What We Learned: Alabama should be No. 1, neutral-site games a win-win


AJ McCarron and Alabama make a big statement against Michigan. (Getty Images)  
AJ McCarron and Alabama make a big statement against Michigan. (Getty Images)  

After a long, hot summer, college football's first weekend is in the books. So what did we learn?

1. Sorry USC, but Alabama is No. 1: I was like a lot of people when I assessed Alabama for 2012. The defense lost seven starters and six of them are in the NFL. The replacements would all be very talented, but I thought it would take a while for the defense to jell.

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Trent Richardson, the Heisman finalist, was gone. The schedule included road trips to LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee, where the Crimson Tide was going to face pretty good quarterbacks. And then there was the whole issue of Alabama staying hungry after a national championship season. For all those seemingly logical reasons my preseason top three was LSU, Southern California and Alabama.

But after watching Alabama dismantle No. 8 Michigan, the Big Ten standard bearer, with a machine-like efficiency that bordered on scary, the Crimson Tide has to be No. 1 until somebody beats them. They go to Arkansas on Sept. 15, and if Alabama wins in Fayetteville you can mark this down: Nick Saban's bunch will be 8-0 when they visit LSU on Nov. 3.

2. Nick Saban is the best coach in college football, but Chris Petersen is not far behind: There is no way Boise State is supposed to go to Michigan State and be in a position to win the game in the final quarter. Boise played its first game in four years without quarterback Kellen Moore, the sport's all-time winner. The Broncos were replacing nine starters on defense. Meanwhile, Michigan State was without starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, but the Spartans returned nine starters from what was the No. 6 defense in the nation a year ago.

Still, Boise State led 13-10 going into the fourth quarter before the Broncos finally wore down under the pounding of Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, losing 17-13. Boise State's only touchdown came on an interception return, but still the Broncos had a chance before their final drive was stopped with 6:32 left.

That's coaching and that's why Petersen is 73-7 as he begins his seventh year as a head coach. Boise will now run the table and win the Mountain West. Then the Broncos will be favored to win the Big East when they join in 2013.

3. The SEC has some new superstars waiting in the wings: Here are just three to announce their presence this weekend.

 WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee: The junior college transfer from Rock Hill, S.C. was rated as the No. 1 juco player in the country last season. His second catch for Tennessee went 41 yards for a touchdown and he beat N.C. State's David Amerson, an All-America cornerback, to do it. Later in the game he ran 67 yards for a touchdown. This guy is a difference maker.

 RB Todd Gurley, Georgia: The freshman from Tarboro, N.C., was one of the most highly-recruited players in the South and, along with fellow freshman Keith Marshall, was a reason Georgia felt it could say goodbye to problem child Isaiah Crowell, the SEC freshman of the year in 2011. Gurley touched the ball 10 times in the opener with Buffalo and had 227 total yards. That figure included a 55-yard run for a touchdown and a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

 RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy in 2009. Trent Richardson was a finalist in 2011. Yeldon, from Daphne, Ala., will pay his dues behind Eddie Lacy this season but is destined to be Alabama's next great running back. He had 111 yards on 11 carries in his first college game against Michigan.

4. When the four-team playoff arrives, quality neutral-site games will be more popular than ever: Alabama and Michigan headlined at Jerry's World, but don't forget Auburn-Clemson and North Carolina State-Tennessee in Atlanta. In an opening weekend filled with a lot of cupcake games, these three added a lot of spice and a lot of interest.

And when we get to a four-team playoff in 2014 and strength of schedule becomes a major factor considered by the selection committee, I predict that a lot of teams are going to take another look into playing quality neutral site games to open the season. They pay well, and even if you lose you have time to play your way back into the national championship race. And if the selection committee has to choose between a couple of worthy teams for the final spot in the playoffs, a neutral site game against a strong opponent could be the tiebreaker.

"We've heard from a number of schools about our games," said Gary Stokan, president of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which put on the double-header in Atlanta. "It's going to be different when a selection committee picks the teams instead of the polls."

Nick Saban of Alabama certainly believes in these games. Saturday's showdown with Michigan marked the third time in the past five seasons that he has opened the season with a neutral site game against a BCS opponent. Saban has already agreed to play Virginia Tech in Atlanta in 2013 and West Virginia in Atlanta in 2014.

5. It's time to cut back on the "money games": Nobody made Savannah State, a struggling FCS program that went 1-10 last season, schedule back-to-back road games with Oklahoma State and Florida State. Of course Savannah State did it for the money. It received $385,000 for playing at Oklahoma State and will get another $475,000 for going to Tallahassee on Saturday. And, to be fair, the reason Florida State needed to buy a game is that West Virginia bailed out on the Seminoles when it joined the Big 12. Florida State had to have a game and Savannah State has bills to pay.

"We're going to have to readdress that," Savannah State coach Steve Davenport told reporters after the game. "You get paid for certain things but I don't know if at the end of the day, some things are worth the payments you get."

You mean, like getting your football team really beat up for two good paydays?

How about this? How about we just make the kids play in one of these money games a year? I'm sure these are great trips for the Savannah State players but 84-0 is not what they signed up for.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.

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