Everything You Need to Know About Thursday's Opening Night of College Football

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2013

Dust off your nameless jersey and ready your two-funnel beer helmet. College football is almost back in business!

Thursday night officially rings in the new year: the final season of a much-maligned BCS era. For hopefully the last time in the annals of football, this week begins a season that will end without a playoff.

The true highlights of Week 1 lurk on the weekend, but Thursday night is not without intrigue. Two ranked teams—both referred to as USC—open up their seasons, and every power conference (save the idle Big 12) has at least two squads in action. 

Here's an overzealous look at the season's first day:


Three Must-Watch Games

North Carolina (+11) at No. 6 South Carolina

UNC quarterback Bryn Renner has waited his whole career to play an SEC team. By the time Jadeveon Clowney gets done with him, there's a chance he'll be eating those words.

The Tar Heels are 3-7 in their last 10 road openers and 1-6 against ranked opponents since 2010. But four of those six losses came by a touchdown or less, so it's not as if they've always been overwhelmed.

South Carolina, meanwhile, enters with the highest preseason ranking (and subsequent expectation) in program history. Much of that has to do with the post-"Hit" hype surrounding Clowney, but Connor Shaw and the offense are capable in their own right. 

ACC powerhouse Clemson got USC at home in 2012 and still lost by 10. Can the Tar Heels, somehow, find a way to fare better in Columbia?

Key Matchup: Left tackle James Hurst (North Carolina) vs. defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina)


Ole Miss (-3) at Vanderbilt

If Alabama-Georgia, as some declare, was last year's de facto national championship game, the start of SEC play should be a season's de facto kickoff. And the nation's premier conference wastes no time getting into action.

Both Ole Miss and Vandy are lurking right outside the Top 25, and the winner of this contest—depending on how convincing its victory—could stand poised to crack the rankings next week.

They're also both hell-bent on proving they aren't flukes. Vanderbilt wants to validate last season's 9-4 mark, and Ole Miss is looking to back up its winning season and blue-chip recruiting success.

The Commodores, trailing by six, marched down the field and scored the winning touchdown on their final drive in Oxford last year. It was one of the many "coulda, shoulda, woulda" losses on Ole Miss' schedule.

The Rebels can make a statement by avenging that loss in Nashville. They can show the nation that this year will be different...unless, of course, it won't be.

Key Matchup: Wide receiver Donte Moncrief (Ole Miss) vs. cornerback Andre Hal (Vanderbilt)


No. 24 USC (-22.5) at Hawaii

There are better (read: closer) games on the schedule Thursday, but none might have such a profound impact on the season.

All summer, USC quarterbacks have waged battle behind closed doors. But now the competition has gone public. Lane Kiffin announced that both Cody Kessler and Max Wittek will play against Hawaii, ostensibly extending the competition into Week 1 in front of a large audience. 

Hawaii won't be able to keep up with USC, but it should be interesting to see how Wittek keeps up with Kessler (or vice versa). If either has even a little trouble against the Rainbow Warriors, Kiffin's decision might be made a lot easier.

Key Matchup: Quarterback Cody Kessler (USC) vs. quarterback Max Wittek (USC)


Best of the Rest

Utah State (+2.5) at Utah

The Aggies beat Utah in overtime last season, snapping a 12-game losing streak in the Beehive State rivalry. But that was at home, with Kerwynn Williams in the backfield and Gary Andersen on the sideline.

Now Chuckie Keeton and a still-intact offensive line look to prove themselves at Rice-Eccles Stadium, a field that has been characteristically unforgiving. And even though Utah has struggled since its move to the Pac-12, last year's loss to Utah State was its only nonconference defeat in that two-year span.


Rutgers (+10) at Fresno State

Rutgers had one of the nation's best defenses last season, finishing 11th in Football Outsiders' F/+ Rankings. But a now-rebuilt unit draws a tough first assignment of 2013: Derek Carr and Fresno State's explosive offense.

The Bulldogs are a trendy sleeper this year, possessed of a favorable WAC schedule and enough talent to crash the BCS. But the Rutgers defense returns enough talent (and is still mean enough) to make this game a good measuring stick.


Tulsa (+3.5) at Bowling Green

You may not have been watching, but Tulsa and BGSU combined to go 19-8 last season, with wins over Iowa State, Fresno State, Central Florida and Ohio. And while Tulsa faces some massive turnover on defense, the other three units in this game all return at least seven starters.

This will be one of Week 1's sneaky-good games, a win that should launch another good season for whoever comes out on top. For what it's worth, Bowling Green has lost all three of its meetings with Tulsa, including a 63-7 loss in the 2007 GMAC Bowl—the largest margin in bowl history.


Power Conference Team on Upset Alert

UNLV (+14) at Minnesota

The Rebels took Minnesota to triple overtime in Vegas last year, before falling 30-27. Things were all downhill from there (en route to a 2-11 record), but with 18 starters returning, UNLV has at least a speck of optimism.

It's not like Minnesota was a powerhouse last year, either: Two weeks after barely beating the Rebels, it beat Western Michigan by just five points in Minneapolis. Even after Minnesota's moral victory (in defeat) against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and with 16 starters returning, this might still be a surprising four-quarter game.


Eight Quarterbacks Looking to Make a Statement

1. Cody Kessler/Max Wittek (Southern Cal)

2. Chuckie Keeton (Utah State) 

3. Derek Carr (Fresno State)

4. Connor Shaw (South Carolina)

5. Bo Wallace (Ole Miss)

6. David Fales (San Jose State)

7. Bryn Renner (North Carolina)

8. Blake Bortles (Central Florida)

Analysis: Outside of the USC quarterbacks, Keeton and Carr—all mentioned above—there are plenty of other passers with something to prove Thursday.

South Carolina's Shaw is, in some regards, a sleeper to go All-SEC this season. But others think he's not even the best quarterback on the roster. He has a chance to make a good first impression against the Tar Heels and quiet some murmurs about the skill of backup Dylan Thompson.

Past that, Wallace also has an opportunity to kick-start his latent Heisman campaign, and Renner finally gets a chance to play the SEC. Fales could put up huge fantasy numbers against Sacramento State, but he wouldn't make much of a statement in doing so.


Eight Other Offensive Players to Watch

1. WR Marqise Lee (Southern Cal)

2. RB Dri Archer (Kent State)

3. WR Davante Adams (Fresno State)

4. TE Eric Ebron (North Carolina)

5. WR Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt)

6. WR Nelson Agholor (Southern Cal)

7. RB Lyle McCombs (Connecticut)

8. WR Brandon Coleman (Rutgers)

Analysis: Lee and Agholor will make things easy for both USC quarterbacks, providing each option with the best receiving duo in America. Agholor has drawn rave reviews all offseason, so it should be fun for America to finally see him live.

Other big-name pass-catchers on a receiver-heavy night include Adams of Fresno State, Matthews of Vanderbilt and Coleman of Rutgers. All three could cement themselves as high NFL draft picks with a good season.

The Kent State-Liberty game won't be championship football, but if nothing else, it's an excuse to watch Dri Archer shred some FCS defenders. After watching his mixtape roughly 100 times this offseason, most fans are anxious to see some new highlights.


Five Blue-Chip Freshmen Making Their Debut

1. DE Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss)

2. S Su'a Cravens (Southern Cal)

3. S Leon McQuay (Southern Cal)

4. WR Laquon Treadwell (Ole Miss)

5. DT Kenny Bigelow (Southern Cal)

Analysis: It's not that no other team brought in elite freshmen this year. It's just that, in terms of pure top-heaviness, USC and Ole Miss might have had the two best classes in America—better even than Alabama.

Nkemdiche was the crown jewel of 2013, and he'll draw the start in his first college game. Teammate Treadwell, the No. 1 receiver on 247Sports' composite, could have a big role in the offense, too.

For USC, Cravens and McQuay were listed (along with Gerald Bowman) as co-starters on USC's final fall depth chart. They'll both get a chance to make an impact against Hawaii, as will Bigelow, who is squarely in the defensive tackle rotation behind Antwaun Woods.


10 Star Defensive Players in Action

1. DE Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina)

2. DE Morgan Breslin (Southern Cal)

3. DT Ra'Shede Hageman (Minnesota)

4. DE Kareem Martin (North Carolina) 

5. LB Yawin Smallwood (Connecticut)

6. CB Andre Hal (Vanderbilt)

7. LB Denzel Nkemdiche (Ole Miss)

8. LB Hayes Pullard (Southern Cal)

9. S Tre Boston (North Carolina)

10. DT Kelcy Quarles (South Carolina)

Analysis: Clowney's presence goes without saying, but he's not the only blue-chip defender going on Thursday night. And unlike the top freshmen, the top ball-stoppers are evenly distributed among many schools.

Minnesota's Hageman is the best player you've never heard of—or at least he has the potential to be. An absolute freak of a defensive tackle, he'll be the prospect who jumps up draft boards at the combine in 2014. This year is his chance to supplement those measurables with on-field production.

Past him, South Carolina has another big-time defensive lineman in tackle Quarles. But its Week 1 opponent, UNC, is not without star power itself: Both Martin and Boston might be All-ACC first-teamers this season.

Southern Cal rounds out with two premier defensive players, too: end-turned-linebacker Breslin and linebacker Pullard. New defensive boss Clancy Pendergast brought a 5-2 scheme to Southern Cal, and they'll both be important pieces of that puzzle.


Game-by-Game Predictions


Three Friday Morning Headlines

USC Still Doesn't Have a No. 1 Quarterback

The question fans want answered Thursday isn't "Will we beat Hawaii?"; it's "Who is our quarterback?"

That still won't have an answer, as both Kessler and Wittek should enjoy fine evenings in the Aloha State. USC's line and skill players will overwhelm Hawaii's defense, giving two talented (and duly motivated) players a chance to look very good.

More, though not all, will be learned against Washington State in Week 2.

Clowney Held in (Relative) Check

This may come as a shock to—and/or be considered blasphemous by—SEC fans, but believe it or not, other conferences have first-round talent, too. And in UNC tackle James Hurst, Clowney drew one of those guys as his first assignment of 2013.

He'll always have an advantage over his opponents. But after an offseason of pure hype, Clowney will face more than just double-teams in Week 1—he'll face talented double-teams. He'll affect the game in other ways, but that might be enough to keep him off the sack sheet.

Ole Miss Is for Real

Vanderbilt went 9-4 last season, but it didn't beat any true quality clubs. It established itself as something of a benchmark—a team that beats bad teams but loses to good ones.

The Commodores should be the same type of yardstick in 2013, so Ole Miss has a chance to prove itself as one of the "good teams" by winning a tough road game. And if/when it does, people will be forced to take the Rebels seriously.

Talk has been big out of Oxford this offseason, even if a winsome roster has gone unnoticed in the polls. Nobody will be able to ignore the Rebels if they beat down on Vanderbilt.

Keep it locked at B/R CFB for all your in-season needs.

Also make sure to follow @BR_CFB and @BLeighDAT for news and analysis all year.


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