College football Week 1: Picks and preview

College football Week 1: Picks and preview

The 2021 college football has begun. Somewhat back to pre-pandemic levels, but with fluidity still the underlying theme. Now, things really ramp up on this first full week and weekend of the season.

Here are our previews and predictions for the Week 1 games including teams in The Associated Press Top 25 and other notable games to watch. All times Eastern.

 
1 of 25

Citadel at No. 22 Coastal Carolina, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN+

Citadel at No. 22 Coastal Carolina, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Reinhold Mata/USA TODAY Sports

The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers were the darlings of the college football world last season, going 11-1 , beating ranked teams in Louisiana and BYU, and winning the Sun Belt Conference title. It might be tough for Coastal to be as good in 2021, but quarterback Grayson McCall (2,488 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, three interceptions in 2020) could be the best player in the league. Plus, 10 starters return from a defense that held five opponents to 17 or fewer points. Out of the FCS, The Citadel has lost its last eight games against Top 25 teams by an average margin of 39.6 points.

Prediction: Coastal Carolina (OFF)

 
2 of 25

Weber State at No. 24 Utah, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network

Weber State at No. 24 Utah, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Jeffrey Swinger/USA TODAY Sports

This is a somewhat intriguing matchup. Weber State is ranked sixth in the Stats Perform FCS Poll and is a pretty confident bunch. Utah, though, should be eager to get back on the field after playing just five games last season but winning its final three. Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer (9,700 passing yards, 65 touchdown passes, 28 interceptions; 1,039 rushing yards, 22 TDs in four seasons) is as experienced as they come and looking for one more year of collegiate glory. However, his offensive line is ailing to open the season.

Prediction: Utah (OFF)

 
3 of 25

No. 4 Ohio State at Minnesota, Thursday, 8 p.m., Fox

No. 4 Ohio State at Minnesota, Thursday, 8 p.m., Fox
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Until proven otherwise, Ohio State is the king of the Big Ten. Plenty of eyes will be on new quarterback C.J. Stroud, the redshirt freshman who has two of the nation's top receivers in Chris Olave (111 career receptions, 1,775 yards, 22 TDs in three seasons) and Garret Wilson (73 career receptions, 1,155 yards, 11 TDs in two seasons). There's also plenty of elite talent back from a defense that allowed more than 27 points once against Big Ten competition in 2020. Minnesota has one of the league's best in running backs in Mohamed Ibrahim (5.5 yards per carry and 31 TDs in 28 career games), but it's not good enough overall to snap an 11-game skid against the Buckeyes.

Prediction: Ohio State (-14)

 
4 of 25

Southern Utah (0-1) at No. 25 Arizona State, Thursday, 10:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network

Southern Utah (0-1) at No. 25 Arizona State, Thursday, 10:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports

There is plenty of excitement for the Sun Devils' season to start after playing just four games in 2020. Quarterback Jayden Daniels has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 3,644 yards and 22 touchdowns in 16 college games. Plus, Arizona State returns practically its entire defense from 2020. Southern Utah, out of the FCS, yielded 543 total yards during last weekend's 45-14 loss to San Jose State. The Thunderbirds have five wins since the start of the 2018 season.

Prediction: Arizona State (OFF)

 
5 of 25

No. 10 North Carolina at Virginia Tech, Friday, 6 p.m., ESPN

No. 10 North Carolina at Virginia Tech, Friday, 6 p.m., ESPN
Lee Luther Jr/USA TODAY Sports

Another potentially strong Week 1 matchup, this time in the ACC. The house will be filled when Heisman trophy-candidate Sam Howell (7,227 passing yards, 68 touchdowns, 14 interceptions in two seasons) and the Tar Heels try to win at Virginia Tech for just the third time since 2005. Howell's supporting cast might be a bit green, but the cupboard is far from empty. Meanwhile, the Hokies must improve a defense that allowed an average of 32.1 points last season.

Prediction: North Carolina (-5 1/2)

 
6 of 25

Tulane at No. 2 Oklahoma, Saturday, Noon, ABC

Tulane at No. 2 Oklahoma, Saturday, Noon, ABC
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of Hurricane Ida , this contest was moved from New Orleans to Norman. While that's the right decision, location was likely never going to come into play when considering how dominant the Sooners can be this year. Quarterback Spencer Rattler is the Heisman frontrunner after completing 67.5 percent of his passes for 3,031 yards with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions during Oklahoma's 9-2 2020 campaign. Meanwhile, linebacker Nik Bonitto and defensive lineman Isaiah Thomas lead a unit that yielded 21.7 points per contest in 2020. Tulane, meanwhile, is 0-36 against ranked opponents since the start of the 1993 season.

Prediction: Oklahoma (-31 1/2)

 
7 of 25

No. 19 Penn State at No. 12 Wisconsin, Saturday, Noon, Fox

No. 19 Penn State at No. 12 Wisconsin, Saturday, Noon, Fox
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

Nice Big Ten matchup for the first full Saturday of college football. Penn State obviously expects to play more like the team that won its final four games of 2020, and not the group that opened 0-5 for the first time in the storied program's history. Led by quarterback Sean Clifford (4,537 passing yards, 39 TDs, 16 INTs in 2019-'20), the Nittany Lions aim for a fifth straight win over Wisconsin, which is the Big Ten West favorite. That's as long as quarterback Graham Mertz and receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor can stay healthy. Badgers linebacker Jack Sanborn (85 career solo tackles) leads a defense that allowed 17.4 points per game last year.

Prediction: Wisconsin (-5 1/2)

 
8 of 25

Fresno State (1-0) at No. 11 Oregon, Saturday, 2 p.m., Pac-12 Network

Fresno State (1-0) at No. 11 Oregon, Saturday, 2 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Fresno State rolled over Connecticut 45-0 last weekend, but its second game gets much tougher. Oregon will start former Boston College star Anthony Brown at quarterback after playing two games for the Ducks last season. Yet, Oregon's true star is defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who has recorded 12 sacks and 23 1/2 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. On three occasions last season, the Ducks allowed more than 33 points. They probably need to be better in order to win the Pac-12 title.

Prediction: Oregon (-20 1/2)

 
9 of 25

Miami (Ohio) at No. 8 Cincinnati, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN+

Miami (Ohio) at No. 8 Cincinnati, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN+
Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

With the exception of 2020, this is an annual rivalry game. And, the Bearcats have dominated, winning 14 in a row over the RedHawks. There's obviously enough reason to believe that streak will continue. Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder (6,905 career passing yards, 57 TDs, 20 INTs; 1,825 rushing yards, 22 rushing TDs) is among the most versatile quarterbacks in the country. But, the talent found on a defense that returns seven starters after allowing 16.8 points per game will determine if the Bearcats can better their 9-1 mark from 2020.

Prediction: Cincinnati (-22 1/2)

 
10 of 25

No. 17 Indiana at No. 18 Iowa, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

No. 17 Indiana at No. 18 Iowa, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports

Indiana has beaten Iowa once in the last eight meetings, and most recently won at Iowa City in 2007. However, this should be a pretty entertaining contest. Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (3,039 passing yards, 24 touchdowns in 2019-'20) appears ready to return from his ACL injury. However, the Hawkeyes return seven starters, including Zach VanValkenburg (3 1/2 sacks, 8 1/2 tackles for loss in 2020) from a defensive unit that allowed an average of 16.0 points last season.

Prediction: Iowa (-3)

 
11 of 25

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami, Fla., Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (at Atlanta), ABC

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami, Fla., Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (at Atlanta), ABC
Caitie McMekin/Pool via News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

The reigning national champions get things going against a Miami squad that could flirt with double-digit victories in 2021. That said, the Hurricanes, even with the talented and experienced D'Eriq King (7,611 career passing yards, 73 TDs; 1,959 rushing yards, 32 rushing TDs) running show, will have their hands full Saturday. The Bryce Young era is about to begin for the Tide, but there are plenty of established stars on either side of the ball to take the pressure of the new quarterback.

Prediction: Alabama (-19 1/2)

 
12 of 25

Northern Iowa at No. 7 Iowa State, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Big 12 Network/ESPN+

Northern Iowa at No. 7 Iowa State, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Big 12 Network/ESPN+
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY Sports

It was five years ago this weekend that UNI went into Ames and stunned the Cyclones 25-20. Last season, Iowa State needed three overtimes to take down this in-state foe. Though Iowa State boasts big-time performers in quarterback Brock Purdy (8,982 passing yards, 62 TDs in three seasons), running back Breece Hall (1,572 rushing yards, 21 TDs in 2020), tight end Charlie Kohler (106 career catches, 1,425 yards, 17 TDs) and linebacker Mike Rose (134 career solo tackles, 29 tackles for loss), UNI is ranked 21st in the Stats Perform FCS Poll and hardly intimidated.

Prediction: Iowa State (OFF)

 
13 of 25

No. 23 Louisiana at No. 21 Texas, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Fox

No. 23 Louisiana at No. 21 Texas, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Fox
Scott Wachter/USA TODAY Sports

Louisiana snapped a 20-game losing streak against Top 25 teams with last season's 31-14 victory over then-No. 23 Iowa State. Now, the Ragin' Cajuns look to spoil Steve Sarkisian's debut as Texas coach. Louisiana quarterback Levi Lewis has thrown for 5,324 yards with 45 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Meanwhile, Texas' defense must be better after yielding at least 53 points twice in 2020. Longhorns sophomore Bijan Robinson rushed for 703 yards and averaged 8.2 per carry last season, and is a sexy breakout star for 2021.

Prediction: Louisiana (+8)

 
14 of 25

San Jose State (1-0) at No. 15 USC, Saturday, 5 p.m., Pac-12 Network

San Jose State (1-0) at No. 15 USC, Saturday, 5 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

These programs last met in 2009, but West Coast college football fans could be in for a treat. Clay Helton is still feeling the heat even though the Trojans are a favorite to win the Pac-12. We know about USC's Kedon Slovis (5,423 passing yards, 47 touchdowns, 6 interceptions in two seasons), but receiver Drake London (72 receptions, 1,069 yards in two seasons) might be the most exciting offensive player in the Pac-12. San Jose State, which went 7-1 and won the Mountain West Conference title last season, opened this one with a 45-14 victory over Southern Utah. The well-traveled Nick Starkel has thrown for 2,568 yards with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions in nine games for the Spartans.

Prediction: San Jose State (+14)

 
15 of 25

No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 3 Clemson, Saturday, 7:30 .m., ABC

No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 3 Clemson, Saturday, 7:30 .m., ABC
Josh Morgan/USA TODAY Sports

The marquee matchup of Week 1 could be a possible College Football Playoff preview -- perhaps. While Clemson is handing the keys to the offense over to D.J. Uiagalelei, Georgia feels it has one of the game's best in JT Daniels (4,118 passing yards, 25 TDs, 13 INTs). However, this contest of elite college football powers should come down to how well two defenses that ranked in the top 20 in average points allowed last season and have plenty of star power. Georgia has won six of the last seven meetings with Clemson, but the schools last met in 2014.

Prediction: Clemson (-3)

 
16 of 25

Florida Atlantic at No. 13 Florida, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network

Florida Atlantic at No. 13 Florida, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

If there's some reason for Gators fans to be concerned about their opener, it's because FAU is an experienced squad that's looking for a fifth straight winning season. Former Miami quarterback N'Kosi Perry (2,484 career passing yards, 24 TDs, 10 INTs) is also in the picture for the Owls, who understand the task at hand. Emory Jones finally gets the chance to run the Gators' offense, but some new names must step up on both sides of the ball before we really know what to think of Dan Mullen's guys.

Prediction: Florida (-23 1/2)

 
17 of 25

Kent State at No. 6 Texas A&M, Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPNU

Kent State at No. 6 Texas A&M, Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPNU
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M is likely to win this game, but it might be interesting for a bit. The Aggies are obviously the better team, have a strong runner in Isaiah Spiller (1,982 rushing yards, 19 TDs in two seasons), and host lofty expectations for 2020. However, Kent State is among the Mid-American Conference favorites and quarterback Dustin Crum (4,214 career passing yards, 35 TDs, six INTs; 12 rushing TDs) might be the best player in the league.

Prediction: Kent State (+28 1/2)

 
18 of 25

Montana at No. 20 Washington, Saturday, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Network

Montana at No. 20 Washington, Saturday, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

The Huskies return 18 starters on both sides of the ball, so there is plenty of reason to feel good about the 2020 season in Seattle. There is some intriguing depth at the skill spots, and that could be on display Saturday. But, it's Washington's defense that needs to step up this season and make a statement after failing to hold any of its four 2020 opponents to fewer than 21 points. Montana is a top-10 FCS program but lost 63-7 the last time it faced Washington -- in 2017.

Prediction: Washington (OFF)

 
19 of 25

No. 16 LSU at UCLA (1-0), Saturday, 8:30 p.m., Fox

No. 16 LSU at UCLA (1-0), Saturday, 8:30 p.m., Fox
John Reed/USA TODAY Sports

LSU is looking for a bounce back from last season's 5-5 national championship follow-up. That should happen, but this is a potentially tough season-opening draw. Max Johnson, who threw for 1,069 yards with eight touchdowns and an interception in six games last season as a freshman, gets the call under center. The Bruins, meanwhile, already have a game under their belt with that 44-10 victory over Hawaii last weekend. Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet rushed for 106 yards and three TDs, while the Bruins' defense held the Warriors to 269 total yards.

Prediction: UCLA (+3)

 
20 of 25

No. 9 Notre Dame at Florida State, Sunday, 7:30 p.m., ABC

No. 9 Notre Dame at Florida State, Sunday, 7:30 p.m., ABC
Robert Franklin/USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame enters as a solid favorite, but the Seminoles' opener comes in the wake of legendary coach Bobby Bowden's death and is eager to rebound from a three-win season. Of course, it won't be easy against an Irish squad that returns nine starters from last season's group that reached the College Football Playoff. Ex-Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan is slated to get the start while Kyren Williams looks to build on a stellar 2020 when he rushed for 1,125 yards and 13 touchdowns. McKenzie Milton's anticipated return to the field Sunday as Florida State's quarterback -- at some point in the game -- should be a highlight regardless of the result.

Prediction: Notre Dame (-7 1/2)

 
21 of 25

Boise State at UCF, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN

Boise State at UCF, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Mike Watters/USA TODAY Sports

This has the potential to be a fun early-season matchup between a perennial Group of 5 teams with new coaches. Gus Malzahn is now in charge at UCF and has a good one in quarterback Dillon Gabriel (7,223 passing yards, 61 TDs, 11 INTs in two seasons). However, Gabriel and Co. face a Boise defense that returns eight starts from a group that was a mixed bag in 2020, but helped win five of its team's seven games. The Broncos, under the guidance of alum Andy Avalos, will also be looking for a sixth straight season-opening victory.

Prediction: UCF (-5)

 
22 of 25

Michigan State at Northwestern, Friday, 9 p.m., ESPN

Michigan State at Northwestern, Friday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

Northwestern is the reigning Big Ten West Division but enters this season on the outside of looking in at the Top 25. Hunter Johnson, who last saw game action under center in 2019, will start at quarterback for the Wildcats, who also boast one of the nation's top defensive backs in safety Brandon Joseph (six interceptions, 52 tackles in 2020). Northwestern's lone regular-season loss last season came at Michigan State, which beat rival Michigan for its other 2020 win. While the Spartans quarterback situation is uncertain, Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III has rushed for 1,158 yards in 20 career games and scored 13 touchdowns in 2020.

Prediction: Northwestern (-3)

 
23 of 25

West Virginia at Maryland, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN

West Virginia at Maryland, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia went 6-4 last season, but each loss came on the road. Though Leddie Brown (1,010 rushing yards, nine TDs in 2020) might be one of the most underrated running backs in the country, the Mountaineers will be in for a test at Maryland. The Terrapins played just five games during the uncertainty of 2020, but quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa had his moments while completing 61.5 percent of his passes for 1,011 yards in four contests. These teams are meeting for the first time since 2015.

Prediction: Maryland (+3)

 
24 of 25

BYU vs Arizona, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. (at Las Vegas), ESPN

BYU vs Arizona, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. (at Las Vegas), ESPN
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

BYU is coming off a stellar 11-1 season, capped with a 26-point win over UCF in the Boca Raton Bowl. However, quarterback Zach Wilson is trying to revive the New York Jets. Jaren Hall is slated to start under center for the Cougars, though the key could be a defense that hopes to remain as stingy from allowing an average of 15.3 points in 2020. Arizona, meanwhile, can only go up after losing all five of its contests last season to enter on a 12-game losing streak. The Wildcats totaled 87 points last season and begin this one with no clear-cut favorite at quarterback.

Prediction: BYU (-12 1/2)

 
25 of 25

Louisville vs. Mississippi, Monday, 8 p.m. (at Altanta), ESPN

Louisville vs. Mississippi, Monday, 8 p.m. (at Altanta), ESPN
Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports

A prime-time matchup to conclude Week 1, and it has the potential to be a good one. Ole Miss opens just outside the Top 25 and might have the SEC's most pro-ready quarterback in Matt Corral (4,699 yards, 35 TDs, 17 INTs; 641 rushing yards). If the Rebels can improve defensively after allowing 38.3 points in 2020, this could be a special campaign. Louisville, meanwhile, has a quality signal-caller of its own in Malik Cunningham (2,617 passing yards, 20 TDs, 12 INTs; 609 rushing yards). However, the Cardinals might not have solved their inconsistent nature on either side of the ball.

Prediction: Mississippi (-11)

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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