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College Football's 12 Best Position Battles to Watch in Week 1

JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster

The first week of the 2016 college football season is finally here and it certainly delivers when it comes to some incredible matchups to open the year. With a non-conference slate that might be the best of all-time when you factor in some of the brand names and Top 25 teams facing off against each other, it’s pretty easy to understand why there’s so much hype for Week 1 around the country beyond the usual "football is back" talk.

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Related: Ranking All 86 Games in the First Week of the 2016 College Football Season

As good as the on-field action might be this week though, the games within the game are just as good — if not better. It’s pretty incredible that for all the big time matchups taking place across the country, some of the one-on-one battles between players are truly must-see television for every college football fan, coach and NFL scout this week.

With that in mind, here are the 12 best position battles between offensive stars and their defensive counterparts on the other side:

1. Florida State S Derwin James vs. Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly

The best gets saved for last it seems as these two all-conference-caliber players are set to square off in the final game of the week on Labor Day. Kelly threw for more than 4,000 yards last season and is one of the top returning quarterbacks in the country. He’ll need a big game for an Ole Miss offense that will be tasked with carrying the team given how many new starters on defense there are. The problem is that Florida State is loaded on defense and may just have the most talented player on that side of the ball roving all around the field in James. This is a season-defining game for both teams and it will likely come down to which of these two players winds up making the most plays.

2. Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey/Minkah Fitzpatrick vs. USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

Not a lot of people are giving USC much of a chance against the defending national champions but make no mistake, the Trojans have some incredible athletes capable of changing the game in a hurry. The team’s most dangerous weapon is probably Smith-Schuster, who managed to rack up 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns last season despite playing the second half of the year with a broken hand. He has the size, speed and skill set to be trouble for anybody and that includes the Crimson Tide. Luckily Alabama has a pair of veteran corners who can be in lockstep with Smith-Schuster in Humphrey and Fitzpatrick. All three players have a chance to eventually become first-round NFL Draft picks and you can bet scouts are anxious to see them face off at AT&T Stadium.

3. Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett vs. UCLA OT Conor McDermott

Josh Rosen gets most of the attention for UCLA heading into the opener at Texas A&M but it’s his left tackle who might have the biggest say as to whether the Bruins can snag a big road win this week. That’s because the fleet-footed McDermott is tasked with trying to stop the man many are saying is the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft. Garrett’s speed and power pose problems for anybody so it will be a tall order when McDermott is trying to handle him one-on-one but if he doesn’t at least slow him down, Rosen might not have any time to operate under center.

4. Alabama DE Jonathan Allen vs. USC OT Zach Banner

You never know when it comes to height and weight measurements provided by schools but you could easily make the argument that Banner is college football’s biggest player at 6-foot-9 and 360 pounds. After some early years of disappointment in LA, he’s rebounded nicely and become one of the Trojans’ most important and best players out at left tackle after a breakout 2015 season. He’ll have his biggest challenge in the opener however as Allen is one of the best defensive players in the country. A technician when it comes to attacking opposing offenses, Allen is a load to handle whether the opponent is running the ball or trying to drop back and pass. The Crimson Tide have a host of options when it comes to getting after quarterback Max Browne and the Trojans’ offense but none are as versatile as Allen and the battle between him and Banner is going to be exciting for everybody to watch.

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5. USC CB Adoree’ Jackson vs. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley

There are a lot of fantastic athletes in college football but only a handful would have an argument against Jackson being at the top of the list. A world-class track athlete and impressive all-around player in all three phases of the game for the Trojans, he’ll primarily contribute at cornerback when USC opens against Alabama and he’ll need every bit of that athleticism to help slow down Ridley. The Tide wideout burst onto the scene as a true freshman to set a number of school records and he should be even better with another year of experience under his belt. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will no doubt look to feed his top playmaker regardless who is at quarterback for Alabama so Jackson should expect plenty of camera time when the two square off against each other on the field.

6. Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin vs. Appalachian State RB Marcus Cox

Cox might be one of the nation’s most underrated running backs and has rushed for at least 1,200 yards all three years in an Appalachian State uniform. He’s had some big-time performances against big-time teams in the past and will hope to have another in the opener as the Mountaineers look to slay another top-10 team. Yards will be hard to come by against Tennessee’s defense, led by the do-everything playmaker at linebacker in Reeves-Maybin. While he has been a tackling machine in just about every game he’s played in, it will be interesting to see if he can slow down Cox after perhaps not being 100 percent following surgery to repair a torn labrum earlier this year.

7. Texas LB Malik Jefferson vs. Notre Dame QBs DeShone Kizer/Malik Zaire

It’s an uneasy time on the 40 Acres with Charlie Strong being on the hot seat but thankfully for Texas, they do have one young bona fide star on defense in Jefferson. He’ll be moving around all over the field hoping to slow down Notre Dame and give his team a shot at a big home win but his task will certainly be a tall one. Brian Kelly has said that both quarterbacks will play for the Irish in the opener and each will be faced with the pressure of not only beating Jefferson to the end zone but beating out each other in the race to get more snaps. Both players can beat you with their arm or their legs so Jefferson will need to be in top form to slow them down at all.

8. Georgia S Dominick Sanders vs. North Carolina WR Ryan Switzer

The transition from Mark Richt to Kirby Smart at Georgia has been a relatively smooth one as far as those things go and it certainly helps the new head coach out that there are some talented pieces on defense returning to Athens this year to play around with. With Georgia’s secondary mostly intact from last year plus a few nice additions, the group has the chance to be a strength of the team behind a veteran safety like Sanders. Things won’t start out all that easy though, as the pass-happy Tar Heels are sure to test the back four early and often when the two meet at the Georgia Dome. It will likely come down to Sanders trying to prevent Switzer from running behind everybody on pass routes or blowing by the secondary in the open field on his way to the end zone. Both players figure to be moved around quite a bit in different formations but make no mistake, Sanders will be tasked with limiting the damage that such a shifty wideout like Switzer can do.

9. Notre Dame LB James Onwualu vs. Texas RBs D’onta Foreman/Chris Warren

There’s been an awful lot of talk around Austin about the quarterback position and it appears Charlie Strong is rolling the dice in a new scheme with a rotation of both Tyrone Swoopes and true freshman Shane Buechele behind center. While Onwualu will be tasked with slowing down both signal-callers whether they drop a pass off over the middle or start to take off and run, his primary task is likely to involve slowing down the Longhorns’ formidable rushing attack of Foreman and Warren. Both bring a little something different because of their size/speed combination but both have a chance to take it to the house if they’re not stopped quickly. Luckily Onwualu has shown himself to be a master of being all over the field to make plays but he’ll need something extra in the opener if the Irish run defense is to be a little stiffer than it was last season.

10. Auburn S Tray Matthews vs. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson

Watson very likely enters the 2016 season as the Heisman Trophy favorite and you probably would get few arguments to putting him in pole position for the award after seeing what he did against Alabama in the national title game. Whether it’s moving around the pocket with his legs or launching lasers with his arm down the field, there’s not really anything he can’t do with the football in his hands. Now the task of keeping him out of the end zone will fall to Matthews, among others, as Auburn looks to shock everybody with a huge upset. The safety made the rounds around the Internet last season after a failed tackle attempt against Leonard Fournette so he probably doesn’t want to repeat of that when he finds himself one-on-one with Watson in the open field or when he is trying to break up a pass.

11. Oklahoma S Ahmad Thomas vs. Houston QB Greg Ward Jr.

Of all the opening week games, Houston against Oklahoma might be the most intriguing given what a win would do for both teams in the race to make the College Football Playoff. Both sides have some incredibly talented players and several top-notch coaches but the one battle that might be the most fun to see is how Ward is able to run or pass his way past the Sooners’ versatile safety. Ward is one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country and has a chance to score on just about every play given his speed and strong arm. Thomas is hoping he can get in the way of the end zone more often than not and he’ll be needed to play center field at times during passing downs and also come up and use his physicality to slow down Ward when he takes off running.

12. Wisconsin LB Jack Cichy vs. LSU RB Leonard Fournette

You may remember Cichy from his performance in the Holiday Bowl when he sacked USC quarterback Cody Kessler on three straight plays. He had a solid season before that game, however, and really came on down the stretch for the Badgers. Run defense has always been a strong point of the team but players like Cichy will need to step things up a bit given the opponent in the opener. Only two teams figured out a way to slow down the Fournette train last season and if Cichy and his fellow linebackers don’t play like they did in the Holiday Bowl (or better), it could be a rough opener out at Lambeau Field.

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Best of the rest:
Auburn DE Carl Lawson vs. Clemson OT Jake Fruhmorgen
Houston LB Steven Taylor vs. Oklahoma RBs Samaje Perine/Joe Mixon
Missouri DE Charles Harris vs. West Virginia OT Yodny Cajuste
BYU S Kai Nacua vs. Arizona QB Anu Solomon
Southern Miss LB Elijah Parker vs. Kentucky RB JoJo Kemp
Missouri DT Josh Augusta vs. West Virginia OL Tyler Orlosky
Kentucky CB Chris Westry vs. Southern Miss QB Nick Mullens

— 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.