The wait for college football is finally (finally!) over—although the season technically started last Saturday, this weekend marks college football’s official kickoff, highlighted by one of the greatest opening week games ever in Florida State vs. Alabama. No longer must we wait for the orange Gameday truck, Lee Corso’s headgear picks, or students across the country tailgating and taking part in timeless school traditions. College football is back, embrace it! Here’s what to watch for in Week 1.
Florida State vs. Alabama: This is not only the game of the week—it’s the game of the year. Peruse the schedule for the rest of the year if you must, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a game with as much hype and playoff implications as this one. The winner, if you assume a high level of expected success for the rest of the year, vaults themselves into the front-runner position for the College Football Playoff, while the loser must regroup quickly for the rest of the season, but can rest easy on the knowledge that their fall in the rankings will be limited, if at all.
Not only is it the fact that this is a top-3 matchup that excites fans, it’s the similarities in the two teams that really elevates the hype surrounding this game. Both teams boast two of the best coaches in the game in Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher, and are led by elite defenses—Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State safety Derwin James are both expected to be selected in the top 5 of next year’s NFL draft. But the real key to this game is the quarterback play—we all know how good these defenses are, but which signal-caller is going to lead his team into battle more successfully? Jalen Hurts and Deondre Francois are both sophomores, but Hurts has already led his team to a championship game appearance—give me the Tide in a close one.
Must-win Battles: Of course, this is the goal of every team—win the game. But this week, two matchups really stood out to me with two teams that need a W—Michigan vs. Florida and Texas A&M vs. UCLA.
UCLA vs. A&M will not have the same Playoff implications as our other matchup, but it’s an undisputed rebound game for both these teams. UCLA was terrible last season, going 4-8 and putting head coach Jim Mora on the hot seat. Quarterback Josh Rosen has one last shot to make his mark for the Bruins, and it starts with this game—the Aggies have a tremendously young defense, it’s time for one of the top quarterbacks to make things happen.
The Aggies’ season was more successful, going 8-5 after going through the SEC West gauntlet, but that record was overshadowed by a miserable end to the season, where they lost 5 of their last 7 games, including their bowl game. While the Bruins have a star quarterback, the Aggies have yet to name a starting quarterback after the departure of Trevor Knight to the NFL. Uncertainty at the quarterback position plus a home game for the Bruins equals a win for the PAC-12.
Our second game will generate more national attention, featuring two historic powerhouses. Michigan and Florida will clash in AT&T stadium in Arlington, both teams on the outside looking in to the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines have loads to compensate for in lost talent, after losing a school-record 11 players to the draft last season, and will lean on the genius of Jim Harbaugh and a revamped defense to push Michigan into the Big Ten Championship in a brutal Big Ten East.
According to Gator head coach Jim McElwain, the Gators will use three quarterbacks, but freshman Feleipe Franks (what a great name for broadcasters to call) will get the start against the Wolverines, but transfer Malik Zaire and junior Luke del Rio will see reps as well. The Gators have a chance to win the SEC East and get a shot at revenge on Alabama in the SEC Championshp, and it starts in Dallas on Saturday.
Coaching Debuts: The coaching carousel is always prevalent in college football, but this year boasts big changes to big-name schools. Most notably is Tom Herman’s arrival to Texas, where expectations are already sky-high for a team that finished 5-7 last season and is ranked 23rd to start the year. The Longhorns open the year against a Maryland squad that looking to improve on last year’s record.
Oklahoma lost head coach Bob Stoops to retirement in June, and Lincoln Riley will have to step up and lead a Sooners team that is expected to contend for the National Championship. Luckily for Riley, the Sooners are led by Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield.
And last but not least, Matt Rhule will step into the leadership role at Baylor with the hopes of rebuilding a program riddled with sex scandals and drug-related incidents under Art Briles. A solid debut from Rhule will be a step in the right direction for the Bears.
Utah State vs. Wisconsin: Yes, this is Sconnie Sports Talk, so the Badgers are of course making an appearance. It’s finally gameday in Madison! While I don’t expect this game to be super close, there is certainly plenty to watch for—first and most importantly, how will Alex Hornibrook fare in his first game as a sophomore? We know what the defense can do, but how far can Hornibrook carry the Badgers this season. He has an All-American tight end in Troy Fumagalli and a dynamic backfield to lean on, we’re looking to you Alex.
With Jack Cichy out for the season, who will step up on the defensive side of the ball? Junior linebacker T.J. Edwards stands out as an obvious candidate, but the Badgers have veteran secondary players in Derrick Tindal and D’Cota Dixon who should thrive under former Badger safety and new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Defensive Coordinator turnover has been frequent recently for Wisconsin, Leonhard will look to fill the void once again.
And last but certainly not least, Wisconsin fans around the country have been waiting for the return of Rafael Gaglianone—the Badger kicker missed most of last season due to back surgery, and Camp Randall can’t wait for him to be back.