We're 100 days and counting to CFB's binge-worthy first weekend

Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a former Nick Saban assistant, said Alabama's neutral-site season openers are a recruiting tactic that jump-started the program. AP Photo/John Bazemore

It may be the best opening day since Bob Feller threw a no-hitter in 1940, since Iran freed the U.S. hostages in the moments after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, since "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" took in $119 million last Dec. 18. The marquee matchups of the first Saturday of the season are so good, they may induce an epidemic of couch sores across the nation.

As we hit the 100-day mark to Thursday, Sept. 1, the first major slate of games -- including an SEC East matchup between South Carolina and Vanderbilt -- let's take a look at that big weekend.

The schedule for Sept. 3 includes:

  • A game between New Year's Six teams from last season (Oklahoma vs. Houston at NRG Stadium in Houston)

  • An intersectional game between two of the sport's traditional powers (Alabama vs. USC in Arlington, Texas)

  • Another intersectional game staged at one of the NFL's holiest shrines (LSU vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay)

  • And one more, a meeting between two programs that haven't played each other in the regular season since 1955 (UCLA at Texas A&M)

  • A game between two teams that have held fourth-quarter leads in the national championship game in the past three seasons (Clemson at Auburn)

  • A battle of regional powers featuring a long-awaited head-coaching debut (North Carolina vs. Georgia and new coach Kirby Smart in Atlanta)

  • A wake-up of Irish coffee, ACC style, with Georgia Tech and Boston College playing in Dublin, Ireland, at 7:30 a.m. ET.

The weekend continues in prime time Sunday night, when Notre Dame plays at Texas, and concludes on Labor Day night with another matchup of New Year's Six teams, Ole Miss and Florida State, in Orlando, Florida.

That doesn't include Friday night, when last season's late-night star, Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey of Stanford, returns to the field at home against Kansas State. And for all you Cardinal fans convinced that 10:30 p.m. ET kickoffs cost McCaffrey the Heisman a year ago, kickoff time against the Wildcats has not been set.

The first weekend of the season has binge-watching written all over it, and you don't even need to sign in to Netflix. It is an antidote to all those early-season weekends of narcotizing mismatches arranged to beef up the home schedule and the win column for the host and the checking account for the visitor.

And it is a culmination of scheduling trends that set the stage for the sport to pretty much have a happy accident. The decision of the NFL to begin its season after Labor Day left its stadiums vacant for the opening weekend of college football and led to the rise of neutral-site games between big-name programs.

Those games have been bolstered by the desire of the College Football Playoff selection committee for stronger nonconference schedules, which also gave a shot in the arm to teams still willing to schedule home-and-homes with intersectional rivals.

"It's not a philosophical change," said Dave Brown, a longtime ESPN executive who now runs a scheduling consulting business. "It's more that people are going to play one big game. That's not changing."

The neutral-site games may have shifted that philosophy by putting the one big game at the front of the schedule. Since Alabama opened against Clemson in the first Chick-fil-A Classic in 2008, the Crimson Tide have played a neutral-site opener in every year but two, when Alabama had a home-and-home with Penn State as its second game in 2010-11.

"That's benefited us," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "We like it because they [the USC Trojans] are a quality opponent. They do have a lot of good players, they're well-coached, and it gives our players something to really work hard in the offseason and fall camp to get ready for a big first game."

What Saban didn't say is the reason for this article -- the spotlights trained on the big openers, watched by fans starved for football.

"It started as a recruiting strategy by Nick," said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who served on Saban's defensive staff for the past nine seasons, "which paid unbelievable dividends, because we go into [Atlanta in 2008 to play] Clemson, and just smash them that one game [34-10], and it kind of started the program, and it set a trademark. ... You go outside your footprint and have a great game. In recruiting, it helps and the national exposure you get you can't replace."

Smart starts his head-coaching career with the Bulldogs in a neutral-site opener against the ACC Coastal champion Tar Heels. He has adapted Saban's offseason methods because he has seen them work.

"If you ask a strength coach, any strength coach in the country, they will hard-sell that opening game," Smart said. "The trend is, you go in reverse, so the first week of summer workouts, they're going to [show video of] the game they have last. At Alabama, we would start with Auburn. ... You show clips of that game, whether you won or lost, you show motivating clips of that game, so they're thinking about that opponent. A kid's squatting, he's looking at a picture of the guy he's going to line up across."

By the end of summer workouts, when the team is lifting the most, the players are watching clips of their first opponent. "It's a hell of a lot better when that first game is Clemson, North Carolina or Wisconsin than it is when it's App State or Western Michigan or somebody," Smart said.

Not every coach has Saban's aggressive attitude.

"Put it this way: You have to go and track people down. They don't call you," Brown said. "You don't get 20 calls a day saying, 'I gotta play in Dallas.' It doesn't work that way. If things fall into place and they can do it, they'll do it."

The history books tell us that coaches used to play tough openers on a more regular basis. In 1970, for instance, USC opened against Alabama in Birmingham, the headline game among openers that included Texas A&M at Ohio State, Cal at Texas, Oklahoma at SMU and Arizona (then in the WAC) at Michigan. A lot of programs fell into one another's arms that year because the NCAA approved extending seasons from 10 to 11 games in January 1970, and there wasn't much time to put together games.

Back in the day, teams had no compunction about tough openers. Alabama and Georgia opened against each other for seven seasons beginning in 1959. Oklahoma, which dominated the sport in the '50s, opened against teams such as Notre Dame, Cal, North Carolina, Pitt and Northwestern. In the 1960s, Texas opened against Nebraska, Oregon, USC and Cal.

Fast-forward to the modern day. Until last season, when Texas opened at Notre Dame, the Longhorns hadn't played a Power 5 opponent in their first game since 1999 (North Carolina State). That may be no more than a difference in scheduling philosophy between former Texas head coach Mack Brown and his successor, Charlie Strong.

However, Texas hardly stood by itself in playing the New Mexico States and North Texases and Rices to begin the season. Financial pressures have put a premium on home games, and if you schedule a big opponent, you have to play at their place too. That buttresses the appeal of neutral-site games. You get a check and you don't have to go to the other guy's stadium.

Some schools continue to embrace home-and-homes, none more so than Oklahoma. Coach Bob Stoops, throughout his 16 seasons in Norman, has played home and away against top intersectional opponents: Alabama, Florida State, Miami, Oregon, UCLA, Washington.

This season, the Sooners may have overdone it. Two weeks after they play Houston, Ohio State comes to Norman. Senior associate athletic director Kenny Mossman, who works with athletic director Joe Castiglione on football scheduling, pointed out the last component of this year's big opening weekend: luck.

"Houston wasn't then what they are now. Had we known that they were going to be ranked this high, I can't say with certainty that we would have still scheduled that game," Mossman said. "But that door swings both ways. You go back several years ago. We had a series with Miami [2007, 2009]. They did win the game down there. But they were not a very good team here.

"You just never know. When you schedule games a few years out, you kind of get what you get. Candidly, Joe and I were talking about this the other day. We win those two games, my goodness, we're pretty set up."

The reward of playing Houston and Ohio State in the first three weeks of the season outweighs the risk. If Oklahoma wins both, the Sooners will have an advantage in the playoff race. If they lose one, it's a quality loss. If we have learned nothing else about the selection committee, we have learned the value it places on winning or losing to a good team.

Playoff, luck, offseason motivation -- whatever got poured into the Opening Day cocktail, it worked. The anticipation will help every college football fan through the next three months.