We continue our national roundtable series with a look ahead to Week 1, because this year’s slate of high-profile, season-opening clashes between powerhouses is looking absolutely loaded. Today, we asked our conference reporters to answer this question: Which nonconference player are you most looking forward to watching this season?
Tough call here given the abundance of elite running backs the ACC has on its nonconference schedule this season (Royce Freeman, Jalen Hurd, Nick Chubb twice). But we’ll go outside the Power 5 and look at a player two ACC defenses became all too familiar with last season: Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. The Heisman darkhorse is looking to build upon a 12-1 Cougars campaign that featured wins over Louisville and Florida State in 2015. And with limited marquee opportunities, you can bet Ward will look to make another statement when Houston closes its home schedule Nov. 17 with Louisville; the opponent and date will present a great opportunity for the rest of the nation to become acquainted with the dual-threat signal-caller (and perhaps a playoff-hopeful team). We eliminated Notre Dame players from this discussion, given the Irish’s quasi-ACC status with football. -- Matt Fortuna
Bill Snyder and his Kansas State coaching staff have the entire offseason to worry about this number: 434. That’s the number of times Stanford’s Heisman runner-up running back touched the ball last season as a rusher, receiver and returner. That’s an average of 31 times per game. In last season’s Pac-12 title game against USC, McCaffrey was good for 43. And he only needs to turn a few of them into big gains to be a huge problem. How will Snyder and his Wildcats try to slow down WildCaff? They have a few more months to figure that out before their Sept. 2 season opener in Palo Alto. One fortunate advantage: K-State has one of the best groups of linebackers in the Big 12. That’s a start. Besting McCaffrey requires a whale of a game from a run defense that rated slightly above average (No. 63 in FBS) in 2015. And try not to kick to him. -- Max Olson
The Big Ten won’t see a more exciting ball carrier this season than LSU’s punishing workhorse, Leonard Fournette. Heck, Lambeau Field -- where Fournette’s Tigers will face Wisconsin on the first Saturday of the season -- may not see a more exciting ball carrier this season. Fournette ran for at least 150 yards in nine games last season to go with his 22 touchdowns. He was a Heisman frontrunner until a disappointing performance against Alabama last November. The Badgers boast the conference’s top group of linebackers, setting up a clash of heavy hitters that could provide some important data points for the sport’s most prestigious award this season. There are other Heisman hopefuls on the Big Ten slate this year (Oklahoma’s backfield duo and Oregon’s Royce Freeman are all appointment viewing), but Fournette’s punch-in-the-mouth running style will challenge a Big Ten defense at its own game and will be hard to top by any other nonconference opponent. -- Dan Murphy
If another L.A. school from the Pac-12 wasn’t playing another SEC school in Texas in Week 1, then UCLA vs. Texas A&M might be your national game of the week. This one will take a backseat to the USC-Alabama game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. But there are plenty of intriguing storylines to go with this matchup -- none more enticing than former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone going against his old team. Headlining Mazzone’s offense is Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight. The quarterback has a ton of skill position players to work with, so he might not be the most dynamic choice, but watching a quarterback from another conference running the offense that sent (most recently) Brock Osweiler and Brett Hundley to the NFL is going to be fascinating. Kevin Sumlin made the public declaration last month that the graduate transfer would be his starter. How Knight runs Mazzone’s system (and how aware he is of UCLA’s defense, and vice versa) adds a layer of intrigue to the “other” Pac-12 vs. SEC Week 1 showdown. -- Kevin Gemmell
Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb, Jalen Hurd, Bo Scarbrough. When it comes to SEC running backs, there’s a lot of chest-thumping that goes on, and rightfully so. But the SEC has to pump its collective brakes when it comes to Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. That man can ball. While he may not have the size of some of the SEC’s top backs, Cook certainly has more than enough power to go along with his lightning-quick reflexes. Despite missing the game against Syracuse, he put up nearly 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. He went off for 183 yards and two touchdowns against what was considered a solid Florida defense. This year will be great, because we’ll get to see Cook twice: once in the annual Florida rivalry game and once in the season opener against Ole Miss, which boasts a stout defensive line. -- Alex Scarborough