The best matchups of the opening week of college football season are easy enough to identify. For starters, they’re games people have talked about repeatedly for the past six months (and sometimes more). Generally, they involve some combination of perennial powers, rising programs and neutral sites.
You know the drill: Auburn-Washington. Louisiana State-Miami. Alabama-Louisville. Tennessee-West Virginia. Virginia Tech-Florida State. And, of course, Michigan-Notre Dame.
The outcomes of some of those games will serve as the first notable nuggets in the playoff chase, but there’s plenty at stake for players and coaches as well. Some will play in those games. Some won’t. But here are a dozen subjects who could see their individual stock rise or fall in a meaningful way this weekend.
Bryce Love, Stanford RB (vs. San Diego State, Friday, 9 p.m.). Consider for a moment that San Diego State allowed just 3.7 yards per carry last season. And even though Stanford lost, 20-17, when it visited the Aztecs early last season, Love rattled off 14.2 yards per carry (13 attempts, 184 yards) in that game.
Last year’s Heisman runner-up, Love starts his senior season with a rematch at home. San Diego State should again be a fine test, and another shredding of the Aztecs defense would be a fine first step in trying to take home this year’s stiff-arming statue.
Ryan Day, Ohio State interim coach (vs. Oregon State, Saturday, noon). There’s a school of thought that Coach Urban Meyer’s three-game suspension to open the season won’t matter much for the first two games, against Oregon State and Rutgers. Still, this is an opportunity for Day to make an impression.
The 39-year-old is already the offensive coordinator for one of the top programs in the country. That in itself would draw attention. A crisp performance, even against the overmatched Beavers, would reflect well on the up-and-comer.
Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic RB (at Oklahoma, Saturday, noon). The junior enters the season with a streak of 12 consecutive 100-yard rushing games. The last team to hold him in check (relatively speaking): Wisconsin, which surrendered 68 yards on 17 carries to the Owls star in last season’s second game.
Assuming he stays healthy, Singletary will again put up silly numbers after rumbling for 1,920 yards and 32 touchdowns last year. But an opener at Oklahoma gives him a high-profile stage against a legitimate playoff contender to further cement himself as one of the country’s top backs.
Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence, Clemson QBs (vs. Furman, Saturday, 12:20 p.m.). Bryant is Clemson’s immediate past, and Lawrence is widely considered to be the future. As for the present? Bryant is listed as the defending ACC champion’s starter going into the Tigers’ opener.
It’s a warm-up before playing next week at Texas A&M, and the Tigers are certain to get an extended look at Lawrence on Saturday. But the better Bryant plays out of the chute this season, the more likely he is to retain his job deep into autumn.
Jake Browning, Washington QB (vs. Auburn in Atlanta, Saturday, 3:30 p.m.). The senior’s legacy in Seattle is already assured. He’ll likely end this season as the Huskies’ career passing leader, and he already owns the school record for passing touchdowns with 78. He also led the Huskies to a Pac-12 title and a playoff berth as a sophomore.
Yet this is a loaded Washington team, one more than capable of going even further than the semifinalists of two years ago. A loss to Auburn in Atlanta would hamper those hopes, and the Tigers might be the best defensive team Browning sees all season. If he can solve them and help the Huskies bag a victory, his Heisman candidacy (and Washington’s playoff aspirations) improve considerably.
Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois DE (at Iowa, Saturday, 3:30 p.m.). No, the reigning Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year won’t have the fate of his season determined by the Huskies’ opener.
But like September dates with Utah and Florida State, it is an opportunity to see a player who amassed 29.5 tackles for losses and 14 sacks to make an impression against better competition than he’ll see for much of league play.
Neal Brown, Troy coach (vs. Boise State, Saturday, 6 p.m.). The 38-year-old is right out of the Hal Mumme-Mike Leach coaching tree (he played for both at Kentucky), and he already has experience as a Power Five coordinator at Texas Tech and Kentucky. He’s also recorded back-to-back 10-win seasons at Troy and probably isn’t long for the Sun Belt school.
Saturday provides as good an opportunity as the Trojans and Brown will enjoy all season. A brand-name opponent is coming to town, and Troy is strong enough on both sides of the ball to pull off a surprise. Brown already led the Trojans to a victory at Louisiana State last year. His stock will rise again with another notable nonconference victory.
Chip Kelly, UCLA coach (vs. Cincinnati, Saturday, 7 p.m.). He’s back, and his track record as a college head coach gets him on this list ahead of Arizona State’s Herm Edwards (who will make his Sun Devils debut later Saturday against Texas-San Antonio).
Kelly still hasn’t named a quarterback for the opener, but immediate personnel moves and even wins and losses aren’t the most important thing for the Bruins. Here’s what is: ascertaining whether Kelly can provide a product that generates buzz in one of the country’s most densely populated sports markets. There’s only one chance to make a first impression, and this is it.
David Beaty, Kansas coach (vs. Nicholls, Saturday, 7 p.m.). There’s no reason to pile on Beaty, who’s basically had zero prayer of succeeding while going 3-33 over the past three seasons. With a new athletic director (Jeff Long), though, the Jayhawks probably need to show progress in 2018.
Know what does not constitute progress? Losing to a FCS team. Kansas happens to draw a tested Nicholls bunch that last season was tied at Texas A&M with eight minutes to play and finished with an 8-4 record, and that this year brings back eight starters on both sides of the ball. The Jayhawks are far from a sure thing Saturday, and a setback could very well end any realistic chance for Beaty to receive a fifth year.
Shea Patterson, Michigan QB (at Notre Dame, Saturday, 7:30 p.m.). The Mississippi transfer immediately receives a chance to prove his worth to his new program. Michigan’s quarterback play last year was subpar. It is Patterson’s task to fix that problem.
Wolverines Coach Jim Harbaugh already has a rivalry problem: He’s 1-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State, 27-6 against everyone else. Beating Notre Dame, even if it is no longer an annual fixture on Michigan’s schedule, would provide a welcome springboard for a team that faded at the end of last season.
Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama QBs (vs. Louisville in Orlando, Saturday, 8 p.m.). The Crimson Tide didn’t list an outright starter entering this neutral-site date. What a surprise. Hurts is a two-year starter. Tagovailoa entered off the bench in last year’s national championship game to help Alabama claim a title.
After nearly eight months of providing talk radio fodder to a crazed fan base, there will finally be another game to analyze and scrutinize. Rest assured the dissection will not be done quietly.
Deondre Francois, Florida State QB (vs. Virginia Tech, Monday, 8 p.m.). Francois suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year’s opener, then reclaimed his job with a strong preseason camp. Still, there’s a player with nearly a full year of starting experience behind him (James Blackman) and a Labor Day matchup with a program possessing a proud defensive tradition (Virginia Tech).
Does Francois’s rust help counteract how raw the Hokies are thanks to graduation, early departures to the NFL and some other issues? Maybe. But if Francois is sharp, he might solidify control of a job with the potential to vault him into the discussion for ACC player of the year.