Forget cupcakes. Some of the best teams in the country are going head-to-head to kick off the 2021 college football season.
There are five games between Top 25 teams in the season’s full opening week, the first time that’s happened since the Associated Press preseason poll began in 1950.
Here are the biggest storylines for Week 1, starting with a look at who has the most at stake in the ranked vs. ranked matchups:
No. 19 Penn State at No. 12 Wisconsin (Saturday, noon, Fox): The Nittany Lions finished the 2020 season with four straight wins, but that wasn’t enough to wash away the pain of an 0-5 start. More than any other coach in the country, James Franklin wants to prove that last season was an aberration. This is quarterback Sean Clifford’s last chance to prove he can lead Penn State to a Big Ten championship, and he’ll have plenty of talent at wide receiver, tight end and running back to help the offense take shape under new coordinator Mike Yurcich. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is going to be the favorite to win the West division regardless of what happens Saturday.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami in Atlanta (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC): If there’s ever a good time to face a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team, this might be it. After losing star talent to the NFL, including quarterback Mac Jones, wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle and running back Najee Harris, the Crimson Tide are reloading with sophomore Bryce Young under center. Miami returns 91% of its production from last season, the 12th-highest total in the country, and star quarterback D’Eriq King is back after a season-ending knee injury. If coach Manny Diaz wants to build “The U” back into a national power, this game is a big chance to jump-start that movement.
No. 17 Indiana at No. 18 Iowa (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network): After a dream 2020 season that ended with a 6-2 record and a trip to the Outback Bowl, the Hoosiers enter 2021 with their highest preseason ranking since 1969. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr., the leader of last year’s resurgence, is back, as is star wide receiver Ty Fryfogle. Indiana has steadily improved since coach Tom Allen took over in 2017, and this could be the year the Hoosiers truly threaten Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan in the Big Ten East. A win over Iowa, which has the best defense in the country in ESPN’s SP+ preseason projections, would be a big step forward.
No. 23 Louisiana at No. 21 Texas (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Fox): This one’s a bit of a toss-up for who needs it more. On one hand, the Longhorns and new coach Steve Sarkisian can ill-afford a stumble against a Sun Belt opponent, albeit a very good one. On the other hand, the Ragin’ Cajuns have a chance to solidify themselves under coach Billy Napier as the team to beat in the Group of Five. The debut of Texas quarterback Hudson Card will set the tone, and running back Bijan Robinson could emerge as the breakout star of the season, but this could be the second straight year Louisiana upsets a ranked opponent in Week 1 after knocking off Iowa State in 2020.
No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 3 Clemson in Charlotte, North Carolina (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC): Forty years of frustration says it all. Georgia fans have been waiting since 1980 for another national championship, and this could be the season the drought finally ends. The roster is among the most talented in the country, and quarterback J.T. Daniels returns after ending last season on a high note. There’s optimism about this offense finally joining the nation’s elite, even though injuries have thinned a talented receiving corps. Coach Kirby Smart has kept the Bulldogs hovering around the playoff conversation for years, but he needs to find a way to breakthrough. Adding a signature win in Week 1 would give Georgia some margin for error as it navigates an always-tough SEC. For Clemson, a weak ACC schedule means a loss to a top-five team in Week 1 wouldn’t derail its quest for a seventh consecutive playoff berth.
A coach at QB? During a packed Saturday, take a second to watch South Carolina’s season opener against Eastern Illinois. Zeb Noland, Trey Lance’s backup at North Dakota State, will be the starting quarterback for the Gamecocks. That might not seem strange; FCS players make the leap to FBS all the time. But Noland originally joined the team as a graduate assistant on new coach Shane Beamer’s staff. After an injury to starter Luke Doty, Noland gets the job in Week 1. Beamer wanted to dispel the notion that Noland “was walking up and down the hall like Uncle Rico talking about what he did back in the day as a quarterback.” That won’t stop fans from having a little fun with it.
Rivalry renewed: Maryland and West Virginia will meet for the first time since 2015 in a rivalry that dates to 1919. The schools, separated by roughly 200 miles, met every year from 1980 to 2007, and have had some classic moments. Just ask former Terps quarterback Scott McBrien what it was like to return to Morgantown after transferring. This year’s edition features an intriguing litmus test for two programs that are trying to climb the standings after showing signs of progress in a shortened 2020 season.
Upset Bruin? It might be hard to believe, but coach Chip Kelly is entering his fourth season at UCLA. The Bruins got off to a nice start with an easy win over Hawaii in Week 0, but prized quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson showed the same accuracy issues that have hampered him throughout his career. Now comes a meeting with No. 16 LSU in the Rose Bowl, a chance for Kelly to show how much progress he’s made in Los Angeles. If UCLA can hold up in the trenches, there could be a fun season ahead.
Rude awakening: How’s this for a welcome present for Clay Helton to open his seventh season as USC head coach: San José State, fresh off one of its best years in program history. The Spartans return star quarterback Nick Starkel and 86% of its production from last year’s 7-1 season that ended with a Top 25 ranking. The Trojans should be fine Saturday with quarterback Kedon Slovis and a talented offense to lean on, but this opener is worth paying attention to.
QBs to watch: If you’re scouting for the next NFL star, here’s your chance. Spencer Rattler, the potential top overall pick in the 2022 draft, leads No. 2 Oklahoma against Tulane in a game that was moved from New Orleans to Norman after the damage caused by Hurricane Ida. Joining him at the top of the draft could be Liberty’s Malik Willis, who gets to show off his dual-threat abilities against Campbell. Nevada’s Carson Strong takes on Cal and Justin Wilcox’s stingy defense, looking to build on a standout 2020 season that has put him in the first-round conversation. Also, keep an eye on Texas A&M vs. Kent State: Haynes King makes his debut as the Aggies’ starter against an overlooked statistical darling in the Golden Flashes’ Dustin Crum, one of Pro Football Focus highest-graded passers in 2019 and 2020.