Thank you College Football Playoff and ESPN! It used to be that Week 1 of the college football season was cupcake city. But now? Teams know they have to schedule at least one marquee nonconference opponent, and ESPN has ponied up big dollars for power programs to face off Week 1 at neutral sites such as Arlington, Texas, Atlanta, Houston and now Orlando. Thus, this year's opening weekend is the best I can remember in terms of quality matchups.
For every Bowling Green-Ohio State, Furman-Michigan State, Hawaii-Michigan (apparently the Big Ten didn't get the memo), Northwestern State-Baylor (the Bears always have a joke of a nonconference schedule) and UC Davis-Oregon, we get No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 15 Houston, No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama, No. 11 Ole Miss vs. No. 4 Florida State and No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina. It's the first time in seven years we have four Top-25 matchups in Week 1. And don't forget about No. 2 Clemson-Auburn, No. 10 Notre Dame-Texas and No. 16 UCLA-Texas A&M, among others.
The beer is already chilled and the new recliner has been ordered. See you on a weekend in mid-February, wife! Here are a few Week 1 opening lines that caught my eye. Rankings from AP poll. Games Saturday unless noted.
Appalachian State at No. 9 Tennessee (-20): This was moved to a Thursday months back to accommodate television and, as only an SEC school would, UT canceled classes for the day. It's the first time since 1938 that UT has hosted a Thursday night game. Tennessee is taking one of the biggest leans on the board, yet this line opened as high as 22.5. And while I am on the UT bandwagon this year for it to win the SEC East for the first time since 2007, do not sleep on the Mountaineers. For one, they are pretty good. I'm sure you know App State used to be a FCS powerhouse and had that epic upset at Michigan nearly a decade ago. Last year was their second as an FBS member, and the Mountaineers finished second in the Sun Belt and at 11-2 overall, beating Ohio in the school's first bowl game. They bring back 17 starters from that team, including starting QB Taylor Lamb and star running back Marcus Cox. Secondly, Tennessee could be looking ahead to next week's very unique game against Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway, which will shatter the NCAA attendance record. The pick: Hoping to find 21 or higher somewhere, but Appalachian State.
Boise State at Louisiana-Lafayette (+19.5): The Ragin' Cajuns are by far the biggest home dogs on the board for Week 1. Just recently, ULL coach Mark Hudspeth named his starting quarterback for the season, and it wasn't a surprise that it was LSU transfer Anthony Jennings. He lost the LSU job to Brandon Harris and didn't play at all last year. In 13 games in 2014, he was an 111-for-227 passing (just 48.9 percent) for 1,611 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while starting 12. Jennings is eligible immediately as a graduate transfer. It's quite possible that Boise State could be the first Group of 5 school to crash the College Football Playoff this season even though the Broncos aren't ranked. They should be favored in every game, with their toughest ones likely next week at home vs. Washington State, Oct. 20 at home vs. BYU and Nov. 25 at Air Force. Then presumably against San Diego State in the Mountain West title game. BSU's top three offensive players, sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien, junior tailback Jeremy McNichols and senior wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck, all are back. The pick: ULL.
Arizona vs. BYU (+1): Smallest spread of any game on the board (opened as a pick'em) and technically a neutral-site game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. BYU fans travel well and Arizona fans not so much, so it could actually be a BYU lean in terms of fan support. Might this be BYU's final season as an independent? The Cougars are considered a top candidate to join the Big 12 perhaps as soon as next season if that conference does expand. We should learn that decision by October. This also is the debut of BYU head coach Kalani Sitake as he replaces Bronco Mendenhall, who surprisingly left for Virginia. Sitake's first big decision was to name his starting QB, and he just did that in naming fifth-year senior Taysom Hill for the job. If it seems like that dude has been in college for a decade, he has been around since 2012 and is 26. Mega-talented but suffered season-ending injuries last year, in 2014 and '12. Hill beat out sophomore Tanner Mangum, who led the Cougars to back-to-back game-winning scores in the final minute of BYU's first two games of 2015 against Nebraska and Boise State. I doubt BYU runs the table this year, but if it does it deserves to be in the playoff with a tough schedule that includes this game, Utah, UCLA, West Virginia, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Boise State and Cincinnati. The pick: BYU.
No. 2 Clemson at Auburn (+7): Two clear story lines here: the Heisman campaign of betting favorite Deshaun Watson starts for Clemson, and the potential march to unemployment gets underway for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn in the battle of Tigers. Watson was absolutely marvelous last season and nearly single-handedly beat Alabama in the National Championship Game back in January, but Clemson came up just short. That Clemson offense is going to be scary good as it brings back nearly everyone as well last year's projected No. 1 receiver in Mike Williams. He was hurt in the 2015 season opener and didn't play again. The defense is a question mark. Malzahn's probably a goner if Auburn doesn't win at least eight games, and if Auburn gets routed here he might not last the season. The Tigers have regressed each year since Malzahn led them to the final BCS National Championship Game in the 2013 season, a near upset of Florida State. Malzahn is resting his fortunes on QB Sean White. He won a battle against Jeremy Johnson and transfer John Franklin III, the guy many thought would win the job after White and Johnson struggled last year. White, a sophomore, started six games in 2015 and completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,167 yards, one TD and four picks. I'm surprised he was chosen because he's not the runner the other two are. The pick: Clemson -- this opened at 7.5 and might get back there with a large early clean on Clemson, so get 7 while you can.
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