College football Saturdays are back, and without further adieu, here’s the Notebook Nine, the nine best games of the day for the Saturday of college football Week 1. Games are listed in order of kickoff time so you can plan your Saturday accordingly…
Penn State-Central Florida (8:30 AM, ESPN2): A top ‘o the morning to ya, from Ireland, as the Nittany Lions and Knights meet in Dublin. This game is big for UCF—a major bowl bid is guaranteed to one team out of the “Little Five” conferences. Central Florida is the highest ranked in the AP poll of any team out of that group. Penn State begins the James Franklin era with depth a concern, as NCAA sanctions have taken their toll.
Ohio State-Navy (Noon, CBS Sports Network): This game will be in Baltimore, not more than a half-hour from the Naval Academy, although the guess here is that Ohio State fans will be the more dominating presence at M&T Bank Stadium. I’m curious, along with the rest of the country, to see how the Buckeyes adjust to life without Braxton Miller. I think they’re going to be okay, but the Middies won’t be an easy out—they have experience on both sides of the ball and a great triple-option quarterback in Keenan Robinson.
UCLA-Virginia (Noon, ESPN): It would be a pretty big shock if UCLA lost, but this will be a bellwether game for both programs. Are the Bruins ready to stand up, win the Pac-12 and maybe make the College Football Playoff? Then they’ll blow the Cavaliers out. Conversely, can UVA head coach Mike London, on the hot seat, rally his players and at least play competitively? The 21-point line that UCLA is favored by makes a good benchmark either way.
Rice-Notre Dame (3:30 PM ET, NBC): Before you sleep on the Owls, this is a program that won Conference USA last year and while quarterback Taylor McHargue is gone, Rice has an experienced line on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame’s doing some rebuilding of their own this year. It’s a game the Irish must win if they’re serious about a spot in the playoff or even one of the major bowls. But it’s not a gimme. The Rice of 2014 is as good as the South Florida of 2011…the latter of which came into South Bend and won a season opener.
Arkansas-Auburn (4 PM ET, SEC Network): Now Auburn has to show they can handle being the hunted rather than the hunter, coming into this game spotting nearly three touchdowns to Arkansas against the spread. This probably isn’t a make-or-break year for second-year Hogs coach Bret Bielama, but we’ll have a good sense after the season is over if he’s going to make it in Fayetteville. That means somewhere along the line, he has to play competitively with SEC West powers.
Clemson-Georgia (5:30 PM ET, ESPN): It’s the biggest game of the day. If Clemson wins on the road they could possibly make the playoff as a one-loss team—meaning the Tigers might be able to afford a competitive loss to Florida State. For their part, Georgia has to see this as their year to be the SEC frontrunner, with all that entails on the national scene. The Dawgs have ten starters back on defense and a Heisman candidate in the backfield in Todd Gurley.
Fresno State-USC (7:30 PM ET, Fox): There’s a lot of rebuilding to do in Fresno after their big year in 2013 with Derek Carr at quarterback. It’s tough to see them winning in USC, which makes this game a good early read on the Trojans. If they’re going to compete for the Pac-12 title, they should be good enough to blow out Fresno at home. If USC wins a competitive game, it means either that Fresno rebuilt fast, or that the Trojans are still a few steps behind the pace being set by Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Arizona State in their league.
Florida State-Oklahoma State (8 PM ET, ESPN): We have the defending national champions and the defending Heisman Trophy winner playing on national television in Dallas, which is the same site this year’s national championship game will be at. For all those reasons, this game has to make the list of nine. But frankly, Okie State is rebuilding and I’d be shocked if this is still a game in the second quarter.
Wisconsin-LSU (9 PM ET, ESPN): Keep an eye on the running backs. Melvin Gordon from Wisconsin is in the Heisman Trophy conversation, the best back Madison has seen since Ron Dayne, who won the award in 1999. LSU has freshman sensation Leonard Fournier, considered the top frosh in the country and possibility a contender to continue the pattern of freshmen winning college football’s top individual prize. Gordon and Fournier have veteran offensive lines and inexperienced quarterbacks, so each should see plenty of the football in Houston.
I didn’t include Alabama’s home game with West Virginia on the list, since the Mountaineers have to show they’re back as a legitimate contender before a road date with Alabama can be among the nine most watchable games. The fare we have instead is pretty good, as college football begins its first year where the phrase “The Road To The Final Four” applies on the gridiron along with the hardwood.
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