College football winners and losers: Illinois surprises, UCLA rolls, Nebraska falls again

College football is back. Did anyone tell Nebraska?

The 2021 season kicked off with a short Week 0 slate of five games that still managed to yield results that may linger well into the offseason.

For one, the Cornhuskers' 30-22 loss at Illinois casts a serious cloud over fourth-year coach Scott Frost. On the flip side, Illinois is off to a smashing start under new coach Bret Bielema.

Here are the winners and losers from the first Saturday of the season:

WINNERS

Illinois

In topping the Cornhuskers in back-to-back years for the first time since 1923-24, Illinois put holes in the theory that Bielema's first team would bring up the rear in the Big Ten. (Obviously, the new leader in the clubhouse for that honor belongs to Nebraska.) The signs of a competently coached team were obvious: Illinois took advantage of the Cornhuskers' inevitable mistakes, ran the ball with purpose, won up front and overcame losing starting quarterback Brandon Peters early in the first quarter.

How does Saturday's win change the projections for this year's team? There still aren't any obvious wins outside of Charlotte on Oct. 2, but the type of performance put together against Nebraska bodes well for Illinois' odds against teams in a similar stratosphere — such as next week's opponent, Texas-San Antonio, and Big Ten foes Maryland, Purdue, Rutgers and Northwestern.

Bret Bielema

The win will have a huge impact on Illinois' confidence and breathe life into Bielema's recruiting efforts. But is anyone really surprised that he'd hit the ground running in his return to the Big Ten? The former Wisconsin coach always seemed like a good fit for Illinois for a number of reasons, from the coaching philosophies carried over from his time with the Badgers through his ability to manifest the sort of physical mindset that has always played well in the conference.

UCLA

A trendy pick to contend for the Pac-12 South division championship and take a big step forward under Chip Kelly, UCLA started strong with a 44-10 win against Hawaii. The Bruins burst out of the gate with a 24-point first quarter and would dominate the Rainbow Warriors on the ground, running for 244 yards and four touchdowns on 5.7 yards per carry. An uncomplicated offensive game plan makes it hard to extrapolate too much about what a 34-point win against a Mountain West opponent really means about the Bruins' chances in the Pac-12, but we'll know much more in a week: UCLA hosts LSU in Pasadena next Saturday in one of the best games in a loaded Week 1 slate.

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Chevan Cordeiro is pressured by Bo Calvert in the first half at the Rose Bowl. UCLA beat Hawaii 44-10.
Chevan Cordeiro is pressured by Bo Calvert in the first half at the Rose Bowl. UCLA beat Hawaii 44-10.

LOSERS

Nebraska

It just keeps getting worse for a program that is two decades removed from last being part of the national conversation and now is known much more for self-inflicted disasters than playing a role in deciding the Big Ten championship. All the predictable missteps were evident against Illinois, including a punt return resulting in a safety, a dropped touchdown pass, a missed extra point, a roughing the passer penalty on an interception and a fumble returned by Illinois for a touchdown — and that was just in the first half. Embarrassing? Absolutely. But predictably so.

Scott Frost

The Cornhuskers could reverse Saturday's result and get to six wins, which might be enough to regain some of the momentum and promise that once defined Frost's tenure. How much you believe in that may depend on your answer to this: Does a team that loses to Illinois — showing all of the sloppiness and inconsistency you've come to expect — really have what it takes to navigate a schedule that includes Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa? And if the Cornhuskers fall short of bowl eligibility, how does new athletics director Trev Alberts sell another year of the status quo after another losing season?

Connecticut

After sitting out last season amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Huskies picked up where they left off in 2019 with a 45-0 loss to Fresno State, the program's 31st defeat in 34 games against Football Bowl Subdivision competition since coach Randy Edsall's return in 2017. In its first game as an FBS independent, UConn allowed 538 yards of offense and 25 first downs while gaining just 107 yards on 1.7 yards per play.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football winners and losers: Illinois, UCLA roll; UConn flops

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