10 College Football Teams That Must Make a Statement in Week 1
Some of college football's opening games resonate further than the (often limited) win-loss tally. Sometimes, it's more about the statement a team makes.
Not all game outcomes are created equal. Some teams need simply compete in Week 1 to say what they need to say, while others need to win convincingly.
Some teams have more on the line than their record.
Opponent: vs. Washington State
Statement: "Last year was last year; this year is this."
Auburn has spent the past nine months washing its hands of last season, a dreadful 3-9 campaign with wins over the Sunbelt's Louisiana-Monroe (in overtime), 1-11 New Mexico State and FCS Alabama A&M.
There's a new (but familiar) coach in Gus Malzahn, a new quarterback in Nick Marshall and a familiar expectation to win each time the Tigers suit up.
Washington State isn't an elite opponent, but it's still a power conference team with power conference recruits and a proven head coach in Mike Leach. The Cougars aren't going to roll over for anybody, giving AU a chance to pour one last scoop of dirt on 2012's grave.
Opponent: vs. Rutgers
Statement: "Believe the hype."
Much ado has been spoken about Fresno State's offense, specifically quarterback Derek Carr and sophomore receiver Davante Adams. With a favorable schedule on tap, the Bulldogs are a trendy sleeper to be the final non-AQ player in the BCS.
But before those delusions of grandeur set in, Fresno State needs to prove its hypothetical bona fides. Its opponent, Rutgers, placed 11th on Football Outsiders' Defensive F/+ Rankings last season—and even with seven lost starters, the Scarlet Knights are mean enough to put up a good fight.
Carr and Adams are supposed to be one of the nation's best quarterback-wide receiver tandems, leading one of the nation's best all-around offenses. Time for them to prove it.
No. 5 Georgia
Opponent: at Clemson
Statement: "Defense won't cost us the SEC."
There are no qualms about Georgia's offense. There's nothing even close. The 'Dawgs have a first-team All-SEC quarterback (per conference coaches), an all-NCAA running back tandem, five returning starters on the O-line and more receivers than offensive coordinator Mike Bobo knows what to do with.
As the old adage goes, defense wins championships. And even if that maxim is outdated, if Georgia wants to reach its championship aspirations, it needs to prove it has good defense.
The Bulldogs' young unit isn't short on pedigree. It's stacked from top to bottom with blue-chip recruits who should be able to coalesce in Todd Grantham's scheme.
But it won't mean anything until folks see it on the field—and against Clemson, one of the other NCAA teams with more offensive weapons than it knows what to do with, that defense will be tested right out of the gate.
No. 9 Louisville
Opponent: vs. Ohio
Statement: "We can crush inferior opponents."
Louisville thinks it's a championship contender this season—not just in the AAC, but on a national scale. Here's one of Football Outsiders' basic tenants about championship teams:
Championship teams are generally defined by their ability to dominate inferior opponents, not their ability to win close games.
Football games are often decided by just one or two plays—a missed field goal, a bouncing fumble, the subjective spot of an official on fourth-and-1. One missed assignment by a cornerback, or one slightly askew pass that bounces off a receiver's hands and into those of a defensive back five yards away and the game could be over. In a blowout, however, one lucky bounce isn't going to change things.
Championship teams beat their good opponents convincingly and destroy the cupcakes on the schedule.
Last season, however, Louisville lost to 5-7 Connecticut, beat 3-9 Florida International by seven and defeated 0-12 Southern Miss by four. That is not how a championship team handles inferior opponents.
Ohio, which went 9-4 last year, is better than FIU and Southern Miss, but still far worse than Louisville. If the Cardinals really fancy themselves contenders, they won't even let the Bobcats hang around.
No. 22 Northwestern
Opponent: at Cal
Statement: "We're good enough to win out West."
Big Ten teams—and really, all squads from the Eastern and Central time zones—have historically (and understandably) struggled on the West Coast. This makes Northwestern's Week 1 game in Berkley a worrisome trap.
The Wildcats are coming off an historic year, one that saw the end of a 64-season bowl drought and came one-or-two realistic bounces away from being 12-1. The major pieces return but a lot of role players leave, leaving Northwestern still in the AP rankings but near the bottom at No. 22.
Opening against Sonny Dykes' Cal debut is a tough assignment, but if Northwestern is as good as it says it is, it should be able to squeak out a win. Even if the game is close, coming out on top would be an emphatic result.
No. 13 Oklahoma State
Opponent: vs. Mississippi State
Statement: "The Big 12 isn't having a down year."
Unlike the other teams on this list, Oklahoma State has the honor (or task) of speaking for its whole conference. That's the prize (or burden) that comes with being preseason favorites.
If the Big 12's top-ranked team can't beat the SEC West's sixth-ranked team, the conference's season-long outlook seems bleak. And Mississippi State, though projected in the SEC's bottom third, is competent and physical enough to beat most opponents on any given day.
Oklahoma State just lost its starting left tackle for the season, which could be devastating against physical pass-rushers like Denico Autry. But if the Cowboys drop their opening game, that excuse will earn them little to no sympathy.
Opponent: at East Carolina
Statement: "We belong."
Taylor Heinicke is the best player you've never heard of (provided you know all the really good FBS players but don't know anything about the Championship Series).
He won the Walter Payton Award, FCS' version of the Heisman Trophy, last season, leading Old Dominion to a 11-2 record in its final campaign on the junior circuit. Now he and the Monarchs are FBS Independents, returning nine starters to an offense that broke records (see above) in 2012.
In East Carolina, it gets a near-perfect litmus test on the senior circuit—maybe a little harder than it would have liked. The Pirates are projected to contend for (if not win) Conference-USA, so even if ODU doesn't win, playing them close would speak volumes.
Opponent: at Vanderbilt
Statement: "We're not just 'paper contenders.'"
Ole Miss has a roster of young players that can compete with anyone in the country. All it needs to do is put it together, and there's a chance the Rebels might become America's newest powerhouse.
That process begins at Vanderbilt, their diametric opposite in terms of talent-production quotient. The Commodores are barely (if even) an SEC team on paper, but they went 9-4 last season—two games better than Mississippi's 7-6 mark.
As the saying goes, cream should always rise to the top. And on paper, the Rebels are as creamy as they come. But when will that translate to tangible results?
Opponent: vs. Nevada
Statement: "We're legitimate Pac-12 contenders."
The Pac-12 has five schools ranked in the AP top 25, tied with the Big Ten for most among non-SEC conferences. That seems to suggest a layer of depth and parity to the league.
But look closer and you'll notice as big gap. Oregon and Stanford place at Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, while the other three ranked teams (UCLA, USC and Oregon State) are all in the 20s.
The Bruins want to prove there's (at least) a third banana in the Pac-12 title race, something the conference media recognized when three of the 26 voters projected it to win the conference.
But Nevada is a quality non-BCS opponent capable of giving them some trouble. If it does, UCLA will make the inverse statement of what it desires.
Opponent: vs. Alabama
Statement: "We are nobody's cupcake."
Virginia Tech is a proud program—one of the nine or 10 proudest in America. Last year's 7-6 season, which included a bowl win over Rutgers, was its worst since 1993. That's the type of success Hokie fans have enjoyed.
But coming off their worst season in 20 years, Frank Beamer & Co. have been cast off as chum for No. 1 Alabama. Their season-opening game has been discarded as mere appetizer for the Texas A&M showdown two weeks later.
Even if the Hokies don't upset Alabama, they can make a statement to the contrary. The program Beamer has built is nobody's tool. And giving the Tide a four-quarter (or at least a two-half) game would prove it.