College Football: 10 Best Week 1 Matchups

Jacob Freedman@JFree727Correspondent IAugust 8, 2012

College Football: 10 Best Week 1 Matchups

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    Hope springs eternal the opening week of the college football season.

    Every BCS squad thinks it has a shot at a bowl game if it can spring an upset or two. Every team in the Top 10 believes a national title is within its grasp.

    Heck, Lou Holtz probably even thinks Notre Dame is going to win it all.

    Three weeks from tomorrow, it all begins.

    While the script for college football’s first week usually begins with a BCS squad paying a smaller school hundreds of thousands of dollars to receive a heavy thrashing, there are always a couple of marquee games.

    This year is no different. Here are the 10 best matchups of the opening week.

Honorable Mention: In-State Rivalries

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    When in-state rivals face each other, one can often throw out the records. However, there will be no records when these trio of rivals face off.

    Neither Colorado or Colorado State should have high expectations for 2012, but they will play a close game in at Mile High.

    Louisville is hosting Kentucky on the first Saturday, and the Cardinals should roll over the Wildcats as they begin their 2012 campaign as the Big East favorite.

    Marshall has never defeated West Virginia, and with the Mountaineers hosting this year as they enter the Big 12, it doesn't look like the Thundering Herd have what it takes to pull off the massive upset.

10. Texas-San Antonio @ South Alabama

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    Thursday, Aug. 30, 7:30 p.m. ET

    This matchup will have minimal significance come December, but it’s nifty in that both schools are making their debut at the FBS level.

    The Roadrunners of Texas-San Antonio are transitioning into the WAC, while the Jaguars are entering the Sun Belt.

    Neither squad will make a bowl game, and the transition to the highest level of college football won’t be easy. Still, it marks a move to the highest level of competition in college football.

    While not many will be watching at a national level, one can be sure alumni and fans of both schools will be excited come August 30. 

9. Texas A&M @ Louisiana Tech

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    Thursday, Aug 30, 7:30 p.m. ET 

    In Texas A&M’s first game as a member of the SEC, the Aggies play a conference favorite from Louisiana. Fortunately, that conference is the WAC and that team is the Bulldogs rather than the Tigers. Still, this game will be more evenly matched than one would think.

    The Aggies had to do some scrambling with their schedule after they learned they would be playing in the SEC this fall, and the Bulldogs were added in February.

    Texas A&M has a new coach in Kevin Sumlin and talented skill players in running back Christine Michael and wideout Ryan Swope. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is a star and will need to protect new starting quarterback Jameil Showers.

    The Bulldogs return a scary quarterback-wideout duo in Colby Cameron and Quinton Patton that will test a green Aggies secondary.

    Despite their conference affiliations, the teams are pretty evenly matched. Also take into account the home-field advantage for Louisiana Tech, and the Bulldogs could surprise a transitioning Aggies squad.

    Just don’t expect them to call it an upset in Shreveport. 

8. North Carolina State vs. Tennessee

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    Friday, Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m. ET in Atlanta

    This matchup won’t receive the hype of the other SEC-ACC showdown in Week 1 between Auburn and Clemson, but that doesn’t meant it won’t be as exciting.

    Tennessee enters the season unranked and will likely need eight wins to save coach Derek Dooley’s job. Luckily, they have one of the best passing games in the SEC with quarterback Tyler Bray and two immensely talented wideouts in Da’rick Rogers and Justin Hunter.

    Meanwhile, the Wolfpack have arguably the nation’s top cornerback in David Amerson, who finished last season with an incredible 13 interceptions, one shy of the Division I record.

    N.C. State doesn’t have a bad quarterback either. Mike Glennon threw for 31 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards in 2011.

    Both teams want 2012 to be more than a seven- or eight-win season. A win here would be the perfect way to gain momentum for when conference play rolls around. 

7. Ohio @ Penn State

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    Saturday, Sept. 1, 12 p.m. ET

    Political correctness aside, the first Penn State football game in the wake of unprecedented NCAA sanctions will garner a huge amount of attention beyond its significance for 2012.

    Running back Silas Redd and receiver Justin Brown, two of the Nittany Lions' most important skill-position players, have transferred thanks to the NCAA ruling that allowed them to play immediately at their new school. Penn State struggled on offense last year, and this year doesn’t look to be much better.

    Penn State’s 2012 forecast was iffy before the sanctions hit. Now the team could be closer to the bottom of the Big Ten than the top.

    Bring in the Bobcats. Ohio won 10 games and just missed a MAC title in 2011. They return 14 starters, including quarterback Tyler Tettleton, whose dual-threat abilities must be respected. On defense, eight of the Bobcats' top-10 tacklers are still around.

    Week 1 of the Bill O’Brien era will be challenging on and off the field. Don’t be surprised to see Ohio overstay its welcome and create some drama on the Penn State gridiron. 

6. Notre Dame vs. Navy

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    Saturday, Sept. 1, 9 a.m. ET in Dublin, Ireland

    Notre Dame starting quarterback Tommy Rees is suspended for this game for being a fighting Irish. Unfortunately, that fighting was against law enforcement. And where is this game being held? Dublin, Ireland. Oh, the irony.

    Luckily, whoever fills in at quarterback will have preseason All-American tight end Tyler Eifert as a target.

    Navy will not field one of its better squads, with 2011’s top rushers—quarterback Kriss Proctor and running back Alexander Teich—having used up their eligibility. The defense wasn’t splendid last year either.

    The game itself will not be thrilling, with both offenses undergoing heavy change. Still, having a football game in Ireland is pretty neat, and both squads will try to give the Emerald Isle a positive impression of football on our side of the Atlantic.

5. South Carolina @ Vanderbilt

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    Thursday, Aug. 30, 7 p.m. ET

    SEC Football Week 1? I’ll take it!

    2012 could be a big year for the Gamecocks. Running back Marcus Lattimore and quarterback Connor Shaw will anchor the offense, and Jadeveon Clowney, possibly the scariest sophomore in recent memory, leading the defense.

    South Carolina set a school record with 11 wins last season and the national spotlight will be bright upon coach Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks, beginning on ESPN the first night of the season.

    Usually, playing Vanderbilt early meant one fewer win needed for bowl eligibility, even in Nashville. No more. Under new head coach James Franklin, the Commodores made the school’s fifth bowl game in 2011 and return 18 starters.

    While South Carolina’s talent still outclasses Vanderbilt's by a country mile, playing in Nashville will be no picnic for the Gamecocks. Especially if Lattimore struggles in his return from a torn knee ligament that ended his 2011 season.

    This game could go horribly wrong for the Gamecocks if they stumble out of the gate, so be on early upset alert on the season’s first Thursday. 

4. Washington State @ Brigham Young

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    Thursday, Aug. 30, 10:15 p.m. ET

    South Carolina-Vanderbilt might have more ramifications down the road, but the second game in ESPN’s doubleheader will generate the most excitement.

    Washington State and flashy new coach Mike Leach are expected to take the passing attack to a new level, with rocket-armed Jeff Tuel and dynamic wideout Marquess Wilson leading the charge.

    BYU won 10 games in its first season as an independent, thanks to a late-season surge after Riley Nelson won back his quarterbacking job from Jake Heaps (who transferred to Kansas). He and junior wideout Jordan Hoffman might not have the flash of Tuel-Wilson, but they’ll make it up with their reliability.

    There hasn’t been this much buzz coming from Washington State since the days of Ryan Leaf. This opening test against an always-strong BYU will produce an interesting report card on the early progress of the Leach Project. 

3. Clemson vs. Auburn

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    Saturday, Sept. 1, 7 p.m. ET in Atlanta

    College Gameday will be in Atlanta for this one, with Auburn aiming for revenge after a 35-21 win by Clemson last season ended a 14-game win streak by Auburn in the series.

    Both schools will be without their best offensive player, with Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins being suspended after a drug incident while former Auburn running back Michael Dyer was sent packing for multiple team violations.

    The matchup of the game will be Clemson’s inexperienced offensive line against 2011 first-team All-SEC defensive end Corey Lemonier and a strong Auburn defensive front.

    Clemson's Tajh Boyd is among the nation’s premier quarterbacks, but he can be rattled and pressured into making errant throws and interceptions. He was noticeably worse in the second half of 2011, and this game will be his opportunity to get off to a good start in 2012.

    Auburn is the seventh-ranked team in the SEC. Clemson is second to Virginia Tech in the ACC. Yet Auburn is the early favorite in Las Vegas.

    Time to step up your game, ACC.

2. Boise State @ Michigan State

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    Friday, Aug. 31, 8 p.m. ET

    Both teams lost their starting quarterback and running back from last year, so expectations for an offensive show should be tempered.

    Former Broncos quarterback Kellen Moore set an NCAA record for career wins, but Boise State still has a system in place and new starter Joe Southwick should be able to step right in.

    Meanwhile, Michigan State’s strength this season will be on the lines. The Spartans' offensive line is deep with experience and will pave holes for bruising back LeVeon Bell.

    Meanwhile, Michigan State's William Gholston has one more season to terrorize opposing offenses before his elite pass-rushing skills are put to use in the NFL.

    This is Boise State’s final season as a non-BCS football program before moving to the geographically inappropriate Big East in 2013. Going to Spartan Stadium and facing a top Big Ten school isn’t the best way to start life post-Moore. However, I’ve learned it’s foolish to doubt coach Chris Petersen’s genius.

    For the Broncos, this is an opportunity to show the power of the program. For Michigan State, this is a chance to start strong in its never-ending quest to finish above those hated Michigan Wolverines. 

1. Michigan vs. Alabama

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    Saturday, Sept. 1, 8 p.m. ET in Dallas

    Sorry North Texas-LSU.

    In all seriousness, this matchup in front of 90,000 fans in Cowboys Stadium will be the premier game of college football’s first week.

    The reigning national champions, Alabama eschewed a MAC or Sun Belt foe in order to face what should be the Big Ten’s best team.

    In coach Brady Hoke’s first season, the Wolverines exceeded expectations by winning 11 games,  capped by a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech. That may be a mixed blessing for Hoke, but now the standard is set. Eight- or nine-win seasons might not cut it in Ann Arbor anymore.

    Nick Saban evidently didn’t learn to share in preschool, because the man simply hoards defensive talent in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide lost eight starters, including four of the top 35 picks in the NFL draft. Yet, the remaining leaders will anchor the defense, and I expect the new starters to fill in to produce another top-10 unit.

    Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron is no slouch in leading the offense either.

    Denard Robinson, Fitzgerald Toussaint and the Wolverines offense will have their work cut out for them on Labor Day weekend. Michigan’s elite run offense will be tested by 2011’s top running defense.

    Ranked No. 2 in the USA Today Coaches' preseason poll, the Crimson Tide are a solid favorite for this game. However, if Michigan’s offense can gain steam, the Wolverines could alter the college football landscape and do their part to prevent another all-SEC title matchup.