After an offseason filled with coaching feuds and conference realignment, the first full slate of college football is here.
The Week 1 schedule is filled with top matchups, from the defending champions going against their former defensive coordinator to a top-five showdown in Columbus, Ohio. The Backyard Brawl is officially back, LSU’s Brian Kelly has his first test with the Tigers and No. 7 Utah travels south into hostile territory.
Here are the biggest storylines of the opening week.
No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 3 Ohio State (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC): Ohio State could have its own Heisman watch this season: quarterback C.J. Stroud, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson.
First-year Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker and most recently a defensive coordinator for the Fighting Irish, naturally has a defensive mindset heading to Columbus.
He wants to stop the run, fluster Stroud and confuse him post-snap — by getting him to hold the ball a little longer. To beat the nation’s best offense, though, Freeman knows the Irish have to score — without leading wide receiver Avery Davis, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee in August.
“When you lose Avery, it thins out a room that’s already thin,” Freeman told ESPN. ” … You have to be very strategic, and how do you utilize different personnel, and so I think it’s just going to make us be creative. It’s going to make some young guys grow up, and you can’t sit there and dwell on what happened. You’ve gotta find solutions, and that’s what I think our staff has done.”
Freeman’s priority is establishing a running game. “That’s just the mentality of our entire program,” he said. But there have to be other options for first-year starting quarterback Tyler Buchner. Without Davis, only Braden Lenzy and Lorenzo Styles have caught more than 20 passes in a season.
Notre Dame has one of the best tight ends in the country in Michael Mayer, a potential first-round NFL draft pick. The staff also will rely on wideout Joe Wilkins Jr., who suffered a season-ending injury last year but whom Freeman said is “ahead of schedule” and could help against Ohio State. And the Irish will count on Xavier Watts, who has played safety but returned to wide receiver out of necessity.
While Ohio State’s offense garners all the attention, the Buckeyes’ defense under first-year coordinator Jim Knowles could determine whether the program returns to the College Football Playoff.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, two of the most telling statistics about Ohio State’s defense last year as compared to seasons it made the CFP were its third-down conversion rate and red zone efficiency.
Ohio State allowed a touchdown on nearly 74% of its opponents’ red zone drives last year; only Kansas, Missouri and Arizona were worse. Ohio State’s defense also struggled to get off the field (No. 44 in the country in opponents’ time of possession). And third-down stops were a glaring issue. The Buckeyes allowed their opponents to convert 41.8% of the time; only Northwestern was worse among Big Ten teams. It’s a stark difference from when Ohio State made the playoff in 2019 (No. 3 among Power 5 conferences), 2016 (No. 9) and 2014 (No. 11).
When asked how much better he thinks the defense can be this fall, Ohio State coach Ryan Day told ESPN, “Well, I hope a lot.”
“I think that the combination of a more experienced group coming back — we were so young last year going into that first game — but really, almost the entire team of the Rose Bowl is back,” he said. “That’s important. And then a new scheme, a new staff. So when you look at those two things, it gives you a lot of promise moving forward.” — Heather Dinich
West Virginia at No. 17 Pittsburgh (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app): Pitt and West Virginia knock the dust off the Backyard Brawl for the 105th edition Thursday night. After 11 years of not playing, largely due to conference realignment, the game is expected to be a celebration of both the return of the rivalry and its storied history, while also rekindling that generational dislike the schools and their fans have for one another.
While West Virginia has won the past three matchups, Pitt comes into the game fresh off an ACC title and holding a preseason No. 17 ranking. The Panthers also have the home-field advantage at freshly named Acrisure Stadium.
Though Pitt loses Heisman runner-up quarterback Kenny Pickett, Kedon Slovis transfers in from USC; and the Mountaineers will be starting Slovis’ old Trojans teammate, transfer quarterback JT Daniels from Georgia.
It’s not the typical way players in this rivalry — 75 miles separate the schools — would know each other, but nothing has been the same in college football the past few years.
Despite the pause in the Brawl, both coaches know that the game will still be played with plenty of emotion while hoping it doesn’t go too far.
“Our guys have a really good understanding of what the Backyard Brawl is and the history of it,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said. “But we got enough guys that played football that we should be able to play with emotion without getting carried away.”
As Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said, “I think it’s good that maybe both of us have not played this game. Let it be the fans’ rivalry. Because what you don’t want to get is your emotions too much involved in it to the point where it affects your play too. So I think it’s a good thing. We want to see a good football game.” — Harry Lyles Jr.
Get an inside look at the fiery history of Pitt vs. West Virginia as they get ready for their 105th matchup on Thursday night.
No. 11 Oregon vs. No. 3 Georgia, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): College football history is littered with examples of coaches going up against their former teams or bosses, but Dan Lanning’s debut as the head coach at Oregon might be uncharted territory. When he was named the Ducks’ coach — replacing Mario Cristobal, who had departed for Miami — Lanning had a choice to make: depart his role as Georgia’s defensive coordinator immediately or stay on through the College Football Playoff run and balance his responsibilities.
Ultimately, it was a pretty easy call. The appeal of seeing out a national title run was too important to pass up, but it was somewhat complicated by the fact that Georgia’s first game the next year was against the Ducks.
“I know that was an awkward piece of it for [Georgia] Coach [Kirby] Smart and myself,” Lanning told ESPN. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I’d like to stay and coach these games and finish what I started.’ And I know he wanted the same thing. But ultimately as a professional, they could have been like, ‘Wait, do we need to lock this door and not let Dan in this room anymore?’ But [Smart] was great about it.”
After Oregon surprised Ohio State in Columbus last year, there is obviously recent precedent to allow for the possibility that the Ducks can pull off the upset. But to unseat the defending national champions would take things to another level. Will Lanning’s familiarity help? Maybe. But it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.
“I know their tendencies really well. I know their personnel really well,” he said. “That being said, they know me really well. They know my foundation. Coach Smart is gonna add some wrinkles. He’s gonna add some flavor-of-the-week pieces and changes to enhance their program.” — Kyle Bonagura
No. 23 Cincinnati at No. 19 Arkansas (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app): One of the most intriguing Week 1 games pits an upstart Arkansas team in the AP Preseason Poll for the first time since 2015 against a Cincinnati team that crashed the playoff a season ago but lost five players to the top 100 picks in the NFL draft and a school-record nine draftees overall.
They were huge losses, including quarterback Desmond Ridder, a four-year starter who finished third in NCAA history with 44 career wins. Bearcats coach Luke Fickell hasn’t named a starting QB while Evan Prater and Ben Bryant have been locked in a tight competition. But that doesn’t seem to faze Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, who said the Razorbacks will adjust to whatever they see.
“I think the first couple series are going to be really important to kind of figure out what they’re bringing to the party,” Pittman said Monday. “Some guys bring iced tea, and some guys bring liquor. You’ve just got to figure out what they’re bringing.”
After winning nine games last year, more than the previous three seasons combined, Pittman just wants to keep the party going. But he’ll be facing a Cincinnati team that has won 11 straight season openers and is 22-2 over the past two years, with losses to only Georgia (24-21 in 2021 Peach Bowl) and Alabama (27-6 in the CFP semifinal at the Cotton Bowl). It’s the start of a slog for the Razorbacks, who play a brutal SEC West schedule but also visit No. 25 BYU on Oct. 15 and get Liberty at home on Nov. 5.
“We’ve supposedly had the hardest schedule in football for three years in a row. Hopefully, one of these days it’ll die down a little bit,” Pittman told ESPN recently. “If you don’t look at it as a whole, it’s not as scary. If you do, you’re going, ‘Oh my lord,’ because you get nervous or worried, but we really don’t do that. We know we’ve got Cincinnati and they’re a really good team. After that, we’ll figure it out.” — Dave Wilson
As Cincinnati seeks to make another run to the College Football Playoff, take a look at some of the Bearcats’ best moments from last season.
No. 7 Utah at Florida, (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app): The matchup between Utah and Florida is rare in a few ways. This is just the third time the Gators have opened the season against a ranked opponent at home (and the first time they are an underdog since 1982). It will be the first time the Utes have faced an SEC opponent since their historic Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in 2009.
If there is one player who can talk at length about both programs, it is Utah linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, who transferred from Florida in the offseason. Diabate has spent nearly as much time talking trash about his former teammates as answering questions about this game from reporters.
But that talk has quieted during this week of preparation.
“We’ve been talking for the past nine months,” Diabate said. “The talk is winding down now. It’s time to play.”
When asked whether it would be strange to be in the visitors locker room, Diabate said the Gators used it during the pandemic.
“I’m familiar with the old, janky Florida Gators visitor locker room,” he said. “I’m really excited to smell the place; it’s smells that give you the nostalgic feeling. So I’m going to go there, take a breath of air and realize where I am — and get to work.”
Despite Diabate’s familiarity with the locker room and some of the Florida players, much has changed since he left Gainesville — starting with new coach Billy Napier. You could make an argument about which school needs the victory more: Napier would love nothing more than to start his Florida career with a big nonconference win to show he has the Gators headed in the right direction; Utah would love nothing more than to get a huge nonconference road win against an SEC team to make a statement for its program and the Pac-12. — Andrea Adelson
Florida State vs. LSU, Caesars Superdome, New Orleans (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC): Following LSU’s spring game in April, coach Brian Kelly audibly groaned when asked about the possibility of playing multiple quarterbacks.
That would only happen, he said, if he had no other choice.
Fast-forward to Monday and Kelly wasn’t groaning as he made a non-announcement regarding his quarterback ahead of Sunday’s opener against Florida State. He might as well have been winking at the camera as he said he figured out who would start roughly 48 hours earlier. But give up the “tactical advantage” and make it public? Not a chance.
“The advantage for us is that we haven’t played,” Kelly said. “So it doesn’t help us to give up any of our cards in that sense.”
What we do know is that it will be either Jayden Daniels — the former Arizona State transfer — or Garrett Nussmeier, who saw action in four games as a freshman last season. And according to Kelly, they’re not all that different in terms of their traits (strong-armed, mobile) or how the offense will function with them under center.
This is more a 1A-1B situation, Kelly said, as opposed to a clear-cut starter (No. 1) and a backup (No. 2) who would be safe leaving his helmet under the bench.
While Daniels has the clear edge in terms of experience as a three-year starter, there is one area that could tilt the scales: turnovers.
Both quarterbacks had a 1:1 touchdown-to-interception last season, which is less than ideal. Daniels threw 10 interceptions to Nussmeier’s two. — Alex Scarborough
No. 4 Clemson Tigers vs. Georgia Tech, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app): Jeff Sims wasn’t on the field for Georgia Tech’s near miss against Clemson last season. In that game, Jordan Yates got the start with Sims sidelined by an injury, and the Yellow Jackets’ offense managed just a pair of field goals in a 14-8 loss.
“Being on the sideline,” Sims said, “not being able to play, knowing I won’t get in, it was rough.”
Having a healthy Sims for Monday’s matchup against Clemson might be Georgia Tech’s best hope for an upset this time around.
This offseason, Yellow Jackets coach Geoff Collins rebuilt his offensive staff with an eye toward maximizing Sims’ skill set. Collins brought in offensive coordinator Brent Key to call plays and hired former Heisman winner Chris Weinke to coach QBs — namely, to be more hands-on with Sims.
“Chris, all day, every day, every rep in practice, all he’s worried about is the QB position,” Collins said. “He’s consumed with the development of the most important position on the field.”
Development for Sims is a tad overdue. Sims was an ESPN 300 recruit — the No. 5 dual-threat QB in the country in 2020 — and burst onto the scene with a comeback win over Florida State in his college debut that year. But progress from there has come in fits and starts, finishing last season completing just 60% of his throws as Georgia Tech won only three games.
Still, the talent is obvious. Sims had a four-game stretch last October in which he appeared to turn a corner, thumping North Carolina (rushing for 128 yards and three TDs) then throwing for 359 yards against Pitt, 297 versus Duke and 300 at Virginia. But he struggled to stay healthy and ultimately missed part or all of six games.
If the progress hasn’t been a straight line, however, Sims certainly has Clemson’s attention.
“You can’t lose focus on the quarterback,” Tigers linebacker Barrett Carter said. “He’s a dynamic guy, very athletic. He can slip out, and we’ve got to stay on top of him.”
Indeed, Sims sees his physical skills as a way to help negate a Clemson pass rush that might be the best in the country. Last season, Louisville’s Malik Cunningham was the only QB who rushed for more than 25 yards against the Tigers — and he nearly pulled off an upset too, but for a third-quarter injury that took him out of the game for several series.
“I think my ability [to run] in open spaces is always going to make a difference,” Sims said.
And yet, there’s still the small problem of a Clemson defensive front that is loaded with NFL talent. As Tigers senior end K.J. Henry said, Sims’ mobility is only a weapon if Clemson’s defenders aren’t in position to corral him.
“Once you come around the edge, he can still escape the pocket, so it’s all about leverage and what points of attack you want to place on a QB,” Henry said. “But it won’t make us less aggressive.” — David M. Hale
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