Do you like college football or do you like watching college football so you can yell about the NFL draft? Saturday served as a beginning for fans of both, as it was not only the opening Saturday of the college football season, but also the day the Miami Dolphins fully committed to tanking the 2020 season by trading away their best offensive player for draft picks. And regardless of which category of college football fan you fall into, Oregon’s Justin Herbert’s brilliant and/or upsetting play made sure it was a thrilling day for you.
The 6-foot-6 Duck likely would have been a first-round pick in the 2019 draft, but he decided to return to college for his senior season. He passed up millions for the chance to lead Oregon to a Pac-12 title for the first time since 2014 (if you care about college football) or get drafted higher than he would have as a junior (if you care about the draft). He played in the biggest game of Week 1, The Game That’s Randomly in the Cowboys’ Stadium, a vaunted college football tradition that dates back to … I dunno, five years ago? His 11th-ranked Ducks faced off against 16th-ranked Auburn in a rematch of the 2011 championship game. A win would legitimately prove the Ducks are worthy of College Football Playoff consideration (if you care about college) or prove his ability to win big games (if you care about the pros.)
Herbert played lights out early, guiding Oregon to a 21-6 lead. He threw this unreal touchdown by dodging Auburn defenders before flinging the ball all the way to the opposite side of the field. The arm strength! The mobility! The poise!
Justin Herbert throws all the way across the field to Spencer Webb for a score! pic.twitter.com/kmFjAQHcAZ— Sports Daily (@SportsDGI) September 1, 2019
And this ball placement!
Anticipation ✔️— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) September 1, 2019
Tight Window ✔️
Stepping up in the pocket ✔️
Yep, that’ll do for Justin Herbert. pic.twitter.com/xJFhaSqX7j
Herbert was 10-for-16 with a touchdown in the first half, and 18-for-21 afterwards. Given that knowledge, you’d assume the Ducks iced the game. But no! Herbert actually threw for fewer yards in the second half (120) than in the first (122), and his yards per completion dropping from 12.0 to 6.7. On one set of downs, Herbert completed three consecutive passes … and Oregon punted on fourth-and-1 after those three completions went for just nine yards. Either Oregon coach Mario Cristobal stopped asking Herbert to go deep, or Herbert stopped feeling confident making those throws.
Meanwhile, Auburn stormed back, thanks to true freshman Bo Nix, who helped Auburn score 20 consecutive points including this game-winning touchdown.
We should’ve seen this coming. Auburn is college football’s king of ridiculous, surprising victories, and has been since before the Kick Six. (Seriously, they had a similarly ridiculous, surprising win two weeks before in 2013.) Oregon is probably top five in losses in games they definitely should’ve won. And they definitely should’ve won this game.
Nix was just one of several true freshman who had spectacular Saturdays. Boise State’s Hank Bachmeier led the Broncos back from a 31-13 deficit to beat Florida State 36-31:
While North Carolina’s Sam Howell led the Tar Heels on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to turn a 20-9 deficit into a 24-20 win against South Carolina:
Sam Howell to Dyami Brown for the UNC TOUCHDOWN pic.twitter.com/196irk9hkD— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) August 31, 2019
Last week, I wrote about how true freshman quarterbacks are succeeding more frequently and earlier than ever, and Saturday seemed like confirmation of that. Which is perfect for fans of both college football and draft yelling. It’s fascinating to watch fresh-out-of-high-school players outduel shook seniors. And the earlier college players become stars, the earlier draftniks start forming opinions about them. After all, Herbert became a top prospect by throwing 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions after taking over the Oregon starter’s job three years ago.
Herbert’s first half proved why he’s a top draft prospect; his second half proved why he’s not the top prospect. That’s Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who also burst onto the team as a true freshman, and went 26-for-31 for 336 yards with four touchdowns in a romp against Duke. (Tua wouldn’t be caught dead completing three passes without getting a first down.)
With quarterbacks succeeding earlier and earlier, I can’t help but feel Herbert should already be in the NFL. He’d be getting paid already, he probably would have been selected higher in last year’s draft than the upcoming one with Tagovailoa, and he’d be saved from the awkwardness of a season in which his every action is viewed through a draft lens. The good news is you don’t have to choose which type of fan you are. You can holler about both Herbert the prospect and Herbert the Duck.