College Football Predictions: Picking the Winners of the Top Week 1 Games
It’s time to celebrate. The college football season is finally here!
Yes, we can now put an offseason filled with arrests, suspensions, player dismissals, bowl bans and motorcycle accidents in the rear-view mirror.
Week 1 kicks off tonight with 15 games, including an intriguing SEC East showdown between South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Obviously, though, there’s one game this weekend that has attracted the most interest. That’s Saturday night's prime-time battle between defending national champion Alabama and No. 8-ranked Michigan. It’s one of the few marquee matchups that we’ll get to see during an opening weekend that will otherwise mostly feature top-ranked teams beating up on cupcake opponents.
Still, there are at least a few other notable games worth watching this weekend.
Following are breakdowns and predictions for the 12 best games of Week 1.
Alabama vs. Michigan
Everyone wants to know how Alabama is going to replace so many key players from last year's national championship team. High NFL draft picks such as running back Trent Richardson, linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Mark Barron will obviously be missed.
The thing about the Tide, though, is that this team that doesn't rebuild; it simply reloads. That's something that Michigan is going to find out at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday night.
Alabama still has the strongest offensive line in the country, led by defending Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones and potential All-Americans Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. That's definitely not good news for a Wolverines defensive line that lost three starters from last year.
The Tide may miss Richardson, but Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler and explosive freshmen T.J. Yeldon and Dee Hart are a versatile and exceptionally talented group of running backs who will be tough for the inexperienced Michigan defensive front to handle.
QB Denard Robinson may be one of the most dangerous playmakers in college football. However, Alabama will likely be looking to keep the ball out of Robinson's hands by powering its way down the field in order to control the clock and the tempo of the game.
The Wolverines will certainly be put to the test by Alabama's ground attack. Plus, they'll have to worry about second-year starting quarterback A.J. McCarron and his impressive group of receivers, led by DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood.
If McCarron manages the game well and limits his mistakes, and if Lacy and crew can wear down Michigan's defense with long, sustained drives, Alabama should prevail in the first true mega-matchup of the season.
Prediction: Alabama 33, Michigan 24
Clemson vs. Auburn
Everyone's focusing on Alabama vs. Michigan. However, don't be surprised if the best game of the weekend actually turns out to be Clemson vs. Auburn.
The 2012 meeting of the Tigers will be the rubber match of a three-game series between these teams.
Auburn eked out a 27-24 overtime victory in 2010, which was followed up by a 38-24 win by Clemson this past season.
Even though Clemson will enter the Georgia Dome as the higher-ranked squad, these teams are evenly matched.
Clemson has the more proven commodities at the offensive skill positions with QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington and WR DeAndre Hopkins (star sophomore receiver Sammy Watkins will not play due to a suspension).
Auburn is stronger in the trenches, though, especially on the defensive line. That's where ends Corey Lemonier, Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae and tackles Jeffrey Whitaker, Kenneth Carter and Gabe Wright will all be looking to take advantage of Clemson's inexperienced offensive line, which will be breaking in three starters.
The game will likely come down to how effectively Clemson can run the ball and whether the offensive line can keep Boyd safe from the heavy pass rush he'll likely face all game long.
In the end, the real determining factor will be which team is in better condition and can hold up better in the fourth quarter.
If Auburn's defensive line can wear down Clemson's front five, Gene Chizik's crew should be able to take over the game late and come away with a close victory.
Prediction: Auburn 28, Clemson 27
Boise State at Michigan State
Boise State has started the past three seasons with an impressive victory over a BCS school.
In 2009, the Broncos beat Oregon, 19-7. In 2010, they toppled Virginia Tech, 33-30. And then last year, they went into Georgia's backyard and beat the Bulldogs, 35-21.
This year, however, Chris Petersen and his coaching staff will have their toughest challenge yet, as they'll have to take a team that returns just seven starters to East Lansing to square off with No. 13 Michigan State.
The Broncos defense will feature nine new full-time starters, including a completely new defensive line.
You can bet that Michigan State's powerhouse running back Le'Veon Bell is definitely excited about this game. Bell will likely be the team's offensive focal point on Friday night, as the Spartans ease new quarterback Andrew Maxwell into the mix.
Michigan State's recipe for success is simple—rely on the running game and play great defense.
The second part of that should be rather easy. The Spartans are loaded on defense, with returning standouts such as defensive end William Gholston, linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and cornerback Johnny Adams.
Boise State's new quarterback, Joe Southwick, who threw just 30 total passes in 2011, will be in for a long night, going up against a defense that returns eight starters from a unit that allowed just 18 points and 277 yards per game last year.
Prediction: Michigan State 38, Boise State 22
Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech
There will be a critical ACC clash on Labor Day night, when the two top contenders for the conference's Coastal Division title—Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech—face off in Blacksburg.
This will be a game of contrasting styles. The Hokies have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Logan Thomas, while the Yellow Jackets will rely on a potent ground game, featuring quarterback Tevin Washington and running backs Orwin Smith and David Sims.
Thomas will be the most talented player on the field Monday night, but the Georgia Tech defense is no joke. That's especially true in the secondary, which features two of the league's best defensive backs—cornerback Rod Sweeting and safety Isaiah Johnson.
Thomas, Virginia Tech's athletic dual-threat quarterback, won't be able to beat the Yellow Jackets by himself. He'll need help from teammates such as running back Michael Holmes and receivers Marcus Davis and Dyrell Roberts. Plus, he'll need his inexperienced offensive line, which includes four new starters, to step up and keep him safe.
This game will likely come down to whether Georgia Tech can consistently control the ball against Virginia Tech's defense, which happens to be one of the nation's most talented units.
This should be a physical, hard-fought game. You have to give the edge to the Hokies, though, since they'll have the benefit of having Thomas, the biggest difference maker on either team, on their side.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 30, Georgia Tech 20
South Carolina at Vanderbilt
UPDATE: South Carolina defeated Vanderbilt, 17-13.
South Carolina vs. Vanderbilt will undoubtedly be the most important game of opening night.
The Gamecocks will look to start their run at an SEC championship in strong fashion, but they could end up being in for a real test against the home-standing Commodores.
Vanderbilt returns 15 starters, including the dangerous offensive trio of QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy and WR Jordan Matthews.
South Carolina's defense may feature one of the best defensive end duos in the country—Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor—but it's also a unit that lost six key starters from 2011, including first-round NFL draft picks Melvin Ingram and Stephon Gilmore, as well as leading tackler Antonio Allen.
Rodgers, Stacy and Matthews are capable of challenging the Gamecocks and making them work for all four quarters.
South Carolina may have the best player on the field, RB Marcus Lattimore. However, no one can know for sure just what to expect from the star junior back since he's returning from a serious knee injury and hasn't experienced full contact since last October.
If DT Rob Lohr, DE Walker May and LB Archibald Barnes can keep Lattimore contained, Vanderbilt has enough offensive firepower to keep things close and push this game into the fourth quarter.
Ultimately, this one has the chance to be a lot closer than a lot of people may be expecting, and it wouldn't be all that shocking if we end up starting off the season with a major rankings-shaking upset.
James Franklin's team has the chance to make a major statement on a national stage, and it will be interesting to see how the Commodores respond.
Prediction: South Carolina 26, Vanderbilt 13
Tennessee vs. North Carolina State
Tennessee vs. N.C. State has the potential to turn into a shootout.
Tennessee's Tyler Bray and N.C. State's Mike Glennon are two of the best passers in college football, and they should be ready to air it out in the Georgia Dome on Friday night.
The most important individual matchup will be between Vols WR Justin Hunter and Wolfpack CB David Amerson, two of the most talented juniors in the country. Both have the potential to be first-round picks in the 2013 NFL draft.
Tennessee has better athletes on both sides of the ball, but I simply can't trust a Derek Dooley-coached team.
Plus, I expect big things from Glennon this year. He has the chance to start his senior season in style with a big win over a notable SEC opponent.
Prediction: N.C. State 35, Tennessee 31
Notre Dame vs. Navy
If you're not too hungover from Friday night's games, you might want to wake up early on Saturday to check out Notre Dame vs. Navy, which will kick off at 9 a.m. EST from Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland.
The Irish will be led by new starting quarterback Everett Golson, an athletic redshirt freshman who possesses an exciting skill set.
It's not easy to go from scout team player to starter, but Golson seems like he should be able to handle it.
Navy's offense will also be led by a new starting signal-caller in Trey Miller.
The Midshipmen do, however, bring back two rushers—Gee Gee Greene and John Howell—who the Irish will have to figure out how to stop.
If Golson performs well and doesn't make any major mistakes, and if the Notre Dame defense can handle Navy's triple-option attack and keep Greene and Howell in check, the Irish should make their symbolic homeland proud on Saturday.
Prediction: Notre Dame 28, Navy 10
Nevada at California
Nevada is a team to watch in the Mountain West this season.
The Wolf Pack are led by Cody Fajardo, one of the most talented dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, and they have legitimate NFL-caliber talent on both sides of the ball with players such as WR Brandon Wimberly, OT Jeff Nady, OG Chris Barker and SS Duke Williams.
California will have to be careful not to overlook this talented and well-coached squad.
The Golden Bears happen to have plenty of talent of their own, though, especially in star receiver Keenan Allen.
Allen is a 6'3'', 210-pound junior who caught 98 passes for 1,343 yards last year, and he'll be the key player that Nevada will have to stop.
The problem for Nevada is that if it focuses on Allen too much, it will soften its defense and give talented running back Isi Sofele more room to run.
Ultimately, Allen, Sofele and the rest of Cal's offense will prove to be just too overwhelming for the Nevada defense. The Golden Bears should pull away in the second half.
Prediction: California 37, Nevada 28
Washington State at BYU
UPDATE: Washington State's offense failed to score a touchdown as the Cougars were rolled by BYU, 30-6.
It seems fitting that Mike Leach's return to coaching duties at Washington State will come against his alma mater, BYU.
Leach has taken on the tough task of trying to turn around a team that has won just nine games in the past four years. However, his team does have some intriguing talent.
Projected starting quarterback Jeff Tuel and star receiver Marquess Wilson appear to be perfect fits for Leach's pass-heavy offensive system.
The problem is, outside of edge-rusher Travis Long and safety Deone Bucannon, the Washington State defense isn't a very impressive unit.
Look for the BYU offense, led by senior quarterback Riley Nelson and receivers Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo, to take advantage of the mismatches presented to them.
The clash of the Cougars has the chance to be one of the most high-scoring games that we'll see this weekend. But in the end, Nelson should outduel Tuel.
Prediction: BYU 41, Washington State 31
Southern Miss at Nebraska
Southern Miss comes into the season with a ton of momentum after winning 12 games and the Conference USA championship a year ago. However, the Golden Eagles are a very different team.
Coach Larry Fedora, starting quarterback Austin Davis and leading tackler Ronnie Thornton are gone.
Even though Southern Miss has intriguing potential stars such as WR Tracy Lampley and hybrid defensive end Jamie Collins, only 10 starters return. That inexperience will prove to be a major hindrance when the Golden Eagles take on Nebraska in Lincoln on Saturday.
The Cornhuskers will be eager to shake off a disappointing 2011 campaign, and QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead and WR Kenny Bell will be looking to start 2012 with a strong performance.
Southern Miss could keep things interesting for a half, but Nebraska has too much talent. The Cornhuskers will likely pull away in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Nebraska 45, Southern Miss 24
Ohio at Penn State
After such a tumultuous offseason, Penn State fans probably won't have high expectations for 2012.
Even so, the Nittany Lion faithful are probably expecting to start with a victory over a non-BCS opponent in Week 1.
The problem is, that non-BCS opponent just happens to be Ohio, a team that won 10 games and finished first in the MAC East Division in 2011.
The Bobcats are led by one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country—athletic junior Tyler Tettleton—and they return 14 starters.
Bill O'Brien better have his players prepared, because if he doesn't, the Nittany Lions could be in serious trouble.
Ultimately, Penn State's defense, which will be led by veteran leaders such as DT Jordan Hill and linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, will likely prove to be too strong for Tettleton and the Bobcats.
O'Brien should be able to earn a "W" in his head-coaching debut.
Prediction: Penn State 23, Ohio 14
SMU at Baylor
If you haven't completely satisfied your college football fix by the time Saturday is over, don't worry. You can watch the SMU-Baylor game on Sunday night.
The Bears may have lost Heisman-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III, as well as the school's all-time leading receiver, Kendall Wright, and last year's leading rusher, Terrance Ganaway. However, the offense will still have plenty of playmakers.
RB Lache Seastrunk and receivers Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson are explosive and dangerous weapons that will really put a lot of stress on the Mustangs defense.
With RB Zach Line and WR Darius Johnson returning, SMU has the skill-position talent to hang with the Bears.
Ultimately, though, Baylor will prove to be too fast and too strong for June Jones' team.
Prediction: Baylor 39, SMU 27