Every week of the college football season has those games that sneak up on you, meetings between unranked teams that end up being more entertaining than expected. You thought it would be safe to ignore them in favor of focusing on Alabama or Michigan, but they end up forcing you to ask the bartender to change the channel for the final minutes.
Week Zero provided 2018’s first example when Hawaii notched the first upset of the season when it beat Colorado State 43–34 on Saturday. The Rainbow Warriors, who arrived in Fort Collins as a 17-point underdog, scored on their first three possessions to take a 23–7 lead by halftime. The Rams rallied to cut the deficit to six late, but Hawaii iced away victory with a field goal.
Which games between unranked teams will make you pay for overlooking them in Week 1? Below, we examine a few possibilities.
Wake Forest at Tulane (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, CBSSN)
Third-year head coach Willie Fritz is trying to get his option offense going at Tulane and make the Green Wave a factor in the American Athletic Conference. Their first test is a Wake Forest defense that excelled at getting into the backfield last season, finishing seventh nationally in tackles per loss with an average of just over eight per game. The Demon Deacons lose five defensive starters from a year ago but should still force Tulane senior quarterback Jonathan Banks to make things happen with his arm.
Wake Forest is planning to start freshman Sam Hartman under center after incumbent QB Kendall Hinton was suspended three games for a violation of team rules this summer. Wake Forest beat Tulane 7–3 in the 2016 season opener; with both Fritz and Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson’s development plans much farther along two years later, this opening-night meeting in New Orleans should feature a few more points.
Northwestern at Purdue (Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN)
There’s no question Ross-Ade Stadium will be rocking in a nationally televised meeting of two Big Ten teams that finished 2017 on hot streaks. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm begins his second season in West Lafayette the way he did his first season: deciding on a starting QB. He might play both Elijah Sindelar, who played through a torn ACL last season and led the Boilermakers to a Foster Farms Bowl win over Arizona, and David Blough, the fifth-year senior who started in 2017 before dislocating his ankle against Illinois.
Northwestern has to find a way to replace the Big Ten’s No. 3 all-time leading rusher, Justin Jackson. It remains to be seen how sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin will fare behind a so-so offensive line, which returns four starters but allowed 31 sacks last season. And the Wildcats have quarterback uncertainty of their own, with Clayton Thorson coming off a reconstructive knee surgery and backup walk-on T.J. Green listed as a co-starter.
Ole Miss vs. Texas Tech at NRG Stadium in Houston (Saturday, Noon, ESPN)
Who could turn down two explosive offenses dueling at high noon (Eastern, that is) in Texas? Ole Miss and Texas Tech had two of the nation’s top 11 passing offenses last season and should pick up where they left off. The Rebels return A.J. Brown, one of the most dynamic receivers in the country, who will be quarterback Jordan Ta’amu’s go-to guy after leading the SEC with 1,252 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns last year.
Entering a pivotal year, Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury has yet to name his starting QB, and a three-man competition has been the all-consuming storyline in Lubbock this offseason. The Red Raiders have to replace their starting running back and four of their five top receivers in addition to settling things under center. Texas Tech may have more of an edge on defense, which is not something that could be said for most of Kingsbury’s tenure. Last season the Red Raiders forced 29 turnovers—the most in the Big 12 and the sixth-most nationally—and 10 of the 11 starters from that defense are back.
Northern Illinois at Iowa (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Northern Illinois had one of the nation’s best pass rushes last season: Only USC, Clemson, Ohio State and Miami had more sacks (43), and end Sutton Smith is back after leading the nation in sacks (14) and tackles for loss (29.5). That’s bad news not just for Iowa, but everyone on the Huskies’ MAC schedule. Smith will be looking for Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, who by all accounts has improved from his sophomore campaign, when he posted a 55.8% completion rate with 2,437 yards, 26 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Stanley will rely heavily on 6'5", 241-pound tight end Noah Fant, an SI preseason All-America who had 11 touchdowns last season and averaged 16.5 yards per catch.
Washington State at Wyoming (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBSSN)
Expect emotional scenes in Washington State’s first game since incumbent starting quarterback Tyler Hilinski’s suicide in January. Although head coach Mike Leach hasn’t announced it officially, the projected starter is East Carolina transfer Gardner Minshew, who already has experience in a version of Leach’s Air Raid after running it at Northwest Mississippi Community College. He’ll lead the Cougars into Laramie against a Wyoming defense that held New Mexico State to 135 total yards (and only eight yards in the first half) in its first game last weekend. Redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Vander Waal (the first freshman to win the job at Wyoming since 2011) threw for just 137 yards without a touchdown, but he didn’t need to do much with running back Nico Evans’s 190 yards and two touchdowns—no Cowboys back had rushed for 150 yards in either of the past two seasons.
North Carolina at Cal (Saturday, 4 p.m., FOX)
How will North Carolina look with so many playmakers serving suspensions? During the off-season 13 players were suspended for selling team-issued shoes, including team leader and quarterback Chazz Surratt, who is among those beginning their suspensions in the opener while others delay their penalties until later to address depth and safety concerns. The Tar Heels will also be without starting defensive lineman Aaron Crawford, who suffered a knee injury in practice last week.
Cal should be farther along than it was a this time last season, when it knocked off UNC on the road in Justin Wilcox’s debut as head coach. After losing former five-star wide receiver Demetris Robertson to Georgia over the summer, the Golden Bears will likely lean on senior running back Patrick Laird after his breakthrough 2017 where he ran for 1,127 yards and nine touchdowns. UNC’s rush defense finished 113th in the FBS last season, giving up 213 yards per game.