Picks for college football’s biggest Week 1 games
Josh Liskiewitz offers up lines, picks and predictions for each Top 25 team.
Picks for college football’s biggest Week 1 games
Typically, Week 1 of the college season is a time for blowouts across the board. While there will certainly be plenty of those, there also looks to be an incredibly slate of exciting matchups. With ranked opponents in action the next five straight days, this could be one of the more entertaining opening weekends of college football in recent memory.
Today we’re breaking down the lines and our picks for every Top 25 game:
No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama
The Crimson Tide returns a ridiculous 221 total QB pressures from last year’s national championship squad, and that spells trouble for first-time starter Max Browne. With possibly the best receiver in the country in JuJu Smith-Schuster (1454 yards receiving, 594 after the catch in 2015) a RB that ran for 5.3 yards per carry last year in Justin Davis and possibly the best tackle in all of college football in Zach Banner (just one sack yielded on 426 pass blocks last year), Browne has all the talent around him he needs to be a successful QB, but to be effective week one against a squad with as much pass rush depth as Alabama, it will be tough for the Trojan offense to find its footing this weekend.
USC, while young and talented, is not as affluent on the defensive side of the ball as Alabama. The outstanding run defense of DT Delvon Simmons and Su’a Cravens will be sorely missed this year, especially against a power team like Alabama. The Crimson Tide return two outstanding receivers themselves in Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, and whether the starting QB is Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett, he should have time to throw behind an offensive line that matches up well with a Trojan unit that returns less than half the production Alabama does on the pass rush.
Alabama has often made mincemeat out of big-name early season opponents, and this looks like another opportunity for them to do just that. While the running game may not be on immediately after needing to replace last year’s Heisman trophy winner, as long as the offense does not turn the ball over, Alabama should be able to wear out USC and cover the sizeable spread.
Prediction: Alabama 31, USC 13
Kansas State at No. 8 Stanford
Line: Stanford -14.0
It’s curious that the Associated Press voters seemingly though enough of RB Christian McCaffrey to make Stanford a preseason top ten team, despite the Cardinal losing a four-year starter at QB, two offensive linemen that were drafted in April and six starters on defense, and yet didn’t seem fit to give him the Heisman trophy he justly deserved last season. With this in mind, Kansas State is going to be a difficult week one matchup for a team that looks more in transition than a contender.
Jesse Ertz won Kansas State’s starting QB job last year, only to tear his right ACL on the first play of the season. Now healthy, he’s one the job again, and it’s hard to envision him not being a significant upgrade over Joe Hubenor, who took over for Ertz and struggled mightily throughout the year. Nowhere is Hubenor’s 2015 struggles better illustrated than his perimeter passing, as on throws at least 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and outside the numbers he completed just 17 of 61 throws. Not only should the Wildcats be in better shape this week on offense almost by default, but they return some talent on defense. Will Geary comes into 2016 as our second-highest graded DT against the run last year, and Jordan Willis ranks 12th overall amongst returning defensive ends.
Stanford on the other hand comes into week one not only with significant changes on offense, but some concerns on defense as well. DE Solomon Davis is one of just two defensive starters for the Cardinal that graded above average last season, and the only defensive lineman to log more than 80 snaps on the year. The secondary is the most experienced unit on defense, as five players with at least 300 snaps in 2015 return, but with only CB Alijah Holder having graded slightly above average last season, there isn’t much confidence to be had in this unit as of yet.
Being at home, a more talented Stanford roster should still come out on top, with McCaffrey picking up where he left off last season. However, like their preseason ranking, the spread seems awfully generous, as you can expect an always-well-coached Kansas State team to show up ready to compete.
Prediction: Stanford 27, Kansas State 21
No. 2 Clemson at Auburn
Line: Clemson -7.5
Much of last year’s dynamic Clemson offense returns, most notable the trio of QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman and WR Artavis Scott, but Auburn also returns a significant amount of talent from last year’s defense. DE Carl Lawson should develop into one of the nation’s best pass rushers, and Carlton Davis was the highest-graded freshman QB in FBS last season.
Meanwhile, Sean White has won the starting QB job of Auburn, after splitting snaps almost evenly with Jeremy Johnson last year. White is the better pure passer, but the reality is he still failed to impress through the air last year, as his 73.5 QB rating indicates. Auburn is also light on skill positions to start the season, as top RB Peyton Barber and the sole deep threat from 2015, WR Ricardo Louis, have departed for the NFL. Auburn’s inability to work the ball downfield (leading returning WR Marcus Davis averaged just 6.0 yards per catch last season and White connected on just 11 of 29 attempts longer than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage) plays into the hands of Clemson’s secondary, which has lost first and second round draft picks this year.
Without a real threat downfield, Clemson stack the box to attack Auburn’s zone read option, a scheme that is not currently employing an athletic signal-caller. Auburn has the pieces on defense to keep this one close early, but Clemson simply has too much experienced talent on both sides of the ball and shouldn’t have a problem covering.
Prediction: Clemson 35, Auburn 20
No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M
Line: Texas A&M -3
The appeal of Texas A&M’s defense is legitimate, as the secondary is strong and experience, while the defensive line is likely to be one of the best in the country, anchored by possibly the best player in the country, DE Myles Garrett. However, the offense still raises significant questions, despite the outstanding WR corps and addition of Oklahoma graduate transfer, QB Trevor Knight. Anyone expecting Knight to come in and immediately be productive needs to look at Knight’s 2014 campaign at Oklahoma, where he did not display a strong arm or impressive accuracy. This is best evidenced by his 43.5 percent completion percentage on throws beyond the line of scrimmage that weren’t inside the hashes and short of 20 yards through the air. Add in the four new starters on the offensive line and the lack of experience at RB, and the Aggies are likely to struggle significantly against a Bruins defense that has talent and experience at all three levels.
While UCLA loses WR Jordan Payton and RB Paul Perkins to the NFL, sophomore signal caller Josh Rosen may already be the best QB in the country regardless of class. In contrast to Knight, Rosen’s intermediate passing was outstanding last year, as he completed 63 of 102 passes in the 10-19 yard range from the line of scrimmage for eight touchdowns and just one interception. He has the elite skill set to carry the offense while it looks to establish new playmakers, even against a defense as talented as Texas A&M’s.
Considering the strength of both defenses up front and the various moving parts on offense, it’s difficult to envision these teams reaching the over without turnovers playing a significant factor. When in doubt, especially early in the season, go with the better, more experienced QB. UCLA looks very capable of not just beating the spread, but winning outright, despite being on the road.
Prediction: UCLA 24, Texas A&M 16
No. 22 North Carolina vs. No. 18 Georgia
Line: Georgia -2.5
This is a great measuring stick game for two programs on the rise, in particular for a North Carolina team that returns much of the 2015 squad that “quietly rolled its way to the ACC Championship game, where it gave eventual national runner-up Clemson one of its biggest challenges of the season. On offense the Tar Heels return three outstanding receiving weapons in Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard, one of the best RBs in the country not being talked about in Elijah Hood (who had our seventh-highest rushing last year among returning RBs) as well as four starters on the offensive line. While QB Marquise Williams and his running ability depart, new starter Mitch Trubisky has scene time on the field each of the past two seasons, and in 2015 actually graded identical to Williams despite playing 376 less snaps. The Tar Heel offense looks to have a favorable matchup against a Georgia defensive line that returns just nine career starts, with only two linemen getting more than 100 snaps in 2015. The Bulldog secondary is experienced and talented from top to bottom, but will have its hands full with North Carolina’s trio of terror.
The strength of Georgia is of course the ground game, as three starters on the line return this year, as does possibly the best stable of RBs in the country (Oklahoma may object) with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. It looks like Greyson Lambert will again be the starting QB, which isn’t going to keep any defensive coordinator up at night, but if healthy, Chubb is capable of taking over the game by himself. This being said, the Tar Heels return a deep and experienced defensive line, with eight lineman having played at least 295 snaps in 2015, including Nazair Jones, our eighth-highest graded returning power-five defensive tackle.
This game looks like a trench battle, and with major experience advantages on both sides of the ball, the advantage goes to North Carolina. The Bulldogs will likely get a crowd boost with the “neutral site” game being played so close to home, but I like the Tar Heels to, like UCLA, pull off the outright upset on the road.
Prediction: North Carolina 31, Georgia 28
No. 11 Ole Miss vs. No. 4 Florida State
Line: Florida State -4
This is another intriguing week one matchup, as it pits one of the breakout QBs of 2015 against what is likely to be one of the elite defenses of 2016. While losing receiving weapons like Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core is certainly tough to overcome, Ole Miss is still loaded with receiving targets, as WR Damore’ea Stringfellow and TE Evan Engram look poised for monster seasons. The biggest loss is without question left tackle Laremy Tunsil, as there was a marked improvement in the line play last year when he was eligible and in the lineup. The Florida State defensive line, led by DE DeMarcus Walker and his 21 combined sacks and hits last season, certainly possesses the talent and depth to take advantage of the perceived weakness of Ole Miss.
Despite losing Robert Nkemdiche to the NFL, Mississippi returns a ton of talent on the defensive line. The Rebel Black Bear front is led by DT D.J. Jones, who did not miss a tackle the entire season and finished the fourth-highest graded returning player at his position. The defensive line will need to be outstanding, as Florida State will want Dalvin Cook, possibly the best RB in the country (he forced 56 missed tackles in 2015), to impose his will on the ground.
While both offenses are capable of exploding, both defensive lines appear to have favorable matchups, meaning this could be a lower scoring affair than the over projects. Like Georgia, this neutral crowd should be decidedly for the team playing in its home state, but unlike the Bulldogs I expect the Seminoles to get the job done this week.
Prediction: Florida State 27, Ole Miss 20
No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin
Star RB Leonard Fournette begins his Heisman campaign on the road this weekend, and he’ll be bringing help with him. The Tiger offense also returns QB Brandon Harris, WRs Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, along with three starters from last year along the offensive line. The Badger defense is led by an outstanding LB corps that includes OLB Jack Cichy, ILB T.J. Edwards and Big Ten defensive player of the year candidate, Vince Biegel (he is our third-highest graded returning EDGE player). While the group is particularly adept at rushing the passer, it’s their run defense that will be most critical this week.
The Wisconsin offense is tough to get a feel for at this stage, as RB Corey Clement is back after missing much of last season with an ankle injury, but there little else to get excited about offensively. The offensive line’s best player, center Dan Voltz, unfortunately was forced into retirement by injuries, and while the rest of the line is experienced, no one graded out positively last season. This makes for a huge mismatch against LSU’s defensive line, as the Tigers return eight linemen with at least 200 snaps played last year, including Davon Godchaux, who last year graded out number one in the country in pass rushing among returning DTs and Arden Key, who finished second among returning FBS DEs in total pressures.
There is little to suggest Wisconsin has an answer for LSU on the offensive side of the ball, thus despite the under/over being set extremely low by college football standards it is unlikely to be met barring both teams being set up with short fields off turnovers. LSU has the talent and fire power to put points on the board against what should generally be a solid defense this season, and with the Badger offense likely unable to keep up, the Tigers should be able to comfortably meet this spread.
Prediction: LSU 27, Wisconsin 6
The rest of the Top 25
Bowling Green at No. 6 Ohio State
Line: Ohio State -28
If this were last year’s explosion version of Bowling Green against this year’s Buckeyes in transition, this could be an interesting matchup. However, QB Matt Johnson and WRs Roger Lewis and Gehrig Dieter have all either graduated or transferred, thus the Falcons won’t have the guns to keep up with this youthful-but-talented Ohio State squad.
Prediction: Ohio State 42, Bowling Green 10
Hawaii at No. 7 Michigan
Line: Michigan -41
Hawaii won’t find moving the chains to be as easy in the Big House this week as it was in Australia last Friday against Cal. The most interesting part of this game will be Michigan’s opening offensive possession, when we’ll learn who won the starting QB battle between Wilton Speight and John O’Korn.
Prediction: Michigan 45, Hawaii 3
Appalachian State at No. 9 Tennessee
Line: Tennessee -20 1/2
Appalachian State will perform better than expected, as it returns QB Tyler Lamb and four starters from an excellent offensive line, but the Tennessee run game will be too much to handle. This juicy spread has Admiral Ackbar-level trap written all over it.
Prediction: Tennessee 40, Appalachian State 20
No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas
Line: Notre Dame -3.5
Notre Dame is clearly the better side from a talent perspective, despite heavy NFL losses, and the QB battle is more about them having two solid signal-callers than trying to find one. Look for Josh Adams and the Irish ground game to have a strong week one showing.
Prediction: Notre Dame 28, Texas 20
Miami (OH) at No. 17 Iowa
Line: Iowa -27.5
Miami was one of the worst teams in the country last year, and Iowa returns a largely-intact team fresh off the Big Ten West championship, looking poised for a repeat. Miami will struggle to move the ball against the Josey Jewell-led defense, and RB LeShun Daniels Jr. should have a big afternoon. This spread is no trap, and should be capitalized upon.
Prediction: Iowa 45, Miami 7
UNC Charlotte at No. 19 Louisville
Line: Louisville -38
The Cardinals are loaded on defense this year, and while the offensive line had significant struggles in 2015, UNC Charlotte poses no threat to Louisville. Look for star OLB Devonte Fields to post his first two sacks of the season en route to a route of the 49ers.
Prediction: Louisville 44, UNC Charlotte 7
Josh Liskiewitz | Analyst
Josh joined PFF as an analyst in 2015. During the season, his primary focus is college football (mainly the Big Ten). He is also heavily involved in PFF's NFL draft coverage. Prior to joining the team, he worked for six years with GM Jr. Scouting, an independent draft scouting service.