Unlike most opening weekends—and yes, we’re still calling this opening weekend despite the two games in Week 0—there are aren’t a ton of sexy non-conference matchups to fill Week 1. The best game of the week is No. 11 Auburn vs. No. 16 Oregon on Saturday night in Dallas, when we’ll get to see potential future No. 1 draft pick Justin Herbert go against an elite and athletic Tigers’ defensive line led by senior tackle Derrick Brown. It’ll also be an opportunity to catch newly anointed starting quarterback Bo Nix, a five-star recruit and the highest-ranked dual-threat quarterback of the 2019 class whose father, Patrick Nix, also played quarterback at Auburn.
So, when you’re channel surfing searching for some college football excitement, look no further than these sneaky good games of the week.
Thursday, Aug. 29
UCLA at Cincinnati (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
This is a rematch of last year’s season opener when Cincinnati traveled to Los Angeles and upset UCLA in Chip Kelly’s debut. The Bearcats went an impressive 11–2 in Luke Fickell’s second year (after going 4–8 in 2017), which was capped by a dramatic comeback win over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl.
While the Bruins should be better this time—players say their mentality is stronger after an adjustment period to a new scheme—the Bearcats have extra high expectations after pulling off what they did last fall. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Desmond Riddler, who racked up 3,017 total yards with 25 touchdowns and just five interceptions, leads the offense along with junior running back Michael Warren II, who ran for 1,329 yards and broke a school record with 20 touchdowns (19 rushing). The Bearcats return more playmakers and a young roster with lots of potential. So, UCLA has to hope its defense, which was especially disappointing last fall after ranking 11th in the Pac 12 in scoring and total defense, can make big stops early to keep this thing close—however unlikely that may seem.
No. 14 Utah at BYU (10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The expectations are as high as they’ve ever been in Salt Lake City. Everybody (including some of us here at SI) seems to be jumping on the Utah bandwagon and talking about this team winning the Pac-12 and maybe even busting the College Football Playoff. But before any of that discussion can be legitimized, the Utes have to go to Provo and play rival BYU in the Holy War to start the season. Utah currently boasts an eight-game winning streak in this series and is a 5.5-point favorite, but the Cougars will be seeking revenge after what happened last year when they let a 20-point lead turn into a 35–27 loss.
After a long offseason, the question for BYU will be does it have enough depth and talent to keep up with its rival? Utah, the reigning Pac-12 South champs, returns most of its personnel from last year. This includes a healthy QB Tyler Huntley and RB Zack Moss, plus a defense loaded with future NFL prospects.
Saturday, Aug. 31
Northwestern at No. 25 Stanford (4 p.m. ET, FOX)
Northwestern is coming off one of the greater seasons in program history, winning nine games and clinching its first Big Ten West title. Though the Wildcats lost QB Clayton Thorson, who became the program’s all-time leader in passing yards, they’ve reloaded with Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, who has the talent to take the Wildcats back to the conference championship game.
Stanford went 9–4 last season and finished third in the Pac-12 North. QB K.J. Costello, who led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and posted the second-most passing yards in program history (3,540), is back for his senior year. However, he loses four starting offensive linemen and his top three pass catchers from 2018. The Cardinal have an experienced defense, anchored by NFL draft prospect cornerback Paulson Adebo, but have a tough schedule ahead. Stanford, one of the most consistent programs in recent history, is going to want to handle Northwestern before getting into early matchups against USC, UCF, Oregon and Washington, and later wrapping up the regular season against Notre Dame.
Boise State at Florida State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
A year ago, Willie Taggart’s career at Florida State got off to an embarrassing start when his team was trounced by Virginia Tech, 24–3, on Labor Day. The rest of the season didn’t go so well after that, to put it lightly, with the Seminoles recording their first losing season in more than four decades. This year, FSU opens against Boise State in primetime and hopes to be much improved. It starts at QB, where junior James Blackman has reclaimed the job he had two years ago following the February dismissal of former starter Deondre Francois and an offseason battle against Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook and Louisville transfer Jordan Travis. The offense will also have a new look under new coordinator Kendal Briles, Art Briles’s son and a controversial offseason hire, who previously coached prolific attacks at Houston and FAU.
The Broncos, meanwhile, will start true freshman Hank Bachmeier at QB. He’s the first true freshman QB to start for Boise State since it moved up to the FBS in 1996. Luckily, he’ll be protected by five returning starting offensive lineman and he’ll have options in veteran receivers. Depending how this one unfolds, Boise State could quickly become a Group of Five favorite.
Fresno State at USC (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Every USC game is going to be a must-watch affair as long as Clay Helton’s seat is this hot. The Trojans went 5–7 last year and in an attempt to save his job, Helton hired coordinator Graham Harrell in the offseason to rebrand the offense. So far, reports out of LA indicate quarterback JT Daniels and his group of proven, experienced receivers have picked up the “Air Raid” style and are having fun with it.
Week 1 isn’t a gimme though. Fresno State won the Mountain West last year and head coach Jeff Tedford always has his team ready to play. The Bulldogs did lose a ton of production from 2018, however, including QB Marcus McMaryion and the conference’s defensive player of the year linebacker Jeff Allison. Despite both teams having plenty of question marks, USC should have the more talented roster.