It’s been almost eight months since we last enjoyed college football. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then we’re all twitterpated with anticipation for Week 1 of the 2016 college football season by now.
Hawaii and Cal got things kicked off last Friday with an international soiree in the land down under. Starting on Thursday, Sept. 1, college football fans can glut themselves on 86 games to be contested over five days.
With that much action, it’s hard to nail down exactly which games offer the most entertainment value and hold the most meaning.
That said, we did our best to nail down the most important things to watch for for Week 1.
1. Who starts at quarterback for South Carolina?
Vanderbilt is hosting South Carolina on Thursday night in what is the headliner for the evening’s festivities.
The SEC showdown is a classic defensive versus offensive battle, with Vandy playing the role of feisty defensive squad and South Carolina bringing the offensive heat.
Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp wants us to believe he and his coaching staff still don’t know who the starting quarterback will be in 2016. And there’s a legitimate chance he’s not fibbing just to keep Vanderbilt off guard heading into Thursday night’s contest.
“Two guys will play,” was the cryptic answer Muschamp gave to reporters, via Mike Wilson of SEC Country. “We feel that way.”
The problem is that the Gamecocks have a three-way battle going on between senior Perry Orth and freshmen Brandon McIlwain and Jake Bentley. All three have impressed Muschamp and his offensive coaches.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how this plays out.
2. Leonard Fournette faces early test against Wisconsin
After looking like a shoo-in to win the Heisman Trophy last year during the first half of the season, expectations should be somewhat tempered for Fournette to open the season.
The running back is recovering from an ankle injury. He’s been receiving extremely limited work in practice as LSU (No. 5) prepares for a road game against Wisconsin — a team that features a stout defense against the run.
Fournette says he’s fully recovered from the injury. We’ll soon find out.
Wisconsin held opposing runners to just 3.1 yards per carry last year. It’s worth noting, however, that Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake carved this defense up to the tune of 221 yards and four touchdowns on just 23 carries to open the year in 2015.
Given Fournette’s fast start last year, it’s going to be interesting to see if he can duplicate that kind of success for the Tigers.
3. Christian McCaffrey should run wild at home against Kansas State
While many have pegged Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson as the Heisman favorite this year, it would be crazy to not at least put McCaffrey on equal footing.
And unlike Fournette, No. 8-ranked Stanford’s golden boy should run rampant against a pretty bad Kansas State defense, getting his Heisman campaign kicked off with a bang.
Now, it’s worth noting the Wildcats were ravaged by injury last year on the defensive side of the ball. One of the guys who went down, safety Dante Barnett, wants everyone to know that Stanford isn’t the only program that prides itself on being tough.
“They take pride in being a tough and physical football team,” said Barnett, per the Associated Press. “We can be a tough football team, too, so I can’t wait.”
Who knows? Maybe Kansas State will put up a better fight than we anticipate. But we’re not holding our breath waiting for a close one in this matchup. Stanford should roll, and so should McCaffrey.
4. Clemson cannot underestimate Auburn
The Clemson Tigers (No. 2) better be ready to do some scoring against Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers.
Clemson’s defense is kind of an unknown quantity at this point, returning just four starters from last year’s squad.
We already know Auburn’s offense can be explosive when running at full clip. Sophomore quarterback Sean White, who recently won the starting job for Auburn, has been touted by offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee as a steady presence behind center.
If the home team can get the running game going with sophomore Kerryon Johnson and control the clock, then Deshaun Watson and Co. might have to sweat a bit in their season opener.
Based on the work Watson put in this offseason to improve red-zone scoring, it’s likely Clemson will run away with this one. He’s also working on quite the massive chip on his shoulder these days (more on that here).
But any lapse in concentration could be deadly playing on the road at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which will be full of screaming fans eager to watch their team upset a national championship contender.
5. Possible trap game for Notre Dame?
The Fighting Irish (No. 10) head to Austin, Texas on Sunday for a primetime matchup against the Longhorns.
Notre Dame is heavily favored to win this one. Furthermore, the heavyweight program features a gaudy 9-2 all-time record against Texas, including a 4-0 record in Austin.
This, my friends, is the perfect recipe for a trap game.
Just ask Oklahoma what can happen when you underestimate the Longhorns under Charlie Strong. The Sooners would have been undefeated heading into bowl season if not for a hiccup against Texas.
Given the talent on both sides of the ball featured on Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame roster, it might take a minor miracle for the Longhorns to pull off a similar trick. But miracles are part of Catholic lore. Don’t rule one out in this one.
6. Oklahoma vs. Houston could be game of the week
One of the highlights of Week 1 is the matchup between Oklahoma (No. 3) and Houston (No. 15). Both schools feature outstanding dual-threat quarterbacks, and both schools have national championship aspirations.
Houston is a huge long shot for the national championship but really should be ranked higher, based on last year’s exploits. Returning for his senior season is team leader and quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who is one of the most dangerous offensive players in college football.
Oklahoma has extremely high expectations — both internally and externally. This team is being slotted in the rankings behind only Alabama and Clemson — the two teams that battled for the title last year.
Loaded with talent across the board on both sides of the ball, the fate of the program will still lie squarely on the shoulders of Baker Mayfield. One of the top scoring quarterbacks from last year, he put up numbers that weren’t too far off from Clemson’s Watson.
Watching these two upperclassmen dual it out on Saturday morning is going to get the weekend started out nicely.
7. Josh Rosen vs. Myles Garrett
No. 16-ranked UCLA travels to face Texas A&M Saturday afternoon in College Station. This contest features one of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the nation, Josh Rosen, and the most dynamic defender in the land, pass rusher Myles Garrett.
These two might meet up a few times if Garrett has anything to say about it. The junior defensive end has already racked up 22.5 sacks and 32 tackles for a loss during his first two years with the Aggies.
Scouts are drooling about his pro potential, and the same can be said for the quarterback he’ll be trying to drag to the turf.
Rosen was darn impressive last year as a true freshman. He completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards with 23 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. With one year under his belt, and given the hype head coach Jim Mora Jr. has heaped onto his young gunslinger, expectations are sky high that he’ll continue to develop into a star.
Obviously football is a team game. Players on both sides of the ball must step up and play together as a unit to secure victory. But all eyes will be on Rosen and Garrett as they get their highly anticipated campaigns kicked off against one another.
8. Beginning of the Kirby Smart era in Georgia
Late Saturday afternoon marks the first game for Smart as a head coach of a college program.
Learning from the best the past decade, Alabama’s Nick Saban, will certainly have prepared him for this moment. Now, instead of coordinating Saban’s defense, he’ll be trying to win enough games to challenge him in the SEC Championship Game this winter.
Georgia (No. 18) has its hands full, too. The Bulldogs and North Carolina Tar Heels (No. 22) could both see their postseason goals derailed out of the gate. That’s exactly what happened to Larry Fedora’s club last year, when the Tar Heels lost to South Carolina in the opener.
The one thing Georgia fans know for sure at this point about Smart is that he has taken a page of of the Bill Bellichik playbook when it comes to media and revealing things about his program.
Nobody knows who’s starting at quarterback at this point, let alone pretty much every other major position in which there have been battles this summer.
The only thing we know for sure is that running back Nick Chubb should see a heavy work load Saturday. Coming off a season-ending knee injury, he’s fully healthy and will not be limited by a so-called pitch count, per Smart.
9. Does Max Browne and USC have a puncher’s chance against Alabama?
The simple answer is no.
Browne and the USC offense might not get shut out completely. But we’re talking about the first game of the year, at Bryant-Denny Stadium, against the No. 1 team in the land. And Browne has thrown just 19 career passes for the Trojans.
You know it’s a frightening prospect when USC head coach Clay Helton makes a comment like, “This is a faster unit, in my opinion, than [Alabama] had last year on defense,” per Zach Hefland of the Los Angeles Times.
‘Bama’s defense last year was a swarming hive. The Crimson Tide featured the No. 3-ranked defense in the nation in terms of both yards and points allowed.
Playing at home to open the season as defending national champs, Alabama should roll over the Trojans.
10. Monday night heavyweight bout with national championship implications
Thanks to the NFL schedule being empty Monday night, college football gets its chance to shine in the national spotlight.
Ole Miss (No. 11) will travel to Orlando, Fl. to take on highly regarded Florida State (No. 4), and offensive fireworks could be on display. Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly and Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook are both black horse Heisman candidates, and both teams have national championship aspirations.
It’s going to be interesting to see how potent Kelly’s passing attack is without his top receiver from last year, Laquon Treadwell. Look for Damore’ea Stringfellow to step up in his absence.
Florida State will rely heavily on Cook to run the ball in light of Jimbo Fisher’s decision to tag redshirt freshman Deondre Francois as the starting quarterback.
Whoever wins this game will be on track to live up to their expectations. The losing team will likely have zero chance to make it back into the national championship conversation.