We’ve made it, college football fans! Week 1 has arrived, and this year’s first full slate of games features even more compelling matchups than usual, including five top-25 clashes and several important early conference showdowns.
With so many viewing options on this extended weekend, discerning sports followers will want some guidance on which contests are most worth their time. We’re here to help.
We’ll start with a couple of standard disclaimers. Of course we can’t hit every game in this space, and there are going to be several contests each week that defy expectations for better or worse. Naturally, some weeks will feature more potential thrillers than others.
So for the season’s first offering, we’ll highlight what we think could be the eight best games. Here they are, presented in order of watchability.
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 5 Georgia in Charlotte, N.C.
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why watch? You have to ask? This game has been circled on the calendar all summer. The headliner for the weekend and the season’s first top-five matchup is certainly worthy of its prime-time placement. It won’t matter in either team’s quest for conference supremacy, and it’s early enough that the loser will not be out of the playoff picture. But it will be an indicator of how good these two national contenders are, and what each will have to do better as the year progresses. Both teams for the most part know what they have at QB. Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei hasn’t seen as much live action as the Bulldogs’ J.T. Daniels, though the Tigers might have more explosive weapons on the receiving end. It will be particularly interesting to see how Justyn Ross performs in his return from surgery to correct a congenital spinal fusion. Daniels provides the aerial threat Georgia has been missing for much of the Kirby Smart era but he has fewer proven targets, especially with George Pickens still rehabilitating a serious knee injury.
Why it could disappoint: If the adage about defenses being ahead of offenses at this early stage of the season holds true, there might not be a lot of fireworks. Both teams have stacked defensive lines, and running the ball could prove difficult.
No. 20 Penn State at No. 15 Wisconsin
Saturday, noon ET, Fox
Why watch? The Big Ten leaps directly into conference play with a pair of top-25 clashes. Both are cross-divisional tilts and thus are not make-or-break prospects as far as the league championship hunt is concerned. But nobody wants to be working from behind moving forward. These teams are coming off somewhat disappointing seasons for different reasons and are looking to make a strong first impression. The Nittany Lions got off to a 0-5 start in 2020, while the Badgers had trouble getting on the field at all early due to COVID cancellations. Losing promising RB Noah Cain is back and hoping for a big season, and QB Sean Clifford also returns but will need better protection. Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz is back as well following some impressive outings last fall, but the Badgers want to reestablish their reputation for gritty ground play.
Why it could disappoint: It might turn into a punting contest fairly quickly. That might be all right with the host Badgers, who don’t mind playing a field-position game. Penn State has more explosive potential in the passing game, but the timing has to be there right away.
No. 17 Indiana at No. 18 Iowa
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Why watch? The Big Ten’s second battle of top-25 squads pits the Hawkeyes, one of the league’s most consistent programs, against the upstart Hoosiers hoping to follow up on last year’s breakout campaign that have football expectations in Bloomington higher than they’ve ever been at what is usually thought of as a basketball school. Indiana QB Michael Penix had his season cut short by injury last year but returns along with dynamic WR Ty Fryfogle. The Hawkeyes’ offense isn’t usually as explosive, and incumbent QB Spencer Petras will be working behind a deep but somewhat inexperienced line.
Why it could disappoint: A blowout in either direction is unlikely, but like the contest in Madison, the offenses in Iowa City could be slow out of the gate. The Hawkeyes won’t want a track meet, but they must do better on third down than the 33.6% conversion rate they managed last year.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 16 Miami (Fla.) in Atlanta
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why watch? The Crimson Tide open their defense of their 2020 national championship with a lot of new names on the depth chart. The Hurricanes haven’t been in the title conversation for a number of years but have a chance to create the season’s first huge splash. The keys to the Alabama offense, now under the direction of coordinator Bill O’Brien, will be handed to QB Bryce Young. With him will be Brian Robinson, who will be ready to step in as the featured back. Miami’s season hinges largely on the health of veteran QB D’Eriq King, who sustained a severe knee injury in last season’s bowl game but has been a full go in preseason practice.
Why it could disappoint: 19, 39, 37, 17, 46. Those were Alabama’s victory margins in its last five season openers. King is a dynamic playmaker who could create some highlights, but the Tide will be hard to stop if they get, well, rolling.
No. 23 UL-Lafayette at No. 19 Texas
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, Fox
Why watch? The week’s sneaky good matchup pits the Longhorns, under new management as Steve SarkIsian takes over, against the Ragin’ Cajuns, one of last year’s surprise teams sporting a preseason ranking for the first time. The Cajuns stunned Iowa State on the road in their season opener in 2020, but Texas will not be caught off-guard. That upset in Ames was fueled by some breakdowns on special teams by the Cyclones, so ULL will need a more complete game from QB Levi Lewis to pull off another stunner. Redshirt freshman Hudson Card will get the starting nod at QB for the Longhorns, but the star of the offense should be RB Bijan Robinson.
Why it could disappoint: As mentioned, ULL got some help in the big win in Ames. Should Texas manage a mostly clean game, its talent advantage across the board, particularly along the lines, will become apparent.
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No. 13 LSU at UCLA
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Fox
Why watch? The handful of so-called Week 0 contests that jump-started the 2021 season did little to shed light on the rest of the campaign – with one possible exception. A few prognosticators had UCLA pegged as a possible dark-horse contender in the Pac-12 South, and the Bruins’ impressive outing against an overmatched Hawaii team could mean those expectations are warranted. But we’ll know a lot more when a much stronger LSU squad visits the Rose Bowl. The Tigers are coming off a disappointing follow-up to their 2019 national title run and will be eager to start this campaign right. The Tigers, however, have already experienced a couple of setbacks. Their game-week preparations were interrupted by Hurricane Ida, and QB Myles Brennan suffered a fluke arm injury in the offseason. Max Johnson must now assume the reins for LSU against a UCLA defense with a game under its belt. Veteran Bruins’ QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson didn’t have to do much against the Rainbow Warriors as his line paved the way to a dominant 244-yard ground game. He’ll certainly have to do more against the Tigers as CB Derek Stingley and the LSU secondary look to show they are better than last year’s dismal numbers indicated.
Why it could disappoint: LSU’s defensive front isn’t likely to be carved up by the Bruins, so if the offense can give the Tigers the lead UCLA could struggle to rally.
No. 7 Notre Dame at Florida State
Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why watch? These storied programs with national followings get the Sunday spotlight with the NFL a week from starting. They’re in different places entering the campaign, however, with the Fighting Irish coming off a playoff appearance and the Seminoles hoping to snap a run of three consecutive losing seasons. There is still talent in Tallahassee – FSU was able to knock off North Carolina last year amid a string of disappointing losses – and the home crowd will make a lot of noise when grad transfer QB McKenzie Milton takes the field for the first time. Notre Dame also brought in a graduate student, former Wisconsin Badger Jack Coan, to take over at QB, and he’ll have a lot of other new starters around him.
Why it could disappoint: Emotions can only take the ‘Noles so far and the issues on both sides of the ball likely weren’t solved overnight. Notre Dame will look to remove the drama and quiet the crowd with a big first quarter.
Follow colleges reporter Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Alabama-Miami, Clemson-Georgia key Week 1 games