As the circus comes to town this week in Austin, Texas, as ESPN College GameDay and Big Noon on Fox pull up in their 18-wheel production trucks, as one demigod coach (Nick Saban) arrives to battle his one-time play-calling genius (Steve Sarkisian), remember this much: Quinn Ewers is essentially a true freshman playing No. 1 Alabama.
"Maybe like a super true freshman," countered Riley Dodge, the high school coach of Texas' five-star quarterback who officially enters Saturday as a redshirt freshman.
Ewers spent what amounted to a gap year after high school chasing name, image and likeness riches while, oh yes, playing the 2021 season at Ohio State. "Play" is probably an overstatement as Ewers took the field for a handful snaps against Michigan State last season and never threw a pass in a Buckeyes uniform.
That's what makes Dodge's thoughts compelling. Until last Saturday, he was the last coach to watch Ewers throw a pass in competition. That was two years and a couple of teams ago at Southlake Carroll High School. Ewers reclassified after his junior year at the preparatory superpower in order to enroll at Ohio State early. In what would have been his senior year of high school, he was a clipboard holder at a college superpower.
What was the point in terms of football? C.J. Stroud was the starter and was on his way to a record-setting season.
"Just getting a taste of college football and operation of college football schedule-wise and practice-wise," Dodge surmised.
Now, Ewers is back in his home state being asked to be key part of the answer to the eternal question: Is Texas back? Orangebloods won't say it out loud, but progress Saturday might be measured in just playing Alabama close. The Crimson Tide enter as 20-point favorites, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
"I don't think it means the end all, be all," said Dodge, who was once part of the Texas staff under both Mack Brown and Charlie Strong "I think it's an important game for the program in the sense it's been a long time they've been put in this type of moment against a program that's been running the show for a long, long time. …
"If they don't get a win … the biggest thing that they want to see is growth and being competitive. That's the biggest thing. What people want to see in burnt orange is some fight and take this thing to the fourth quarter."
That's the state of Texas football these days: keeping it close. But you've got to start somewhere. Ewers had a serviceable opener against Louisiana-Monroe completing 16 of 24 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns. He overthrew his best wide receiver, Xavier Worthy, a couple of times but also found tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders for those two scores.
"We can't expect him to ride this bike and do it with training wheels," Sarkisian said of his quarterback. "We had to let him go."
Austin is probably where Ewers should have ended up from the beginning. But in this transfer age, the route to success sometimes goes through the portal. He committed to Tom Herman early before it became evident Texas' former coach wasn't going to make it. Who can blame him? At that point, there was no indication Texas was going to fix things with such an impactful hire as Sarkisian.
But Ewers was able to tap into those NIL riches. Like a typical freshman, he brain farted his way into having his car towed Saturday on campus during the Longhorns' first game. Unlike a typical freshman, Ewers drives an exotic Aston Martin thanks to those NIL deals. (It is not known if the campus cops towed that particular car, but you get the point.)
On a normal timeline, Saturday would mark the second game of Ewers' true freshman college season. But little is normal about timelines, college football and Ewers these days. One reason the quarterback reclassified and committed elsewhere is because the state of Ohio allowed high school athletes to receive NIL and Texas did not.
Saturday, we begin to find out if Ewers is an NIL phenom who dabbles in football or the biggest thing at Texas since Colt McCoy who earns a few bucks off field.
These teams have not met since the 2010 BCS Championship Game. In that one, McCoy was knocked out on the game's fifth snap after a (legal) hit by Alabama's Marcell Dareus. It can be argued with some certainty that Texas hasn't been the same since.
That's why this game might as well be a signpost for the program: Which way is it headed? Before answering that, perhaps we have to ask, which way is Ewers headed? Too soon?
"One of the biggest mistakes people make is [thinking] this is going to be the game that is going to define our program," Sarkisian said. "It might; it might not. I'm not concerned about it."
Sark should be. Alabama is almost a three-touchdown favorite in the biggest game at Darrell K. Royal Stadium since 2006 when Ohio State came to town, winning 24-7. It's time to show some progress. The 'Horns are still only a few months removed from losing at home at Kansas. The six-game losing streak was Texas' longest since 1957.
Landing Arch Manning bought Sark some honeymoon time … but not much. Manning won't arrive until next year, but as outrageous as it may be to say, Ewers is already playing for his job. Manning, the top No. 1 recruit not only in 2023 but across the last few years, is the expected quarterback of the future.
That's a long way to project. Texas would settle for Ewers being the quarterback of the moment. He'll be facing reigning Heisman Trophy-winning QB Bryce Young. Saban and Alabama are merciless against most everyone but especially against true freshmen.
It's not unheard of for first-year quarterbacks to beat Saban. In 2019, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence became the fourth. Ewers is no Trevor Lawrence. Not yet at least. Let's get him through Saturday first without a parking ticket.
Week 2 storylines
Right now, Florida QB Anthony Richardson is the best player in the country. The question is whether No. 20 Kentucky is better than previously No. 7 Utah coming into The Swamp? The Wildcats certainly can strut into Gainesville, Florida. They've won two of the last four meetings after being winless in the series the 31 seasons prior. The Gators shot up an astounding 26 spots to No. 12 in the AP Top 25 after being unrakned to start the season.
No. 9 Baylor at No. 21 BYU sounds like a 2023 Big 12 Championship Game. For now, it's a referendum on two ascending programs. BYU is 22-4 in its last 26 games. (For reference, Alabama is 24-2 in the same spa.) The Bears haven't played a ranked nonconference opponent on the road since 2010. BYU is 0-4 against top 10 opponents at home since 2000.
Hendon Hooker has gotten great coaching at Tennessee. Shout out, Josh Heupel. Going into the game against No. 17 Pittsburgh, he has an 11-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a member of the Volunteers (33-3). Adding in his start at Virginia Tech, the career numbers are still amazing: 55 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. Perspective: In 2021, the nationwide TD-INT ratio was 2.1-1. No. 24 Tennessee has scored at least 40 points in four straight games, tyign a school record. That last time was with Peyton Manning in 1995.
So, that's what happened to Michael Penix Jr. The Indiana transfer now at Washington threw for 345 yards and four touchdowns in the opener against Kent State. Fully healed and thriving under former Hoosiers offensive coordinator Kaelen DeBoer, Penix should be a West Coast phenom this season. Portland State comes calling Saturday.
You've been warned: No. 16 Arkansas -- an 8-point favorite at home against South Carolina -- is the second best at covering the spread since 2020. This is a big prove-it game on the road for Spencer Rattler.
Happy birthday Big 12, which turns 26 on Friday. On Sept. 9, 1996, Kansas State beat Texas Tech 21-14 in the first Big 12 contest. A hearty hand clasp for those who can name the remaining teams in the league from that day.
Boise State coach Andy Avalos (at New Mexico) may be in trouble already. The Broncos' second-year coach is 7-6 after a depressing opening loss to Oregon State. Boise legend Chris Petersen didn't lose his sixth game until his sixth season.
A big week for the Air Raid as Dana Holgorsen takes Group of Five frontrunner No. 25 Houston back to his ancestral coaching home at Texas Tech. Holgorsen was a Leach assistant for eight years (2000-07) as they reinvented the quarterback position. This is the Cougars' last chance against a Power Five. (Well, if you don't count Kansas coming to Houston next week.)