B/R Experts Answer Biggest College Football Questions for Week 1
The 2021 college football season officially started last weekend, but after those five games of taxiing around the runway, it's time for the flight to take off.
If you didn't watch any of this past Saturday's Week 0 action, let's be honest: You didn't miss much aside from yet another terrible Nebraska performance that left its fans longing for the days of yore.
But if you don't watch any of the Week 1 action, you're making a terrible mistake.
There are five games pitting AP Top 25 teams against each other, and there is at least one game worth watching on each day from Thursday-Monday, including a cornucopia of gems throughout the day on Saturday.
It's a good thing Monday is a national holiday, because a lot of people are going to need that day off to recover from so many consecutive hours of watching college football.
In preparation for the 84-game slate of action, Bleacher Report's college football experts—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Morgan Moriarty and Brad Shepard—joined forces to offer up predictions on the hottest burning questions, such as:
- Will No. 3 Clemson or No. 5 Georgia win the marquee showdown?
- Will any unranked teams knock off any ranked teams?
- Which transfer quarterback makes the most impressive first impression?
- Which Heisman long shot explodes onto the scene?
- Which game produces the most total points?
Our experts are on the case.
No. 3 Clemson Tigers vs. No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs: Who You Got?
This is the game everybody wants to see, and it's one of the many things I love about college football—there's no easing into the season. The Week 1 schedule is a doozy, and this is the marquee showdown of the bunch. The winner of this one will be a definitive favorite for the College Football Playoff, and both teams are so good that a loss wouldn't completely ruin the other's chances.
Clemson is finally D.J. Uiagalelei's team with Trevor Lawrence off to the NFL. And with Lyn-J Dixon, Kobe Pace and freshman Will Shipley in the backfield, you'd expect the Tigers to be able to generate some yards either on the ground or through the air. With quarterback JT Daniels at the helm, the Bulldogs should be much better offensively than they were last season, even with injured receivers like George Pickens and Darnell Washington.
This one should come down to which defense is the best. While there is perhaps no defensive line in the nation as good as Clemson's, UGA has talent at all three levels and looks primed for a serious run, especially if it can get healthy.
Clemson could cement its status as the CFP favorite with a win here, but for me, everything keeps coming back to the Dawgs pulling off the upset. UGA will gut this one out and get its fans barking early, 30-28.
If both teams were fully healthy, I would pick Georgia to win. The thought of Daniels airing it out to Pickens, Washington, Dominick Blaylock, Arik Gilbert, Kearis Jackson and Jermaine Burton against a Clemson secondary adjusting to life without Derion Kendrick—who transferred to Georgia, by the way—would be too tantalizing to resist.
But Pickens is out with a torn ACL. Blaylock is still recovering from an ACL tear suffered last August and might not be available. Gilbert has been away from the team for personal reasons for nearly a month. And Jackson, Burton and Washington are all either questionable or probable after suffering injuries in fall camp.
On top of that, Tykee Smith—who transferred in from West Virginia to bolster a secondary that was decimated by NFL draft declarations and transfers—is also questionable for this opener.
It's just...it's too much. A full-strength Georgia is talented enough to beat Clemson, but second-string or less-than-100-percent-first-string wide receivers against a Brent Venables defense is not ideal.
With that said, I'm not expecting Clemson to blow this game wide open. The Tigers are breaking in a lot of new and/or returning-from-career-threatening-spinal-condition pieces on offense against what has been an excellent defense over the past two seasons. But give me Uiagalelei, Dixon and Justyn Ross to get the W. Clemson 35, Georgia 31.
Who Wins Each of the Other 4 Ranked-Against-Ranked Clashes?
The whole college football world (outside of Tuscaloosa) should want to see "The U" make a return like the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s. However, this 'Canes team likely doesn't have what it takes to upset the Crimson Tide, even with Alabama's offense rebuilding so much this season.
I can see this one being close early on, but Alabama will win by at least a few scores in the second half. Alabama's defense will be one of the most complete units in the country this season, and I expect it to give Miami loads of trouble Saturday.
Texas is back! Or at least that's what we've been hearing the last ten years or so, right?
The Longhorns' season opener should be wildly entertaining, as they get the Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana. Louisiana had a remarkable 10-1 season last year, with its only loss coming against Coastal Carolina. This should be a close one throughout, but I think Texas will pull it out in Steve Sarkisian's debut in Austin.
And then we have two great Big Ten matchups.
Penn State has won the last four meetings with Wisconsin, including a 31-24 victory the last time the Nittany Lions played in Madison (in 2013). The Badgers had a challenging 2020 season, missing two games because of a COVID-19 outbreak, and they finished 4-3.
However, the Badgers should be able to put that truncated season behind them and get it done against Penn State at home. This one will be close, though. Badgers win by a field goal.
Both Indiana and Iowa had successful 6-2 seasons in 2020. The Hoosiers get back 17 starters, including most of a defense that allowed only 20.2 points per game last season. The Hawkeyes have won the last three matchups between these two teams, including a 42-16 victory in 2018.
Indiana's experience will come through on the road in this one. It should be a one-score, close game throughout.
Let's start out with the easy one: Alabama is going to beat Miami. That isn't a slight against the Hurricanes, who I do think are plenty talented enough to win the ACC's Coastal Division. Nick Saban just does not lose season openers.
In the Indiana-Iowa game, I'll also side with the team that isn't starting a quarterback who suffered a torn ACL less than 10 months ago. Even if Indiana's Michael Penix Jr. is fully healthy, the Hawkeyes defense has held 22 straight opponents to 24 points or fewer. It's hard to pick against them at home in that one.
In our full-season predictions last week, I had Wisconsin as my No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff, so I'll be taking the Badgers at home against Penn State. They always have one of the stingiest defenses in the country, and I'm all-in on quarterback Graham Mertz and running back Jalen Berger leading a Badgers offense that will be much better than the one that couldn't buy a point at times last fall.
And while Louisiana upsetting Texas would amuse me, I think the Longhorns will get the job done. The Ragin' Cajuns did upset a very good Iowa State team in Ames to open the 2020 season, but I don't expect them to repeat a 95-yard kickoff-return touchdown, an 83-yard punt-return touchdown and a 78-yard passing touchdown. ULL's defense isn't likely to shut down Texas running back Bijan Robinson, either. It should be a close game, but give me the Longhorns in Sarkisian's debut.
Which AP Top 25 Team (If Any) Will Lose to an Unranked Foe?
Short answer: Zero. But two particular games will be worth watching.
During the mid-afternoon window on Saturday, keep an eye on Fresno State's trip to No. 11 Oregon. While I believe the Ducks will hold off the visitors, Fresno State has a very dangerous offense with Washington transfer Jake Haener at quarterback. Last weekend, he threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns when the Bulldogs blanked UConn 45-0. Oregon will win, but not by three touchdowns, if you get my drift.
Then in primetime, UCLA hosts LSU. I'm hardly convinced LSU has solved its defensive problems from last season, and UCLA's success on the ground last weekend (244 yards at 5.7 per carry) is concerning for the Tigers. In 2020, LSU's run defense ranked 95th nationally, surrendering 4.9 yards per rushing attempt.
With that said, my pessimistic perception of UCLA's defense hasn't changed after one victory over a mediocre Hawaii team, so I'm sticking with LSU. But I don't anticipate this will be a comfortable game for LSU or its fans.
I loathe myself for being this boring, but I don't see any unranked-over-ranked upsets happening in Week 1. And let the record show it wouldn't be all that out of the ordinary.
We can ignore 2020, during which no ranked teams played in Week 1. But from 2017-19, the only Week 1 unranked-over-ranked upsets were Maryland over No. 23 Texas in 2017 and...Maryland over No. 23 Texas in 2018.
I'm not saying that recent history means anything for the current season, nor am I suggesting there's no chance of a major upset. I just wanted to throw that "Well actually" out there in case I get called a spineless idiot for thinking the favorites will reign supreme this weekend.
If I were forced to predict a significant upset, I'd be going with Virginia Tech over No. 10 North Carolina. It's a road game on a Friday night, Virginia Tech is probably the third-best team in that division (behind UNC and Miami), and I'm nowhere near as in love with the Tar Heels as most of the national media seems to be.
Which Transfer Quarterback Makes the Biggest Week 1 Splash with His New Team?
From a spotlight perspective, Sunday's clash between Notre Dame and Florida State is the clear answer.
Notre Dame will lean on former Wisconsin signal-caller Jack Coan, and Florida State will unveil one-time UCF star McKenzie Milton. It's the only matchup with a Top 25 team that features two transfers at quarterback, so this storyline is an integral part of the game.
However, the transfer QB with a great opportunity for big numbers is Texas Tech's Tyler Shough.
This weekend, the former Oregon starter takes on a Houston defense that allowed 32.0 points per game in 2020. Shough's actual performance for Oregon last season didn't exactly match his stats, yet the box score typically looked good. And when we're talking about a splashy debut, big numbers get the job done.
What a sign of the portal times that there are no fewer than seven plausible answers to this question.
On Sunday night alone, you have Coan and Milton squaring off. If Milton leads the Seminoles to an upset of the No. 9 Fighting Irish, that would be one heck of a splash.
There's also Joe Milton at Tennessee, Will Levis at Kentucky, Charlie Brewer at Utah, Jarrett Guarantano at Washington State and at least a few others that I'm forgetting off the top of my head.
But my pick is also Shough against Houston.
We all know the Red Raiders love to throw the ball. They finished 12th last season with 39.8 pass attempts per game, which was the first time this decade that they didn't rank among the top 10 nationwide. Houston hardly has the best defense in the world, having allowed at least 32 points per game in each of the past three seasons.
Shough did a solid job last year at Oregon with a pair of 300-yard performances before landing in Lubbock. I could see him going for well north of 400 in his Texas Tech debut.
Which Heisman Long Shot Rockets into the Conversation with a Big 1st Game?
A big game against a bad team might raise some eyebrows, although that doesn't feel appropriate enough given the question. If we're leaning into the idea of "rockets," then give me Texas quarterback Hudson Card.
The new Longhorns starter will benefit greatly from working with Steve Sarkisian. And facing a ranked Louisiana team a provides real, credible platform to make an impression in the season opener.
Reports about Card out of camp have been promising, and we've certainly seen what Sark has done with talented quarterbacks over the last few years while serving as the OC at Alabama.
While I don't expect Card to post a Mac Jones-esque stat line in his first game, I am expecting both a win and a solid performance. And if we're being honest, being the starting quarterback at Texas doesn't hurt.
If Card makes a splash as many (including myself) expect, a lot of eyeballs could quickly turn his way.
I'm going with LSU's Max Johnson.
The Bayou Bengals were dreadful for most of last fall, but those season-ending wins over Florida and Ole Miss were a promising step in the right direction for the offense. Johnson was the quarterback for both of those games, racking up a combined 674 passing yards, 97 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns.
If Johnson puts up per-game numbers like those over the course of the full season, he would be a near-lock for a spot among the Heisman finalists.
Playing in the shadow of Joe Burrow might make it tough for him to impress Heisman voters, but playing for LSU will ensure he is always in the national spotlight. Case in point, LSU's opener at UCLA is going to draw a lot of eyes as the "other" game to watch while Georgia-Clemson is happening. And Johnson should make a strong first impression against a Bruins secondary that has been either mediocre or downright bad in recent years.
Which Game Not Involving a Ranked Team Will Be Most Entertaining?
While Boise State and Central Florida on Thursday night should be awesome—especially considering the subplots of new coaches Andy Avalos with the Broncos and the Knights with Gus Malzahn—the answer to this question is the last game of the holiday weekend.
Who isn't excited about Ole Miss versus Louisville in a Points-a-Palooza showdown in the ATL?
The Cardinals must replace leading rusher Javian Hawkins and four of their top six pass-catchers, but they still have quarterback Malik Cunningham and plenty of weapons for head coach Scott Satterfield. And while the Rebels are getting a lot of preseason attention, it isn't because of an elite defense.
Ole Miss is a heavy favorite in this one, which is justifiable for Lane Kiffin's high-octane offense. But "entertaining" means tons of points, and this one could wind up being a 51-41 type of Power Five slugfest.
There won't be a lot of rest for defenses on Labor Day.
It's hard to disagree with Brad on this one. Louisville-Ole Miss should be a ton of fun.
But to mix things up, let's go with some #Pac12AfterDark action in the Utah State-Washington State game.
This one is airing on the Pac-12 Network, so only about 17 people will be able to watch it. However, both teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks and hoping their defenses are substantially less awful than they were during truncated one-win 2020 seasons.
Former Arkansas State quarterback Logan Bonner is one of the many new transfers who figures to see a lot of playing time for the Aggies. And the Cougars will presumably go with Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback, who, if nothing else, kept things interesting while with the Volunteers over the past four years.
Washington State should win this home game with relative ease, but there should be many twists and turns deep into the morning hours for those watching on the East Coast.
Which Thursday or Friday Night Game Will Everyone Be Tweeting About?
Have to go with Boise State-UCF here on Thursday night.
Both of these teams will have new head coaches on the sidelines. The Knights are opening the Gus Malzahn Era, while Andy Avalos—a longtime defensive coach at Boise State before spending two seasons as Oregon's defensive coordinator—will be making his head coaching debut.
Against this Boise State defense, we should all look forward to seeing how Malzahn's offense translates from the SEC to the AAC.
Of the 24 options, Boise State at UCF (Thursday at 7 p.m. ET) should be the best game, and No. 10 North Carolina at Virginia Tech (Friday at 6 p.m. ET) should be the one that generates the most "upset buzz."
But the relatively obvious answer here is No. 4 Ohio State at Minnesota (Thursday at 8 p.m. ET).
For starters, this is THE Ohio State we're talking about here. The Buckeyes could open the season against Bishop Sycamore on a Tuesday morning and a ridiculous number of people would watch. A primetime road opener against a conference foe is certain to generate a lot of attention.
That's especially true for a road opener in which Ohio State will be deploying a brand new starting quarterback. We're eager to find out what C.J. Stroud can accomplish with all of the weapons at his disposal.
Given the lack of other intriguing games (aside from Boise State-UCF) on Thursday night, Ohio State at Minnesota feels like the default game for social media bantering.
Which Week 1 Game Will Produce the Most Total Points?
Give me Ole Miss and Louisville. The Rebels have a real shot at hanging a 50-burger here.
In 2020, Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral created points both by throwing touchdowns to his teammates and throwing the ball to the other team. He figures to be more careful with the ball and minimize turnovers this season, at least to a degree. Still, with a huge arm and an offense groomed to highlight his abilities, he should have a huge game to start a huge season.
The other factor here? Defense. Or, rather, lack thereof.
Ole Miss was No. 117 in scoring defense in 2020, having allowed 38.3 points per game. Louisville was No. 49 despite not facing Clemson or North Carolina. While the Rebels should be better in that department, I doubt that they've completely fixed those issues.
It's the last game of the weekend, and it'll probably take a while. Ole Miss 51, Louisville 31.
The obvious pick is the Monday night showdown between Louisville and Ole Miss. But the savvy pick is Kent State at Texas A&M.
Kent State averaged 606.5 yards of total offense and 49.8 points per game last fall. The Golden Flashes played only four games and their opponents were not Texas A&M, to say the least. But with Dustin Crum back for another year at quarterback, they're capable of scoring at least a few times against anyone.
Kent State's defense is also quite bad, and it has been for several years. The Golden Flashes have allowed at least 30 points and an average of 44.4 points in their last 10 games against Power Five opponents dating back to 2016.
With the Aggies breaking in a new starting quarterback (Haynes King), they might keep the starters out there for the full four quarters of a blowout to help him get comfortable running the offense.
My official projection is a 49-21 Texas A&M victory, but I could easily see the Aggies running up the score and getting this total into the 80s.