We can't help ourselves. We know we should not cast serious judgments based on a single week's performance, but when it is the only evidence available, and when we have spent the last nine months asking questions, we tend to draw serious conclusions off of the smallest sample sizes.
I had the privilege of going on Stewart Mandel's podcast again this week. We talked a bit about the numbers from college football's first week of action, and I tried to pinpoint some offenses and defenses that might end up a lot better or worse than we currently think. I tried not to make the mistake of drawing serious, lasting conclusions in the other direction, of course, but if you give the podcast a listen, consider it a PSA for waiting-and-seeing.
And consider this the written version of the same PSA. Below are six units (some mentioned in the podcast, some not) that might -- might -- change our minds, for better or worse, in coming weeks.
Better Than We Think?
(And before we get started, I should mention that Better is not Good's twin brother. We're looking for hints from the box score here, but the eyeballs still see what the eyeballs see.)
The Internet isn't unanimous on many things, but "LOL Florida's Offense" was one of them on the season's first weekend. The Gators punted on three of five first-half possessions and found themselves behind, 7-0, after 20 minutes. But they scored 27 points in the final 40 minutes, and there were at least a few signs that things may not be entirely lost for offensive coordinator's Brent Pease's first unit in Gainesville. And most of those signs are named Mike Gillislee. After gaining just 13 yards in four first-quarter carries, Gillislee broke off carries of 17 and 15 yards on Florida's first touchdown drive, then broke free for a 38-yard touchdown off right guard for the second touchdown. He added a 28-yard run on 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter.
For the game, Gillislee carried 24 times for 148 yards (granted, the efficiency could use some work -- he gained 98 yards in four carries and only 50 in the other 20), and he helped Florida craft a bit of an identity. And when the game was over, the Gators had averaged a rather healthy 5.8 yards per play. Now, 5.8 yards per play versus Bowling Green is probably about 4.5 against defenses like LSU's, South Carolina's or Georgia's; we won't pretend there isn't still a lot of work to do. But between Gillislee's explosiveness and the semi-efficient execution of new starting quarterback Jeff Driskel (10-for-16 for 114 yards, one touchdown, one sack and 6.4 yards per pass attempt; two carries for 31 yards), there might at least be some hope here.
Next Up: The Gators travel to College Station as Texas A&M's first SEC opponent. The Aggies' defense is an even more unknown quantity than their offense and will potentially offer a strong hint as to whether or not I will feel quite stupid leading off this column with the Gators.
First things first: Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray is not much of a passer. Obviously. If you can only complete 57 percent of your passes versus UNLV (17-for-30), that probably doesn't say many good things about your ability to complete 50-55 percent against anybody else. (He completed 51 percent last year.) But after averaging 13.8 yards per completion last year, he averaged 15.8 versus the Rebels last Thursday night; A.J. Barker, a reserve last year, caught three of four passes for 101 yards, while Winona State transfer Derrick Engel caught one of two for 33. If the Gophers can break off some occasional big plays, then not only might that open things up for more highly-touted targets like sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts (4-for-5 for 49 yards), but more importantly, it could prevent defenses from loading up against what really could be a strong running game.
Gray averaged 5.6 yards per non-sack carry last year -- he carried 16 times for 75 yards on Thursday night -- and Donnell Kirkwood led off his sophomore season with 81 yards in 13 carries. The Gophers shot themselves in the foot, repeatedly, in Las Vegas; in six trips inside UNLV's 40 in regulation, they scored only three times (one touchdown, two field goals) while also missing a field goal and throwing a pick. But you would rather be blowing opportunities than not creating them at all. Against New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse in coming weeks, the Gophers might be able to close drives a little better and inch closer to more respectability.
Next Up: Jerry Kill's Gophers host New Hampshire, one of the more consistently strong programs at the FCS level. Minnesota has struggled far too much with these types of opponents in recent years (South Dakota 41, Minnesota 38 in 2010; North Dakota State 27, Minnesota 21 in 2007; Minnesota 10, North Dakota State 9 in 2006), but there should be enough offensive potential here to avoid another embarrassing setback.
Texas Tech's Defense
Yadda yadda, FBS school looks good in dominating FCS opponent. In theory, it is not particularly smart to draw conclusions from these games. But while Texas Tech's 44-6 win over Northwestern State wasn't the gaudiest such game on the scoreboard, it was one of the more promising efforts overall. In their first game under defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, their fourth defensive coordinator in four years, the Red Raiders held NSU to 84 total yards (1.7 per play). They logged nine tackles for loss, which is notable since a) it is just three below the highest total of Week 1, and b) it is a hefty step above the 5.9 per game the Red Raiders averaged last season. D.J. Johnson and Kerry Hyder led the way, combining for five tackles for loss, two sacks and two passes broken up. And as a bonus, the dominance came in a way that might be transferrable in Big 12 play: 41 of Tech's 44 tackles were of the solo variety. That shows an ability to tackle in space that will come in handy against Big 12 offenses. Combined with the offense averaging 9.7 yards per play, it is difficult to see how Tech's first game of 2012 could have gone much better; only turnovers (Northwestern State was plus-11.8 in turnover points margin, as defined here) failed to go Tech's way.
Next Up: Tech visits a Texas State team that is flying high after a shocking (and shockingly easy) upset win over Houston. The Bobcats rolled up 444 yards against the Cougars, though a good portion of that came on their first four drives (23 plays for 238 yards on those drives; 54 for 206 thereafter). Tech isn't going to hold TSU under 100 yards, but under 300 might be another positive sign.
Still Something To Prove?
On the flipside, some teams probably got more more good Week 1 press than they might have deserved.
To be sure, 524 yards (6.6 per play) is impressive even if it comes against a mid-major defense; that Tennessee managed that against N.C. State was fantastic. But the performance came with a few red flags.
1. Of those 524 yards, 221 came in Tennessee's first 12 plays. Now, those plays count just like all the others, of course. But after catching a reasonably inexperienced N.C. State defense off-guard early, the pace slowed down considerably. First 12 plays: 221 yards (18.4 per play). Next 67 plays: 303 yards (4.5 per play). Tennessee lost focus for a bit after its opening surge, and that isn't something the Vols will be allowed to do too often once SEC play begins a week from tomorrow.
2. N.C. State's defense might not be very good. Now, the Wolfpack are not going to allow 6.6 yards per play all season, but while the return of cornerback David Amerson had a lot of people talking this unit up, losses in the front seven (including play-making linebackers Audie Cole and Terrell Manning, who were just as instrumental to N.C. State's late 2011 surge as Amerson) were evident, and we really don't know if the rest of State's secondary is actually any good. Amerson himself had a bad game against Tennessee (which could be a good sign for the Vols), but we'll see.
3. Justin Hunter struggled. Unless Cordarrelle Patterson plans to come just as strong in every game as he did in the first quarter (his full-game stats: eight targets, six catches, 93 yards and a touchdown; two carries, 72 yards and a touchdown), the Vols will need Hunter to live up to the wicked potential he showed at the beginning of 2011 before he fell to a knee injury. Hunter was targeted 17 times last Friday night and caught just nine passes for 73 yards (4.3 per target). Everybody else went off (18-for-24, 260 yards), but Hunter won't be able to get away with too many more iffy games.
Next Up: The Vols have a "Name your chosen point total" game against Georgia State in Knoxville on Saturday, then welcome Florida to town on September 15 and Akron on September 22. Even if the offense struggles a bit against Florida, Tennessee's averages should still be quite gaudy heading into the September 29 game against Georgia. But the road gets much tougher after that.
Yes, 24 percent of Wyoming's total yardage came on a single play (an 82-yard catch-and-missed-tackle-and-run by Robert Herron). Yes, the Longhorns allowed only 4.6 yards per play aside from that bomb. But my standards for this Texas defense are really high, and the first week was a little glitchier than I expected. (Part of that could be me underestimating Wyoming, too; we'll see.) UW quarterback Brett Smith averaged 12.9 yards per completion aside from the 82-yard touchdown, and Texas logged just six tackles for loss. It was more than enough to get the job done, but it was a bit disconcerting. But playing in the Big 12, Manny Diaz's defense will have plenty of opportunities to rebuild my trust.
Next Up: New Mexico visits. The Lobos lit up Southern U. last weekend, but let's just say if the Lobos see much success (like, more than 250-300 yards), it will be an enormous red flag.
Win a 42-41 shootout and score a last-second touchdown, and people will tend to think your offense is pretty damn good. But Northwestern got by Syracuse in the Carrier Dome last weekend with a lot of help. Venric Mark returned a punt for a touchdown in the first quarter, the wonderfully named Chi Chi Ariguzo returned a fumble for a touchdown in the third quarter, and the Wildcats scored touchdowns on drives of 21 yards (after an interception) and 28 yards (after another long Mark punt return) in the second quarter. For the game, though, the Wildcats averaged just 4.7 yards per play; quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian were sacked five times in 37 pass attempts (sack rate: 13.5 percent) and averaged just 5.0 yards per pass attempt. The run game looked strong -- Colter carried 11 times for 57 yards, Mark 14 times for 82 -- but Northwestern doesn't come close to winning this game without special teams and turnovers.
Next Up: Vanderbilt visits on Saturday. The Commodores likely have a better defense than Syracuse (Vandy held South Carolina to a paltry 2.4 yards per pass attempt last Thursday), so a good showing would tamp down some of the concerns I have.
While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel: