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First impressions: Grading some of college football's week-1 debuts

It would be ill-advised to draw lasting conclusions from one week of play, but let's evaluate how some coaches, players and units fared in their respective debuts -- from Alabama's offensive line to Penn State's Christian Hackenberg.

Kevin C. Cox

Drawing conclusions after the first weekend is a terrible, terrible idea. The plot will change numerous times before the season ends so deciding or announcing that Jadeveon Clowney is a disappointment, or that Alabama's offense is awful, or anything else after 60 minutes of play could very well make you feel pretty dumb as early as next Saturday night.

With that in mind, however, we should still take a look at some of the new names, faces and things that debuted this past weekend to see what we learned about them at first glance. You can still fail a course if you ace the first test, and you can still rally if you bombed, but what do we know that we didn't a few days ago?

(This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of debut grades, obviously. Share your own in comments.)

Mark Helfrich: A

The best thing to say about Oregon in Mark Helfrich's first game as head coach is that it looked 100 percent like Oregon in a 66-3 win over Nicholls State. The Ducks averaged 10.9 yards per play and scored points on 10 of 12 possessions. The two scoreless possessions ended on turnovers on downs inside the NSU 40, which was also very Oregon. They only ran 71 plays, which seems like a drastic shift in style until you realize that they only had the ball for 19:46. Nicholls State attempted to control the clock and sort of succeeded -- 87 plays, 40+ minutes -- but when the game of keepaway failed, it didn't take long for Oregon to capitalize as their first-half scoring drives lasted 1:31, 1:53, 1:26, 1:03, 1:18, and 1:05. That's just silly. And projected over 30 minutes of possession, that's a pace for 108 plays.

Yes, it was Nicholls State, but the Oregon machine hummed like the Oregon machine is supposed to hum.

Christian Hackenberg: A-

A five-star prospect who stuck with his Penn State commitment even through the NCAA sanctions and defections, Hackenberg is officially undefeated for his career following a 23-17 win over Syracuse in East Rutherford. Against an aggressive Syracuse defense, Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards, two scores and two picks. He was sacked twice but still averaged a solid 8.0 yards per pass attempt, including sacks; this is even more impressive when you factor in the fact that Penn State couldn't run the ball to save its life (Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton: 30 carries, 80 yards) and he faced a lot of second- and third-and-longs. In passes with seven or more yards to go for the first down, though, he still completed a decent nine of 15 passes for 93 yards.

So why the minus? The picks and sacks made PSU's life a little harder than it could have been, basically, and you always like room for growth, right?

New Georgia defense: B+

Georgia headed into Death Valley on Saturday night with a defensive starting lineup that featured three freshmen (OLB Leonard Floyd, CB Brendan Langley, FS Tray Matthews) and three sophomores. At one point in the telecast, ABC's Brent Musburger called sophomore Jordan Jenkins one of the defense's veterans and he wasn't entirely wrong. It was quite obviously assumed that for Georgia to take down the Tigers, the Dawgs would have to survive a major offensive shootout. When both starting running back Todd Gurley and star receiver Malcolm Mitchell went down on the same play (Gurley temporarily, Mitchell for the season) in the game's sixth minute, UGa's ability to do that took a serious blow.

Georgia still averaged a robust 7.8 yards per play for the game, but following three consecutive scoring drives in the first and second quarter, the Dawgs slowed down dramatically, scoring only once in their next 10 possessions. Despite allowing 38 points and 467 yards, the Georgia defense did its best to keep them in the game while the offense was lagging.

After an early eruption (Clemson's second and third drives went for 153 yards in 10 plays and resulted in two touchdowns), Clemson punted four times in its next five possessions and the only score was on a 16-yard drive following a fumble. Clemson averaged just 6.1 yards per play for the game (which is indeed worthy of a "just" for Clemson) and Tajh Boyd completed just 60 percent of his passes and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry (not including a sack). The Tigers are damn good and pulled off the win, but Georgia's defense actually fared pretty well all things considered.

Gus Malzahn: B

In nine games versus BCS-conference competition last season, Auburn averaged better than 4.9 yards per play just twice and averaged under four five times. If nothing else, the fact that the Tigers averaged 6.1 per play in head coach Gus Malzahn's first game (a 31-24 win over Washington State) gives him a solid grade. Corey Grant carried nine times for 146 yards and a score, and the defense picked off three Connor Halliday passes, sacked him twice, and limited the Cougars to just five yards per pass attempt. These are very good things.

So why only a B? For one thing, the turnovers were the key; without them, Auburn would have probably lost at home to a team that went just 3-9 last year. Grant's 75-yard touchdown plumped up the averages, but Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall still completed just 53 percent of his passes at 4.8 yards per attempt (and gained only 31 yards in eight non-sack carries). Perhaps Washington State ends up successful enough to make this win look reasonably impressive later in the season; but for now, it was only solid, not great.

Jared Goff: B-

Goff basically gets both an A and a D+ for his work in California's 44-30 loss to Northwestern. Another true freshman starting in his first game, Goff completed 38 of 63 passes for 445 yards and a pair of scores -- he completed 24 of 32 passes for 296 yards to Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper alone.

Goff gave California a chance to beat a top-25 team in his first career game … and he also threw two second-half pick sixes to Northwestern's Collin Ellis. After a three-possession, three-score burst in the middle of the game, the Golden Bears scored only six points (with three picks) in their last seven possessions. Cal's offense is going to be all sorts of fun this year, but Goff still has some growing pains to survive along the way.

Trevor Knight: C+

A wily veteran compared to Hackenberg and Goff, the redshirt freshman from San Antonio surprised many by beating Blake Bell for Oklahoma's starting quarterback job. The results in his first start were less than stellar, however.

Oklahoma easily beat UL-Monroe, 34-0, and Knight wasn't asked to do much, so keep that in mind. He still completed just 11 of 28 passes for 86 yards, getting sacked once and picked off once. He averaged an awful 2.7 yards per pass attempt (including sacks), which is deserving of a grade much worse than a C+, but he was done no favors by drops (Jalen Saunders had a pair of them while catching just three of nine passes for 30 yards) and he gets bonus points: both for finishing drives (Oklahoma scored on all six of its trips inside ULM's 40) and for rushing 12 times (non-sacks) for 112 yards. He's got upside and mobility and that's good, but at some point he's going to have to complete a pass. Can he?

(The new-look Oklahoma defense, by the way? Solid A. The pass rush still needs a little more work, but holding ULM to 166 yards, 2.7 per play, is outstanding.)

Kleinless Kansas State offense: C

It's odd giving an offense a C after averaging 6.2 yards per play against a pretty strong defense, but KSU earned it in a 24-21 loss to North Dakota State. Starting quarterback Jake Waters completed 21 of 29 passes overall and averaged 13.0 yards per target in 17 passes to Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson and that's awesome. But Kansas State was downright awful on the ground as John Hubert gained 23 yards in 10 carries while Waters gained eight in eight.

A sudden burst early in the third quarter gave KSU a seemingly comfortable 21-7 lead. With a chance to ice the game, though, the Wildcats had no idea what plays to run. NDSU scored to cut the lead to 21-14 with four minutes left in the third quarter KSU passed four straight times on the ensuing possession -- a 20-yard completion, followed by three incompletions and a punt.

NDSU kicked a field goal to make it 21-17 and, with another chance to eat clock and salt away the game, the Wildcats not only couldn't run but knew they couldn't. Hubert rushed twice for one yard on KSU's final drive, Waters was sacked twice and KSU punted with 8:58 left, setting the table for NDSU's 18-play game-winning touchdown drive.

Kansas State lost to a North Dakota State team that followed the Kansas State blueprint better than the Wildcats. Ouch.

Alabama offensive line: D

Three first-half return touchdowns (Christion Jones punt return, Vinnie Sunseri interception return, Jones kickoff return) gave Alabama a big enough lead against Virginia Tech that the Tide didn't have to take any chances in a 35-10 win. There's always a chance that opening up the playbook could have resulted in a little bit more success and explosiveness and there's a chance that Virginia Tech's defense is the best Alabama will face in 2013 … at least, the best outside of LSU's.


But … damn. The Tide averaged 3.3 yards per play and barely gained 200 for the game. A.J. McCarron was sacked four times in 27 pass attempts, Amari Cooper caught just four of 10 passes and , in 17 carries and three pass targets, T.J. Yeldon gained just 75 yards. Virginia Tech's offense actually outgained Bama, both overall (212 to 206) and on a per-play basis (3.6 to 3.3).

It is pointless to draw hard-and-fast conclusions after one game, and we won't do so here. But let's just say that Alabama's offensive line in no way inspired optimism in its first game without Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. Things will improve and I'm certainly not changing my national title pick just yet, but this line is only more of a concern than it was before Saturday.

Purdue offense: D-

In a 42-7 loss to Cincinnati, Purdue averaged 4.0 yards per play, fumbled five times (losing two) and threw two interceptions. The Boilermakers only generated three scoring opportunities, which is bad; they scored only one of the three, which is worse. Rob Henry completed just 51 percent of his passes at 4.3 yards per attempt. Almost two-thirds of their plays were passes, which was a problem since they couldn't pass ... but they couldn't really run, either: Akeem Hunt, Dalyn Dawkins and B.J. Knauf gained 64 yards on 14 carries -- 17 of which came on one tote by Dawkins. It might be a long year for coach Darrell Hazell and offensive coordinator John Shoop.

Willie Taggart: F

I have a natural tendency to buy low and sell high and for years I was telling people to tap the brakes a little bit on the USF hype. We were expecting more of the Bulls than they were ready to produce. That said, though their projections were low and hype was minimal, I actually bought low and talked myself into USF being a top-40 team in Taggart's first season as head coach. And hey, technically, that could still happen: Pittsburgh got whipped by Youngstown State in Paul Chryst's first game last year and then churned out competent (if not exactly amazing) play the rest of the season.

The odds of competence are long, however, after a 53-21 loss to McNeese State. 53-21! The score probably should have been closer -- the per-play margin was reasonably close for such a blowout (6.3 yards per play for McNeese State, 5.6 for USF) and the score was padded by a safety and a long interception return late in the first half -- but that would be taking "putting lipstick on a pig" to an extreme. This was an abject disaster, one so bad that didn't acknowledge the game actually took place until well into Sunday.

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