College football returns this weekend with Week Zero games, but some of you are already looking down the road...
From Doug: Week 1 always gets the hype. What are the best games of September AFTER Week 1?
This is a great question, Doug. Now that other leagues have embraced conference play in the first few weeks, there are a ton of intriguing games as the season progresses. Because of the way the calendar worked out this year, there will be five college football Saturdays in September. So let’s go through Weeks 2 through 5.
Week 2: The best non-conference game this week is Clemson’s visit to Texas A&M, but there’s another potentially fun game in the Lone Star State that day. Seven hours before the Tigers and Aggies kick off, Arizona will play at Houston. Ed Oliver versus Khalil Tate is a great way to start a Saturday. Also early that day, Chip Kelly brings UCLA into Norman to face Oklahoma. That night, Penn State plays at Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 After Dark slot will give us Michigan State against the Herm Edwards experiment in Tempe.
The real meat of Week 2 is a pair of conference games. Georgia heads to South Carolina in what might be the Bulldogs’ toughest SEC East challenge this season. The Gamecocks have a quality quarterback (Jake Bentley) and a receiver who will be the most explosive player on the field in most games (Deebo Samuel)—though possibly not in this one. Out west, USC travels to Stanford in a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 title game.
Week 3: USC at Texas and Ohio State and TCU at Jerry Jones’s House of Football headline the out-of-conference games, but a sneaky good one might be Troy’s visit to Nebraska in the early window. West Virginia’s trip to NC State should give us a much better picture of the Mountaineers and of the Wolfpack. Don’t assume that Will Grier and company will be able to light up NC State’s defense, and Ryan Finley and company will be a great test for a West Virginia defense that needs to be ready for the grind of Big 12 play.
Once again, the most intriguing matchups may be in-conference. LSU plays at Auburn in a game that could either reinforce or completely alter the perception of both teams. LSU’s comeback win last season in Baton Rouge was the biggest win of the season for the Bayou Bengals. It’ll be much tougher to win on the Plains. Elsewhere in the SEC, Alabama travels to Ole Miss. Will the Crimson Tide have a settled quarterback situation at this point? In the early window, watch out for Oklahoma at Iowa State. The Cyclones were the only team to beat the Sooners in Big 12 play last season, and Iowa State should be better this year. On Pac-12 After Dark, Washington visits Utah in a game that could be a preview of this year’s Pac-12 title matchup. Or it could simply be a slugfest featuring Washington and one of the few teams in the Pac-12 that can match up with the Huskies on either line of scrimmage.
Week 4: Every league is in conference play at this point, but we’ll also get a fun out-of-conference Friday night affair when Florida Atlantic visits UCF. That same Friday, Penn State plays at Illinois and Washington State meets USC a year after beating the Trojans on a September Friday. (This one is in the Coliseum, though.) Before we get into a slew of conference games, there is one other non-conference matchup that Saturday that could be excellent. Boston College visits Purdue in a clash of styles that should stress the scoreboard.
Also that Saturday, Jimbo Fisher will get his second crack at former boss Nick Saban in two seasons when Texas A&M travels to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama. Georgia’s defense will face a potential first-round quarterback in Missouri’s Drew Lock. Dan Mullen, who turned down Tennessee to take the Florida job and kicked off one of the wildest coaching searches in college football history, will take his Gators to Knoxville to face Jeremy Pruitt and the Volunteers.
In the Big Ten, Scott Frost and Nebraska open conference play at Michigan. Meanwhile, Wisconsin travels to Iowa City for an early reminder that nearly all the Badgers’ toughest games take place away from Madison. Big 12 play begins in earnest with TCU visiting Texas and Kansas State visiting West Virginia. In the Pac-12, Stanford faces Oregon in a game that should help establish the pecking order in the North Division.
Week 5: Ohio State’s visit to Penn State should dominate the conversation on this Saturday. This could be the first elimination game of the season, but the Big Ten East is so top-heavy that one loss may not knock out a contender. Don’t forget about Michigan at Northwestern on this day, either.
In the SEC, Mullen and the Gators will head to Starkville to face Mullen’s old team. Meanwhile, Pruitt and the Volunteers will face Pruitt’s fellow former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and Georgia. Out west, USC at Arizona should start to clarify the picture in the Pac-12 South. Meanwhile, Stanford’s visit to Notre Dame could be critical for the Pac-12’s perception.
From Brian: Why has Oklahoma still not named a game one starting quarterback? Is the competition actually that tight or is it something else?
Sooners coach Lincoln Riley insists the competition between Kyler Murray and Austin Kendall has been tight. “The sense of urgency to name one will obviously grow as we get closer to the game, but I don't feel like it’s the right time now.” Riley told reporters in Norman on Monday. “I feel like there’s enough reps to go around. They’ll both continue to see equal reps.”
This could be coachspeak, but the fact that the quarterbacks are still splitting reps suggests Riley is struggling with this decision. In this particular case, there may also be a schematic advantage to holding back the identity of the starter. Murray and Kendall are different enough stylistically that it would force Florida Atlantic to prepare for more if the Owls don’t know the identity of the starter. Of course, FAU coach Lane Kiffin may keep Oklahoma defensive coaches guessing as well. As recently as this past weekend, the Owls had three quarterbacks (former Sooner Chris Robison, De’Andre Johnson and Rafe Peavey) splitting first-team reps.
It doesn’t make as much sense to hide the quarterback’s identity if one player has clearly beaten out the others and the options don’t play a different style. Texas coach Tom Herman didn’t have anything to gain by hiding the fact that Sam Ehlinger is the Longhorns’ QB1. Ditto for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, who announced this week that Shea Patterson will start the season-opener against Notre Dame.
Riley can still force FAU to prepare for both with the hope that the Owls will wind up prepared for neither. At Alabama, Nick Saban will force Louisville to prepare for Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa, but there is a good chance the Cardinals will see both when the teams face off in Orlando. Clemson, meanwhile, may be in the same boat with Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence.
One of the more intriguing races besides Oklahoma’s is Florida State’s. This spring, first-year Seminoles coach Willie Taggart said he wanted to have a clear starter by two weeks before the Labor Day season-opener against Virginia Tech. The two-week mark came and went Monday, but Taggart hasn’t revealed a starter and appears to still be evaluating James Blackman, Deondre Francois and Bailey Hockman. On Sunday, Taggart said Blackman and Hockman are ahead of Francois.