College football Week 1 schedule: Ranking the 10 best kickoff games – USA TODAY

Most sports allow game time before their seasons kick off. There’s spring training or preseason matchups to work out kinks. There’s scrimmages or friendlies against opponents to assess potential warning signs once the games start counting for real.
Not so for college football. Without any dress rehearsals against opponents, teams are forced to jump right into the season and get up to speed. And some of the biggest games of the year take place on opening weekend. That’s great for fans, while at the same time maybe disconcerting for coaches that are required to manage the challenge.
Here are the biggest matchups from Week 1 that will have teams on their toes and fans looking forward to things starting off with a bang.
It doesn’t get much bigger than two of the biggest and most successful programs meeting for the first time in the regular season since 1996. One of the notable subplots is former Ohio State player Marcus Freeman returning home to start his first season as head coach of Notre Dame. There’s also the inevitable fireworks as the Buckeyes return quarterback C.J. Stroud and their top running back (TreVeyon Henderson) and wide receiver (Jaxson Smith-Njigba) from last year’s team that led the nation in scoring (45.7 points per game) and total offense (561.5 yards per game). The Irish will need to slow this game down with its offensive line controlling things to give their defense a chance. The strategy worked for Oregon in its upset at Ohio State last year. Could it work again?
How this for a storyline? The defensive coordinator that helped a program win its first national title in 41 years leaves for his first major head coaching job and his debut game brings him back hone to face the team he just left. That’s the situation for former Bulldogs assistant Dan Lanning, who will lead the Ducks against Georgia on opening weekend. Adding to the intrigue is the possibility Auburn transfer Bo Nix could be starting for Oregon at quarterback after three years of facing the rival Bulldogs. The added backdrop is the Ducks are carrying the flag for the Pac-12 after the announced departure of Southern California and UCLA, and a win against the defending champions would be a heck of a statement in the opening game. For the Bulldogs, it’s the first look at a rebuilt defense that lost a host of stars to the NFL but still has elite talent.
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Another opportunity for the Pac-12 to change the narrative of the league being second-rate to the SEC. The Utes are attracting College Football Playoff attention after last season’s run to the Rose Bowl and have most of their key players returning, led by quarterback Cam Rising and defensive back Clark Phillips. A non-conference win against a premier SEC team on the road would bolster their chances. This trip to Gainesville coincides with Billy Napier’s debut as Gators coach. The climate in Florida certainly will be to the home team’s advantage. And a win would give some immediate credibility to Napier’s rebuilding job.
The Bearcats have won all of their 22 regular-season games the past two seasons before getting tripped up by SEC teams in bowl games, the last coming against Alabama in the playoff. With several starters departed, there are questions about how Cincinnati continues its success. There’s probably no better place to quiet critics than winning on the road against the Razorbacks. Arkansas surprised with nine wins last season and bring back quarterback KJ Jefferson along with many of its key defenders. A possible run at the top half of the SEC West isn’t out of the question for the Hogs, so this early game will provide a litmus test about its upward mobility.    
Played every year from 1943-2011, the Backyard Brawl has been on a hiatus since conference realignment shelved it for more than a decade. This return will start a run of eight games in 11 seasons between the schools. The timing for the Panthers seems perfect as they are coming off their first ACC title and return much of that group this season. The biggest question mark is whether Southern California transfer Kedon Slovis can fill the shoes of quarterback Kenny Pickett. The Mountaineers enter the fourth year of Neal Brown’s tenure needing to make a jump to the top of the Big 12 after consistently finishing in the middle of the pack. They have their own former USC quarterback in JT Daniels, who spent the past two seasons at Georgia. Bragging rights and an important non-conference win will go to the victor.
Typically the opening weekend is reserved for non-conference matchups, but the Big Ten is kicking off with two league games in Week 1 after last week saw Northwestern defeat Nebraska. This Thursday night showdown between the Nittany Lions and Boilermakers is significant for both teams. Penn State needs a strong start to the season with frustrations with coach James Franklin growing louder after an 11-11 record the past two seasons. Sean Clifford is back for his sixth year and must play more efficiently at quarterback. On the plus side, the Lions should again be stingy on defense, which will be needed on this road trip. Purdue quietly won nine games last year and return Aidan O’Connell at quarterback. This should be a great atmosphere and a close, hard-fought struggle throughout.
The rivalry between the Wolfpack and Pirates might not be top of mind to most college football fans, but this will be the 10th meeting between the schools in the past 20 years and the series is just 5-4 in N.C. State’s favor. The Wolfpack are harboring ACC and possible College Football Playoff dreams with quarterback Devin Leary and an elite defense in the fold. Going on the road in the opener against an in-state opponent in a raucous environment will surely be a tough test. East Carolina coach Mike Houston has slowly been building up the program and won seven games last season. He brings back a talented quarterback in Holton Ahlers and enough talent to pull a surprise.
Technically, the Seminoles opened last week with a defeat of Duquesne but the third season for coach Mike Norvell really starts with this showdown against the Tigers. Norvell has won combined eight games in his previous two campaigns, so pressure is on top produce with a lineup returning several contributors that helped the team win five of its last seven games. On the other sideline will be Brian Kelly, who left Notre Dame after 12 seasons for a rebuilding job with LSU. The Tigers, too, have been off the pace the past two seasons, so the first order of business is for Kelly to win this opener less than 100 miles from campus. It’s a great opportunity for one of the programs to establish credibility and build momentum with a win against a big-name opponent.
The Beavers are one of the second-tier contenders in the Pac-12 after a surprise 2021 season that saw them win seven games, including a defeat of Utah State in the LA Bowl in their first postseason appearance since 2013. They’ll be looking for more this year with quarterback Chance Nolan and one of the better offensive lines leading a run-based offense. The Broncos are looking to rebound after losing five games in their first year under Andy Avalos. The seven wins last year were their fewest since 1998. The hope for a rebound season starts with QB Hank Bachmeier, who finally stayed healthy last season and looks poised for a big senior season. The defense could be improved after ranking in the top 20 in points allowed. This should be a slugfest that provides the winner a big launching pad for the rest of the season.
There may not be a ton of interest outside of the Lone Star State, but the clash between the Cougars and Roadrunners could loom large when the Group of Five berth in a New Year’s Six bowl is handed out. Houston has the components to make a run at the American Athletic title after losing to Cincinnati in the championship game last season. UTSA won its first 11 games last year and took home the Conference USA title. Most of its prolific offense is back and can power another possible run at an unbeaten season.

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