College football spotlight: Oregon blows big chance for itself and Pac-12

Auburn's Seth Williams beats Oregon's Verone McKinley III for a game-winning 26-yard touchdown catch Aug. 31, 2019.
Auburn’s Seth Williams beats Oregon’s Verone McKinley III to make a game-winning 26-yard touchdown catch with nine seconds left Saturday.
(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

Oregon should be back in Eugene now, preparing itself for a well-earned top-10 ranking and putting in special uniform requests to Phil Knight for its next nationally relevant game.

The Ducks should be the toast of the Pac-12 Conference on Sunday morning for doing what Washington couldn’t last year and finishing off the Auburn Tigers in a prime-time season opener. Fans across the West Coast would have been right to clang glasses of delicious craft beer to honor the accomplishment, which would have opened up doors for everyone else the rest of the season.

This was not a first weekend of titanic clashes. ESPN didn’t have to think hard about where “College GameDay” was going to kick off the season with Oregon-Auburn in Arlington, Texas, as the only contest matching two top-25 teams. The top 10 pretty much breezed through Week 1, but either the No. 11 Ducks or No. 16 Tigers were going to immediately vault into the conversation and carry the best resume-building win for the College Football Playoff into Week 2.

Imagine being Washington or Utah, neither of which entered the season with a game against a preseason top-10 team. The only way to make the playoff is to go undefeated or to beat another contender or two on the way to a conference championship. So those two teams desperately needed Oregon to play its way back onto the national map for the first time since 2015. (Washington faces Oregon on Oct. 19, and by then, the Ducks could have moved to top-five status. Utah would count on facing the winner of that contest in the conference title game.)

Auburn true freshman quarterback Bo Nix threw a 26-yard touchdown with 9 seconds remaining and the Tigers opened the season with a 27-21 comeback win over Oregon.


Of course, Oregon wasn’t playing for the Pac-12 on Saturday. The Ducks wanted this for themselves, and they sure needed it more than Auburn, which always gets the benefit of the doubt perception-wise as a Southeastern Conference program. When Auburn’s record is good, nobody questions it. In fact, it could be argued its performance is inflated. A win Saturday would mean way more to Oregon as a program.

And, in the first half, the Ducks played like they knew that. They looked fast like Chip Kelly’s best teams and were brawny like what a Mario Cristobal team is theoretically supposed to be. Senior quarterback Justin Herbert, a Eugene kid who came back to Oregon to prove something, efficiently led the Ducks to a 21-6 lead.

It was happening.

Oregon lost 27-21.

The Ducks choked. Don’t give Auburn or the SEC — which saw Tennessee lose to Georgia State, Missouri lose to Wyoming, South Carolina lose to North Carolina and Mississippi lose to Memphis on Saturday — too much credit. Oregon should have won.

Auburn true freshman quarterback Bo Nix should have never been in position to throw the downright brazen touchdown pass to Seth Williams in the final seconds to break Herbert and the Ducks’ hearts.

Saturday was a day for hyped-up true freshman quarterbacks. Before Nix led the Auburn comeback, Boise State’s Hank Bachmeier and North Carolina’s Sam Howell had already spurred rallies of their own to knock off Florida State and South Carolina, respectively.

We’re going to hear a lot about all three of these guys for the next three years, and college football fans should be intrigued by that. But Nix was the least effective of the three, completing 13 of 31 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.

Let’s not anoint him, Auburn or the SEC.

Let’s put the blame on Oregon, which, unfortunately, blew a grand opportunity for more than itself.

The margin for error just plummeted in Pac-12 country. Perfection won’t come easily, particularly for the Huskies. Want to know why?

Because Oregon is actually good. The Ducks just won’t get to enjoy it today.

Targeting miss

Surprisingly, it wasn’t a Pac-12 officiating crew that went under the microscope Saturday afternoon during the Northwestern-Stanford game in Palo Alto.

But a vicious hit to the head of Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello that was not called for targeting by the visiting Big Ten referees in the second quarter could very well end up affecting the Pac-12 race in the coming weeks.

Costello had thrown for 152 yards and a touchdown before he scrambled around midfield for a first down. On his way to the turf, Costello slid and gave himself up, but Northwestern defensive end Earnest Brown hurled toward him. Brown appeared to lead with his elbow, which collided with Costello’s helmet, knocking it off.

Officials did not review the play for targeting.

Costello remained on the field to receive medical attention and did not play another snap in a contest the Cardinal were fortunate to win without him 17-7.

Recaps and scores of today’s Pac-12 football teams in action.

It is unclear whether he will be available to play next Saturday at USC in the first Pac-12 showdown of the season.

FOX analyst Brock Huard, who was calling the game for the network, said he went to the booth in the press box where the reviews are performed and asked why it was not called targeting. He said on the air that he was told the use of the elbow was “incidental.”

FOX sideline reporter Bruce Feldman said he asked Stanford coach David Shaw whether he believed it should have been targeting, and Shaw repeated it was not his call.

FOX NFL officiating expert Mike Pereira tweeted: “find it hard to believe that targeting wasn’t called for the hit on Costello. Now I am told it wasn’t even reviewed. What did Vince Lombardi say… ‘What the hell is…’ ”

Because of public pressure over consistent officiating miscues, the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12 both vowed to be more transparent about controversial calls.

The Big Ten has not gone that far, but it certainly has some explaining to do.

Volunteer for misery

It didn’t take long after Georgia State’s 38-30 win over Tennessee on Saturday in Neyland Stadium for Volunteers fans to begin calling it the worst loss in program history.

Here’s why: Georgia State’s first football season was in 2013. The Panthers went 2-10 last season and were picked to finish last in their division in the Sun Belt Conference this year.

Tennessee wasn’t supposed to do much this year, Jeremy Pruitt’s second as head coach, but this?

The Volunteers were firmly outplayed by Georgia State and trailed 38-23 before a garbage-time touchdown tightened the score.

Pruitt was brought in by Tennessee athletic director Phil Fulmer, the program’s last successful head football coach, to set a defense-driven culture after Pruitt led Nick Saban’s defense at Alabama.

The defense could not get key stops late, and, as expected, Tennessee didn’t have the offense to carry the team to what should have been an easy win.

The Volunteers were favored by 26.

Kudos to Georgia State on the upset of the opening weekend.

Seminoles whiff on big win

Everything was going Florida State’s way to start Willie Taggart’s second season leading the Seminoles.

As if it weren’t already an advantage to play a “neutral site” game against Boise State in Orlando, the game was moved to Tallahassee to avoid possible hurricane conditions closer to the coast. Then Florida State jumped to a 24-6 lead on the Broncos, sending a message that its 5-7 debacle from a year ago was an aberration and not the new rule.

But the message fell flat once Boise State true freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier found his footing.

The Broncos won 36-31 after trailing 31-19 at halftime, stymieing the Florida State offense that new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles was supposed to have fixed this offseason the rest of the way.

Bachmeier, a former Murrieta Valley High standout and one of the top pro-style prospects in the country, completed 30 of 50 passes for 407 yards, while Boise State’s defense took away a lot of the short passes that made Florida State quarterback James Blackman feel comfortable in the first half.

Florida State might not be what it used to be, but Boise State, by winning in Doak Campbell Stadium in comeback fashion with a young kid such as Bachmeier making his first collegiate start, showed that it can still play the role of giant killer.

The Broncos are now in contention for the group of five automatic berths to the New Year’s Six bowl games.

Meanwhile, Florida State could be in for another long season.

Welcome back, Mack

It just felt right seeing Mack Brown back on the sideline, particularly wearing Tar Heel blue, and that was before North Carolina stormed past South Carolina, turning a 20-9 deficit into a stirring 24-20 win.

Brown didn’t mean to do it, but his team’s shocking comeback over the Gamecocks put South Carolina coach Will Muschamp firmly on the hot seat.

This is Muschamp’s fourth season, and South Carolina can’t afford to go backwards. Then there came Brown, in his first game back after retiring at Texas in 2013, with a fired-up bunch of Tar Heels who showed talent wasn’t the problem under former head coach Larry Fedora.

Of course, it didn’t hurt Brown that he had a talented true freshman quarterback in Sam Howell who was fearless in his first college start. Howell completed 15 of 24 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns, joining Bachmeier of Boise State in pulling off an upset in his first start.

Brown has to be pretty happy to have Howell for at least the first three years of this rebuild that appears ahead of schedule.

FCS teams don’t pull upsets

Northern Iowa led No. 21 Iowa State 13-10 in the second half.

James Madison stood tied 10-10 with West Virginia going into the fourth quarter.

Indiana State took a 17-16 lead at Kansas late in the fourth quarter.

None of those Football Championship Subdivision teams took down a Football Bowl Subdivision Power Five team Saturday, though.

Iowa State nearly fumbled the game away in the third overtime before winning 29-26 one play later.

West Virginia got it together and won Neal Brown’s first game as Mountaineers coach, 20-13.

And Kansas scored a touchdown late to win 24-17 and make Les Miles a winner in his first game coaching the Jayhawks.

Ohio State wins debut day

Ohio State did not prove anything by rolling to an easy win over Florida Atlantic 45-21.

But the Buckeyes did have a pleasant debut day for first-year head coach Ryan Day and new starting quarterback Justin Fields.

Fields, the top prospect who spent just one year at Georgia before transferring to Ohio State, completed 18 of 25 passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran 12 times for 61 yards and a touchdown.

Fields, Day and the Buckeyes will have a much stiffer test next Saturday against Cincinnati, which just beat UCLA 24-14.