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Early Ranking of the 10 Best Games of Week 1 of the 2021 College Football Season

Kirby Smart, Georgia Bulldogs Football

Kirby Smart, Georgia Bulldogs Football

The start of college football's 2021 season is still months away, but it's never too early to flip the calendar to next fall and start thinking about the games on tap. Luckily for college football fans, the 2021 calendar is loaded with interesting matchups in Week 1. Georgia versus Clemson in Charlotte headlines the opening Saturday of action, but Indiana-Iowa, Louisiana-Texas, Miami-Alabama and Penn State-Wisconsin also dot the first full weekend of action.

The next few months are sure to bring roster and schedule changes that may alter this ranking, but let's take an early look at the best matchups for the first full Saturday of action in 2021:

Early Ranking of the 10 Best Games of Week 1 of the 2021 CFB Season

10. Louisville vs. Ole Miss

Mon., Sept. 6 (Atlanta)

The first meeting on the gridiron between Louisville and Ole Miss also happens to be the final game of the Week 1 slate for 2021. This Labor Day showdown on Monday night is the second game of the weekend in Atlanta, as Miami-Alabama takes center stage on Saturday. Offenses are usually playing catch up early in the year, but the Cardinals and Rebels are capable of producing plenty of fireworks. Ole Miss averaged 39.2 points a game in coach Lane Kiffin’s debut in 2020. Quarterback Matt Corral also won’t lack for skill talent as one of the top returning signal-callers in the SEC. Louisville averaged 6.65 yards a play in ’20 but turnovers (24) prevented the scoring mark (29.5) from climbing closer to Ole Miss. Quarterback Malik Cunningham accounted for nearly 300 total yards a game last season and faces a defense that ranked last in the SEC in points allowed.

9. Louisiana at Texas

Sat., Sept. 4 (Austin, Texas)

Steve Sarkisian doesn’t get an easy opener for his debut in Austin. As evidenced by the win at Iowa State to open 2020, Louisiana is capable of beating Texas in Austin. Sarkisian inherits a solid core of talent, including promising quarterback Casey Thompson and rising star running back Bijan Robinson. After building one of the best offenses in college football history at Alabama, scoring points in 2021 isn’t going to be a problem for the Longhorns under Sarkisian. But there’s work to be done along the line of scrimmage and on defense after giving up nearly 30 points a game in ’20. The Ragin’ Cajuns have won three consecutive Sun Belt West Division titles and 21 games the last two years under coach Billy Napier. Louisiana has an experienced roster slated to come to Austin, which includes senior quarterback Levi Lewis.

Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2021

8. Ohio State at Minnesota

Thurs., Sept. 2 (Minneapolis)

Ohio State begins its Big Ten title defense on the road, making its first trip to Minneapolis since 2014. The Buckeyes and Golden Gophers don’t meet every year. However, this series is a one-sided affair. Ohio State has lost just one time to Minnesota since 1982 and twice since ’69. Coach Ryan Day has to break in a new quarterback with Justin Fields off to the NFL, but there are three talented and very capable candidates vying for the job. The winner of this battle has arguably the best returning receiving corps in the country and a standout offensive line. Minnesota had a breakout year in 2019 with an 11-2 mark, but the program took a step back with a 3-4 record in the abbreviated ’20 season. Coach P.J. Fleck has the necessary pieces for a rebound in ’21, including quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim.

7. Boise State at UCF

Sat., Sept. 4 (Orlando, Fla.)

A showdown between two of college football’s top Group of 5 teams and potentially Top 25 teams in Week 1 is a good way to start the 2021 season. Former Boise State linebacker Andy Avalos takes over at his alma mater after Bryan Harsin left to be the head coach at Auburn. Avalos has work to do on a defense that allowed 27.1 points a game – the highest mark for the program over the last 12 seasons. As usual, the Broncos won’t lack for offensive firepower. UCF has finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring offense in each of the last four years and it’s a good bet that streak continues with quarterback Dillon Gabriel back at the controls. Like Boise State, the Knights have work to do on defense (6.2 yards per play and 33.2 points allowed per game). Get ready for a fun back-and-forth affair in the Bounce House on Sept. 4.

6. Indiana at Iowa

Sat., Sept. 4 (Iowa City, Iowa)

Indiana is coming off the program’s first postseason finish in the top 25 since 1988 and should be poised to appear in the first preseason ranking since ’69. Coach Tom Allen has transformed the outlook and culture of the program, guiding the team to a 14-7 mark over the last two years and back-to-back bowl games. Indiana’s defense was underrated nationally after holding teams to 20.3 points a game in 2020. However, if the Hoosiers want to push for a New Year’s Six Bowl next fall, keeping quarterback Michael Penix Jr. healthy after his third season-ending injury is a must. Iowa started slow in 2020 but won its final six games to finish 6-2. Coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad has to rebuild the line from a defense that limited teams to 16 points a game. Offensively, the strength of the team will be up front and running back Tyler Goodson. However, quarterback Spencer Petras played better at the end of 2020 to provide optimism for a jump in production for ’21.

Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2021

5. LSU at UCLA

Sat., Sept. 4 (Pasadena, Calif.)

LSU is hoping for better fortune than the last two SEC (Texas A&M and Tennessee) teams to play UCLA in the Rose Bowl during the regular season. Better fortune in general also is the theme for coach Ed Orgeron’s team in 2021 after a disappointing ’20 season that watched the Tigers slump to 5-5 after winning the national title. Orgeron hit the reset button on his staff, and the roster won’t lack for talent to supply a quick turnaround next fall. The Bruins showed signs of progress with a 3-4 finish in coach Chip Kelly’s third year at the helm in 2020. UCLA’s offense posted its highest scoring average (35.4) under Kelly and allowed just 5.4 yards per play after giving up 6.7 in 2019. LSU’s defense should be better under new the new staff, but if this unit still doesn’t have the kinks worked out, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will be a tough matchup on Sept. 4.

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4. Notre Dame at Florida State

Sun., Sept. 5 (Tallahassee, Fla.)

The Seminoles and Fighting Irish have played nine previous times but none have occurred before October 10. That will change in 2021, as these two teams meet in the only game slated for Sunday night in a Labor Day weekend showdown. Notre Dame has won at least 10 games in each of the last four years, but coach Brian Kelly has a busy offseason ahead. Quarterback Ian Book and the bulk of a standout offensive line have to be replaced. The Fighting Irish need to generate more big plays in the passing game but should still be able to lean on their defense and run game to win early in the year. Florida State is in rebuild mode under coach Mike Norvell. After a 3-6 mark in 2020, Norvell hit the transfer portal hard for help, including former UCF signal-caller McKenzie Milton. This game should provide insight into just how far these two teams are in their efforts to replace key pieces or reload in ’21.

3. Penn State at Wisconsin

Sat., Sept. 4 (Madison, Wis.)

Early September is usually all about non-conference games, but the Big Ten is starting Week 1 in 2021 with a couple of massive league showdowns. Penn State and Wisconsin have played just once times in the regular season since 2014. The Nittany Lions have a four-game winning streak in this series, which includes a win over the Badgers in the 2016 Big Ten title game. Both teams had high expectations in 2020 but neither finished in the top 25 of the polls. Penn State struggled with turnovers and consistency on offense. Wisconsin’s defense was strong, but the offense stalled due to a variety of factors, including a lack of weapons at receiver. Quarterback Graham Mertz should be better in his second year under center for the Badgers. Both teams are rebound candidates in 2021. This opener should provide good insight into that theory.

2. Miami vs. Alabama

Sat., Sept. 4 (Atlanta)

It doesn’t get much better than the brand recognition, uniforms, logos and tradition that surround these two teams. This is the first meeting between Miami and Alabama since the 1993 Sugar Bowl, which the Crimson Tide won 34-13 to claim the national title. This matchup also marks the first step in Alabama’s quest to repeat after beating Ohio State for the 2020 title. Nick Saban’s team is losing a lot, but the roster should reload behind a standout defense and quarterback Bryce Young. The Hurricanes finished a disappointing 6-7 in coach Manny Diaz’s first year in 2019 but improved to 8-3 last year. For Miami to top that mark in ’21, Diaz needs to rebuild at defensive end and improve the secondary. But the team’s biggest concern this offseason rests at quarterback with D’Eriq King recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the Cheez-It Bowl.

Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2021

1. Clemson vs. Georgia (Charlotte)

Sat., Sept. 4 (Charlotte, N.C.)

The stakes are going to be massive for this showdown between national championship contenders in Charlotte. Even though it’s just the first game of the season, the matchup between Georgia and Clemson is likely to have College Football Playoff ramifications for both teams. If the Bulldogs lose, there’s no margin for error the rest of the way for a playoff bid, especially with the SEC slate – and likely a showdown against Alabama in the conference title game – still on tap. The Tigers have an easier path through the ACC, but a win over Georgia would give coach Dabo Swinney’s team the inside track to own the No. 1 spot in the first rankings. Aside from the playoff implications, the Bulldogs should bolster one of the SEC’s top offenses behind quarterback JT Daniels and will benefit from a full offseason to implement the scheme under coordinator Todd Monken. New Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei thrived in his first starts in 2020 and faces off against a Georgia defense that’s rebuilding in the secondary for the ’21 opener.

Other Week 1 Games of Note

Oregon State at Purdue

Michigan State at Northwestern

Oklahoma at Tulane

West Virginia at Maryland

San Jose State at USC

Stanford vs. Kansas State (Arlington)

Texas Tech vs. Houston (Houston)

Nevada at California

Arizona vs. BYU (Las Vegas)