Congratulations! It’s been a long, arduous offseason — rougher than most, for a variety of reasons — but you have made it to the first FULL Saturday of college football. To paraphrase “Stone Cold” Steve Austin: Swig of beer for the college football fan!
The Open Man Saturday Six-Pack is on tap for Week 1, and this entry is unofficially the Neutral Field Edition. Of the six games spotlighted, which span the entirety of Labor Day Weekend, five are played at NFL stadiums.
I personally am not a fan of this growing trend. Part of college football’s mystique is the campus atmosphere; lively student sections; the festive tailgate atmospheres. However, if the sport’s committed to expanding the neutral-site concept, it should at least get creative.
Before jumping into the Six-Pack, Your Humble Author has suggestions for possible Week 1 neutral-site venues:
Tokyo Dome: The annual home of Japan’s Rice Bowl, which pits the champions of the Japanese collegiate league against the professional X-League winner, has some history with the American game.
Host of the defunct Coca-Cola Classic, the Tokyo Dome played host to two Heisman Trophy winners (Barry Sanders and Oklahoma State in 1998, Andre Ware and Houston two years ago later) as well as late-season conference games featuring the Big 8 and Big Ten.
The Pac-12’s recent move to kickoff the season in Australia suggests a willingness to explore exotic and far-away destinations. Imagine Alabama and Florida State doing so in the Tokyo Dome; it’d be the venue’s best main event since Okada vs. Omega.
The Las Vegas Strip: The Raiders’ monument to greed and public extortion new home will not be completed until 2020, and will almost assuredly host a Week 1 extravaganza of some sort. But that doesn’t mean Sin City need wait until then!
Close down a stretch of The Strip, lay out some artificial turf with makeshift bleachers and baby, you’ve got a college football game.
Cave-in-Rock, Illinois: A remote destination in southern Illinois, this spot is no stranger to attracting large crowds. For years, it was home to the Gathering of the Juggalos, the week-long music festival hosted by Insane Clown Posse’s Psychopathic Records label.
The festival’s since moved, leaving a big-event void that a Week 1 college football game could fill. The biggest issue? Hardin County sheriff Jerry Fricker told the Associate Press in 2013 that the festival caused headaches for his force.
The antics of the Juggalos pale in comparison to the behavior of certain SEC fanbases.
Week 1 Saturday Six-Pack: Saint Archer Hoppy Pilsner
For Week 1, the Saturday Six-Pack is sticking with pilsners, but adding some hoppiness to the mix. Saint Archer is another local brewery for yours truly, but recently increased distribution. It’s available at Target!
Saint Archer makes quality brews, and its Hoppy Pilsner is a nice combination of the light, easy-drinking expected from a pilsner, with the mouth-watering bitterness that often comes from an IPA.
Speaking of IPAs, a special bonus bomber for the long weekend in college football: El Segundo Brewing Company’s Broken Skull IPA. Keeping in line with the Steve Austin motif, this is a beer designed by “Stone Cold” himself.
NC STATE vs. SOUTH CAROLINA
Saturday, Sept. 2, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
Line: NC State -5; O/U 52.5
South Carolina eschewed its customary Thursday night kickoff for a neutral-site clash with an intriguing dark horse of the ACC. While I’m not so crazy as to tab NC State for College Football Playoff contention — the Pack share a division with defending national champion Clemson, heavyweight Florida and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson — Dave Doeren’s squad does pique my interest.
This should be one of the nastiest defenses in the nation, returning eight starters from a rotation that ranked No. 8 against the run a season ago and held opponents below 23 points per game. Bradley Chubb is poised for an award-winning campaign, getting a head-start Week 1 against South Carolina.
The Gamecocks far exceeded my expectations in Will Muschamp’s first season as head coach, but the South Carolina offense was dismal (No. 116 nationally in points scored). Pit that against a stingy, aggressive D like that NC State boasts, and South Carolina might score negative points.
PREDICTION: NC State 27, South Carolina 10
MICHIGAN vs. FLORIDA
in Arlington, Texas
Saturday, Sept. 2, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
Line: Michigan -4.5; O/U 43
No one seems to know exactly who will and who won’t be suiting up for either of these teams once kickoff arrives in North Texas. In Michigan’s case, the withholding of a finalized roster garnered a FOIA request. In Florida’s case, a rash of suspensions in recent days has rendered the Gator lineup thin.
With 10 Gators in total suspended, Jim McElwain may need UF alum Titus O’Neil to get on board and find some emergency talent. The Titus Brand has proven adept at attracting winning talent, after all.
In reality, Florida’s multitude of suspensions does put the Gators on something of equal footing with Michigan. With five starters returning from 2016 in total, Jim Harbaugh has the least experienced lineup in college football.
Still, impressive recruiting in his tenure should have Harbaugh ready to reload in key areas. Michigan can also capitalize on the potential of freshman jitters from Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks. Despite McElwain’s expertise as an offensive mind, production on that side of the ball has been an issue each of the previous two seasons.
If nothing else, the Wolverines can blind the Gators with the all-maize monstrosities they’ll wear at Jerry World.
Michigan’s first-ever Maize football uniform
Also debuting a Michigan edition of the @Jumpman23 Trainer 2
— J23 iPhone App (@J23app) August 28, 2017
PREDICTION: Michigan 24, Florida 17
FLORIDA STATE vs. ALABAMA
Saturday, Sept. 2, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
Line: Alabama -7; O/U 49
The Six-Star Classic of college football’s opening weekend should be historic for a variety of reasons. First, it’s the inaugural contest in Mercedes-Benz Stadium — and what a way to open the venue’s doors. These are two titans of the game, both of which boast the pieces necessary to make a run at the College Football Playoff.
You can find out if I have one, both or neither reaching the Playoff by subscribing to The Open Man on Patreon!
The second historical possibility at play here is Florida State’s opportunity to break a handful of precedents established in Nick Saban’s illustrious career. Saban is dominant against his former assistants, whether it’s Mark Dantonio; Will Muschamp; Jim McElwain — it doesn’t really matter.
Senpai Saban owns a 30-point per game advantage in such matchups. 30 points!
Couple that with Alabama’s dominance in neutral field, Week 1 dates — the Tide boast wins over Michigan, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Wisconsin and USC in the last five season openers by a combined 126 points — and precedent is stacked firmly against the Seminoles.
However, Jimbo Fisher has a much different squad than any of the previously ranked, Week 1 opponents squaring off against the Crimson Tide. More so than any other Saban assistant-turned-head coach, Fisher’s constructed a program that looks very much like that of Alabama, and it should be evident in Atlanta.
From second-year starting quarterbacks Deondre Francois and Jalen Hurts, to loaded defenses, the Seminoles and Crimson Tide mirror each other in myriad ways. That should bare out in a wildly competitive, wildly entertaining game with a championship atmosphere.
PREDICTION: Florida State 31, Alabama 30
WEST VIRGINIA vs. VIRGINIA TECH
in Landover, Maryland
Sunday, Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT
Last year’s instant classic* between Notre Dame and Texas demonstrated the magic of placing a marquee contest on Labor Day Sunday. This year, ESPN follows up with the renewal of a classic rivalry that conference realignment — coincidentally spurred on, at least in part, by ESPN — helped freeze.
West Virginia and Virginia Tech met 51 times between 1912 and 2005, but have not faced since. Some things have changed in the 12 years since; West Virginia can still score points in bunches, but does so now from a scheme predicated off the air-raid, which Dana Holgorsen cultivated under Mike Leach.
Florida transfer Will Grier gets the honors of tossing the rock for the Mountaineers, looking to extend the Week 1 record of former Gator QBs to 2-0; Treon Harris led Tennessee State to a win over Georgia State on Thursday.
Bud Foster is still Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator, which means West Virginia can anticipate steady resistance. But the Hokies are better offensively now than they were in more recent years, adopting the offensive insight of second-year head coach Justin Fuente.
Virginia Tech’s 35-point per game output in 2016 was a shock — but also largely the result of a veteran quarterback, a luxury the Hokies don’t have in 2017.
* classic insomuch as a game between 4-8 and 5-7 teams qualifies
PREDICTION: West Virginia 38, Virginia Tech 27
TEXAS A&M at UCLA
Sunday, Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT
Line: UCLA -3.5; O/U 59.5
What’s this? A marquee Week 1 game played at an actual college venue?! Yes, this is the lone Week 1 Saturday Six-Pack date at a college team’s home stadium — and even at that, the historic Rose Bowl is a 20-mile hike from UCLA’s Westwood campus.
Yes, I’m splitting hairs on that. It’s also nitpicking to note that FOX Sports, with its personalities who incessantly badmouth ESPN, copies the Worldwide Leader at every turn; a prime-time Labor Day Sunday
Again, I’m not complaining. I get to work games on back-to-back as a result, and I’m all for spreading as much college football through opening weekend as possible — which is why I take umbrage with FOX putting this head-to-head against the ESPN game. Could we not get a daytime kick and give the national spotlight to two games on Sunday? Jeez…
No more complaints from me: This should be a competitive game, if nothing else. I offer a more thorough breakdown at Athlon Sports, but I anticipate Josh Rosen coming out slinging after he lost most of 2016 to a shoulder injury.
PREDICTION: UCLA 34, Texas A&M 31
GEORGIA TECH vs. TENNESSEE
Monday, Sept. 4, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
Line: Tennessee -3; O/U 56
Week 1 concludes with the second ACC vs. SEC showdown in Atlanta, and the fourth such matchup of the Saturday Six-Pack. Little known secret, the conference that wins the weekend series gets the key to the city of Atlanta and wins a pizza party with 2 Chainz.
If any ACC coach knows something about beating the SEC, it’s Paul Johnson. His Yellow Jackets are 5-1 against their former conference-mates since the 2014 season, including a perfect 3-0 vs. the East division last season.
Tennessee was the consensus pick to win that division a season ago, but were instead left claiming the Championship of Life. Needless to say, falling short in the SEC East at a time when the Vol lineup was rife with experienced talent and the division as a whole was a dumpster fire did not sit well with the demanding fan base.
Butch Jones needs a breakout year in 2017, with a possible benchmark of winning the division. Tennessee gets its first opportunity to demonstrate its potential against the unofficial defending SEC East champion.
That won’t be easy; the Vols had a miserable time stopping the run in 2016, allowing 218.5 yards per game (No. 104 in the nation). Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack will show a Derek Barnett-less defense a heavy dose of the ground attack.
PREDICTION: Georgia Tech 31, Tennessee 21