Forde-Yard Dash: Best ... opening ... weekend ... ever

Time for the annual summer dreaming-of-football dash through the 2016 college football schedule. Forty items to contemplate as we get ready for media days … which lead to fall camps … which will eventually lead to actual games:

1. The opening weekend might be the best ever.

The sport continues to play better games in the NFL-free window of opportunity that Labor Day weekend presents. Schedules also continue to improve in direct relation to the advent of the College Football Playoff and the (theoretical) importance of quality competition. That combination has blessed us with an abundance of exciting games to enjoy right away.

There are 14 matchups of Power 5 schools (plus independents Notre Dame and BYU). That’s up from 10 in each of the last three years. And it doesn’t even count one of the most interesting games of the weekend: Oklahoma at non-P5 Houston.

That’s just one of the delicious matchups. There is USC-Alabama, Notre Dame-Texas on Sunday night, Clemson-Auburn, LSU-Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, Georgia-North Carolina, UCLA-Texas A&M and Mississippi-Florida State on Labor Day night. That’s six of Sporting News’ preseason Top 10 teams playing a high-level season opener either on the road or at a neutral site. Bring it on.

2. The state of Texas is the place to be that first weekend.

Friday: Jim Grobe’s Baylor debut as the program begins Life After Art, in the wake of the devastating wave of football-player violence that led to the departure of the school president, athletic director and star football coach.

Saturday: Start the day at noon eastern at Oklahoma-Houston, a huge opportunity for the up-and-coming Cougars against a program with a good shot at back-to-back playoff appearances. Then hustle 100 miles northwest to Kyle Field for the second half of UCLA-Texas A&M, which is a 3:30 kickoff. After that, borrow Kevin Sumlin’s SwagCopter and hurry to Dallas for USC-Alabama at 8.

Sunday: Notre Dame at Texas. Which pretty much speaks for itself. If you need added incentive, there’s this: if Charlie Strong’s team starts this season off as badly against the Fighting Irish as it did last season, you might as well double back to Houston and ask Tom Herman if he needs help packing for Austin.

3. The Big Ten debuts its nine-game league schedule.

The conference joins the Pac-12 and Big 12 in playing nine league games, leaving the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference as the last two holdouts at eight. What will that mean? Well, presumably more losses. The league has had at least one team go 8-0 in the regular season each of the last four seasons, but nobody has gone unbeaten playing nine games in the Pac-12 or Big 12 in that time. Those two leagues also have missed the College Football Playoff once each – the Pac-12 last year and the Big 12 in 2014. Will the selection committee pay attention to enhanced strength of schedule, or be fixated on win-loss record?

4. Toughest schedule belongs to USC. And no, it’s not close.

The Trojans open with defending national champion Alabama in Texas, then are at defending Pac-12 champion Stanford two weeks later. They close with Oregon, at trendy Pac-12 North pick Washington, at UCLA and Notre Dame. And this is a team with an unproven head coach that may start just one senior on defense.

5. Toughest season start belongs to Wisconsin.

The Badgers semi-host LSU at Lambeau Field in a very fun opener. After a couple of layups (Akron, Georgia State) they are at Michigan State Sept. 24, at Michigan Oct. 1, then host Ohio State after a bye week on Oct. 15. Follow that up with a visit to Iowa Oct. 22 and Wisconsin’s first seven opponents include three teams coming off 12-win seasons (Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa), one coming off a 10-win season (Michigan) and one off a nine-win year (LSU).

6. Toughest season finish belongs to Texas A&M.

It actually starts in the middle: Oct. 8 the Aggies host presumptive Eastern Division favorite Tennessee; Oct. 22 at presumptive Western Division favorite Alabama; Nov. 5 at Mississippi State; Nov. 12 host Mississippi; then host LSU on Thanksgiving night. Could be a make-or-break stretch for fifth-year coach Kevin Sumlin. (Arkansas has a similarly brutal run from Oct. 8 onward.)

7. Notre Dame’s schedule is sheer genius.

Even with a commitment to play five Atlantic Coast Conference opponents a year, the Fighting Irish have more scheduling flexibility than anyone and are using it expertly. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick has created a slate with just three true road games, spread out from Sept. 4 (at Texas) to Oct. 8 (at North Carolina State) to Nov. 26 (at USC). There are three games at semi-neutral sites: Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J.; Navy in Jacksonville; and Army in San Antonio. All three put the Irish in desirable recruiting/exposure locales. And there are major home games against Michigan State, Stanford, Miami and Virginia Tech. The schedule is hard enough to get Notre Dame into strong College Football Playoff positioning if it has one or fewer losses, but Brian Kelly surely likes the idea of only facing three hostile crowds all year.

Kirby Smart takes over control at Georgia this season. (Getty Images)
Kirby Smart takes over control at Georgia this season. (Getty Images)

8. Notable debuts for first-time head coaches:

Kirby Smart and Georgia take on North Carolina in Atlanta; Chris Ash (Rutgers) and Mike Jinks (Bowling Green) drew short straws by opening at Washington and Ohio State, respectively; Missouri’s Barry Odom has the privilege of coaching the school’s first true road opener in 20 years, at West Virginia; DJ Durkin and Maryland have a shot at a 4-0 start, if the Terrapins take care of Howard in the opener and then can handle consecutive road trips to Florida International and Central Florida Sept. 9 and 17; Kalani Sitake begins an adventurous season at BYU (more on that later) by playing Arizona in Glendale; Jay Hopson (Southern Miss) has a no-pressure opportunity at Kentucky; Matt Campbell (Iowa State) has a pressure opener against Northern Iowa; Lovie Smith makes his collegiate head-coaching debut against Murray State.

9. Southeastern Conference game of the year:

Alabama at Tennessee, Oct. 15. It’s way past due for this matchup to mean a lot. If the Volunteers are finally ready to live up to the hype, it will. Tennessee hasn’t beaten the Crimson Tide in a decade.

10. Big Ten game of the year:

Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 26. As it used to be. As it should be. As it shall be again.

11. Pac-12 game of the year:

Stanford at Washington, Sept. 30. The Huskies are the hot off-season name, as Chris Petersen assembles enough experienced talent to make a move in his third season in Seattle. And they get a Friday night showcase game to demonstrate their progress. But the path to a Pac-12 North title and overall league title still goes through the Cardinal, which has won three of the last four. Stanford is replacing a four-year starting quarterback and some other valuable players, but it still has Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey, who scorched Washington for 300 all-purpose yards last year.

12. Big 12 game of the year:

Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas, Oct. 8. The Red River Shootout returns to primacy, partly by default. Baylor is regrouping after Art Briles’ sudden dismissal in late May. TCU is working a wholesale makeover of its offensive personnel. That creates a contender vacuum that the Longhorns can fill if they finally get decent quarterback play (no pressure, freshman Shane Buechele). The Sooners are a given.

13. Atlantic Coast Conference game of the year:

Clemson at Florida State, Oct. 29. Winner of this game has gone on to win the league title the past five years. Don’t expect that to change now. The two programs that have dominated recruiting in the league will reload to fill some major holes on defense while remaining potent on offense.

14. Ugliest game of the year:

Houston Baptist at Western Kentucky, Oct. 1. HBU has had a football program for all of three years. It has met Sam Houston State three times and lost by a combined 213-14. If it’s that bad against a fellow FCS member, what will the high-scoring Hilltoppers – coming off a 12-win season – do to the Huskies?

15. Trap game of the year:

On Sept. 17, Louisville hosts Florida State. On Sept. 31, Louisville visits Clemson. In between, the Cardinals are at Marshall. That’s a prime letdown opportunity against a solid program that craves the rare chances to get a power team on its home field.

16. Inexplicable road game of the year:

Miami at Appalachian State, Sept. 17. First-year Hurricanes coach Mark Richt had to do a spit-take when he saw this one on the schedule. It is the Mountaineers’ first-ever home game against a team from a power five conference, and when it was announced last year App State athletic director Doug Gillis declared it “a great moment for our university. …” It is a strange moment for Miami. The Hurricanes do get a return game in the series – in 2021. Should pack Sun Life Stadium for that one.

17. Random neutral site game of the year:

On Oct. 15, Air Force and New Mexico play in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl. Just because. Surely both programs will take it as a chance for recruiting exposure in the Metroplex, but there will be some empty seats in that 92,100-seat stadium.

18. Intrepid SEC program of the year:

Yeah, LSU deserves credit for going to Lambeau this year, after going to Syracuse last year. But Mississippi State is taking two trips outside its geographic comfort zone in a single fall. The Bulldogs leave the SEC footprint for the first time since 2007 when they visit Massachusetts (another weird road game) Sept. 24. Then they head west of the Rocky Mountains for the first time since 2000 when they travel to BYU Oct. 14.

19. Team playing the biggest opener in school history:

That would be Houston. Coming off that breakthrough 13-1 season, the Cougars play Oklahoma in NRG Stadium. If they can upset the Sooners, it’s not hard to see them 10-0 hosting Louisville Nov. 17. (Toughest test in that span could be at Cincinnati on a Thursday night, Sept. 15, with just five days preparation.) If Houston runs the table with victories over Oklahoma and Louisville, the playoff buzz will be palpable. But it all starts with that first step Sept. 3.

Ohio State's first big test comes on Sept. 17 against Oklahoma. (Getty Images)
Ohio State’s first big test comes on Sept. 17 against Oklahoma. (Getty Images)

20. The best non-conference campus game of September:

Ohio State at Oklahoma, Sept. 17.

21. The best non-conference campus game of October:

Stanford at Notre Dame, Oct. 15.

22. The best non-conference campus game of November:

Florida at Florida State, Nov. 26.

23. Homebodies, Part I:

Auburn opens with five straight home games – not that Clemson (Sept. 3), Texas A&M (Sept. 17) and LSU (Sept. 24) are easy, but still. Michigan opens with five straight at home and should be 7-0 when it visits Michigan State Oct. 29 for a rematch of that fluke-tastic ending last year. North Carolina State does not leave the state until Oct. 15, and may not get on a plane until Oct. 22.

24. Team that is all over the map:

Navy plays road games at Tulane (1,124 miles from Annapolis), Air Force (1,670 miles), East Carolina (307 miles), South Florida (935 miles) and Southern Methodist (1,367 miles), plus Notre Dame in Jacksonville (739 miles). Hope the Midshipmen sleep well on planes.

25. Teams keeping it real in 2016:

Auburn and Georgia Tech are the only teams in the nation playing all their regular-season games on natural grass.

26. All fake, all the time:

Seventeen teams are playing every game on aritificial turf – just one from a power-five conference: Washington, Houston, Boise State, Wyoming, Fresno State, Eastern Michigan, Bowling Green, Akron, Buffalo, Miami (Ohio), Marshall, Middle Tennessee State, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Idaho, Georgia State and Texas State. (Worth noting: the San Joaquin Valley, where Fresno is located, is an agriculture hub that is renowned for growing things. But apparently not grass in the football stadium. And artificial turf in South Florida is just wrong. And hot.)

27. Toughest back-to-back road trips:

Hawaii plays California in Australia Aug. 27, then visits Michigan Sept. 3. Colorado is at Michigan Sept. 17, at Oregon Sept. 24 (tougher for the competition than the mileage). Virginia is at Oregon Sept. 10, at Connecticut Sept. 17 (tougher for the mileage than the competition). Tulane is at Umass Oct. 1, then at Central Florida six days later for a Friday night game. Duke might as well stay in Chicago between games at Northwestern Sept. 17 and Notre Dame Sept. 24. UMass, playing a wild independent schedule, is at BYU Nov. 19 and at Hawaii Nov. 26 – and the Minutemen do plan on staying out West between those two games, since there is no school during Thanksgiving week.

28. Embattled coach whose schedule gives him a chance:

Purdue’s Darrell Hazell, 6-30 in three seasons, opens with three straight at home against Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Nevada. The first two road games are at Maryland (coming off a 3-9 year) and at Illinois (coming off 5-7). If the Boilermakers are at least 3-2 before hosting Iowa for homecoming Oct. 15, maybe they can eke out a bowl bid.

29. We should know about Tennessee and Mississippi by Oct. 22.

Both play front-loaded schedules. Ole Miss has Florida State in Orlando Sept. 5, Alabama and Georgia on consecutive weekends in Oxford Sept. 17 and 24, then visits Arkansas and LSU on Oct. 15 and 22. If the Rebels are standing tall after that gauntlet, look out. Tennessee Virgina Tech in the Speedway Game Sept. 10, then a succession of Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M and Alabama from Sept. 24-Oct. 15. The Volunteers then close with winnable games against South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

30. Penn State dares to leave Happy Valley early.

The Nittany Lions resume their rivalry with Pittsburgh for the first time in 16 years, playing the Panthers on the road Sept. 10. Then they travel to Michigan Sept. 24. Penn State hasn’t played two September road games since 2007. (It lost both of those, at Michigan and at Illinois.)

31. Will Muschamp had better be ready right away at South Carolina.

The Gamecocks play three SEC road games in September: at Vanderbilt Sept. 1, at Mississippi State Sept. 10, at Kentucky Sept. 24. None of those opponents are world beaters, but neither are the Gamecocks. South Carolina went 0-5 on the road last year, with an average losing margin of 15.4 points.

32. Iowa had a fortuitous schedule in 2015. It’s pretty soft in 2016, too.

Last year the Hawkeyes created a lot of debate after going 12-0 against a schedule that skipped all of the Big Three from the Big Ten East – Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. This time around Iowa picks up Michigan, but the game is at home – as is West rival Wisconsin. Iowa’s five road games are against teams that went a combined 30-55 last year. There are no non-conference road games.

33. Minnesota wins the Big Ten schedule lottery.

The Gophers do not play Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State. Their East Division opponents are Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers.

Virginia Tech starts anew after Frank Beamer's retirement. (Getty Images)
Virginia Tech starts anew after Frank Beamer’s retirement. (Getty Images)

34. Can Virginia Tech regain its Lane Stadium mojo?

The Hokies were a lousy home team in the latter years of the Frank Beamer Era: they were 2-4 last season, and were 9-10 over the past three seasons. With games against Liberty, Boston College, East Carolina, Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia, the schedule gives new coach Justin Fuente a chance to record Virginia Tech’s first unbeaten home slate since 2008.

35. As if it weren’t hard enough being Kansas …

Coming off a winless season, the Jayhawks twice play Big 12 opponents coming off a bye week when they are not (at Baylor Oct. 15, Oklahoma State Oct. 22). And they are the only Big 12 team to get geographic outlier West Virginia in a back-to-back road situation: Kansas is at Oklahoma Oct. 29 and at the Mountaineers Nov. 5.

36. Homebodies, Part II:

Florida State leaves the Sunshine State just three times, and just once before November. Arizona plays no games outside its home state or an adjoining state until November. Utah State plays every game but one (at USC Sept. 10) in Utah or an adjoining state. Syracuse does not leave the northeast until its sixth game. Bowling Green leaves the state of Ohio twice all season.

37. Alumni Stadium will be the last Power Five home venue to see action.

Boston College opens against Georgia Tech in Ireland. A week later it takes a much shorter commute to play UMass in Foxboro (a Minutemen home game that is actually closer to the BC campus). Then the Eagles are at Virginia Tech. BC’s first on-campus game is Sept. 24 against Wagner.

38. About that BYU schedule:

Life as a non-Notre Dame independent means you’re all over the place, literally. The Cougars play three Pac-12 opponents (Arizona, Utah, UCLA), one from the Big 12 (West Virginia), one from the Big Ten (Michigan State), one from the SEC (Mississippi State), one from the American (Cincinnati), two from the Mountain West (Boise State and Utah State), one from the Mid-American (Toledo), one fellow independent (UMass) and one from the FCS ranks (Southern Utah). No wonder the Cougars want in the Big 12, for stability’s sake.

39. Life at the bottom.

When you are at the cash-strapped, clout-deprive nether reaches of the FBS, you do things like playing seven road games (Ball State, Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Georgia Southern, Idaho, New Mexico State, Louisiana-Monroe). Or you play three straight road games (Texas-San Antonio, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Idaho, UL-M). Good luck, kids.

40. If you cannot stand to watch election returns …

This is your alternative viewing to the presidential polling results Nov. 8: Western Michigan at Kent State and Eastern Michigan at Ball State. We may all be sick of the presidential race by that point, so it will be MACtion to the rescue.