Fans got a small taste of the return of college football with Cal and Hawaii’s high-scoring opener in Sydney late Friday night. Now a full slate of high-impact primetime games are just around the corner to get the 2016 season into full swing.
Taking a look at Week 1’s top games, exciting plays and finishes are inevitable. Let’s explore the X-factors that may be behind who comes out on top in these close games.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 20 USC – Which new quarterback will step up?Plenty of talent will be available to watch in this game played under the lights at “Jerry’s World” at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. Alabama’s star-powered defense versus USC’s potentially explosive offense is sure to be a main attraction. Then there’s wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Calvin Ridley, each with the ability to trade big plays at any moment on the outside.
But the main focus will be on which new starting quarterback steps up and performs at a higher level — or simply who makes the fewest mistakes.
Alabama hasn’t named its starter yet following Jake Coker’s graduation, as junior Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and freshman Jalen Hurts continue to fight it out in camp.
Bateman and Barnett, the two frontrunners for the job, both have their share of flaws. Bateman hasn’t shown great arm strength or accuracy down field while Barnett has been hampered by poor decision making.
Meanwhile, Max Browne will get the nod for the Trojans after backing up Cody Kessler for two seasons. Browne has been accurate in a limited sample size (11-of-19 for his career) but for a player making his first-ever start against defending champion Alabama and its stifling defense, the stage may be too big.
This game will be a learning opportunity for each signal caller, but whoever can adjust on the fly the fastest will give his team the edge.
No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin – Can Wisconsin’s strong rush defense contain Leonard Fournette?The Badgers may be one of the most underrated teams to start the season coming in outside the top 25 at No. 32.
One of the reasons for Wisconsin’s presumed success will be its defense — particularly against the run.
The Badgers ranked second in total defense last season and allowed the fourth-lowest rushing total per game at 95.4 yards. So what better way to test its carryover effect then to go against the nation’s top running back in LSU’s Leonard Fournette?
Fournette rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2015 on a heavy workload of 300 carries. Heading into 2016 as a top pick for the Heisman, Fournette will be equally leaned on offensively.
So what if Wisconsin can hold Fournette to a respectable yards per carry mark and prevent the 235-pound running back from breaking off huge gains that he makes routine? Easier said than done, but the Badgers have the strength and agility inside and out to challenge him.
If Wisconsin can make LSU lean more heavily on the turnover-prone arm of quarterback Brandon Harris, an upset is not out of the question.
No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 15 Houston – Can Houston’s secondary hold its own against Oklahoma’s passing attack?This game should be a fun one. Baker Mayfield and Greg Ward Jr. are two of the most exciting quarterbacks in college football and carry two big-time offenses that should make Saturday’s opener a never-ending track meet up and down the field.
It’s also a grand opportunity for a non-Power 5 team like the Cougars to pick up a major statement win to show the nation early that they do belong in the College Football Playoff discussion.
But if there’s one major flaw in Houston’s game, it resides in its inexperienced defensive secondary.
Both teams, while also utilizing strong runners, like to live in the air. And while Oklahoma has three returning secondary pieces — including All-Conference players in Jordan Thomas and Steven Parker — Houston will insert three new pieces into its unit.
Oklahoma has the talent to make maybe one or two big plays in its secondary, whether it be a forced turnover or big pass deflection. The Cougars have more uncertainty in the back that might make it too difficult to keep pace with the Sooners.
But if Houston’s secondary can hold up its end and allow its front seven to stay aggressive and send extra rushers, this matchup might be more even than the rankings suggest.
No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 11 Ole Miss – Is Deondre Francois the answer at quarterback?Deondre Francois was certainly in the mix for the Seminoles’ starting quarterback job at the beginning of camp, but he was handed the keys under less-than-ideal circumstances for Florida State.
The more experienced senior Sean Maguire, who has had some success in the past for the Seminoles, went down with a broken foot earlier this month. That injury put an end to the camp battle and lines Francois up for his first career start against a tough SEC team.
Ole Miss has a knack for pulling off upsets each year it seems like and might have a perfect opportunity right away against a redshirt freshman. Florida State still has Dalvin Cook in its backfield to shoulder the offensive load, but Francois must be efficient in passing situations and protect the ball against a stingy Rebels defense.
Sean Maguire just ran a drill and on the way back said "Nine days out."— Tim Linafelt / FSU (@Tim_Linafelt) August 26, 2016
Maguire returned to practice this week for the Seminoles as he recovers from his injury. While Francois will still most likely get the nod against Ole Miss, we’ll see how his Week 1 performance affects any future competition with the elder statesman.
No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina – Is Nick Chubb 100 percent healthy?Georgia’s star running back Nick Chubb appears set to return to action in Week 1 after missing the second half of last season with a nasty knee injury.
But even with Chubb on the field, it’s worth questioning if he’s 100 percent yet. Chubb has practiced this camp with no apparent setbacks but was tackled for the first time only on Aug. 20. A knee injury of Chubb’s magnitude is difficult for any running back to recover from mentally and physically, and it’s interesting to see if Chubb can regain his early 2015 form right off the bat.
There’s no doubt that Chubb will be in the conversation as one of the best running backs in college as the weeks go on, but Week 1 might be slower as Chubb gets back into live-speed action.
Behind Chubb, backup Sony Michel is questionable after an offseason ATV accident, meaning Elijah Holyfield will see a greater share of carries. With questions under center for the Bulldogs entering 2016, their running backs must be in prime form against the Tar Heels.