Justin Herbert and Oregon open the season in AT&T Stadium against Auburn
Yeah, yeah, we know. The confetti angels are still fresh on the Levi’s Stadium field. The Tigers are probably still wearing their national championship hats. Hell, some Clemson fans and Alabama fans are still hung over, for vastly different reasons of course.
But you know us college football fans, we can’t seem to get the hashmarks off our minds even in the frozen months of January and February. We’re jonesing for the new season to start tomorrow. Well it may be a ways off but when the pigskin gets teed up again starting in late August, these are the 10 games that will hold our attention more than any others.
10. Georgia Tech at Clemson
Thurs., Aug. 29 (Clemson, S.C.)
Oh c’mon, aren’t you chomping at the bit to see if Trevor Lawrence is as much of a polished pocket passer as he was this postseason? I mean, is there any chance for a sophomore slump here? Yeah, I doubt it too. But this game will be an early indicator if Lawrence is going to be a Heisman front-runner or not. Either way, the Tigers are sure to be heavy favorites to return to the College Football Playoff and this game will be their starting point. The flip side to this opener will be what kind of team the Yellow Jackets will put on the field next season. With Paul Johnson retiring and Geoff Collins taking over, a move to an “NFL-based scheme” on both offense and defense will be what the Yellow Jackets play in his regime. Going up against this Tiger defense to start this new era will be, ummmm... a “challenge” to say the least. But still, this should be an intriguing, if not an altogether competitive game.
9. Duke vs. Alabama
Sat., Aug. 31 (Atlanta)
How does Nick Saban and company rebound from that humiliating 44-16 loss to Clemson? Well for starters, they’ll probably pound Duke into oblivion to get their football world back on its axis. Or will they?... Duke still has David Cutcliffe as its head coach, so you know they will be well-prepared to take on the Crimson Tide. It also helps that the Blye Devils will have nearly its entire defense back to form a pretty formidable unit (okay, except for that tragic game vs. Wake Forest). But two NFL defections could’ve made this an even more interesting game. Duke loses potential first-round quarterback Daniel Jones, who came to the Durham campus as a walk-on, and linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, the defensive bell cow, to the NFL. Either way, this needs to be a season-setting game for Bama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who ended this past season with some iffy performances, especially in the title game loss to Clemson.
8. South Carolina vs. North Carolina
Sat., Aug. 31 (Charlotte, N.C.)
Normally this SEC vs. ACC matchup might not cause much of a ripple on an opening weekend of a season. But the firing of Larry Fedora and the re-hiring of Mack Brown makes this one go to “11” on the interesting meter and could even be a possible tone-setter for the program. The Tar Heels were expected to challenge for the Coastal Division title in the ACC but spiraled to a 2-9 record, even though five of their losses were by a single score. The Heels have beaten just two Power 5 opponents in the last 27 games, so Brown’s “win now” mentality will immediately get put to the test. The Gamecocks looked unmotivated at times this season, capped by a putrid 28-0 loss to Virginia in the Belk Bowl. But quarterback Jake Bentley decided against turning pro and will be back for his senior year. He’ll have plenty of weapons around him too.
7. Fresno State at USC
Sat., Aug. 31 (Los Angeles)
The Bulldogs have lost three straight to the Trojans over the years but the most famous game that tips our collective memories is when Fresno State played at the Coliseum in 2005 vs. the No. 1-ranked Trojans and scared the bejesus out of Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. That 50-42 loss to the Men of Troy is indelibly imprinted on the memories of Bulldog fans for years and years to come. Still, last year’s 12-2 squad ended their season with a 31-20 beatdown of Pac-12 member Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl to extend its second straight double-digit win total after going 1-11 in 2016. Also, Ronnie Rivers ran for 212 yards against the Sun Devils and seems primed for a breakout year. USC finished 1-5 down the stretch and missed the postseason. Quarterback JT Daniels will look to have a little more of a comfort zone as a sophomore and he’ll have his top three targets back in Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. This game will tell us if we’re looking at a bounce-back season for the Trojans or not.
6. Northwestern at Stanford
Sat., Aug. 31 (Stanford, Calif.)
A football game? Or a debate on the legitimacy of quantum mechanics and its influence on future generations? Either way, this will be smart boys vs. smart boys. Both teams are coming off nine-win seasons and come-from-behind bowl victories to catapult them into the 2019 season. For the Cardinal, K.J. Costello comes back as one of the top senior quarterbacks in the country after tossing the pill for 3,435 yards and 29 touchdowns. The defense will have a few linebackers to replace but had mostly underclassmen on its two-deep. Meanwhile, the Western Division-winning Wildcats will have to replace quarterback Clayton Thorson, but Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson could be a real find. The defense was one of the best in the Big Ten behind ball-hawking linebacker Paddy Fisher.
5. Utah at BYU
Thurs., Aug. 29 (Provo, Utah)
Usually this game is played late in the season, amongst snow flurries and with bowl bids on the line. But this time, the Beehive State rivals hook up on opening weekend. Oddly, this Holy War series has been one-sided for a long time as Utah owns an eight-game winning streak over the Cougars. Last time we saw BYU freshman quarterback Zach Wilson, he was going a perfect 18-of-18 for 317 yards and four touchdowns in the Cougars’ 49-18 win over Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Cougars will certainly have revenge on their minds after blowing a 27-7 lead late in the third quarter of last year’s showdown, before falling 35-27 to the Utes. Utah is being bandied about as one of the Pac 12’s front-runners for 2019 and will get both quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss back from injury, along with a projected seven other returning starters on offense and seven on defense.
4. Houston at Oklahoma
Sat., Aug. 31 (Norman, Okla.)
It might not seem like it at first blush, but three things make this matchup a real gem for opening weekend.
First – Who will be the next in line to win the Heisman for OU? With Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray gone, will incoming freshman Spencer Rattler, the No. 23-overall ranked incoming recruit, win the third Heisman in a row? (I know, I know, I’m just kidding) He’ll have to hold off junior Austin Kendall and redshirt freshman Tanner Mordecai just to get the starting nod.
Second – Will Houston be able to make amends for that 70-14 loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl? I sure hope so.
And third – The Cougars' brass went out and hired Dana Holgerson from West Virginia. That is essentially the biggest hire in the short history of the Group of 5 conferences.
3. Boise State vs. Florida State
Sat., Aug. 31 (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Oh you KNOW this is the type of game the Broncos just devour like they are at an all-you-can-eat pig trough. They love knocking off those big-money schools with all the on-campus bling. But FSU went just 5-7 this season, struggling to a 1-4 finish which included giving up 59, 47, 42 and 41 points in the four losses. The Seminoles should have smoother sailing in their second year under Willie Taggart who will get oft-injured QB Deondre Francois back as he decided not to go the NFL route yet. He will team with new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to make for a potent offense. The Broncos are saying goodbye to playmakers like QB Brett Rypien and RB Alexander Mattison, but the defense held opponents to 22 points per game and will be the strength of the ’19 team. This one should get interesting right away.
2. Florida vs. Miami
Sat., Aug. 31 (Orlando, Fla.)
There is a lot of turnover at The U as Manny Diaz takes over for Mark Richt and brings a renewed energy to the longstanding program. But it’s hard to judge the Hurricanes since they are coming off a 7-6 season with that embarrassing 35-3 loss to Wisconsin at the Pinstripe Bowls because the game was played in temperatures below their accustomed 80-plus degrees. C’mon, nobody expects the Canes to win a game in those brutal conditions. Nonetheless, this showdown with the Gators will be the first game under Diaz and they’ll be looking to make a statement, especially with having super-frosh N’Kosi Perry back at the controls in his second season… unless he is supplanted by Jarren Williams. But keep in mind that in 2017 The U was 10-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country at one point. Since then they have gone 7-9 with a handful of embarrassing losses. This is a program that NEEDS a season-opening win over the Gators.
1. Auburn vs. Oregon
Sat., Aug. 31 (Arlington, Texas)
It’s good to see another SEC vs. Pac-12 early-season showdown. Keep it up guys. And here is another chance for the Ducks to bolt out to a fast start. Getting All-American candidate Justin Herbert back under center for another season is a huge boon for the Ducks, who are projected to return 17 starters from a team that finished 9-4. They are considered top-10 material by most of the “way-too-early” Top 25 rankings. The Tigers come off a 63-14 avalanche win over Purdue in the Music City Bowl to cap an 8-5 season that came up short of expectations again. They're tasked with replacing leading tackler Deshaun Davis and early NFL draft entrants like QB Jarrett Stidham and CB Jamel Dean. But this is a War Eagle program that disposed of No. 6-ranked Washington last season to open the campaign, so they won’t be intimidated by a bunch of rain-belters that are coming halfway across the country to play them. This one should be a gas.
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.