College Football Viewer’s Guide

How to Watch Week 1

2016 Foreword

Read this article like a travel guide. You know, those books that give you 1-day or 3-day or 7-day itineraries for every location across the globe, telling you which sites to see and what to eat and where to stay. If you read them and take them with you on travel, you know how it works: the well-choreographed agenda on the page gives way to personal interests, time constraints, and oversleeping. You miss some of the feature attractions because you don’t have enough time to do it all. You pop in to see family or friends that don’t fit into the narrative of the guide book. In short, you take the information provided and personalize it to your taste and to what your schedule allows.

That’s the idea here. Adhere as closely or as loosely to this football-watching itinerary as you like. Make room for your favorite team, of course, if they didn’t figure into this week’s narrative. Utilize services like DVR and live-streaming mobile devices liberally. Don’t forget to eat something. Hopefully, this guide will help you see more of the college football landscape than usual, give you meaningful insights into games informed by relevant stats, uncover a few under-the-radar matchups you might have overlooked, and provide a useful roadmap for the dozens of games being played on any given weekend.

A note on the star system. Travel book veterans will recognize it. Michelin aficionados might roll their eyes. Here I use one to three stars to indicate games of significant interest at the time of the article (but not all featured games are given stars). You won’t agree with all the star ratings. I’ll look back at some and probably wonder why I gave such-and-such game a star, always easier in hindsight. I’ll cringe, thinking I gave out too many three-stars early in the year, or too few-one stars later in the season, or something like that. Ultimately, the stars are for fun and reflect how I viewed that game at the time, both analytically and as a general fan of college football.

The stars are subjective, just like those given to restaurants, and the criteria are fluid, but here is the general idea:

★ Interesting game because of matchup quality, upset potential, conference/rankings implications, team style, and/or setting

★★ Important game because of matchup quality, typically involving at least one ranked or highly ranked team, with upset potential or major conference/rankings implications

★★★ Critical game, expected to be highly competitive, between teams with College Football Playoff and/or New Year’s Six potential

And a final note on rankings and statistical references. Team rankings given in the game title only use AP rankings in the first half of the year and CFP rankings once available. Generally, the game title format is presented in one of the following basic formats for consistency:

Charlotte at #19 Louisville [ESPN3 7:00] OR
[Charlotte at #19 Louisville, ESPN3 7:00] OR
Charlotte and #19 Louisville [ESPN3 7:00 at Louisville]

All times are Eastern and implicitly mean PM (or 12:00 noon) if unspecified. Games that kick off in the AM hours will be noted.

All other statistics or rankings utilized in the articles refer to ratings generated by McIllece Sports, whether in the College Football Notebook 2016 preview or numbers updated throughout the year, unless otherwise specified. So when I talk generically about a team being favored, I’m referring to McIllece Sports win probabilities and score predictions, not point spreads.

I hope you enjoy this article series throughout the year, and good luck to your favorite team!

Friday, August 26

The 2016 college football season kicks off Down Under with ★ California vs Hawai’i [ESPN 10:00], a game that earns itself the season’s first star for putting college football on TV a week early and showcasing an unorthodox setting (ANZ Stadium, Sydney). Sure, this matchup wouldn’t attract much interest any other weekend, as these two teams may only combine for 6 or 7 wins, but don’t let that dilute the excitement of the gridiron sights and sounds college football fans have awaited since January.

Besides, the game is more intriguing than it first appears, as it highlights the opposing momentum of two disparate programs. Cal’s dropoff this season could be staggering: a 99th-percentile pass offense in 2015 undercut by zero-percentile returning pass offense experience for 2016 (percentiles are formed by comparing all teams nationally), thanks to departures of prolific QB Jared Goff and his top 6 receivers. Rush defense experience isn’t much better (9th percentile) from what was already a challenged unit a year ago. Various other statistical indicators, like net penalties and fumbles, point downward. Stormclouds loom; Texas Tech transfer QB Davis Webb, an air raid veteran suited to Sonny Dykes’ system, is the silver lining. Watch for timing and communication problems between Webb and an untested WR corps that portend serious trouble against the rest of a difficult schedule. With San Diego State and Texas filling out the nonconference slate, Cal may not be favored in another game all season (Oct 8th at Oregon State looks like a tossup, with the improving Beavers getting the preseason edge for playing at home).

Hawai’i breaks in a new defense, hamstrung by the summer dismissal of top DL Kennedy Tulimasealii, that doesn’t have the base talent to consistently slow Cal’s attack, but look for progress from the new-look offense, a highly experienced unit that must transition to first-year Head Coach Nick Rolovich’s (former Nevada OC) run-oriented pistol. QB Ikaika Woolsey, originally recruited by then-assistant coach Rolovich to Hawai’i out of high school, looks to be a solid fit. Fresh energy, improved fundamentals, and a new offensive style should invigorate the Rainbow Warriors, who could surprise by remaining competitive into the second half of this international affair.

Thursday, September 1

Kick off the first full weekend with some fireworks [Charlotte at #19 Louisville, ESPN3/WatchESPN 7:00], courtesy of dual-threat sophomore sensation Lamar Jackson. Don’t miss the early barrage, as Charlotte can’t keep this close against a polished, complete Louisville squad, and some starters may not play much in the second half. Keep an eye on the Cardinals’ new specialists. They rate as an unknown and could prove critical in two weeks, when the Seminoles come to town for a mammoth ACC Atlantic matchup.

Count on Louisville to cruise the rest of the way and catch the kickoff of our preseason favorite to reach the College Football Playoff, Tennessee, against better-than-you-might-realize App State [Appalachian State at #9 Tennessee, SEC Network 7:30], a team that could win 10+ games again. If the Vols have a weakness, other than a much discussed propensity to clam up in big moments, it is an underwhelming passing offense that needs to show better in ’16. See if that aspect is coming to life against a good App State defense, and don’t be surprised if the Mountaineers–behind a solid D, committed and methodical run game, and leadership of Sun Belt star QB Taylor Lamb–hang around until half time. Talent, experience, and elite special teams should help Tennessee pull away in the second half.

At halftime, check out the score of FIU at Indiana [ESPNU 7:30]. If the Golden Panthers hit the teens in the first half, consider it a bad sign that Indiana’s long-awaited defensive revival is yet another year away.

Before halftime is over, select from two rare Week 1 conference matchups: South Carolina at Vanderbilt [ESPN 8:00] if you love defense or Rice at Western Kentucky [CBSSN 8:00] if you love offense. The SEC is the SEC, but that game won’t impact the SEC East race, so we recommend swallowing your Power 5 bias and going with the CUSA game that has real conference implications. WKU was an aerial powerhouse under the guidance of QB Brandon Doughty, who led them to an excellent 12-2 season in 2015. Hang around long enough to catch a few balls with nationally underappreciated wideout Taywan Taylor, certain to be the favorite target of Doughty’s replacement, a winner yet to emerge from the Hilltoppers’ ongoing 3-man QB competition.

Head back to Rocky Top to see if the Vols pull away; if so, consider them primed and ready for next week’s Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech, under new Head Coach Justin Fuente (former Memphis HC), and settle in with a Big Ten-Pac12 cross-sectional [Oregon State at Minnesota, BTN 9:00] featuring heavy doses of the running game–Minnesota’s more compact and powerful, Oregon State’s more spread out and speedy. Expect a competitive game of contrasting run styles that doesn’t spin out of control either way, as the Beavers should be better in Gary Andersen’s second year. Minnesota has the stronger foundation and is favored (74% win probability) to start 1-0, but an upset isn’t unthinkable in the nightcap of college football’s opening Thursday.

Friday, September 2

Matt Rhule’s Temple was a revelation in 2015, winning 10 games only two years after losing 10 (his first season as Head Coach). See if that looks like the new normal for the Owls [Army at Temple, CBSSN 7:00]. A slip in quality is probable, but 10 wins is possible again in 2016 (22% chance of 10-2 or better). Army fortunately appears to have the services of option QB Ahmad Bradshaw available, which helps their chances, but their inexperienced personnel will struggle to notch more than a pair of TDs against the Owls.

Pop into Denver for the annual off-campus rivalry game between Colorado and Colorado State [ESPN 8:00], never an easy game for the Power 5 Buffaloes. There is more on the line than in-state bragging rights, as this is must-win territory for the Buffs if they have their sights on a December bowl trip. This may be the best opportunity for Head Coach Mike MacIntyre, who in his 4th season has a very experienced team–Colorado needs to convert that experience into wins, and fast. A loss to the Rams would indicate that a bounceback season is off the table in Boulder.

Don’t miss a snap of a stylistic throwback [ Kansas State at #8 Stanford, FS1 9:00] that would have looked just fine on analog TV. Ageless wizard Bill Snyder is known to conjure teams that defy analytics, and David Shaw’s pipeline of hard-nosed trench talent does much the same in Palo Alto. Keep an eye on Stanford’s offensive efficiency after replacing undervalued 3-year starting QB Kevin Hogan, particularly on 3rd downs, for signs of future trouble against Pac12 foes. Heisman-quality RB Christian McCaffery, the country’s best all-purpose player, is the difference here and should cement the win for the home side, but Snyder’s K-State can cast a wicked spell and win in unexpected ways that look a lot like luck. This game is no gimme for the Cardinal.

You should have just enough time to catch a potentially wild finish in a cross-sectional between a pair of Group of 5 powers [Toledo at Arkansas State, ESPNU 9:00]. If it goes into overtime, remember to set your alarm, because the games start early tomorrow.

Saturday, September 3

The best opening Saturday in recent memory begins with an Irish breakfast in Dublin [ Georgia Tech vs Boston College, ESPN2 7:30 am]. Setting and style promise enthralling early (non-EPL) football from the North Atlantic: GT’s clockwork spread option vying to outmaneuver BC’s stifling defense. The fun here is when the Yellow Jackets have the ball, watching QB Justin Thomas and his stable of RBs (a.k.a. A-Backs and B-Backs) choreograph Paul Johnson’s singular attack against playmaking DE Harold Landry and active LBs Matt Milano and Connor Strachan. BC’s offense is as anemic as its defense is smothering–17 points might be enough to win in Aviva Stadium.

The most crowded timeslot of the day hits at noon. Skip the likeliest blowouts (until next time, Ohio State and Michigan) and home in on a manageable pair: playoff ramifications abound at neutral-site NRG Stadium in Houston [★★★ #3 Oklahoma vs #13 Houston, ABC 12:00], and during commercial breaks catch the odd series between ★ Western Michigan and Northwestern [ESPNU 12:00, at Northwestern]. Why the latter? The Wildcats, fresh off 10 wins and boasting our preseason #17 defense, might seem like clear favorites, but WMU is one of the best G5 teams in the nation (#24 offense led by MAC stars QB Zach Terrell and WR Corey Davis) and has a shot at running the table and crashing the New Year’s Six party if they win in Evanston. This is a meaningful under-the-radar game. A loss in this coin-flip contest would bode ill for NW’s chances of competing for the Big Ten West division championship.

Little motivation is needed for that other game…the first of many colossal tilts that will be discussed by the CFP committee into November. The QBs are two of college football’s most captivating–Houston’s Greg Ward Jr for his electrifying open-field ability, OU’s Baker Mayfield for his unflinching competitive drive and apparent joy of playing the game. The challenge for both teams is breaking in new faces on the other side of the ball: OU’s rush and pass experience percentiles (defensively) are 16 and 28, while Houston’s are 25 and 9, respectively. So expect a bevy of explosive plays, an all-around thrilling game, and maybe even a signature moment for one of these Heisman-contending quarterbacks.

Catch your breath and check the final score of Missouri at West Virginia [FS1 12:00], which likely ended before OU-Houston. West Virginia’s offense has great potential this season. If they hang 3+ touchdowns on the stout Tiger D, consider it a good sign–that’s probably the best defense the Mountaineers will face all season.

Pass on playoff contender Washington this week (assume they’ll take care of the outclassed Scarlet Knights in Seattle) and absorb the theater of a college football kickoff at Lambeau Field between ground-and-pounders ★ #5 LSU and Wisconsin [ABC 3:30]. Wisconsin’s rush offense slipped to an un-Badger-like 40th percentile in Paul Chryst’s second year as boss, and with QB Joel Stave and #1 WR Alex Erickson gone, the pressure ratchets up on the OL and returned-from-injury RB Corey Clement to move the chains against LSU’s #10 defense (led by DC Dave Aranda, architect of the great Badger defenses from 2013 to 2015). LSU and elite RB Leonard Fournette (if healthy) should prove too much for Wisconsin in a low-scoring, rugged affair that gets a star for classic style and football atmosphere, but may fail to deliver a 4-quarter nail-biter.

Don’t overlook what should be a more competitive contest [#16 UCLA at Texas A&M, CBS 3:30] as the Aggies hosts the Pac12 North favorite Bruins. This would have been a shootout a couple years past, but these two teams project as top 15 defensive units with offensive question marks, so don’t be shocked if fewer points are scored in College Station than in Green Bay. Plan on settling in here for the second half with Kyle Field’s 12th Man as LSU pulls away from Wisconsin up north.

The next stop is in-progress ★★ #22 North Carolina vs #18 Georgia [ESPN 5:30] at the Georgia Dome, where new QBs will be on display for both teams: JR Mitch Trubisky operating the explosive Larry Fedora offense, and heralded true freshman Jacob Eason at the helm in Kirby Smart’s (former Alabama DC) first game as head man of the Bulldogs. UNC needs to get better stopping the run to repeat as ACC Coastal champions, and a healthy Nick Chubb should provide a great test for some new D-linemen and linebackers. The defensive star power for the Heels is at CB: watch for M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence to make life difficult on Eason in his collegiate debut. If they only break up passes, count it a win for Georgia; if they come down with an INT or two, that swings the needle in UNC’s favor. Also, don’t look away when Georgia lines up to punt (stalwart 4-year punter Collin Barber must be replaced). One of the country’s great return men, UNC’s Ryan Switzer, can change the game in a flash.

From 8:00 until 9:00, you’ll be flipping back and forth between the Georgia Dome and another neutral-site showdown from Arlington, TX [★★ #20 USC vs #1 Alabama, ABC 8:00]. More quarterback questions enter the field of play here for Clay Helton’s and Nick Saban’s squads. The Trojans are more QB dependent, which is advantage #1 for the defending champs. Check out Bo Scarbrough, who could be in store for a big night against a revamped Trojan front seven, to see if he looks like the next great Alabama running back. If USC is to have a fighting chance, a game-changing performance is needed from elite receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, perhaps the best individual playmaker on the field. USC probably can’t turn the game on special teams, where the Tide are superior, so they may need to hit +2 in turnover margin to spring the upset. That’s unlikely, and we favor Alabama at nearly 80% to kick off 2016 with a win over a strong USC team.

After Georgia – UNC concludes, ★★ #2 Clemson at Auburn [ESPN 9:00] joins the rotation from Jordan-Hare Stadium. Clemson’s biggest question is a reconstructed rush defense, steadied by LB Ben Boulware and excellent DT tandem Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins, that must replace the disruptive productions of ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, ‘backer B.J. Goodson, and safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse. Auburn has the run-first system to challenge the front line of Clemson’s defense, but must do so without last year’s leading rusher Jovon Robinson, dismissed in early August. Auburn boasts enough top-level talent on their #11 defense to slow down Clemson’s #2 offense, which features star QB Deshaun Watson and an embarrassment of skill position riches, just enough to keep hope alive in a huge opportunity game for Head Coach Gus Malzahn. An SEC West team at home, fielding potentially a very good defense, with a rushing attack that stresses Clemson’s biggest unknown, can’t be counted out. This climactic matchup of the day’s big games could be a tougher 4-quarter grind for the Clemson-variety Tigers than most anticipate.

If you have any gas left in the tank after starting at 7:30 am, catch some West Coast wildness in the second half of BYU vs Arizona [FS1 10:30] in Glendale, a game that is unfortunately washed out a bit by the magnitude of the preceding tilts. Both these teams could end up in many tight games this year, as evidenced by their wide distributions of expected records: both are about as likely to win 3-4 games (BYU 22%, Arizona 19%) as they are to win 8-9 (BYU 19%, Arizona 22%). A handful of critical moments will define the seasons of these two solid-but-flawed clubs.

Sunday, September 4

Alternatively, record the second half and watch it as a warm-up to another big one on Sunday night: ★★ #10 Notre Dame at Texas [ABC 7:30]. The Irish must be desperate for real football after an endless fall camp that recently saw the dismissal and suspension of S Max Redfield and CB Devin Butler, respectively. Texas and embattled coach Charlie Strong suddenly have a tailor-made opportunity between Notre Dame’s turmoil and an overall down year for the Big XII. It starts here, as the forgettable offseason, uncertain QB situation, and general inexperience of the Irish leave them surprisingly vulnerable to a tattered program coming off consecutive 7-loss seasons.

A snapshot of the offensive and defensive experience percentiles of these teams shows how young the Irish are compared to the Horns:

Texas
Rush Offense 65
Pass Offense 71
Rush Defense 66
Pass defense 93

Notre Dame
Rush Offense 20
Pass Offense 11
Rush Defense 7
Pass Defense 18

The analytics characteristically high on Notre Dame are based on recent success and elite recruiting, surpassing even that of usual February juggernaut Texas. Get the first look at freshman Longhorn QB Shane Buechele, and see if the Irish two-QB system shakes out a clear starter in the second half of this tossup game (ND 55% win probability before recent roster upheaval) that is potentially a landmine for Chip Kelly and a springboard for Charlie Strong.

Monday, September 5

If all that wasn’t enough, leave room in the Labor Day schedule for Week 1’s grand finale, ★★★ #11 Ole Miss vs #4 Florida State [ESPN 8:00] from the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, a playoff-quality clash between teams rated #4 and #5 in our pure power ratings. At 53% win probability for FSU, this matchup is nearly a true tossup game and certainly a gold star on the victor’s playoff resume. For the Seminoles, steady Sean Maguire’s injury clears the path for redshirt freshman QB Deondre Francois, tasked with avoiding costly mistakes that could undermine a supremely talented and experienced offense (Recruiting 97, RushOff experience 99, PassOff experience 87 before the Maguire injury). Dalvin Cook’s the bulldozing headliner and runs behind an OL with all key multi-game starters from ’15 still on the roster.

Defensively, make note of how a retooled secondary, FSU’s biggest question mark besides the play of Francois, holds up against the Rebels’ top-flight pass offense (93rd-percentile last year) featuring the SEC’s most prolific returning QB, Chad Kelly, and talented receiving trio Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore’ea Stringfellow, and TE Evan Engram. Top 2015 producer Laquon Treadwell will be missed. In other areas, Ole Miss is counting on many first-year starters, so the team experience edge is decidedly in Florida State’s favor. Special teams can swing close games, and here Ole Miss figures to have an edge, returning their specialists–accurate placekicker Gary Wunderlich, strong-legged kickoff man Nathan Noble, and solid punter Will Gleeson–while FSU must replace theirs, including an all-time Seminole great, kicker Roberto Aguayo.

The loser of this game isn’t out of the playoff picture in Week 1, but could be as soon as Week 3: Florida State travels to rising power Louisville, and Ole Miss hosts dynastic power Alabama.