 20 in a Friday-night ESPN game.
4. Mostly good, some bad
Ole Miss' vaunted freshman class clearly is going to be special, but don't "crown them" Dennis Green-style just yet. There was an interception for freshman S Tony Connor and a big night for WR Laquon Treadwell, and DE Robert Nkemdiche made his presence felt with a first-down rush on a fake punt, among other things, in the win over Vandy. But there were growing pains, as well. Nkemdiche missed a tackle on a short Vandy touchdown run, and Ole Miss' offensive line, with a strong freshman influence, struggled at times in pass protection. Next week, the freshmen should frolic against FCS opponent Southeast Missouri State. Then come consecutive games against Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU. But by November, the youngsters will have picked up some valuable experience and the Rebels should be even tougher to beat.
5. Big night, bad ending
Highly touted Vanderbilt senior WR Jordan Matthews had a season's worth of excitement and disappointment in a single game, compiling a career-high 178 receiving yards but also dropping a pass that was intercepted to clinch Ole Miss' win. In between, he vomited on the field after a big hit forced him to briefly leave the game. Matthews certainly served notice that the opportunity to establish himself as the most prolific receiver in SEC history won't be squandered. Also impressive was that he did it without No. 2 receiver Chris Boyd, who is suspended. Coach James Franklin indicated Ole Miss double-covered Matthews for most of the night.
6. Fales' outing a disappointment
San Jose State senior QB David Fales (6-feet-3, 220 pounds) received a lot of preseason attention from the media and from scouts, but he didn't look all that good against FCS member Sacramento State. The Spartans slogged their way to a 24-0 victory over a team that lost by 30 to New Mexico State last season, and Fales was just 17-of-33 (51.5 percent completion rate) for 231 yards and two TDs. Fales' worst completion percentage in a game last season was 65.4, in a win over Texas-San Antonio. Fales will see a much tougher defense next week, when the Spartans take a short trip to Stanford.
7. Heels' offense was punchless
North Carolina's offense really came on down the stretch last season, with the players seeming to finally grasp first-year coach Larry Fedora's up-tempo offense, and there were extremely high expectations for the unit this season. But the Heels' offense took a step back in the loss to South Carolina. UNC never was allowed to find a rhythm, and too often it seemed that the Heels let South Carolina's defense dictate what they would do. UNC's top skill-position guys didn't come through: Senior QB Bryn Renner never got comfortable and looked uneasy in the pocket, sophomore WR Quinshad Davis couldn't handle the Gamecocks' physical corners and junior TE Eric Ebron wasn't consistent.
8. Keeton a name to know
Not that long ago, Utah State junior QB Chuckie Keeton's hopes of an NFL career would have demanded a move to wide receiver or running back. Now, with the spread option en vogue on Sundays, Keeton will get a chance as a quarterback and showed why again in a 30-26 loss at Utah. Keeton was 31-of-40 for 314 yards and two touchdowns, and added 85 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. There were a lot of highlight-reel plays: a long scramble while losing his shoe, a gorgeous pump fake and spin move on another broken play and breaking two tackles in the backfield on his first play back after cramping up. As a mobile backup quarterback with upside beyond that, Keeton (6-2, 200) is a name to know.
9. Big Ten 'juggernauts'
Indiana scored 73 points, and Minnesota put up 51. Impressive, yes, but let's not get carried away. Indiana beat FCS opponent Indiana State and the Golden Gophers beat up on hapless UNLV, which has won eight times since the beginning of the 2009 season. In addition, Minnesota scored on an interception return, a kickoff return and a blocked field-goal return. We really won't know much about Minnesota until Big Ten play starts; Indiana has a tougher non-conference schedule and we should know enough about IU by the end of September. Indiana did show off its firepower Thursday; too bad IU's offense can't go against IU's defense, which surrendered 35 points to Indiana State. The Hoosiers didn't announce a starting quarterback until about 90 minutes before kickoff, and all three quarterbacks involved in the battle played; they combined to throw for 324 yards and six TDs. IU's receiving corps might be the deepest in the league, and TE Ted Bolser (6-6, 252) is a big weapon, too; he had two TD catches Thursday.
10. Utah's Wilson takes big step
After being forced into action because of injuries and ineffective quarterback play last season, Travis Wilson's freshman year at Utah wasn't much to write home about; he finished with 1,311 passing yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. But making his eighth career start in the Utes' opener, Wilson was bigger, stronger and more confident (17-of-28 for 302 yards and two touchdowns). But even at 240 pounds, the 6-foot-6 former volleyball player still has wheels. With Dennis Erickson now running Utah's offense, Wilson will draw comparisons to Erickson's former Arizona State pupil, 6-foot-8 Brock Osweiler, currently Peyton Manning's backup in Denver.