Alabama returns as college football's team to beat.
It's the most wonderful time of the year. No I'm not talking about Christmas. Sure that's nice as well, but for college football fans, August through January is the real holiday season.
The Top 25 preseason poll, coaches edition, is out. Even though many fans and analysts agree that early polls give teams fair and unfair advantages, it signals the start of the season. Fall camps are starting. The nonstop Johnny Manziel talk can begin to go away. The dog days of August are upon us. Stay out of the heat and get ready for football.
So, here are my predictions for the first weekend of games. Keep in mind that I (for some reason) picked Michigan to beat Alabama last year. I didn't make that mistake this year (sorry, Virginia Tech). There are only two matchups of ranked teams the first weekend, so don't expect a lot of movement in the polls.
Stanford, ranked fourth in the preseason, is the only team with a bye week.
Jadeveon Clowney leads a dominant South Carolina defense against North Carolina.
There are thoughts of SEC East titles in Columbia, and it all starts with another season-opening Thursday night contest for the Gamecocks. South Carolina started last season in a monsoon as they traveled to Vanderbilt and overcame a raucous crowd and an upset-minded Commodore team, 17-13.
This year, the Gamecocks host North Carolina in college football's kickoff game, and all eyes will be on South Carolina's dominant defensive tackle Jadeveon Clowney.
The last time we saw him, he was doing his best to make another headless horseman out of Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Gamecocks' 33-28 victory over the Wolverines in the Outback Bowl. Now he's widely considered the best defensive player in college football and is on some short lists to be the first pure defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.
It won't be easy going for South Carolina, though. The team returns seven starters from an offense that was below average at best last season and only five starters on its dominant defense. The team will be tested by senior quarterback Bryn Renner, who threw for 3,356 yards and 28 touchdowns a year ago and returns his top two pass-catchers in receiver Quinshad Davis and tight end Eric Ebron.
The Tar Heels also return nine starters on defense, including their entire defensive backfield, and will test the Gamecocks early and often. Senior quarterback Connor Shaw, who seems like he's been in Columbia for five years, will have to work hard to find open passing lanes.
This should be a great season opener and leave college football fans wanting more. It will come down to the fourth quarter, and South Carolina's depth will come through in the clutch.
South Carolina: 17
North Carolina: 14
Marqise Lee headlines what should be a potent Trojan offense.
Hawaii changed its name from Warriors to the pre-2000 nickname Rainbow Warriors. I personally like it. Changing the name likely won't help a team that finished 3-9 a season ago stop a talented USC Trojan team, though.
Marqise Lee doesn't have Matt Barkley to throw to him anymore, but don't expect that to slow the talented receiver down against Hawaii. He had 10 catches for 197 yards and a touchdown in last year's 49-10 season-opening win over the Rainbow Warriors, and the Trojans return a bunch of talent on both offense and defense this season.
That's not good news for the Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii coach Norm Chow announced the dismissal of offensive coordinator Aaron Price just days before the start of fall camp. Chow stated the reason was undisclosed but that he would be assuming play-calling duties. No matter what happens, it can't get any worse than 2012 when Hawaii finished 118th in the country in total offense.
Nothing will be easy for Hawaii on this Friday night, though.
Southern Cal will probably run the ball right at the undersized Warriors and coast to the finish after big plays from its receivers set up easy touchdowns. Expect there to be more conversation about Lane Kiffin, a possible Pac-12 Championship, how great Lee looks even when he doesn't catch a pass and the beautiful Hawaiian weather than the actual game.
Braxton Miller leads the best team in the Big Ten.
The consensus Big Ten preseason pick to win the conference championship and possibly have a berth in the final BCS National Championship Game starts off the first Saturday in college football by hosting the Buffalo Bulls of the MAC.
All eyes will be on Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller. If the junior can raise his completion percentage, he could have the type of Heisman Trophy year many feel he has earned already. His legs alone will exhaust a defense, and with four of his five offensive linemen from 2012 returning, he will have plenty of time to pick apart a porous Bulls defense.
Ohio State returns just four starters on defense, but it should have an easy time against a Buffalo team that finished 83rd in the country in total offense a year ago. The Bulls do return nine offensive starters, but they just don't have the firepower to compete with the Buckeyes.
Expect many references to Miller's Heisman chances in this one.
Ohio State: 52
Quarterback Joel Stave (2) and running back Melvin Gordon will pace Wisconsin against UMass.
This is a huge transition year for the two-time defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin Badgers. They have a new head coach in Gary Andersen after previous head man Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas and must operate without perennial dump truck running back Montee Ball, who is at training camp with the Denver Broncos.
There is reason for hope in Madison, though.
After all, these Badgers are still the defending conference champions. They return eight starters on offense and seven on defense. Running backs Melvin Gordon and James White have shown they are extremely talented, and do-everything receiver Jared Abbrederis is one of the best in the conference. Quarterback Joel Stave will now run the offense, and they look to perform better than a year ago when they finished 65th in total offense and 59th in total offense.
I know there's always potential for a scare to start the season, and that was obvious last year when the Badgers needed late-game heroics to escape with a 26-21 season-opening win over Northern Iowa, but UMass simply isn't ready for Wisconsin.
The Minutemen return just nine starters on a team that finished 1-11 on the season and was shut out three times. This one could get ugly early, and we'll see how early Andersen pulls his starters.
Will Muschamp will need to figure out how to slow down the Toledo offense.
Head coach Will Muschamp's Florida Gators may be huge favorites against the visiting Toledo Rockets, but the game might be closer than expected.
Starting quarterback Jeff Driskel has missed all of fall camp because of an appendectomy, allowing junior Tyler Murphy, who has never thrown a pass in college football, to temporarily take all the first-string snaps under center. That's not great news for an offense that struggled mightily at times last season and returns very little experience in the form of skill position athletes.
They will have to keep pace with Toledo's high-powered offense, which averaged over 30 points per game in 2012 and returns nine offensive starters. Included are quarterback Terrance Owens, who threw for just over 2,700 yards and 18 touchdowns a year ago, and running back David Fluellen, who finished eighth in the country with 1,498 yards a year ago.
The good news for Florida is Toledo is absolutely atrocious on defense. The team finished 109th in total defense and was 116th in passing defense, allowing almost 3,900 yards through the air in 2012. That should give Florida just enough of an edge to outscore the Rockets at home on what should be a blistering hot afternoon in Gainesville.
Quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) needs more than just football instruction from head coach Kevin Sumlin.
Let's be honest. This isn't about the game. It isn't about Rice, Texas A&M, or the oppressive late August heat in College Station, Texas.
It's about Johnny Manziel.
The "Johnny Football" stories have been beaten to death by so many news organizations that I'm certain you'd rather not read anymore here. Don't worry, I won't put you through that. Whether or not Manziel plays, though, will have little effect on the outcome of the game.
The Aggies, even with just six returning starters on offense, are very good. They'll score a lot of points.
The Owls, on the other hand, return 10 starters on defense. That sounds great until you see they were 82nd in the country in total defense last season, giving up nearly 426 yards per game. If Manziel plays, which he probably will, Texas A&M will get near that.
Texas A&M: 47
Brian Kelly's defense is loaded. Can his offense feed off it?
Notre Dame has been another team with a forgettable offseason. Not as much or as loudly as Texas A&M or Ohio State. But forgettable.
First Manti Te'o. Then quarterback Everett Golson was suspended for the year.
The good news for the Irish: Their defense can get back to work shutting teams not named Alabama down. Eight starters return from the unit that was seventh in the nation in total defense and second in scoring defense.
The bad news for Temple: Their offense, which was 107th in the nation a year ago and returns eight of those starters, has Notre Dame first on their schedule.
There won't be a lot of offensive fireworks in this one.
Notre Dame: 20
Devin Gardner hopes to lead Michigan to their first Big Ten Championship since 2004.
It's hard to believe it's been nine years since Michigan won a Big Ten Championship. To make matters worse for the Wolverine faithful, rival Ohio State has won five and own a 7-1 advantage over Michigan in the most heated rivalry in sports since 2005.
This is the year the Wolverines hope to change it all. Quarterback Devin Gardner will have plenty of receivers to throw to, and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will carry the workload fully in 2013.
The defense, which returns six starters, shouldn't have much trouble slowing down an already below-average Central Michigan unit. The Chippewas will have a hard time finding much running room and very few passing lanes against a ferocious and seasoned Wolverines defense.
Central Michigan: 10
Junior Clint Chelf has taken the reins of a potent Cowboy offense.
I am really excited about this game. Oklahoma State brings one of the country's most explosive passing attacks against Mississippi State's speedy SEC defense. Media pundits and fans alike wonder how a spread game like the one head coach Mike Gundy brings to Houston for this neutral site game will do.
I'd say pretty well. Oklahoma State is a legitimate threat to win the Big 12, and Mississippi State hasn't seen the type of aerial acrobatics quarterback Clint Chelf will throw at them. Actually, they kind of have. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel threw for 311 yards and rushed for 129 more as the Aggies rolled up 693 yards in a 36-15 rout of the Bulldogs last season.
I wouldn't expect anything less from the best offense in the Big 12. Chelf doesn't have the running capabilities of Manziel (who does?), but his arm strength and knowledge of Gundy's offense will be an asset.
It'll be hot in Houston the last day of August, and Oklahoma State will be even hotter inside Reliant Stadium.
Oklahoma State: 42
Mississippi State: 20
Quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Oregon offense will crush Nicholls State.
Yes, Oregon is hosting FCS doormat Nicholls State, a team that went 1-11 in 2012 and allowed 36 points per game against other FCS foes. Yes, this game will be over in the first quarter. No, I do not care that Oregon has a new coach.
Nicholls State: 0
Will we see AJ McCarron and Alabama in Pasadena in January? It all starts in Atlanta in August.
The undisputed No. 1 team in the nation is back for more, and it again starts its season against a traditional power. Last year, it was Michigan. I actually picked the Wolverines to win because of what they returned and what the Tide supposedly lacked. Yea, I was wrong about that.
I'm not picking against Alabama this year. The Tide return seven starters from the best defense in the world in 2012 and six starters from an offense that really got going when it had to. That's not good news for the Hokies.
Virginia Tech can take solace in the nine returning starters on defense. I say take solace because its offense, which was horrid at times in 2012, returns just four starters. That might not be such a bad thing throughout the season, but it's horrible when Alabama is making mincemeat out of your quarterback. Good luck, Logan Thomas.
This game will be close for a little bit, but Virginia Tech's inept offense will allow for some easy Tide points.
Virginia Tech: 10
Head coach Mike Riley's Beavers believe they can win the Pac-12 Championship in 2013.
This is another case of a Top 25 team playing an FCS team. I don't give it much thought, don't really look much into statistics and pretty much just throw a score out there because any ranked FBS team should beat any FCS team—regardless of FCS rank—by 40 points.
Oregon State: 42
Eastern Washington: 12
This is a huge year of uncertainty for Bob Stoops and the Sooners.
Oklahoma will be good in 2013. It may be good enough to win the conference simply because its defense will carry the team through some games. The offense will have to wake up if it has BCS aspirations in mind, though.
You want to think Oklahoma shouldn't have much trouble with Louisiana-Monroe, but the Warhawks made life difficult for more than a few teams last season. They upset Arkansas on the road and took Auburn, who we all thought was worth something, to overtime before succumbing. They return nine defensive starters and eight on the offensive side of the ball. This club will hurt some people in the Sun Belt Conference.
Oklahoma is a bit of a different story than Arkansas or Auburn, though. It is a cut above the rest. The team may be ranked where it is based on name brand alone, but it's still above the Warhawks. There will be some growing pains in the quarterback department, but the Sooners return the bulk of their offensive line.
Taylor Martinez (3) and Nebraska look to get over the hump in 2013.
If there was ever a team dying for relevance, it's Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have not won a conference championship since 1999, an unbelievable number for the nation's leader in the category, and haven't been in a BCS bowl since 2001. They've knocked on the door three times in the past four seasons but have fallen short, last year in devastating fashion.
Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, the nation's career leading rusher, leads a potent Cornhuskers offense that is the best in the Big Ten and in the Top 10 nationally. Running back Ameer Abdullah rushed for over 1,000 yards a year ago, and receiver Kenny Bell looks to be the first Cornhusker to ever have 1,000 yards receiving. They'll be great on offense.
The good news is their much-maligned defense shouldn't be tested much against Wyoming. That doesn't seem to compute because Wyoming throws the ball a ton more than they run it, which should test the Cornhuskers secondary. I bet head coach Bo Pelini is just begging them to throw the football.
The Nebraska defense led the nation in pass efficiency defense in 2012 and was fourth in passing yards allowed. As long as the team isn't trying to run the ball, the Cornhuskers should be fine.
Speaking of running the ball, Nebraska likes to do that. A lot. The Huskers finished eighth in the country in rushing yards a year ago and look to build on that in 2013. Wyoming, on the other hand, finished 118th against the rush in 2012.
This could get ugly.
Senior quarterback Aaron Murray leads the best offense in the SEC.
ESPN's College GameDay will be broadcasting live from Death Valley for this game, and it should be. Both Clemson and Georgia return explosive offensive weapons, and both have something to prove on defense.
Senior quarterback Aaron Murray decided to return to Athens for his senior season, and he, along with nine other returning starters, could be the most explosive offense in the SEC.
Clemson, on the other hand, returns talented quarter Tajh Boyd and a veteran offensive line that will battle four new starters on the Bulldog defensive front.
This should be an offensive fireworks display. Expect both teams to find the end zone multiple times, but watch for Georgia to show again why the SEC is the most dominant conference. Aaron Murray throws a late touchdown strike to lead the Bulldogs over the Tigers.
Quarterback David Ash leads the most experienced team in the Big 12.
If there was ever a time for Texas to return to national prominence, it's now. The Longhorns return a nation-leading 19 starters on both offense and defense and are competing in a conference that should be more average than in recent years.
It all starts with a visit from New Mexico State, who were just horrid in 2012. The Aggies finished the season 1-11 and allowed 66 points in a season-ending defeat at Texas State.
Texas should come out firing on all cylinders against one of the worst rushing defenses in the country. Expect sophomore running back Johnathan Gray to begin his meteoric rise to fame as he rushes for nearly 200 yards and four scores. Oh, and the rest of the team will shine as well.
New Mexico State: 3
How will head coach Les Miles and his young Tigers handle the bright lights in Arlington?
In the only other Top 25 showdown of the opening weekend, defensive powers LSU and TCU meet in newly renamed AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
This one won't go how many people imagine it to, though. TCU returns a bunch of talent on defense, but most of the talent from LSU is on offense. If the Frogs can shut down Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger, their offense, led by Casey Paschall, may be able to find some weaknesses in the young Tigers defense.
This game won't be as much fun to watch as the one in Clemson, but the outcome will surprise some people.
Quarterback Joe Southwick (16) leads Boise State against Washington.
If you hadn't heard, the University of Washington recently completed its renovation of Husky Stadium. It looks really nice. Here's a nice aerial view courtesy of the Seattle Times. I'm a fan of the removal of the track and the addition of the "W" to the top of the stadium.
Moving on to the game. This will be a late-night game that people should pay attention to. Washington, under head coach Steve Sarkisian, wants to be relevant not only in the Pac-12 but also nationally. Beating Boise State would at least get some attention thrown its way.
To be fair, it isn't completely out of the question. The Huskies return 10 starters, including quarterback Keith Price, on offense. That might not be the best thing, though, as Washington scored just 24 points per game and lost 28-26 to Boise in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl.
Speaking of that, when is the last time you remember hearing about two teams playing each other to end one season and start the next? I'm not going to do the research. I'm certain somebody can tell me.
Joe Southwick and Boise State weren't exactly offensive juggernauts in 2012, but they were certainly more consistent than the Huskies. Even so, they must find a way to move the ball more and find the end zone. This game might not be the most exciting offensively, but we'll know whether the Broncos deserve their ranking.
Boise State: 17
Quarterback Brett Hundley (17) leads an explosive UCLA offense.
Look at this game on paper and you'll see a lot of potential for offensive fireworks. Both offenses are led by dual-threat quarterbacks in UCLA's Brett Hundley and Nevada's Cody Fajardo. Fajardo isn't a household name, but he should be. The junior threw for 2,786 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 1,149 yards and 12 touchdowns.
This is going to be so much fun to watch. In the end, I think the lack of experience behind the Nevada defensive line (zero returning starters anywhere but the line) allows the Bruins to have explosive plays.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is, and always has been, the Golden Boy at Northwestern. Will it turn to a title this year?
These are the games teams hate. Especially teams from the Big Ten. Last year, Wisconsin and Nebraska lost at Oregon State and UCLA. Ohio State escaped with a 35-28 win over Cal. Now Northwestern travels to Berkeley for a showdown with the Golden Bears.
This will be an extremely late game for those on the East Coast, but they may want to stay awake to see how Northwestern senior quarterback Kain Colter and senior running back Venric Mark slice up the Cal defense.
This Wildcat team is good. They may be the best to play at Evanston since the 1995 team won the Big Ten and played in the Rose Bowl. They'll show it in this night game on the West Coast. The voters will be asleep, but the box score will surprise them.
Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater needs to start his Heisman campaign in the right way versus Ohio.
Louisville should be good enough to win the AAC in 2013, but it won't be on the shoulders of its offense. Sure the offense will be good, especially with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater under center and Auburn transfer Michael Dyer injecting some much-needed life into the Cardinals running game.
But Louisville will be good because of its defense. Nine starters return from the defense that was 23rd in the country in total defense and 36th in scoring defense.
That's bad news for Ohio. The Bobcats, last year's darling after knocking off Penn State to start the season, return just 11 total starters, including just one on the defensive line. That's not going to get it done against a Louisville team that's hungry to prove it belongs among the nation's elite.
Is Jameis Winston (5) ready to run coach Jimbo Fisher's Florida State offense? We'll know on Labor Day.
This will be an exciting game to watch. Defending ACC champion Florida State travels to Pittsburgh to welcome the Panthers into the conference in the season-opening Labor Day game.
There are a ton of questions surrounding the Seminoles. How will they move on with so many losses on both offense and defense? Is redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston ready to take the reins of a very young, albeit talented, Florida State team? How will the defensive line, with four new starters, jell under the lights?
All those questions will be answered quickly against Pittsburgh, especially on offense. The Panthers return nine starters from a defense that was 17th in total defense and 23rd in scoring defense. They are a deep, hungry bunch that would love to make their presence known against the Seminoles.
Pittsburgh needs to find some continuity on offense quickly as well, though. The Panthers will be starting a new quarterback and running backs against the Seminoles.
This game to end the first weekend of college football will surprise many.
Florida State: 17