All times are Eastern and all games are played on Saturday unless otherwise noted.
These games take place the weekend of August 31st.
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt (9:15 p.m., ESPN, Thursday) – Two of the trendiest coaches and programs in the game squaring off in their conference opener on the first night of football? That will do nicely. James Franklin is cleaning up on recruits (19th in the Rivals rankings in 2013 after finishing 70th in 2011) and wins at Vanderbilt, guiding the Commodores to a 9-4 record and Music City Bowl victory in his second season. At Ole Miss, Hugh Freeze is bringing in five-star recruits left and right, building off of a debut season as Rebels head coach that saw the program appear in (and win) its first bowl game since 2009. Both of these programs have bright futures but razor-thin margins of error in the loaded SEC, which should make this a dandy of a game to help kick off the 2013 season.
Georgia at Clemson (8 p.m., ABC) – We are blessed with a great crop of quarterbacks this season, as a lot of talented, productive signal callers either chose to skip the draft or were too young to have the option. This game features two that could have left but decided to come back, and their opening week matchup will almost surely include plenty of fireworks. For Georgia it’s Aaron Murray, who came painfully close to shedding the “Can’t win the big one” monkey from his back against Alabama in the SEC title game, but comes into 2013 with a myriad of weapons to utilize.
On the other side you have Tajh Boyd, who was masterful for most of 2012, including a come-from-behind win against the vaunted LSU defense in the Tigers' bowl game. The Tigers may have a slight advantage here, as they return some key players to their defensive front seven (Georgia loses almost all of their top contributors from that side of the ball), they’re at home and they’ve already scouted the Dawgs.
LSU vs. TCU at Cowboys Stadium (9 p.m., ESPN) – Both of these teams had down 2012 seasons when compared to their lofty standards. LSU has to replace a wealth of departed talent from their defense, but when is the last time that side of the ball was a problem for Les Miles? New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will continue to develop QB Zach Mettenberger, a top recruit who improved over the course of last season. Gary Patterson had a ton of youth in his defense last year, an issue that was compounded by the Horned Frogs’ jump to the Big 12 and the arrest and suspension of starting quarterback Casey Pachall. Neither team will be at full strength, as TCU has suspended star defensive end Devonte Fields and LSU tailback Jeremy Hill is out indefinitely following an April arrest.
Northwestern at California (10:30 p.m., ESPN2) – How about a little late-night nerd clash to close out the first Saturday? The Wildcats take an offense that returns nearly all of its skill players, including two capable quarterbacks in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. It’ll be a tough test for Sonny Dykes’ debut as Cal head coach, as he attempts to get the “Bear Raid” (amazing name) offense up to speed as quickly as he can. The Wildcats are double-digit favorites, but considering it is their first game of the season, it’s a late kickoff two time zones from home and Dykes knows how to quickly put an offense together, this one might get weird in an entertaining way.
Considering how bad the schedule is, any chance that Louisville has of competing for a title and staying in the national conversation will end with their first loss. Sure, Charlie Strong’s crew beat Florida last season, but it also lost to UConn and Syracuse. Can the Bobcats spring another opening game road upset like they did in knocking off Penn State last season? Possibly, but they’re going to have to stop Bridgewater to pull it off, which is no small feat.
Other games considered:
North Carolina at South Carolina (6 p.m., ESPN, Thursday) – The first nationally televised game of the season is a border war between two teams that will be favorites in their respective divisions.
Mississippi State vs. Oklahoma State in Houston (3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2) – Along with TCU/LSU, this game could help set the benchmarks for some SEC/Big 12 arguments for the rest of the season.
Alabama vs. Virginia Tech in Atlanta (5:30 p.m., ESPN) – We’re all going to watch this game, but it falls short of the top five because the Tide are three-touchdown favorites. It doesn’t mean the Hokies won’t make it interesting, it just means we’ll need to see some signs of early life against the defending champs.
Washington State at Auburn (TBD) – Two really good offense-minded head coaches working to turn around a pair of teams that were not very good this year. Gus Malzahn’s (who was coaching high school in 2005) debut as Tigers head coach.
Boise State at Washington (10 p.m., FOX Sports 1) – Las Vegas Bowl rematch! These two teams traded late field goals in a fun 28-26 Broncos win in December, and as Steve Sarkisian’s seat starts to get a little warm, winning the first game at renovated Husky Stadium against Chris Petersen might help calm the locals.
Florida State at Pittsburgh (8 p.m., ESPN, Monday) – The Panthers’ first ACC game is a doozy, as they play host to defending conference champs Florida State. This will be the much-ballyhooed Jameis Winston’s debut as Seminoles’ starting quarterback. If the Noles look good here, expect the hype machine for Jimbo Fisher’s crew to get turned on.
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