College football Week 1: 15 players to watch
Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman via Imagn Content Services, LLC

College football Week 1: 15 players to watch

College football is back ... in more ways than one. After a five-game slate last weekend gave us an appetizer, Week 1 is upon us with some great games to start out. We have a matchup of two national championship contenders in Charlotte, as well as some key conference matchups right out of the gate.

Unlike last year's pandemic-ravaged season, every conference is starting from the jump. Fans will be back at games, making the unmatched experience of college football gameday a part of our Saturdays again. Sure, the usual suspects are expected to contend for the College Football Playoff spots, but there are newcomers in Cincinnati, College Station, Ames, and Chapel Hill ready to make a leap onto the big stage.

As we settle in for a new season of football, here are 15 players to watch in Week 1.

 
1 of 15

Jalen Berger, Wisconsin

Jalen Berger, Wisconsin
Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Quarterback Graham Mertz's progress will be a major focus of the Badgers season, but we all know that when Wisconsin is really good, they have a dominant running threat. As a freshman in 2020, he rushed for 301 yards in just four games -- averaging 5 yards a carry. The depth just isn't there behind him, so expect him to get a high volume of carries, especially in the opener against Penn State. 

 
2 of 15

Ty Chandler, North Carolina

Ty Chandler, North Carolina
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

A sneaky big game this week is North Carolina at Virginia Tech. Last season's matchup between the two ended with a 56-45 Tar Heels win. In that game, North Carolina running backs ran all over the Hokies for 399 yards and five touchdowns. Star backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter are gone from that game, but Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler looks to eat up all those opportunities. He's fifth all-time in Volunteers' history in all-purpose yards and averaged just a hair under five yards per carry in his Tennessee career. 

 
3 of 15

Zach Charbonnet, UCLA

Zach Charbonnet, UCLA
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

UCLA got off to an early start with a 44-10 win over Hawaii last week. In that game, the former Michigan Wolverine running back Charbonnet was such a beast -- rushing for 106 yards and three touchdowns -- that UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson's mother tweeted "Thanks @UMichFootball" during the game. The Bruins rushed for 244 as a team against the Warriors and will take that momentum with them against LSU this week ... who had a porous offense in 2020.  

 
4 of 15

JT Daniels, Georgia

JT Daniels, Georgia
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Daniels has had an interesting road leading up to this year. After reclassifying to get to USC a year early, he suddenly found himself the starter in the opener as a true freshman. As a sophomore, he tore his ACL in the 2019 season opener against Fresno State and missed the season. With Kedon Slovis securing the Trojans' job, Daniels transferred to Georgia but didn't immediately get the starting nod as he was still recovering from injury, but would take over later in the season. He had a solid season, but Year 2 in offensive coordinator Todd Monken's system should make for a big season. That season starts with a huge game against Clemson in Charlotte. 

 
5 of 15

Lyn-J Dixon, Clemson

Lyn-J Dixon, Clemson
Ken Ruinard / staff, Greenville News via Imagn Content Services, LLC

I know all eyes will be on quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei as he replaces top overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence, but we've seen him on a big stage holding his own (a loss to Notre Dame last season). But how about Dixon, who replaces the ACC's all-time leading rusher, Travis Etienne? Going into the Tigers' game against Georgia, the senior Dixon will be the main guy and he's done well when given the opportunity. He's played behind Etienne his entire career, but his overall stats aren't bad if you consider it a one-season worth of work (208 carries, 1,372 yards, 13 TDs). 

 
6 of 15

Jahan Dotson, Penn State

Jahan Dotson, Penn State
Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Dotson was fantastic last season, catching 52 passes for 884 yards and 8 TDs in just nine games. In the Nittany Lions regular-season finale, he gained 189 yards and two scores against Illinois ... their fourth straight win to end the season after an 0-5 start. After that late-season run, hopes are high in Happy Valley heading into 2021. Dotson is a star in the making and will need to come up big against Wisconsin on Saturday. 

 
7 of 15

Ty Fryfogle, Indiana

Ty Fryfogle, Indiana
Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Big Ten has a couple of interesting games to open the season -- including Indiana-Iowa. Hoosiers wide receiver Ty Fryfogle has the ability to put up huge numbers. In the middle of Indiana's breakout 2020 season, he put up monster games against Michigan (7 rec, 142 yds, TD), Michigan State (11 rec, 200 yds, 2 TD), and Ohio State (7 rec, 218 yds, 3 TD) in consecutive weeks. Fryfogle, who last year became the first Hoosiers receiver All-American since James Hardy, is using his extra season of eligibility to play his fifth season of Indiana football. 

 
8 of 15

Dillon Gabriel, UCF

Dillon Gabriel, UCF
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best under-the-radar games of Week 1 is Boise State at UCF -- two of the most well-known party crashers of the last two decades. UCF is led by quarterback Dillion Gabriel, who threw for 3,570 yards and 32 TDs in ten games in 2020. He loves to get the ball downfield, and new head coach Gus Malzahn will tap into Gabriel's skills to bring the Knights back from a disappointing 6-4 seasons. 

 
9 of 15

D'Eriq King, Miami

D'Eriq King, Miami
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

There is a buzz around The U in 2021 and a lot of it is because of quarterback D'Eriq King. King, who will be playing his sixth season of college football, had a superb debut with the Hurricanes last year (2,686 yds, 23 TDs, 5 INT) before suffering an ACL injury in the Cheez-It Bowl against Oklahoma State. All eyes will be on his knee as Miami takes on defending national champion Alabama and their stout defense in Atlanta. King also is one of the initial NIL darlings, taking advantage of the new rules allowing student-athletes to profit on their own likeness. 

 
10 of 15

Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma

Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Year of Spencer Rattler begins hosting Tulane in a nationally televised non-conference game that was moved from New Orleans to Norman due to Hurricane Ida. The early Heisman candidate should flex his muscle to show everyone what the buzz is all about against a bad Green Wave defense. Rattler, who begins his second season starting in Lincoln Riley's high octane offense, should improve on his 3,000 yards and 28 TDs of 2020. 

 
11 of 15

Chris Smith, Louisiana

Chris Smith, Louisiana
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Programs like Louisiana ... who are entering the 2021 season ranked ... don't get opportunities like this very often. The Ragin' Cajuns open the season at Texas in a battle of ranked teams, and one that may see more Cajuns fans than usual after what has transpired this offseason with the Longhorns. Kick returner/running back Chris Smith was a lightning bolt for Louisiana last season, earning All-American honors. In last year's marquee game, Smith returned a kickoff for 95-yards and a touchdown. He also returned a touchdown for 100 yards against UAB, which came right before halftime for a huge statement after the Blazers took a 10-point lead. Can the Cajuns pull off another huge win on the road against a Big 12 team?

 
12 of 15

Derek Stingley Jr., LSU

Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
Gary Cosby Jr. via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Stingley has been as advertised. Entering his third season in Baton Rouge, the defensive back has been an All-American twice and should be one of the top picks in next spring's NFL Draft. He's also experienced the highs (the 2019 national championship) and lows (the 2020 season) of college football, so look for him to be an even bigger part of the Tigers game plan in 2021. In Week 1, he gets to face off against Chip Kelly's UCLA Bruins. 

 
13 of 15

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Honestly, the Buckeyes' starting QB slot isn't a done deal, even though Stroud gets the nod against Minnesota in the opener. He seems to be the best of the bunch right now (obviously, earning the QB1 designation) and has lots of weapons to work with (namely, wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson). The Gophers' defense was iffy at best last season, so Stroud could stretch out a bit in the opener. 

 
14 of 15

Kyren Williams, Notre Dame

Kyren Williams, Notre Dame
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Williams was sensational in 2020, piling up 1,125 yards and 14 total touchdowns for the ACC regular-season champions (still sounds weird). It isn't just the numbers he put up overall, but the fact he came up big in wins over Clemson (140 rushing yds, 3 TDs), North Carolina (124 yds, 2 TDs), and Florida State (185 yds, 2 TDs) ... this week's opponent ... and scored a touchdown in the Rose Bowl against Alabama. With a new quarterback and a lot of turnover with the offensive line and receiving corps, the Fighting Irish will lean on Williams a lot early on. 

 
15 of 15

Bryce Young, Alabama

Bryce Young, Alabama
Gary Cosby Jr. via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The last three Alabama quarterbacks -- Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, and Jalen Hurts -- won national championships and are starting (or about to be starting) in the NFL. Bryce Young has entered the program as a bigger phenom than any of those guys and brings a dual-threat dimension that Jones didn't have last season. That talent will be molded by new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who spent the last few years as Deshaun Watson's head coach in the NFL. There is a lot of newness to the Crimson Tide's offense so the learning curve is a bit steeper for Young. Look for him to flash his potential against Miami.

More must-reads:

Customize Your Newsletter

+

Get the latest news and rumors, customized to your favorite sports and teams. Emailed daily. Always free!

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.