SportsPulse: Our very own Paul Myerberg gives his prognostications and what you need to know heading into the first weekend of college football action.
Let the quest for the playoff begin! Well, all right, technically it began last week. But this is the first full weekend of college football.
As we do all season long, we will present the five games on the docket that will have the most impact on the College Football Playoff race. This comes with the standard disclaimer, of course, that unexpected results can shuffle the pecking order in unanticipated ways. But we’ll try to identify the matchups each week that figure to help or hinder the progress of the main contenders.
With all that out of the way, here are the impact games for Week 1:
No. 13 Oregon vs. No. 16 Auburn in Arlington, Texas
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Saturday’s main event — stop us if you’ve heard this one before — pits the Tigers of the Plains against a Pac-12 contender carrying the banner for a league that desperately needs a signature win. Washington came up short against Auburn in a nearly identical scenario a year ago. Can the Ducks get it done this time?
There are a couple of factors working in Oregon’s favor, starting with the return of senior QB Justin Herbert. He will, however, be up against an Auburn defensive line that could be the best in the SEC – no small feat – featuring DT Derrick Brown and DE Marlon Davidson. But Herbert also has his entire protection group back, and experienced RBs C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye could also help keep the Tigers from sending the house. Auburn has considerably less experience at QB. True freshman Bo Nix won the starting job in fall camp. He’s a talented recruit with a family pedigree, but he’ll be a question mark until he performs on the main stage. He’ll be opposed by another true freshman, Ducks’ touted DE recruit Kayvon Thibideaux, also looking to make a strong first impression.
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Houston at No. 4 Oklahoma
Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
The Sunday spotlight contest on this opening weekend gives us a look at the Sooners as they debut yet another transfer quarterback. But they can’t overlook the Cougars, who’ll be under new management but have a history of causing trouble for Big 12 opponents — including Oklahoma itself.
One of the most intriguing questions of the offseason was how Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts would fit with the high-octane OU attack. We’ll get our first answer now that he’s officially been named the starter. New Houston head man Dana Holgorsen is well acquainted with the Sooners’ schemes from his years at West Virginia, but he’ll need CB Damarion Williams, a former junior college All-American, to help shore up the secondary that had a rough 2018 season. Holgorsen won’t have to change much on the Cougars’ offense he inherits. D’Eriq King is back at full speed after a knee injury ended last season prematurely, and he has a deep and experienced group of pass catchers at his disposal led by WR Marquez Stevenson. Already a question heading into the season, the Oklahoma pass defense took a major hit when CB Tre Norwood sustained a season-ending injury in camp.
No. 2 Alabama vs. Duke in Atlanta
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
For the second consecutive year, the Crimson Tide open at a neutral site against an opponent from the ACC. The experience was less than positive for Louisville, whose disastrous 2018 campaign unraveled quickly. The Blue Devils hope to avoid a similar fate, though they’re not likely to fare much better against the Tide.
Week 1 sometimes features slow starts for offenses as they get their first taste of live-game speed. That probably won’t be the case for Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, who will also have favorite targets Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs back to snare long balls. DE Victor Dimukeje provides the Blue Devils’ best hope to at least bother Tagovailoa a bit. Duke’s task of trying to keep pace would be formidable even if QB Daniel Jones were still in school, but since he’s a New York Giant now, it will be up to Quentin Harris to run the show. He’s a better athlete than Jones, but he might have to run more than he’d like with the Alabama front coming after him. But Alabama will be breaking in some key pieces on defense with LB Dylan Moses (knee) likely out for the year.
No. 3 Georgia at Vanderbilt
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
A road conference game is a challenging opening-week assignment, even for a national title contender like Georgia. The Bulldogs will nevertheless be heavily favored against the Commodores, but UGa will still want to look the part of a top-five team.
Georgia QB Jake Fromm and RB D’Andre Swift will try to remove any suspense quickly, though the former will be working with a relatively inexperienced assembly of pass catchers. The Vandy defense has a lot of holes to fill, but sophomore LB Dimitri Moore could develop into a solid centerpiece. The Commodores’ top returning offensive weapons are RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn and TE Jared Pinkney, though the party responsible for getting them the ball has yet to be determined — or at least disclosed — by coach Derek Mason. It’s possible that both Deuce Wallace and Ball State transfer Riley Neal will take snaps at QB for Vandy, but S Richard LeCounte and the Bulldogs’ defense should be ready for all contingencies.
No. 25 Northwestern at No. 23 Stanford
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, Fox
On the periphery of the playoff picture is Week 1’s only other Top 25 matchup. It could also be among the most competitive contests of the weekend, featuring power-conference teams with designs on winning their respective divisions. Both are led by well-respected coaches who know how to maximize their available talent.
Stanford had to evolve last season into a pass-first team as QB K.J. Costello was able to compensate for a ground game that never lived up to expectations. Costello is back, though the Cardinal receiving corps will be a lot younger. RB Cameron Scarlett will need to contribute some key rush yards against a rugged NU defense, anchored by LB Paddy Fisher, that doesn’t allow many. The Wildcats will be breaking in a new signal caller. That is expected to be Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, but senior T.J. Green, who backed up Clayton Thorson last season, remains in the mix. They must beware of Stanford CB Paulson Adebo, who swiped four passes and broke up 24 more as a freshman last year.