College football’s long offseason officially ended on Saturday with five games to kick off the 2021 season. Illinois upset Nebraska 30-22, San Jose State and Fresno State scored easy wins in non-conference play, UTEP soundly defeated New Mexico State and UCLA handled Hawaii 44-10. The first full week of games begins on Wednesday, Sept. 1, and continues into Labor Day on Monday night with Louisville meeting Ole Miss in Atlanta. The Week 1 NCAAF slate features 84 games, including huge showdowns between Alabama and Miami, along with Clemson and Georgia meeting in Charlotte.
With 84 games on the slate — and too many starting at the same time — Athlon Sports wants to help your channel surfing for Week 1. In addition to a quick preview, we have ranked every game based upon watchability for the first full Saturday of action. It’s not easy ranking one-sided FBS matchups or FCS versus FBS teams, but we’ve tried to weigh everything for all 84 matchups. Many factors went into this subjective ranking. But most importantly, the 2021 college football season is underway and there are plenty of excellent matchups to take in this week.
Here’s your complete viewer’s guide for Week 1 of the 2021 season:
College Football: Ranking All 84 Games in Week 1 of 2021 Season
84. LIU at FIU (Thursday)
FIU’s 2020 season was marred by disruptions due to COVID-19. After an 0-5 mark last year, the Panthers should take some of their frustrations out on an LIU team that’s just 2-12 since 2019.
83. Bethune-Cookman at UTEP (Saturday)
UTEP used a balanced attack (249 passing yards, 203 rushing) to beat New Mexico State 30-3 in Week 0. With a win over Bethune-Cookman, the Miners would have their first 2-0 start since 2005.
82. Gardner-Webb at Georgia Southern (Saturday)
Coach Chad Lunsford’s team will be on upset alert after Georgia Southern had a close call (27-26) against Campbell last year. There’s some uncertainty at quarterback for the Eagles after Justin Tomlin was suspended for the first two games, with Sam Kenerson or Cam Ransom likely to get the nod under center. Gardner-Webb went 2-2 in the FCS spring season and was picked sixth in the Big South media poll for ’21.
81. Southern at Troy (Saturday)
Troy coach Chip Lindsey is turning to Missouri transfer Taylor Powell over last year’s starter Gunnar Watson in a critical year for the program. FCS Southern hasn’t had a losing season since 2012 but is under the direction of an interim coach (Jason Rollins) after Dawson Odums left for Norfolk State.
80. Northwestern State at North Texas (Saturday)
FCS Northwestern State hasn’t had a winning season since 2008. On the other side, North Texas’ offense should be one of the top units in Conference USA this fall. If you want to tune in, check out the Mean Green quarterback battle between Jace Ruder and Austin Aune.
79. Wagner at Buffalo (Thursday)
A lopsided affair should be expected here for Buffalo under new coach Maurice Linguist. FCS Wagner went 1-11 in 2019 and 0-2 in the abbreviated ’20 campaign.
78. Lafayette at Air Force (Saturday)
From 2009-19, Air Force defeated an FCS opponent by 16 or more points in the season opener. You can tell where this one is likely headed. Lafayette is led by John Garrett - the brother of New York Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett – and is just 12-25 since ’17.
77. St. Francis (Pa.) at Eastern Michigan (Friday)
Eastern Michigan is a big favorite here, but if you are looking for a reason to tune in, check out quarterback Preston Hutchinson. He threw for 1,657 yards and 12 scores in the Eagles’ six-game slate in 2020 and is one of the MAC’s top signal-callers this fall.
76. Portland State at Hawaii (Saturday)
The Rainbow Warriors were soundly defeated 44-10 in their opener at UCLA in Week 0. Coach Todd Graham’s squad should find the going a little easier against a Portland State team projected to finish 10th in the Big Sky this fall.
75. Norfolk State at Toledo (Saturday)
An improving defense to go with an explosive offense should put Toledo near the top of the list of favorites to win the MAC in 2021. Coach Jason Candle’s squad shouldn’t have much trouble here, but this is a key spot for quarterback Carter Bradley to build confidence with Notre Dame up next.
74. Holy Cross at UConn (Saturday)
The outcome was bad (a 45-0 defeat to Fresno State), but UConn at least knocked some of the rust off in Week 0 by playing its first game since 2019. Getting running back Kevin Mensah (31 yards on 11 carries) on track is a must against a Holy Cross team that’s made the FCS playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
73. Houston Baptist at New Mexico (Thursday)
Second-year coach Danny Gonzales has New Mexico trending in the right direction, and a bowl should be within reach in 2021, especially with Kentucky transfer Terry Wilson at quarterback. The Lobos shouldn’t have much trouble here, as HBU was picked last in the Southland Conference preseason poll and lost a handful of key offensive players to transfer.
72. Western Illinois at Ball State (Thursday)
Ball State returns a plethora of key players (17 returning starters) from last year’s team that won the MAC. Coach Mike Neu’s squad shouldn’t have much trouble against a Western Illinois team from the FCS ranks that is just 2-16 over the last two seasons.
71. Monmouth at Middle Tennessee (Saturday)
Middle Tennessee hasn’t won a season opener since 2016, and the opener on Saturday could be tricky for coach Rick Stockstill’s team. Monmouth ranks No. 12 in Athlon’s FCS Top 25 for ’21 and made the FCS playoffs in three out of the last four years. The Blue Raiders finished 3-6 last year, but there’s hope for improvement with NC State transfer Bailey Hockman stepping into the No. 1 role under center, along with the return of 20 starters.
70. Eastern Illinois at South Carolina (Saturday)
Shane Beamer shouldn’t have to deal with too much stress in his debut at South Carolina. While the status of quarterback Luke Doty and running back Kevin Harris are uncertain due to injuries, FCS Eastern Illinois is just 2-16 over the last two years and shouldn’t threaten an upset here.
69. Northern Colorado at Colorado (Friday)
The Buffaloes were the Pac-12’s biggest surprise last season, as first-year coach Karl Dorrell guided the team to a 4-2 mark. This game marks an excellent opportunity for Dorrell to get new quarterback Brendon Lewis plenty of work, as huge non-conference tests versus Texas A&M and Minnesota are up next. This matchup marks the first game for new Northern Colorado coach (and former Denver Broncos standout) Ed McCaffrey.
68. William & Mary at Virginia (Saturday)
The continued development of quarterback Brennan Armstrong (296.6 total yards a game in 2020) could allow Virginia to surprise in the chaos of the Coastal Division. The Cavaliers should take care of business here, but there’s one area of intrigue. William & Mary is led by Mike London, who was Virginia’s head coach from 2010-15.
67. Abilene Christian at SMU (Saturday)
Tanner Mordecai will inherit the reins over Preston Stone to replace Shane Buechele under center to lead SMU’s high-powered offense. The opener will provide insight into the Mustangs’ new quarterback situation, as FCS Abilene Christian (picked last in the WAC) won’t provide too much resistance.
66. Duquesne at TCU (Saturday)
The Horned Frogs finished 2020 by winning five out of their last six games. Look for that momentum to carry over into the ’21 opener, as coach Gary Patterson’s team shouldn’t have to sweat much against FCS Duquesne. The development of TCU quarterback Max Duggan (even in a favorable matchup) is worth a look on Saturday night.
65. UT Martin at WKU (Thursday)
WKU is one of the most intriguing Group of 5 teams to watch in 2021. A collection of transfers from FCS Houston Baptist – including quarterback Bailey Zappe – and new play-caller Zach Kittley could lift this team into contention for the Conference USA East title. Zappe and three of his former HBU receivers should get off to a fast start in their new surroundings.
64. New Mexico State at San Diego State (Saturday)
New Mexico State struggled in Week 0, dropping to 0-1 with a 30-3 loss to UTEP. San Diego State’s rugged defense won’t make life any easier for the Aggies, but coach Brady Hoke could use a big performance from his offense with Arizona and Utah up next.
63. Central Arkansas at Arkansas State (Saturday)
New coach Butch Jones makes his debut in Jonesboro against a tough Central Arkansas team (ranked No. 13 in the Athlon FCS Top 25 for 2021). Arkansas State quarterback Layne Hatcher is an underrated star in the Sun Belt. The Red Wolves beat their in-state foe 50-27 last year but lost in ’16.
62. Campbell at Liberty (Saturday)
This game shouldn’t be close on the scoreboard but catching the Liberty offense and dynamic quarterback Malik Willis is worth a few minutes of your time on Saturday night.
61. Nicholls at Memphis (Saturday)
The quest to replace the steady play of quarterback Brady White begins on Saturday for Memphis. Will Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell or true freshman Seth Henigan handle the first snap versus Nicholls? The Colonels beat Kansas in 2018 and have made the FCS playoffs three years in a row. Coach Tim Rebowe’s team won’t be a pushover for the Tigers.
60. Colgate at Boston College (Saturday)
Boston College has a favorable start to the 2021 season with Colgate, UMass and Temple on tap before a key matchup versus Missouri. The Eagles shouldn’t have much trouble here considering Colgate went 4-8 in ’19 and 0-2 in the abbreviated ’20 FCS campaign.
59. South Dakota at Kansas (Friday)
Kansas made one of the best hires of the offseason in Lance Leipold, but the former Buffalo coach could find wins difficult to come by in 2021. The opener versus FCS South Dakota (5-7 in ’19) should give Leipold a good idea of how far his team developed in fall practice, and it’s also the best opportunity for the Jayhawks to get a victory in ’21.
58. Northern Illinois at Georgia Tech (Saturday)
The Yellow Jackets feature two of the ACC’s rising stars in quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs, and their development is crucial for a team facing a brutal schedule in 2021. Northern Illinois played a ton of young players in last year’s abbreviated slate, and coach Thomas Hammock hopes that pays off with an improved squad this fall.
57. ETSU at Vanderbilt (Saturday)
The Clark Lea era at Vanderbilt gets underway against ETSU this Saturday, and a favorable matchup should help the Commodores end a 10-game losing streak. This program won’t be fixed overnight, but the opener should provide some insight into how far Lea has developed the roster in a few months. ETSU is led by former Tennessee and Florida State assistant Randy Sanders and finished 4-2 in the abbreviated spring FCS campaign.
56. Fordham at Nebraska (Saturday)
Saturday’s loss to Illinois should add some urgency and motivation here for Nebraska. Quarterback Adrian Martinez needs to continue to work on his rapport with his receivers, while the offense as a whole needs to find ways to spark the ground game after a sluggish performance versus the Fighting Illini. With Oklahoma looming on Oct. 18, Nebraska desperately needs to work out some of the kinks in the next two weeks.
55. Jacksonville State vs. UAB (Wednesday – Montgomery, Ala.)
Week 1 of the college football season officially kicks off with this all-Alabama matchup in Montgomery. The Blazers have won two out of the last three Conference USA titles and were picked as the favorite to repeat by Athlon Sports. UAB boasts a strong defense and ground game once again, but coach Bill Clark’s team will be tested on Wednesday with Jacksonville State ranking No. 10 in Athlon’s FCS top 25 for 2021.
54. The Citadel at Coastal Carolina (Thursday)
Coastal Carolina was the breakout team of 2020, and while coach Jamey Chadwell’s squad won’t sneak up on anyone this year, the Chanticleers should be able to ride a favorable schedule to double-digit wins. The Citadel is a heavy underdog on Thursday, but even if the matchup is one-sided as expected, tuning in to check out Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall and a high-powered offense is never a bad experience.
53. Southern Utah at Arizona State (Thursday)
The Sun Devils have to be thrilled to get the season underway after a tumultuous offseason and the continued effects of an ongoing NCAA investigation. FCS Southern Utah has won just five games over the last three years and lost 45-14 to San Jose State in the opener. This should be a good spot for coach Herm Edwards’ team to work out some of the kinks before a home date versus UNLV next week.
52. Weber State at Utah (Thursday)
Weber State ranks as a top-10 team in Athlon’s FCS Top 25 for 2021. But the Utes shouldn’t have much trouble here, as coach Kyle Whittingham’s team won the last two meetings between these programs by a combined score of 111-17. How new quarterback Charlie Brewer looks for Utah is the biggest area of intrigue.
51. UC Davis at Tulsa (Thursday)
Tulsa was the AAC’s biggest surprise last season, and despite the loss of a handful of key defenders, coach Philip Montgomery’s team should remain in the top half of the conference. New quarterback Davis Brin is promising, and there are plenty of playmakers at receiver and running back. But the Golden Hurricane have to avoid a slow start here, as UC Davis – led by former Colorado coach Dan Hawkins – ranks No. 17 in the Athlon Sports FCS Top 25 for 2021.
50. UMass at Pitt (Saturday)
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett could finish his career as the school’s all-time leader in total offense. Look for the senior to chip away at that total against a UMass defense that allowed 40.2 points a game in the abbreviated 2020 season.
49. Eastern Washington at UNLV (Thursday)
This is a dangerous opener for UNLV. Eastern Washington ranks No. 19 in Athlon’s FCS Top 25 for 2021 behind dynamic quarterback Eric Barriere. The Rebels went 0-6 last fall, ranked last in the Mountain West in scoring defense and 11th in scoring offense. Second-year coach Marcus Arroyo should plan for a heavy dose of running back Charles Williams to help UNLV avoid the upset.
48. Missouri State at Oklahoma State (Saturday)
Oklahoma State has won six openers in a row, and that streak is likely to continue on Saturday. But a bit of intrigue on the other sideline: Missouri State is led by Bobby Petrino and ranks No. 25 in Athlon’s FCS Top 25 for 2021. The Cowboys need a big year from quarterback Spencer Sanders to push for a trip to the Big 12 title game, and the first two games (Missouri State and Tulsa) give him an opportunity to work with some of the new members of the supporting cast before a trip to Boise State in Week 3.
47. Akron at Auburn (Saturday)
Auburn should start Bryan Harsin era with an easy win. Akron is just 1-17 over the last two years and is picked near the bottom of the MAC in 2021. With a trip to Penn State coming up in Week 3, Harsin should aim to build the confidence level of quarterback Bo Nix in the first two contests.
46. ULM at Kentucky (Saturday)
With an SEC contest versus Missouri up next, the opener against ULM is an opportunity for Kentucky to work out some of the kinks for an offense in transition under new play-caller Liam Coen and Penn State transfer Will Levis at quarterback. The Warhawks finished 0-10 and lost nine games by 18 or more points last year. This is a major rebuilding project for new coach Terry Bowden.
45. Rice at Arkansas (Saturday)
The Razorbacks showed marked improvement in coach Sam Pittman’s first year, and another step forward in 2021 should equal a trip to a bowl. With Texas looming next week, Arkansas should look to get quarterback K.J. Jefferson comfortable and plenty of work on Saturday. Rice’s defense allowed only 18.8 points a game last season and should be a strength once again. However, the Owls will struggle to score in this one.
44. Montana State at Wyoming (Saturday)
If Wyoming can get a healthy year from quarterback Sean Chambers and develop a couple of receivers on the outside, coach Craig Bohl’s team could challenge Boise State for the Mountain West’s Mountain Division title this fall. Not only is Montana State – the No. 8 team in Athlon’s FCS Top 25 – a tough out in team strength, but new coach Brent Vigen previously worked as Wyoming’s offensive coordinator from 2014-20.
43. Duke at Charlotte (Friday)
This matchup is dangerous territory for Duke against an upset-minded Charlotte. The 49ers feature a proven difference-maker at quarterback in senior Chris Reynolds, while Victor Tucker anchors one of Conference USA’s top receiving corps. The Blue Devils are building after a 2-9 mark last year, lost a handful of key contributors up front, and new quarterback Gunnar Holmberg is making his first career start on Friday night.
42. Temple at Rutgers (Thursday)
Rutgers showed signs of progress in coach Greg Schiano’s return last year, and a favorable opener against Temple gives the program a chance to start 1-0. The Owls were hit hard by injuries and COVID-19 last season, and a rebound from a disappointing 1-6 mark starts with a breakout year from Georgia transfer D’Wan Mathis at quarterback.
41. Old Dominion at Wake Forest (Friday)
The Demon Deacons should be a sleeper team to watch in the ACC’s Atlantic Division this year behind two underrated offensive stars in quarterback Sam Hartman and receiver Jaquarii Roberson. Old Dominion did not play last season but went 1-11 in 2019. New coach Ricky Rahne added a handful of transfers to help the Monarchs improve right away, and the extra practice time last year should ease the transition to the new staff.
40. Bowling Green at Tennessee (Thursday)
Bowling Green ranks near the bottom of Athlon’s projected 130 for 2021, so while a close matchup isn’t anticipated, this is a good opportunity for Tennessee to start fast under new coach Josh Heupel. This matchup should also provide some insight into the quarterbacks for the Volunteers, with Michigan transfer Joe Milton expected to start.
39. Central Michigan at Missouri (Saturday)
With a key SEC matchup against Kentucky on tap next Saturday, a fast start (and an easy win) against Central Michigan would be an ideal opening for Missouri and coach Eli Drinkwitz’s squad. Quarterback Connor Bazelak is primed for a breakout year, but Drinkwitz’s offense could use the opener to work on his connection with a developing group of receivers. The Chippewas went 3-3 in last season’s abbreviated MAC campaign and feature Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon under center.
38. Southern Miss at South Alabama (Saturday)
A battle of new coaches is on tap for this one, as both programs hired rising star young coordinators (Will Hall at Southern Miss and Kane Wommack at South Alabama) to lead their program. The Jaguars won 32-21 in Hattiesburg last season, but the Golden Eagles are a slight favorite this time around. Keep an eye on the South Alabama connection of quarterback Jake Bentley (a South Carolina/Utah transfer) and receiver Jalen Tolbert.
37. USF at NC State (Thursday)
The Wolfpack showed big improvement after a 4-8 mark in 2019, finishing 8-4 and suffering two defeats by three points or less. Coach Dave Doeren returns a veteran roster, including one of the better linebacker units in college football and an underrated running back in Bam Knight. First-year coaches had it rough in ’20, so it was no surprise Jeff Scott went 1-8 in his debut in Tampa last year. USF did show some signs of improvement late in the year, and there’s optimism that experience, plus the addition of a handful of transfers, can help this program improve in ’21.
36. Montana at Washington (Saturday)
The opener against Montana – a ranked FCS team – is a good opportunity for Washington to get live reps before the trip to Michigan next Saturday. The Huskies return one of the Pac-12’s top defenses but winning the conference is likely to hinge on the development of quarterback Dylan Morris and an unsettled group of receivers – which is an area to watch in the first couple weeks of the season.
35. Syracuse at Ohio (Saturday)
A trip to Athens against one of the MAC’s top teams is a tough way to start the 2021 season for Syracuse. The Orange desperately need to get this year started on a good note after a 1-10 mark last year, and improvement starts with better play up front and at quarterback. Frank Solich retired at Ohio this offseason, with top lieutenant Tim Albin promoted to head coach. The Bobcats feature one of the MAC’s top defenses, along with a dangerous dual-threat quarterback in Kurtis Rourke.
34. FAU at Florida (Saturday)
The opener against FAU is the first look at Florida’s revamped offense without quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and the team's top two receivers from last season. But the Gators should be in good hands with new signal-caller Emory Jones, along with a deep group of running backs and a promising cast of receivers on the outside. FAU should be one of the top teams out of Conference USA’s East Division, with a handful of transfers expected to make an impact this year. However, coach Willie Taggart’s team (18.9 points a game in 2020) is outmanned in the Swamp. The Owls will start former Miami signal-caller N’Kosi Perry at quarterback on Saturday.
33. South Dakota State at Colorado State (Friday)
The Rams only played in four games in coach Steve Addazio’s debut last fall and will be tested right away with one of the top FCS teams visiting Fort Collins on Friday night. South Dakota State ranks No. 4 in Athlon’s FCS Top 25 for 2021, and its strength on offense (the ground game) is a good test for Colorado State’s aggressive and talented defensive front.
32. Utah State at Washington State (Saturday)
Like most Pac-12 teams, Washington State was limited in its development due to the abbreviated 2020 season. The Cougars should have a better grasp on coach Nick Rolovich’s Run-and-Shoot offense this year, but the margin of error for a bowl is small, which is why Saturday’s game versus Utah State is a must-win to get to six victories. The Aggies are also a program in transition. New coach Blake Anderson arrived in Logan after a successful tenure at Arkansas State. A handful of transfers will provide a spark to a team that went 1-5 last year, including quarterback Logan Bonner and linebacker Justin Rice.
31. Baylor at Texas State (Saturday)
The Bobcats improved in coach Jake Spavital’s second season last fall, and there’s hope for more improvement behind an experienced roster (16 returning starters) and a handful of impact transfers. Texas State could play spoiler here, especially as Baylor is a team in transition under second-year coach Dave Aranda. The addition of LSU transfer Siaki Ika up front should bolster a solid defense, but question marks remain about the Bears’ offense and how far it has progressed under new coordinator Jeff Grimes.
30. Marshall at Navy (Saturday)
Losing seasons at Navy don’t happen very often under coach Ken Niumatalolo. After last year’s 3-7 mark, you can expect to see a motivated Midshipmen team in 2021. Marshall won Conference USA’s East Division last fall but that wasn’t enough for coach Doc Holliday to keep his job. Holliday didn’t leave the cupboard bare, which should allow new coach Charles Huff should be able to get off to a fast start. One of those pieces returning is quarterback Grant Wells, who hopes to rebound after a disappointing end to the ’20 season.
29. Northern Iowa at Iowa State (Saturday)
Iowa State has started slow in season openers under coach Matt Campbell, which included a 29-26 overtime win over FCS Northern Iowa in 2019 and a loss to Louisiana last year. Can the Cyclones avoid an upset loss this fall? Iowa State’s experienced roster, which includes quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall, should keep the Panthers at bay.
28. Kent State at Texas A&M (Saturday)
All eyes in College Station will be on new quarterback Haynes King, as his development could hold the keys to Texas A&M’s CFB Playoff hopes. Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum is one of the top Group of 5 players in the nation, but the Aggies’ defense is among the best in college football and will make life difficult for the Golden Flashes.
27. Louisiana Tech at Mississippi State (Saturday)
It’s an all-Bulldogs matchup in Starkville on Saturday night, with some insight likely to come on a few key question marks. How far has Mississippi State’s Air Raid offense progressed in coach Mike Leach’s second season? And for Louisiana Tech, who will start under center for coach Skip Holtz’s squad? Luke Anthony is recovering from a serious leg injury last December, with West Virginia transfer Austin Kendall joining the team this summer.
26. East Carolina vs. Appalachian State (Charlotte, N.C. – Thursday)
East Carolina and Appalachian State are separated by less than 300 miles, but this will be the first meeting between these two programs since 1979. The Pirates are aiming for a breakthrough in coach Mike Houston’s third year, and an experienced roster that features one of the AAC’s top quarterbacks (Holton Ahlers) and a talented group of skill players provides optimism for a bowl. Appalachian State returns the bulk of last year’s foundation that went 9-3, with second-year coach Shawn Clark hoping former Clemson and Duke signal-caller Chase Brice fills the void left by Zac Thomas at quarterback.
25. Army at Georgia State (Saturday)
The pairing of Army’s option offense against Georgia State’s high-powered passing game presents an interesting contrast of styles. The Black Knights bring back eight starters from a defense that held teams to 14.8 points a game last fall, but Panthers quarterback Cornelious Brown IV will test the Army secondary early and often.
24. Miami (Ohio) at Cincinnati (Saturday)
The Battle for the Victory Bell rivalry resumes after a one-year hiatus. This rivalry has been one-sided lately, as Cincinnati has won 14 in a row over Miami (Ohio). The Bearcats should run that streak to 15 this year, as coach Luke Fickell’s team is primed for a run at the CFB Playoff thanks to the return of quarterback Desmond Ridder and a standout defense. The RedHawks are one of the top teams in the MAC but keeping pace with Cincinnati is a huge challenge.
23. Texas Tech vs. Houston (NRG Stadium – Saturday)
If you like offense, then this should rank high on your list of games for Week 1. It’s a critical third year for coach Matt Wells at Texas Tech, and the staff brought in a handful of key transfers, including quarterback Tyler Shough. Houston coach Dana Holgorsen also enters a key third season, but the return of 16 starters, including quarterback Clayton Tune, has this program thinking about a run at the AAC Championship Game. The last meeting between these two teams in 2018 featured 112 overall points. The points scored won’t reach that high this time but plenty of fireworks are expected.
22. UTSA at Illinois (Saturday)
The Bret Bielema era is off to a good start in Champaign after the Week 0 victory against Nebraska. But the Fighting Illini won’t have too much time to celebrate, as UTSA is capable of pulling off the upset. The Roadrunners are one of the top teams in Conference USA, led by 11 starters on a solid defense and All-America running back Sincere McCormick.
21. BYU vs. Arizona (Las Vegas, Nev. – Saturday)
Jaren Hall won a three-man quarterback competition to lead the post-Zach Wilson era at BYU. The sophomore has big shoes to fill, but his limited playing time in 2019 showed he’s up to the task and won’t lack for help thanks to a strong group of skill players. Change is also the storyline on the other sideline. This matchup in Sin City is the first for new Arizona coach Jedd Fisch, who brought in a handful of transfers to provide instant help for a program riding a 12-game losing streak.
20. Oregon State at Purdue (Saturday)
A sneaky-good Week 1 matchup is on tap here. Purdue has stumbled a bit after a strong start to coach Jeff Brohm’s tenure, but there’s hope for improvement with the return of two of the Big Ten’s top players in receiver David Bell and end George Karlaftis. Both teams entered fall practice with quarterback uncertainty, with Purdue announcing Jack Plummer as its starter, while the Beavers have yet to announce between Sam Noyer, Tristan Gebbia or Chance Nolan. With an over/under of 65, this one could feature plenty of points.
19. Fresno State at Oregon (Saturday)
Fresno State looked sharp in its Week 0 win over UConn, but the competition level will get significantly tougher this week. An Oregon defense featuring All-America edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux will make life a lot more difficult for the Bulldogs’ high-powered offense behind quarterback Jake Haener and running back Ronnie Rivers. The Ducks named Anthony Brown as their starting quarterback, and this matchup should be an opportunity for the Boston College transfer to get comfortable before a massive road trek to Ohio State next Saturday.
18. Oklahoma at Tulane (Saturday)
Due to the effects of Hurricane Ida, it’s uncertain if this game will take place in New Orleans, Norman or a neutral site. Oklahoma has its sights set on contending for the national title this fall, and a solid Tulane team will provide a good test for coach Lincoln Riley’s group. The Green Wave feature rising star quarterback Michael Pratt, but unless the defense has significantly improved versus the pass, it’s hard to see coach Willie Fritz’s team keeping this one within three or four touchdowns on Saturday.
17. Stanford vs. Kansas State (Arlington, Texas – Saturday)
Points and possessions could be at a premium in this one. Kansas State was hit hard by COVID-19 and injuries last year and dropped five in a year to close out 2020. Coach Chris Klieman’s team should rebound this fall, especially with a healthy Skylar Thompson at quarterback. The opposite was true of Stanford, as coach David Shaw’s team started 0-2 but finished on a four-game winning streak. But the Cardinal head into ’21 with more question marks than Kansas State, especially after quarterback Davis Mills entered the NFL Draft. A brutal schedule (12 Power 5 opponents) also awaits Stanford this fall.
16. Western Michigan at Michigan (Saturday)
After taking a pay cut and lowering his buyout, it’s a critical season for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. The Wolverines made wholesale changes to their staff following last year’s disappointing 2-4 mark last fall, but is that enough to spark this team back into the top 25? Saturday should provide some evidence of where Michigan is for 2021, and Western Michigan won’t be a pushover. The Broncos feature one of the top Group of 5 quarterbacks in Kaleb Eleby, and the receiving corps will test a shaky Michigan secondary.
15. Nevada at California (Saturday)
Nevada’s hopes of ranking as the top Group of 5 team this season will be tested right away. Coach Jay Norvell’s squad gets California, Kansas State and Boise State in three of its first four games this year, and quarterback Carson Strong was limited in fall practice due to knee surgery. But if Strong is back at full strength for Saturday’s showdown, the high-powered passing attack of Nevada against California’s standout defense should be one of the better matchups in the Pac-12 for Week 1. A full offseason to develop under new coordinator Bill Musgrave should help the Golden Bears’ offense and quarterback Chase Garbers after a sluggish 2020 season (20.2 ppg).
14. Michigan State at Northwestern (Friday)
A 29-20 victory over Northwestern was one of the bright spots for Michigan State in Mel Tucker’s debut. The Spartans have another chance to play spoiler in the opener, as Northwestern is a slight favorite for Friday night’s matchup. Points could be at a premium here. Michigan State and Northwestern should be solid on defense, but offense is a concern for both programs after ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring last fall. The Wildcats will turn to Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson over fellow transfer Ryan Hilinski (South Carolina) under center, while the Spartans could also turn to one (Anthony Russo, Temple) at quarterback.
13. West Virginia at Maryland (Saturday)
Less than 300 miles separate the campuses of Maryland and West Virginia, but these two teams haven’t played since 2015. There’s plenty of intrigue between these border foes, as the Terrapins and Mountaineers both have the potential to surprise in ’21. West Virginia’s offense is still a work in progress, but even with a handful of new pieces, the defense remains one of the best in the Big 12. That unit will be tested right away. Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is primed for a breakout season, and he’s throwing to one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps.
12. San Jose State at USC (Saturday)
San Jose State and USC have met only four times on the gridiron, with none of those matchups decided by less than 10 points. That could change on Saturday. The Spartans were sharp against an overmatched Southern Utah team in Week 0, showcasing how quarterback Nick Starkel and an experienced defense could create problems for USC this week. It’s no secret the pressure is high on coach Clay Helton this year, but the Trojans return the Pac-12’s top quarterback in Kedon Slovis and have a favorable path to the South Division title. Protecting Slovis is crucial to USC’s title hopes, and an aggressive San Jose State pass rush is an early test for this unit.
11. Louisville vs. Ole Miss (Atlanta – Monday)
Week 1 of the 2021 college football season concludes with a potentially high-scoring affair between Louisville and Ole Miss. Lane Kiffin’s Rebels are a dangerous team in the SEC with the return of quarterback Matt Corral and a plethora of talented playmakers. Louisville had a disappointing ’20 season, but coach Scott Satterfield’s squad should rebound with a little better luck in the turnover department. Quarterback Malik Cunningham can keep the Cardinals in this one, but can Satterfield’s defense get enough stops?
10. Ohio State at Minnesota (Thursday)
The college football world will be eager to see how new Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud performs in his first start on Thursday night, and the fireworks could come early and often for a loaded Buckeyes’ offense against a struggling Minnesota defense. Any hopes the Golden Gophers have for an upset hinge on a healthy Chris Autman-Bell at receiver (currently day-to-day with injury), and a bounce-back year from quarterback Tanner Morgan.
9. Louisiana at Texas (Saturday)
A new era begins in Austin with Steve Sarkisian at the helm, but the Longhorns drew a tough matchup for the ’21 opener. Louisiana is projected by Athlon Sports to finish in the top 25, as coach Billy Napier’s team features quarterback Levi Lewis leading an experienced roster, and the intimidation factor will be low after the Ragin’ Cajuns won at Iowa State last fall. Louisiana’s defense is solid (22.0 points a game allowed in 2020), but this unit was vulnerable at times against the run. That’s a spot the Longhorns will look to exploit with emerging star Bijan Robinson at running back, and Hudson Card getting the nod for his first start at quarterback.
8. Boise State at UCF (Thursday)
A showdown between two of college football’s best Group of 5 programs could arguably be the best game on Thursday night. Both teams have new coaches (Gus Malzahn at UCF and Andy Avalos at Boise State) and feature two promising young quarterbacks in Dillon Gabriel (UCF) and Hank Bachmeier (Boise State). Whichever defense can get just enough stops is likely to be the difference in potentially a high-scoring game between two talented (and potentially top 25) teams.
7. Indiana at Iowa (Saturday)
A showdown between two Top 25 teams from the Big Ten in Week 1? Yes please. Indiana is out to prove last year wasn’t a one-year wonder under coach Tom Allen, and with a standout defense and quarterback Michael Penix in place, a top-25 finish is a reasonable expectation again. Penix is recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season, and a tough Iowa defense (16 points a game allowed in 2020) is not an easy way to start the year. The Hawkeyes need better play out of their quarterback (Spencer Petras), but coach Kirk Ferentz’s team returns one of the best defenses in the Big Ten and an All-America candidate at running back in Tyler Goodson.
6. North Carolina at Virginia Tech (Friday)
This ACC clash in Blacksburg is without a doubt the best game on Friday night in college football’s opening weekend. The Tar Heels have top-10 aspirations behind quarterback Sam Howell and an improving roster under coach Mack Brown. Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente desperately needs to show the program is headed in the right direction after a disappointing 5-6 mark last fall. The last two meetings between these two programs have been memorable. The Hokies won a 43-41 six-overtime marathon in 2019, while the Tar Heels averaged 9.94 yards per play and rolled up 656 total yards in a 56-45 victory last year.
5. Penn State at Wisconsin (Saturday)
Both of these teams had disappointing showings in the unusual 2020 Big Ten season, so this opening matchup is an excellent opportunity to get ’21 started off on the right note. Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz started last year off with a huge performance against Illinois but tailed off due to an injury of his own and ailments to his receivers. His play will be under the microscope this fall, as he’s expected to take a big step forward for a team picked to win the Big Ten West. Penn State also needs its quarterback (Sean Clifford) to play better after a disappointing ’20 campaign. But the bigger issue for the Nittany Lions might be along the defensive front, as attrition and injuries have taken a toll – a major concern with Wisconsin’s offensive line and ground game up first.
4. Notre Dame at Florida State (Sunday)
There’s no shortage of intrigue for the only game on Sunday. Notre Dame must replace quarterback Ian Book and the bulk of its standout offensive line from a team that went to the CFB Playoff. The Fighting Irish enter the opener in transition, but a solid defense and Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan taking over at quarterback provide a stable foundation. The Seminoles and second-year coach Mike Norvell are hungry to rebound after a 3-6 mark last year. Norvell used the transfer portal to bolster the roster, with former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton the biggest addition. Can Florida State earn a statement win to open Norvell’s second season?
3. Alabama vs. Miami (Atlanta – Saturday)
Alabama begins its national title defense with several new faces ready to take on major roles this fall. Quarterback Bryce Young is poised for a breakout season and plenty of intrigue surrounds new play-caller Bill O’Brien. While the offense will be firing on all cylinders in no time, the Crimson Tide’s defense can carry this team until it’s ready. Miami quarterback D’Eriq King needs a big performance in this one to keep the ‘Canes within striking distance. But even if King is able to trade scores for a while, Miami’s defense is going to have its hands full trying to get enough stops.
2. LSU at UCLA (Saturday)
It’s hard to beat the visual of LSU and UCLA playing in the Rose Bowl. While the scenery is great, the intrigue on the field is even better. The Bruins looked sharp in a 44-10 win over Hawaii in Week 0, guided by 254 rushing yards and a defense that allowed just 3.6 yards per play. Can UCLA’s rushing attack replicate Saturday’s performance against a significantly tougher defensive front in LSU? After a disappointing 2020, the Tigers hope coaching changes spark improvement on both sides of the ball. UCLA’s defense is also getting better, but LSU’s breakout stars in quarterback Max Johnson and Kayshon Boutte will put that unit to the test.
1. Georgia vs. Clemson (Charlotte, N.C. – Saturday)
It’s finally here. The Georgia-Clemson showdown has been one of the most-hyped openers to start a season in some time, and Saturday’s game is likely to have significant ramifications on the CFB Playoff. Can the Bulldogs’ offense pick up where they left off at the end of 2020? Quarterback JT Daniels will be under pressure against Clemson’s defensive line, and the receiving corps is shorthanded due to injuries. New quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei has already impressed with a strong showing at Notre Dame last season and should provide a seamless transition from Trevor Lawrence. With two of the best quarterbacks, rosters, head coaches and teams in place for this one, it doesn’t get much better than this to start the college football season.
Podcast: Numbers to Know from Week 0, Concerns at Nebraska and Thursday Night Preview