USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken reveals the preseason poll, which includes four Big Ten teams in the top 10.
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The 2017 college football season begins Saturday with five games across the Football Bowl Subdivision, including two involving teams ranked in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll. No. 21 South Florida is at San Jose State and No. 14 Stanford meets Rice in Sydney, Australia. (Yes, Australia.)
A soft opening, if you will.
Things really heat up a week down the road. The first full weekend of the regular season — beginning on Thursday, Aug. 31, and continuing Labor Day — has been inked into calendars for years, ever since programs such as Alabama and Florida State, among others, decided to trade cupcakes for potentially season-making matchups against fellow championship contenders.
On the flip side, with these pairings comes the possibility of seeing those College Football Playoff hopes go up in the smoke. In the three-year history of the Playoff, just one team has lost in non-conference play yet gone on to reach a national semifinal.
That would be Ohio State in 2014, and the Buckeyes went on to win the title — so there’s precedent. But much is on the line even as early as the first week of the season.
A glance at the best games of the opening weekend begins with two teams pegged to rank among the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
1. Alabama vs. Florida State, Sept. 2 (in Atlanta)
Alabama is the preseason No. 1 in the Amway Coaches Poll, and the Seminoles aren’t far behind (No. 3). The winner — especially if it’s the Crimson Tide — will take an early turn behind the driver’s seat in the race for a Playoff berth.
2. Florida vs. Michigan, Sept. 2 (in Arlington, Texas)
It’s a great game on paper. In terms of name value, at least, the matchup is an intriguing one: Michigan, entering its third year under Jim Harbaugh, and Florida, the two-time defending champion of the SEC East. That alone earns this the second spot on the list. But is this will be a good game? Depends. Do you like 17-13 scores?
3. Brigham Young vs. LSU, Sept. 2 (in Houston)
LSU’s talent edge can’t be ignored. But as the Tigers find their rhythm behind a new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, could the Cougars’ consistent approach yield a major victory? It’s something to consider: BYU’s style under Kalani Sitake should keep this one in striking range into the second half.
4. Texas A&M at UCLA, Sept. 3
A question: Which team needs a season-opening win more, the Aggies or Bruins? Kevin Sumlin again occupies shaky ground at A&M following another second-half swoon. UCLA’s 2016 season ran off the rails amid injuries and general ineffectiveness. The likely answer is A&M, but can Jim Mora and the Bruins afford another middling start?
5. Ohio State at Indiana, Aug. 31
Two story lines stand out among the many. One is the sight of Ohio State’s reworked offense under new co-coordinator Kevin Wilson, Urban Meyer’s choice to rejuvenate a tired attack. The second is Wilson’s matchup against Indiana, where he spent the previous six seasons before being fired in December amid allegations of player mistreatment. The question isn’t whether Ohio State will win. But how will the Buckeyes look?
6. Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia, Sept. 3 (in Landover, Md.)
It’s an extremely intriguing matchup of former conference cohorts — long, long ago in the days of the Big East Conference — even if neither team is included among the top two favorites in its own league. What ties each team together is the feeling of building upon successful 2016 campaigns: Virginia Tech had a great first go-around under Justin Fuente, and Dana Holgorsen solidified his job security by leading the Mountaineers to a 10-3 finish.
7. Troy at Boise State, Sept. 2
This pits two of the best Group of Five teams. Boise State we know; the Broncos rank among the most consistent teams in the country. But Troy is set to make national noise out of the Sun Belt Conference, one year after its breakthrough under Neal Brown and his staff.
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8. Appalachian State at Georgia, Sept. 2
Are the Bulldogs on upset alert? Absolutely. Though Kirby Smart’s second team should be drastically better than his first — good enough to be considered the favorite in the SEC East — Georgia will face a serious challenge from Appalachian State, one of the most balanced and effective teams on the Group of Five level.
9. Tulsa at Oklahoma State, Aug. 31
Oklahoma State has eyes on a Big 12 Conference title, a realistic aspiration for a team with this level of returning contributors and experience. But the Cowboys can’t afford to look past Tulsa, which won 10 games last fall under former Baylor assistant Philip Montgomery and should challenge for the American Athletic Conference crown in 2017.
10. Maryland at Texas, Sept. 2
The Tom Herman era begins at Texas with far larger expectations than one might expect from a program fresh off a middling five-year run outside the Big 12 title picture. Part of the Longhorns’ appeal is simple: Few doubt the talent, and maybe a coach such as Herman can maximize the team’s ability from the start.