After 234 days without a college football game, fans may be tempted to say they’d watch any game.
Really? How about that Savannah State-Colorado State tilt? VMI-Ball State? UC Davis-Nevada? Would those games test fans’ verve for college football?
Certainly, by the first week of the season, fans will be ready to test out any and every college football game, but some are more exciting than others — and, yes, even some of those games between power conference powerhouses and MAC, Sun Belt and FCS programs.
Athlon is happy to be of service in helping you plan your way through all 87 games of the first weekend of college football season, from Thursday at 6 p.m. Eastern through Monday night at 8 p.m.
1. Ohio State at Virginia Tech (Monday, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Perhaps no game could overturn the college football world in 2015 more than a second Virginia Tech upset of Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the unanimous preseason No. 1 and Virginia Tech a fringe top 25 team. Clearly, the Ohio State team that beat Alabama and Oregon for the national championship isn’t the same as the one that lost to the Hokies in Columbus last season. J.T. Barrett — who was making his second career start against Virginia Tech last year — and Cardale Jones have notched plenty of wins, and the defense and offensive line should be among the best in the country. But Ohio State will be without defensive end Joey Bosa, H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson and wide receiver Corey Smith. Those suspensions might not be fatal to Ohio State, but they will make things a little more interesting.
2. Texas at Notre Dame (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., NBC)
Notre Dame is a potential College Football Playoff contender, but no one really knows how A.) the selection committee will view an independent and B.) how Notre Dame’s offense will complement what should be a nasty defense. On the defensive side alone, Notre Dame should have an edge against the Longhorns’ lackluster offense. If Malik Zaire can give the Irish a comfortable win against a Charlie Strong-coached D, Notre Dame will have legitimacy in the playoff race.
3. Louisville vs. Auburn in Atlanta (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS)
Atlanta will be the first look at Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson as the unquestioned leader of the Tigers’ offense, and it will be against a stout Louisville front seven. Louisville won’t have the most imposing offense, but it will be a key barometer for Auburn’s defense with Will Muschamp in charge and with defensive end Carl Lawson back in the mix
4. Arizona State vs. Texas A&M in Houston (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
This is arguably the most interesting game of the first weekend. Opinion on the Pac-12 South seems to be divided among USC and UCLA, and picks for the SEC West are split between Alabama and Auburn. The Sun Devils have an aggressive defense, and the Aggies should have a high-flying offense again. Will the outcome of that matchup cause anyone to change anyone’s expectations of the Pac-12 and SEC races?
5. Alabama vs. Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC)
Arlington will match two big-name programs, both of which will be the top contenders in their respective divisions. Alabama, though, shouldn’t have a ton of trouble with Wisconsin; Such is the gulf between the SEC West and the Big Ten West. What could be most telling is how Alabama’s quarterback — whether it’s Jake Coker, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett — handles a well-coached Wisconsin defense.
6. TCU at Minnesota (Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Minnesota, oddly enough, became one of the key opponents for the College Football Playoff picture. The Gophers finished the season ranked No. 25, giving both Ohio State and TCU each an additional win over a ranked team (the Buckeyes won in Minneapolis). They also lost to Wisconsin, setting up the Badgers to losing 58-0 in the Big Ten championship game and vaulting Ohio State to No. 4 in the Playoff. Will TCU-Minnesota turn out to be just as important? Perhaps. TCU facing a respectable Big Ten team on the road could end up being a feather in the cap for the Horned Frogs.
7. BYU at Nebraska (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
Welcome back, Taysom Hill. The BYU quarterback accounted for 15 touchdowns in the first five games last season and showed improvement as a passer before sustaining a broken leg in the Cougars’ first loss of the season. BYU has a brutal first month against Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Michigan with only the game against the Broncos in Provo. Besides facing BYU in his Nebraska debut, coach Mike Riley will visit Miami in Game 3.
8. Michigan at Utah (Thursday, 8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Harbaugh Mania will either keep going strong or fizzle momentarily after the Wolverines open the season at Utah, a team that beat Michigan 26-10 in Ann Arbor last season. Salt Lake City is a tough venue to begin with, much less against a rebuilding team under a new coach and new quarterback. Michigan’s run defense was feast or famine last season and now opens the year against the underrated Devontae Booker.
9. North Carolina vs. South Carolina in Charlotte (Thursday, 6 p.m., ESPN)
Both teams need an early win in the worst way. South Carolina never recovered from last year’s shocking 52-28 loss to Texas A&M in the opener. North Carolina has gone 6-7 in August and September under Larry Fedora and 15-10 otherwise. New Tar Heels defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has a simple assignment in his debut: Keep the ball away from Pharoh Cooper.
10. Stanford at Northwestern (Saturday, noon, ESPN)
With the way both Stanford and Northwestern like to schedule like-minded rigorous academic programs in the non-conference, it’s surprising these two teams haven’t played since 1994. Both coaches were players at their alma maters at the time — Pat Fitzgerald as a linebacker at Northwestern and David Shaw as a receiver at Stanford. The game ended in a 41-41 tie. Other than that bit of trivia, this is a key litmus test for both teams looking to return to form.
11. Washington at Boise State (Friday, 10:15 p.m., ESPN)
The job isn’t getting easier for Washington coach Chris Petersen. The Huskies went 8-6 last season despite having four players selected in the first 44 picks of the NFL Draft. They lost their most experienced offensive lineman, Dexter Charles, a little more than two weeks before the season. And now Petersen will take his new team (as an underdog, probably) to visit his old employer. Boise State, for the record, produced one draft pick, a fifth-rounder, off last year’s 12-win team.
12. Michigan State at Western Michigan (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
The Kalamazoo crowd will get its first visit from either Michigan State or Michigan when the Spartans come to town. In the year of the freshman running back, Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. His matchup against Michigan State’s defense will be intriguing.
13. Bowling Green vs. Tennessee in Nashville (Saturday, 4 p.m., SEC Network)
Fans are expecting a breakout season for Tennessee, but the opener won’t be an automatic W. With 10 returning starters on offense (which doesn’t include 2013 starting QB Matt Johnson), Bowling Green is the projected champion in the MAC East. Both teams have an important September ahead of them: Tennessee with Oklahoma and Florida, Bowling Green with Maryland, Memphis and Purdue.
14. Penn State at Temple (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Temple will give Penn State’s beleaguered offensive line an immediate test. The Owls return their entire starting defensive line and tackling machine Tyler Matakevich. Temple, though, hasn’t defeated Penn State in 39 tries going back to 1941.
15. Western Kentucky at Vanderbilt (Thursday, 8 p.m., SEC Network)
No team was more exciting at the end of last season than Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers handed Marshall its only loss of the season with a 67-66 win in overtime and then withstood a fourth-quarter comeback from Central Michigan for a 49-48 win in the Bahamas Bowl. Both games were decided two-point conversions — successful on WKU’s part against Marshall and unsuccessful on Central Michigan’s part. The Hilltoppers have a mighty interesting September with Vanderbilt, Louisiana Tech and Indiana in the first three games.
16. Eastern Washington at Oregon (Saturday, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
How often does this happen? A quarterback plays three seasons with one team, transfers and the opens the season against his former team? If Vernon Adams gets the starting job — only weeks after taking his last final exam at Eastern Washington — that’s the scene in Eugene. Adams was wildly productive with Eastern Washington, but with that kind of turnaround into the Oregon offense, he could struggle in the opener.
17. Georgia Southern at West Virginia (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Fox Sports local)
West Virginia could have the top defense in the Big 12 this season, but the Mountaineers open against Georgia Southern’s option offense. The Eagles have some giant-killer to their game, upsetting Florida in 2013 and losing one-score games at NC State and Georgia Tech last season.
18. Virginia at UCLA (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., FOX)
Bruins freshman quarterback Josh Rosen might be making his first career start against a team that hasn’t won a road game since Nov. 3, 2012 and hasn’t won a game west of the Mississippi since 1999.
19. Oklahoma State at Central Michigan (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
Why is Oklahoma State opening its season in a MAC stadium? The Cowboys will get two return visits from Central Michigan in Stillwater in 2016 and 2018. A visit from a Big 12 program should be a treat for a Central Michigan fan base whose previous coach left to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas.
20. Baylor at SMU (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
If SMU scores a touchdown in against Baylor — something that happened once in the first four games last season — new Mustangs coach Chad Morris will be well ahead of last season’s pace.
21. Colorado at Hawaii (Friday, 1 a.m., CBS Sports Network)
Those who stay up late enough on the first night of the college football season will get a nice quarterback matchup. Colorado’s Sefo Liufau emerged to pass for 3,200 yards and 28 touchdowns last season. Former USC quarterback Max Wittek, who also tried to transfer to Texas last season, will take the snaps for Hawaii.
22. Purdue at Marshall (Sunday, 3 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Rakeem Cato is gone, but Marshall expects to keep its high-powered offense moving with James Madison transfer Michael Birdsong at quarterback. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell is in for a long season if the Boilers can’t win in Huntington.
23. Illinois State at Iowa (Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network)
The best FBS vs. FCS matchup features Athlon’s No. 2 team in the FCS (Illinois State) against a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team with a tendency to play close games no matter the opponent. Illinois State quarterback Tre Roberson, a transfer from Indiana, won’t be awed by playing in a Big Ten stadium.
24. Northern Iowa at Iowa State (Saturday, 8 p.m.)
The Panthers have been a regular thorn in the side of their big brothers in the Big Ten and Big 12. Northern Iowa gave the Hawkeyes trouble in a 31-23 loss last season, and two years ago, the Panthers upset the Cyclones 28-20 in Ames. Longtime Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley is 2-6 all-time against Iowa State.
25. UL Lafayette at Kentucky (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
The upstart Wildcats get a legitimate test in the opener against a Sun Belt contender. UL Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth, a former Mississippi State assistant, is a contender for major jobs after four consecutive nine-win seasons and four bowl wins.
26. UTEP at Arkansas (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPNU)
This game will turn back the clock on up-tempo offenses. Arkansas’ ground-and-pound offense is well-established, but UTEP has a similar approach. The Miners were the slowest team in college football, averaging 30.5 seconds between plays.
27. Mississippi State at Southern Miss (Saturday, 10 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Hattiesburg should be pumped for Mississippi State’s first visit since 1989 even if Southern Miss will be a long shot to pull the upset. Ole Miss, for the record, hasn’t played at Southern Miss since 1976.
28. Arkansas State at USC (Saturday, 11 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
USC might be tested for a quarter or so against veteran QB Fredi Knighten and Athlon’s projected Sun Belt champ.
29. Akron at Oklahoma (Saturday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports local)
Remember when Akron beat Pittsburgh last season … by 11 points? The Zips’ four other wins were over Howard, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and UMass.
30. ULM at Georgia (Saturday, noon, SEC Network)
The Nick Chubb Heisman campaign gets started against Athlon’s No. 7 team in the Sun Belt.
31. Troy at NC State (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Not long ago, this would be the kind of game that would have a middling ACC foe on upset alert. That’s probably not the case this season. NC State is on the rise, and Troy under first-year coach Neal Brown is a long way from being a bowl regular again.
32. UTSA at Arizona (Thursday, 10 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
UTSA challenged Arizona early last season in a 26-23 loss. Don’t put Arizona on upset alert this time around: Scooby Wright will feast on an offense that returns a grand total of zero starters.
33. FIU at UCF (Thursday, 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
This is a more important game for FIU, which is trying to build legitimacy in the third season under Ron Turner. UCF is just trying to avoid a loss to an in-state program further down the food chain.
34. Sam Houston State at Texas Tech (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Fox Sports local)
Major programs have received the message not to schedule North Dakota State or risk embarrassment. Sam Houston State — No. 3 in Athlon’s preseason FCS rankings — will have to represent the FCS against the Big 12.
35. Youngstown State at Pittsburgh (Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPN3.com)
With Bo Pelini at Youngstown State and Pat Narduzzi at Pittsburgh, maybe this game should count in the Big Ten standings. Pelini and Narduzzi were on opposite sidelines for some classic Nebraska-Michigan State matchups in recent seasons.
36. Kent State at Illinois (Friday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Tim Beckman will proudly and repeatedly tell you he is truly pumped for the Illinois-Kent State tilt.