The return of college football is almost here. The opening weekend is full of overreactions as the one game provides a limited sample size to evaluate how good teams are or will be during the course of the season.
Not that there aren’t real takeaways to consider. Looking to last season: Florida State really was as bad as it looked against Virginia Tech; the Pac-12 had concerns about their place in the College Football Playoff when Washington fell to Auburn; and there was definitely a change at Notre Dame after the Irish kicked off with a win against Michigan.
There’s just over a month until the first Saturday of the 2019 college football season, but who’s counting? It’s time to look ahead to next season, starting with the biggest games of the opening weekend.
Two teams that finished the 2018 season ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 Poll open the season on the road, the defending national champion will start conference play in August, and like usual, we’ll have some neutral-site games between Power Five teams in Week 1.
Here are some of the best opening weekend games in 2019…
Auburn vs. Oregon, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas | Saturday, August 31
Last season’s top-10 matchup in Week 1 between No. 6 Washington and No. 9 Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game taught us that it can be dangerous to react too strongly to one result in the first week of the season. The Tigers won the game 21-16, peaked at No. 7 in the AP Top 25 and finished fifth in the SEC West, while the Huskies won the Pac-12 Championship.
Washington finished outside the top 10 College Football Games and Auburn didn’t appear in the final AP Top 25 Poll.
But Auburn and Oregon meeting on a neutral field should still be a highly anticipated game, especially when it helps kick off the season.
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who potentially would’ve been the first signal-caller drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, is returning to school, which could make the Ducks a trendy pick to contend for the Pac-12 title. They went 9-4 in the first year of Mario Cristobal’s tenure, peaking at No. 12 in the AP poll after a 5-1 start and win over Washington.
Auburn had one of the most dominant bowl game performances in 2018 with its 63-14 victory over Purdue that honestly could have been even more lopsided if the Tigers didn’t take their foot off the gas. They’ll have to replace quarterback Jarrett Stidham, but with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn reclaiming play-calling duties, there’s reason for optimism for the Tigers entering next season.
Georgia at Vanderbilt, Nashville, Tennessee | Saturday, August 31
The Bulldogs, which were on the doorstep of an SEC Championship and a College Football Playoff berth, will likely enter the 2019 season ranked in the top five of the AP Top 25. Having a playoff contender start its season on the road against a conference foe is definitely noteworthy.
Georgia brings back quarterback Jake Fromm, one of the country’s best backfields and it signed a top-three recruiting class for the third year in a row.
Vanderbilt will have to replace quarterback Kyle Shurmur, All-SEC cornerback Joejuan Williams and potentially leading rusher Ke’Shawn Vaughn, but the Commodores have made a bowl in two of the last three seasons and they beat the Bulldogs on the road in 2016. This could be a sneaky game as Georgia tries to replace its top three receivers in Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley and tight end Isaac Nauta.
Clemson vs. Georgia Tech, Clemson, South Carolina | Thursday, August 29
The defending national champions will open the 2019 season at home against Georgia Tech in Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins’ first game as head coach. Temple’s defense under Collins ranked 75 spots better than Georgia Tech in terms of efficiency in 2018, and if Collins can spark a defensive improvement in Year 1, then maybe the Yellow Jackets can keep the game closer than their 28-point loss to the Tigers last fall.
Expect a raucous crowd at Memorial Stadium as Clemson fans get the chance to watch their team at home for the first time since the Tigers beat Alabama 44-16 in the College Football Playoff National Championship. This game could also potentially mark the start of the Heisman Trophy campaigns for quarterback Trevor Lawrence or running back Travis Etienne.
Oklahoma vs. Houston, Norman, Oklahoma | Saturday, August 31
The Sooners will embark on the post-Kyler Murray era against Houston in the first game of the Dana Holgorsen era. Oklahoma’s offense didn’t skip a beat – and it may have actually gotten more dynamic with Murray’s running ability – last season as Murray took the reins from his Heisman Trophy-winning predecessor Baker Mayfield.
Now the question is what does Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley have in store for another encore?
The Sooners have arguably been the fourth-most successful program during the College Football Playoff era, behind national title winners Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, and the expectation in Norman is another 11 or 12-win season, a Big 12 title and a playoff berth.
Meanwhile, Houston hopes Holgorsen can lead the Cougars back to double-digit win seasons, like Tom Herman, Kevin Sumlin and Art Briles – but not Major Applewhite – did previously. This game would be a quality non-conference win for Oklahoma and a huge debut for Holgorsen at Houston if the Cougars were to pull off the upset.
Northwestern at Stanford, Stanford, California | Saturday, August 31
The defending Big Ten West champions will start their 2019 campaign across the country at Stanford. The Wildcats were winless in their non-conference schedule in 2018 and a win against the Cardinal on the road would be an impressive way to start the season.
Stanford finished behind both of the Washington schools in the Pac-12 North standings last season after four losses in the span of five games in the heart of its schedule. Quarterback K.J. Costello should be back after completing 65 percent of his passes for 3,540 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a redshirt sophomore, but the Cardinal will have to replace running back Bryce Love and leading receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who had 1,059 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns last season.