The waiting is over. After one of the most stressful, unusual and just plain weird seasons in college football history, Week 1 is here and boy, does it have a lot to offer.
For the first time since the Associated Press preseason poll began in 1950, there are five games between top-25 teams in the season's full opening week, most notably No. 3 Clemson facing No. 5 Georgia in Charlotte, North Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC/ESPN App).
But this season is all about betting on potential at the top. There are new quarterbacks taking over the reins for four of the top six teams in Alabama's Bryce Young, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei and Texas A&M's Haynes King, and they're facing big expectations. In the Heisman Trophy odds, Uiagalelei (8-1) and Young (9-1) trail only Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler (6-1), with Stroud coming in at 14-1 at Caesars Sportsbook.
It's not just the old-school blue bloods having all the fun in the preseason rankings, either. Iowa State earned its highest ranking in school history at No. 7. Cincinnati is at No. 8, the highest initial ranking ever for an American Athletic Conference team. North Carolina starts off in the top 10 for the first time since 1997. Indiana's No. 17 mark is its highest preseason mark since 1969. Coastal Carolina (No. 22) and Louisiana (No. 23) are the first Sun Belt schools ever to land in the season's first rankings.
Most importantly though, the college football experience is back. Bands will be playing the fight song. Fans will be in the stands roaring along with pregame entrances, including "Enter Sandman" on Friday night when Sam Howell and UNC are in Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech (6 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). Mascots will be back roaming the sidelines, including a new Ralphie (Ralphie VI) making her first run on Friday night before Colorado's game against Northern Colorado and Reveille X making her Kyle Field debut at Texas A&M on Saturday. Ralphie VI even got her own hype video.
A new era.— Ralphie (@CUBuffsRalphie) September 1, 2021
Run, Ralphie VI, Run.
And just like that, we're off to never-never land.
Neighbor vs. neighbor in Georgia-Clemson
We've been hearing about it for months, and now we're just days away from Clemson-Georgia.
It's hard to overstate the importance of Saturday night's game. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, the matchup has the highest playoff leverage of any regular-season game this season according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor.
Regardless of the rankings or playoff impact, we're getting a matchup between two of college football's strongest programs in the past half-decade. The game will set the table for the season for both teams early on and help everyone jump headfirst back into the season.
For Clemson, there would be no better way to kick off the post-Trevor Lawrence era than with a win over Georgia. Uiagalelei's skills aren't a secret to anybody after what we saw him do last season against Boston College and Notre Dame, but there's no easing into the new era for the Tigers going up against Georgia.
The good news for Clemson is this game will be as tough as it gets for the Tigers in the regular season, but Georgia's defense won't make things easy for the first-year starter.
Georgia, on the other hand, is facing the pressure of expectation. This is supposed to be the year the Dawgs put it all together and take the leap beyond just being in that second tier of consistently great college football teams. Quarterback JT Daniels showed what their offense could be at the end of 2020, and of course, Kirby Smart is expected to have one of the best defenses in the country yet again.
There aren't many better ways to open a season than between two of college football's powers that are separated by just 70 miles.
SMU gets a huge surprise in its 6-foot-8, 232-pound kicker
We're here to kick off the season in a big way, so let's go down to Dallas, where they're doing the same thing -- with a larger-than-average kicker.
First, let's start with the weirdness of this true freshman class. Because of COVID-19, a lot of coaches couldn't see players in person for a while before they arrived on campus. So imagine when a kicker you saw in your camp a couple of years ago showed up, hit the weights and now stands 6-8, 232 pounds and is booming 74-yard field goals in practice in his size-14 shoes. That's how the uncommonly large Brendan Hall has confounded SMU coach Sonny Dykes.
"I've never, ever, ever seen anything like it in my life," Dykes said.
Hall's story seems like pre-internet lore. He played for a team called the Springtown Porcupines (from Springtown, Texas, population 2,658, northwest of Fort Worth) and didn't have a private kicking coach or hit the specialized kicking camps circuit. He caught Dykes' eye at an SMU camp when he kept kicking balls out of the end zone on kickoffs, with a couple even going into the stands. The Mustangs didn't have anyone who could match a kid about to go into his junior year in high school. Dykes had to have him.
Hall chose SMU over bigger schools when the secret started to get out -- such as when he made a 49-yarder to send a playoff game into overtime -- because the Mustangs were the first to offer him and he felt comfortable in a small-school setting close to his hometown.
"He's a very quiet kid," Dykes said. "His leg does all the talking."
Dykes said he has regularly seen Hall drill kicks 50 to 70 yards, or punts with a five-second hang time in practice. He'll be the Mustangs' kickoff guy and punter, and he will come in on long kicks when SMU opens with Abilene Christian on Saturday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+/ESPN App).
"The college football record right now for a field goal without a tee is 65 yards [by Martin Gramatica for Kansas State in 1998]," Dykes said. "I think Brandon's got a chance to break that thing."
Hall has bulked up since arriving to SMU in June, and Dykes said he can see him being 250-260 one day. He even jokes with Hall he might have to switch positions.
"If he gets up to 290, he may have to play tackle," he said.
What to watch in the week's most interesting games
Steve Sarkisian makes his debut for No. 21 Texas on Saturday against No. 23 Louisiana (4:30 p.m. ET, Fox), the Longhorns' first opener as a ranked team against a ranked opponent since 1984. It's an interesting contrast: Sarkisian, in his first year with the Longhorns but beginning his third stop as a head coach, against Billy Napier, one of the hottest coaching candidates in the country. It matches up a Longhorns team with all-new schemes against a Ragin' Cajuns squad that our colleague Bill Connelly wrote returns 97% of its production, tops in the country, from a 10-1 team whose one loss was by three points to Coastal Carolina, and who opened last season with a 31-14 road win over Iowa State.
"The opponent we're playing has our attention," Sarkisian said on Monday.
And Sarkisian's offense will have our attention, with the coach saying Monday that Hudson Card will be his starter, but that Casey Thompson will also play. The main attraction, however, will be how Sarkisian utilizes Bijan Robinson, who dazzled in perplexingly limited opportunities last year, setting the Texas record for yards per rush in a season (8.2) but getting just 50 carries in the five games in which he played that were decided by one score or fewer.
This is a prime contender worth monitoring for Week 1 overreaction potential.
The big games (all times ET)
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami (3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC/ESPN App) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta: After losing 10 players to the NFL draft, Alabama is going to look a lot different offensively this season, with Young leading the way at quarterback. The Tide will still score plenty, but this might be one of the stronger Alabama defenses of Nick Saban's tenure. Miami has a healthy D'Eriq King, and if the Canes can keep this one close, they could be in for a big season in the ACC.
No. 17 Indiana at No. 18 Iowa (3:30 p.m. Saturday, BTN): The Hoosiers get a chance to prove their 2020 season wasn't a fluke, and they welcome back a healthy Michael Penix Jr. Iowa, which started off last season 0-2 before winning its final six games, hopes to establish itself as a Big Ten West favorite with a win over one of the best teams in the East.
No. 19 Penn State at No. 12 Wisconsin (noon Saturday, Fox): They're wasting no time in the B1G with this conference showdown. Wisconsin's streak of 16 straight wins in home openers will be tested by Penn State, which has won its past four matchups against the Badgers.
No. 16 LSU at UCLA (8:30 p.m. Saturday, Fox): LSU had to relocate to Houston and practice on the road all week because of Hurricane Ida before traveling to Los Angeles. A game at the Rose Bowl should be a welcome respite, especially because UCLA was giving out free tickets this week to try to boost attendance.
No. 9 Notre Dame at Florida State (7:30 p.m. Sunday, ABC/ESPN App): The Seminoles' first game since Bobby Bowden's death is fittingly a classic matchup with one of his best big-game opponents. Unfortunately, Florida State's 3-6 record last year was its worst since going 3-8 in 1975, the year before Bowden took over. But FSU features one of the best stories in college football with the debut of former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton. Milton will be taking the field for the first time in 33 months after suffering a knee injury against USF in November 2018 that was so gruesome that doctors had to consider amputation. After a grueling rehab process and a transfer to Tallahassee, Milton looks to complete a near-miraculous comeback. Notre Dame, meanwhile, will have a totally new look with just two returning offensive starters and a new starting quarterback in Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan.
Louisville vs. Ole Miss (8 p.m. Monday, ESPN/ESPN App) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta: Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral is appointment viewing. Corral comes into the season as a potential Heisman contender after completing 71% of his passes for 3,337 yards, 29 touchdowns and 14 picks in 2020. Coming off of a disappointing 2020, Louisville will be hoping it can slow down Lane Kiffin's offense, despite losing five of its top seven tacklers from last season.
BYU's second home: Las Vegas?
BYU and Arizona will meet on Saturday night (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders. According to the Deseret News, more than 57,000 tickets have already been sold, making it the largest crowd ever to watch a college sporting event in Las Vegas.
"It's funny and a little ironic, but Las Vegas has been really good for BYU athletics going back to the games with UNLV, the Las Vegas Bowl and the Mountain West and West Coast Conference basketball tournaments," BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe told the newspaper. "Our people love to go to Vegas."
The Cougars are 12-4 in Las Vegas.
Beamer Ball II: A coach suits up at QB
Zeb Noland, who came to South Carolina as a graduate assistant on Shane Beamer's coaching staff, will be the starting quarterback when the Gamecocks play Eastern Illinois on Saturday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN+/ESPN App).
Luke Doty was supposed to be the starter for South Carolina, but injured his left foot this preseason. Beamer said Doty should be able to play against East Carolina on Sept. 11, but for now, the job is Noland's.
Noland started his playing career at Iowa State before transferring to North Dakota State. He was Trey Lance's backup before starting for the Bison this past spring.
"I know what the narrative may be out there, so let's forget about it and lose the narrative that [Noland] hasn't played a football game in two or three years and he was walking up and down the hall like Uncle Rico talking about what he did back in the day as a quarterback," Beamer said Tuesday. "He played quarterback a couple of months ago -- three months ago. He's been a graduate assistant coach since June."
While this might be the case, it's both funny and cool that a coach traded in his clipboard for a helmet.
Red, White and Blue Out
Texas A&M will honor the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 by revisiting its tribute from the Aggies' first game after the attacks two decades ago, when Kyle Field fans coordinated to wear red, white and blue shirts, depending on their seat level.
The "Red White and Blue Out," as it was called, remarkably grew from a post on the TexAgs message board by then-20-year-old student Eric Bethea, to become a movement that involved selling 70,000 T-shirts in 10 days, including to visiting Oklahoma State fans.