Ranking the watchability of every Week 1 contest
College football’s long offseason officially ended on Saturday. The 2018 season started with four FBS games in Week 0, including Colorado State-Hawaii and Wyoming-New Mexico State. Week 0 was a good appetizer, and now it's time for the main course and a full Week 1 slate of action. The first full week of games begins on Thursday, Aug. 30 and continues into Labor Day on Monday night with a showdown between Virginia Tech and Florida State. The Week 1 slate features 86 games, including Miami-LSU, Washington-Auburn, Notre Dame-Michigan and Louisville-Alabama.
With 86 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 and prediction, we have ranked every game based upon watchability for the first full Saturday of action. It’s not easy ranking one-sided FBS versus FBS matchups or FCS versus FBS teams, but we’ve tried to weigh everything for all 86 matchups. Many factors went into this subjective ranking. But most importantly, the 2018 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 2018 season:
Ranking All 86 Games of Week 1 of the 2018 College Football Season
86. Fordham at Charlotte (Saturday)
Charlotte coach Brad Lambert sits squarely on the hot seat after going 17-41 in his first five years at the helm. The 49ers have few guaranteed wins on the schedule for 2018, so it’s important Lambert’s program gets off to a good start against Fordham. Charlotte has new coordinators on both sides of the ball, including veteran defensive play-caller Glenn Spencer. Fordham finished 4-7 last season and is under the direction of a first-year coach (Joe Conlin) after Andrew Breiner left for Mississippi State.
85. South Carolina State at Georgia Southern (Saturday)
Georgia Southern hopes new coach Chad Lunsford can get this program back on track after two disappointing seasons. The Eagles played better under Lunsford at the end of 2017, but can they carry that finish into the ’18 season? Priority No. 1 for Lunsford is to ignite the option attack in Statesboro after the program slipped to No. 24 nationally in rushing last fall. South Carolina State finished 3-7 last year and lost linebacker Darius Leonard to the NFL. This is also coach Buddy Pough’s final year at the helm.
Prediction: Georgia Southern
84. Jackson State at Southern Miss (Saturday)
Quarterback uncertainty surrounded Southern Miss in the offseason, but junior college recruit (and former Louisiana Tech) signal-caller Jack Abraham emerged as the answer for coach Jay Hopson. The Golden Eagles return only seven starters, so Hopson’s team faces a significant rebuilding effort in 2018. Mississippi native and former Mississippi State assistant Tony Hughes is 6-16 through his first two years at Jackson State.
Prediction: Southern Miss
83. Incarnate Word at New Mexico
The 2018 season is a critical one for Bob Davie’s future at New Mexico. After earning back-to-back bowl bids, the Lobos slipped to 3-9 last year. Additionally, Davie was suspended 30 days in the spring. New Mexico finished fall practice with a tight battle at quarterback, and Davie still needs his defense to take a step forward. While those issues remain, the opener against Incarnate Word – a team that finished 1-10 last year – should give the Lobos plenty to cheer about.
Prediction: New Mexico
82. Portland State at Nevada (Friday)
Nevada started 0-5 but showed improvement over the second half of the year and finished with two victories over the final three matchups. Look for coach Jay Norvell’s team to build off that finish in 2018. Quarterback Ty Gangi is one of the best in the Group of 5 ranks, and the senior has one of the Mountain West’s top receiving corps at his disposal. The Wolf Pack are a sleeper team to watch in the Mountain West. Portland State finished 0-11 last year and was picked last in the Big Sky 2018 media poll.
81. VMI at Toledo (Saturday)
Coming off its first MAC title since 2004, Toledo has to find a new quarterback for its high-powered offense. The Rockets have one of college football’s top receiving corps in place, but coach Jason Candle did not name his starting signal-caller during fall practice. VMI finished 0-11 last season and presents a good opportunity for Toledo’s offense to get an extended look at its new quarterbacks prior to the matchup against Miami on Sept. 15.
80. Savannah State at UAB (Thursday)
UAB’s return (and overall success) to the gridiron after a two-year hiatus was one of the best storylines from the 2017 season. Coach Bill Clark’s team seems poised to improve off last year’s 8-5 mark, especially with the return of running back Spencer Brown and quarterback A.J. Erdely. Savannah State has not won more than three games in a season since 2008 and has struggled mightily in games against FBS competition. The Tigers seem to be on the right track, however, as coach Erik Raeburn’s team won three out of its last four games in 2017.
79. Delaware State at Buffalo (Saturday)
Buffalo has made steady progress under coach Lance Leipold, and the Bulls seem ready to break out after a 6-6 mark last year. Leipold’s team should get off to a fast start on Saturday night against Delaware State. The Hornets finished 2-9 last season and struggled mightily on defense. If you need a reason to watch this game, check out the pass-catch combination of quarterback Tyree Jackson and receiver Anthony Johnson for the Buffalo offense.
78. Central Connecticut at Ball State (Thursday)
Ball State’s offense was hit hard by injuries last season, but the return of quarterback Riley Neal and running back James Gilbert to full strength provide optimism for coach Mike Neu in his third season at the helm of his alma mater. Central Connecticut improved from 2-9 in 2016 to 8-3 last fall. However, in its only matchup against a FBS opponent (Syracuse), the Blue Devils fell 50-7.
Prediction: Ball State
77. Monmouth at Eastern Michigan (Friday)
Eastern Michigan had its share of bad luck last season. The Eagles finished 5-7 but lost all seven of their games by 12 points or less. Getting back to a bowl hinges on the development of new quarterback and Iowa graduate transfer Tyler Wiegers. Monmouth finished 9-3 last year and is expected to be near the top of the Big South again in 2018. The strength of coach Kevin Callahan’s team rests on offense, but Eastern Michigan will counter will one of the top defenses in the MAC, led by standout edge rusher Maxx Crosby.
Prediction: Eastern Michigan
76. Southeast Missouri State at Arkansas State (Saturday)
Led by an offense that averaged 37.8 points a game last season, Arkansas State is the preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt title in 2018. Quarterback Justice Hansen ranks among the top 25 signal-callers in the nation, and his receiving corps is arguably the deepest in the Sun Belt. The Red Wolves won’t have any trouble with a Southeast Missouri State team that finished 3-8 last year.
Prediction: Arkansas State
75. Abilene Christian at Baylor (Saturday)
It’s safe to assume Matt Rhule’s second year at Baylor will start much better than his 2017 campaign. The Bears lost to Liberty 48-45 in last season’s opener, but Abilene Christian finished 2-9 last fall and is rebuilding under second-year coach Adam Dorrel. Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer is one of the Big 12’s rising stars, and the sophomore has one of the top receiving corps in college football at his disposal. The Bears will rank among the most-improved teams in the nation.
74. SE Louisiana at ULM (Thursday)
ULM is trending up under third-year coach Matt Viator. The Warhawks finished 4-8 last fall but lost four games by 10 points or less. Quarterback Caleb Evans is primed for a breakout season, and Viator’s offense also returns one of college football’s best all-around weapons in receiver Marcus Green. Louisiana native (and ULM alum) Frank Scelfo enters his first year at the helm for Southeastern Louisiana. The Lions finished 6-5 last season but feature a couple of talented pieces on offense, including quarterback Lorenzo Nunez (South Carolina transfer) and running back Marcus Cooper (10.1 ypc). This unit should be a good test for Viator’s defense, which was hit hard by injuries and gave up 41 points a game last fall.
73. Mercer at Memphis (Saturday)
The only suspense in this game surrounds how well Memphis’ offense performs with quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller no longer on campus. Arizona State graduate transfer Brady White will replace Ferguson under center, and the Tigers expect to lean on Damonte Coxie to pick up where Miller left off at receiver. Mercer has not won more than six games in a season since 2013.
72. Howard at Ohio (Saturday)
Howard stunned the college football world in Week 1 last season when it knocked off UNLV. The Bison went on to finish 7-4 in coach Mike London’s debut and is projected to finish second in the MEAC this fall. Cam Newton’s brother – Caylin Newton – headlines the Howard offense. While the Bison stunned UNLV and nearly beat Kent State last year, Ohio will be a tougher matchup for London’s team. The Bobcats are Athlon’s pick to win the MAC and end a conference title drought that extends back to 1968. Quarterback Nathan Rourke is one of the top Group of 5 signal-callers, and coach Frank Solich’s team boasts one of the MAC’s top offensive lines and ground attacks. Ohio crushed Hampton 59-0 in last year’s opener. This one won’t be as one-sided, but the Bobcats will win easily.
71. Stony Brook at Air Force (Saturday)
Air Force has been a model of consistency and winning seasons under coach Troy Calhoun, but the program slipped to 5-7 last year. Don’t expect the Falcons to stay down for long, even with major question marks surrounding a defense that gave up 32.4 points a game in 2017 and the loss of standout running back Tim McVey. Senior quarterback Arion Worthman will lead the way for Calhoun’s offense after averaging 192.1 total yards a game last fall. Stony Brook finished 10-3 in 2017 and enters the season ranked No. 25 in Athlon's FCS Top 25. The Seawolves hung tough against USF in a 31-17 loss last season.
Prediction: Air Force
70. Idaho at Fresno State (Saturday)
A lot has changed for these two old WAC rivals over the last few seasons. Idaho dropped to the FCS level after the 2017 season, while Fresno State improved its win total by nine games in coach Jeff Tedford’s first year. The Bulldogs are one of the top Group of 5 teams in the nation for 2018 and should start the year off with an easy win over the Vandals.
Prediction: Fresno State
69. Albany at Pitt (Saturday)
Pitt finished the 2017 season by beating Miami 24-14 on Black Friday. The Panthers hope to build off that upset, especially at the quarterback position with the development of promising sophomore Kenny Pickett. Coach Pat Narduzzi also returns seven starters on defense, which could be the best of his tenure in the Steel City. Albany finished 4-7 last season but defeated a FBS opponent (Buffalo 22-16) in 2016. Miami transfer Vincent Testaverde – and son of former NFL QB Vinny Testaverde – is set to start at quarterback for the Great Danes.
68. Missouri State at Oklahoma State (Thursday)
Mason Rudolph and James Washington are taking snaps in the Steel City now, so Thursday’s game is the start of a new era for Oklahoma State. Former walk-on Taylor Cornelius held off a challenge from Hawaii transfer Dru Brown in the fall and is set to take over the reins of the Cowboys’ high-powered offense. The matchup against Missouri State is Cornelius’ first career start. With Boise State coming up on Sept. 15, getting the offense in sync is a must for Oklahoma State in the first two games of the year. Former Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel leads the Missouri State program. However, the Bears are just 8-25 over the last three seasons.
Prediction: Oklahoma State
67. Alcorn State at Georgia Tech (Saturday)
Losing seasons are a rarity at Georgia Tech under coach Paul Johnson. The Yellow Jackets have just three of those since Johnson took over in 2008. After last season’s 5-6 mark, the odds of a rebound are high. With quarterback TaQuon Marshall and a solid stable of running backs in place, Georgia Tech will once again rank among the best in college football on the ground. Johnson sought an upgrade on defense, and new coordinator Nate Woody is one of the ACC’s top assistant hires for 2018. Alcorn State is led by Fred McNair – the brother of former NFL quarterback Steve McNair – and is coming off a solid 7-5 campaign last year.
Prediction: Georgia Tech
66. Southern at TCU (Saturday)
TCU crushed Jackson State 63-0 in last year’s opener and another one-sided affair is in order this Saturday. The Horned Frogs are once again among the Big 12’s top teams on defense, but coach Gary Patterson’s team has a few holes to fill on the offensive line. Sophomore quarterback Shawn Robinson is a breakout candidate and games versus Jackson State and SMU will allow him to get comfortable before the showdown against Ohio State in Week 3.
65. UC Davis at San Jose State (Thursday)
San Jose State hopes to show marked improvement after a 2-11 record in 2017. Coach Brent Brennan’s team finished last in the Mountain West in scoring offense and averaged only 318.1 total yards a game. Additionally, the defense was especially porous, giving up 41.7 points a contest. While there’s some optimism for improvement, Brennan’s team won’t have an easy start to the year. UC Davis – led by former Colorado and Boise State coach Dan Hawkins – is a dangerous opponent. Receiver Keelan Doss and quarterback Jake Maier are a potent combination and figure to give the Spartans all they can handle.
Prediction: San Jose State
64. Northern Arizona at UTEP (Saturday)
UTEP was the only team to finish 2017 without a victory, so it was no surprise the program hit the reset button this offseason. Former Kansas State assistant and Wyoming/Houston head coach Dana Dimel assumes control of the program and faces an uphill battle in Year 1. Dimel won’t have much time to ease into the job, as the Miners face a tough Northern Arizona team in Week 1. The Lumberjacks finished 7-5 last fall and are led by the talented quarterback-wide receiver combination of Case Cookus and Emmanuel Butler.
63. Central Arkansas at Tulsa (Saturday)
Tulsa’s win total plummeted from 10 in 2016 to two last year. While a drop-off was expected from coach Philip Montgomery’s team, that steep of a decline was a surprise. Getting back on track in 2018 will require the offense to regain its high-powered form, and the defense can’t allow 37.5 points a game once again. Montgomery has a good supporting cast in place for quarterback Luke Skipper, so improvement on offense seems likely. Record-setting quarterback Nathan Brown takes over at his alma mater after Steve Campbell left for South Alabama this offseason. The Bears are ranked No. 24 in Athlon’s FCS Top 25 for 2018 and return a productive one-two punch at running back with the return of Carlos Blackman and Kierre Crossley.
62. Elon at USF (Saturday)
Quinton Flowers leaves big shoes to fill at USF. Arizona State (and former Alabama) signal-caller Blake Barnett is slated to start at QB for coach Charlie Strong, with Brett Kean and Chris Oladokun working as the backups. The Bulls have a strong supporting cast in place for Barnett on offense, and Strong’s defense returns five starters from a group that held opponents to 23.5 points a game last year. With that in mind, USF probably won’t lean on Barnett as much as it did with Flowers. Former Pitt, NC State and Alabama assistant Curt Cignetti is in charge at Elon. The Phoenix rank 10th in Athlon’s FCS Top 25 for 2018. Keeping pace with the athletic and fast USF roster will be a challenge for Cignetti’s group.
61. Richmond at Virginia (Saturday)
Virginia was one of the ACC’s top surprises last year. After a 2-10 debut under coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cavaliers finished 6-7 overall and made an appearance in the Military Bowl. Mendenhall is still building this program and recruiting to fit his schemes, but this team is in much better shape entering his third season at the helm. Virginia must replace standout quarterback Kurt Benkert, but junior college recruit (and former Arizona State signal-caller) Bryce Perkins is an intriguing replacement. Until Perkins is settled under center, Mendenhall can lean on a defense that returns six starters, including linebacker Jordan Mack and defensive backs Bryce Hall, Brenton Nelson and Juan Thornhill. Richmond defeated Virginia (37-20) in the last meeting between these two teams in 2016. However, the Spiders enter 2018 looking to replace prolific quarterback Kyle Lauletta.
60. Stephen F. Austin at Mississippi State (Saturday)
Joe Moorhead is one of college football’s top head coach hires for 2018, and the former Penn State assistant should have a relatively worry-free opener. Stephen F. Austin finished 4-7 last year and is already dealing with some uncertainty, as coach Clint Conque resigned in August. The Bulldogs return one of the top defenses in the SEC, while the offense should be dynamic with Moorhead calling the plays. How much progress will quarterback Nick Fitzgerald make as a passer in 2018?
Prediction: Mississippi State
59. Charleston Southern at Florida (Saturday)
Dan Mullen’s tenure should get off to a good start. Charleston Southern finished 6-5 last season and failed to score a point in FBS matchups against Indiana and Mississippi State. Mullen inherits a Florida team that finished a disappointing 4-7 last year. However, the Gators still have talent in the program. Mullen’s defense should rank among the best in the SEC, and the offense can lean on an experienced line and stable of running backs. Quarterback play remains a concern for Mullen, as he needs better results from Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask. Freshman Emory Jones remains the player to watch at quarterback.
58. Eastern Illinois at Arkansas (Saturday)
It’s a new era at Arkansas. New coach Chad Morris is tasked with getting the Razorbacks back on track after a disappointing end to the Bret Bielema era (4-8 in 2017). Morris needs to find a triggerman for his high-powered offense, as Ty Storey and Cole Kelley battled deep into fall practice. With a favorable matchup against Eastern Illinois on tap, this is a good opportunity for Morris to get a look at his quarterbacks in extended live action. Arkansas should begin the Morris era with an easy win over the Panthers.
57. Tennessee-Martin at Missouri (Saturday)
In last year’s season opener, Missouri quarterback Drew Lock torched Missouri State for 521 yards and seven touchdown tosses. Tennessee-Martin’s defense will provide a little more resistance in this year’s opener, but that’s not where the intrigue lies for this game. How will new Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley fare in his first game calling the plays?
56. South Dakota at Kansas State (Saturday)
The Wildcats enter 2018 picked by most to finish outside of the top four in the Big 12. However, that’s usually when coach Bill Snyder’s teams are dangerous and exceed preseason expectations. K-State does have new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a quarterback battle to sort out. However, the standard won’t change in Manhattan. South Dakota finished 8-5 last season but has to replace quarterback Chris Streveler.
Prediction: Kansas State
55. North Carolina A&T at East Carolina (Saturday)
North Carolina A&T is a dangerous Week 1 opponent for East Carolina. The Aggies knocked off Jacksonville State 20-17 in the FCS Kickoff in Week 0 and entered 2018 ranked No. 20 in the Athlon FCS Top 25 poll. The Pirates have never met North Carolina A&T, but this is an important game for coach Scottie Montgomery. With a 6-18 record through the first two years of his tenure, Montgomery needs to get 2018 started off on the right path.
Prediction: East Carolina
54. Houston at Rice (Saturday)
The Bayou Bucket will be up for grabs when these two intracity rivals meet in Rice Stadium. Thanks to 310 rushing yards and a last-second field goal by Jack Fox, the Owls avoided an upset loss to Prairie View A&M in their opener. Unfortunately for first-year coach Mike Bloomgren, it won’t get any easier in Week 2. Houston’s high-powered offense has to be licking its chops after watching PVAMU average 15.3 yards a completion. Quarterback D’Eriq King is primed for a breakout year in coordinator Kendal Briles’ offense and should have no trouble finding open receivers against this secondary. A rebuilding Rice offensive line is going to have its hands full trying to contain Houston All-America lineman Ed Oliver.
53. Texas State at Rutgers
Rutgers is trending in the right direction under coach Chris Ash. And the third-year coach may have found his long-term answer at quarterback in Artur Sitkowski. The true freshman will make his first career start versus Texas State, and with a trip to Ohio State in Week 2, this game is a perfect opportunity to get acclimated to the college level. The Bobcats are 4-20 under coach Everett Withers, so it’s imperative for this program to show improvement in 2018. Texas State’s defense gave up more than 430 yards and 30 points a game last season. That’s a good recipe for Sitkowski to impress in his debut.
52. Grambling at Louisiana (Saturday)
Less than 200 miles separate the Grambling and Louisiana campuses, but Saturday’s matchup will be the first between these two programs. The Ragin’ Cajuns are under the direction of new coach Billy Napier and could be a sleeper team to watch in the Sun Belt. Napier has worked for two of college football’s top coaches (Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney) and will build his 2018 team around an offense that features standout running back Trey Ragas and a solid receiving corps. Grambling finished 11-2 last season and is the preseason favorite to win the SWAC West Division. Linebacker De’Arius Christmas headlines coach Broderick Fobbs’ team, but the Tigers will miss standout quarterback DeVante Kincade.
51. Kennesaw State at Georgia State (Thursday)
Georgia State lost its 2017 opener to a FCS opponent and has to be on upset alert once again. Former Georgia Tech assistant Brian Bohannon is 26-10 at Kennesaw State over the last three years and is the No. 5 team in Athlon’s FCS Top 25 for 2018. The Panthers rebounded from the disappointing start to 2017 by earning the first winning season in program history. Receiver Penny Hart is among the top playmakers in college football, but coach Shawn Elliott has to find a new quarterback after the departure of Conner Manning.
Prediction: Georgia State
50. Weber State at Utah (Thursday)
A tough schedule awaits Utah in 2018, but coach Kyle Whittingham’s team appears to have the necessary pieces in place to challenge USC for the Pac-12 South crown. The Utes have won all four previous meetings against Weber State, including a 70-7 matchup in 2013. The Wildcats ranked No. 9 in Athlon’s FCS Top 25 for 2018 and are led by former Utah assistant Jay Hill. While Weber State is one of the better teams in the Big Sky Conference, Utah should pull away in the second half. And with Washington looming in Week 3, the opener is a good opportunity for quarterback Tyler Huntley and a revamped receiving corps to work out some of the kinks.
49. Louisiana Tech at South Alabama
New South Alabama coach Steve Campbell was one of the top hires of the offseason. But the first-year coach has a lot of work to do in Year 1, as the Jaguars feature a revamped offensive line and already lost projected defensive end starter Rocel McWilliams due to injury. Louisiana Tech has emerged as one of Conference USA’s most consistent programs under coach Skip Holtz. The Bulldogs have posted four consecutive winning seasons and should challenge North Texas for the C-USA West Division title. End Jaylon Ferguson is one of top Group of 5 players in the nation, while quarterback J’Mar Smith is primed for a breakout year.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech
48. Furman at Clemson (Saturday)
Clemson will cruise to an easy win over Furman, but the big storyline surrounding this game is quarterback play. Kelly Bryant had a solid debut replacing Deshaun Watson last fall and is capable of guiding the Tigers to another ACC title. However, Trevor Lawrence – one of the top recruits in the 2018 signing class – is pushing for the starting job. Lawrence has a big-time arm and can stretch the field better than Bryant did last season. How much will both quarterbacks play? With a matchup against Texas A&M next Saturday, coach Dabo Swinney would certainly like to get both players plenty of reps to sort out the pecking order. Furman finished 8-5 in coach Clay Hendrix’s debut last season but lost 49-16 to NC State. The Paladins will struggle to keep this one close.
47. Austin Peay at Georgia (Saturday)
Austin Peay and Georgia are in two different classifications for college football, but these two teams share one thing in common. The Bulldogs and Governors were two of the most-improved teams at their respective level last season, with Georgia coming within a couple of plays of winning the national championship, and Austin Peay winning eight games and just missing out on a trip to the FCS playoffs. However, that’s where the similarities between these two teams end. Georgia is poised for another run to the CFB Playoff, and coach Kirby Smart’s team is loaded with talent. Quarterback Jake Fromm is back after a promising freshman campaign, but freshman Justin Fields is expected to see time versus Austin Peay. Smart’s biggest concern for 2018 rests with a revamped defense and who steps up to replace Roquan Smith at linebacker. Those questions won’t be answered on Saturday, but the Bulldogs are likely to look good on defense against Austin Peay.
46. Coastal Carolina at South Carolina (Saturday)
After a 9-4 record last year, South Carolina is looking to take the next step and challenge Georgia for the SEC East title. In order for coach Will Muschamp’s team to reach that goal, improving the offense is a priority. The Gamecocks averaged only 24.2 points a game in 2017, and new play-caller Bryan McClendon hopes an up-tempo approach sparks this unit. With quarterback Jake Bentley and two of the SEC’s top receivers (Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel) in place, McClendon has plenty of pieces to utilize. Coastal Carolina welcomes back coach Joe Moglia after missing the 2017 season due to health reasons. The Chanticleers gave Arkansas (39-38) all it could handle last season, but Moglia’s team will have trouble keeping pace on Saturday.
Prediction: South Carolina
45. Northwestern State at Texas A&M (Thursday)
The Jimbo Fisher era at Texas A&M officially begins on Thursday night. The Aggies are in the midst of a significant scheme change on offense, so an opportunity for a tune up against Northwestern State is ideal for Fisher’s team. The quarterback battle between Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel wasn’t decided in fall practice, so both players are likely to see time in this game. Clay Holgorsen – the nephew of West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen – is competing for the starting quarterback job at Northwestern State. The Demons finished 4-7 last year and are under the direction of a new coach (Brad Laird).
Prediction: Texas A&M
44. Nicholls at Kansas (Saturday)
With a 3-33 record over the last three seasons, it’s imperative for Kansas coach David Beaty to show progress in 2018. The Jayhawks don’t have a guaranteed win on the schedule, and the roster is still filled with major question marks on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately for Kansas and Beaty, Nicholls isn’t an ideal opponent for a team in desperate need of a win. The Colonels rank No. 15 in Athlon’s preseason FCS Top 25 for 2018 and have showed steady improvement over the last three years. Nicholls finished 8-4 last fall and earned a trip to the FCS playoffs. Also, this team nearly defeated Georgia in Athens in 2016.
43. New Mexico State at Minnesota (Thursday)
The second year of P.J. Fleck’s tenure in Minneapolis begins on Thursday night. The Golden Gophers just missed out on a bowl last year, but there’s optimism based on what Fleck was able to do from Year 1 to Year 2 in his previous tenure at Western Michigan. Solving the quarterback position was one of the top goals for Fleck this offseason. He’s handing the keys of the Minnesota attack to true freshman (and walk-on) Zack Annexstad. New Mexico State was dominated by Wyoming in its season opener, managing just seven points and 135 total yards. Coach Doug Martin’s team has a short turnaround fMinnesota and plenty of issues to address.
42. Kent State at Illinois (Saturday)
Both of these programs are looking for progress in 2018. Kent State hit the reset button after five straight losing seasons under Paul Haynes. New coach Sean Lewis is the youngest in college football and brings an exciting style of offense to Kent. Former Auburn quarterback Woody Barrett could be the answer under center for Lewis, but this is clearly a rebuilding year for the former Syracuse assistant. Illinois is also a team in transition. Lovie Smith is only 5-19 in his first two years in Champaign. However, the Fighting Illini went with a youth movement last fall, and the last couple of recruiting classes have produced a few building blocks. Former Virginia Tech and Nebraska signal-caller AJ Bush is expected to start at quarterback for Smith. If Illinois wants to improve off its two-win 2017 season, beating Kent State is a must.
41. Old Dominion at Liberty (Saturday)
Liberty is the newest member of the FBS level. The Flames are a FBS Independent and still transitioning to the higher level of play, but this team could push for a .500 mark in 2018 behind quarterback Buckshot Calvert and big-play receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden. After winning 10 games in 2017, Old Dominion slipped to 5-7 last fall. The Monarchs won’t be down for long, however. Sophomore quarterback Steven Williams is promising, and the defense is led by one of the top defenders in Conference USA in senior end Oshane Ximines (8.5 sacks).
Prediction: Old Dominion
40. Villanova at Temple (Saturday)
The all-time series between these two Keystone State rivals is tied at 16-16-2. However, the Owls have won four in a row over the Wildcats, including last season’s 16-13 victory. This year’s meeting should be another close matchup. Villanova ranks as the No. 11 team in Athlon’s FCS preseason Top 25 for 2018, while Temple closed out last year by winning four out of its last five games. A big reason for the late-season surge was the insertion of quarterback Frank Nutile into the starting lineup. With Nutile under center, the return of safety Delvon Randall and a standout linebacker trio, the Owls should have a good opportunity to build off of last season’s seven wins.
39. WKU at Wisconsin (Friday)
Wisconsin just missed on a trip to the CFB Playoff last season, and coach Paul Chryst’s team will be squarely in the mix once again. With games against WKU, New Mexico and BYU to start the year, it’s a good opportunity for the Badgers to reload a defense that returns only three starters. Offensively, it’s no secret Wisconsin has college football’s top offensive line and a Heisman candidate at running back in Jonathan Taylor. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is poised to improve entering his third year as the starter, but go-to target Quintez Cephus is suspended indefinitely due to an off-field incident. WKU slipped to 6-7 in coach Mike Sanford’s first year last fall and enter 2018 as a team in transition without quarterback Mike White.
38. Bowling Green at Oregon (Saturday)
Oregon will have its third full-time head coach in three years, as Mario Cristobal begins his first season at the helm in Eugene. Cristobal coached the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State, but the former FIU head coach had a full offseason to put his stamp on the program. As usual, the Ducks are loaded on offense. Quarterback Justin Herbert is one of the best in college football, and new play-caller Marcus Arroyo has plenty of playmakers to utilize at running back and receiver. Additionally, Oregon should have one of the top defenses in the Pac-12. Coordinator Jim Leavitt brought marked improvement on this side of the ball and returns seven starters, including linebacker Troy Dye. Bowling Green is 6-18 under third-year coach Mike Jinks, but there’s optimism about improvement with the emergence of quarterback Jarret Doege and running back Andrew Clair. However, the Falcons don’t have the firepower to keep pace with Oregon in Autzen Stadium.
37. Indiana at FIU (Saturday)
This matchup features two second-year coaches in FIU’s Butch Davis and Indiana’s Tom Allen. The Hoosiers just missed out on a bowl last season, and in the brutal Big Ten East Division, this team can’t afford a loss to the Panthers. Allen named Peyton Ramsey the starting quarterback over Arizona graduate transfer Brandon Dawkins, but Indiana’s offense will be shorthanded without running back Morgan Ellison (suspended). The return of receiver Nick Westbrook from injury is a huge boost to the Hoosier attack. FIU exceeded preseason expectations by finishing 8-5 last season, but Davis has significant voids to fill on both sides of the ball. An infusion of talent via the junior college and transfer ranks makes this team a difficult one to get a read on in the preseason.
36. UNLV at USC (Saturday)
USC coach Clay Helton announced true freshman JT Daniels will get the start on Saturday versus UNLV. Daniels has been impressive in his first semester on campus, and Saturday night’s matchup against a struggling defense is a good opportunity for the freshman to build confidence. The Rebels have bowl aspirations behind dynamic sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers, but coach Tony Sanchez’s team won’t be able to overcome the firepower on USC’s offense and a stout Trojan defense.
35. Oregon State at Ohio State (Saturday)
Ohio State is favored to win this game by at least five touchdowns, but that’s not where the intrigue for this matchup lies. Head coach Urban Meyer has been suspended for the first three games of 2018. The Buckeyes will turn to co-offensive coordinator Ryan Day will lead this team through Meyer’s suspension. Day is one of college football’s rising stars in the assistant ranks, so Ohio State isn’t expected to miss a beat. In addition to Day, all eyes in Columbus will be on quarterback Dwayne Haskins in his first career start, along with standout end Nick Bosa. Former Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith takes over at his alma mater with a major rebuilding job ahead. The Beavers finished 1-11 and ended 2017 with a 10-game losing streak. Smith is looking for small signs of progress in Year 1, but this is an uphill battle against an Ohio State team expected to be in the mix for a CFB Playoff bid.
Prediction: Ohio State
34. UMass at Boston College (Saturday)
Boston College is an intriguing dark horse team to watch in the ACC this year. Coach Steve Addazio’s offense is led by a standout line, and AJ Dillon is among the top running backs in the nation. The Eagles won five out of their last seven games in 2017 and should get off to a good start with UMass and Holy Cross their first two opponents of 2018. The Minutemen easily handled Duquesne 63-15 in their opener on Aug. 25. Quarterback Andrew Ford headlines a talented offense, but Boston College will counter with one of the ACC’s top defensive backfields, along with standout end Zach Allen.
Prediction: Boston College
33. South Dakota State at Iowa State (Saturday)
Iowa State is a program on the rise in coach Matt Campbell’s third year in Ames. The Cyclones finished 8-5 last fall and recorded victories over Oklahoma and TCU – the two teams that played for the Big 12 title. Another step forward seems to be in the works for 2018, especially if Campbell continues to get steady play out of quarterback Kyle Kempt, and the line opens up even more running lanes for David Montgomery. Iowa State’s defense ranked No. 2 in the Big 12 in fewest points allowed and should be a stingy group once again. South Dakota State isn’t the easiest of openers, however. The Jackrabbits rank No. 4 in the Athlon FCS Top 25 for 2018 and have earned six consecutive trips to the FCS Playoffs.
Prediction: Iowa State
32. Central Michigan at Kentucky (Saturday)
Mark Stoops has led Kentucky to back-to-back bowl appearances but has yet to win more than seven games in a season. Are the Wildcats ready to take a step forward? In order to eclipse the seven-win mark, Stoops has to identify a quarterback, as the battle between Gunnar Hoak and Terry Wilson extended deep into fall practice. Regardless of who starts, expects to see plenty of running back Benny Snell for the Wildcats. Central Michigan has reached a bowl game in all three of coach John Bonamego’s seasons, but the Chippewas enter the opener with a new quarterback (Tony Poljan) and a revamped receiving corps. Junior Jonathan Ward is one of the MAC’s top running backs.
31. MTSU at Vanderbilt (Saturday)
Vanderbilt dominated MTSU 28-6 last season. Is a similar outcome in store for 2018? This matchup features two standout senior quarterbacks in Kyle Shurmur (Vanderbilt) and Brent Stockstill (MTSU). The Commodores held the Blue Raiders to six points in the opener last fall, but this unit slipped over the second half of 2017. Can coach Derek Mason and coordinator Jason Tarver get this group back on track? The staff should get a good idea of how far this revamped unit has developed against Stockstill and the potent MTSU offense. These two teams have split the last six meetings in this series.
30. Syracuse at Western Michigan (Friday)
Former Syracuse assistant Tim Lester greets his old team in Kalamazoo on Friday night. Lester finished 6-6 in his debut at Western Michigan last season, but the Broncos return one of the MAC’s top backfields and quarterback Jon Wassink, which could give the Orange some trouble on defense. Syracuse’s high-powered offense must replace receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips, but coach Dino Babers should keep this unit performing at a high level, especially if quarterback Eric Dungey stays healthy for the full year. While Western Michigan’s offense will provide a good test for Syracuse’s defense, the Broncos are also breaking in seven new starters on that side of the ball. Dungey and an improving offensive line will be the difference in this game.
29. James Madison at NC State (Saturday)
NC State is coming off its best season (9-4) under coach Dave Doeren. But replicating last year’s nine wins will require some retooling on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Ryan Finley is one of the best in the ACC and a strong foundation remains in place on the offensive line at receiver. However, running back Nyheim Hines and all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels have departed Raleigh. The defensive line was one of the best in college football last season and must replace all four starters. The cupboard isn’t bare for Doeren, but James Madison isn’t the easiest of openers. The Dukes won the FCS title in 2016 and lost to North Dakota State in the championship game last year.
Prediction: NC State
28. UCF at UConn (Thursday)
The Josh Heupel era at UCF gets underway on Thursday night. The Knights hope to pick up where they left off in 2017 and build on their 13-game winning streak. While Heupel will put his own stamp on the program, drastic changes aren’t expected. Quarterback McKenzie Milton headlines an explosive offense, and Heupel has plenty of weapons at the skill positions to utilize. UCF’s high-powered attack is not the ideal opponent for UConn in the opener. The Huskies are in rebuild mode on defense after giving up 37.9 points a game last year. UConn’s offense also features a new play-caller and five returning starters, including receiver Hergy Mayala. The Huskies showed small signs of progress on this side of the ball last year, but they will need to exhibit marked improvement to keep pace with the Knights.
27. Utah State at Michigan State (Friday)
Michigan State is quietly lurking in the Big Ten after showing marked improvement from 2016 to ’17. The Spartans aren’t getting a ton of preseason attention, which certainly plays into coach Mark Dantonio’s hands for motivation. Quarterback Brian Lewerke headlines an offense poised for a big step forward after averaging 24.5 points a game last fall. The Spartans need to build more depth up front and won’t have cornerback Josiah Scott due to injury early in the year. However, Michigan State’s defense ranks among the best in the Big Ten. Utah State was outscored 105-20 in its only two games against Power 5 opponents last fall. With promising sophomore quarterback Jordan Love and a solid defense in place, the Aggies should build off last year’s 6-7 record. However, it’s a lot to ask this team to go into East Lansing and win.
Prediction: Michigan State
26. UTSA at Arizona State (Saturday)
Arizona State is favored by nearly three touchdowns, but this matchup has plenty of appeal. After all, it’s the opener for Herm Edwards in Tempe. The Sun Devils didn’t get high marks for the hire, but there’s plenty of intrigue around the nation to see how this transpires. With Michigan State, San Diego State and Washington up next, Arizona State has one of the toughest opening slates for 2018, which only adds to the pressure on the new staff. The good news? The Sun Devils can lean on quarterback Manny Wilkins and receiver N’Keal Harry to start 1-0 against the Roadrunners. UTSA has won at least six games in back-to-back years and returns one of the top defenses in Conference USA. However, question marks surround the Roadrunners’ offense after averaging only 23.5 points a game in 2017. New play-caller Al Borges will be tested right away with three Power 5 opponents to start the season.
Prediction: Arizona State
25. Marshall at Miami, (Ohio) (Saturday)
If you are looking for a hidden gem to watch in Week 1, take a look at this matchup between old rivals. Miami seemed poised to take a step forward and challenge for the MAC East title last fall. However, the RedHawks fell to 5-7, largely due to an injury to quarterback Gus Ragland. With a healthy year from Ragland and standout receiver James Gardner, Miami should rebound back to bowl eligibility in 2018. Marshall is the biggest threat to FAU in Conference USA’s East Division – provided Alex Thomson or Isaiah Green settles in at quarterback. A stingy Thundering Herd defense (19.2 ppg allowed in 2017) will be a tough matchup for Ragland and Gardner.
24. Appalachian State at Penn State
James Franklin clearly has Penn State on the rise entering 2018. The Nittany Lions are aiming for their third consecutive season of double-digit victories and second Big Ten title in three years. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will be missed, but the transition on offense should be minimal with the promotion of Ricky Rahne to play-caller, along with the return of quarterback Trace McSorley. Appalachian State is one of the top Group of 5 programs in the nation and certainly isn’t an easy out for Penn State. The Mountaineers have won 30 games over the last three years and a deep stable of running backs will test a defensive line that lost two players due to medical retirements in the fall.
Prediction: Penn State
23. Akron at Nebraska (Saturday)
Nebraska is a three-touchdown favorite versus Akron, but this game still has plenty of appeal for one reason: It’s Scott Frost’s debut. Frost takes over at his alma mater tasked with elevating the program back into national championship consideration. The Cornhuskers face a transition year for 2018, but one piece fell into place after Adrian Martinez was announced as the starting quarterback for the opener. Akron won the MAC East last season but was outscored by a combined score of 93-14 in games against Penn State and Iowa State last fall.
22. Army at Duke (Friday)
This matchup is one of the better under-the-radar games for Week 1. These two teams have played in three consecutive years, with the last two matchups decided by seven points or less. The Black Knights won last season’s meeting (21-16), but both teams look a little different. Army won’t have standout quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw to lean on, and Duke finished 2017 by winning its last three contests. Quarterback Daniel Jones will have his hands full against a Black Knights defense that allowed only 22 points a game last year. However, Army’s option attack faces an experienced and talented Blue Devil front, which includes All-America linebacker Joe Giles-Harris. The Black Knights won’t fall too far from last year’s 10-win campaign, but a revamped offensive line and new quarterback Kelvin Hopkins will be tested right away on Friday night.
21. Colorado vs. Colorado State (Denver – Friday)
Colorado has won three in a row over its in-state rival in the Rocky Mountain Showdown. The Buffaloes are favored to make it four in a row, but Colorado State already has a game under its belt after losing to Hawaii in Week 0. While the Rams lost, the offense averaged 8.6 yards a play against the Rainbow Warriors. Quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels and receivers Preston Williams and Olabisi Johnson will challenge a Colorado defense that gave up just over 450 yards a game in 2017. While the Rams are likely to move the ball, the defense struggled mightily against Hawaii. That’s bad news against a Buffaloes’ attack that features quarterback Steven Montez and rising star receivers in Laviska Shenault and Juwann Winfree.
20. Cincinnati at UCLA (Saturday)
Chip Kelly’s debut will be must-see television on Saturday night. The Bruins are still adapting to Kelly’s high-powered attack and left fall practice with uncertainty about which quarterback will take the first snap versus the Bearcats. Cincinnati is also a program in transition under second-year coach Luke Fickell. The former Ohio State assistant is recruiting well, but all signs point to another rebuilding season. The Bearcats return 11 starters, including quarterback Hayden Moore and a couple of all-conference candidates on defense in the trenches. However, Cincinnati’s offensive line is a major concern, and a defense that allowed 5.9 yards a play in 2017 will have its hands full against Kelly’s spread attack.
19. SMU at North Texas (Saturday)
The scoreboard operator at Apogee Stadium is going to have a busy Saturday night. These two teams had no trouble lighting up the scoreboard last season and will score their share of points once again in 2018. North Texas quarterback Mason Fine is one of the top signal-callers in the nation and will look to build off his impressive 2017 campaign (4,052 yards and 31 TDs). Sonny Dykes takes over at SMU after spending the 2017 season as an analyst at TCU. Dykes is no stranger to high-powered offenses and can build his 2018 attack around junior quarterback Ben Hicks and talented running back Xavier Jones. Improving a defense that gave up 36.7 points a game last fall was a top offseason priority for Dykes. SMU got the better of North Texas (54-32) last season. Expect a different outcome in 2018.
Prediction: North Texas
18. North Carolina at California (Saturday)
These two teams met in last year’s opener, with California knocking off North Carolina 35-30 in Chapel Hill. One season later, these two programs could be headed in different directions. The Golden Bears are trending up after coach Justin Wilcox’s debut, while the Tar Heels are looking to get back on track after a disappointing 3-9 record last fall. California’s strength is its offense, starting with running back Patrick Laird (1,127 yards in 2017), quarterback Ross Bowers and receivers Vic Wharton and Kanawai Noa. Considering the firepower on the Golden Bears’ sideline, it’s a tough matchup for a North Carolina defense that surrendered 31.3 points a contest last year and won’t have tackle Aaron Crawford available due to injury. With Chazz Surratt suspended the first four games of 2017, Nathan Elliott is the unquestioned starter for the Tar Heels.
17. Northern Illinois at Iowa (Saturday)
Northern Illinois has pulled off its share of upsets in recent years, so Iowa can’t look past this matchup to the Week 2 showdown versus Iowa State. In addition to recent history, the Huskies match up well with coach Kirk Ferentz’s team. Adding to the concerns for the Hawkeyes is four player suspensions, including two starting offensive tackles. That’s not ideal for Iowa with defensive end Sutton Smith (29.5 TFL in 2017) coming to town on Saturday. Another area to watch for Ferentz will be the skill talent around quarterback Nate Stanley. Tight end Noah Fant is the best in college football, but the Hawkeyes need more depth at receiver and must find a new go-to running back. Will Iowa successfully navigate its suspensions in the trenches? If not, Northern Illinois has the talent up front, and a steady quarterback in Marcus Childers, to have a shot at the upset.
16. Navy at Hawaii (Saturday)
The intrigue level on this matchup jumped up a few spots after Hawaii’s Week 0 win at Colorado State. Quarterback Cole McDonald assumed the controls of coach Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense and torched the Rams for 418 passing yards and three touchdowns. The Rainbow Warriors’ passing game is going to be a handful for opponents all year, but the defense gave up 8.6 yards a play against Colorado State. It’s no secret the best way to keep Hawaii’s offense on the sideline is to run the ball and control the clock. That formula plays into Navy’s hands with its option attack, as quarterback Malcolm Perry is poised for a breakout year after an impressive finish to the 2017 season. Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo is a native of Hawaii and played quarterback for the Rainbow Warriors from 1987-89.
15. Wake Forest at Tulane (Thursday)
Tulane is a dark horse team to watch in the American Athletic Conference’s West Division this fall. Coach Willie Fritz’s team is poised to take a big step forward after just missing out on a bowl in 2017. Quarterback Jonathan Banks is also primed for a breakout year, and Fritz’s team gave Wake Forest all it could handle back in the 2016 opener (7-3 Demon Deacons victory). With Kendall Hinton suspended for the first three games, coach Dave Clawson’s program is set to start true freshman Sam Hartman at quarterback on Thursday night. Look for Hartman to target receiver Greg Dortch early and often, but the Demon Deacons’ experienced offensive line could overpower a revamped Green Wave front. Wake Forest should be on upset alert.
Prediction: Wake Forest (but very close)
14. BYU at Arizona (Saturday)
Any game featuring Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate certainly has plenty of appeal. However, that’s not the only storyline to watch in this matchup. New coach Kevin Sumlin inherits a team capable of contending for the Pac-12 South title. The Wildcats are dynamic on offense with Tate leading the way, and the defense is poised to take a step forward with most of its 2017 unit returning. BYU enters the third year under coach Kalani Sitake looking for answers after a disappointing 4-8 record last fall – the program’s first losing mark since 2004. The Cougars revamped their offensive staff, with veteran Jeff Grimes assuming the play-calling duties. Senior Tanner Mangum edged freshman Zach Wilson for the starting quarterback job, but both players could play if the offense struggles early in the year. These two teams met in the 2016 opener, with BYU beating Arizona 18-16.
13. Washington State at Wyoming (Saturday)
âHigh-powered offense meets standout defense. Wyoming’s defense was projected to rank among the best in college football this season and certainly lived up to the hype in Week 0 against New Mexico State. The Cowboys suffocated the Aggies, holding their offense to just seven points and 135 total yards. That wasn’t the only good news for coach Craig Bohl. Wyoming racked up 321 rushing yards, and quarterback Tyler Vander Waal was steady (13 of 22) in his first career start. Even though Washington State must replace quarterback Luke Falk and a couple of receivers, it’s hard to envision this group taking too much of a step back in 2018. East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew could win the job at quarterback for Mike Leach’s offense, and he certainly won’t have an easy night against a defense that features Athlon Sports 2018 All-America safety Andrew Wingard. This is one of the tougher Week 1 games to get a read on.
Prediction: Washington State (but close)
12. Texas vs. Maryland (Landover – Saturday)
Maryland spoiled Tom Herman’s opener at Texas last season. The Terrapins racked up 263 rushing yards and averaged 8.3 yards a play in a 51-41 victory over the Longhorns. With DJ Durkin suspended amid an investigation into the culture of the program, offensive coordinator Matt Canada will serve as the team’s interim coach. Maryland’s ground game gave Texas fits in last season’s matchup and will test this unit once again. The Terrapins bring back five starters along the offensive line, and the one-two punch of Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison will provide its share of big plays in the backfield. Canada also has a rising star to work with at quarterback in Kasim Hill. On the other sideline, improving the offense was a priority for Texas this offseason. Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele competed throughout fall practice for the starting quarterback job. The addition of Rice transfer Calvin Anderson will help to bolster the offensive line, and the backfield is deeper thanks the arrival of grad transfer Tre Watson and freshman Keaontay Ingram. Herman’s defense lost a couple of key pieces from last season’s team but remains a strength under coordinator Todd Orlando.
11. Northwestern at Purdue (Thursday)
This matchup is likely to be the best game on Thursday night. Additionally, it could have big implications on the final Big Ten West standings. Both Northwestern and Purdue were picked by most to finish after Iowa and Wisconsin, so a victory in the opener might serve as a tiebreaker for third or fourth place later in the year. The biggest storyline in this matchup is the health of Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson. He suffered a significant knee injury in the Music City Bowl win over Kentucky but was back with the team in fall practice. If Thorson isn’t cleared, T.J. Green – the son of former NFL quarterback Trent Green – will get the start. Purdue showed marked improvement in coach Jeff Brohm’s first year with a 7-6 finish. The Boilermakers could play two quarterbacks – David Blough and Elijah Sindelar – but big question marks surround a defense that returns only four starters after allowing 20.5 points a game in 2017. Home-field advantage and uncertainty at quarterback for Northwestern swing this game in favor of Purdue.
10. Ole Miss vs. Texas Tech (Houston – Saturday)
If you like offense, then this showdown between Ole Miss and Texas Tech in Houston is a must-see matchup. The Red Raiders are breaking in a new quarterback (McLane Carter) and a couple of targets on the outside, but there’s a strong track record of success on this side of the ball in Lubbock. Receiver T.J. Vasher is primed for a breakout year and will be a handful for an Ole Miss defense that surrendered 34.6 points a game. Texas Tech showed improvement last fall by cutting its scoring defense from 43.5 points a game in 2016 to 32.2 in ’17. And with nine starters back, coach Kliff Kingsbury and coordinator David Gibbs are expecting this unit to take another step forward. They will have a good idea of where this group is by Saturday night, as Ole Miss is led by quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and dynamic receiver A.J. Brown. The Rebels’ high-powered, up-tempo attack won’t be easy to keep in check for Texas Tech.
Prediction: Ole Miss
9. Boise State at Troy (Saturday)
This matchup won’t have the national appeal of LSU-Miami or Auburn-Washington, but should be near the top of the watch list for fans in Week 1. Boise State is Athlon’s pick to be the top Group of 5 team and a road trip against Troy is a tough way to start the 2018 season. The Broncos edged the Trojans 24-13 at Boise last fall, so Troy will try to enact a little revenge at home. Boise State is led by a standout defense, while quarterback Brett Rypien is at the controls of a high-powered attack. The Trojans are breaking in a new quarterback after the departure of Brandon Silvers, but the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Neal Brown. Kaleb Barker and Sawyer Smith competed for the job in fall practice, and the winner of the starting spot has a strong supporting cast in place. Troy’s defense led the Sun Belt by holding opponents to just 18.5 points a game in 2017. This unit has a few holes to patch, but coordinator Vic Koenning will keep it among the best in the Group of 5 ranks. Both teams are led by rising star head coaches, have a track record of success on offense and bring two of the top Group of 5 defenses to this game. All signs point to a must-see game on Saturday night.
Prediction: Boise State
8. San Diego State at Stanford (Friday)
San Diego State went 2-0 against Pac-12 teams last season, including a 20-17 victory over Stanford on Sept. 16. Can the Aztecs make it two in a row over the Cardinal? Absolutely. Coach Rocky Long’s team features a steady senior quarterback in Christian Chapman and a standout offensive line. Rashaad Penny will be missed, but Juwan Washington looks like the next star at running back. And speaking of running backs, Stanford’s Bryce Love is primed to run his way into the Heisman mix once again. As usual, the Cardinal are strong on up front to lead the way for Love. However, coach David Shaw’s team needs quarterback K.J. Costello to take a step forward in his development, and the defense has to reload at all three levels in order to challenge Washington for the Pac-12 North title.
Prediction: Stanford (in a close one)
7. FAU at Oklahoma (Saturday)
There’s no shortage of intrigue surrounding this opener in Norman. Oklahoma begins life after Baker Mayfield against a dangerous opponent. Kyler Murray was impressive in limited time last season and beat out Austin Kendall for the right to replace Mayfield. Murray is a dynamic runner, but he needs to be more consistent through the air. Behind running back Devin Singletary, Lane Kiffin’s Owls ended 2017 on a 10-game winning streak. Singletary posted 32 rushing scores last season and will be the focal point of FAU’s attack once again. Singletary will test a suspect Oklahoma defense, but the Owls will also need production out of its new quarterback – either Chris Robison or De’Andre Johnson. Will Oklahoma’s defense struggle to stop Singletary? However, even if the Sooners can’t contain FAU’s offense, can the Owls find a way to slow down Oklahoma’s offense behind Murray and running back Rodney Anderson?
6. Louisville vs. Alabama (Orlando - Saturday)
Quarterback play is always under the spotlight, but there’s even more scrutiny surrounding this position in this ACC-SEC showdown. Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts continued to battle for the starting job in fall practice for the Crimson Tide, while Louisville turns to rising star Jawon Pass to replace Lamar Jackson. Making your first career start against Alabama and Nick Saban’s defense is never easy, but there’s an opportunity for the Cardinals to move the ball through the air. The Crimson Tide have a revamped secondary, and Pass has one of the top receiving corps in the ACC at his disposal. Even if Louisville has some success on offense, coach Bobby Petrino’s defense isn’t likely to slow down the Crimson Tide attack. Regardless of whether Hurts or Tagovailoa take the majority of the snaps, the Alabama rushing attack and overall talent level on offense will be too much for the Cardinals.
5. West Virginia vs Tennessee (Charlotte – Saturday)
Less than 500 miles separate these two teams, but West Virginia and Tennessee have never met on the gridiron. The first matchup isn’t short on intrigue. The Mountaineers are loaded with talent on offense, including Athlon Sports first-team All-America quarterback Will Grier and receiver David Sills. Scoring points won’t be a problem for West Virginia in 2018, but the defense is filled with question marks up front and at cornerback. Considering the question marks on this side of the ball, the Mountaineers may have to win a lot of high-scoring affairs. On the other sideline, Tennessee aims to get off to a fast start under new coach Jeremy Pruitt. Despite last year’s 4-8 mark, the Volunteers still have some talent in the program, and have the necessary pieces to pull off the upset. Tennessee needs a heavy dose of running back Ty Chandler to control the clock, and Pruitt and his staff should be able to throw a few different looks at Grier and find ways to generate pressure. The spread on this game seems too high. However, West Virginia has the best player on the field (Grier), and that might be the difference.
Prediction: West Virginia
4. Virginia Tech at Florida State (Monday)
The ACC has produced its share of entertaining games on Labor Day in recent years. And on paper, Monday night’s showdown between Florida State and Virginia Tech will be one of the must-see matchups of Week 1. These two teams are led by two of the rising stars in the coaching ranks, as Willie Taggart takes over in Tallahassee, and Justin Fuente begins his third year in Blacksburg. The Seminoles are switching to an up-tempo, spread attack, which figures to prominently feature running back Cam Akers. Florida State’s offensive line is the biggest question mark for Taggart’s offense and will be tested right away by a stout Virginia Tech defensive front. When the Hokies have the ball, quarterback Josh Jackson looks to build off a promising freshman season. Jackson has a young group of skill players at his disposal, but Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton is an intriguing weapon to watch at receiver. Considering both defenses are breaking in new faces at all three levels, don’t be surprised if Florida State and Virginia Tech each hit 30 points on the scoreboard.
Prediction: Florida State
3. Miami vs. LSU (Arlington - Sunday)
This showdown between two of college football’s top programs is one of the toughest games to get a read on for Week 1. LSU is never short on talent, but coach Ed Orgeron enters 2018 still looking for the right answers on offense. The Tigers hit the reset button at coordinator, promoting Steve Ensminger to play-caller, while Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow is likely to get the start over Myles Brennan. In addition to the transition in scheme and new quarterback, LSU has to identify a new go-to running back and develop more weapons at receiver. While the offense is filled with uncertainty, the defense remains strong under coordinator Dave Aranda. On the other sideline, Miami looks to win the ACC’s Coastal Division for the second year in a row and push for a CFB Playoff bid. The Hurricanes need more consistency (and fewer mistakes) out of quarterback Malik Rosier, but the defense and skill talent ranks among the best in the ACC. This game is likely to be decided up front. Can Miami’s offensive line hold off LSU’s athletic and fast defensive front? This one is a toss up.
2. Michigan at Notre Dame (Saturday)
It doesn’t get much better than seeing the Maize and Blue of Michigan going into South Bend to take on Notre Dame. And there’s plenty at stake when these two teams meet on Saturday night. The Fighting Irish have aspirations of a CFB Playoff bid, but big question marks remain for coach Brian Kelly’s team. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush needs to take a step forward as a passer and will be tested right away against one of the top defenses in the nation. For Michigan, coach Jim Harbaugh looks to get this program back into contention for the Big Ten title after a disappointing 8-5 2017 campaign. Harbaugh is one of the top quarterback gurus in the nation, and Shea Patterson’s arrival should solidify this position. However, Michigan’s offense suffered a setback in fall practice as receiver Tarik Black is out indefinitely due to a foot injury.
1. Washington vs. Auburn (Atlanta - Saturday)
Once again, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game doesn’t disappoint. The Pac-12 had a miserable 2017 bowl season, but a Washington victory over Auburn would be a huge boost to the team’s playoff hopes. The Huskies return arguably the top secondary in the nation, which is a good challenge for quarterback Jarrett Stidham and the Tigers’ receiving corps. Both teams are loaded with talent on defenses, so points could be at a premium. How well will Auburn’s revamped offensive line hold up against Washington’s stout front seven? And when the Huskies have the ball, quarterback Jake Browning needs more playmakers to emerge at receiver. If Washington is unable to stretch the field like last season, it’s hard to envision Browning getting on track or running back Myles Gaskin finding much in the way of running room.