NCAA Football

Top storylines for college football Week 1

Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson has a lot of pressure on his shoulders heading into college football Week 1
Jesse Reed
Written by Jesse Reed

College football Week 1 is here, folks. The action is kicking into high gear, and there are so many big-time angles to look at as the season gets underway.

Where do we start?

Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner is looking to become the first repeat winner since Archie Griffin back in 1974-75. Nobody else has done it, so history is certainly against the Louisville quarterback. There are also some notable debuts taking place over the course of the extended weekend. A heavyweight battle between two national title contenders will certainly have lasting implications as well.

We’re taking a look at all that and more as we highlight the top storylines for college football Week 1.

1. Lamar Jackson takes aim at another Heisman Trophy

Despite a very tepid finish last season, Jackson was the runaway winner of the 2016 Heisman Trophy. As we mentioned in the opening, nobody else in the history of this prestigious award has won it two times at all, let alone two in a row, besides former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin.

Jackson’s repeat bid should get off to a smashing start against a Purdue squad that won just three games all last year and lost its final seven. The Boilermakers gave up an average of 43 points in that final losing streak. And while the program is attempting to become competitive again, Purdue shouldn’t be a problem at all for the high-powered Cardinals, or for Jackson.

2. Sam Darnold and the Trojans need a hot start

It’s cupcake time for USC, which is on a mission to become a national powerhouse again after some down years under Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. The Trojans are hosting Western Michigan on Saturday in Los Angeles, and they should win handily.

A sexy pick as a national title contender, the Trojans also feature one of the nation’s hottest quarterbacks in Darnold, a legitimate Heisman candidate who wowed us all as a freshman last year. The offensive line is somewhat of a question mark heading into the season, and unlike last year there is a ton of pressure on Darnold to live up to the hype. A big game in Week 1 is requisite to keep that hype train rolling along, not to mention the team’s high ranking.

3. Will Grier’s debut for West Virginia

It’s been a long road back for Grier, who was suspended for one year back in 2015 after testing positive for PEDs. Following that suspension, Grier transferred to West Virginia.

Now he’s finally ready to make his return to the game, and on a huge stage, at that. The Mountaineers are taking on in-state rival Virginia Tech on national television (ABC) Sunday evening at FedEx Field. The Hokies are actually favored to win this game, so if Grier can get his high-powered offense in gear and wins this one, it’ll be huge for him and the program as a whole.

4. Will Brian Kelly’s Irish really be any different?

To say last season was a disaster for Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish would be an understatement. They won just four games all year, and Kelly lost his composure in a bad way on more than one occasion. The head coach claims things will be “drastically different” this time around, but we’ll believe that when we see it.

Instead of DeShone Kizer, who’s now the starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, the offense is going to be led by junior Brandon Wimbush. He faces a strong Temple defense this Saturday, and the Owls will certainly test the Irish all the way around. This team and its head coach desperately needs a strong start to the season to avoid controversy throughout the campaign.

5. Mason Rudolph and the explosive Cowboys should easily wrangle Tulsa

It’s no secret that Oklahoma State features as exciting an offense as you’re going to see in college football this season. Running back Justice Hill and receiver James Washington are two of the most explosive offensive weapons in the nation, and quarterback Mason Rudolph can sling the ball with the best of them. The Cowboys are hosting Tulsa Thursday night in Stillwater, and it’s likely to get out of hand quickly. Though, it’ll be a fun show to watch unless you’re a fan of the Golden Hurricane.

6. All eyes on Josh Allen (if you can watch the game)

The Iowa Hawkeyes are hosting Wyoming on Saturday, and they’re favored to win by double digits. However, one man could flip that script in a heartbeat if he gets his season started off on the right foot. NFL scouts have been drooling over Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen since last fall. He hasn’t put up huge stats but has a huge arm and is being compared to (a more athletic) Carson Wentz, who came out of North Dakota State to become the No. 2 overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft. This game won’t be nationally televised, but if you’re interested in seeing this kid play and get the Big Ten Network, tune in at noon, ET Saturday.

7. What will Clemson’s offense look like sans Deshaun Watson?

Kelly Bryant waited his turn. He was recruited by Dabo Swinney before the 2015 season and was told he’d have to sit behind Watson, which is a pitch not many kids are keen on these days. But he bided his time and now has an opportunity to be the next big thing for the Tigers. Bryant will also be without Mike Williams, who was the leading receiver last year, and Wayne Gallman, the team’s leading runner. It’s a completely revamped offensive attack this year.

Thankfully Clemson boasts one of the nation’s strongest defenses, which should keep the team in almost every ball game regardless of how the offense performs. But if the Tigers have any shot at repeating as national champs, it’s going to be up to the offense to carry its weight, too.

8. Lane Kiffin’s debut at Florida Atlantic

The Lake Kiffin era will officially begin Friday night at home against a very formidable Navy squad that is favored to win by double digits. It’s hard to know what to expect. Kiffin wasn’t able to do live up to the hype in his previous two stops at USC and Tennessee, but he’s swimming in a smaller pond now at Florida Atlantic. He’s had some pretty fabulous moments on the recruiting trail this past offseason and has some players you might recognize at his disposal in John Franklin III and recent East Mississippi transfer De’Andre Johnson. Both were featured in Netflix’s “Last Chance U.”

Whether any of that helps him build a successful program remains to be seen.

9. Can Indiana pose a problem for the Buckeyes?

Ohio State finished last season on a sour note after getting drubbed by Clemson. And the team has a lot to prove now that the Big Ten East is suddenly chock full of competitive programs. One of those competitive teams is going to be gunning for an upset on Thursday night, as Indiana will host the Buckeyes to open the season. With 14 returning starters, including nine on defense, the Hoosiers aren’t going to be intimidated. Especially after hanging tough last season, pulling to within a touchdown in the third quarter before Ohio State finally pulled away in the fourth. It’s going to be up to J.T. Barrett to come out sharp and not give the opposition any opportunities to take advantage of any early turnovers.

10. Will Jake Browning be the same without John Ross?

Washington is set up for a blowout win to open the season as it hits the road for a trip to Jersey. Rutgers isn’t going to scare anyone this year after winning just two games against relative cupcakes last year, which should tell you something about the level of competition the Huskies are in for. Though, we wonder what to expect from Jake Browning, who lost his best receiver, John Ross, to the NFL this past spring. Browning is a good quarterback, but there’s no doubt he benefited from Ross’ ability to break free of coverage. Dante Pettis is a very good player, but he’s no Ross.

11. What will the Sooners look like without Bob Stoops?

Bob Stoops shocked the college football world when he abruptly announced his retirement as head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners. In his stead, 33-year-old Lincoln Riley has been given a golden opportunity to coach one of the top programs in the nation and one of its best quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield. A ton of talent left the team via the NFL draft this past spring, but Oklahoma still features a championship-caliber roster. The Sooners’ first test comes against UTEP on Saturday, at home in Norman, no less. It should be an easy way to register Riley’s first win, but we’ll be watching this team closely all year to see what kind of impact Stoops’ retirement will have.

12. Can Penn State pick up where it left off in 2016?

There weren’t many hotter teams than the Nittany Lions leading up to the Rose Bowl. They won nine straight games heading into that high-powered tilt against USC, which they ultimately lost by the slimmest of margins. James Franklin shocked everyone by transforming the program into one of the nation’s best in a shorter amount of time than was expected. Now Penn State enters 2017 with extremely high expectations, both internally and externally. For good reason. Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley comprise one of the nation’s hottest quarterback/running back duos, and the defense returns six starters. The Akron Zips should represent nothing more than a speed bump for this team in Week 1.

13. Tom Herman’s debut in Texas

One of the hottest names in the national coaching circuit, Herman made the jump from Houston to Texas this past winter and needs to turn things around quickly. His predecessor, Charlie Strong, failed in his quest to lead the Longhorns back to prominence. Herman actually took a shot at him in his introductory press conference.

The fan base is itching for something positive to happen. Right now. Quarterback Shane Buechele should continue to shine as a sophomore, and there is plenty of talent on defense. The Longhorns should run rampant over Maryland on Saturday in Austin, but much sterner tests await in the coming weeks.

14. Will Appalachian State play spoiler to Georgia’s championship aspirations?

There’s some building excitement about Georgia this year. Nick Chubb surprisingly opted to return, joining the talented Sony Michel in the backfield to give Jacob Eason a heck of a 1-2 punch there. The Bulldogs also feature some very nice talent on the defensive side of the ball. Leading the charge is defensive end Lorenzo Carter and linebacker Davin Bellamy. This team has some huge games coming up on the schedule in 2017 that will define their season.

But the Bulldogs — favored to win by more than two touchdowns — better not look bast the Mountaineers, who have knocked off favorites before.

15. Can Josh Rosen make an early statement?

Josh Rosen

While Will Grier is playing his first game in more than a year Sunday, Josh Rosen and the UCLA Bruins will also be taking the field against Texas A&M in a grudge match after the Aggies won in overtime last year on their home turf. Neither team enters college football Week 1 nationally ranked, but Rosen enters the game as one of the most heavily scrutinized quarterbacks set to play in the upcoming season. He missed half the year in 2016 with nerve damage to his throwing shoulder but is healthy and raring to prove all his doubters wrong. If things go right for Rosen this year, there’s a chance he could be the first pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.

16. Jarrett Stidham’s debut for Auburn

The last time Stidham played college ball was in November of 2015. He was lost for the rest of the season after chipping a bone in his ankle and then left Baylor in the wake of the school’s sexual abuse scandal. Stidham spent the 2016 fall semester at McLennan Community College, which did not have a football program. As soon as he was eligible to transfer, he did, choosing to play for Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers.

These Tigers are viewed as a dark horse championship contender in 2017, and a lot of that has to do with Stidham. In limited action at Baylor in 2015, he completed 68.8 percent of his passes, averaged a stunning 11.6 yards per attempt while throwing 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He’ll get back into the swing of things on Saturday evening against what should be an easy opponent, Georgia Southern.

17. Can Derrius Guice make LSU fans forget about Leonard Fournette?

It’s pretty crazy that the answer to this question is probably yes. All Fournette did during his tenure with the Tigers is rush for the fourth-most yards and third-most touchdowns in LSU history. Yet Guice might be even better. Blessed with freakish athleticism, strength and speed, the junior was phenomenal last year when Fournette went down with an ankle injury. He totaled 1,493 yards and 16 touchdowns and is primed for an even better season in 2017 — one that could see him challenge for the Heisman Trophy.

The Tigers are hosting BYU Saturday night, and you can be sure Guice will see plenty of action.

18. Will the Yellow Jackets light up the fire under Butch Jones’ hot seat?

Talk about pressure right out of the gate. Georgia Tech is hosting Tennessee on Monday night at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The nation will be watching since it’s the only game going on that day in college or pro ball. Butch Jones starts the season already on hot seat after last year’s disastrous three-game losing streak, which was capped off by an unconscionable loss to Vanderbilt in the final game of the regular season.

This game will come down to whether Tennessee’s offensive line can dominate Georgia Tech’s front seven and establish the run. If the Vols can do that, then they should win, barring a rash of penalties and turnovers. It’s going to be a tight battle, and we’re very much looking forward to this one.

19. Which Jim will prevail when Michigan and Florida meet in Texas?

Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines and Jim McElwain’s Florida Gators are gearing up for a good, old-fashioned slugfest at AT&T Stadium Saturday afternoon. Both programs are having to overcome some circumstances that may prove problematic in their pursuit of a national title. Florida’s offseason consisted of some ugliness, including a bunch of suspensions and a big-time injury. Michigan lost most of its starters from last year’s squad.

One will finish the game in an early hole. If you believe McElwain, it’s going to be Michigan.

20. Two title contenders put season on the line right off the bat

Alabama and Florida State begin the season squared off against one another, and these two teams might once again face off at the end of the College Football Playoff to determine the national championship. That’s unlikely to happen, but it’s certainly not impossible. They enter Week 1 as the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the nation, and under the new format one loss doesn’t mean as much as it used to.

That said, there’s no doubt the team that loses on Saturday in Atlanta is going to be under tremendous pressure the rest of the season to not lose again. Both programs feature star players on both sides of the ball, and it won’t be shocking to see this upcoming game go right down to the wire.

About the author

Jesse Reed

Jesse Reed

Managing Editor here at Sportsnaut. Featured on Yardbarker, Foxsports.com and MSN.com, and formerly was a breaking news writer/NFL analyst for Bleacher Report.