September has arrived at long last, fellow college football fans! Yes, we had a soft launch to the season last week, but this is when things really get humming.
You’ll have viewing options galore during this extended holiday weekend, so we’re here once again to help you pick the best games to watch. As always, we stipulate that your preferences may vary based upon your own school allegiance and rooting interest. Furthermore, there will be unexpected results every week, so keep that remote handy in case surprise events worthy of attention start to develop.
We should also add here that since the college game will have the weekend stage to itself before the NFL kicks off, there are non-traditional Sunday and Monday prime-time contests available for your viewing pleasure. LSU and Florida State square off in New Orleans Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), and the weekend wraps up Labor Day night as No. 4 Clemson visits Georgia Tech (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
That Monday night mismatch could conceivably be closer than expected as it was a year ago, much to the consternation of Clemson fans. But we’ll stick with these Saturday tilts as the weekend’s best.
No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Ohio State
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why watch: The clear headliner of Week 1 is this top-five meeting of two of the biggest-name programs in the sport. The Buckeyes, favored by numerous prognosticators to reclaim the Big Ten crown they lost to archrival Michigan in 2021, look to avoid the non-conference home setback that tripped them up early last year (see below). New Fighting Irish coach Marcus Freeman begins his first full season at the helm with a huge opportunity against his alma mater. The Ohio State offense might be all but unstoppable this year with all-star talent at every ball-handling position, from QB C.J. Stroud to WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba to RB TreVeyon Henderson. But the Notre Dame defense has enough experienced parts like DE Isaiah Foskey and LB J.D. Bertrand to make this a test for the much-heralded OSU attack. Taking the reins for the Notre Dame offense will be QB Tyler Buchner, who has more agility than last year’s starter Jack Coan but should also continue to benefit from having TE Michael Mayer in the huddle.
Why it could disappoint: The Buckeyes defense wasn’t exactly a weakness a year ago. But it wasn’t a strength, either, gashed for over 126 ground yards a game. The unit doesn’t need to be absolutely airtight, but any improvement shown on that side of the ball will make it tough for the Fighting Irish to keep pace if the game becomes a track meet.
CRYSTAL BALL:Our staff’s predictions for the playoff, Heisman and more
WEEKEND FORECAST:Top 25 picks and bold predictions for Week 1
BOWL PROJECTIONS: Forecasting the playoff and the entire postseason
No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 12 Oregon in Atlanta
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why watch: This top-15 showdown features storylines aplenty. Firstly, of course, it provides our first look at the Bulldogs since they walked off the field as national champions back in January. But one guy who had a lot to do with that group’s success, defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, is now the head man for the Ducks. And oh yeah, Oregon shook up the national championship race early last year as well with a takedown of Ohio State in Columbus. Can the Ducks make another big splash before what will certainly be a Georgia home crowd? Perhaps, but QB Stetson Bennett, now finally the undisputed leader of the Bulldogs’ offense, and standout TE Brock Bowers, last year’s breakout star as a freshman, figure to have a good idea what to expect from the defense of the Ducks. The Oregon attack likely will be directed by former Auburn QB Bo Nix, who didn’t have much luck against the Bulldogs at his previous school but should benefit from working behind a talented offensive line.
Why it could disappoint: The biggest question for Georgia is how will the defense look with Lanning on the opposite sideline and so many of last year’s key players now on NFL rosters? Short answer: it will be just fine. It might not be the same smothering the Bulldogs administered to Clemson to start last season, but a comeback will be hard to muster if Oregon falls behind.
No. 8 Utah at Florida
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why watch: Like conference mate Oregon, Utah will open the campaign venturing into SEC country hoping to provide a needed boost for the beleaguered Pac-12. The defending conference champion Utes are also looking to follow up last year’s monster season with something even bigger, but the Gators, a program accustomed to competing for titles, will try to kick off the Billy Napier era in Gainesville with a top-10 victory. Utah QB Cameron Rising and RB Tavion Thomas will be operating behind a veteran offensive line. That group will look to exploit a Florida front that struggled in key situations last year. But it is QB Anthony Richardson, seemingly a perfect fit to run the kind of offense that worked so well for Napier at Louisiana-Lafayette, that has Gator fans most excited.
Why it could disappoint: Despite losing do-everything LB Devin Lloyd to the NFL, the Utah defense, with a veteran secondary led by SS Cole Bishop and CB Clark Phillips, should still be ahead of the Gators at this early juncture. Florida will improve, but this is a tough opener for a young squad, even one with SEC talent.
No. 22 Cincinnati at No. 23 Arkansas
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why watch: It might be the most under the radar of the day’s three Top 25 clashes, but it is nonetheless a huge contest for both programs. It will be all but impossible for the Bearcats to top the accomplishments of 2021 – an undefeated regular season, a berth in the College Football Playoff and an invitation to join the Big 12. But a win here in SEC territory against the revitalized Razorbacks would have Bearcats’ fans daring to dream once again. UC coach Luke Fickell has been mum on whether Evan Prater or Ben Bryant will get the starting nod at QB following the departure of program changer Desmond Ridder, and the answer probably will not be known until the Bearcats’ offense takes the field for the first time in Fayetteville. The Arkansas attack will again be led by dual-threat QB K.J. Jefferson, though his top target from last year, WR Treylon Burks, is off to the NFL.
Why it could disappoint: Unfortunately for Cincinnati, it is the personnel turnover on defense, losing the likes of CBs Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, that will be harder to overcome. Of course there is talent in the lineup, notably LB Deshawn Pace, but the Razorbacks figure to be stronger on that side of the ball with LB Bumper Pool – a perennial all-name team favorite – anchoring the back seven.
No. 25 Houston at Texas-San Antonio
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN
Why watch: There are a number of candidates for the title of sneaky-good game of the week, but we’ll submit this intersectional clash of group-of-five conference hopefuls. The Big 12 bound Cougars won’t be G5 for much longer, of course, and that term itself might be rendered obsolete in the shifting winds of the sport, but for now this game’s outcome could have an impact on the major bowl lineup at season’s end. Houston has aspirations of matching Cincinnati’s feat of sweeping the American Athletic and presenting a playoff resume. The first potential stumbling block is this road date against the reigning Conference USA champion Roadrunners. UTSA did lose its Frisco Bowl game to San Diego State to close out the 2021 campaign, but clearly coach Jeff Traylor has a winning formula in place. The game itself should be entertaining, with both offenses led by veteran QBs. Houston’s Clayton Tune put up 3,546 passing yards last season, while Frank Harris threw for 3,161 and 27 scores for the Roadrunners.
Why it could disappoint: It shouldn’t, but blowout scenarios exist. The Roadrunners’ secondary might struggle to match up with Houston’s veteran receivers. On the other hand, Tune can be pick prone at times, so a turnover cascade isn’t out of the question.