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Embrace the Week 1 Overreaction

We may not actually know a damn thing about how this college football season will pan out, but part of the sport’s beauty is feeling absolutely certain that we do

Getty Images
Getty Images

The thought first crossed my mind late in the third quarter of Texas A&M’s Week 1 matchup with UCLA — before the Bruins rallied from a 24–9 deficit, before Aggies cornerback Justin Evans reeled in what turned out to be a game-saving interception, and before A&M escaped with a 31–24 overtime victory. What if this is the year that the Aggies finally realize their potential? After all, graduate transfer quarterback Trevor Knight had just lofted a beautiful 40-yard touchdown pass to Josh Reynolds, and A&M’s defense looked ferocious behind pass-rushing freaks Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall.

This, mind you, was approximately 42 minutes of game time into Texas A&M’s 2016 season, and the notion ran counter to everything the program’s recent history would suggest. The Aggies opened fast with high-profile wins in each of the past two years (downing South Carolina 52–28 in 2014 and beating Arizona State 38–17 last fall), and in both instances they started 5–0 before ultimately limping toward 8–5 finishes.

As the fans at Kyle Field rocked and chanted, though, even going so far as to belittle UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen for remarks he’d made earlier in the week, it was hard not to get caught up in it all. This is the new reality. This is what we’ve been waiting for.

This is also the same quality that defines every season’s opening week: overreaction. College football’s return brought no shortage of prominent story lines, but within the next month or so, the majority of our Week 1 takeaways will probably be rendered reckless, stupid, or wholly inaccurate. (Remember when we were ready to dismiss Stanford last fall after it couldn’t find the end zone at Northwestern?) They’re also one of the best parts of the sport’s annual return, a symbol of autumn as ubiquitous as falling leaves and pumpkin spice lattes. And unlike the latter of those two, these assessments are fantastic.

Here is what we think we know for sure as Week 1 winds down: Houston is going undefeated; LSU’s Les Miles is about to be out of a job; Tennessee is primed to flop; Louisville’s Lamar Jackson is a Heisman Trophy candidate; and Steve Spurrier is the greatest human who ever lived. (That last one is unequivocally true, and if you disagree I will fight you.) We also believe that Ohio State and Michigan will both be 11–0 entering their game in Columbus on November 26; Alabama’s defense will not allow a touchdown all fall; and Northwestern will routinely lose in ways that once would’ve seemed impossible. (That last one is also true, and for alums like me, the source of great and unending sadness.)

College football, perhaps more than any other sport, encourages its fans and analysts to allow one result to shape their entire perception of a player, coach, or team. This happens for two main reasons: (1) The regular season is only 12 games and (2) the playoff format leaves little margin for error, with two losses (or one bad one) eliminating a team from national championship contention. In other words, the sport is structured so that small sample sizes matter and one outcome can impact the FBS landscape. That facilitates jumping to conclusions, which is irresponsible, but also kind of wonderful. Our attempts to make order out of chaos are a vital part of the charm.

Take Houston, for example. The no. 15 Cougars entered this fall as college football’s dark-horse darlings, and proceeded to manhandle no. 3 Oklahoma for the better part of three hours in Saturday’s 33–23 win. Tom Herman, he of the Paul Wall–installed grills, further solidified his status as the most coveted coach in America, while QB Greg Ward Jr., he of the rocket launcher for an arm, picked apart the Sooners defense to the tune of 321 yards with two touchdowns. Houston improved to 1–0, and already there is debate over its résumé for inclusion in the four-team playoff field. This is partially absurd (remember 2010 Boise State, anyone?), but it’s primarily fun as hell. The Coogs play only one ranked opponent (Louisville, at home, on November 17) the remainder of the way, and if freshman defensive end Ed Oliver, a 6-foot-2, 290-pounder who can apparently drop back in coverage, keeps wreaking havoc, it’s fair to wonder why (despite plenty of sensible arguments otherwise) they can’t make a run.

Or take no. 18 Georgia’s tailback Nick Chubb, who returned from a torn PCL in his left knee to rush for 222 yards with two touchdowns in a 33–24 victory over no. 22 North Carolina. After Chubb’s first appearance since last October, some are already proclaiming him the “most important player in the SEC.” This feels like a patently absurd thing to say after Chubb tallied just 32 carries, but seeing him run can border on euphoric. Why rush to reason when we could simply watch highlights like this on repeat?

The overreaction isn’t limited to the good, of course, and for that we can look to no. 5 LSU. Behind generational running back Leonard Fournette and a star-studded defense, the Tigers were supposed to emerge as a threat to win the national championship. Yet after succumbing to unranked Wisconsin in Green Bay — doomed, once again, by shoddy quarterback play — there’s chatter about not only wasting what is likely to be Fournette’s final season, but also about how soon Miles could get the axe.

Surely, this is premature; the Tigers could rip off seven wins in a row and right the ship heading into a showdown with Alabama on November 5. But ousting Miles is also not unthinkable. It feels crazy in the same way that college football is crazy, which is to say that if boosters in a state with a budget crisis pushing $200 million from the previous fiscal year want to pay a costly buyout and fire their head coach, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

This is what happens in Week 1: College football’s return brings equal parts excitement, joy, and panic, and we’re left trying to make sense of what generally amounts to madness. Logic gets tossed out the window. Rash judgments reign supreme. For better or worse, we make up our minds about teams in an instant. It’s built into the sport’s very DNA.

Of course, it’s also half the fun.

We do definitively know some things after Week 1. No. 1 Alabama beat the ever-living crap out of no. 20 USC on Saturday night, 52–6. The Crimson Tide, who have won four of the past seven national titles, will be a force. No. 2 Clemson, despite getting a closer-than-expected contest out of unranked Auburn in a 19–13 win, will be an ACC favorite, so long as junior Deshaun Watson continues to make throws most NFL quarterbacks would struggle to manage.

But more often than not we’ll be wrong. A September loss does not destroy a program’s national title hopes (see: Ohio State in 2014, or Alabama in 2015), just as a triumphant Week 1 doesn’t portend a magical season. We’ll anoint some teams (no. 14 Washington’s 48–13 whipping of Rutgers adds to the Huskies’ hype) and write off whole conferences (the Big 12 looks like it could be in for a down year after Oklahoma’s defeat and TCU’s struggles against FCS South Dakota State in the closest thing we may get to a mascot battle between a tortoise and a hare), and then watch how spectacularly misguided our assumptions were. Due to its very nature, that’s how college football works: We rank teams and argue incessantly, but what unfolds over the course of a few brief months is basically unpredictable.

Well, except for the part where Bama wins the whole damn thing.