The first leg of the greatest Heisman Trophy race in recent memory seemed to take place in sand or mud.
The projected favorites weren’t awful by any measure, but not much came easily. Christian McCaffrey did some Christian McCaffrey things Friday at Stanford Stadium, including recording touchdown runs of 41 and 35 yards, but he had only 50 rush yards on his other 20 carries against a salty Kansas State defense. After a slow start, Leonard Fournette accounted for 68.5 percent of LSU’s offensive production at Lambeau Field and finished with 138 yards on 23 carries in a loss to Wisconsin. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield completed his first nine pass attempts in a loss to Houston, a team buoyed by its own Heisman candidate, Greg Ward Jr. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson didn’t display his usual precision and dominance at Auburn, but he still fired a huge, fourth-quarter touchdown and re-established his chemistry with wideout Mike Williams.
It’s still quite possible that one of the top four candidates wins the Heisman in December. But Week 1 was underwhelming, according to their skyscraping standards. Fortunately, another group of players picked up the star power slack. Most impressively, these players did so in their first collegiate games.
Week 1 will be remembered for dazzling debuts by freshmen, especially quarterbacks. Fittingly, opening weekend ended with Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois rallying the Seminoles to the biggest comeback in team history against Ole Miss.
Here’s a look at some of the most impressive introductions by college football’s next batch of potential household names.
Texas QB Shane Buechele
He was the quarterback Texas fans wanted to see, and he led the offense they wanted to see. It all came together Sunday against Notre Dame, as Buechele passed for 280 yards and two touchdowns with an interception in Texas’ overtime win. Buechele, the first freshman quarterback to start a Texas opener since 1944, didn’t flinch in the national spotlight and made big throws all night. He sparked a revamped Texas offense to 26 first downs and 517 yards.
Buechele finished with a QBR of 83.1 and added 33 rush yards and a touchdown on five carries. Tyrone Swoopes will and should continue to have a big role, but this is Buechele’s offense.
Georgia QB Jacob Eason
It’s hard to upstage the triumphant return of Nick Chubb to Georgia’s offensive backfield, but Eason nearly did so with his debut. Although Georgia has an older, potentially safer option in Greyson Lambert, Bulldogs fans yearned for Eason, and he delivered, as he completed eight of 12 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, including a beautiful, 51-yard strike to Isaiah McKenzie. Although coach Kirby Smart could continue to platoon Lambert and Eason, the team’s future is the freshman, who avoided an interception against North Carolina and looked comfortable.
Chubb’s production is the biggest reason to be excited, but he shouldn’t log 32 carries a game. If Eason provides a consistent downfield passing threat to complement Chubb, Georgia can lean on its offense for big things this fall.
Florida State QB Deondre Francois
If Florida State goes on to the College Football Playoff, we will remember Francois standing his ground despite an impending hit from Marquis Haynes and firing a 16-yard touchdown to Travis Rudolph with 28 seconds left in the first half Monday against Ole Miss. The scoring strike set off a 33-0 Florida State run that erased a 22-point deficit.
Thrust into a starting role after Sean Maguire’s preseason injury, Francois overcame early struggles to show toughness, talent and poise. He finished with 420 yards passing and two touchdowns on 33-of-52 passing. Francois sealed the win with a 20-yard run, which gave him 59 rushing yards for the game.
Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
Hurts showed why he was the talk of Tide training camp when he accounted for four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) in a season-opening blowout of USC. His age and skill set are unique for a Nick Saban quarterback, but Hurts gives Alabama’s offense a different look while answering a familiar question at the quarterback position. No Tide quarterback had recorded multiple passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns in a game since Tyler Watts in 2001.
Although Hurts’ passing numbers (6-of-11, 118 yards, 49.4 QBR) weren’t astounding, he didn’t look overwhelmed by the moment. It’s important for Alabama to find clarity at quarterback before a Week 3 trip to recent nemesis Ole Miss.
Houston DT Ed Oliver
Big 12 coaches thought Houston’s offense could hang with Oklahoma’s, but the Sooners’ rushing attack of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon proved to be the difference. Thanks to Oliver, possibly the most decorated recruit in program history, Houston shut down the OU ground game and allowed just 70 yards on 26 carries (2.7 ypc). Oliver triggered the pass rush with two of Houston’s five sacks and led defensive linemen in the game with seven tackles.
Houston’s defense was vastly underrated entering the season, and Oliver’s instant emergence helps offset some key personnel losses as the Cougars make a potential playoff push.
Some other notable freshmen performances included:
Florida State K Ricky Aguayo: Different Aguayo, same results. Ricky followed his record-setting brother, Roberto, with a record-setting Seminoles debut against Ole Miss and became the first kicker at Kicker U to make six field goals in a game. No other FBS kicker made more than four field goals in Week 1.
Oregon LB Troy Dye: The Ducks’ defense remains a work-in-progress, but Dye provided a major spark Saturday, with 4.5 tackles for loss, the most in the FBS in Week 1, as well as a blocked field goal and 11 total tackles against UC Davis. He earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Minnesota DE Tai’yon Devers: Few defenders impacted a Week 1 game more than Devers, who recorded two sacks and two forced fumbles in Minnesota’s 30-23 win over Oregon State. Both forced fumbles led to Gophers touchdowns.
Iowa DE Anthony Nelson: Why wasn’t Devers the Big Ten’s freshman of the week? Because Nelson upstaged him with 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a pass breakup in Iowa’s opening win over Miami (Ohio). Both forced fumbles led to Hawkeyes touchdowns.
Ohio State RB Mike Weber: Despite lingering depth concerns, Ohio State appears to be in good shape with Weber, who gained 136 yards on only 17 carries in his collegiate debut against Bowling Green. At 5-foot-10 and 212 pounds, Weber is a bowling ball of a back who isn’t much fun to tackle.