Early Power Ranking of Best Week 1 Games for 2016 College Football Season

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2016

Early Power Ranking of Best Week 1 Games for 2016 College Football Season

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    If you're bummed about the end of college football season, especially after national signing day, remember there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

    It might be seven months away, but when Week 1 of next season arrives, it will feature the best slate of opening games in recent memory. And even that might be selling it short.

    "The best day in college football history is coming," wrote USA Today's Dan Wolken two years ago. Kevin Kelley of FBS Schedules wrote more of the same. The matchups are so compelling they've been hyped since 2014.

    So, without further ado, let's break them open. Here are 10 games whose teams and stories make us giddy for fall to arrive.

    Sound off below and let us know where you disagree!

10. Missouri at West Virginia (Saturday, Sept. 3)

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    Dana Holgorsen is always interesting, and his team, while not a Big 12 favorite, has the potential to make some noise.

    Even with the loss of Wendell Smallwood, the offense returns 86 percent of last year's production, per SB Nation's Bill Connelly. The defense might regress but has improved across the board the last two seasons. It's reasonable to expect a top-50 unit.

    Missouri, meanwhile, finds itself on the ropes. It won two straight SEC East titles before falling back to earth and finishing last year 5-7. Head coach Gary Pinkel retired due to medical issues; the school found its way into a national controversy; and quarterback Maty Mauk, not long after being reinstated, was dismissed from the team this January.

    The result is a team in crisis but still with talent. The defense last year was phenomenal and returns enough pieces to feel good. Seeing how Mizzou defends West Virginia's spread offense will rank among Week 1's greatest pleasures.

    So will the crazy atmosphere in Morgantown.

9. Kansas State at Stanford (Friday, Sept. 2)

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    Stanford opened last year with a loss to the purple Wildcats.

    Will next year be more of the same?

    It looks like a mismatch on paper, but so did Stanford at Northwestern last season. This game will take place in Palo Alto, which stacks the odds even more in Stanford's favor, but when have odds or likelihoods ever stopped Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder?

    After rumors that he might retire this offseason, Snyder confirmed after the Liberty Bowl that he would return for at least one more year.

    "I had a chance to visit with my family," he said in a statement, "and they collectively wanted me to do what I wanted to do and none were against my decision to return as long as I am having a positive impact on the young people in our program, my health is in order and as long as I am wanted by the…wonderful Kansas State fanbase."

    In what might be his last season-opener, Snyder will come prepared with some magic. His team needs an answer at quarterback, and every team needs an answer for Christian McCaffrey, but weird things tend to happen in Kansas State games.

    A close one would be par for the course.

8. Wisconsin vs. LSU (Saturday, Sept. 3)

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    Give Wisconsin credit. Its last three Week 1 opponents have been LSU, Alabama and LSU. It's not scared to play the big boys.

    Of course, the results have been varied. The Badgers hung close for a while against the Tigers and Crimson Tide, but recruiting stars eventually matter. They lack the depth to keep pace for 60 minutes.

    This year might be more of the same—if not worse. In his updated look at experience, SB Nation's Bill Connelly found that LSU leads the country in returning production. Led by running back Leonard Fournette on offense and a deep cast of talent on defense, the Tigers are projected to improve by 9.4 net points per game.

    Wisconsin, meanwhile, ranks outside the top 120—in other words, in the bottom eight. Its depth chart hemorrhaged talent and will need time to rebuild. It also lost defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, one of the best minds in college football, to—of all teams—LSU.

    That is an interesting storyline. But it might make for an uninteresting game. Even at Lambeau Field, LSU should win handily.

7. North Carolina vs. Georgia (Saturday, Sept. 3)

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    Congratulations, Kirby Smart! After 10 years under Nick Saban, you are finally a head coach. And now, for your first assignment…

    Beat a team that won 11 games last season.

    North Carolina's defense was exposed against Clemson and Baylor, but what defense in the country would not have been? Even with the letdown against two top-five offenses, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has engineered a massive turnaround. And you never have to worry about a Larry Fedora offense.

    To win, Georgia will need to score points. To score points, it will need to get good quarterback play. To get good quarterback play, it will likely need true freshman Jacob Eason, the No. 5 overall recruit in the country, to start and have a Josh Rosen-like debut.

    The Tar Heels should have beaten South Carolina in last year's opener, losing only because of costly red-zone turnovers. They spent the whole year seething about it and won't let the same thing happen. If Georgia wins this game, it won't be because the Tar Heels lost it.

    Whoever wins will have to scrap and claw.

6. UCLA at Texas A&M (Saturday, Sept. 3)

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    This once looked like a battle of 5-star quarterbacks between UCLA's Josh Rosen and Texas A&M's Kyle Allen or Kyler Murray.

    Of course, things have changed in College Station, where Allen and Murray have transferred to Houston and Oklahoma, respectively. Instead, the Aggies boast Jake Hubenak, the opposite of a 5-star prospect, along with Oklahoma transfer and former Sugar Bowl hero Trevor Knight.

    But Knight is enough to make this quarterback battle interesting. Rosen will enter as a Heisman contender, and Knight will enter trying to restore his name. It wasn't so long ago that he entered a season with Heisman hype. The talent is definitely there.

    It's also there on both sides on defense, especially for the Aggies with linemen Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. UCLA has struggled to pass-block the past few seasons, and Garrett and Hall went off against their only Pac-12 opponent, Arizona State, in 2015.

    Can the Bruins fare any better in protection? That might decide the outcome.

5. Notre Dame at Texas (Saturday, Sept. 3)

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    Texas was bad from the start last year, losing 38-3 at Notre Dame in a game that was roughly as lopsided as it looks.

    But the Longhorns flashed at moments and played an army of underclassmen. Now, those freshmen and sophomores are aging, and the roster is filling out.

    D'Onta Foreman and Chris Warren are a dangerous pair of running backs, and Malik Jefferson is an All-American linebacker. There are reasons to believe this team can improve.

    The key is finding stability under center—something Notre Dame has to spare. Malik Zaire led the win over Texas, broke his ankle the following week at Virginia and then gave way to a strong year from DeShone Kizer. Both return next season and will battle all summer to see who starts Week 1.

    Whoever wins the job, Notre Dame will hold an advantage.

    But Texas will at least put up a fight.

4. Clemson at Auburn (Saturday, Sept. 3)

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    When last we saw Clemson's offense, it was hanging 40 points on Alabama and nearly winning the College Football Playoff.

    Almost everyone returns from that unit, chief among them quarterback Deshaun Watson, whose performance against the Crimson Tide was, in all likelihood, the best game a quarterback had played all season. Also returning are running back Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett and wide receivers Artavis Scott, Hunter Renfrow and (hopefully) Mike Williams and Deon Cain.

    All of that will be on display in a rare Week 1 true road game. The Tigers head to Jordan-Hare Stadium to play Auburn, which underachieved last year but has the talent to beat them. Especially on defense, where the line stacks up as well as any in the country, Gus Malzahn's team has the pluck to make a game of this.

    The only question is who will play quarterback.

3. Oklahoma vs. Houston (Saturday, Sept. 3)

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Oklahoma has Baker Mayfield and is coming off a playoff appearance, but really, this game is all about Houston.

    The Cougars are led by head coach Tom Herman, who could have left for a Power Five job but returned to make at least one more run. His team returns talent on both sides of the ball, led by quarterback Greg Ward Jr. on offense and linebacker Steven Taylor on defense. It also adds a pair of Big 12 transfers, running back Donald Catalon (Texas) and receiver Ra'Shaad Samples (Oklahoma State), along with 5-star defensive tackle Ed Oliver.

    If Houston pulls the upset, which is unlikely but totally plausible, the rest of the year would become interesting. Even from a Group of Five conference, it could realistically sneak into the playoff at 13-0. An upset over the Sooners, who will likely enter this game in the Top 10, would give it the signature win that most small schools lack.

    College GameDay should really go to NRG Stadium.

2. Florida State vs. Ole Miss (Monday, Sept. 5)

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    The headline of Week 1's ACC-SEC challenge (after North Carolina-Georgia and Clemson-Auburn) pits Florida State against Ole Miss at the Citrus Bowl.

    The Rebels lose most of the 5-stars from their high-profile 2013 recruiting class, but they return quarterback Chad Kelly, a pleasant surprise last season, along with a deep cast of receivers. Their offense will be fine, and their defense, which underachieved in 2015, still has pieces worth getting excited about.

    Florida State, meanwhile, has everything in place but a quarterback. Dalvin Cook is a Heisman contender at running back, the receivers and offensive line are loaded, and a talented young defense led by rising sophomore safety Derwin James has a chance to make the leap from good to great.

    If senior Sean Maguire or redshirt freshman Deondre Francois can stabilize matters under center, there's no telling how far these Noles can go. If they start with a neutral-field win over a respected SEC opponent, they might even be able to lose to Clemson and sneak into the College Football Playoff anyway. The same goes for Ole Miss with Alabama.

    This game will end up huge for whoever wins.

1. USC vs. Alabama (Saturday, Sept. 3)

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    Alabama vs. USC.

    5-stars vs. 5-stars.

    Nick Saban vs. …Clay Helton?

    Yup. And still this game is oozing with intrigue. The Crimson Tide have started slow the past two seasons—at least compared with how they've finished—but now they start their title defense against one of the few teams that compare with them on paper.

    Pending offseason position battles, this game could also feature a pair of former 5-star quarterbacks, USC's Max Browne and Alabama's Blake Barnett, making their starting debuts. Browne ranked No. 11, right ahead of Christian Hackenberg, in the 2013 recruiting class. Barnett ranked No. 21 in 2015.

    But also, those past nine sentences buried the lede. This game will feature former USC head coach Lane Kiffin, now in his third year as Bama's offensive coordinator, against his former team and underling in Helton.

    Kiffin actually hired Helton from Memphis in 2010 and promoted him before getting fired in 2013. The man who did the firing, athletic director Pat Haden, stepped down earlier this week, but even so this pregame will get interesting.

     

    Note: All recruiting info refers to 247Sports' composite ratings.