The regional outlook after one week of college football can be boiled down to the stories of six quarterbacks.
There were the promising debut starts from two seasoned reserves – Clemson’s Kelly Bryant and Georgia Tech’s TaQuon Marshall.
There were the divergent returns of two heralded sophomores – Georgia’s Jacob Eason and South Carolina’s Jake Bentley.
There was the unscheduled entrance and exit by injury of two other elite leaders that may redefine the championship landscape – Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Florida State’s Deondre Francois.
The long-range fates of the Peach and Palmetto Power Five programs could be gleaned from promise and potential these key players displayed in their 2017 debuts.
“I don’t base anything on one game, but it was encouraging,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson.
The biggest benefactor from the opening week’s most unfortunate event might be the reigning national champions. Not only did Clemson get a reassuring glimpse of Bryant’s ability to replace the irreplaceable Deshaun Watson, its biggest threat to the Atlantic Coast Conference throne lost its best weapon.
Florida State’s Francois was lost for the season in the waning minutes of a game that was already lost to No. 1 Alabama. The combination of events has the potential to be soul-crushing for a team many expected to challenge for the national title. Now the Seminoles will have to rally around a backup on a road that must go through Death Valley in November.
The Tigers, meanwhile, had nothing but praise for how Bryant excelled in his first start – passing for 236 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 77 yards including a long touchdown that showed the offense is in the hands of another capable dual-threat quarterback. Granted it was against Kent State, but the 665 yards Clemson racked up exceeded every game from last season.
Now comes consecutive big tests against top-20 foes Auburn and Louisville.
“He had an excellent presence to him,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Bryant. “Made great decisions, made the throws we needed, made plays with his legs. So just a lot of confidence. … Now the next step is can he consistently perform? Obviously, the challenge becomes much greater, but the decisions are still the same, and can he consistently perform like we need him to decision-wise, et cetera, as the margin for error gets less?”
South Carolina, likewise, was gushing about the way Bentley started his second season with a 215-yard, three-touchdown performance in a significant win over N.C. State. Gamecocks fans saw flashes of Connor Shaw in Bentley’s leadership while Wolfpack fans were reminded of Philip Rivers.
Bentley’s efforts masked a woeful rushing game and his connection with playmaker Deebo Samuel will be a familiar lifeline for the Gamecocks offense.
Head coach Will Muschamp understands how critical Bentley is to South Carolina’s fortunes, especially as he seeks his first true road win this week at Missouri.
“I’m talking about the quarterback position, that is the leader of your team because it affects everybody in your organization – offensively, defensively, special teams, coaching staff, everybody – for how that guy performs,” Muschamp said. “Certainly a guy that’s a natural leader in that position is certainly good for our program.”
Georgia’s Kirby Smart has to hope Fromm quickly develops into that kind of leader as he’s thrust into making his first start at Notre Dame. Bulldogs fans didn’t get a realistic chance to see if Eason had made the same second-year strides as Bentley before he was lost indefinitely to a sprained knee just eight minutes into the new season.
“I am just disappointed for Jacob because of how hard he worked and how much he grew and how much better he had gotten,” Smart said of Eason. “He really didn’t get to showcase that and show it the other day.”
Fromm, however, responded beautifully when called upon against Appalachian State.
While he doesn’t possess the same athletic gifts as Eason, Fromm’s work ethic, maturity, confidence and competitiveness shine through in ways that the Bulldogs desperately need.
“I think anytime you get injuries, especially at the quarterback position, it tests your mettle a little bit,” Smart said. “I think that is what this team will do. … It’s not like everybody is gloom and doom because we did not get to see Jacob much this year.
“Jake Fromm is a mature freshman that’s going to be able to take over the offense and hopefully go out and execute. He’s got some good players around him. He’s got to use those guys.”
Georgia Tech had its own doubts about replacing Justin Thomas in an option offense that can only be as good as the quarterback who runs it. Unlike Eason, Marshall got a chance to settle in after a slow start and ended up blistering records in a disappointing double-overtime loss to Tennessee.
Marshall set school records with his five rushing scores and 44 carries, and his 249 rushing yards broke Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson’s ACC mark for quarterbacks. It earned him ACC offensive back of the week honors.
“He was a warrior,” said Johnson of his converted A-back. “He played tough and hard and fast. He wasn’t always perfect but he did some good things. The moment wasn’t too big for him.”
Now that we’ve seen what each of these quarterbacks can do, it’s time to see how far they can carry their teams. As Johnson said, it’s only one week but it’s encouraging.