Written by at SB Nation.com
The college football season ended with Alabama claiming the national championship, and with it came sports’ cruelest offseason: 229 days without anything more than spring football and press conferences.
The season rarely begins with a bang. In most seasons, the first week is a cupcake-riddled romp for the top programs, a chance for the teams at the top of the polls to get their feet wet and preserve an undefeated record until at least Week 2.
That’s not the case in 2016. Whether it be the effect of the College Football Playoff committee’s alleged emphasis on strength of schedule or the simple economics of big neutral-site games (little of both!), the first full week of the 2016 season might be the strongest in recent college football history.
As many as 15 potentially ranked teams are scheduled to face Power 5 opponents, with three gigantic games turning Sept. 3 into an early New Year’s Day. And this all comes after the prior weekend’s mini-opener of Cal vs. Hawaii in Australia and Charleston Southern at North Dakota State.
Thursday, Sept. 1
A bunch of games!
Nothing too special, but a bunch of games! Appalachian State-Tennessee (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network) might be the best!
Friday, Sept. 2
Kansas State at No. 11* Stanford (9 ET, FS1)
Stanford returns must-watch Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey. Bill Snyder, a crafty non-conference scheduler during his decorated tenure at Kansas State, begins what could be his final season on the road against a near-certain preseason top-five opponent.
Colorado vs. Colorado State headlines another list of games elsewhere.
Saturday, Sept. 3
No. 3* Oklahoma vs. No. 12* Houston
NRG Stadium, Houston (Noon ET, ABC)
You have to hand it to the Sooners. They already play one neutral-site game against a Texas-based opponent in Dallas, a game that nearly knocked them out of the 2015 Playoff. They’ve added a second in 2016, against the Group of Five’s most potent opponent. Tom Herman’s Cougars won the Peach Bowl, and a win against mighty Oklahoma would vault Houston into the national conversation early enough to make serious waves.
No. 6* LSU vs. Wisconsin
Lambeau Field, Green Bay (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
The anticipated College GameDay game? LSU defensive line coach Ed Orgeron once said SEC recruiting planes don’t fly north, but Orgeron and his Tigers will fly almost to Canada to take on the Badgers in one of football’s most historic venues. The Tigers look like a top-10 outfit, with potential Heisman Trophy favorite Leonard Fournette and a head coach playing with house money.
No. 24* UCLA at Texas A&M (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
In 2015, Texas A&M derailed Arizona State’s promising season before it started. The Aggies will try to do the same against a UCLA that returns a solid nucleus and should be ranked highly. This is also a matchup of coaches who were riding high three seasons ago but are beginning to feel some pressure, and A&M just hired away UCLA’s offensive coordinator.
No. 20* North Carolina vs. No. 22* Georgia
Georgia Dome, Atlanta (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Welcome to the hot seat, Kirby Smart. Your first task: Shutting down a North Carolina offense that returns seven starters and averaged 487 yards and 41 points per game in 2015.
The task might be even more difficult for Larry Fedora, who has to break in a new quarterback while trying to break a slump: North Carolina has lost three of its last four openers against FBS opponents.
No. 2* Alabama vs. No. 19* USC
AT&T Stadium, Arlington (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
The defending national champions, still loaded for bear, against yet another absurdly talented USC roster. Lane Kiffin against his old team.
The Crimson Tide rolled Wisconsin in the same venue to start 2015 and have won neutral-site opening games against Power 5 opponents in each of the last four seasons by an average of 18 points. Welcome to life as a head coach, Clay Helton.
No. 1* Clemson at Auburn (9 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The second leg of the de facto ACC-SEC Challenge will play out on The Plains, featuring the 2015 national runner-up. Auburn might have too much talent to slip for a second consecutive season, but there’s little doubt Gus Malzahn will watch Deshaun Watson and wonder what might have been had he signed with the other Tigers.
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