College News & Analysis

College Football Week 1 Preview: Storylines, matchups and predictions for five biggest games

2RHDDA6 FILE - Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis (13) warms up before the Cheez-It Bowl NCAA college football game against Oklahoma, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. Florida State opens their season at home against LSU on Sept. 3. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

• One of the season's biggest games on deck: No. 5 LSU takes on No. 8 Florida State in a game with massive College Football Playoff implications.

• Coach Prime’s debut: Deion Sanders makes his highly anticipated debut as Colorado’s head coach against No. 17 TCU.

• Battle of the Carolinas: No. 21 North Carolina takes on South Carolina in what should be a shootout between quarterbacks Drake Maye and Spencer Rattler.

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

While college football technically started last week, Week 0 served as a mere appetizer for what’s to come.

Here are the storylines to know, matchups to watch and predictions for the five biggest games in Week 1.

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Florida Gators at No. 14 Utah Utes (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN)

Storyline to know: Utah without Cam Rising

The biggest question heading into Thursday’s matchup is whether Utah quarterback Cam Rising will be able to suit up. The sixth-year senior is coming off a torn ACL suffered against Penn State in the Rose Bowl, making it nearly eight months since his injury.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told me it’s essentially a coin flip whether Rising will be able to go. ESPN’s Pete Thamel recently reported that it’s doubtful Rising will be able to play. Making things worse, star tight end Brant Kuithe is also not expected to play as he recovers from a torn ACL. If Rising is out, redshirt junior Bryson Barnes will receive the start. He’s earned a 77.1 grade on 200 career snaps.

Matchup to watch: Florida’s run game vs. Utah’s run defense

Florida’s offense is going to rely heavily on the ground game this season. The Gators’ running backs, Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne, make up one of the better duos in the country. Johnson tied for third among SEC running backs a year ago with 10 rushing touchdowns, while Etienne ranked third among that same group with 3.9 yards after contact per attempt.

Utah’s run defense is led by linebacker Lander Barton, a PFF preseason first-team All-Pac 12 member. He led the conference’s linebackers last season with a 75.2 run-defense grade. The Utes also have an excellent downhill safety in Cole Bishop to help support. He led all Pac-12 safeties in 2022 with seven tackles for loss or no gain in run defense.

Utah’s game plan on defense should be to stop the run and make Florida’s new quarterback, Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz, beat them through the air.

Prediction: Florida 24, Utah 21

This prediction hinges on Rising’s availability. If he plays, the Utes win in a close one. If he doesn’t, the Gators come out on top. Since Rising doubtful, Florida beats Utah for the second straight year.

Colorado Buffaloes at No. 17 TCU Horned Frogs (Saturday, 12 P.M. ET on FOX)

Storyline to know: Coach Prime’s debut

Colorado made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason by hiring Deion Sanders as the team's next head coach. He wasted no time in completely revamping a roster that went 1-11 last season. Fifty-one players transferred in this offseason, 20 more than the next-closest school in college football. Deion's son Shedeur Sanders was one of them and will be the Buffaloes’ new starting quarterback. He earned a 90.2 passing grade across his two seasons at Jackson State, albeit against FCS competition.

Matchup to watch: TCU’s new-look passing game vs. Colorado’s secondary

TCU’s magical run to the national championship game last year was fueled largely by an electric passing attack. However, three of the biggest sparks for that are gone. The Horned Frogs must replace a Heisman runner-up at quarterback (Max Duggan), a first-round wide receiver (Quentin Johnston) and a Broyles Award-winning offensive coordinator (Garrett Riley). Chandler Morris, who was the opening-day starter last season before going down with an injury, will take over under center. Of TCU’s projected top six receivers, five are transfers. 

Colorado’s biggest strength is its secondary, led by cornerback Travis Hunter. The former No. 2 overall recruit in the 2022 class was recently named to PFF’s preseason All-Pac 12 first team. He earned an 82.0 grade as a true freshman at Jackson State, a top-20 mark among FCS cornerbacks. Trevor Woods is one of the few returning starters for the Buffaloes and was named to PFF's preseason All-Pac 12 third team. He led all Pac-12 safeties a year ago with just a 52.9% completion rate allowed. The other outside cornerback spot will likely be manned by true freshman Cormani McClain, the top cornerback recruit in the 2023 cycle. 

Prediction: TCU 41, Colorado 21

It’ll take more than one game for Coach Prime to turn this program around. TCU wins this one pretty easily.

No. 21 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. South Carolina Gamecocks (Saturday, 7:30 P.M. ET on ABC)

Storyline to know: Will Tez Walker be eligible to play?

North Carolina lost its two best receivers from 2022, Josh Downs and Antoine Green, to the NFL draft. To make up for the departures, the Tar Heels added Kent State wide receiver Tez Walker from the transfer portal. He was named to PFF’s preseason All-ACC first team and caught 11 touchdowns in 2022, tied for seventh among FBS receivers.

However, he was recently ruled ineligible this season by the NCAA for being a two-time transfer. North Carolina has appealed the ruling but is still waiting on a final decision. If Walker is unable to go, even more pressure will be on quarterback Drake Maye. The good news is that he’ll likely be able to handle it as the second-best quarterback in the nation.

Matchup to watch: Can North Carolina force Spencer Rattler into mistakes?

Even without Walker, Maye and the Tar Heels' offense should be able to put up points on a South Carolina defense that ranked 95th last year in expected points allowed per play. The question is whether the Gamecocks will also be able to score at will.

The Tar Heels’ defense was the 16th worst in the country in EPA per play a year ago. North Carolina’s secondary could have difficulty containing weapons like Juice Wells, who placed third among Power Five receivers in 2022 with 555 yards after the catch. However, quarterback Spencer Rattler has proven to be a rollercoaster. While he was named to PFF’s preseason All-SEC second team, he also finished with more turnover-worthy plays (22) than big-time throws (21) last season. The version of Rattler that shows up in this game will likely determine the outcome.

Prediction: North Carolina 34, South Carolina 31

This game has all the makings of a shootout. In that case, we're siding with the elite quarterback over the inconsistent one.

No. 5 LSU Tigers vs. No. 8 Florida State Seminoles (Sunday, 7:30 P.M. ET on ABC)

Storyline to know: One of the biggest games of the year

Yes, it’s only Week 1. Even so, this matchup is easily one of the biggest games of the 2023 college football season — perhaps behind only Michigan-Ohio State. 

These are two programs with legitimate College Football Playoff aspirations and Heisman Trophy favorites at quarterback. Jordan Travis and Jayden Daniels are among the top Heisman candidates entering the season, trailing only the reigning winner, Caleb Williams. This game won’t only be massive for their candidacies, but it’ll also be huge for their teams’ hopes of making the final four.

Matchup to watch: Florida State’s passing attack vs. LSU’s defense

Florida State should field one of the most lethal passing attacks in the country this season. The offense boasts Heisman candidate quarterback Jordan Travis, two first-round receivers on PFF’s 2024 NFL Draft big board in Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman and a top-five tight end in the nation in Jaheim Bell.

Meanwhile, LSU’s secondary is one of the team's biggest question marks, returning just one starter in safety Greg Brooks Jr. One of the starters at outside cornerback will likely be Zy Alexander, an FCS transfer from Southeastern Louisiana. Duce Chestnut will likely man the other outside spot and earned an impressive 82.4 grade during his two seasons at Syracuse. Safety Major Burns and slot cornerback Sage Ryan, the other two projected starters, posted sub-65.0 grades as rotational players last season.

Perhaps the best way for LSU to slow down Florida State’s passing game is through superstar sophomore Harold Perkins. As a true freshman, Perkins led all Power Five linebackers with a 90.9 pass-rushing grade and 18 quarterback knockdowns (sacks plus hits). LSU will likely use him similar to Micah Parsons early in his career with the Dallas Cowboys — as a hybrid linebacker/edge defender.

Prediction: Florida State 31, LSU 30

In what should be a thriller, Florida State squeaks by LSU and cements itself as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender.

No. 9 Clemson Tigers at Duke Blue Devils (Monday, 8 P.M. ET on ESPN)

Storyline to know: Is Duke for real?

Under first-year head coach Mike Elko, Duke went 9-4 in 2022 after posting a 5-18 combined record in the two seasons prior. Many of the key pieces return from last year’s squad, including quarterback Riley Leonard (77.8 PFF grade), offensive tackle Graham Barton (88.2) and interior defensive lineman DeWayne Carter (86.3).

The Blue Devils will have a chance to cement themselves as a legitimate ACC contender and a top-25 team at home against the reigning conference champions, ninth-ranked Clemson. 

Matchup to watch: Clemson’s new-look offense against a stingy Duke defense

All eyes will be on the partnership of new Clemson offensive coordinator Garrett Riley and quarterback Cade Klubnik. Riley won the Broyles Award a year ago while at TCU, given to the best assistant coach in the country. Klubnik, meanwhile, was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the 2022 class and posted a 68.6 grade on 225 snaps as a true freshman. This duo has the potential to be one of the best in the nation.

Their first test won’t be easy, as Duke’s defense fields four PFF preseason All-ACC members. DeWayne Carter even earned preseason third-team All-American honors after tying for first among Power Five interior defensive linemen in sacks (eight) and placing second in pressures (52) last year. Brandon Johnson was also a first-team All-ACC member and ranked seventh among ACC cornerbacks in 2022 with 0.76 yards allowed per coverage snap.

R.J. Oben made the third team and placed fourth among the conference’s edge defenders with an 84.2 pass-rushing grade last season. Jaylen Stinson also landed on the third team after tying for the sixth-best run-defense grade among ACC safeties in 2022 (76.3). 

Prediction: Clemson 30, Duke 21

Duke gives Clemson a season-opening scare, but the Tigers hold on for the victory.

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