What a fun opening weekend in college football that was, as we saw a few FCS upsets, some remarkable individual performances and a number of thrillers right down to the final few minutes. Could we have similar chaos as teams regroup and we move to Week 2? As great as some of the matchups are this weekend though, they might not hold a candle to the games within a game — between players on either side of the ball that will determine the outcomes.
Whether you’re a college football fan, a coach or an NFL scout, here are 10 games with the best battles between offensive stars and their defensive counterparts — all of which will go a long ways in determining who wins and who loses this weekend:
USC vs. Stanford
Key battle: Trojans LBs Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin vs. Cardinal RB Bryce Love
The Pac-12 race starts off with a bang on the Farm as the South division favorite travels to meet their in-state rival. Neither side in the above equation had much to celebrate last week, as USC gave up a shocking 308 yards on the ground to UNLV while Love managed only a meager 29 yards on 18 carries. Something’s got to give on Saturday night as Love remains a home-run threat and Heisman Trophy candidate while Smith and Gustin are one of the top linebacker duos in the country.
Don’t discount: Cardinal DBs Alijah Holder and Frank Buncom vs. Trojans WRs Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns
Both of USC’s top wideouts had quiet debuts in 2018 but remain a pair that can not only make the big, acrobatic catch — but the long touchdown run as well. Yards and receptions won’t be easy to come by as the Stanford secondary knows how to lockdown opponents and limit things to the short stuff.
Georgia at South Carolina
Key battle: Bulldogs DBs Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed vs. Gamecocks WR Deebo Samuel
Samuel (right) might be the most dangerous player in college football with his ability to break off a big play from just about any spot. He’ll get moved around the formation a bunch in this SEC East battle royale, which means the UGA defense needs to keep tabs on him at all time and mix up their coverages quite a bit. Don’t be surprised if Baker and Reed bracket Samuel anytime he gets five yards down the field.
Don’t discount: Gamecocks LBs T.J. Brunson and Bryson Allen-Williams vs. Bulldogs RBs D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield
The Georgia rushing attack no longer has Chubb and Michel to put fear into opposing defenses but they’ve still got a pretty dangerous one-two punch in the backfield. Swift has the speed to hit the edge while Holyfield is more apt to be a bowling ball between the tackles. South Carolina’s defense has had to replace a number of starters on defense from last year so their linebackers will need to carry the load even more to limit big plays on the ground.
Clemson at Texas A&M
Key battle: Aggies RB Trayveon Williams and OL Erik McCoy vs. Tigers DL Dexter Lawrence and LB Kendall Joseph
Granted it was against an FCS team, but Williams served notice that he could be even better this season with a 240-yard, three-touchdown opener last week. He and his terrific center will find things much tougher in Game 2 however as Lawrence and Joseph might be the most athletic front-seven combo in all of college football. If A&M can’t run the ball, it could be a long night at Kyle Field for the home team thanks in part to that stellar Tigers defense.
Don’t discount: Aggies DE Landis Durham vs. Tigers OT Mitch Hyatt
Durham led the team in sacks last season and he’ll be counted on quite a bit to generate some pressure off the edge on Saturday night. Of course that’s easier said than done considering Hyatt is one of the best tackles in all of college football and you can count the number of times he’s been beat on one hand. NFL scouts will certainly be paying extra attention to this matchup.
Key battle: Wildcats QB Khalil Tate vs Cougars DL Ed Oliver
It’s hard to get a more enticing matchup than this, as both players have a claim to being the best on their respective sides of the ball. Oliver (right) was a beast once again last week in racking up 13 tackles and 3.5 TFL and he’s excited at the prospect of doing the same to a Wildcats offense that was lackluster at best. Kevin Sumlin has promised to utilize Tate’s legs a lot more than he did in a loss to BYU, which is a good thing considering he’s one of the most electric runners in the sport.
Don’t discount: Wildcats LB Colin Schooler and DB Jace Whittaker vs. Cougars QB D’Eriq King
Whittaker sat out last week due to injury but is expected to return for the trip to Houston, a good thing considering the task ahead for him and Schooler. Both will be counted on to corral the Cougars’ dual threat behind center in King, who threw for over 300 yards and recorded four total touchdowns in the season opener and remains difficult to pin down in the pocket or when he’s throwing down field.
Michigan State at Arizona State
Key battle: Spartans DBs Justin Layne and David Dowell vs. Sun Devils QB Manny Wilkins and WR N’Keal Harry
Big Ten fans who don’t stay up late to watch the Pac-12 will be in store for a show as Wilkins and Harry are incredibly dangerous. Just last week, Harry somehow managed to evade about nine defenders on a simple screen play that he turned into a touchdown and Wilkins can not only beat you over the top, but he can move the chains with his legs when needed too. MSU’s defense didn’t put its best foot forward in their first game and the task only gets harder with the trip to the desert.
Don’t discount: Sun Devils DB Chase Lucas vs. Spartans WR Felton Davis
Davis is Brian Lewerke’s go-to receiver and, at 6-foot-4, he has the size to match. While he doesn’t quite stretch the field like a few of his fellow receivers, he’s a savvy veteran who knows exactly how to get by defensive backs in man coverage and find the soft spots in zone. Lucas is one of the best players on the ASU defense and will have a tough cover when lined up on Davis.
Best of the Rest
Mississippi State at Kansas State
Key battle: Wildcats DL Reggie Walker and DB Duke Shelley vs. Bulldogs QB Nick Fitzgerald
Don’t discount: Wildcats RB Alex Barnes vs. Bulldogs LB Leo Lewis
Penn State at Pitt
Key battle: Panthers LB Elijah Zeise vs. Nittany Lions RB Miles Sanders
Don’t discount: Nittany Lions OL Ryan Bates vs. Panthers DL Rashad Weaver
Key battle: Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson and RB Jeremy Larkin vs. Blue Devils LB Joe Giles-Harris and DB Mark Gilbert
Don’t discount: Blue Devils RB Brittain Brown vs. Wildcats LB Paddy Fisher
Key battle: Bruins DL Jaelan Phillips vs. Sooners QB Kyler Murray
Don’t discount: Bruins DBs Darnay Holmes, Adarius Pickett and Nate Meadors vs. Sooners WRs CeeDee Lamb, Marquise Brown and Grant Calcaterra.
Key battle: Buffaloes DBs Evan Worthington and Trey Udoffia vs. Cornhuskers WRs JD Spielman and Stanley Morgan Jr.
Don’t discount: Cornhuskers DB DaiShon Neal vs. Buffaloes WR Laviska Shenault Jr.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.