The first full weekend of college football is finally here.
Defending national champion Clemson already has a victory after blasting Georgia Tech 52-14 on Thursday night. No. 2 Alabama figures to rout Duke in Atlanta on Saturday, and No. 3 Georgia travels to Vanderbilt on Saturday night.
We’ll have to wait until Sunday night to see No. 4 Oklahoma, which hosts Houston in what might be a tricky contest.
Those teams, along with No. 5 Ohio State and No. 6 LSU, are among the favorites to reach the College Football Playoff this season.
But which teams are must-see TV in 2019? Which teams are going to keep you on the edge of your seat and gasping for air in the end?
The Watchability Rankings for college football are back. Here’s a reminder of the four categories in which we ranked teams on a scale of 1-10:
1. Finebaum factor: A rough estimate of where a team fits in the national discussion — and we’re not talking about only on Saturdays. Are Phyllis and Jim from Tuscaloosa talking about the team on The Paul Finebaum Show? Does it move the needle on Twitter? Good teams that are in championship contention from September through November measure high in this category.
Team that scored high in this category but didn’t crack the top 10: UCF
The 2017 “co-national champions” are 26-1 over the past two seasons — and 3-1 against Power 5 opponents. You either believe they’re unfairly being left out of the CFP — or that they have absolutely no business being in the discussion because of their schedule.
2. Cage factor: Whether it’s on the sideline or in the huddle, a team has to have a recognizable, exciting and capable leading man. Otherwise, it’s as if you’re watching yet another Nicolas Cage flick. Teams with All-Americans, likely first-round draft choices and colorful coaches get extra points here.
Team that scored high in this but didn’t crack the top 10: Iowa
No, that’s not a misprint. The Hawkeyes might have two players selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft — defensive end A.J. Epenesa (10½ sacks and 16½ tackles for loss in 2018) and offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs. Mel Kiper Jr. ranks each of them in the top 20 of his draft-eligible prospects.
3. Spurrier factor: Wide-open, fast-paced, no-huddle offenses are a lot more fun to watch than the plodding, conservative, 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust teams. You know which teams I’m talking about — the ones outside the SEC. But it has to be within reason; no one wants to watch a four-hour Big 12 game in which no defense is being played.
Team that scored high in this but didn’t crack the top 10: Utah State
The Aggies averaged 47.5 points per game in 2018, second only to Oklahoma’s 48.4, and bring back Jordan Love, one of the sport’s most underrated players. Utah State opens the season at Wake Forest on Aug. 30 (8 p.m. ET, ACCN).
4. Corso factor: This category encompasses everything that has to do with college football’s pageantry, from the marching bands to the traditions to whether your favorite team has a cool mascot head for Lee Corso to wear on Saturday mornings. Tradition is what makes college football so special. Without it, we’re watching the NFL.
Team that scored high in this but didn’t crack the top 10: Michigan
The Big House. Iconic winged helmets. Maize and blue. Khakis. The Wolverines have just about everything when it comes to tradition and identity. Now if they could only win a game that matters under Jim Harbaugh.
Once again, all ties are broken by personal preference or a coin toss. Here’s the top 10:
10. Washington State (21 points)
The Cougars might not be good enough to match their 11-2 record from 2018, especially after cult hero Gardner Minshew departed and is now trying to make the Jacksonville Jaguars’ roster.
But as long as Mike Leach is coaching at the Palouse, the Cougars are going to be fun to watch. From his TMI thoughts on cargo shorts to wedding advice to what people will write in his obituary, Leach is the most quotable man in college football.
Make no mistake: The Pirate is the reason HBO has reportedly selected Washington State for a behind-the-scenes access series modeled after “Hard Knocks.”
9. USC (22 points)
Few teams in the country figure to have as much off-field drama as USC, where coach Clay Helton and athletics director Lynn Swann might be on the chopping block if things go south fast.
From an admissions scandal to FBI and NCAA investigations involving men’s basketball, USC has been an absolute dumpster fire off the field. And if things go bad in football, you won’t be able to take your eyes off this train wreck.
With the addition of former Texas Tech quarterback and North Texas assistant Graham Harrell, the Trojans should be fun to watch on offense. The new scheme is a perfect fit for wunderkind JT Daniels, who wasn’t bad as a true freshman in 2018.
8. Alabama (23 points)
The Crimson Tide are probably more talented than any other team in the FBS in 2019. Mel Kiper ranks six Alabama players — receiver Jerry Jeudy, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, safety Xavier McKinney, cornerback Trevon Diggs and receiver Henry Ruggs III — among the 25 best players on his initial Big Board for the 2020 NFL draft. (Linebacker Dylan Moses was also on that list, but the defensive signal-caller is now likely out for the 2019 season with a knee injury.)
Last year, the Crimson Tide averaged 45.6 points per game and won each of their 12 regular-season games by 22 points or more.
Blowouts aren’t too entertaining, but watching Nick Saban complain about his second-team offense’s inefficiency can be fun.
Based on returning talent, you could certainly argue that the Crimson Tide should be ranked higher. But I really wanted Auburn to be ranked ahead of Alabama in something.
7. Auburn (24 points)
Coach Gus Malzahn is on the hot seat — and the athletics department would have to pay $27 million to fire him. You know what? Auburn might be the only school crazy enough to do it.
The Tigers will play arguably the sport’s most difficult schedule — with a true freshman quarterback, Bo Nix.
I’ll be honest: I have absolutely no idea how things will go, which makes Auburn’s season even more delightful. When I pick the Tigers to flop, they usually upset Alabama and win the SEC West. When I pick the Tigers to flourish, they typically flounder and end up in the Music City Bowl or worse.
Auburn has one of the best defensive lines in the country to go with a suspect offensive line and unproven quarterback. The Tigers open against Oregon in Arlington, Texas, play at Texas A&M, Florida and LSU, and host Georgia and Alabama in November.
With that schedule, I see three or four losses. Of course, that means the Tigers will probably somehow run the table.
6. Miami (26 points)
A new and improved Turnover Chain. Touchdown rings. And hometown hero Manny Diaz in his first season as head coach.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about what’s going on in the 305 — except for, of course, the Hurricanes’ offensive line, which surrendered 10 sacks in a 24-20 loss to Florida in last week’s opener. Honk if you sacked Jarren Williams.
The good news for Miami: It’s probably not going to face a defensive front as formidable as Florida’s unless it reaches the ACC championship game, when it might face Clemson or Syracuse.
5. Houston (27 points)
Cougars coach Dana Holgorsen left a Power 5 school, West Virginia, to return to Houston, where he worked as Kevin Sumlin’s offensive coordinator in 2008-09. Under Holgorsen, then-Cougars quarterback Case Keenum led the FBS in total offense as a sophomore and junior.
Current Houston quarterback D’Eriq King passed for 2,982 yards with 36 touchdowns and ran for 674 yards with 14 scores in 11 games last season. He’ll put up even better numbers in Holgorsen’s system.
The Cougars will actually face more teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 (three) than Clemson will (two). The Cougars open at No. 4 Oklahoma on Sunday night, host No. 23 Washington State on Sept. 13 and play at No. 17 UCF on Nov. 2.
Yet another reason to watch: to see how Holgorsen’s hair reacts to the Texas humidity.
4. Clemson (30 points)
The Tigers have a once-in-a-generation quarterback in Trevor Lawrence, who I predicted a year ago would win two Heisman Trophies before he’s done. They have one of the sport’s best tailbacks, Travis Etienne, and one of the best wide receivers, Justyn Ross. The defending national champions are loaded on defense once again.
What more could you possibly want?
Clemson is a great team to watch if you enjoy seeing excellence and overall talent, but most of its games simply aren’t going to be very compelling.
In fact, it almost feels like the Tigers’ regular season ends after they play back-to-back games against No. 12 Texas A&M at home and No. 22 Syracuse on the road in September. Nobody else on Clemson’s schedule is going to keep it close. Once the Tigers got past those teams in 2018, they won their final eight games by an average of 38 points.
3. Georgia (31 points)
There are marquee home games between the hedges against Notre Dame and Texas A&M, as well as the annual rivalry game against Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. If you haven’t noticed, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart doesn’t seem to like Gators counterpart Dan Mullen too much.
Plus, if Georgia returns to the SEC championship game and plays Alabama again, you might get to witness an entire fan base pull the covers over their heads for four hours — before having their hearts and souls ripped from their chests in the final minutes. The Bulldogs trailed the Crimson Tide for a total of 64 seconds in the past two meetings — yet somehow lost both times.
2. Ohio State (33 points)
The best part about being an Ohio State fan is trying to figure out before the season even begins which road game the Buckeyes are going to blow. It was Purdue in 2018, Iowa in ’17 and Penn State in ’16.
It might be Nebraska or Northwestern this season. (At least we know it won’t be Michigan, right?)
New Buckeyes coach Ryan Day inherits a wealth of playmakers on offense, and Georgia transfer Justin Fields replaces Dwayne Haskins at quarterback. A word of unsolicited advice: Don’t use Fields on fake punts in the fourth quarter.
The Buckeyes are going to be really fun to watch. They’re going to score a bunch of points, and they might surrender a lot of points, too.
1. Oklahoma (35 points)
The Sooners had to replace a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback last season, and coach Lincoln Riley produced another Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and reached the CFP for the second straight season.
The Sooners have a chance to do it yet again with Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts, who came off the bench to beat Georgia in the SEC championship game in 2018.
Hurts probably doesn’t throw it as well as the previous two quarterbacks — Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray — but he throws it well enough.
The Sooners are bad enough on defense — they allowed 40 or more points in five of their last six games and ranked dead last in the FBS in pass defense in 2018 — that many of their games are much closer than they should be.