There’s something downright anti-poetic about the typical Week 1 college football slate. Conference rivalry games are, for the most part, still weeks away. Geographic rivalry games are few, and feature too many FCS opponents to teach us much about the participants. Top 25 matchups are more than a little scarce.
But maybe that’s for the best. Say you stumbled, parched and malnourished, out of a desert and into civilization for the first time in eight months. What’s the first thing you’d get, weary traveler? Water — in tiny, tiny sips, because too much too soon could kill you. So while we wouldn’t necessarily die of mirth if the Alabama-A&M rematch took place over Labor Day weekend instead of on September 14, sensory overload would surely result. We might miss some things. The time we have with America’s beautiful game is too short, and we need to treasure every snap.
Plus, the barn burners are worth the wait. Most of the games on tap this weekend aren’t showstoppers, but they’re what we’ve got. The most wonderful time of the year has begun, and that, for now, is enough. The time for words has passed, and only deeds will suffice — even if those deeds consist of beating the snot out of Northern Arizona.
All times Eastern.
On Your Marquee
• Pointiest potential pointsplosion: No. 5 Georgia at no. 8 Clemson (8 p.m., Saturday, ABC). With most FBS teams burning off gimme games to kick off the season, a matchup between two top-10 programs is a rare blessing. What’s more, the Dawgs and Tigers are curiously well-matched. Both feature top-drawer offenses. Both operate under coaches who serve as the designated Ned Flanderses (Neds Flanders?) of their respective conferences. Both have suffered BCS-related heartburn of late. And Did You Know that in our football forefathers’ time, this game was A Thing?
You might not have any idea if you’re not a Georgia or Clemson fan — or under the age of 40 — but the Bulldogs and Tigers had a pretty heated little rivalry once upon a time. After this weekend, they might have one again. Not only is Saturday’s prime-time matchup in Death Valley one of only two games between ranked opponents on opening weekend, it stands to be one of the most entertaining games of the 2013 season.
Why? Pointsplosion potential! The 2013 Dawgs return nearly everyone from an offense that led the nation in yards per play in 2012 and practically no one from a defense that lost seven players in April’s NFL draft. Clemson, meanwhile, averaged more than 500 yards and 40 points per game last season, but might also struggle to stop opponents this year, particularly through the air, after losing three starters from an already-thin secondary. Combine these circumstances with the teams’ liberal use of the no-huddle, and the Memorial Stadium scoreboard operator may have to run out to the Walmart for new lightbulbs at halftime.
Weapons abound on both sides. Clemson fields superstar receiver Sammy Watkins, while Georgia boasts the running back tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall (for whom we promise to craft a better nickname than last season’s regrettably popular “Gurshall”). And at quarterback, this game provides a ready-made and easily digestible narrative. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Georgia’s Aaron Murray both return as entrenched starting quarterbacks, initial Heisman front-runners, and prestigious future NFL draft picks. Both harbor likely grudges against South Carolina. Both put on fine performances in the Georgia Dome last postseason, although Murray probably remembers his overall experience less fondly seeing as he came five yards shy of a BCS title game berth. Both have extra letters in their first names, have a paralyzing fear of seabirds, and have seen every episode of Veronica Mars at least four times (even the third season). At some point in the prior sentence, fiction replaced fact.
There’s one more similarity headlining the pregame story lines: Fairly or unfairly, both Clemson and Georgia have been tagged with the dreaded “can’t win the big one” rep in recent years. That ratchets up the pressure on their respective coaches, Dabo Swinney and Mark Richt, because while this game won’t affect either team’s conference-title chances, a loss would likely smother national-title hopes in the cradle. (This is particularly true for Georgia, which still has to play South Carolina and LSU before September ends and can ill afford to start the 2013 campaign on a confidence-sapping note.)
It’s all starting to look a lot like those Clemson-Georgia matchups from the Danny Ford/Vince Dooley years, which produced consecutive national champions in 1980 (Georgia) and ’81 (Clemson). Though this rivalry has lain mostly dormant for a couple of decades, the teams and their fans have to hope the stakes could be that high once again.
But First …
Only two ranked teams play Thursday night, but sandwich those squads’ games around a certain Pac-12–Mountain West clash and an entirely enjoyable evening can be yours.
• It is, how you say, on: North Carolina at no. 6 South Carolina (6 p.m., ESPN). Heels-Cocks gets the dubious honor of being the first nationally televised game of the season. Because we care, we made you a drinking game:
• One sip for every Jadeveon Clowney hit
• Two sips every time Steve Spurrier rotates quarterbacks
• One sip every time Spurrier throws his visor or headset
• Finish your drink if Spurrier and Larry Fedora throw their visors at the same time
• Switch to chamomile tea if Clowney has a quiet night, preserving his most terrible powers for Week 2 vs. Georgia
Please binge responsibly.
• Undercard: Utah State at Utah (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1). Chuckie Keeton is in this game, which should be enough for any discerning sports consumer. Are you aware of the natural wonder that is Chuckie Keeton, Utah State quarterback? You ought to be: This is the kid who, as a freshman, very nearly knocked off Auburn in the Tigers’ first game after their national championship. Last season, as a sophomore, Keeton averaged more than 300 yards of offense per game and put a scare in Wisconsin, at Wisconsin. This is also a grudge match: The Aggies knocked off the Utes in overtime at home last year.
• Nightcap: No. 24 USC at Hawaii (11 p.m., CBS Sports). Football Jesus bless and keep the 11 p.m. ET Hawaii kickoff, one of the more sublime pleasures of the sport.
• Best Week 1 destination for pure entertainment value: Atlanta for no. 1. Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (5:30 p.m., Saturday, ESPN). This one’s shaping up to be Battletoads vs. Muppet Babies,1 but watching the country’s best team operate with exacting precision can be its own kind of fun. And more crucially: This is one of those special holiday weekends when the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, Dragon Con, Atlanta Pride Weekend, NASCAR, and the Braves all overlap in the same city. Making the trip for the people-watching alone is more than worth it. Set up camp in a bar near the Georgia Dome and watch maroon-and-orange camo-clad Virginia Tech bros share space with Hobbits. This is not a drill.
• B1Ggest opportunity for vengeance: Northern Illinois at Iowa (3:30 p.m., Saturday, BTN). The Huskies lost just one regular-season game last year on their way to a Cinderella Orange Bowl berth: this one. The rematch features a Jordan Lynch with a year of starting experience to his name — and since the NIU quarterback accounted for a whopping 4,953 yards of total offense in that year, that’s a pretty big deal.
• AQ vs. mid-major matchups featuring plucky, Louisiana-based teams: We get two! Ragin’ Cajuns at Arkansas (4 p.m., Saturday, ESPN3) and Warhawks at no. 16 Oklahoma (7 p.m., Saturday, PPV).
• Densest gathering of potential offensive energy: Washington State at Auburn (7 p.m., Saturday, ESPNU). Their squads might not get all the way there this season, but please note that pointsplosion specialists Mike Leach and Gus Malzahn will meet on the Plains this Saturday.
• Are there any Top 25 matchups aside from Georgia-Clemson? This is Week 1, you sweet, sweet idiot, but you’re not wrong to ask: This year’s Cowboys Classic pits no. 12 LSU against no. 20 TCU in Arlington (9 p.m., Saturday, ESPN).
If the prospect of a fiery shootout doesn’t appeal to you, you’re in luck: While Georgia and Clemson are tearing off the restrictor plates and drag-racing each other to 50 points, the Horned Frogs and the Bayou Bengals will reintroduce the viewing public to the concept of trench warfare at Jerry Jones’s Dallas vanitydome.
If there were a way to fight trench battles with F-22 Raptors, though, Gary Patterson and Les Miles would find it, as their defenses consistently rank among the fastest and most athletic in the country. TCU ranked 16th, 32nd, and first nationally in total defense the last three seasons, while LSU ranked eighth, second, and 12th in those same years. Say what you will about Miles, but he’s got a remarkable knack for restocking his D at the drop of a (comically oversize) hat no matter how many players bust tracks for the NFL after any given season.
Sleep on the Horned Frogs at your own peril, however. While a rocky transition to the Big 12 conference sent TCU stumbling to a mediocre 7-6 record last year, Patterson and his charmingly named defensive coordinator, Dick Bumpas, have otherwise fashioned their squad into a relentlessly efficient machine.
Whether your taste in football runs to the hypersonic or subfreezing, you’ve got appointment viewing Saturday night.
• Friday football: Should I bother? Your mileage may vary. Only three FBS teams play games Friday night against other FBS teams, and one of those games, Western Michigan at Michigan State (8 p.m., BTN), will feature the debut of P.J. Fleck. Also on offer: Florida Atlantic at Miami (8 p.m., ESPNU) and Texas Tech at Southern Methodist (8 p.m., ESPN). Note also that two of these teams feature FBS head coaching rookies — Fleck and Kliff Kingsbury — while a third head man, FAU’s Carl Pelini, is entering his second year.
• Sunday football: Should I bother? That depends entirely on your degree of Teddy Bridgewater fandom. No. 9 Louisville hosts Ohio (3:30 p.m., ESPN), followed by the Colorado–Colorado State Rocky Mountain Showdown (6 p.m., CBS Sports), which we cannot recommend watching for anything other than reasons related to footage of live buffalo.
• Monday football: Should I bother? It’s not a particularly compelling matchup, but if you take in no. 11 Florida State at Pitt (8 p.m., ESPN), you’ll have only two football-free evenings to endure before next Thursday’s games kick off. Think of Noles-Panthers as a refueling station for your sporting energy cells.
• Where are the neutral-site games you haven’t mentioned? In chronological order:
• Mississippi State vs. no. 13 Oklahoma State at Reliant Stadium (3:30 p.m., Saturday, ABC/ESPN2).
• Syracuse vs. Penn State at MetLife Stadium (3:30 p.m., Saturday, ABC/ESPN2).
• Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky at LP Field (7 p.m., Saturday, ESPN News).
• What is the trappiest trap game of Week 1? That would be Toledo at no. 10 Florida (12:21 p.m., Saturday, ESPN3). We’re not calling for an upset, but watch the well-regarded Rockets hang around for more than a half as Will Muschamp’s band of killer reptiles rouses itself from its summer slumbers before putting away something in the neighborhood of an eight- or 12-point, entirely unsatisfying victory.
• What are the games at which we are likeliest to spot Snoop Dogg, in ascending order of probability? Nevada at No. 21 UCLA (10 p.m. Saturday, Pac-12 Network), Nicholls State at No. 3 Oregon (4 p.m., Saturday, Fox Sports 1), No. 24 USC at Hawaii (11 p.m., Thursday, CBS Sports), and No. 19 Boise State at Washington (10 p.m., Saturday, Fox Sports).
• Wait, what? No, you read the schedule correctly. Rutgers plays a football game at Fresno State (10:30 p.m., Thursday, ESPNU).
Laff Riot: Johnny Footbench
We were a trifle baffled upon reading Billy Liucci’s news that Jonathan “Johnny” Football-Manziel will be suspended for the first half of Texas A&M’s season opener against Rice. After reading Brett McMurphy’s report on the matter, we have gone from about here to about here on the GIF reaction scale, and can only discern one other emotion: grievous disappointment that we don’t get to use this all year.
The sporting Internet has some thoughts:
During his first half suspension Johnny Manziel will be signing autographs outside Gate 1.
— Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli) August 28, 2013
Long live Johnny Halftime.
— Erik Malinowski (@erikmal) August 28, 2013
Non-Texans don’t seem to understand that games against Rice *are* punishment. Manziel is getting a reward.
— Bryan Curtis (@curtisbeast) August 28, 2013
To be honest, we’re all just assuming he’s suspended for the FIRST half
— Peter Berkes (@runthedive) August 28, 2013
Assuming the Rice band is in College Station, halftime of that game should be AWESOME.
— Andrea Wall (@AndeWall) August 28, 2013
— Jason Kirk (@JasonKirkSBN) August 28, 2013
this is a big win for johnny manziel but it’s also a big win for lawyers-who-wear-cowboy-hats
— Martin Rickman (@martinrickman) August 28, 2013
it WOULD make things interesting “@latechbanjo: What does the NCAA enforcement guidel say about suspending Manziel if he played FOR Rice?”
— Holly Anderson (@HollyAnderson) August 28, 2013
“You’re a sassmouth. And sassmouths don’t amount to much, mister,” said Principal NCAA.
— sir broosk (@celebrityhottub) August 28, 2013
You think the Principal NCAA joke is a joke. It ain’t. Behold the NCAA release in which Manziel’s conditions for reinstatement are listed. That’s right, folks: “Manziel will address the team regarding the situation and lessons learned.” Following this somber event, Manziel will be denied graham crackers at snack hour and forced to copy lines on a blackboard for a period not less than four hours: “I, Johnny Manziel, Will Not Write My Name On Stuff.”
But seriously: As spiteful means of redress go, a half-game suspension and forced speechifying are pretty stellar. We think we’ve all learned something from this process, but maybe not in the way the good drones of Dr. Emmert mean or would be pleased to hear.
There are as many American college football teams as there are stars in the heavens, and twice as many television channels and Internet streaming portals. Matt Sarz Sports provides our favorite schedule-at-a-glance viewing experience. This site is also handy.
Arbitrary Power Rankings: Football Coaches As Overworked British Stars of Screen
1. Frank Beamer: “Buttermilk Camouflage”
2. Urban Meyer: “Bonaparte Gigglesnort”
3. Will Muschamp: “Bumberstump Moldyspore”
4. Kevin Sumlin: “Buffalo Capncrunch”
5. Steve Spurrier: “Wimbledon Creamsicle”