Week 1 college football observations: Impressive starts for Oklahoma, Arkansas
For nine months, Oklahoma heard about how much it had lost with the departure of coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams to Southern California. The Sooners were going to fall apart. They were potentially going to slip from their perch atop the Big 12 and would eventually struggle when it came time to enter the Southeastern Conference.
Enter Brent Venables.
The former Oklahoma defensive coordinator left his similar job at Clemson to return to Norman. He rebuilt the enthusiasm around the program. He's been a maniac on the recruiting trail. And Sooners fans and players have responded. More than 75,000 were in attendance at the spring game. And the players were ready for Saturday's opener against Texas-El Paso.
Oklahoma scored quickly with three touchdowns on its first three possessions, including a touchdown run and pass from new quarterback Dillon Gabriel. It was 21-0 midway through the first quarter. From there the game was on cruise control with a rebuilt defense providing six sacks and allowing just 28 rushing yards on 31 carries.
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The 45-13 victory Saturday doesn't mean the Sooners are a lock to win the Big 12 or compete for the College Football Playoff. However, it was an important moment to kick off a new era for one of the elite programs in the sport.
The tests will get much tougher and questions about the offensive line and secondary remain. But the three-plus-hour performance was a great start and shows that better things are ahead, and that should be celebrated after all the critics were sounding off since the end of last season.
Four other observations from the first full weekend of the college football season:
Arkansas makes statement with Cincinnati win
The Razorbacks aren't sexy. They're just a physical, grinding team that will lure you into a slugfest and, more times than not, end up on the winning side. That's been the formula in the Sam Pittman era and it worked effectively against the Bearcats.
Arkansas ran for 224 yards against a rebuilt Cincinnati defense that last season led the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff. KJ Jefferson provided the key plays in the passing game with three touchdowns, including a 32-yard strike to Trey Knox in the fourth quarter that keyed a 31-24 victory. While a lot of attention has been paid to Texas A&M as the second-best team in the SEC West, the Razorbacks clearly have a claim to that spot, especially after beating the Aggies last season. The win Saturday only adds to their argument.
North Carolina State isn't ready for prime time
Offseason chatter had the Wolfpack as one of the favorites in the ACC and possible playoff contenders – and much of those expectations made sense. But lofty offseason praise is a dangerous thing. How do all those positive predictions impact how you prepare for the season? Can you avoid overconfidence?
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East Carolina was always going to be a dangerous opener on the road. However, the game seemed under control for N.C. State. It led by 14 in the second half and by seven when a fourth-quarter drive got to the ECU 1. Four runs into the line resulted in no points as Dave Doeren eschewed a field goal and a two-score lead. Devin Leary then would throw a key interception near midfield with five minutes left, opening the door for the Pirates. N.C. State only was saved because East Carolina would miss a potential game-tying extra point and game-winning field goal. There was celebration and relief afterward and hopefully a realization that those press clippings don't mean much when the ball is snapped.
Not all bad news for Pac-12
The high-profile losses by Utah and Oregon against SEC schools will rightfully draw a lot of attention. It damages the league's playoff possibilities and further casts doubt on where it stands after the latest round of conference realignment.
However, there were two notable results from teams under the radar that are worth noting. Oregon State followed the momentum of last year's bowl season with an impressive win against perennial Mountain West power Boise State. The Beavers announced themselves as legitimate Pac-12 title contenders with a defense that blanked the Broncos in the first half and forced five turnovers in a 34-17 win.
Arizona, which won one game in Jedd Fisch's debut season, went on the road and dominated San Diego State, spoiling the opening game in the Aztecs' new stadium. Two transfers were key – quarterback Jayden de Laura and wide receiver Jacob Cowing. The duo connected for three touchdowns in the 38-20 victory. Up next is Mississippi State and another opportunity to impress as the Wildcats try to rebuild from one of the lowest of lows in program history.
Keep an eye on BYU
The Cougars face a demanding schedule with matchups against Baylor, Oregon, Arkansas and Notre Dame, but there's enough talent for Kalani Sitake's team to make a run at the New Year's Six. That tough schedule provides opportunities for quality wins that will boost BYU's resume.
Before that rough schedule kicks in next week with a visit from the Bears, BYU went on the road and dismantled South Florida, scoring the first 38 points of the game starting with Puka Nacua's 75-yard run on the game's first play. It was the kind of showing you'd want from a team in a road opener with a big game on deck and proves this team is mature enough to handle the challenge.