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Ranking all 86 games in the first week of 2016


Technically, this is the first week of college football. The first game featuring two FBS teams kicks off Friday here in the United States — though it will be noon Saturday in Sydney — when Hawaii and Cal face each other in Australia. FCS action starts Saturday when defending champion North Dakota State faces Charleston Southern.

For those of us who have been waiting since Jan. 11 for the return of college football, this weekend will be a nice appetizer. In high school football parlance, it’s Week 0.

The real action starts Thursday for an opening weekend heavy on impact games. There are powerhouse matchups on neutral fields, teams traveling cross country for the increasingly rare non-conference showcase game on a school’s campus. There’s plenty of filler, too. Paycheck games. Power programs against overmatched FCS foes.

But, hey, it’s Week 1. Here are how the 86 games rank.

1. Oklahoma vs. Houston in Houston (Saturday, noon, ABC)

This could be the most important game of Week 1, or at least the one that could have the greatest impact on perceptions of teams and conferences. The stakes for this game have been clear since the end of last year. The best of the Big 12 takes on the best of the Group of 5. If Houston can beat Oklahoma, College Football Playoff talk will begin — whether or not it’s realistic for a Group of 5 team to be among the final four. Oklahoma has some questions to answer of its how, particularly how a rebuilding defense will handle Greg Ward Jr.

2. UCLA at Texas A&M (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS)

We could argue this is the best game of the first week or at least the toughest to read. The game could feature the top pick in the 2017 draft (Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett) and 2018 draft (UCLA’s Josh Rosen). Both teams could be division contenders, and thus College Football Playoff hopefuls. But they’re also flawed enough where neither is a clear top-10 team. It might be the most interesting game to attend, if only for being the best matchup on a campus site rather than a sterile NFL stadium.

3. Ole Miss vs. Florida State in Orlando (Monday, 8 p.m., ESPN)

Chad Kelly and Dalvin Cook re-wrote record books last season. Kelly had the third-best season in total offense and passing yards in SEC history last year. Meanwhile, Cook set Florida State's single-season rushing record. Florida State can establish its national championship contending-bona fides, or Ole Miss can shake up the top five with an upset.

4. USC vs. Alabama in Arlington, Texas (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC)

These two powers haven’t met since the 1985 Aloha Bowl and not in the regular season since 1978. Few matchups will have more talent in the starting lineups. USC, though, is still thin due to NCAA sanctions, and both programs enter this game with uncertain quarterback play. USC has opted for former reserve Max Browne, who has all of 19 career pass attempts, but Nick Saban may be sending a freshman to take the first snap. Based on reputation alone, this could be the best game of the week, but USC has yet to prove it can go toe-to-toe with Alabama’s program right now.

5. Notre Dame at Texas (Sunday, 7:30 p.m., ABC)

Any result has to be better for Texas than last year’s 38-3 beatdown in South Bend. All eyes will be on both teams’ quarterbacks. Brian Kelly insists both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire will play while Charlie Strong may be casting his lot with freshman Shane Buechele.

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6. Georgia vs. North Carolina in Atlanta (Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)

For the first time since 2000, Georgia opens a season without Mark Richt on the sidelines. And for the first time since 1998, North Carolina enters a season with the momentum of a top-25 finish the previous year. The Tar Heels will be looking to prove 2015 was not a fluke, and the Bulldogs will try to prove that Tennessee is not the lone contender in the SEC East.

7. Clemson at Auburn (Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN)

This does not set up as an ideal situation for Auburn. With Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman and a loaded receiver corps, Clemson has an offense that was rolling at the end of 2015. Auburn was mediocre on both sides of the ball last season, and there are no clear answers for how the Tigers will be able to keep up with Clemson.

8. Kansas State at Stanford (Friday, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1)

A season-opener against an overachieving team in purple derailed Stanford’s College Football Playoff hopes last season. Kansas State could be a spoiler again if the Wildcats get solid quarterback play from Jesse Ertz, who is returning from a season-ending injury. The defense and special teams will need to find a way to contain Christian McCaffrey.

9. LSU vs. Wisconsin in Green Bay, Wis. (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)

This could either be one of the best games of the first weekend or a total dud. Most of that probably depends on Wisconsin. The Badgers managed to win 10 games last year, but it was otherwise a very un-Wisconsin-like year with a below-average run game and inconsistent offensive line. Wisconsin had a top-10 defense, but the mastermind (coordinator Dave Aranda) is now on the LSU sideline.

10. Arizona vs. BYU in Glendale, Ariz. (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1)

Chances are you’ll see a lot of BYU early this season. The Cougars face three Pac-12 opponents in the first three games, six Power 5 opponents in the first seven games plus Group of 5 standouts Toledo, Boise State and Cincinnati at some point this season. New coach Kalani Sitake has quite the enigma on his hands with quarterbacks Tanner Mangum and Taysom Hill. He can win with either. Arizona has an experienced backfield in Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson.

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11. Appalachian State at Tennessee (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network)

Tennessee can’t get caught looking ahead to the Battle at Bristol in Week 2. Appalachian State, an 11-2 team last season, is experienced on both sides of the ball. The Mountaineers are good enough to give the Volunteers trouble.

12. Western Michigan at Northwestern (Saturday, noon, ESPNU)

After winning eight games in back-to-back years and winning a bowl game for the first time in school history, Western Michigan is looking for a major non-conference statement. The Broncos will have the better offense with the pass-catch duo of Zach Terrell and Corey Davis, but Northwestern will be stout on defense.

13. Boise State at UL Lafayette (Saturday, noon, American Sports Network)

Houston is getting all of the attention as the best of the Group of 5, but Boise State could make a run at the automatic spot in a major bowl. The Broncos won nine games last season with a freshman quarterback and look to add to that in Brett Rypien's sophomore year. The Broncos can make a statement with a strong start to the season against UL Lafayette, Washington State, Oregon State and Utah State and New Mexico before mid-October.

14. Toledo at Arkansas State (Friday, 9 p.m., ESPNU)

By no means is this a marquee matchup, but nevertheless this pairs a 10-win MAC team against a nine-win Sun Belt team that dominated its conference. It's a solid Group of 5 non-conference game between two consistent winners led by up-and-coming young coaches.

15. Georgia Tech at Boston College in Dublin, Ireland (Saturday, 7:30 a.m., ESPN2)

Get your first college football Saturday right with some ACC with your breakfast. Both teams have reason to believe 2016 will be better than last season when Georgia Tech and Boston College combined to go 6-18 overall and 1-15 in the league.

16. Missouri at West Virginia (Saturday, noon, Fox Sports 1)

This is a what-could-have-been matchup. In the second-to-last BCS rankings of 2007, Missouri was No. 1 and West Virginia was No. 2. That was before Mizzou lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game and WVU lost to Pittsburgh. In the interim, both programs seen highs and lows in new conferences, and they’re now just trying to claw for a spot in the postseason.

17. Colorado State vs. Colorado in Denver (Friday, 8 p.m., ESPN)

The traditional early season rivalry game has been a pretty competitive series. Colorado has a 6-4 edge in the last 10 meetings. The Buffaloes may need to win this one if they have any hopes of going to a bowl for the first time since 2007.

18. South Carolina at Vanderbilt (Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN)

This pairs two of the weaker teams in the SEC East. Both teams could struggle to put points on the board.

19. Southern Miss at Kentucky (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU)

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops will be in for a long season (or perhaps more accurately, a short season) if the Wildcats can’t handle Southern Miss. The Eagles, led by 4,400-yard passer Nick Mullens, are perfectly capable of winning in Lexington.

20. Louisiana Tech at Arkansas (Saturday, 4 p.m., SEC Network)

Louisiana Tech is a solid Group of 5 team with a good offense. Sound familiar, Arkansas fans? The 2016 Razorbacks will look to avoid the same fate as last year’s team that lost early to Toledo.

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21. Bowling Green at Ohio State (Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network)

Believe it or not, this is the first time Urban Meyer has faced one of his former teams. Meyer’s first head coaching job was at Bowling Green in 2001-02. Both teams are restocking their rosters from winning 10 or more games last season. The ceiling is a tad higher in Columbus.

22. Hawaii at Michigan (Saturday, noon, ESPN)

Hawaii’s first four games will be in four time zones and two hemispheres: vs. Cal in Sydney (Australian Eastern Time Zone), at Michigan (Eastern), at home vs. UT Martin (Hawaii-Aleutian) and Arizona (Pacific). Not an easy start for first-year Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich.

23. Rutgers at Washington (Saturday, 2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)

Every other Pac-12 contender has a big-time non-conference game. Not Washington. This is the toughest non-conference test for the upstart Huskies.

24. Fresno State at Nebraska (Saturday, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network)

Coming off a 3-9 season, Fresno State is a long way removed from the Pat Hill/David Carr/Derek Carr days. Nebraska isn’t the power it once was, either, but the Cornhuskers are looking for their luck to turn so they can make a run at the Big Ten West.

25. Oregon State at Minnesota (Thursday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network)

This isn’t the most bizarre non-conference game of the weekend, but it’s pretty close. Oregon State has played Minnesota three times in 1981, 1978 and 1954. Not many rodent mascot (Beavers) vs. rodent mascot (Gophers) matchups, either.

26. San Jose State at Tulsa (Saturday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

This is a sneaky good Group of 5 vs. Group of 5 machup. San Jose State returns 15 starters from a balanced team that went to a bowl game. Tulsa could be one of this year’s surprise teams if the Golden Hurricane can find a defense. Tulsa averaged 33.1 points in its seven losses.

27. Indiana at FIU (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU)

Being in Miami has its plusses: FIU opens this season with two Big Ten teams in its stadium — Indiana and Maryland. The Hoosiers and Terrapins aren’t powerhouses by any means, but both teams should do enough to look good in front of South Florida recruits.

28. Army at Temple (Friday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

This will not be one of the more aesthetically pleasing games of the first week. Between Temple’s style of play and Army’s option, this game will be a grind.

29. Northern Iowa at Iowa State (Saturday, 8 p.m.)

Iowa State lost openers against FCS teams in 2013 (Northern Iowa) and 2014 (North Dakota State), which is part of the reason Matt Campbell is the coach now and not Paul Rhoads. Northern Iowa is the No. 3 team in Athlon’s preseason FCS top 25, so Campbell will have to work to get off to a good start at Iowa State.

30. Richmond at Virginia (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ACC/ESPN Network)

Richmond is No. 4 in Athlon’s preseason FCS top 25, so on paper the Spiders could give first-year Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall headaches. The Cavaliers have won 10 in a row dating back to 1946, including the last three matchups by scores of 45-13, 43-19 and 34-13.

31. Eastern Washington at Washington State (Saturday, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)

Washington State opened last season with a 24-17 loss to Portland State before rallying for a nine-win season. Expectations are higher for the Cougars this season. Wazzu will throw the ball around, of course, but so will Eastern Washington. The Eagles, ranked 12th in Athlon’s preseason FCS top 25, feature Walter Payton Award-winning receiver Cooper Kupp.

32. Villanova at Pittsburgh (Saturday, 1:30 p.m., ACC/ESPN Network)

Pittsburgh will win the weekend in terms of inspiring storylines as running back James Conner takes the field for the first time since his cancer diagnosis last season.

33. Northwestern State at Baylor (Friday, 7:30 p.m., Fox Sports regional)

The Art Briles version of Baylor would have little problem in a game like this. The Jim Grobe version shouldn’t either, but the Bears’ demeanor will be worth watching after a shameful offseason.

34. South Dakota State at TCU (Saturday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports regional)

This game will be most notable for a peek into the TCU offense after Trevone Boykin. Both quarterbacks Kenny Hill and Foster Sawyer should see time here.

35. Rice at Western Kentucky (Thursday, 8 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

Another conference game gets us started on Thursday evening. Both teams are replacing multi-year starting quarterbacks in Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty and Rice’s Driphus Jackson.

36. Miami (Ohio) at Iowa (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPNU)

Iowa lost its last two games of 2015 in heartbreaking (16-13 to Michigan State) and embarrassing (45-13 to Stanford) fashion. The Hawkeyes will put an end to those trends to start 2016.

37. Kent State at Penn State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network)

Penn State will get its first look of a new offense with coordinator Joe Moorhead and quarterback Trace McSorley. Anything has to be better than the way the Nittany Lions started last season with a 27-10 loss to Temple.

38. Tulane at Wake Forest (Thursday, 7 p.m., ACC/ESPN Network)

A bowl game is a reasonable goal in Dave Clawson’s third season at Wake Forest. A hot start (Tulane, at Duke, Delaware, at Indiana, at NC State, Syracuse) will be critical. Tulane is hitting the re-start button with a new coach (Willie Fritz) and perhaps a new look.

39. Charlotte at Louisville (Thursday, 7 p.m., ACC regional networks)

Congratulations, you made it. This is one of four FBS games in the first time slot on the first Thursday of the season.

40. UMass at Florida (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network)

UMass’ first season as an independent includes three SEC opponents (at Florida, Mississippi State in Foxboro and at South Carolina).

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41. Northern Illinois at Wyoming (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

This game will feature two of the top 30 rushers from 2015 in Wyoming’s Brian Hill (1,631 yards, six TDs) and Northern Illinois’ Joel Bouagnon (1,296 yards, 18 TDs)

42. South Alabama at Mississippi State (Saturday, noon, SEC Network)

The task of replacing Dak Prescott, the best player in Mississippi State history, likely falls on sophomore Nick Fitzgerald. Don’t count out the Bulldogs without Prescott: They still have a solid group of seniors.

43. New Mexico State at UTEP (Saturday, 8 p.m., BEIN Sports)

The Battle of I-10 isn’t mandatory viewing, but it isn’t a stinker, either. UTEP will be in bowl contention, and New Mexico State has some legitimate star power in Larry Rose III (1,651 rushing yards, 14 TD).

44. Texas State at Ohio (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

Ohio is Athlon’s pick to win the MAC East. Despite being one of the most consistent Group of 5 teams — seven consecutive non-losing seasons — the Bobcats haven’t won the division since 2011 and haven’t won the MAC under Frank Solich. Texas State has a new coach in Everett Withers.

45. SMU at North Texas (Saturday, 7 p.m., American Sports Network)

SMU enters Year 2 under Chad Morris, and the Mustangs are expecting to take a few steps forward this season. North Texas, under new head coach Seth Littrell, is ranked 128th in Athlon’s preseason rankings.