Now THIS is why we love college football.
After a difficult 2020 season that we will never forget, the 2021 season will get off to a bang as ABC/ESPN has released game times for three huge ACC vs. SEC Matchups on Labor Day weekend.
Throw in a game between Notre Dame and Florida State—which would have been an ACC game last year--plus an intersectional game between LSU and UCLA at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and you have something really, really special.
Do I sound a little giddy for May 19? Guilty as charged. But think about how far we’ve come in just a year.
This time last year we didn’t know if there would even be a season. And once the games started they played before about 25 to 30 percent of capacity because of the COVID-19 virus. Crowd noise was pumped in. It was surreal.
But it was football and we were thankful to have it.
At this date most schools hope to return to at or near 100 percent stadium capacity this Fall. We’ll see how that pans out.
For now, let’s just enjoy the possibility that these games get us closer to normal than we’ve been for a long time.
Barrett Sallee, my friend from CBSSports.com, made a point recently that fans will be very excited to return to the stadium this season because, after what they went through last year, they’ll never take the joy of watching a game in person for granted again.
Here are my Top Five matchups for the first full weekend of the 2021 season.
1—Georgia vs Clemson, Sept 4 in Charlotte, 7:30 p.m., ABC: Georgia quarterback JT Daniels played at California high school powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana. Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei played at the St. John Bosco School in Bellflower, Calif. Now they will meet as the starting quarterbacks in a top-five matchup played in the South. And the Pac-12 wonders why it is struggling?
Uiagalelei replaces the No. 1 choice in the NFL Draft, Trevor Lawrence. These old rivals, whose campuses are about 90 miles apart, used to play every year before the SEC expanded in 1992. They are scheduled to meet again in 2024 (in Atlanta), 2029 (in Clemson), 2030 (in Athens), 2032 (in Athens), and 2033 (in Clemson).
This is a huge opening game as both teams have national championship aspirations. The winner gets a leg up. The loser can still get back in the race.
2—Alabama vs. Miami, Sept. 4 in Atlanta, 3:30 p.m., ABC: Yet another California quarterback, Bryce Young, will get his first career start for Alabama, the defending national champions. And he’ll do it with a new offensive coordinator, Bill O’Brien. The Crimson Tide lost a record-tying six first-round draft choices and a total of 10 draft picks overall. Still, Alabama is projected to win the SEC championship and be in the hunt for Nick Saban’s eighth national championship. Miami went 8-2 during the 2020 regular season and returns quarterback D’Eriq King, who passed on the NFL Draft to play his final year of college football. He is recovering from a torn ACL which happened in the bowl game against Oklahoma State. But all reports from Coral Gables say recovery was going very well.
This will be the third time that Alabama has opened a season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, beating Florida State in 2017 and Duke in 2019. Alabama won the 2017 national championship by beating Georgia in Atlanta. Throw in some SEC championship game wins and you get the picture: The Tide is comfortable playing in Atlanta.
3--Louisville vs. Ole Miss, Sept. 6 in Atlanta, 8 p.m, ESPN. This one is going to be fun. Lane Kiffin begins his second season as the head coach at Ole Miss with one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Matt Carrol. He is the SEC’s top returning passer with 3,337 yards, 29 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The question is who will step up to be Corral’s favorite target now that Elijah Moore has gone to the NFL? Things did not go well at Louisville last season as the Cardinals started 2-6 on the way to a 4-7 finish. Louisville returns quarterback Malik Cunningham but the Cardinals are not going to do better than their projected fourth place finish in the ACC Atlantic if they don’t take care of the football. Louisville was a horrendous minus-12 in turnover (118th nationally) margin last season.
4--Notre Dame at Florida State, Sept. 5 in Tallahassee, 7:30 p.m., ABC: After a season spent as a temporary member of the ACC, Notre Dame returns to its independent status. Somebody has to replace quarterback Ian Book, who set a school record with 30 career wins as a starter. It could be transfer Jack Coan, who started 18 games at Wisconsin. One of the biggest stories in college football is at Florida State where transfer quarterback McKenzie Milton, formerly at UCF, tries to resurrect his playing career after a horrific knee injury 2 ½ years ago. He looked good in the Florida State spring game. Will he be the starter against Notre Dame? If he plays how much will he play? We will be tuned in to find out.
5—LSU at UCLA, Time, TV TBD: LSU and UCLA have never met in football, so what better way to get a series started than a game at the historic Rose Bowl? This game is part of a home-and-home deal that will bring the Bruins to Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge to open the 2024 season. LSU also has a home-and-home with Arizona State of the Pac-12 as the Tigers go to Tempe in 2022 and hosts Arizona State in 2023. LSU is starting over after following up an undefeated national championship season in 2019 with an up-and-down 5-5 finish in 2020. The question is who will be the starting quarterback against the Bruins? Will it be Myles Brennan, who was playing well before he was lost for the season after three games with an abdominal injury? Or will it be left hander Max Johnson, who led the Tigers to late-season victories at Florida (37-34) and against Ole Miss (53-48)?
Yes, I know. I’m getting overly excited about a bunch of games that are still more than three months away. The 2021 season just can’t get here soon enough.