Rating The Watchability of ESPN’s Week 1 Schedule

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ESPN released its Week 1 broadcast schedule on this, the 100-day mark until the first full weekend of college football. Thursday’s release does not cover the network’s entire Week 1 plan — ESPN 2, ESPNU and SEC Network games remain TBD — but the full slate of contests on the main ESPN and ABC are included.

The opening weekend spans five, glorious days, beginning with a Big Ten Conference matchup, and concluding with an ACC-SEC regional throw-down.

It’s not early to begin making preparations for your own Week 1 schedule. Let The Open Man be your viewing guide for college football’s opening weekend.

Thursday, Aug. 31

Ohio State at Indiana
8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Tom Allen makes his debut as Indiana Hoosiers head coach with perhaps the most difficult challenge he’ll face in 2017: preseason Big Ten favorite, Ohio State.

The last time we saw the Buckeyes, they laid a goose egg in a College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson. Don’t think Urban Meyer and his staff have not reminded their squad of this repeatedly in the offseason. Ohio State should come out with a point to prove against an overmatched opponent.

That said, Indiana has shocked some recent, Meyer-coached teams. The Hoosiers nearly spoiled Ohio State’s unblemished 2012 season in Columbus, and on the Buckeyes’ last visit to Bloomington, came a possession away from scoring the upset.

A competitive game seems unlikely. Recent precedent suggests it’s not impossible — and the Hoosiers have three months to prepare.

Rating: **

Friday, Sept. 1

Utah State at Wisconsin
9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Utah State’s visit to Camp Randall would have come with more intrigue, had head coach Gary Andersen not left for Oregon State following the 2014 season. Andersen built Utah State from a WAC also-ran into an annual bowl-game participant before beginning his abbreviated tenure at Wisconsin.

As it stands, Utah State’s a program coming off a 3-9 finish, including five straight losses to close the regular season. Wisconsin’s a bonafide contender to win the Big Ten championship.

Rating: 1/4*

Saturday, Sept. 2

Akron at Penn State
Noon ET, ABC

Penn State’s nine-game winning streak, surprise Big Ten championship and retention of a bevy of starters has the Nittany Lions poised for preseason Playoff hype. An offseason of deserved hype might invite Week 1 jitters, but even some extra butterflies shouldn’t hinder Penn State Week 1.

The Nittany Lions open with an overmatched Akron bunch. Now, credit is more than due for head coach Terry Bowden. He turned around the recently moribund program, culminating in a 2015 bowl game win. However, the Zips regressed in 2016, losing 5-of-6 in the second half of the season, including four straight to close it out. The harsh backslide dropped Akron from MAC East contention, to out of the bowl picture.

Rating: 1/2*

Kent State at Clemson
Noon ET, ESPN

A nation starved for college football will tune in to see the defending national champions, but Week 1 won’t offer much insight into the 2017 Tigers. Dabo Swinney and his staff can call a vanilla game and limit use of the first string in a contest almost assuredly destined to be over by the end of the first quarter.

Since its breakout season in 2012, when the Golden Flashes nearly crashed the Orange Bowl, Kent State has gone a combined 12-35. One of those losses includes a 33-13 loss to open 2016 at Penn State. Don’t expect the Golden Flashes’ visit to Death Valley to be as competitive.

Rating: 1/4*

NC State vs. South Carolina (in Charlotte)
3 p.m. ET, ESPN

Long a punching bag for the chest-thumping SEC, the ACC snagged bragging rights in 2016 with an impressive campaign. Was last season an aberration, or indicative of a more long-term trend to come?

Our first clues come in this neutral site showdown between NC State and South Carolina, two teams with mirroring outlooks for 2017. Both played young rosters in 2016, and exceeded expectations reaching the postseason. Their youthful lineups in the previous campaign translate to two of the nation’s most veterans squads in 2017.

NC State boasts an underrated defense, which at 108.6 rushing yards allowed per game in 2016, ranked among the nation’s best. Vanderbilt managed 156 on the Wolfpack in December’s Independence Bowl, but three interceptions for NC State rendered that moot — and contributed to the ACC’s dominance of the SEC in a 41-17 blowout.

South Carolina won six games in a fashion similar to NC State, relying far more on its defense. Yet, like NC State in victory, the Gamecocks seemed to find that missing offensive spark in a bowl-game loss. Quarterback Jake Bentley went an impressive 32-of-43 for 390 yards with three touchdowns against USF in the Birmingham Bowl.

This may not be the sexiest offering on the Week 1 schedule, but the winner could use the neutral site victory to springboard into a breakout season.

Rating: ***

Michigan vs. Florida (in Arlington, Texas)
3 p.m. ET, ABC

OK, now is when the fun begins. The 2017 Week 1 schedule may not match the pizzazz of 2016’s BEST WEEK EVER, but the coming Labor Day Weekend isn’t without its mega-matchups.

Both Florida and Michigan have knocked on the door of college football’s elite club since making head-coaching changes. Jim McElwain’s arrival at UF from Colorado State failed to generate as much buzz as Jim Harbaugh returning to his alma mater, but the Gators head coach has won back-to-back SEC East division titles.

Florida’s defenses have been outstanding, and shouldn’t see much regression despite losing six starters. McElwain might also finally have the pieces for a better offense, retaining nine starters from 2016. The Gators have a deep rotation of running backs to shoulder the load, as quarterback remains a question mark — particularly with Luke Del Rio injured this offseason.

Of course, Michigan has a quarterback competition of its own extending into the summer. Wilton Speight showed flashes of brilliance in 2016, but not enough to be a definitive No. 1 over Brandon Peters.

That’s just one item of intrigue for Big Blue heading into 2017. Harbaugh has his least experienced lineup yet. Week 1 will reveal much about the title chances of both these teams — for better or worse.

Rating: ****3/4

Appalachian State at Georgia
6:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

Last season, Appalachian State kicked off in SEC Country and nearly scored the upset. The Mountaineers once again venture into SEC territory, and they’ll again pose a real threat to leave with a W. Head coach Scott Satterfield returns from a Sun Belt Conference championship campaign with two outstanding play-makers in the backfield — quarterback Taylor Lamb and running Jalin Moore — and a defense featuring sack-machine Antonious Sims.

Georgia’s gaining some steam as an early favorite to win the unpredictable SEC East in Kirby Smart’s second season. The Bulldogs retain a ton of talent on defense, including Davin Bellamy and Trenton Thompson, but the offense needs dramatic improvement from a season ago. Five-star 2016 recruit Jacob Eason’s progress from Year 1 to Year 2 will be the key determining factor in the growth — or lack thereof — from the Georgia offense.

Make time for this one. It may be the hidden gem of the Week 1 schedule.

Rating: ***3/4

Alabama vs. Florida State (in Atlanta)
8 p.m. (ABC)

This past January in the Tokyo Dome, New Japan Pro Wrestling champion Kazuchika Okada put his IWGP Heavyweight Championship on the line against No. 1 contender Kenny Omega. The two duked it out in an epic, 47-minute match that was equal parts fast-paced, hard-hitting and death-defying.

Alabama and Florida State is college football’s answer to Omega-Okada.

The Crimson Tide and Seminoles could enter 2017 ranked No. 1 and No. 2. Such contests in the college football regular season are often dubbed “Game of the Century.” Doing so for an opening weekend contest might be jumping the gun, but this one has the potential to be everything a college football fan could ask for.

Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher is a Nick Saban disciple, having spent seven years with the venerable Alabama coach at LSU. Saban assistants have struggled mightily when faced with their former colleague. Arguably, however, none have matched up against Alabama boasting a roster of comparable size, strength, speed and talent.

This one is as good as it gets: Deondre Francois, Brian Burns, Derwin James, Josh Sweat, Auden Tate on one side; Bo Scarbrough, Jalen Hurts, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Calvin Ridley on the other.

In an ode to Dave Meltzer’s unprecedented six-star rating for Okada-Omega, Alabama-Florida State transcends the Full Five. This heavyweight showdown warrants six stars.

Rating: ******

Brigham Young vs. LSU (in Houston)
9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Saturday’s Week 1 schedule for the Worldwide Leader concludes with an intriguing showdown in the Texas Kickoff. Both programs face considerable roster turnover in the second year under their respective head coaches: Kalani Sitake at BYU, and Ed Orgeron, who LSU retained after an interim stint replacing fired Les Miles.

Sitake’s Cougars went 9-4 in Year 1, employing a dramatically improved defense. Some cornerstones of BYU’s 19.5-point per game D return, including Corbin Kafusi Francis Bernard and Fred Warner. The Cougars present a tough matchup for the debut of new LSU offensive coordinator, Matt Canada.

LSU’s problem, dating back at least to the 2011 “Game of the Century” at Alabama, has been its offense. Even with all-world running back Leonard Fournette at full-strength in 2015, the Tigers offense was rarely more than passable — ironic wording on my part, given LSU’s inability to pass.

With Fournette battling injury much of last season, Derrius Guice broke out as a true star. He’ll be one of the nation’s top running backs in 2017, but needs a capable passing game around him to alleviate pressure. A Week 1 matchup with BYU offers some insight into the new-look LSU offense, and how it might take shape for the season to come.

Likewise, BYU is undergoing a facelift with leading rushers Jamaal Williams and Taysom Hill gone. Second-year offensive coordinator Ty Detmer’s new quarterback, Tanner Mangum, is a more traditional pocket passer than Hill. That might work to Detmer’s advantage, as the former Heisman winner operated in an air-raid under Hall of Famer LaVell Edwards.

Rating: ****

Sunday, Sept. 3

South Carolina State at Southern
2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

The 13th edition of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge is the second played on-campus. Before 2016, the opening-weekend matchup of HBCUs emanated from the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

Southern U. was excellent in 2016, going 8-1 in SWAC play. The sole loss, however, came against resurgent Grambling State. The Tigers went 11-1, ripping off 11 in a row after a hard-fought loss at Arizona to open the season. Returning prolific quarterback Austin Howard (29 touchdowns in 2016), the Jaguars will again contend with their rivals for SWAC supremacy in 2017.

South Carolina State routinely contends in the MEAC, though the Bulldogs regressed to 5-6 a year ago.
Rating: **

Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia (in Landover, Md.)
7:30 p.m. ET, ABC

One of college football’s historic rivalries, sacrificed for the sake of conference realignment, adds a new chapter on Labor Day Sunday. The 2017 entry marks the 52nd in the West Virginia-Virginia Tech series, which dates back to 1912. The programs played almost annually from 1952 until shortly after Virginia Tech’s departure from the Big East for the ACC in 2004.

Much has changed in the 12-year hiatus since their last encounter. Dana Holgorsen integrated a much different, yet equally prolific offensive scheme from Rich Rodriguez’s multifaceted rushing attack. Though Holgo’s scheme is known primarily for spreading the field with wide receivers, the Mountaineers do retain an excellent ball-carrier in Justin Crawford.

Add running backs Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway — coupled with some losses at wide receiver — and the Red Bull-chugging West Virginia head coach might consider implementing a Wishbone.

OK, perhaps that’s overdramatic. But the Mountaineers’ look against the Bud Foster-coordinated Hokie defense will be one of the more interesting games-within-game on the Week 1 schedule.

Virginia Tech could be a dark-horse contender in the loaded ACC. Its performance against West Virginia sets the tone.

Last season was Virginia Tech’s first without Frank Beamer in three decades, but Justin Fuente continued the winning ways of his predecessor. The Hokies won 10 games and the ACC Coastal division, and employed a much livelier offense than the last few years of the Beamer era.

Rating: ****1/2

Monday, Sept. 4

Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee (in Atlanta)
8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Three years ago, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson capped a surprise run to the Orange Bowl with wins over Georgia and Mississippi State. He wasn’t bashful about it, either, using his platform following the Orange Bowl romp to say what millions of college football fans already thought.

Johnson isn’t backing down on his stance in the 2017 offseason, either. Georgia Tech rallied from a disappointing 2015 season to win nine games in 2016, including a two-touchdown victory over the SEC’s Kentucky Wildcats in December’s Gator Bowl.

Tennessee went an identical 9-4 in 2016, but the Vols’ version of a mirroring season to Georgia Tech’s felt much emptier. Tennessee embarked on 2016 with considerable Playoff buzz, which reached a crescendo after a series of come-from-behind wins in the season’s first month. A lackluster finish (3-4 to close the regular season, including a stretch of three consecutive losses) denied the Vols their first SEC East title in a decade. Butch Jones’ declaration that the Vols were “champions of life” only exacerbated the disappointment.

Without Josh Dobbs, Josh Malone or Derek Barnett, UT is flying under the radar to enter 2017 — but so is Georgia Tech, which returns 16 starters. The running back tandem of Dedrick Mills and Marcus Marshall power the Yellow Jackets’ option offense. Tennessee won’t exactly be hurting for talent, though. Wide receiver Jauan Jennings has star potential.

Rating: ****1/2