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.