Well, they're gonna do a Week 1 of college football again, so we'd better rank some stuff. What are the biggest games of the first week (assuming we don’t count, like, Oregon State-Colorado State and Stanford-Rice on Aug. 26)?
7. Texas A&M at UCLA, Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m. ET, Fox
Have yet to see much excitement about this one, despite Round 1 at A&M going to overtime last year and both teams considered good enough to be ranked-ish. It's on Sunday, but at the same time it’s a game that's got a little bit more going for it. The only big story might be the losing coach's warm seat, and can you imagine if Kevin Sumlin doesn't start a season strong for once?
Surprising successes, like what Sumlin experienced in 2012, are what contract extensions are made of. Teases are not, and because of how it shapes our memories, it’s better to be a slow starter than a slow finisher.
From a booster perspective, not improving is the same as getting worse. Eventually, Sumlin either overcomes this plateau or gets overrun.
6. Ohio State at Indiana, Aug. 31, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
That might not seem all that big, but here we have one of the few legit Playoff contenders facing an actual challenge in Week 1, going on the road to play a bowl-worthy division opponent. The Buckeyes should still run over IU, but for a lot of people, this game will function as the season's opener, with ESPN giving it the full MEGACAST treatment and all.
There's also the story line of the Hoosiers' fired head coach being tasked with fixing OSU's biggest weakness:
Kevin Wilson had one of the best coordinator runs of all time in the 2000s, helping to engineer a power-heavy version of the spread at Northwestern, then weaponizing it at Oklahoma. His 2008 Sooner offense scored 58 or more points for six consecutive games before running into Strong’s Florida defense and stalling at the goal line in the BCS Championship.
Under Wilson, Indiana made back-to-back bowls for the first time in 25 years. Under OSU defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, Rutgers went from laughingstock to annual bowl team. Meyer might once again have the most talented stable of assistants in the country. He might have the most talented, experienced roster as well.
5. Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee, Labor Day, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The weekend's second sellout in an obscene cathedral of a new Atlanta stadium, HOT SEAT WATCH for Butch Jones, some deep rivalry history, Paul Johnson's stated quest for a 4-0 streak against the SEC East, a pretty fascinating clash of styles, and the only game on all day? I think this game's being a little overlooked:
UT’s biggest question, like GT’s, is QB. Three-ish-year starter Joshua Dobbs came within 54 passing yards and 169 rushing yards of having a 3,000-1,000 season in 2016 and was the engine for most of Jones’ tenure.
His replacement will likely be junior Quinten Dormady, a former four-star plucked out of a San Antonio suburb. Dormady is a 6’4 passer whose greatest strength is operating from the pocket.
The Georgia Tech defense lacks a proven pass-rusher, but returns six out of seven starters in the backfield and had some success down the stretch in 2016.
4. Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia, Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
These two conference contenders have an old rivalry trophy that Dana Holgorsen is claiming, whether WVU actually has it or not. Both teams will likely be ranked, something only a few games on this list can claim. Both fan bases are local to D.C. This will also be a major test for a Mountaineers offense that's drawing a ton of hype:
West Virginia’s spread-I offense attacks the soft spots in college defenses, combining two-back inside runs with play action and throws outside, all increasingly similar to the Art Briles veer-and-shoot offense. Lead running back Justin Crawford ran for 1,184 yards last year at 7.3 yards per carry while paired with Skyler Howard at QB. Grier could punish teams for loading up to stop Crawford.
The battle between Will Grier’s laser beams and an experienced and athletic Hokie secondary will be the heavyweight bout.
3. BYU vs. LSU, Sept. 2, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The first half will be overshadowed by No. 1 on this list, but there'll be plenty of thumpin' to go by the time we tune in.
The ground is where BYU should focus its game plan. The strength of what LSU returns on defense is its pass defense. BYU’s lost production in the passing game resembles what LSU is losing across the defensive front.
2. Florida vs. Michigan, Sept. 2, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
One funny technicality: The head coach in this game almost everyone agrees is great is the one with no division titles, not the one with back-to-back titles. This is only an observation. Thank you. Anyway:
The Wolverines are in Year 3 under Jim Harbaugh and again considered Big Ten contenders. The Gators are infusing Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire into a third-year Jim McElwain offense and could win the SEC East for a third year in a row.
This game could have postseason ramifications, but it’ll more likely be a majorly entertaining tune-up, with bragging rights on the line.
However, the game will tell us something about which team has the pieces to contend in a conference championship. Each has a big question that the talent of the other can help answer.
1. Alabama vs. Florida State, Sept. 2, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Normally, there’s not a question of which team has the best defense when Alabama is involved. But Florida State has some unique talents. It might be better than any defense Alabama faced en route to Clemson last season.
Losing almost all of 2016 to injury has only fed the legend of safety/pass-rusher/destroyer of worlds Derwin James, who has top-five NFL draft hopes.
The Seminoles move James all over, usually turning the deep field into a no-fly zone at field safety. He was absent in disastrous performances against Lamar Jackson’s Louisville and Deshaun Watson’s Clemson and will be instrumental in keeping Hurts contained.