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10 Under-the-Radar College Football Games to Watch in Week 1

Brent Stockstill, MTSU Blue Raiders Football

Brent Stockstill, MTSU Blue Raiders Football

Week 1 of college football’s 2017 season features a hefty 87-game slate. Of course, even though it's tough to keep up with 87 games over a couple of days, we won’t complain about having college football back and games on every weekend until December. However, with 87 games booked for Week 1, it’s easy for some matchups to go unnoticed. Florida State-Alabama, Florida-Michigan, Virginia Tech-West Virginia, Texas A&M-UCLA and BYU-LSU headline the opening weekend of games and have received a lot of hype and discussion throughout the offseason.

Kentucky Wildcats RB Benny Snell Jr.

Earlier this week, Athlon Sports ranked all 87 games in terms of must-see value for the first weekend of action. And now it’s time to highlight some under-the-radar matchups that deserve more attention for Week 1.  

10 Under-the-Radar CFB Games to Watch in Week 1

Tulsa at Oklahoma State (-18)

Date/Time: Thursday, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m.

TV Channel: Fox Sports 1

Why You Should Watch: Offensive fireworks. In addition to standout quarterback Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State boasts the nation’s best receiving corps, featuring Athlon Sports first-team All-American James Washington. Running back Justice Hill topped 1,000 yards as a freshman last fall and three starters are back up front. Tulsa averaged 42.5 points per game last season and shouldn’t drop too far from that total despite losing standout quarterback Dane Evans and receivers Josh Atkinson and Keevan Lucas. The Golden Hurricane are led by rising star and third-year coach Philip Montgomery, along with the AAC’s best offensive line.

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College Football Top 25: Oklahoma State

Tulsa Player to Watch: Luke Skipper/Chad President, QB: Which quarterback will take the first snap and perform the best on Thursday night? Regardless of which quarterback starts, this will be the first opportunity for extended action for either player. Skipper is a redshirt freshman, while President attempted six passes as a freshman in 2015.

Oklahoma State Player to Watch: Tre Flowers, S: Flowers is one of the Big 12’s top defensive backs for 2017 and is just one of five returning starters for coordinator Glenn Spencer. The senior will be vital around the line of scrimmage in slowing running back D’Angelo Brewer (1,435 yards), as well as in pass coverage against a Tulsa passing attack that is still dangerous despite the loss of Evans, Atkinson and Lucas.

Key Question: Defense. Both teams have question marks on defense entering 2017, and as mentioned above, there is no shortage of firepower in this game. Can Tulsa get enough stops early on to allow the new quarterback to ease into the game? And for Oklahoma State, this is a good first look at a defense that returns only five starters and must replace key cogs at all three levels.

Prediction: Oklahoma State 48, Tulsa 27

Related: Ranking All 87 Games for Week 1 of the 2017 Season

Date/Time: Friday, Sept. 1 at 8 p.m., ET

TV Channel: ESPNU

Why You Should Watch: Lane Kiffin makes his debut at FAU against a Navy team that has won at least eight games in eight out of the last nine seasons under coach Ken Niumatalolo.

College football rankings: NAVY
College Football Rankings: FAU

FAU Player to Watch: Devin Singletary, RB: Singletary rushed for 1,016 yards on just 151 attempts last year and should be the featured back in a deep stable of options for Kiffin.

Navy Player to Watch: Zach Abey, QB: Abey started the final two games of 2016 after injuries sidelined Tago Smith and Will Worth. With a full offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, Abey should challenge for All-AAC honors. The junior faces a FAU defense that ranked 119th nationally against the run in 2016.

Key Question: Who starts at quarterback for FAU? Junior college recruit De’Andre Johnson, Daniel Parr and Jason Driskel are all in the mix. Johnson has the most upside, but he’s yet to seize the No. 1 spot in fall practice.

Prediction: Navy 38, FAU 27

Boston College (-3) at Northern Illinois

Date/Time: Friday, Sept. 1 at 9:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: CBS Sports Network

Why You Should Watch: A Power 5 team (Boston College) hits the road for a tough matchup against one of the MAC’s top programs (Northern Illinois). The Huskies slipped to 5-7 last year – the program’s first losing record since 2008 – but a favorable schedule should allow for a rebound season under coach Rod Carey.

College Football Rankings: NIU
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Boston College Player to Watch: Harold Landry, DE: Landry simply dominated in the trenches last season. In 13 appearances, Landry recorded 22 tackles for a loss and 16.5 sacks. He should be one of the top defensive players in the nation for 2017 and is on the radar for NFL scouts as a first-round pick in 2018. Northern Illinois returns three starters on one of the MAC’s top offensive lines for this season. How will this group hold up against Landry?

Northern Illinois Player to Watch: Ryan Graham, QB: The Huskies were hit hard by injuries at the quarterback position in 2016. Four signal-callers received significant snaps, including Ryan Graham (71 of 127 for 680 yards and eight scores). Graham is expected to take the first snap, but sophomore Daniel Santacaterina is also in the mix. Northern Illinois should be strong up front and on the ground. Can Graham solidify the passing attack?

Key Question: How will Boston College’s offense perform? The Eagles enter this game with uncertainty at quarterback, as Anthony Brown and Darius Wade could both see time under center. However, a solid group of running backs in place, and the offensive line returns three starters. Generating improvement from a unit that averaged only 20.4 points per game in 2016 is a must for coach Steve Addazio.

Prediction: Boston College 24, Northern Illinois 20

Related: Twitter Accounts Every College Football Fan Should Follow in 2017

Wyoming at Iowa (-11.5)

Date/Time: Saturday, Sept. 2 at Noon

TV Channel: Big Ten Network

Why You Should Watch: Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen – the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft – takes on a stingy Iowa defense that allowed only 18.8 points per game last year. Can Allen lead the Cowboys to an upset in Iowa City?

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College Football Rankings: Iowa Football

Wyoming Player to Watch: Milo Hall, RB: Allen’s play is crucial to Wyoming’s upset bid, but the Cowboys also have a significant void at running back. Brian Hill (1,860 yards) left for the NFL, leaving Hall, Nico Evans and Kellen Overstreet to battle for the starting job.

Iowa Player to Watch: Nathan Stanley, QB: Stanley was named Iowa’s starting quarterback this week, winning the competition over Tyler Wiegers. Stanley saw limited action as a freshman last season and completed five of nine throws for 62 yards. Wyoming’s defense is a veteran group (nine returning starters) but gave up 34.1 points per game last year.

Key Question: Can Iowa’s defense win the battle against Allen? The Hawkeyes won’t have cornerback Manny Rugamba available due to suspension, but the front seven is a standout group, anchored by linebacker Josey Jewell. In addition to a new starter at running back, Allen lost his top three receivers from 2016. Can Allen navigate the new faces in the supporting cast to win in Iowa City? Or will the Hawkeyes simply have too much on defense?

Prediction: Iowa 27, Wyoming 20

California at North Carolina (-11)

Date/Time: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 12:20 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ACC Network/ESPN3

Why You Should Watch: The first round of games for Saturday, Sept. 2 is relatively light, and North Carolina-California could be one of the most competitive matchups from the early window. Also, both teams are in transition mode. The Tar Heels lost a good chunk of talent from last year’s squad, while the Golden Bears have a new coach in Justin Wilcox.

North Carolina Football Schedule 2019
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California Player to Watch: Ross Bowers, QB: Wilcox’s hire of Beau Baldwin as offensive coordinator was one of the offseason’s top offseason appointments for 2017. But Baldwin certainly has his hands full in his first year on the job. The Golden Bears lost quarterback Davis Webb and return only two starters up front. Bowers was named the team’s starter on Monday, edging out Chase Forrest and freshman Chase Garbers. Bowers redshirted in his first year on campus (2015) but did not attempt a pass as Webb’s backup last year. Look for Bowers to target dynamic sophomore receiver Demetris Robertson early and often on Saturday.

North Carolina Player to Watch: Brandon Harris, QB: North Carolina coach Larry Fedora isn’t naming a starter, but the safe bet is to assume Harris will start or take a majority of the snaps. The LSU graduate transfer did not live up to his recruiting ranking in Baton Rouge and was benched in favor of Danny Etling. There’s no question Harris has talent, and Fedora’s background and experience with quarterbacks should help him take a step forward.

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Key Question: How much will California’s defense improve? The Golden Bears gave up a whopping 42.6 points per game last season and ranked 12th in the Pac-12 against the run. Wilcox guided one of the nation’s best defenses at Wisconsin last year and also added veteran coach Tim DeRuyter at his coordinator this offseason. With just six returning starters, progress may be tough to come by early in the 2017 campaign. 

Prediction: North Carolina 34, California 24

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2017

Troy at Boise State (-11)

Date/Time: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 3:45 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPNU

Why You Should Watch: This showdown on the blue turf in Boise features two of the nation’s top Group of 5 teams for 2017. Third-year coach Neal Brown is one of the top coaches on the rise and guided Troy to a six-game improvement in the win column last season. The Broncos are 31-9 under coach Bryan Harsin and aim to return to the Mountain West Championship after missing out the last two years.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: Boise State

Troy Player to Watch: Brandon Silvers, QB: The senior is Athlon Sports’ first-team All-Sun Belt quarterback for 2017 and seems poised for his best season with the Trojans after posting career highs in touchdown passes (23) and yards (3,180) in 2016. Silvers has a strong supporting cast at his disposal and should test a Boise State defense that returns only four starters.

Boise State Player to Watch: Alexander Mattison, RB: The sophomore is a breakout candidate after rushing for 328 yards and four touchdowns behind Jeremy McNichols last year. With quarterback Brett Rypien and receiver Cedrick Wilson returning, the biggest question mark on Boise State’s offense is balance. Will Mattison deliver on the preseason hype against a Troy defense that led the Sun Belt versus the run last fall?

Key Question: Which defense comes up with timely stops? Both teams are loaded with offensive firepower but feature question marks in the trenches. While Boise State and Troy ranked inside of the top 30 in fewest points allowed per game in 2016, this one could be a high-scoring affair. Turnovers, third downs and red-zone stops could decide this one.

Prediction: Boise State 34, Troy 27

Kentucky (-10) at Southern Miss

Date/Time: Saturday, Sept. 2, 4 p.m. ET

TV Channel: CBS Sports Network

Why You Should Watch: The rematch. Southern Miss rallied from a 35-10 deficit in the second quarter to win 44-35 in Lexington last year. The Golden Eagles scored 34 unanswered points and torched Kentucky’s defense for 520 yards.

Kentucky football schedule
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Kentucky Player to Watch: Jordan Jones, LB: Jones is one of the SEC’s most underrated defenders heading into the 2017 campaign. He recorded 15.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, nine quarterback hurries and four pass breakups last year. After Kentucky finished 11th in the SEC in scoring defense, Jones needs another big season for this group to improve.

Southern Miss Player to Watch: Kwadra Griggs, QB: Coach Jay Hopson could play both Griggs and sophomore Keon Howard on Saturday. Griggs redshirted after transferring in from Itawamba Community College last fall. Former starter Nick Mullens leaves big shoes to fill, but Southern Miss has a strong supporting cast in place, including running back Ito Smith and receiver Allenzae Staggers.

Key Question: Quarterback play. Southern Miss could play two and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both Stephen Johnson and Drew Barker for Kentucky. Which team will get consistent (and mistake-free) play on Saturday?

Prediction: Kentucky 34, Southern Miss 31

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football QBs for 2017

Houston (-10.5) at UTSA (Postponed due to Hurricane Harvey)

Date/Time: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Stadium

Why You Should Watch: UTSA is a program on the rise under second-year coach Frank Wilson, while Houston begins the first full season under new coach Major Applewhite. Additionally, this game boasts a strong collection of individual talent. Texas A&M transfer (and former five-star recruit) Kyle Allen is slated to start at quarterback for the Cougars, while defensive tackle Ed Oliver is among the nation’s top returning players. UTSA linebacker Josiah Tauaefa should be one of Conference USA’s top defenders in 2017.

College Football Rankings: UTSA
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Houston Player to Watch: Ed Oliver, DL: Houston’s offense has a lot to prove in 2017, but Oliver is one of college football’s must-see players on a weekly basis. After recording five sacks and 22.5 tackles for a loss last year, what will the sophomore do for an encore? Against a UTSA offensive line that allowed 43 sacks in 2016, the Oliver could start 2017 with a monster performance.

UTSA Player to Watch: Dalton Sturm, QB: Sturm was steady leading the UTSA offense last season. In 13 games, he threw for 2,170 yards and 20 touchdowns, while rushing for 313 yards and four scores. However, Sturm needs to raise his completion percentage (56.6) and show more week-to-week consistency. If he can, the Roadrunners can threaten Louisiana Tech for Conference USA’s West Division title.

Key Question: Which team puts it together on offense? As mentioned above, Houston has a new starting quarterback (Kyle Allen) and also enters the year with concerns up front and with the rushing attack. UTSA has to get better offensive line play after giving up 43 sacks last fall and must find a way to generate more big plays.

Prediction: Houston 27, UTSA 24

Vanderbilt (-3.5) at MTSU

Date/Time: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 8 p.m.

TV Channel: CBS Sports Network

Why You Should Watch: Less than 40 miles separate MTSU and Vanderbilt, and these two programs are poised to meet for an intriguing clash of defense against offense. The Blue Raiders have one of the nation’s top pass-catch combinations in quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James. Vanderbilt’s defense finished fifth in the SEC in points allowed per game last year but must replace standout linebacker Zach Cunningham. However, coach Derek Mason’s defense returns seven starters and should rank among the best in the SEC once again.

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Vanderbilt Player to Watch: Oren Burks, LB: It’s no secret Vanderbilt is going to try and pound MTSU’s defense with running back Ralph Webb, but the Commodores have to find a way to slow down the Blue Raider passing attack. Burks is a versatile defender and moves to inside linebacker after playing the star position in 2016. He’s a candidate for All-SEC honors in 2017.

MTSU Player to Watch: Carlos Johnson, RT: Johnson protects the blind side of quarterback Brent Stockstill and is one of just two returning starters up front. It’s up to Johnson and guard Chandler Brewer to set the tone up front and keep Vanderbilt’s defense away from Stockstill.

Key Question: Can MTSU slow down Ralph Webb? The Blue Raiders finished seventh in Conference USA against the run last season and feature four new starters up front. Missouri transfer Walter Brady should be a standout off the edge, but question marks remain about this group for new coordinator Scott Shafer. Webb has rushed for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back years and gashed MTSU for 211 yards last season.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 31, MTSU 27

Related: Ranking All 87 Games for Week 1 of the College Football Season

Arkansas State at Nebraska (-16.5)

Date/Time: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 8 p.m.

TV Channel: Big Ten Network

Why You Should Watch: Nebraska might be the Big Ten’s biggest wild card team, and this is the first opportunity to get a look at coach Mike Riley’s team. The defense is in transition under new coordinator Bob Diaco, while the offense features a new starting quarterback (Tanner Lee) and needs to generate more production out of the ground game. Arkansas State is one of the Sun Belt’s top teams, posting six consecutive winning seasons and owning at least a share of the league title in five out of the last six years.

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Nebraska's college football logo

Arkansas State Player to Watch: Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, DE: This senior end is a known commodity in the Sun Belt, but the Texas native deserves more credit on the national level. Rolland-Jones is the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year and enters 2017 with 30 career sacks and 45.5 tackles for a loss.

Nebraska Player to Watch: Tanner Lee, QB: After two up-and-down seasons at Tulane, Lee transferred to Nebraska and was named the starter for coach Mike Riley following spring practice. Lee didn’t have the strongest supporting cast in New Orleans but also faces a tougher level of competition in the Big Ten. He’s a better fit for Riley’s offense than former starter Tommy Armstrong. 

Key Question: Which team finds the right answers on offense? Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson plans to take over the play-calling duties after the offense averaged 27.3 points per game last fall. Quarterback Justice Hansen and one of the Sun Belt’s top receiving and running back corps return, but the Red Wolves must replace all five starters up front. Can this rebuilt group challenge a Nebraska defense in transition to a 3-4 scheme? And when the Cornhuskers have the ball, how will Lee perform in his first start?

Prediction: Nebraska 38, Arkansas State 20