The first Thursday of the 2021 college football season included a buffet of games featuring teams from four of the five major conferences along with one of the highest-profile Group of Five games of the year.
After an extended lightning delay, Central Florida hosted Boise State in the sort of matchup that may linger into December and influence how the College Football Playoff selection committee fills out the New Year's Six bowls.
Thursday night also saw the debut of Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, our first look at heavy Big Ten favorite Ohio State — it wasn't always easy for the Buckeyes — and a glimpse of Utah, a dark horse in the Pac-12.
Here are the winners and losers as Week 1 got underway:
The lesson for Ohio State can be shared with Alabama and Clemson. It's not so easy to roll out of bed with a first-year starting quarterback and go up against a quality opponent without a hiccup along the way. For the Buckeyes, the starting debut of C.J. Stroud was an early struggle: OSU beat Minnesota 45-31 but trailed twice, including a 21-17 deficit more than midway through the third quarter. Stroud, the replacement for Justin Fields, rebounded from a sluggish start to go for 294 yards and four scores, though his receivers did most of the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide and new quarterback Bryce Young get ready for a Week 1 matchup with Miami, while Clemson and DJ Uiagalelei do the same with Georgia.
North Carolina State
Is N.C. State a legitimate threat to Clemson in the Atlantic division of the ACC? What about a real contender to win nine or more games during the regular season and find a permanent home in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll? Thursday's 45-0 slaughter of woeful South Florida doesn't do much to influence the narrative surrounding the Wolfpack, who are clearly talented enough to go places but will need consistency from quarterback Devin Leary to take the next step. Leary finished with 232 yards and two scores with an interception.
The Heupel era at Tennessee was christened with a 38-6 win against Bowling Green, one of the weakest teams in the MAC. But that doesn't matter: UT is 1-0 under Heupel. After three solid seasons at Central Florida, Heupel was expected to put a jolt into the Volunteers' sleepy offense — and that group looked fine at times, though not effective enough through the air behind new quarterback Joe Milton to resemble the sort of balanced attack that might give a handful of teams in the SEC some trouble. UT did go for 326 yards on the ground, the program's most in a game since Sept. 15, 2018.
No. 24 Coastal Carolina opened with an easy 52-14 win against The Citadel, a predictably lopsided result that begins the Chanticleers' quest to repeat atop the Sun Belt and factor into the race for the New Year's Six. It's also a tune-up for next week's home game against Kansas, if you believe the Jayhawks are any better than The Citadel. (They are, but not by a whole lot.)
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Close, but not quite. By the pure definition of the word, Minnesota lands in Thursday night's losers column. But when is a loss not quite a loss? When you give OSU a handful and remain in striking distance for most of 60 minutes, that's when. What's clear is Minnesota's place in the Big Ten pecking order: Iowa and Wisconsin may be the preseason favorites in the West division, but the Golden Gophers have to be taken seriously as a factor.
Now in its third season under coach Mike Houston, who previously won the Football Championship Subdivision national title at James Madison, ECU is hoping to play a part other than "late-season spoiler" in a crowded and talented American. There's also the idea that Houston has had enough time to turn things around — even if the pandemic year probably didn't help — at a program with a fairly proud history of success. Sadly, losing 33-19 to Appalachian State is a reminder of how the Pirates are no longer even a factor in the race for the best FBS team located in North Carolina.
And last year's success story in the American, Tulsa, opened with a 19-17 loss to UC-Davis, the program's first loss to an FCS opponent in 35 years. South Florida was swamped by N.C. State. There is no argument against conference front-runner Cincinnati as the preseason leader in the Group of Five. But what does Thursday tell us about the American?
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg