Playoff Picture: A Better Opening Weekend

College football’s opening weekend has come and gone, and while it was wonderfully exciting to have football back on I couldn’t help but feel left wanting more. For the second year in a row, college football fans were given an opening weekend with only a couple of meaningful games in terms of the big picture. The modern concept of the “kickoff” game got its start with the Chik-fil-a Kickoff Game’s inception in 2008 when Alabama took on Clemson (just before Alabama and Clemson took a blowtorch to the rest of the college football world). Since then, the number of college football “kickoff” games has expanded, but it’s grown stale in the last couple of seasons with the games filled with declining programs and mid-tier cross-conference rivalries. I think it’s time we reinvigorate the “kickoff” process and make a better opening weekend for players, fans and everyone involved in this wild and fun sport.

This year we had four major neutral site games on opening weekend in Atlanta, Charlotte, Orlando and Arlington. (We would have had a 5th but Hurricane Dorian forced Boise State and Florida State from Jacksonville to Tallahassee making it a home game for Florida State). My proposal is that we keep those four sites and add four more spread out around the country in Glendale (Cardinals Stadium), Santa Clara (Levi’s Stadium), Chicago and Philadelphia. While these are all NFL stadiums, the fact that these would all be occurring prior to the start of the NFL season means that shouldn’t matter. Three of the four current games are in NFL stadiums too. Then each game gets to offer bids to the teams it wants to participate, not unlike the bowl selection process at the end of the year. If you want conference tie-ins, fine. If you want “guaranteed” spots for so many Power 5 or Group of Five teams, that’s fine too.

Here’s how I’d do the “Opening 8” (snazzy name right?). Every year in March, representative for each of the eight games get together to offer their bids to the teams that they want to participate in their opening weekend game. Why March? Because that’s the perfect dead period between the end of the college football recruiting season and the start of college football’s meaningless glorified scrimmages. Then I would say that the New Year’s Six participants from a season ago are guaranteed to receive a bid and then go from there. I’d also add a guaranteed bid for a second Group of Five team and any Independent team who won 10+ games the previous season (basically guaranteeing Notre Dame a spot whenever they are good). Teams are obviously allowed to receive multiple bids and/or decline bids altogether, but here’s the catch for teams wanting to do that: the whole bidding process is open and televised, so the selection committee will know if you turned down a spot in order to get an easier opener. Then all we have to do is wait until opening weekend where we can space all 8 games out to maximize our premier game enjoyment: play one each in Week 0, Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday at noon easter, Saturday at 3:30 eastern, Saturday prime time, Sunday night and Labor Day night. Now, boom! We have at least one strong college football game for every major time slot of the opening weekend.

Here’s a sample of what last weekend could have looked like:

Saturday, August 24th: Army vs. Notre Dame in Philadelphia

Thursday, August 29th: Washington vs. Fresno State in Santa Clara

Friday, August 30th: Michigan vs. Oklahoma in Chicago

Saturday, August 31st noon EST: Clemson vs. LSU in Charlotte

Saturday, August 31st 3:30 EST: Georgia vs. Oregon in Atlanta

Saturday, August 31st 7:00 EST: Ohio State vs. Alabama in Glendale

Sunday, September 1st: Florida vs. UCF in Orlando

Monday, September 2nd: Texas vs. Texas A&M in Arlington

Write your representatives and Mark Emmert. I humbly accept you nomination for the new role of College Football Commissioner.

Peach Bowl (#1 vs. #4)- Auburn vs. Wisconsin

AP:Chris O'Meara
Photo Courtesy of AP/Chris O’Meara

Auburn wasn’t the best team of opening weekend, but they did have the best win. By virtue of that, they earn the top spot in my inaugural “Playoff Picture” poll. Bo Nix looked like a true freshman at times, but also flashed enough poise and ability that the Auburn faithful should feel comfortable with him at the reins going forward this year, and excited about the future. It still feels like Auburn is a tier below Alabama, Georgia, and even LSU, but with a few breaks and Nix maturing over the course of the season they could very easily be in the SEC title conversation in November.

Trying to pick a #4 this week was not an easy task, but Wisconsin earned it with a dominant performance over what is supposed to be a decent AAC team. Granted, the wheels could fall off for USF and we may look back at this as a nothing victory, but for now we’ll consider it a positive showing. Jonathan Taylor also showed why he’s the top non-quarterback in the Heisman race to start the season with 183 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns.

Fiesta Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Clemson vs. Alabama

AP Photo:Richard Shiro
Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/Richard Shiro

Clemson and Alabama both did exactly what they were expected to do this weekend. Clemson was slightly more impressive and more complete in their win than Alabama was, but the gap was minimal. Clemson gets the slight edge her thanks to a lackluster first quarter performance from the Tide. The one impressive take away from Alabama this weekend was how effectively they managed to defend the multiple-look offense that David Cutcliffe threw at them. Cutcliffe has long been known as both a quarterback whisperer and an offensive innovator, but his ability to implement an offense that seamlessly transitioned from a flexbone triple option to a shotgun five-wide in one possession was remarkable.

Rose Bowl- Utah vs. Ohio State

Trent Nelson:The Salt Lake Tribune
Photo Courtesy of Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune

After one week of play, Utah is what we thought they were. The defense was stalwart, keeping BYU out of the endzone until the 4th quarter when the game was essentially over, and intercepting Zach Wilson twice. Offensively, Zack Moss carried the Utes with 187 rushing yards and a touchdown. It was a reassuring night for Utes’ believers (like myself) but, it’s still too early to “crown their ass” just yet.

Ohio State cruised to a season-opening win over the Lane Train’s Florida Atlantic Owls. More importantly, Justin Fields looked every bit the superstar he was expected to be when he transferred from Georgia in the offseason taking over the quarterback position from Dwayne Haskins. The first score of the game was Fields ripping off a 51-yard run on a read option. He followed that up with four touchdown strikes, making for a five-touchdown debut that stood as the best opening performance for a transfer for one whole day…more on that in a minute.

Sugar Bowl- Georgia vs. Oklahoma

Georgia had no issues with Vanderbilt on Saturday night, and it’s always nice when you can pick up a conference win on the road to open your season. The Dawgs are one of a handful of teams with the raw talent to compete with Alabama and Clemson and, while that was on display to some extent, it definitely felt like they left something to be desired. Again, no one is going to complain about a 30-6 win over a conference opponent, but for a team trying to get over that final hump to winning a title you want to see a little more against what should be the worst team in your division.

Remember what I said about Justin Fields? Jalen Hurts watched that performance and then casually said, “Hold my beer!” as he proceeded to eviscerate the Houston Cougars on Sunday night. In case the above video doesn’t impress you enough, here is Hurts’ final stat line: 20/23 332 passing yards and 16 carries for 176 yards and 6 total touchdowns, which is the best debut start for any Oklahoma quarterback ever. And they’ve had a few good ones over the years. If Hurts continues to play like this and improves as the season goes along, then Oklahoma will be looking at a third straight playoff appearance.

Orange Bowl- Virginia vs. Michigan

Justin Berl:Getty Images
Photo Courtesy of Justin Berl/Getty Images

The ACC Coastal Division race should be one of the most fascinating in the country. Not necessarily because of any playoff implications (there won’t be any), but because the division is more or less wide open. Virginia took an early lead in the “ACC runner-up” sweepstakes with a road win over Pitt on Saturday night. They were also helped out by two division opponents, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, suffering opening weekend conference losses. Virginia football has made tremendous strides with Bronco Mendenhall at the helm, and with Bryce Perkins under center they should have the offensive firepower to scare almost anyone.

Michigan wasn’t especially impressive on Saturday night, but they weren’t disappointing either. The Big Ten had the best opening weekend of any of the Power Five conferences, and I wanted to reward that by giving them three teams in this week’s column. Michigan and Ohio State both did what they were supposed to do. Maryland and Penn State both scored 79 points in routs over their respective FCS foes. As mentioned earlier, Wisconsin bludgeoned what has been an upper crust AAC program. Rutgers even picked up a win to start their season! In fact, other than Purdue’s surprising loss to Nevada on Friday night, everything was all smiles in Big Ten land on Labor Day weekend.

Cotton Bowl- Boise State vs. Texas

Don Juan Moore:Getty Images
Photo Courtesy of Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Hank “The Cow Dog” Bachmeier may not have had the best quarterback performance of opening weekend, but he definitely had the grittiest. Bachmeier, a true freshman, took his fair share of hits on Saturday, even having his helmet knocked off a number of times, and had to battle back from an 18-point deficit on the road to secure a win in his first college game. The Cow Dog through the ball 51 times, completing 30 passes for 407 yards, a TD and a pick. More importantly he exhibited toughness and grit, taking a physical beating and continuing to lead the offense back into the game.

Much like Michigan, Texas earned this spot by meeting expectations against an inferior opponent. The Longhorns had no trouble with Louisiana Tech on Saturday night and Sam Ehlinger looked sharp with four touchdown passes. This weekend was a tune-up for the Horns with LSU coming to town next weekend. The winner of that game comes out with an inside track to the playoff, while the loser lands itself squarely behind the 8-ball for the remainder of the season. In the words of Bart Scott, “Can’t wait!!!”

Cover Photo Courtesy of Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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