The start of the college football season is roughly three weeks away, and opening weekend has more than a few intriguing matchups.
Oklahoma Sooners vs. Houston Cougars | Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016 | 12 p.m. (ET)
NRG Stadium in Houston will host one of the more highly anticipated “neutral site” games of the 2016 season. Houston head coach Tom Herman will look to build on an impressive 13-1 debut campaign last season, and had it not been for an underwhelming offensive performance on the road against UConn last November, the Cougars would’ve likely been in last season’s College Football Playoff.
Despite losing their top cornerback, William Jackson III, to the NFL Draft, Houston returns a plethora of playmakers at key positions. Senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who led the Cougars in both rushing and passing a season ago, will try to lead Houston into uncharted territory for non-power five schools in the playoff era. The Cougars’ sound, 38-24 defeat of Heisman Trophy contender Dalvin Cook and the Florida State Seminoles in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl last season is proof that they have the skill to run the table this season.
Baker Mayfield’s Heisman campaign will have to be in full effect on Sept. 3, that is if he hopes to lead Oklahoma to its second straight playoff appearance. The Sooners only notable loss from last season is wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who the New York Giants selected with the 40th pick in the 2016 draft. Offensively, the Sooners should run like a well-oiled machine from the opening kickoff.
The returning running back duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon should take pressure off Mayfield and an unproven receiving corps. If all goes as many anticipate, the Sooners will outscore Houston in a duel between two dual-threat quarterbacks and high-powered offenses.
The Cougars probably have the advantage in both defensive personnel and staff, as Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando should be able to develop a relatively experienced Houston defense. If the Cougars defense can limit the impact of the Sooners’ rushing attack and upset Bob Stoops’ boys from Norman, Okla., Houston’s “Cinderella” run to the 2016-17 College Football Playoff will be very much alive.\
LSU Tigers vs. Wisconsin Badgers | Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016 | 3:30 p.m. (ET)
Both the Tigers and Badgers ended the 2015-16 season on a high note. Wisconsin upset Cody Kessler and the USC Trojans in the Holiday Bowl with a stellar defensive performance and game-winning field goal by Brazilian sophomore placekicker Rafael Gaglianone. As for LSU, running back Leonard Fournette carried the Tigers to a 56-27 win over Texas Tech with 212 rushing yards and five total touchdowns in the Texas Bowl.
Despite their mutual success, both teams will enter the 2016-17 season with vastly different expectations. Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave played his final year in Madison, Wis. last season and as a result, the Badgers aren’t expected to contend for a national championship this year. The good news for the Badgers and head coach Paul Chryst is that running back Corey Clement returns for his senior season after missing much of his junior year with a sports hernia injury.
Wisconsin’s consistently stellar defense and rushing attack will give them a chance to upset championship-minded LSU, but the Badgers offense lacks enough playmakers to keep pace with Fournette. Tigers quarterback Brandon Harris showed flashes of improvement last season, but the junior’s questionable decision-making and small stature make his job anything but secure, especially if LSU doesn’t live up to expectations early in the season.
If Wisconsin comes out with a win at Lambeau Field in college football’s opening weekend, it’ll be because they made it priority to limit Fournette, with Harris not being able to deliver through the air. However, this seems like somewhat of a dream scenario for the Badgers, as Alabama was the only team that slowed down the Heisman contender last year. Despite that Wisconsin’s defense seems to consistently maintain a high level play, they don’t have the ability, like the Crimson Tide, to bring in instant impact freshman year after year.
The Badgers defense will likely face its toughest task of the season against Fournette, and unfortunately, only one team in college football has shown the ability to limit his impact. That team consistently finishes with top-ranked recruiting classes. Even if Wisconsin is able to contain Fournette, his impact will likely be enough to lift LSU over a lackluster Badgers team.
Alabama Crimson Tide vs. USC Trojans | Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016 | 8 p.m. (ET)
The defending national champions will face a USC team that despite losing quarterback Cody Kessler to the NFL Draft, brought in a top ten recruiting class that boasts two five-star and twelve four-star recruits, according to 247Sports.
The Trojans will have versatile junior Adoree’ Jackson, who starts at cornerback and wide receiver, and is notorious for his game-breaking speed and agility on special teams. He averaged 10.5 yards per punt return and took two to the house last season. As a receiver, Jackson averaged 15.3 yards per catch and totaled 414 receiving yards in the 2015-16 season. On a team that is searching for its leader at quarterback, look for Jackson to be the go-to guy on an inexperienced, but extremely talented Trojans roster.
What needs to be said about the 2016-17 version of the Crimson Tide? Per usual, they lack a clear-cut starter at quarterback, but have a plethora of talented options to choose from. Among the bunch is redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, a former five-star recruit who could emerge from the pack. Sophomore Bo Scarbrough, a former five-star recruit in his own right, will likely become Alabama’s next bell-cow beast at running back, as sophomore Damien Harris will serve as an extremely talented backup.
The Crimson Tide have had unwavering success in season openers on neutral fields, and if their matchup with USC goes as predicted, Alabama should easily defeat the inexperienced Trojans on Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas.