The powers that be must have read my complaint about last year’s Week 1 schedule because there are a lot of big games kicking off the 2018 campaign. Here’s what you should know about each one going in:
Saturday, September 1
Florida Atlantic at #7 Oklahoma
12 on FOX
You’re probably laughing at me and my decision to include the Owls. Hear me out. Lane Kiffin has a brilliant football mind, like him or not. Yes, his head coaching career has been one comic disaster after another. Yes, this is most likely his last chance to prove that he has what it takes to be the big kahuna. Still, he got this chance at FAU because he remains a potential difference maker, especially for a program like FAU.
Exhibit A: Kiffin has his team coming off its most successful season ever. The Owls went 11-3 last year, rattling off 10 straight to finish. They went undefeated in C-USA, won the conference championship game and then won a bowl game. That’s a combination of achievements any Group of Five school can be proud of. Now they’ve got an opportunity to do it all again this fall.
In fairness, the Owls probably won’t be able to compete with the Sooners for the entire game. A friend of mine always said, (while playing pickup basketball, though I think it applies to most things) “Playing against people better than you is the best way to improve your game.” FAU will be a better team for having gone to Norman and played in this game, regardless of the final score. They’re not expected to keep it close. However, a slip up by the heavily-favored home team could lead to a close game.
That would tell us two things: 1. That FAU will be ranked next week and will be a Group of Five team to watch, and 2. That Oklahoma’s waltz back to the Playoff might not be as smooth as many are predicting. The Sooners are replacing Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, of course. They’ve also got a suspect defense that was last seen being gouged repeatedly by Georgia’s running game. Well, the Owls have one of the best running backs in the country in Devin Singletary. His 32 rushing touchdowns led the FBS in 2017. Laugh if you’d like, but I’m not so sure this game is going to be as easy for the Sooners as everyone else seems to think.
#6 Washington vs. #9 Auburn
3:30 on ABC
Washington vs. Auburn is the most impactful non-conference game of the season, not just Week 1. In today’s college football landscape, a win like this is the sort of first impression that sticks in the committee members’ minds and makes a difference when it comes time to vote.
The Huskies are the West Coast favorites, and it’s easy to see why. Quarterback Jake Browning finished sixth in the Heisman race last year. He’s back. Running back Myles Gaskin is back, despite appearing NFL-ready. The defense returns 10 of its top 14 tacklers from last year’s stellar group. Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh, both All-Pac-12 selections in 2017, will lead from the back at their safety positions.
Auburn’s gotta be pissed with the way it finished up last season. The rematch with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game did not go the same way it had three weeks prior, during their first meeting. Beating two #1-ranked teams in three weeks probably felt good, but I know losing a game that would’ve put you in the Playoff hurts real bad, particularly when you’ve already beaten that other team. Then, you add in the disappointment from the Peach Bowl against UCF. I think the Tigers come out this season feeling like they have something to prove. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham returns, along with his five favorite receivers from last year (in terms of receptions). That’s encouraging because there are some mighty high expectations pouring in from all sides.
What we’ve got here are two teams with legitimate championship aspirations. A win for Washington against a defending SEC division champ, deep in the heart of SEC country, would give them a potential path to the Playoff (pending Pac-12 business). An Auburn win would be a palate cleanser for a team that spent all spring and summer with a bad taste in its mouth. Membership in the SEC means you’ll be properly rewarded if you win your games. Auburn came up ones shy last year. If they win this one, they won’t be left out of the Playoff the way they were last year, SEC title game loss or not. This win, no matter whose it is, will put one of these teams in a great position to reach its goal.
#14 Michigan at #12 Notre Dame
7:30 on NBC
The rivalry is back on. After a three-year hiatus, the Wolverines and the Fighting Irish are back in each other’s lives, as the football gods intended. I wanted to go. Then I saw that the cheapest tickets on StubHub were going for $600. I didn’t want to go that badly.
I guess I still qualify as a Michigan fan, but I’m certainly not the same fan I was a few years ago. Expectations change things. And I’m tired of Jim Harbaugh’s antics without the requisite results following. I bet a majority of Michigan fans will agree with me on that if Harbaugh can’t at least play for the Big Ten championship in his fourth year here. Shea Patterson has arrived to save the day for Jim Harbaugh the same way Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor to rescue the University of Michigan football program. The quarterback coach finally got his QB. Pair that with a defense poised to be one of the best in the nation, and there aren’t any excuses left for Harbaugh. It’s time to get the job done.
Notre Dame is overrated. What else is new? The Irish may evolve into a good team as the season progresses, but they’re quite simply not as good as they’re current ranking suggests. Brian Kelly has been in South Bend so long that he’s not even a coach we talk about anymore. He took the job as one of the “sexy” up-and-coming coaches everybody wanted. Entering his ninth year, he sits somewhere in between that and the helpless lame duck he appeared to be amid a disastrous 4-8 season in 2016.
The last time we saw these two ancient rivals, it did not end well for me and my friends. 31-zip, it was the first shutout ever in the 42-game series. I don’t have any friends who are Notre Dame fans. Not possible. I have Ohio State friends. I’ll never have real friends who call them themselves Notre Dame fans. I am glad to see the return of this rivalry if you couldn’t tell. I enjoy the Notre Dame game more than the Ohio State game, mostly because Michigan actually stands a chance in this one. It’s rarely been the opener, but it’s always been a measuring stick. If Michigan is for real, the first step is beating this overhyped Irish bunch.
All times Eastern
Mitch is on Twitter @GreatGatzke.