College football insider Matt Hayes breaks down what matters most ahead of this weekend’s college football slate.

Creating his own story

After all that uncertainty and uneasiness about leaving Alabama, Taulia Tagovailoa stepped on the field 2 weeks ago as Maryland’s starting quarterback. And bombed.

Less than 100 yards passing and 3 interceptions in a loss to Northwestern. Certainly not a Tagovailoa-type game.

Then came last week’s home opener against Minnesota, and after Tagovailoa did what his more famous brother, Tua, did for 3 seasons at Alabama: hunkered down in the quarterbacks room, watched game tape and got better.

Taulia accounted for 5 touchdowns in a win over the Gophers, and Maryland – after an emasculating loss to Northwestern to begin the season – now looks respectable. And Taulia looks like a Tagovailoa – for now, anyway.

“He’s one of those guys who treats playing quarterback as a profession,” says Maryland coach Mike Locksley. And, yep, Tua was another.

Taulia gives the Terps something to build on in Locksley’s second season, and as much as anything, he gives the program a name and hope.

It’s a brutal climb for Maryland in the Big Ten East Division, and it gets tougher Saturday at desperate Penn State. After that, it’s consecutive games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan and Rutgers.

That looks a whole lot like one win remaining on the schedule for a rebuilding program. But Tagovailoa’s talent gives Maryland the ability to score points, something it struggled to do last season.

It also gives the program a name and a face, and helps Locksley do what he does best: recruit players to improve programs.

“We can play better this week,” Locksley said. “We will play better this week.”

Georgia: QB or not QB?

Remember this about Kirby Smart’s decision to stick with QB Stetson Bennett ahead of Saturday’s Cocktail Party date with Florida: It’s not his first controversial move at the quarterback spot.

Smart’s brief career as the Georgia coach has been defined by unorthodox moves at the most important position on the field.

Or as Georgia legend Lindsay Scott told me: “A lot of people think our (national) championship is up in Ohio.”

Consider these QB moves from Smart since he took over at Georgia in 2016:

— Walked into Georgia in his first season and started true freshman 5-star Jacob Eason.

— Signed high 4-star Jake Fromm – convinced him to back off a commitment to Alabama – and played him in Week 1 after Eason hurt his knee in the first drive of the season-opener.

— Eason, who beat out Fromm in the 2017 fall camp, never got back on the field in meaningful minutes for Georgia before transferring to Washington.

— Signed 5-star Justin Fields, the No. 2 recruit in the 2018 recruiting class.

— Smart never found a way to tweak his pro-style, run-first, throw off play-action offense to suit Fields’ obvious talent. Smart essentially chose Fromm over Fields, who left for Ohio State after the 2018 season and last year led Ohio State to the College Football Playoff semifinals — by throwing 40 TDs and 1 INT in the regular season. Georgia, meanwhile, lost to LSU in the SEC Championship Game and Fromm has his worst season at Georgia.

— In 2020, Smart signed Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman and 5-star USC transfer JT Daniels to compete with former Ohio State 4-star commit D’Wan Mathis. Newman opted out, Daniels may not be healthy and Mathis was benched after the first half of the season-opener for former walk-on Stetson Bennett.

— Bennett has not played well in the last 3 games, including an ugly loss to Alabama. But Smart continues to preach Bennett is his quarterback and he gives the Bulldogs the best chance to win. Not Daniels or Mathis.

So here we are.

Smart needs this win as much as Dan Mullen, who has pointed to this season as a breakthrough for the Gators. One of these coaches is going to be in a worse position with his fan base by early evening in Jacksonville.

Can Clay Helton make it at USC?

No one benefited from the delay to start the season quite like USC coach Clay Helton.

The narrative is he’s coaching for his job this fall (more on that later), and instead of a 12-game slog, his team – with its elite offense that can outscore any team in the Pac-12 – is instead staring at a favorable 6-game sprint.

This, of course, means the specter of Urban Meyer that has loomed over the program for the last year can be diminished beginning this weekend in the season-opener against Arizona State.

But understand this: USC, like most FBS schools, is financially-strapped because of the pandemic. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year that Helton’s buyout is at least $20 million if he’s fired after this season.

Helton can end all the speculation by winning the Pac-12 with a talented team, and an offense that might just outscore everyone. And if the Trojans don’t win the conference?

While $20 million is a big number, don’t think deep-pocket USC boosters won’t find a way to come up with the cash to make it happen if the Trojans collapse this fall.

USC begins Helton’s 5th season with its best offense in nearly a decade. QB Kedon Slovis, who threw 30 TDs last year as a freshman, has 4 receivers who will play in the NFL – including Amon Ra St. Brown and Bru McCoy.

It will be Year 2 in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid system for a strong group of elite young players. Typically, the second season in the Air Raid for most teams using the system (see: all of coach Mike Leach disciples) sets up for significant growth.
“They’re going to be incredibly difficult to defend,” a Pac-12 defensive coordinator told me.

Clemson’s QB factory: ‘Heaven help us all’

Just how impressive has D.J. Uiagalelei been since enrolling at Clemson? Listen to what one Clemson assistant told me earlier this season:

“Anybody other than (Clemson QB) Trevor (Lawrence), and he’s starting,” the assistant said. “He has been that good. We never had a doubt since we first began recruiting him, and he has delivered on everything since he stepped on campus.”

Translation: Uiagalelei, who didn’t blink last week when down 18 points to Boston College in his first start, won’t be intimidated by his second start this weekend at Notre Dame.

The arm strength, the athletic ability, the football IQ, the ability to pick up passing game concepts quickly and easily. It’s all there.

Uiagalelei broke all of Josh Rosen’s passing records at St. John Bosco Prep in Los Angeles, and threw 96 touchdown passes over his final 2 seasons. His first opportunity at starting for Clemson looked eerily similar.

He completed 30-of-41 passes against BC for 342 yards and 2 TDs, and 5 of the missed throws can be cleaned up: He missed badly 3 times on the same throw (from the right hash to the left numbers on a sideline throw), and 3 passes were dropped.

He completed 73% of his passes, and had a nearly flawless game. The Notre Dame defense, though, will be the toughest test Clemson has faced this season.

The Irish are 4th in the nation in scoring defense (10.3 ppg.), 6th in total defense (267.2 ypg.) and 9th in pass defense (173.5 ypg.).

“They’ll protect him early with (Clemson RB Travis) Etienne,” an ACC coach told me. “It’s a helluva luxury to have that cat in the backfield. Then you have to deal with (Uiagalelei). Shoot, it’s 3 years of (Lawrence) and 3 years of (Uiagalelei). Heaven help us all.”