College football, as ever, gave us a series of fantastic games in 2020. From an explosive start featuring Oklahoma’s losses to Iowa State and Kansas State and Alabama’s close call to Ole Miss to a memorable bowl season highlighted by Peach and Cure Bowl duels, the season provided plenty of action.
But perhaps the thing we missed out on the most was the out-of-conference schedule. Before the calendar was wrecked by four conference cancellations (later undone) and various other OOC-limiting moves, we were set for a wide array of fascinating games in the early weeks of the season. The opening slate was to be highlighted by USC-Alabama and Michigan-Washington; a week later, Ohio State would have faced Oregon, Texas would have completed a home-and-home with LSU, and Auburn would have taken on North Carolina. And, of course, the end of the season was expected to see a number of cross-conference rivalries, including an intriguing Holy War that could have finally seen BYU take down Utah.
Alas, none of those tantalizing games came to pass. Several conferences gave up on OOC entirely; others drastically limited it. Beyond a memorable short-notice showdown between Coastal Carolina and BYU, hardly any of the remaining games drew much interest. There were still upsets (Louisiana over Iowa State, Arkansas State over Kansas State) and other noteworthy games (an unexpectedly competitive game between Tulsa and Oklahoma State, BYU’s shellacking of Navy), but the early weeks of the season were far more forgettable than usual.
Fortunately, that will be remedied this year. Week 1 alone offers up a schedule full of fascinating games, from appointment-viewing blockbusters to potentially momentous hidden gems. After a year pockmarked with cancellations, postponements, and disappointment, marquee football is finally back in full force.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Penn State at Wisconsin (-5.5)—Saturday, , 12 p.m. (FOX)
|When Penn State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Wisconsin has the ball||Defense||Offense|
The Big Ten typically bucks the trend of opening with exclusively non-conference slates, preferring to host a few internal matches in Week 1, and this year is no exception. Ohio State beat Minnesota on the road last night, Michigan State will attempt to repeat last year’s upset of Northwestern, and Iowa and Indiana face off in a game that could define both teams’ trajectories. But perhaps the most intriguing of the Big Ten’s early conference games is this, a duel between two teams that struggled to get it going for long stretches of 2020.
With Jack Coan out due to injury, eventually prompting his transfer to Notre Dame, last year was all about developing the rebuilt offense for Wisconsin. Much was made of Graham Mertz, especially after his impressive starting debut against Illinois, in which he tied the program record for consecutive completions and finished 20-for-21 for 248 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. But unsurprisingly, the rest of the season wasn’t quite as smooth for the underclassman, and after a three-week pause invoked by his positive COVID-19 test, the Badgers’ season grew much bumpier. In one particularly rough stretch, Mertz tossed just one touchdown to five picks, averaged just 200 passing yards per game, and didn’t hit a 60% completion mark across three contests.
However, it wasn’t all bad for Wisconsin. Their young quarterback got solid playing experience, and while the run game was less automatic than usual, the Badgers found an RB1 in Jalen Berger, who averaged 5.0 yards per carry and 75.3 per game. The defense, meanwhile, was incredible, with no opponent totaling 300 yards against Wisconsin until their fifth game. The unit ultimately allowed a minuscule 2.4 points per scoring opportunity, second among Power 5 teams (behind only division rival Northwestern). It all came together in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, with Mertz’s decent day (130 yards and a touchdown on 17 passes), a group rushing effort in which five Badgers ran for double-digit yardage, and a defensive outing that held Wake Forest scoreless for over 27 minutes.
That’s a blueprint for the kind of all-around performance Wisconsin will hope to achieve in their opener, but Penn State is no pushover. After losing a thriller against Indiana, the Nittany Lions spiraled out of control en route to an 0-5 start, lowlighted by losses to Maryland and Nebraska—both games in which their opponent looked fully in control at times. But James Franklin managed to right the ship against Michigan, putting in a relatively relaxed showing that brought recent 11-win campaigns to mind. Having started the year looking like one of the Power 5’s worst, the Nittany Lions went on a torrid run, winning their last four and looking a lot more like one of the Power 5’s best.
Then again, the best record among the teams Penn State faced on that stretch belong to 3-6 Rutgers, so it’s hard enough to draw conclusions even without the added complication of a COVID-affected season. Nevertheless, if there’s one team that can be trusted to return to form in 2021, it’s Penn State, which has been among the most consistent top-tier teams in the sport over the past few seasons. Sean Clifford could be average, as he was last year, or he could be great, as he was the year before, but the Lions’ run game is the more important factor to their rebound. A spate of injuries left freshman RB4 Keyvone Lee as a central offensive piece just six plays into the season, and it showed. Devyn Ford’s absence due to mourning thrust Lee into the starting role, where he thrived, averaging 4.9 yards per carry on some 70 touches during Penn State’s four-game winning streak. Between Ford’s return and Noah Cain’s expected recovery from injury, the pieces should come together nicely for major improvement on the ground.
Much like Wisconsin, the Lions were strongest on defense, and much like Wisconsin, they played to that tendency by maximizing time of possession, in which they ranked 10th. However, Penn State wasn’t quite as locked down in high-leverage situations, allowing a pedestrian 3.54 points per scoring opportunity. Part of the reason for that comes down to a major stylistic difference between their pass defenses. Wisconsin looks to prevent successful passes, ranking second in opponent completion percentage but 110th in yards per completion; Penn State, by contrast, focuses on limiting damage after the fact, sitting 42nd in opponent completion percentage but 61st in yards per completion. Combined with an abnormally low stuff rate (the percentage of opponent runs stopped before or at the line of scrimmage), Penn State’s otherwise solid defense was ripe for opponents to pick it to death in short-yardage situations, and they did so, scoring on 89% of their red zone possessions (tied for 104th among defenses). That’s a weakness Wisconsin, which ranked 23rd in red zone scoring rate, is primed to exploit.
Both the Badgers and the Lions bring back most of their production from last season, making this game a pivotal test of preparation. Questionable quarterbacks and unusually weak rushing attacks held both teams back in 2020, while dominant defenses set them up for further success in 2021. Who has addressed their issues—and determined how best to play to their strengths—will determine the winner of an intriguing noon duel.
- Can Penn State lean on their run game against a stout Wisconsin defensive line?
- Will Graham Mertz build confidence and grow more efficient? His 61.1% completion rate was fine last year, but his 6.4 yards per attempt weren’t.
- Who will emerge with the advantage in a chess match between two experienced, tightlipped Big Ten coaches: Paul Chryst for Wisconsin or James Franklin for Penn State?
FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 6.3
Alabama (-19.5) at Miami—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|When Alabama has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Miami has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Among other things, this game will prove a test of how meaningful returning production is this year. Alabama, bringing back just 56% of last year’s production, ranks sixth worst among FBS teams; Miami’s 91%, by contrast, is 12th-best. However, that may not be enough to bridge the gap between the Hurricanes and the truly elite, as last year demonstrated with their uninspiring losses to Clemson (42-17) and North Carolina (62-26). The U figures for another year of improvement, and Bama is likely on the relative low of their cycle, but will the two line up for a competitive kickoff game?
The Crimson Tide are coming off one of the best seasons in college football history, a year in which they put away other national championship contenders and were only seriously challenged twice (by Ole Miss early on, and by Florida in the SEC Championship Game). Behind an outstanding offense that won awards at every position except for tight end, including a Heisman Trophy for receiver DeVonta Smith and the best single-season completion percentage ever for quarterback Mac Jones, Alabama cruised to a 13-0 championship season, capped off with a serene 52-24 title win over Ohio State. The Tide unsurprisingly had their quarterback and two wideouts taken in the first round, marking the first time in FBS history a team has produced such a class twice in a row.
If this sounds familiar, it may be because another undefeated SEC West team received near-identical accolades not so long ago. 2019 LSU played only a few down-to-the-wire games (Texas, Florida, Auburn, and Alabama), claimed the Heisman with Joe Burrow’s record-setting season, and nearly swept the offensive awards before producing a 14-player draft class, tied for the biggest on record. But then reality set in and the impact of those massive losses blindsided the Tigers, landing them at 5-5 in 2020 even with great luck (3-1 in one-score games). It was the first non-winning season in Baton Rouge since the turn of the century, and it paints a picture of the worst-case scenario for a team as dominant as LSU had been the previous year.
Alabama’s winning machine, however, is much more proven, and few if any reload from year to year as well as they do. Between elite recruiting classes, staggering depth, and Nick Saban’s mighty coaching legacy, the Tide remain the No. 1 team to start the season by most accounts, even with their losses. Bryce Young, one of the most lauded recruits in history, should step up at quarterback, and proven stars are back at other positions: John Metchie III at receiver, Brian Robinson Jr. at running back, and Josh Jobe at cornerback, to name but a few. Saban even dug into the transfer portal and added Henry To’o To’o from rival Tennessee, bolstering an already-excellent defense. Bama will be less experienced than last year, but they’re still a force to be reckoned with, and the new starters are just as talented as the NFL-bound players they’re replacing, if not more so.
Still, if ever the Tide were set up for a first-week shocker, now would be the time, and the Hurricanes could be dangerous enough to take down their vaunted foe. As mentioned, Miami struggled against their biggest opponents last year, but they were otherwise a very solid team, going 8-1 against the rest of their slate and giving Oklahoma State a close game in the lone loss. It was an encouraging improvement for the Canes, who recovered from a frustrating 6-7 campaign in 2019 that ended with embarrassing losses to FIU, Duke, and Louisiana Tech (their first shutout loss in a bowl since 1994). But second-year head coach Manny Diaz oversaw a turnaround and planted the U third in the ACC, behind only playoff participants Clemson and Notre Dame. Houston transfer D’Eriq King provided a much-needed upgrade at quarterback, though if his previous seasons are anything to go by, he still has another gear. Cam’ron Harris keyed improvement on the rushing offense, which jumped from 3.5 yards per carry to 4.2 yards per carry as a group, while Mike Harley’s 799 receiving yards and 14 yards per catch marked career highs and earned him a spot on the Biletnikoff watch list.
Almost everybody from that team is back, and Miami filled out their depth chart further with three impact transfers—Tennessee defensive end DeAndre Johnson, Oklahoma wide receiver Charleston Rambo, and Georgia cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, all of whom are projected to start. It’s a star-studded lineup, and it’s easy to predict big things for Miami this year, but can they fulfill on their promise? Judging by last year’s strong performance against most of the ACC, you’d expect the Canes to have at least given Clemson or North Carolina a fight. The Cheez-It Bowl was better, but between opt-outs and the step up that the Tigers or Tide represent, it’s not proof positive that Miami can take it to a top team.
This is a big game for both sides—it might be the best chance anyone has to upset Alabama all year, and it might put the U back on the map and set them up for a critical all-undefeated clash with North Carolina in mid-October. But for Miami, it goes beyond an opportunity to get off to a good start and surprise the college football world; beating Bama would provide a huge boost to the burgeoning Diaz era and could very well set up an undefeated regular season if the Canes could keep that level of performance up. It’s a long way from here to the New Year’s Six or perhaps even the College Football Playoff, but whoever emerges victorious from this opener will have a clear path.
- How well will the Canes work the crowd—will it boost the team when they’re winning or hold them back when they’re down?
- Can Nick Saban manage Bryce Young to a good start? With 22 career passes, Young is even greener than Mac Jones was going into 2020.
- Will Miami’s defense rebound and cause chaos against a Bama offense which allowed the fifth-lowest havoc rate in FBS last year?
FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 22.8
Indiana at Iowa (-3.5)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
|When Indiana has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Iowa has the ball||Defense||Offense|
In much the same way as it concluded 2020, the Big Ten set up a slate heavy on cross-conference matchups for Week 1. In addition to Penn State-Wisconsin and Indiana-Iowa, we’ll see Ohio State take on Minnesota as Michigan State looks to repeat an upset of Northwestern. But where the other high-profile Big Ten game stars two teams coming off disappointing seasons, this matchup highlights a pair of teams looking to pick up where they left off last year.
Indiana surprised many in 2019, briefly achieving an AP ranking for the first time in a quarter-century and finishing 8-5. Tom Allen’s Hoosiers carried the momentum into 2020, where a dramatic 36-35 victory over then-ranked Penn State set off their best season in decades—at least on paper. Indiana went 6-2, the only losses coming to Ohio State (by just a touchdown) and Ole Miss (while missing Michael Penix Jr., their star quarterback). The Hoosiers ranked 12th at season’s end, their best finish since 1967, and they start this year 17th, their first preseason ranking since 1969.
But there are reasons to be dubious about Indiana. It was a strange year for most of the Big Ten, with established leaders such as Michigan and Penn State struggling to find their footing. And while the COVID-19 excuse for disappointing seasons has become a bit overdone, no conference can employ it more accurately than this one, which saw massive scheduling headaches, long bye streaks, and an impromptu extra week. The Hoosiers, who managed to play all seven of their conference games in a row, likely held some advantage—though how much is difficult to say.
The key for Indiana will be improving in the few areas they didn’t succeed last season. As lauded as Penix was, the passing game often struggled to get going; the Hoosiers averaged an unremarkable 251 yards per game, largely on account of a receiving corps that turned the average completion into just 11.9 yards (73rd in FBS). With Whop Philyor graduating, Ty Fryfogle is the only returning receiver with more than 30 targets or 14 yards per catch—and that’s from a passing offense that already averaged a mere 38% success rate, 107th nationally. Add a rushing attack lacking Stevie Scott III, responsible for 2,926 yards of offense across three seasons, and Indiana will have to learn about its recalibrated lineup through a trial by fire.
That would be difficult against any competitive opponent, but Iowa in particular could pose a nightmare matchup for the Hoosiers. Like their opposite numbers, the Hawkeyes went 6-2 last year, but that wasn’t much of a surprise; Iowa had gone 10-3 the previous season, and 2020 marked their eighth consecutive winning campaign. While the Hoosiers have been on a roller coaster ride that they’re hoping stays near its peak, the Hawkeyes have established residence in nine-win territory. Solid returning production from a solid core, as usual, should lead to another season around the top of the Big Ten West.
But Iowa isn’t exactly perfect, either. This is a team fundamentally designed around the massive limitations it experienced in 2020 at quarterback; Spencer Petras (plus a pair of passes by Alex Padilla) managed just 6.4 yards per attempt and a 55.3% completion rate, both in the bottom five among Big Ten passing offenses. The result was a 46% success rate when passing, ranking 52nd—by that measure, Iowa’s biggest weakness on either side of the ball. Yet the Hawkeyes managed to build a fundamentally sound attack despite that limited performance, averaging just 31 passing attempts per game and putting the ball in their opponents’ hands for 30:40 of average game time. Leaning on a brilliant defense which never allowed more than 24 points, Iowa’s offense managed to produce a solid season, in large part thanks to running backs Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent—both averaging over five yards per carry and scoring seven touchdowns.
With both teams possessing strong secondaries (led by Tiawan Mullen’s three interceptions for Indiana, and by Riley Moss and Matt Hankins’ six breakups/picks apiece for Iowa) this figures to be a defensive slugfest. If you’re starved for classic Big Ten football, with two teams running the rock en route to a 10-6 final score, look no further than a heavyweight clash between two teams seeking to make a surprise run at their division title.
- Who can outwit their opponent in what will likely be a close game: the crafty Kirk Ferentz or upstart Tom Allen?
- Will Indiana’s rebuilt receiving lineup do enough to keep their offense in contention, or can Iowa’s experienced pass defense shut them down?
- Can either team gain a crucial early edge in the standings on their division rivals, with several facing tough opponents?
FEI Outright Pick: Iowa by 8.7
Louisiana at Texas (-8)—Saturday, 4:30 p.m. (FOX)
|When Louisiana has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Texas has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Louisiana provided one of the few notable non-conference games of 2020, upsetting Big 12 contender Iowa State in Ames by a 31-14 margin. Both teams, as it turned out, would go on to their best seasons in modern memory. The Cyclones went 9-3, came within a score of winning their conference, and ran Oregon off the field in the Fiesta Bowl by the same 17-point margin as in their loss to Louisiana. Meanwhile, the Ragin’ Cajuns bettered 2019’s 11-3 mark, going 10-1, beating App State for the first time in nine attempts, and claiming a share of the Sun Belt crown.
The lesson was not to take teams like Louisiana lightly … and yet here we are a year later with the Ragin’ Cajuns a significant underdog against another Big 12 title hopeful. This time, they’re taking on Texas, and the parallels to last year’s Iowa State showdown aren’t hard to spot. Almost everybody from the team that pulled off that upset is back for this game, with the unheralded Levi Lewis (7.7 Y/A, 19 TD, 7 INT, 6.1 yards per carry) leading the way. The Cajuns possess a mighty ground game, with Elijah Mitchell, Trey Ragas, Chris Smith, and Lewis himself all rushing for at least 330 yards and 5.5 yards per carry. The unit combined to average some 0.117 EPA per rush, behind only App State in the conference, and three of those four major contributors (Mitchell, Smith, and Lewis) are back in 2021.
That impressive group gets a favorable matchup with Texas’ run defense, a weak point for the Longhorns in 2020. The defensive line allowed 2.78 yards per carry up front (42nd in FBS) and yielded a dreadful 60% power success rate on short third and fourth downs (104th). That combination led to opponents averaging 141 yards on the ground, Texas’ worst such mark since a forgettable 5-7 season in 2016.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Longhorns. While talented edge rusher Joseph Ossai is off to the NFL, Texas returns the core of their line and picked up solid options around the outside via the transfer portal. With new defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s secondary-heavy alignment, they’ll also be able to prioritize stopping the pass at the cost of gains on the ground—which is certainly better than allowing those gains without getting anything out of it. In that realm, Texas should shine; most of their defensive stars, chief among them cornerback D’Shawn Jamison, are in the backfield, and building the unit around those players should lead to improvement.
When Texas has the ball, the script will be flipped. The story is all about the passing game, where the Longhorns will look to find answers to a dominant Louisiana secondary. The Cajuns were among the 11 FBS teams who held their opponents to negative EPA on pass attempts, making throws more beneficial for themselves than their foes. Bralen Trahan, in particular, had his way with opposing offenses, making 48 tackles, breaking up nine pass attempts, and returning four interceptions for 104 yards and a touchdown.
That’s the situation into which 2020 four-star Hudson Card, who has thrown all of three passes in his college career, will be thrust for Week 1. First-year coach Steve Sarkisian has also indicated that the marginally more experienced Casey Thompson will see playing time, and that the situation will be reevaluated after the game. Quarterback uncertainty is rarely a good thing, but against a tenacious unit that ranked ninth in the nation in interceptions per game last year, it’s easy to see it becoming a major liability.
On the upside, Texas should be able to ease Card and Thompson into things behind a strong receiving corps. The group will be young, and inexperience is likely to be a major factor, but so is talent; the two quarterbacks and most of their wide recivers are former blue-chips, and on paper, there’s enough pure potential that they could pose a formidable threat. If that does pan out, however, it might not be soon enough to avoid a Louisiana upset. This game will be huge for both teams, but don’t count the Longhorns out if they struggle out of the gate.
- Louisiana scored two touchdowns off returns against Iowa State and had FEI’s 10th-ranked special teams on the season; will their mastery of the unit continue against Texas?
- If the Cajuns’ secondary gives Hudson Card trouble, will Steve Sarkisian be reluctant to hand over the reins to Casey Thompson?
- Will Texas get to Levi Lewis often enough to limit Louisiana’s passing game and make their offense as one-dimensional as possible?
FEI Outright Pick: Texas by 8.9
San José State at USC (-14)—Saturday, 5 p.m. (Pac-12 Network)
|Overall||San José State||USC|
|When San José State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When USC has the ball||Defense||Offense|
This West Coast matchup features two teams on strangely parallel paths. San José State, a typically average Mountain West team that ran roughshod over its schedule behind two-time transfer Nick Starkel, faces off against USC, a blueblood searching for stability that engineered narrow escapes left and right to manage a 5-1 record in 2020. Both San José State and USC surprised computers and humans by going undefeated against their conference slates—though where the Spartans took down Mountain West titan Boise State for a title and made a bowl, the Trojans’ luck ran out against Oregon and they turned down their postseason invitation.
Of course, the ways these teams got to this point are very different. But for both Brent Brennan’s San José State and Clay Helton’s USC, this early non-conference duel will set the tone for pivotal 2021 seasons. For the Spartans, it offers an immediate opportunity to prove that last season was no fluke; for the Trojans, it’s a critical chance to boost confidence in the oft-questioned Helton tenure as a make-or-break Pac-12 schedule approaches.
It would be easy to focus on the quarterbacks involved in this encounter—Starkel, the closest thing to a journeyman in college football, and Kedon Slovis, a much-lauded draft prospect who struggled somewhat in 2020. But as important as those two are, the game could be decided in the trenches. Both San José State and USC possess intriguing rushing attacks, but neither has a particularly strong run defense. Making stops at the line could sway the tide of this game significantly.
Starting on San José State’s side of things, we see a unit that excelled in efficiency due to low volume. The Spartans’ 42.3% rate of run plays ranked ninth-lowest in FBS, allowing them to surge from 3.4 yards per carry to 4.7 behind breakout star Tyler Nevens (515 yards, 7.8 yards per carry, team-high 0.091 EPA/rush), the conference leader in yards per carry. However, San José State hasn’t yet perfected their ground game, mostly due to a flaw they share with their opponent: the offensive line. This group provided its running backs just 2.43 yards per carry, 100th in FBS, and had a dismal 33.3% power success rate, fourth-worst in the nation. Depth up the middle is a must-have, making the return of all five starters crucial. Will that be enough to stop the USC defensive line, which held opponents to the second-lowest power success rate?
It’s a different story when Slovis takes the reins. USC was one of the few teams to run less often than San José State, rushing on just 39.7% of their plays, and there’s little secret as to why. The Trojans’ offensive line has been a glaring weakness under Helton, and they averaged just 2.34 yards per carry up front (109th in FBS) with a 59.1% power success rate (108th). While the Spartans surged by using their ground game sparingly, no such salvation arrived for USC, which fell from 3.9 yards per carry to 3.2, ranking 115th overall. The loss of two primary rushers to the transfer portal—Stephen Carr (176 yards, 3.8 yards per carry) and Markese Stepp (165 yards, 3.7 yards per carry)—only adds to the questions that must be answered. Putting that group up against San José State’s dominant line, led by Junior Fehoko (12.5 TFL, six sacks) and Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Cade Hall (12 TFL, 10 sacks) could be a recipe for disaster.
On the other hand, the primary backs returning were the most efficient USC had. Vavae Malepeai averaged 4.4 yards per carry and a 54% success rate, and he has been a consistent force for the last four seasons, with some 75 attempts per year (plus around 15 catches a year from 2018 on). Nobody is better suited to take on a full RB1 workload than Malepeai, and he’ll have a strong backup in Kenan Christon Jr., who has averaged 5.7 yards per carry across his two seasons and could easily take on a greater volume. There’s plenty of potential both here and on the line, but can the Trojans figure out the answers to their biggest offensive questions in time to survive a strong San José State defensive line?
- Can USC overcome its uncertaintys around the edge of the line, where both starting tackles from 2020 must be replaced?
- Will Junior Fehoko and Cade Hall get to Kedon Slovis, or can the pure passer make plays when the pocket breaks down?
- How much will a win move the needle on Clay Helton’s hot seat, and would a loss be enough for USC to move on?
FEI Outright Pick: USC by 12.9
Georgia vs. Clemson (-3) in Charlotte—Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|When Georgia has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Clemson has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Now this is what we missed in 2020. There were big non-conference games, but even the playoff matchups (with the possible exception of Clemson-Ohio State) fall short of this electrifying duel. The story is Alabama-Miami turned up to 11: the in-control superpower with championship after championship under their untouchable head coach against the up-and-coming challenger with enough talent—at least on paper—to make a real game out of it, and maybe even come away with a huge win.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is that Georgia has been up and coming for about half a decade now. Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs established themselves as an FBS power in 2017, coming out of the gate with nine consecutive wins before overcoming an upset to win the SEC (avenging their loss to Auburn) and taking down Oklahoma in one of the best bowls ever. Georgia fell short to fellow Gus Malzahn victim Alabama in the National Championship Game, though they came awfully close between a three-point lead, a second-and-26, and a shaky Tide kicking game before Tua Tagovailoa and DeVonta Smith made history. Georgia had lost, but it was clear they’d be back.
Yet three seasons later, they still haven’t. The Bulldogs lost the SEC Championship Game in 2018 (to Alabama) and 2019 (to LSU), both times falling out of the No. 4 spot in the process, and in 2020 they looked clearly inferior to the conference’s top contenders, dropping to Alabama and Florida by 17 and 16 points respectively. They still took down top-10 Cincinnati and finished No. 7 in the final AP Poll, so it wasn’t all bad, but it was another step away from the heights to which they aspired back in 2017. The Bulldgos need to reset and find a way back to the playoff, and this game with an honest-to-goodness superteam provides an opportunity to do so.
The acclaimed JT Daniels, who put up gaudy numbers (10.3 Y/A, 10 TD, 2 INT) against a small sampling of unremarkable defenses in 2020, has the weight of Georgia football on his shoulders, though his receiving corps may not be up to the challenge if George Pickens is unable to come back from a torn ACL. (Arik Gilbert’s recent absence due to “personal issues” doesn’t help things either.) Outside the passing game, the Bulldogs have title-level play, including a strong run game powered by the explosive Zamir White and a defense that should be as elite as ever. It’s difficult to say for sure, given the front-loaded schedule Georgia faced last year, but they looked the part of a serious contender down the stretch, and now this inexperienced lineup has gotten a full offseason to prepare for their biggest game in years.
Alabama has been the most frequent comparison for the Bulldogs as they have sought status as a legitimate championship team, but Clemson cuts a similarly imposing figure. The Tigers put a definitive close to their era of solid but unremarkable seasons around the start of the CFP era. From 2015 on, they have reached No. 1 every year and haven’t finished outside the top four, with two titles and two runner-up finishes in that span. Their shorthanded upset loss to Notre Dame last year (later avenged in the ACC Championship Game) was their first defeat in the regular season in over a thousand days, and while the ACC’s overall weakness contributed to that run, it’s still a testament to how automatic Clemson has been.
When the Tigers have looked mortal, it has often been attributable to quarterback concerns. Both the Notre Dame loss and its predecessor, a 2017 stunner at the hands of Syracuse, came in games where Clemson was unusually uncertain at the position, with the Irish getting to face an inexperienced D.J. Uiagalelei and the Orange battling a combo of Kelly Bryant and Zerrick Cooper. With first-overall pick Trevor Lawrence now gone, the biggest concern is naturally under center, where Uiagalelei will now take over full time. Backup Taisun Phommachanh’s torn Achilles in the spring game could have caused issues, but reports indicate he’s back to full health. Still, the lack of experience at the position is less than ideal.
That alone might not be enough to take them out, however, even against a dangerous opponent like Georgia. Justyn Ross has been cleared to make a return from injury, and if he’s healthy, he should be among the best in football at wide receiver. There are shifting parts across the offense, but every position has serious talent, and the defensive returns could make up for the offensive losses. Nine of the Tigers’ top 10 tacklers were underclassmen last season, which bodes well for further improvement on an already-elite unit, especially up front. This is a Clemson team with more apparent weaknesses than usual, but can Georgia exploit an unsteady secondary and an untested quarterback? The ramifications could set up an intense CFP chase, rewrite legacies and expectations, and shake the power dynamics of college football as a whole. (So no pressure, Bulldogs.)
- Can Clemson’s pass defense successfully limit a Georgia receiving group playing through serious losses?
- Will the Tigers’ retooled offense do enough to keep them within striking distance, or will the pressure prove too much for their young stars?
- If this highly anticipated duel goes down to the wire, can JT Daniels or D.J. Uiagalelei step up and make key plays in the clutch?
FEI Outright Pick: Clemson by 6.3
FEI Picks: Week 1
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick ATS||Preston’s Pick ATS|
|at Wisconsin||-5.5||Penn State||Wisconsin||Wisconsin||Wisconsin|
|at USC||-14||San José State||USC||San José State||San José State|
FEI’s picks ATS in 2020: 47-40-1