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2021 may mark the most anticipated opening week to a college football season since the mid-1940s, when many programs resumed play following the height of U.S. involvement in World War II. College football Week 1 means the return of fans to the stands, with stadiums around the country increasing capacity to 100% in the quest for the College Football Playoff championship.
Plus, TV networks did not hold back with scheduling some blockbuster matchups to ring in the new year. Among those games are marquee kickoff matchups like UNC at Virginia Tech, Miami (FL) vs. Alabama and Georgia vs. Clemson. Even a handful of division rivalries fill in the gaps of Week 1, namely Penn State at Wisconsin.
Let’s dive into the top games from Week 1 of the college football season.
College Football Week 1 Odds
*neutral site game
Top games of Week 1
North Carolina () at Virginia Tech
Sam Howell and the Tar Heels headline a busy Friday slate in their matchup against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Lane Stadium is a notoriously difficult place to play, especially at night. Add in the exceptional hype surrounding this season opener in particular and this place will be a battleground.
A huge leg-up for North Carolina (and a major reason for their high projected win total) is that they return all five starters on the offensive line. In 2020, both teams were back-to-back in rushing yards per game– Virginia Tech (10th) amassed 240.1 yards while UNC (11th) racked up 236.3 yards. However, neither team returns their backs. Carolina ranked first in the country in percentage of chunk plays, picking up at least 10 yards on 30% of their offensive snaps. Tech ranked second nationally in “explosive plays” (defined as a 10-yard or more rush or a 30-yard or more pass) at 15.4% of their snaps run.
Neither team brought a particularly enviable defense to the table in 2020, something that may continue in 2021. At each team’s pace-of-play mixed with their home run ability keeps their defense on the field, leading to more yards and points allowed. The good news for all of this– this game should be a high-flying Friday night affair.
2021 ACC odds and preview — Will upstart UNC, Miami challenge Clemson?
Penn State at Wisconsin ()
While much of their season was derailed due to COVID cancellations, Wisconsin felt like they were destined for greater in 2020. Young star quarterback Graham Mertz started off red-hot, throwing five touchdowns in his Badgers debut. However, the dropped to 4-3 by the end of the season, but picked up a win in the Mayo Bowl.
Even worse of a flop in 2020 was Penn State, potentially the most disappointing team of the year. After five weeks, the Nittany Lions were 0-5 with losses to Maryland and Nebraska. Granted, they did win their final four games, which is more aligned with what’s expected of the program this coming season. To assert their fix, Penn State made a change at offensive coordinator when they hired Mike Yurchich from Texas (2020) and Ohio State (2019).
Scoring on Wisconsin is certainly easier said than done, as the Badgers allowed scores on just under 22% of drives– third in the nation. Their issue arose offensively, where they finished 88th in points per game (25.1) versus Penn State’s 55th-place finish (29.8). Should the Badgers want to put this game away, they have to force turnovers; Penn State finished with a -7 turnover margin, 112th in the FBS (out of 127). Penn State QB Sean Clifford tossed just one interception over the Nittany Lions’ four final games (all wins) compared to eight picks thrown through their first five games (all losses).
2021 Big Ten odds and preview — Can anyone dethrone Ohio State?
Georgia vs. Clemson ()
There’s no doubt this is the biggest game of the week. In fact, this might be the biggest non-conference matchup of the entire season, and it goes down in Week 1. Clemson’s offensive line will be put to the test immediately against Georgia’s stiff defensive front. The Dawgs’ front seven is incredibly experienced, especially next to their secondary (which is made up of two freshmen corners).
The inexperience in both teams’ secondary will certainly be the point of attack by both Dabo Swinney and Kirby Smart. Clemson phenom DJ Uiagalelei proved he can sling the rock last season against a tough Notre Dame team and Georgia returns Heisman hopeful J.T. Daniels; both teams also field a stud receiving corps. Clemson ranked fifth in plays of 10+ yards in 2020, but Georgia allowed explosive plays on just 4.5% of snaps (best in FBS).
Expect this game to be a series of haymakers being traded with the team who can make the most plays on defense coming away with the win. It’s no secret that this game’s been planned to be the marquee matchup of Week 1 since the series was announced.
Notre Dame () at Florida State
The best thing about college football Week 1 of the college football season beginning before the NFL season is that high-profile games bleed into Sunday and Monday. The NCAA gave us a doozy between historical programs Florida State and Notre Dame. Granted, the Seminoles have been perennial disappointments for the past half decade and Notre Dame often garners criticisms for being in over their skis during the College Football Playoff.
However, this should be one of the best game atmospheres in college football, which could even the playing field. Without their records being tarnished first, there will be plenty of hype surrounding this showdown. Former UCF star McKenzie Milton returns to the field for the first time since sustaining a brutal injury in 2019 and appears to be the most talented FSU quarterback since Jameis Winston. He meets a Notre Dame defense that lost most of its biggest playmakers to the NFL and an Irish offense that has a reset at quarterback.
If there’s a year the Seminoles could pull off a big upset and put a halt to Notre Dame’s 32-game win streak against unranked opponents, it’s this year. On a neutral field or in South Bend, this one goes to the Irish every time. However, the excitement surrounding Florida State in their own home swings the meter enough to at least consider their number of .