Here at last.
The college football season has already kicked off, but the meat of the Week 1 schedule still awaits.
Here are some important questions that need answering this weekend.
* Can Alabama win because of Jalen Hurts instead of with Jalen Hurts? (Florida State vs. Alabama, in Atlanta | Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC)
There’s a difference. And yes, in 95 percent of Alabama’s games, it can win as long as the quarterback protects the ball, makes a few plays when needed, and hands the ball off to the Tide’s ridiculous trifecta of running backs. Seriously: most times, Alabama could literally attempt zero passes and still prevail.
But Florida State falls in the other 5 percent. Hurts will have to be more than a game manager. He’s certainly capable. As a freshman, he averaged 7.28 yards per attempt and only threw nine interceptions. Hurts has the physical tools to puncture an ultra-talented Florida State defense.
Important questions loom, though. How conservative will Alabama be with its play calling? Will Derwin James, destroyer of worlds, wreak havoc on the Tide’s passing attack? How will Bama respond to new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll? Poke fun at Lane Kiffin all you want, but he’s a heck of a play caller. His departure hurts. We saw it against Clemson in the national title game.
Hurts doesn’t have to go all Sam Darnold in the Rose Bowl to beat Florida State. But he’ll have to be more dynamic than he was in last year’s national title game against Clemson – a game in which he wasn’t bad, but didn’t exactly turn heads. It will be exciting to see what he’s added to his game as a sophomore.
Score prediction: Alabama 30, Florida State 24
* Will Southern California’s Darnold stake his claim as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner? (Western Michigan at USC | Saturday, 5:15 p.m. ET, Pac-12)
Speaking of Darnold – Southern California has an intriguing Week 1 matchup against Western Michigan. The Broncos were outstanding last season – they won 13 games and reached the Cotton Bowl. But Western Michigan is P.J. Fleck-less in 2017 and lost a lot of its key offensive personnel. Meanwhile, the Trojans have Darnold, a loaded defense and plenty of offensive weapons.
USC should win this game comfortably. But this year’s Heisman race — Darnold will be a player in it — figures to be fascinating. As many eyes will be on Darnold’s performance as the scoreboard in this one.
Score prediction: USC 42, Western Michigan 17
Sam Darnold stat line prediction: 26-for-39, 322 yards, 3 TDs
* Who wins the turnover battle between the Wolverines and Gators? (Michigan vs. Florida, in Arlington, Texas | Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
In a bit of a surprise, Feleipe Franks will get the nod under center for the Gators over Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire. As we talked about with Hurts earlier, for a lot of these guys, their biggest responsibility is ball security. They don’t need to be Darnold, heaving 50-yard bombs to speedy receivers. They just need to make enough plays to win. Let the defense/running game do the rest.
In that sense, Florida and Michigan are mirror images. We don’t know who will start at QB for the Wolverines, but in the grand scheme of things, how much does it matter? Michigan and Florida will both run the ball 35-plus times. They’ll play good defense. A weird bounce here or there could decide the game.
Score prediction: Florida 24, Michigan 20
* Will Lamar Jackson remind everyone why he won the Heisman? (Louisville vs. Purdue, in Indianapolis | Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX)
Darnold and Josh Rosen are two of the best quarterbacks in America. They attend USC and UCLA, respectively. So it’s easy to see why they are grabbing so many headlines.
But remember Jackson? Here are a few of the stat lines he put up last season before Louisville’s late-year tumble.
|Opponent||Passing Yards||Passing TDs||Rushing Yards||Rushing TDs|
Jackson is as competitive as they come. He’s hearing all of the Darnold and Rosen (and Wyoming’s Josh Allen, for that matter) chatter. Purdue should be better than it was last season, but it shouldn’t hold a candle to Louisville. Expect a big night from the reigning Heisman winner.
Score prediction: Louisville 48, Purdue 21
Lamar Jackson stat line prediction: 19-for-26, 276 yards, 3 TDs; 12 rushes, 110 yards, 2 TDs
* Clemson is almost definitely going to beat Kent State, but how will Kelly Bryant look? (Kent State at Clemson | Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN)
Bryant is going to replace Deshaun Watson — otherwise known as the best and most popular player in program history — at QB. The Tigers are reigning national champions, and Bryant inherits a loaded roster around him. Clemson could repeat as champions if he’s 75 percent as good as Watson.
Of course, 75 percent of Watson is significantly better than most QBs. The only people who really know what to expect from Bryant are the ones who see him in practice every day. Clemson should handle Kent State easily – regardless of its quarterback performance. But if we’re projecting the Tigers’ 2017 title hopes, Bryant’s performance matters. A lot.
Score prediction: Clemson 42, Kent State 10
* Can the Hokies shake their neutral-site demons against the Mountaineers? (West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech, in Landover, Md. | Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
No. 21 Virginia Tech takes on No. 22 West Virginia on Sunday night at FedEx Field. And let’s just say that the Hokies haven’t had great success in neutral site regular season games lately.
They’ve lost seven of them since 2004. Three of them have come at FedEx Field. The trio of opponents: USC in 2004, Boise State in 2010 and Cincinnati in 2012.
The good news for Virginia Tech: it has the most trustworthy unit in this game. That would be the Hokie defense – Virginia Tech surrendered 22.8 points per game in 2016, a Top 25 mark. Florida transfer Will Grier will be making his first start for the Mountaineers. He’s clearly talented, but has yet to put it together at the college level. There might not be many points in this one.
Patterns like Virginia Tech’s futility in neutral site games are fun to note (unless you’re a Hokie fan), but with the amount of roster and coaching turnover in college football, it ultimately doesn’t mean much. This might be the most evenly-matched game of the weekend. It’s hard to pick against Tech’s stout defense.
Score prediction: Virginia Tech 20, West Virginia 17
* Can Notre Dame get off to a hot start? (Temple at Notre Dame | Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
This is an (admittedly) generic question, but it’s an important one. Why? Because Notre Dame’s opponent this weekend, Temple, is no slouch.
It also should be one of ND’s easiest games of 2017. The Fighting Irish schedule is no joke.
A few of their foes this season: USC, Georgia (in Week 2), Michigan State, Stanford, Miami (Fla.). The Owls won the AAC in 2016. This is a game Notre Dame should win – but could absolutely lose. If it does, this season could look a lot like 2016, which wasn’t … er, good.
A win over Temple doesn’t guarantee Notre Dame anything. But coming off of a rough season, it’s as “must win” as you can get in Week 1.
Score prediction: Notre Dame 35, Temple 24