Throwback Thursday: A Few of My Favorite College Football Opening Night Moments

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Week 0 was fun, but Thursday truly marks the beginning of the college football season.

Week 1 Thursday as the sport’s opening night is a relatively recent tradition, gaining traction in the first half of the 2000s. Unlike the ESPN 2 Sunday night slate of the early 2000s or marquee Week 0 kickoffs, Thursday Opening Night.

I can confidently say all of us who follow the sport are better off for it.

Opening night inspires excitement, and occasionally, the hasty take. #KennyTrill, anyone? But that’s part of the fun of the college football season.

Northern Illinois Shell-Shocks Maryland

A college friend trekked West from the Washington D.C. area, and proudly supported all the teams customary of the area: Wizards, Orioles, Capitals. Our own university’s football program was atrocious at the time, so he supported Maryland to make football Saturdays less depressing; ironic, in retrospect.

I watched Northern Illinois stun a Terrapins team that entered 2003 with what seemed like realistic BCS Championship aspirations sitting alongside that friend. It was equal parts tense and joyous.

Despite the stunning loss, Maryland still won 10 games for a third consecutive season under Ralph Friedgen. He remained with the Terrapins another seven years, reaching four more bowl games in that time. Even so, I have never quite shaken my belief Friedgen’s standing was never quite the same.

No Maryland team ever had hype approaching that of the 2003 season. And, despite going 10-3 and playing in the Gator (and finishing ranked No. 17), I have a hunch that if you ask any non-Terp their memories of Maryland in 2003, they’ll default to this game.

Such is the power of Opening Night.

Toby Gerhart Rolls Oregon State

With his NFL background, his eccentricity — which included a spot in the Jim Rome Show‘s “Smack-Off just a decade earlier — and his ruffling of USC’s feathers, Jim Harbaugh made an immediate impression upon his arrival at Stanford.

The Cardinal were not going to become contenders immediately with as brutal as the Walt Harris years had been. Still, the historic upset of Pete Carroll’s Trojan dynasty in 2007 provided the catalyst for some intrigue around the 2008 Cardinal.

Though not remembered in nearly the same way as the USC upset, Stanford’s opening night win over Oregon State to kick off 2008 may be the second-most important win of Harbaugh’s early days on The Farm. Not only was Oregon State a consistent winner in this winner, the 2008 Beavers went on to beat USC, finish ranked in the Top 25, and came a Civil War win shy of the program’s first Rose Bowl in more than 40 years.

Stanford’s 2008 was not as successful, despite the 36-28 win. The Cardinal finished out of the bowl picture for another year, but knocking off Oregon State provided an important stepping stone in the career of running back Toby Gerhart.

Gerhart’s 147 yards and two touchdowns showed the nation the first signs of his lofty potential. Once Stanford solidified its quarterback situation and had balance to keep defenses honest, Gerhart could go off. The next season, a guy named Andrew Luck took over the Cardinal offense.

In Oregon State’s case, the Civil War loss to Oregon probably stings more; at least, it’s more commonly associated with the Beavers not playing in the Rose Bowl. However, the Beavers twice coughed up possession in the red zone in this opening night defeat against Stanford.

Chip Kelly’s Inauspicious Debut

The 2009 Boise State-Oregon game is remembered primarily for … well …

But the 19-8 Broncos win also kicked off the Chip Kelly era.

Mike Bellotti’s retirement as Oregon head coach following a successful 2008 season shocked me. The Ducks returned plenty of pieces from a 10-win team, and USC — losing Mark Sanchez early to the NFL draft and graduating a bevy of difference-makers from a historically stingy defense — appeared more vulnerable in the Pac-10 than it had in years.

For Bellotti to step up with his best shot at a conference championship in almost a decade was perplexing, even if it was to take the role of athletic director. Skepticism matched my surprise when Chip Kelly replaced Bellotti as head coach.

Though Kelly’s offense earned plaudits in his two seasons as offensive coordinator — and nearly won Dennis Dixon a Heisman Trophy, before an unfortunate injury late in the 2007 campaign — he only had two years of major-division experience. He had no head-coaching experience.

And, when Boise State completely dominated Oregon’s innovative offense, I probably had a hot take about Chip Kelly that I was fortunate enough to have not yet signed up for Twitter to spout.

Kelly lost just six more times in the rest of his tenure.

The Mayor’s Cup

I covered the Football Championship Subdivision professionally for the first time in 2009, manning the national beat for NCAA.com. I actually don’t remember this game being televised; my memories are more for what this annual crosstown rivalry matchup between Temple and Villanova meant as the 2009 season progressed.

With Chris Whitney at quarterback and the ultra-talented Matt Szczur playing any damn position he pleased, Villanova won the 2009 FCS National Championship. The Wildcats’ defeat of Montana in Chattanooga — the last FCS Championship played in Chattanooga — remains one of the greatest games I’ve ever worked.

It was also the first of two Villanova titles I had the privilege of covering.

Temple, meanwhile, had been arguably the worst program in Div. I-A/FBS for years leading up to 2009. But with Al Golden on the sidelines and Bernard Pierce at running back, the Owls had a breakthrough season en route to the EagleBank Bowl.

Coupled with Penn winning the Ivy League, 2009 was a landmark season for football in Philadelphia. I wrote an offseason feature about the combined success of the programs for NCAA.com. Shortly after its publication, Al Golden mailed me a Temple football postcard with a very kind message complimenting the article. It’s a small thing but still to this day, one of the most touching experiences of my career.

Brett Hundley Goes to the House

Another of my favorite people to cover was former UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. I wasn’t on the UCLA beat until the 2014 season, Hundley’s last in the program. By that point in his career, he had wowed so many times that it was perhaps easy to take for granted his ability.

Truth be told, he probably set the bar too high on his very first snap of opening night 2012.

This is Big Boy Football?

Variations of uptempo, air-raid, and zone-read offense became increasingly en vogue through the latter half of the 2000s, and were damn-near ubiquitous by the 2010s.

The SEC was reluctant to adapt, the conference staking its identity on BIG BOY FOOTBALL. I have memories of lamenting how boring and ugly the 2011 LSU-Alabama Game of the Century and being told I didn’t appreciate real football.

I appreciate an exciting defensive struggle. This past January’s College Football Playoff Championship qualifies, and validates my steadfast belief LSU-Alabama ’11 was a joyless slog marred by atrocious offense as much as it was defined by elite defense.

OK, so those were a whole lot of words about a game not played on opening night. However, the “Game of the Century” plays an integral role in the 2013 opening night contest that proved pivotal in changing the landscape of two different conferences that were slow to evolve.

Ole Miss and Vanderbilt entered 2013 with moderate buzz as sleepers in their respective divisions. Neither were tabbed for title contention, but they were popular picks to shatter dreams for someone else along the way.

Although neither was going to win the SEC, both looked like world-beaters on opening night. Their matchup was everything LSU-Alabama 2011 wasn’t.

Ole Miss escaped in a 39-35 shootout that set the tone for the future of both the SEC and Big Ten. In the SEC, former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze’s innovative offensive approach vexed Alabama in three consecutive seasons, including twice for Rebels wins, in a manner only Texas A&M in 2012 and 2013 (with a similar approach) had managed.

Alabama’s struggles against these opponents, insomuch as any Alabama team ever struggles, led Nick Saban to adopt a more modern offensive approach.

Vanderbilt maxed its potential under James Franklin by the end of 2013, and Bill O’Brien’s sudden departure at Penn State gave the former Ralph Friedgen assistant (full circle!) an opportunity to come home to the region’s most prominent program.

Stodgy offense defined Penn State for the better part of 20 years since the departure of Ki-Jana Carter and Kerry Collins. O’Brien’s tenure breathed life into the Nittany Lions’ approach, but maintaining a high level running an NFL offense is a tenuous proposition.

Franklin’s offensive approach, once fully realized by the 2016 season, transformed the once archaic style that defined Penn State football into an exciting brand that has the Nittany Lions in the Playoff conversation.

Beginning A Legend

Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy in 2016 and was a finalist again in 2017. And yet, even still, I view his career as somewhat under-appreciated.

I place some blame on factors out of his control at Louisville squandering the team’s potential in his two full seasons as starting quarterback. In the same token, that the Cardinals struggled with porous defense and oftentimes even more porous offensive line play only makes Jackson’s play even more impressive.

There were moments Jackson seemed to will Louisville to victory. Last season’s Florida State game comes to mind.

The 2016 Florida State matchup, meanwhile, was about as close as a Heisman winner has ever come to sewing up the award in September. Without the preceding contests, including a staggering eight-touchdown effort on opening night against Charlotte, Jackson does not win the Heisman in a walk.