10 things to know for Week 1 of college football
The wait is finally over. College football is officially back this weekend and we couldn’t have asked for a better slate of games to kick off the college season. There will be four Top-25 matchups along with several other highly intriguing games over the next five days to help us transition back into the best time of the year. To prepare you for the onslaught of games, we’ve picked out 10 things you should know heading into week one:
1. Deshaun Watson begins his case for the No. 1 overall pick
As it stands today, Deshaun Watson is the front runner to be the top overall draft pick in next April’s draft. His campaign to earn that right starts this weekend with a difficult matchup on the road against Auburn. For as impressive as Watson’s play was last season, he had significant struggles when throwing under pressure, earning a -10.5 passing grade and completing just 36.8 percent of his attempts when under fire. If Carl Lawson and the rest of Auburn’s defense can rattle Watson with consistent pressure throughout the game, we could see Watson struggle to find his rhythm early on. Ultimately, Watson will have to improve in this area over the course of this season to solidify his spot at the top of the draft.
2. Oklahoma vs Houston features two Heisman hopefuls
When the Sooners take on Houston at NRG Stadium on Saturday, two of the best quarterbacks in the nation will be facing off. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield was PFF’s third-highest-graded quarterback in the nation last season and all signs point to another outstanding year for a talented Oklahoma team. Greg Ward Jr. was the country’s best running quarterback in 2015 and helped vault the Cougars into the national conversation with his stellar play. Expectations are high for both players again this season and the Heisman is not out of the question for either one of them. Saturday’s matchup will provide an opportunity for each QB to set the tone for their respective Heisman Campaigns.
It’s no secret we here at PFF are big fans of Tennessee’s potential in the SEC this season. The Volunteers have several reasons to be confident in their chances, chief of which is their unbelievably talented backfield. They boast one of the best running back duos in the country in Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd, each earning a top-10 grade among SEC backs last season. Add in the running ability of quarterback Josh Dobbs, who has the 10th best rushing grade among returning QBs, and Tennessee’s backfield quickly becomes one of the most dangerous units in the nation. Defensive end Derek Barnett was the 2nd highest graded edge defender last season and leads a Tennessee defense full of playmakers at every level. With that sort of talent on both sides of the ball and a favorable schedule, Tennessee could easily find themselves representing the SEC East in the conference championship game come December.
4. Ohio State has a lot of production to replace
The Ohio State Buckeyes had an incredible level of talent and experience on their team in 2015. Unfortunately, the majority of those players won’t be back in Columbus this season. This year’s version of the Buckeyes will be attempting to replace a staggering eight defensive starters, seven offensive starters and recent NFL draft picks Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones. Ohio State returns just two percent of their snaps at running back, four percent at safety, and lost a total of 6,438 snaps on offense alone. The cupboard isn’t bare by any means with the return of quarterback J.T. Barrett on offense and linebacker Raekwon McMillan on the defensive side, but several inexperienced players on the Buckeyes will have to quickly adjust to their new role as starters, beginning this weekend against Bowling Green.
5. Alabama vs USC may feature the most talent of any matchup this weekend
There are several intriguing matchups to watch this weekend, both at the team and individual level, but there may not be one game featuring more talent than Alabama vs USC. Between the two teams there will be a total of 10 players from PFF’s 101 taking the field, nine of which rank in the top 50 players on the list. Being the No. 1-ranked team in the country, Alabama naturally has seven of the ten players mentioned, highlighted by defenders Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Reuben Foster. USC is well represented too though, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Zach Banner and Adoree Jackson all considered top 50 players this season. The individual battles within the game should be entertaining to watch as the Trojans try to knock off 2015’s defending champions.
We’ve been touting the Huskies as an under-the-radar playoff contender all offseason, and now the time has finally come to see if they live up to the hype. Washington returns several talented players, including PFF’s highest-graded true freshman quarterback and running back in Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin, respectively. On defense they have a young but experienced unit, led by defensive linemen Elijah Qualls and Greg Gaines. With a team full of young talent at key positions, this may be the year Washington makes a statement in the Pac-12 and possibly even crashes the playoff party.
Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett has been unstoppable as a pass-rusher the last two years, racking up 111 total pressures and grading as a top-three defensive end each season. While Garrett was just average as a run defender his freshman year, he greatly improved in that area last season, earning a respectable +8.8 run defense grade. Garrett has a ridiculous burst off the line and routinely causes headaches for opposing offenses with his ability to wreak havoc in the backfield. His week one matchup will be a challenge as he faces UCLA left tackle Conor McDermott who allowed a pressure on just 4.3 percent of his pass blocking snaps in 2015, but expect Garrett to make an impact early and often throughout this game.
8. This weekend marks the start of “Year of the Running Back, Part II”
When you look at the talent returning at the position, it’s no wonder that the 2016 season will be another showcase year for running backs. Out of the seven highest-graded rushers in 2015, five of them will be returning to their respective teams. While LSU’s Leonard Fournette and his 85 forced missed tackles earned the top rushing grade last season, it was Christian McCaffrey of Stanford who was the highest-overall-graded back, establishing himself as the best receiving threat among his peers. Royce Freeman, Myles Gaskin and Dalvin Cook round out the top five returning rushers, each bringing their own style and skill set to the table. There’s a good chance that one of these outstanding backs is ultimately awarded the 2016 Heisman Trophy when all is said and done.
9. Nick Chubb makes his return
Georgia running back Nick Chubb saw his 2015 season cut short by a knee injury in Week 6 against Tennessee. It was a big loss for the Bulldogs as Chubb was playing at a high level through the first six games, averaging 8.1 yards per carry and earning the ninth-highest rushing grade in the nation to that point. Chubb had already proven in 2014 that he was a gifted runner, ranking first among all Power-5 running backs in elusive rating and had continued to show that skill set this past season, forcing 23 missed tackles on just 92 attempts. With the injury behind him, all reports indicate that Chubb will be making his 2016 return this weekend against North Carolina. It’s a tough task to be sure, as UNC has two run-stuffing defensive tackles in Nazair Jones and Jeremiah Clarke that will be focused on shutting down Georgia’s rushing game. It may take a few games for him to knock off the rust, but if healthy, expect Nick Chubb to return to form as one of the best backs in the nation.
10. Can the Ole Miss defense contain Dalvin Cook?
Ole Miss was PFF’s fourth-highest graded run defense in the nation last season and will be led this year by returning defensive tackles D.J. Jones, Breeland Speaks and linebacker DeMarquis Gates. For as stout as the Rebels’ run defense is though, they’ll likely have a difficult time slowing down Dalvin Cook in Monday night’s matchup against Florida State. Cook earned the seventh-highest rushing grade in the nation last year and led the country with a staggering 62.9 percent of his yards coming on breakaway runs (15+yards). With Cook’s game-changing speed and ability to go the distance on any play, the Ole Miss defense will quickly be put to the test against Cook and the Seminoles rushing attack.