Opening day in the SEC is not close anymore; it’s here. Check out the top opening day games by Gridiron Now‘s Mike Huguenin.
And, man, what a first week it is across the nation. Every single game involving an SEC team has at least a bit of intrigue – yes, even Florida-Massachusetts because of QB Luke Del Rio – and it was tough to narrow our list to three games this week. Among the games we left out: Auburn-Clemson and Texas A&M-UCLA.
3. GEORGIA VS. NORTH CAROLINA IN ATLANTA
When: Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
The skinny: This is one of four games this weekend involving two ranked teams. The bigger deal, of course, is that it’s the debut of Kirby Smart as Georgia’s coach and Jacob Eason as Georgia’s quarterback (even if he doesn’t start, he will play). It also marks the return of Bulldogs TB Nick Chubb, who has made a remarkable recovery from the severe knee injury suffered last October in a loss at Tennessee. Smart’s defense will get a test from what is expected to be a prolific Tar Heels offense led by TB Elijah Hood, who rushed for 1,463 yards and 17 TDs last season. UNC’s defense was horrendous against the run last season, and there really isn’t any reason to think the Heels will be vastly improved in that area this season. Thus, expect Georgia OC Jim Chaney to run Chubb and whomever else the Bulldogs use at tailback right at the Heels.
The bottom line: UNC returns four starters from its offensive line. Smart has complained basically since the day he was hired about Georgia’s lack of size and depth along both lines, and if UNC’s offensive line can control the Buldogs’ defensive front, Hood will have a big day and this becomes mighty interesting
2. ALABAMA VS. USC IN ARLINGTON, TEXAS
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
The skinny: You can’t ask for much more in terms of brand-name college football programs – and it’ll be played at Jerry Jones’ palatial football palace, to boot. This will be the teams’ first regular-season meeting since USC won in Birmingham in 1978; that was the Tide’s only loss that season, and Alabama went on to win the national title with a victory over Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. This is another game involving two ranked teams. Both teams will be unveiling new quarterbacks – USC will start junior Max Browne and Alabama will start … we don’t know yet. Browne will operate behind what is expected to be an elite offensive line, and he has a notable weapon in WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster and the Tide’s Calvin Ridley are among the top five or six receivers in the nation. And each team has at least one stud corner, too, USC with Adoree Jackson and the Tide with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey. USC has a rebuilt front seven (but a good secondary) on defense, so you figure the Tide will pound away with its running game
The bottom line: This will be a strength-vs.-strength (USC offense vs. Alabama defense) and a question mark-vs.-a question mark (Alabama offense vs. USC defense) kind of game. Early in the season, at least, you expect defenses to be a bit ahead of offenses, which gives the Tide an advantage. Alabama’s last regular-season non-conference loss came against Florida State in 2007, in Nick Saban’s first season.
1. FLORIDA STATE VS. OLE MISS IN ORLANDO
When: Monday, 8 p.m.
The skinny: An epic first weekend ends on Labor Day night with the last of the four games between two ranked teams. Ole Miss enjoys a decided advantage at quarterback. Rebels senior Chad Kelly is a dark-horse Heisman contender, while Seminoles redshirt freshman Deondre Francois is making his first college start (and it comes in his hometown). One positive for Francois is that junior TB Dalvin Cook – who definitely is a Heisman contender – will line up behind him. The Rebels’ defense had some problems at times against the run last season, and given Ole Miss’ issues at linebacker, Cook could be in for a big night. And as good as Kelly is, his protection is worth watching. Ole Miss is rebuilding its line and faces an athletic FSU defensive front headed by E DeMarcus Walker, who had 10.5 sacks last season. Ole Miss TE Evan Engram should be a weapon for Kelly; FSU’s linebackers can be exploited by a pass-catching tight end. Keep an eye on FSU S Derwin James; he is an explosive player who will be used in a multitude of ways by Seminoles coaches.
The bottom line: There is more pressure on FSU than on Ole Miss. FSU is seen as a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff, and the Seminoles basically are playing a home game. Kelly needs to be razor-sharp, and it would help Ole Miss if pass-rushing DE Marquis Haynes can get up close and personal with Francois.
(You can follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin)