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Questions the 10 most important games of college football's opening weekend will answer

We're all about to overreact to a whole lot this weekend, so let's at least try to focus on reasonable lessons. Maybe.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The answers will change. We know this. Kenny Hill didn't go on to win the Heisman Trophy after playing nearly perfect football in Texas A&M's season-opening pummeling of South Carolina last year. Neither did Georgia's Todd Gurley after he destroyed Clemson in about 17 different ways. That Michigan scored 59 points in its 2013 opener against Central Michigan did not stop the Wolverines' offense from bottoming out a month later.

(Granted, Jameis Winston's Week 1 debut for Florida State against Pitt in 2013 did give us a pretty good idea of what was to come ... just as FSU's Week 1 struggles against Oklahoma State in 2014 did.)

Still, while we will overreact to what we see in over the next five days, after eight months of doing nothing but asking questions, it's going to feel awfully good to at least start to find out answers.

Week 1 is about getting the lay of the land. We won't be able to stop ourselves from talking about national title stakes or sudden Heisman favorites, but Week 1's most important games will be the ones that simply give us a little clarity.


North Carolina vs. South Carolina (6:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Team previewsTar HeelsGamecocks

Question No. 1: Does South Carolina have a defensive line? We knew the Gamecocks' front would regress following the loss of Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, but we didn't anticipate it becoming perhaps the worst power-conference line in the country. So head coach Steve Spurrier spent a large percentage of his 2015 signing class on linemen, and two newcomers -- sophomore Dante Sawyer and junior Marquavius Lewis, both four-star JUCOs -- will be in the starting lineup. How much of a difference can they make?

Question No. 2: Does North Carolina have a defense? South Carolina's got a few new pieces on offense, and at least early, Spurrier's Gamecocks might not be as efficient as they have been. But that wouldn't have mattered against last year's Tar Heel defense. Former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik takes over a defense that whiffed last year, and he's made changes: only three listed starters (linebacker Jeff Schoettmer, corner Des Lawrence, nickel back Brian Walker) have started a full season's worth of games.

Michigan at Utah (8:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Team previewsWolverinesUtes

Question No. 1: How seriously should we take Michigan this year? Or, to phrase it differently, how seriously should we take the offense? New head coach Jim Harbaugh is a proven winner whose players thrive on competition. But it's been a while since a Michigan offense had any semblance of confidence. The defense should be excellent, and that alone will make the Wolverines a solid team. But how long will it take Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno to make something of the O?

Question No. 2: How stable is Utah? Head coach Kyle Whittingham has dealt with what feels like countless changes to his assistant staff over the last few years. He's got three new coordinators this year (Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding as co-coordinators on offense, old hand John Pease on defense) and his team's biggest strength -- a destructive pass defense -- is replacing its best pass rusher and cover corner.

No. 2 TCU at Minnesota (9:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Team previewsHorned FrogsGolden Gophers

Question No. 1: How long will it take for TCU's defense to get back up to speed? It's hard to worry about a Gary Patterson defense, but heading into 2015 (with massive expectations, no less), he is tasked with replacing his longtime coordinator and most of his defense's backbone: tackle Chucky Hunter, safeties Sam Carter and Chris Hackett, and detonative linebackers Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet. The Frogs' Big 12 schedule is pretty back-loaded, which could mean that they're peaking when the toughest opponents show up. But before they can ease into the season, they face a tricky trip.

Question No. 2: Is Minnesota a Big Ten West threat? David Cobb rushed for 1,600 yards. Maxx Williams may have been the best tight end in the country. Both are gone, and if Jerry Kill's going to improve his Gopher squad for the fourth consecutive year (which would make them contenders in a division that features plenty of good teams and no great ones), it will require strong contributions from youth at skill positions. Leaning on youngsters can work, but it's no guarantee.


No. 21 Stanford at Northwestern (12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Team previewsCardinalWildcats

Question No. 1: Can Stanford finish? When quarterback Kevin Hogan was healthy, Stanford's offense was fine -- not great, but good enough to ride a defense to wins. Only, even when it was doing well, the Cardinal O was stalling out short of the end zone. Stanford was one of the worst in the country at finishing in the end zone, which is stupefying considering the Cardinal's power-friendly structure. With a rebuilt defense likely to take a step back, Hogan, Christian McCaffrey, and company will need to carry more weight.

Question No. 2: Just how much of a step back will the Stanford defense take? (No offense to Northwestern, but this game is probably much more about the Cardinal.) It's been a while since the Stanford defense was less than strong, but the Cardinal are tasked with replacing their top five defensive backs, top three linemen, and two of four linebackers. Even Alabama would expect regression with that. But if a top-10 defense sinks only to a top-25 level, Stanford should remain a Pac-12 contender. Easier said than done.

Virginia at No. 13 UCLA (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox)

Team previewsCavaliersBruins

Question No. 1: What have you got, Josh Rosen? UCLA has almost everything you could want: a 1,500-yard rusher, most of last year's explosive receiving corps, 131 career starts on the offensive line, a havoc-y linebacking corps, an experienced secondary, solid special teams. But the Bruins also have a true freshman quarterback. Rosen was one of the country's most decorated prospects, but the former tennis prodigy faces massive pressure on what might otherwise be a top-five team. How much strain does he show?

Question No. 2: Does Mike London have a chance? Virginia's head coach starts atop most hot-seat lists, which is fair considering he's 11-25 over the last three seasons. But his Cavaliers were close to something impressive last year, with a No. 39 F/+ ranking and five one-possession losses. London doesn't have to beat UCLA, but a competitive showing might suggest he's still got a chance.

Louisville at No. 6 Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Team previewsCardinalsTigers

Question No. 1: How much does continuity matter, Louisville? Todd Grantham's defense has raw talent, thanks in part to transfers; exciting returnees like lineman Sheldon Rankins and linebackers Keith Ksley and James Burgess join former TCU star Devonte Fields and former Georgia blue-chippers Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins. But Louisville's top five defensive backs are gone (including star Gerod Holliman), as are three starters in the front seven. If Louisville can hinder a potentially awesome Auburn offense, that might be a good sign for ACC hopes.

Question No. 2: How quickly can Will Muschamp turn around Auburn's D? The defense wasn't awful last year (20th in Def. S&P+), but it faded dramatically -- after allowing 14 points per game through five games, the Tigers alllowed 38 in their final seven against FBS teams. Depth on the line and in the secondary are question marks, but Muschamp has inherited a lot of high-caliber athletes. The Louisville offense has questions of its own, but we should begin to learn about Auburn's potential.

No. 15 Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Team previewsSun DevilsAggies

Question No. 1: Is John Chavis a miracle worker? Texas A&M's offense should be fine, led by sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen and a load of former blue-chippers. Meanwhile, the pass defense, fine in 2014, probably has the athletes to be fine again. But the run defense was dreadful. New coordinator John Chavis, imported from Baton Rouge, has all sorts of success on his record, and he inherits plenty of former star recruits in the front seven. If he eventually makes the defense a relative strength, how long will it take?

Question No. 2: Is Arizona State a Pac-12 South contender ... or the favorite? UCLA has a true freshman at quarterback. USC has superfluous coaching drama. Arizona State is coming off of a 10-win campaign in a rebuilding year. ASU returns an experienced senior QB, most of last year's skill position corps, experienced offensive and defensive lines, and almost all of last year's linebacking corps and secondary. Projections like the Bruins. Pollsters like USC. But an impressive showing in Houston could drop a big hint about who we should be favoring.


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Texas at No. 11 Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Team previewsLonghornsFighting Irish

Question No. 1: What is Texas' offensive identity? Does it have one? Tyrone Swoopes was a mobile quarterback in an offense that in no way played to his strengths. It felt like Texas just didn't want to get Swoopes hurt, and the Longhorns' offense suffered. With a capable backup quarterback this time around (redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard), will Texas coaches feel more comfortable giving Swoopes some more run opportunities? Or will UT still be a square-peg offense with a round-hole quarterback?

Question No. 2: Is Malik Zaire ready? In terms of F/+ rankings, Notre Dame was barely a top-35 team. Over the last half of the regular season, they were barely top 50. But a nice bowl showing by new quarterback Malik Zaire opened up the hype floodgates. Notre Dame nearly starts in the AP top 10 and was picked in the top five by Sports Illustrated. Yikes. Zaire must be excellent for the Irish to have any hope of living up, and Notre Dame's first game is against a potentially awesome Texas defense.

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 20 Wisconsin (8:00 p.m. ET, ABC)

Team previewsCrimson TideBadgers

Question No. 1: Can Alabama pass? It is basically Alabama's only question. We know the Tide will be able to run with Derrick Henry behind a solid line. And we know an experienced defense will be awesome, even with some potential questions lingering at cornerback. But if the Tide fall out of the final F/+ top two for the first time in seven years, it will be because of issues in the passing game. Against a strong Wisconsin defense, will [insert Alabama quarterback here] and [insert Alabama receivers here] form enough of a connection to suggest the Tide are still SEC favorites?

Question No. 2: Is Wisconsin still Wisconsin? The Badgers have won 98 games in the last 10 years; in terms of long-term health, it's hard to beat that. But they're breaking in a new head coach for the second time in three years, and Paul Chryst is without all-world running back Melvin Gordon and two All-American offensive linemen. It's hard to worry too much about Wisconsin, but a blowout loss might lead to us assuming Nebraska or Minnesota is the team to beat.


No. 1 Ohio State at Virginia Tech (Monday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Team previewsBuckeyesHokies

Question No. 1: Does Tech have a competent offense for once? Virginia Tech's average Def. S&P+ ranking over the last three years: 6.3. Average Off. S&P+ ranking in that time: 81. The Hokies return their quarterback, top two rushers, top four receivers, and four linemen with starting experience. Is that enough to assume improvement? The Tech defense should be incredible, and an even mediocre offense could make the Hokies an ACC contender. Do they have that?

Question No. 2: Where's Ohio State's head? Ohio State was the nation's best team after November 1 and returns one of the nation's most experienced two-deeps. Whoever starts at QB will likely be awesome, and the secondary will be one of the nation's best. Head coach Urban Meyer has spent most of the offseason talking about motivation, and it seems like Ohio State's head is in the right place. But sometimes our assumptions don't end up matching reality. Are the Buckeyes truly ready for a repeat run? We'll have a pretty good idea, considering this is one of their toughest tests of the season.