The first full weekend of college football is finally here. The Week 1 docket is an exciting one, featuring three top 25 matchups, as well as a number of other intriguing contests.
Here are some stats, notes, and things to pay attention to as college football again opens big over the Labor Day holiday.
** Without question, Florida State versus Alabama in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic is the top game of the weekend. Don’t be surprised if – and it’s a big if – these two teams meet again in the College Football Playoff.
** I’m anxious to see what the Alabama offense looks like under new coordinator Brian Daboll’s leadership. The Crimson Tide ground game was one of the best in the country last year, ranking 11th nationally in rushing yards per game. Will Daboll stick with what works or will he open up things a little more than Kiffin did?
** That’s not exactly an easy question to answer. Throwing the ball against Florida State is no easy task. The ‘Noles led the nation in sacks per game last season (3.92 per contest) and ranked 22nd in interceptions. It’s worth noting that they compiled those numbers without top playmaker Derwin James in the lineup.
** Yet the FSU defense was just as impressive against the run. Sure, it struggled against Louisville and South Florida – the first two games it played without James – but the team eventually found its rhythm over the final nine games of the season. During that span, the ‘Noles limited their opponents to 841 rushing yards and a paltry 2.74 yards per carry.
** Of course, Alabama had no trouble running the ball against ranked foes last year, averaging 230.83 yards per game and 5.29 yards per carry. These numbers were even better against top 10 opponents, as the Tide rushed for an average 244 yards and 5.67 ypc in those contests.
** The key to success for the Florida State offense is to protect quarterback Deondre Francois against the Crimson Tide pass rush. The Seminoles gave up a whopping 36 sacks last year, including 11 against Louisville and Clemson. Although FSU got better as the season progressed (just two sacks allowed versus Florida and Michigan), it’ll have its hands full with the Bama pass rush, which led the nation with 54 sacks last year.
** In most of the bigger game previews, I try to load these bullet points with numbers and statistics. But, it’s tough to do that with Michigan – Florida. There’s so little data available that there’s no way to tell exactly how the game will unfold. The Wolverines are the least experienced team in the country, returning just five starters from last season’s squad. Similarly, the Gators have a number of question marks heading into this contest, as 10 different players will sit out due to suspension.
** One thing that is certain is that Feleipe Franks will start at quarterback for Florida. Not surprisingly, Jim Harbaugh won’t announce the starter for Michigan. With the quarterback competitions continuing well into fall camp, don’t be surprised if either or both teams use more than one signal caller, especially if the offenses struggle early.
** Regardless of who is under center, expect for the defenses to dominate this contest. Both teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in red zone defense, scoring defense, passing defense, and total defense.
** Offense should not be a problem in the West Virginia – Virginia Tech rivalry game. Although the Mountaineers lose QB Skyler Howard, the offense could be even more explosive this season with Will Grier under center. He certainly was a difference maker at Florida, guiding the Gators to a 6-0 record in 2015. Grier was especially impressive against Ole Miss – which finished in the top 10 that year – connecting on 24 of 29 passes for 283 yards and four touchdowns.
** He’ll face a stiff challenge from Bud Foster’s defense. The Hokies D was one of the better units against the pass last year, ranking 19th nationally in yards per attempt, 14th in interceptions, and 5th in completion percentage. It was also outstanding on third down, allowing opponents to convert just 27.45% of the time.
** It’ll be interesting to see what Virginia Tech does on offense. With a new starter at quarterback, it would make sense for the Hokies to run the ball. However, West Virginia did a great job of stuffing the run against Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, holding them to just 81 yards. In addition, the Mountaineers played well in pass defense last season, ranking in the top 25 nationally in both interceptions (13) and passes defensed (65).
** Then again, Justin Fuente knows how to develop quarterbacks, as he molded Paxton Lynch, Andy Dalton, and Jerod Evans into next-level signal callers.
** In a game this close, turnovers could mean the difference between winning and losing. While both teams produced 25 takeaways last season, this metric would seem to favor West Virginia, which only turned the ball over 21 times (compared to Virginia Tech’s 26).
** This week’s upset special is Georgia Tech over Tennessee. Yes, I know the Jackets lost Dedrick Mills, Marcus Marshall, and Justin Thomas, but the team has finished in the top 10 in rushing yards every year under Paul Johnson’s watch. That doesn’t bode well for a Volunteers defense that gave up 350 or more rushing yards in four different contests last year.