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Florida State quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) waits for the snap in overtime of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla. Notre Dame won 41-38. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

No disrespect to the stunning first-weekend performances of Alabama over Miami and Georgia over Clemson, but my favorite moment from the Labor Day weekend slate of college football games had nothing to do with the Crimson Tide or the Dawgs. Or the pretty impressive work of Auburn and Tennessee, for that matter. Or even the massive upset of Duke that former Boyd Buchanan quarterback Will Healy pulled off as the white-hot coach of the Charlotte 49ers.

(Note to the next Power 5 conference school that has a legitimate chance to be good with the right coach — and that may not be you, Vanderbilt — Hire Will Healy. There may not be a better program builder anywhere who's under 40!)

Yet great as Will the Thrill's upset was, it still can't top the return to play of Florida State reserve quarterback McKenzie Milton, who almost had his leg amputated a couple of years ago after a horrific knee injury while playing for Central Florida and current UT coach Josh Heupel.

Anyone who remembers UCF's 34-27 upset of Auburn in the 2018 Peach Bowl surely recalls Milton's stunning performance that day in throwing for two touchdowns and running for 116 yards and a third TD.

It had the launching of a 2018 Heisman campaign written all over. Then came the injury late in that 2018 regular season against South Florida. You can get queasy just repeating it. Artery and nerve damage. Dislocated knee and torn ligaments. Doctors weren't worried about Milton playing again. They were worried that they could even save his leg so he could walk again, albeit in much pain.

But more than 1,000 days after he last played, nearly three years after he won 23 straight college football games for Central Florida before transferring this past winter to FSU, there came Milton in relief of Seminoles starting quarterback Jordan Travis after Travis's helmet had come off, forcing him to leave Sunday night's game against Notre Dame with nine minutes to go and the 'Noles down 38-28.

It was supposed to be one of those one-play-and-done deals. Milton would hand the football to aa running back. Travis would return. Milton would head back to the bench, a minor miracle given all he'd been through, but hardly the stuff of major headlines.

But then his first snap became a 22-yard completion to Ja'Khi Douglas. FSU coach Mike Norvell decided to leave him in for a few more plays. Those plays wound up taking up the rest of the fourth quarter as Milton sparked the 'Noles on a 10-0 run to close out regulation and force overtime against the Fighting Irish.

Had Hollywood been scripting this — even with Notre Dame in the house — it might have become an FSU win, especially since it was the first game the 'Noles had played since their retired legendary coach Bobby Bowden passed away.

Alas, come the extra period, ND played to its No. 9 ranking and FSU fell 41-38.

Still, Milton played and played well and was able to walk off the field as if he'd never been injured.

Said Heupel when asked about his former player on Monday: "Unbelievable story. Only he can do what he's done over the last three years – coming back from in the early hours of that injury, just hoping that he was going to be able to keep his leg. It started with just wanting to be able to have a normal, functioning leg, and have a normal life to now becoming a guy that can go play."

Asked what it was like to watch his former patient play inside FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium, the surgeon who operated on Milton — Dr. Bruce Levy of the Mayo Clinic — told Yahoo!Sports, "Absolutely I cried. It was impossible not to."

Said Milton in postgame interviews: "A lot of people would've written me off, so thank you to everyone who's believed in me. To me, we're just starting."

Win or lose, he certainly had a better start to his season than either Clemson or UT-Chattanooga, which lost at home to Austin Peay on Thursday night.

While the two programs might seem to have little in common, both would be wise to win their respective conferences in order to fulfill playoff dreams and goals.

In Clemson's case, when only four teams go to the College Football Playoff for Football Bowl Subdivision schools, losing your opener means you pretty much have to run the table in the Atlantic Coast Conference. One more loss and Clemson's in a New Year's Six bowl. Two more and they might return to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl.

As for UTC, with a win over highly regarded Austin Peay, the Mocs might have been able to stub their toe once or twice in the Southern Conference and still gotten an at-large bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs if they didn't win the SoCon.

Now, it's imperative that they finish no worse than second in league play if they expect to receive a playoff berth.

That said, the season is just one week old. To return to Milton's words, everybody is just starting.

But if Clemson and UTC want to reach the postseason, they need to immediately start playing a whole lot better than they did in their openers.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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