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College football week 1 preview: Major matchups highlight Labor Day weekend

Previewing this weekend’s best games from the SEC and around the country

Goodyear Cotton Bowl - Alabama v Michigan State Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This week, fan bases from all around the country will have the same feeling of belief: that this may be their team’s year. The four-and-a-half month long process of determining the champion of the College Football Playoff began last Friday when California knocked off Hawaii in Australia.

On Thursday, ten Power Five teams will kick off their season, three of them from the SEC. Aside from the South Carolina-Vanderbilt game, #9 Tennessee opens their campaign Thursday night at home vs. Appalachian State.


Kansas State at Stanford, 9pm (FS1)

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Stanford vs Iowa
Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey starts his Heisman campaign against K-State on Friday.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Six more P5 teams are in action on Friday, with the biggest game being the Wildcats traveling to #7 Stanford. Running back Christian McCaffrey starts off his Heisman Trophy campaign against an unexperienced Wildcat defense. With it being the biggest game of the night, expect McCaffrey to make an early statement.


Saturday games have the potential to completely change the landscape for the rest of the season. With multiple ranked matchups, this is one of the best opening weeks college football has seen in years.

#3 Oklahoma at #15 Houston, noon (ABC)

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Florida State v Houston
Greg Ward Jr. leads #15 Houston against playoff hopeful #3 Oklahoma this Saturday at NRG Stadium.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

After thumping Florida State in last season’s Peach Bowl, the Cougars have the pollsters’ attention, cracking the top 15 of the first poll. A win over Oklahoma would be the crown jewel of their resume should they run the table. The Sooners return QB Baker Mayfield, the former Texas Tech transfer who burst onto the scene last season when he guided Oklahoma to a playoff appearance. Those will be the expectations again in Norman this season. The Sooners have made it hard on themselves, opening in Houston before they take on Ohio State in a few weeks.

Missouri at West Virginia, noon (FS1)

Barry Odom makes his debut as the head coach of his alma mater on the road against a tough opponent. The Tigers are widely considered the underdog in this one, and the defense should keep them in it early, but West Virginia will likely have too much firepower on offense.

#16 UCLA at Texas A&M, 3:30 (CBS)

The Bruins face their first SEC opponent since 2009, when they defeated Tennessee in Knoxville. Led by sophomore QB Josh Rosen, the Bruins are considered to be one of the outside favorites to make this season’s playoff. Head coach Jim Mora will be looking to take the leap in his fifth year at the helm of the program. Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies also want to improve this season after falling off in the second half the past two seasons. The Aggies will be looking to spoil the Bruins season early with the usual packed house expected at Kyle Field. Junior DE Myles Garrett and company will want to get after Rosen early, as this will be the biggest and loudest crowd the young QB will have played against.

#18 Georgia vs. #22 North Carolina (in Atlanta), 5:30pm (ESPN)

NCAA Football: Georgia Spring Game
The Kirby Smart era begins at #18 Georgia as they take on #22 North Carolina at the Georgia Dome.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia opens up in Atlanta as Kirby Smart leads his alma mater for the first time to take on last year’s ACC runner-up. Georgia hopes to return to Atlanta in December, but their first trip to the Georgia Dome provides a strong test. This will be an entertaining matchup between the two head coaches - a clash of styles between Smart’s defensive pedigree and UNC head coach Larry Fedora’s offensive creativity. An interesting matchup in this game with be highly talented junior Tar Heel tailback Elijah Hood going against Georgia’s front seven. With North Carolina the favorites out of the Atlantic Division to play for the ACC Championship, a win for either team could put them in the national conversation.

#5 LSU vs. Wisconsin (at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI), 3pm (ABC)

NFL: Preseason-Cleveland Browns at Green Bay Packers
Lambeau Field is set to host its first ever FBS game in its nearly 60-year history.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday will mark the first FBS college football game to be played at historic Lambeau Field. LSU’s mentality heading in the season will be no different as it has been under Les Miles, as the Tigers from Baton Rouge will be looking to go to the College Football Playoff this season. Though a neutral site, the game will still be in the state of Wisconsin, making it virtually a road game. Like Christian McCaffrey, junior RB Leonard Fournette will be looking to kick-start his Heisman campaign. Going against a young Badger defense, look for Fournette to make a statement on the opening weekend. Last season, Alabama running back and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry started out with 147 yards and 3 TDs against the Badgers. Fournette will be looking to smash those numbers.

#20 Southern Cal vs. #1 Alabama (at AT&T Stadium in Dallas), 8pm (ABC)

The #1 Alabama Crimson Tide begin their title defense with another kickoff classic, this time against the Trojans in Dallas. Clay Helton goes into his first full season as Trojan head coach against the number one team in the land, and will send junior Max Browne for his first career start under center. Going against Alabama’s veteran secondary, it could be a debut to forget. The Tide also have a few questions themselves: they have yet to name a starting QB to replace Jake Coker as of this writing, as head coach Nick Saban has narrowed the competition down to junior Cooper Bateman and freshman Blake Barnett. Whoever the QB is, he will have targets to throw to: WRs Calvin Ridley, Ardarius Stewart, and TE O.J. Howard all return to help out the QB situation. A storyline to watch: Tide OC Lane Kiffin going against the Trojans for the first time since being fired from his post as head coach of the other USC in 2013.

#2 Clemson at Auburn, 9pm (ESPN)

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game
Heisman favorite Deshaun Watson and #2 Clemson are coming off a loss in the CFP championship game and hope to start their road back on the right foot at Auburn.
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn gave the first start at QB to Shaun White, but don’t be surprised to see another QB taking snaps at some point. In what has become a pretty regular meeting between the two programs, this is the first time the two Tigers have squared off since a Clemson victory in 2012. With McCaffrey and Fournette having played already, Heisman Trophy favorite Deshaun Watson will the final stage of the night and will look to attack Auburn’s young secondary to make a statement on the opening weekend. Expect Clemson to try and put it away early and crush the spirit of the young Auburn team. However, the longer Auburn stays in the game, the more the players will believe. It’s certainly a hostile environment as Auburn will have 87,000 strong backing them deep into the night on the Plains.


#11 Ole Miss vs. #4 Florida State (at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando), 8pm, ESPN

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Mississippi v Oklahoma State
Chad Kelly and #11 Ole Miss can give an early boost to their CFP hopes with a win over #4 Florida State.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Led by QB Chad Kelly, the Rebels have hopes of the playoff. The Seminoles are no different, with RB Dalvin Cook and a deep defense leading the way as FSU has their eyes on a second championship in four years. The game comes too soon for QB Sean Maguire, who is still recovering from a broken foot and now needing surgery as he will give way to freshman QB Deondre Francois. Both teams host their biggest road block toward the playoff later in the year (Ole Miss-Alabama, FSU-Clemson), but they must first deal with each other. A plus for both is that a Labor Day loss won’t kill them, as they have plenty of big games on their schedule to get back into the conversation come November. Expect a lot of points in this one.

Other Games To Watch

Georgia Tech vs. Boston College (in Dublin, Ireland), Saturday, 7:30am ET (ESPN2)

South Alabama at Mississippi State, Saturday, noon (SEC Network)

Rutgers at #14 Washington, Saturday, 2pm (Pac-12 Network)

Louisiana Tech at Arkansas, Saturday, 4pm (SEC Network)

UMass at #25 Florida, Saturday, 7pm (SEC Network)

Southern Miss at Kentucky, Saturday, 7:30pm (ESPNU)

BYU vs. Arizona (in Glendale, AZ), Saturday, 10:30pm (FS1)

#10 Notre Dame at Texas, Sunday, 7:30pm (ABC)