College football is back.
We got a small sampling in Week 0 with Florida’s sloppy win over Miami and a Hawaii upset of Arizona that came down to the game’s final play. Now this week’s full schedule can serve as the main course.
It’s not quite as intriguing as other recent opening weekends, with Saturday night’s neutral-site meeting between No. 11 Oregon and No. 16 Auburn (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) serving as the only game that matches two ranked teams. Last year’s opening weekend saw four such matchups (No. 6 Washington vs. No. 9 Auburn, No. 8 Miami vs. No. 25 LSU, No. 14 Michigan at No. 12 Notre Dame and No. 20 Virginia Tech at No. 19 Florida State).
Nonetheless, there are several fascinating storylines entering the first weekend, from Heisman campaigns to big-name transfers debuting with new programs to prominent programs breaking in new head coaches.
Let’s take a look at the other games and matchups of importance in Week 1, with Thursday night’s action kicking off five straight days of college football:
GAME OF THE WEEKEND
Auburn vs. Oregon: Much like last year’s Washington-Auburn opener, there is some pressure on Oregon to not just maintain its top-15 position in the polls, but to make a statement for the Pac-12. The conference has been left out of the College Football Playoff in each of the last two years and needs marquee wins to garner serious consideration in this and future seasons. Those circumstances aside, this matchup is interesting on a number of additional levels. The Ducks boast one of the nation’s top NFL quarterback prospects in Justin Herbert, while Auburn plans to start true freshman Bo Nix. Herbert will take snaps behind what is expected to rank among the top offensive lines in the sport, while Auburn’s suffocating defensive line – featuring Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe – intends to pressure Herbert into mistakes. That battle in the trenches could be the deciding factor on Saturday night.
True freshman QBs in their college debuts: Nix, the son of former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix, is only one of the true freshmen expected to start at quarterback in this week’s openers. Because of the caliber of the opponent, Nix will certainly face the most scrutiny, but two other marquee neutral-site games will also feature freshman QBs. Boise State’s Hank Bachmeier will lead the Broncos’ offense in Saturday’s massive game against Florida State (7 p.m., ESPN), while North Carolina’s Sam Howell beat out Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder for the right to start Saturday against South Carolina (3:30 p.m., ESPN). The stakes are not as high for Jayden Daniels’ debut, but ESPN’s No. 2 dual-threat QB prospect in the 2019 class still has a point to prove when Arizona State hosts Kent State on Thursday (10 p.m., Pac-12 Network). Daniels pushed to the front of a crowded QB competition with the Sun Devils and earned the starting nod from coach Herman Edwards two weeks before kickoff.
Sooners vs. the Air Raid: Never mind how new Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts performs in his debut in Norman, how will the Sooners’ new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch fare in his efforts to slow down Dana Holgorsen’s signature Air Raid offense on Sunday (7:30 p.m., ABC)? Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley canned DC Mike Stoops midway through last season, and the Sooners’ defensive liabilities were the No. 1 factor in their failing to play for a national championship. Grinch will face more important tests down the road, but matching wits against former West Virginia coach Holgorsen – making his debut at Houston – and Heisman Trophy sleeper D’Eriq King will be great preparation for the Big 12 challenges to come.
Justin Herbert vs. Auburn: A West Coast player has not won the Heisman since USC’s Reggie Bush in 2005. Herbert needs to play exceptionally well to have a chance this year – starting with this matchup against one of the better defenses Oregon will face. The Ducks will almost certainly need to remain in the CFP conversation into December for Herbert to receive equal consideration alongside preseason frontrunners Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama.
Jonathan Taylor vs. South Florida: The Wisconsin running back rushed for 2,194 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per carry a year ago and couldn’t even leverage that into Heisman finalist status. Taylor has 4,171 rushing yards in his first two college seasons, leaving him 2,234 yards shy of Donnel Pumphrey’s official FBS career rushing record and 2,954 short of Ron Dayne’s unofficial record (7,125 yards) that includes bowl stats. He’ll open the 2019 season against a South Florida defense that finished 123rd against the run in 2018, surrendering 247.5 ypg.
Justin Fields vs. Florida Atlantic: ESPN’s No. 1 overall prospect in the 2018 recruiting class was unable to unseat Jake Fromm as Georgia’s starting quarterback last year. Now he will succeed Dwayne Haskins after transferring to Ohio State in the offseason. Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray launched a Heisman campaign with a huge game against FAU in last year’s opener. Perhaps Fields can use his similar dual-threat skills to thrust himself into the Heisman conversation this year. Fields will have the weapons at his disposal to post impressive numbers if he is up to the challenge of starting for such a prominent program.
This week marks an official return to the head coaching ranks for a handful of grizzled veterans that you might not have expected to see lead another program. The most notable names in this group are former national championship coaches Mack Brown (67, now at North Carolina) and Les Miles (65, now at Kansas). Brown faces the greater Week 1 challenge, as his Tar Heels will meet South Carolina and Will Muschamp – Brown’s former defensive coordinator and head coach in waiting at Texas – in Charlotte. Brown’s last game was in 2013 at Texas, so Miles’ absence – LSU fired him in the middle of the 2016 season – was comparably brief. Nonetheless, there are plenty who assumed Miles had coached his last game at a Power Five program following his departure from LSU. He will do just that on Saturday when the Jayhawks host FCS Indiana State at noon.
Three other notable names making their returns as FBS head coaches are Liberty’s Hugh Freeze (Saturday vs. No. 22 Syracuse, 6 p.m., ESPN+), Maryland’s Mike Locksley (Saturday vs. Howard, Noon, Big Ten Network) and Central Michigan’s Jim McElwain (Thursday vs. Albany, 7 p.m., ESPN3). All three coaches saw their most recent head coaching tenures end in controversial fashion. Their redemption tours continue this week.
OTHER NOTABLE COACHING DEBUTS
Among this year’s brand-new head coaches, Ryan Day clearly inherited the best situation. The Ohio State coach takes over a championship-caliber program from the retired Urban Meyer and has a team that oddsmakers project to finish with double-digit victories. Although Day served as interim coach in Meyer’s absence last year, he will make his debut as the full-fledged head coach Saturday against Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic (Noon, FOX).
Two newcomers in the ACC – Georgia Tech’s Geoff Collins and Louisville’s Scott Satterfield – will enter their first games as massive underdogs. Defending national champion Clemson is favored by 36 points over Collins’ Yellow Jackets in what will be the first college football game to air on the new ACC Network (Thursday, 8 p.m.). Meanwhile, Notre Dame is favored to beat Satterfield’s Cardinals by 20.5 points on Labor Day evening (8 p.m., ESPN).
Finally, one of the more intriguing hires of the offseason came at Kansas State, which selected Chris Klieman in December as the replacement for the legendary Bill Snyder. Klieman went 69-6 in five seasons at North Dakota State and won four FCS national titles before accepting the K-State job. However, Klieman’s lone season at an FBS program was in 1997, when he served as defensive backs coach at Kansas. Klieman should cruise past FCS Nicholls on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN+) for his first win at K-State.
OLD FACES, NEW PLACES (QB EDITION)
Prominent quarterback transfers might have been the No. 1 storyline of this offseason, and Ohio State’s Fields is far from the only one who will debut with a new team this week. Perhaps the most notable debut will come Sunday when former Alabama starter Hurts takes the field with Oklahoma offense’s against Houston. Among the other notable debuts to watch:
Northwestern’s Hunter Johnson (Clemson transfer) against Stanford
Mississippi State’s Tommy Stevens (Penn State) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Washington’s Jacob Eason (Georgia) vs. Eastern Washington
Missouri’s Kelly Bryant (Clemson) vs. Wyoming
West Virginia’s Austin Kendall (Oklahoma) vs. James Madison
UCF’s Brandon Wimbush (Notre Dame) vs. Florida A&M
Arkansas’ Ben Hicks (SMU) and Nick Starkel (Texas A&M) vs. Portland State
Oklahoma State’s Dru Brown (Hawaii) vs. Oregon State
TCU’s Alex Delton (Kansas State) vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Maryland’s Josh Jackson (Virginia Tech) vs. Howard
Vanderbilt’s Riley Neal (Ball State) vs. Georgia
SMU’s Shane Buechele (Texas) vs. Arkansas State
The starting nods have not been announced in some of these situations, creating additional storylines to follow. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has not named a starter for the Oregon State game, so it could be Brown or hotshot redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders. Likewise at Vanderbilt in the competition between Neal and Deuce Wallace. Jackson is Maryland’s expected starter over Tyrrell Pigrome against Howard, but Locksley has not confirmed that yet. Hicks and Starkel appear to remain in a neck-and-neck race to start for Arkansas. And while Delton owns a decided experience advantage over true freshman Max Duggan, Gary Patterson has not announced a starter for the Arkansas-Pine Bluff game.
BY THE NUMBERS
Four Power Five conference games: Clemson at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech at Boston College, Georgia at Vanderbilt, Virginia at Pittsburgh
Six Power Five-vs.-Power Five non-conference games: Oklahoma State at Oregon State, Duke vs. Alabama, South Carolina vs. North Carolina, Northwestern at Stanford, Oregon vs. Auburn, Notre Dame at Louisville
Seven neutral-site games: Colorado State vs. Colorado (Denver), Indiana vs. Ball State (Indianapolis), Mississippi State vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (New Orleans), Duke vs. Alabama (Atlanta), South Carolina vs. North Carolina (Charlotte), Boise State vs. Florida State (Jacksonville), Oregon vs. Auburn (Arlington)
THURSDAY, AUG. 29
UCLA at Cincinnati (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Florida A&M at No. 17 UCF (7:30 p.m., CBSSN)
Georgia Tech at No. 1 Clemson (8 p.m., ACC Network)
Texas State at No. 12 Texas A&M (8:30 p.m., SEC Network)
No. 14 Utah at BYU (10:15 p.m., ESPN)
FRIDAY, AUG. 30
Tulsa at No. 18 Michigan State (7 p.m., FS1)
No. 19 Wisconsin at South Florida (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Utah State at Wake Forest (8 p.m., ACC Network)
Purdue at Nevada (9:30 p.m., CBSSN)
Colorado State at Colorado (10 p.m., ESPN)
Oklahoma State at Oregon State (10:30 p.m., FS1)
SATURDAY, AUG. 31
Florida Atlantic at No. 5 Ohio State (Noon ET, FOX)
Northern Iowa at No. 21 Iowa State (Noon, FS1)
South Alabama at No. 24 Nebraska (Noon, ESPN)
Ole Miss at Memphis (Noon, ABC)
Eastern Washington at No. 13 Washington (3 p.m., Pac-12 Network)
Duke vs. No. 2 Alabama (3:30 p.m., ABC)
Idaho at No. 15 Penn State (3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network)
South Carolina vs. North Carolina (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Northwestern at No. 25 Stanford (4 p.m., FOX)
Virginia Tech at Boston College (4 p.m., ACC Network)
No. 22 Syracuse at Liberty (6 p.m., ESPN+)
Boise State vs. Florida State (7 p.m., ESPN)
No. 3 Georgia at Vanderbilt (7:30 p.m., SEC Network)
Georgia Southern at No. 6 LSU (7:30 p.m., ESPNU)
Middle Tennessee at No. 7 Michigan (7:30 p.m., Big Ten Network)
No. 11 Oregon vs. No. 16 Auburn (7:30 p.m., ABC)
Miami (Ohio) at No. 20 Iowa (7:30 p.m., FS1)
Virginia at Pittsburgh (7:30 p.m., ACC Network)
Louisiana Tech at No. 10 Texas (8 p.m., Longhorn Network)
New Mexico State at No. 23 Washington State (10 p.m., Pac-12 Network)
Fresno State at USC (10:30 p.m., ESPN)
SUNDAY, SEPT. 1
Houston at No. 4 Oklahoma (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
MONDAY, SEPT. 2
No. 9 Notre Dame at Louisville (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)