When you’re starving, anything will do. That is why college football fans happily have scarfed down garbage games on opening weekend for years. They’re just so happy the offseason is over.
But this year, Week 1 is a welcome-back buffet of steak and lobster. The top 5 teams and 12 of the top 25 in the preseason AP poll open against marquee opponents. There are high-level matchups scheduled from noon to midnight Saturday.
No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 15 Houston at 12 p.m., No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin and No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M at 3:30, No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina at 5:30, No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 20 Southern California at 8, No. 2 Clemson at Auburn at 9.
Oh, and No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas on Sunday night, and No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 11 Ole Miss on Monday.
“I went back and looked at the past seven, eight, nine years – and I’ve been working in the sport for the past 15 years now – and there’s nothing that really comes close as far as ranked matchups and big-name programs,” said Kurt Dargis, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions. “I can’t think of any year where it comes close to what we have on paper.”
It’s in his best interest to hype this lineup, as all but UCLA-A&M are airing on his family of networks, but it also happens to be reasonable to wonder whether this isn’t the greatest slate of opening-weekend games college football has ever seen.
Notre Dame-Texas moved to Sunday night because “we had too many good games to fit them all on Saturday, quite honestly,” said Nick Dawson, ESPN’s vice president of programming.
There are four games between ranked teams this weekend compared with six of those combined in the least three opening weekends – just one last season. The College Football Playoff, with a committee that considers strength of schedule, has helped reduce the number of cupcake calories in many teams’ diets.
“The fact of the matter is, we play in a playoff-system world now, and everyone’s going to be talking about your resumé,” said USC coach Clay Helton, whose team will open with the defending national champion Crimson Tide and later play Notre Dame out of conference. “But what you’re also doing is when you get to the playoff, you’re going to be playing really good teams, too, and the quality of opponent that you play during the season is going to help you once you reach that point.
“So we welcome the opportunity, can’t wait to get there.”
We can’t either, Clay. We can’t either.
All the fun starts Thursday night, when three SEC teams open their season: Tennessee hosting Appalachian State (11 wins last year) and Vanderbilt hosting South Carolina in the first league game of 2016. There’s a solid lineup of Friday games, too, with No. 8 Stanford playing Kansas State, the Colorado-Colorado State rivalry and No. 12 Michigan State and No. 23 Baylor also in action.
It’s all part of an unprecedented effort by ESPN to air 100 consecutive hours of college football – between live games, studio shows and game replays – across its family of networks to open the season.
“We’re thrilled and excited for this one to finally arrive,” Dawson said. “We look at it as a five-day celebration of the sport. It’s the one weekend where we’re clear of NFL competition, so it’s the one weekend where college football can really take sole focus and center stage. Frankly, to the sport’s credit, to the schools’ credit, they’ve created games and helped us create games that will make this one a little extra special.”
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WEEK 1 MEGA MATCHUPS
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 20 Southern California, 8 p.m. (ET) Saturday, ABC
No. 2 Clemson at Auburn, 9 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 15 Houston, noon Saturday, ABC
No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 11 Ole Miss, 8 p.m. Monday, ESPN
No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC
No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, ABC
No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS
No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina, 5:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN