We have spent a long offseason building perceptions of what college football teams will be like in the 2013 season, but only now will reality finally start to set in. Every year college football teaches us to expect the unexpected, to be surprised by darkhorse Heisman contenders and out-of-nowhere upsets. Perhaps as much as any, opening weekend provides a perfect stage for bizarre things to happen, as new coaches try to establish themselves and young teams hope to find the right parts to replace departed starts. And while there's a long season ahead to sort out the championship picture, good teams like Clemson and LSU can find out a lot about themselves quickly, and title hopes can take a major hit before the calendar even flips to September.
So, here's your guide to what to watch in Week 1 of the college football season. All times are Eastern, all rankings are from the USA TODAY Coaches' Poll and games are ordered based on importance/intrigue/etc.
No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Georgia by 1 ½
This is what we want out of an opening-week game: instead of a neutral site, two top-10 teams with BCS aspirations playing in prime time in one of the best on-campus atmospheres in college football, both with something to prove. The Tigers are dealing with the weight of enormous expectations, in addition to proving their defense is good enough to win a championship, while the Bulldogs will plug in new faces all around their defense as they aim for a breakthrough in which they end the SEC West's stranglehold on the league.
Every sign points toward this being an exciting, fireworks-filled game. Behind coordinator Chad Morris, star QB Tajh Boyd and explosive WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson can stretch the field like few other teams, and Week 1 is a perfect time for the Tigers to draw the Bulldogs. Clemson's biggest weakness on offense last year was the offensive line, ranking 85th in sacks allowed, and here, at least, Georgia will still be amidst a quest to replace Jarvis Jones. Sophomore Jordan Jenkins and freshman Leonard Floyd have unlimited potential, and perhaps one will break out here, but it's no sure thing that Georgia will consistently get after Boyd. Plus, the Bulldogs have significant issues in the secondary, where starting strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons is suspended and promising freshman Reggie Wilkerson is sidelined with a torn ACL. Over the course of the season, the Bulldogs will likely shape into an effective unit, but Clemson's explosive attack is not exactly the best team to face in an opener, even with the Tigers replacing two of their biggest weapons in WR DeAndre Hopkins and RB Andre Ellington.
The game really should come down to which defense plays better, because we're all also familiar with the lapses Clemson's defense has shown the last few years. But since being hired, Brent Venables has guided improvement, particularly up front, which is especially welcome this week against Georgia's vaunted running game. Georgia has one of the most effectively balanced offenses in college football, leading the nation in yards per play last year, with QB Aaron Murray and RBs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall leading a loaded backfield, meaning we could learn a lot about whether Clemson's defense is actually good enough for it to be considered among the game's elite teams.
Clemson has a few more questions on offense, but in the opener, at least, Georgia may actually face more on defense. At home in Death Valley, expect Tajh Boyd to take advantage.
Pick: Clemson 41, Georgia 38
No. 13 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU (in Arlington, Texas)
9 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: LSU by 4
Secrecy is the game at Jerry World, where TCU has made both potential starting quarterbacks captains; suspended star TCU defensive end Devonte Fields will dress for the game anyway; and LSU won't tell us if troubled leading rusher Jeremy Hill will play.
While all the headlines surrounding the game seem to refer to coaches being purposefully vague, we can still make some educated guesses. One, Casey Pachall, returning from last year's season shortened by off-the-field issues, will likely take more snaps than Trevone Boykin. Boykin showed potential last year and is the more mobile quarterback, but Pachall, if he returns to form, is a more effective passer who could be the Big 12's best at the position. Two, the Fields news is likely misdirection by Gary Patterson as a response to Les Miles' lack of clarity/lack of punishment with Hill. And, three, Hill may play, but LSU can get by burying him in the rotation behind Alfred Blue, a 220-pound senior who averaged 6.8 yards per carry in three games before suffering a knee injury, and 233-pound junior Kenny Hilliard.
So let's talk about what we do know. The broad matchup to watch is LSU's offense, which hired Cam Cameron to try to reverse its fortunes, against TCU's defense, which consistently out-schemes opponents under Patterson. The Horned Frogs may play without Fields and leading tackler Joel Hasley (who left the team), but they still have plenty to work with, led by star cornerback Jason Verrett and tackle Chucky Hunter, who will anchor the Frogs against LSU's inside run game. LSU, meanwhile, hopes that strong-armed QB Zach Mettenberger takes a step forward after an uneven and ultimately underwhelming debut season. Cameron hasn't exactly inspired confidence in the past, but he has a lot of veteran talent to work with and the LSU offense will be better. And, as always, despite ridiculous attrition, LSU's defense will be good enough to limit whoever Patterson decides to play at quarterback. Perhaps I'm higher on LSU than most, but a national championship contender like the Tigers should be able to take care of business here.
Pick: LSU 24, TCU 17
No. 1 Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (in Atlanta)
5:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Alabama by 20 ½
The last time new Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler coached in a game, his team scored zero points. It was also against Alabama. Then coaching at Auburn under the doomed Gene Chizik, Loeffler's offense sputtered all year through a winless SEC season, ranking 112th in scoring offense, and the season culminated in an embarrassing 49-0 defeat in the Iron Bowl in which the Tigers passed for 71 yards.
While Auburn's offense was certainly worse off, Virginia Tech still needs Loeffler, who made his name as an assistant at Michigan under Lloyd Carr, to right the ship after the Hokies were mired in a season-long funk with no running game, too many turnovers and the apparent regression of hyped QB Logan Thomas, whose completion percentage dropped from 59.8 to 51.3, with 16 interceptions in 13 games. Thomas' accuracy issues are an obvious concern, but the lack of surrounding help is more problematic. The top three receivers from last year are gone, and the Hokies are trying to give Iowa a run for worst running back luck. Likely starter J.C. Coleman is uncertain to play because of two sprained ankles, while Michael Holmes was thrown off the team, Joel Caleb is suspended and Tony Gregory tore his ACL.
Given his apparent talent, Thomas can be expected to turn things around in some capacity, but an opener against Alabama isn't an opportune time for this offense to suddenly find itself. The Hokies' defense, at least, was supposed to give it a chance, but star CB Antone Exum isn't ready to return from his knee injury, which is bad news against Alabama wideout Amari Cooper. Young talent is there, particularly in freshman Kendall Fuller, and the Hokies' defensive front is strong, but Virginia Tech is not yet prepared to seriously challenge an Alabama team that will again have both one of the best offenses -- perhaps the best of the Nick Saban era -- and defenses in college football. The result will be better than last year's Iron Bowl for Loeffler, but it some respects it could still look similar to Alabama's two marquee nonconference games last year -- blowouts of Michigan and Notre Dame.
Pick: Alabama 40, Virginia Tech 17
No. 19 Boise State at Washington
10 p.m. Saturday, FS1
Line: Washington by 3 ½
A brief summary of Boise State's history against major conference opponents under Chris Petersen:
2006: 42-14 win over Oregon State, 43-42 win over Oklahoma
2007: 24-10 loss to Washington
2008: 37-32 win over Oregon
2009: 19-8 win over Oregon
2010: 33-30 win over Virginia Tech, 37-24 win over Oregon State
2011: 35-21 win over Georgia, 56-24 win over Arizona State
2012: 17-13 loss to Michigan State, 28-26 win over Washington
That's 9-2, as part of an overall of 84-8 in seven seasons as head coach of the Broncos. Why anyone would ever doubt them at this point is a mystery, yet I've already gone on record predicting a Washington win. And come late Saturday night, there's a good chance I'll be hating myself for it.
But let's make a case for Washington anyway. The Huskies are moving back into a newly renovated Husky Stadium, where there's no reason they shouldn't finally break the string of three straight 7-6 seasons under Steve Sarkisian. They get almost everyone back, including a talented skill position corps on offense that includes QB Keith Price, RB Bishop Sankey (who ran for 205 yards against the Broncos in the Las Vegas Bowl) and WR Kasen Williams, although the nation's best tight end, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, will sit out because of a suspension. Throw in budding superstar linebacker/jack-of-all-trades Shaq Thompson, and the Huskies have a lot of talent to throw against a Boise State team that must fight through a ridiculous amount of roster turnover for the second year in a row.
So while the Broncos still have dependable QB Joe Southwick, a promising run game led by Jay Ajayi and a great defensive line with Demarcus Lawrence … I'm going to stick with Washington. If nothing else, like Michigan State last year, the Huskies draw a somewhat inexperienced Boise State team at the right time.
Pick: Washington 31, Boise State 30
No. 12 Florida State at Pittsburgh
8 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Florida State by 10 ½
Let's be honest here, nobody is really going to be tuning in to watch Pittsburgh. We're watching for one big reason: Jameis Winston. The prime-time Labor Day spot features the debut of the much-hyped redshirt freshman Seminoles quarterback, who has become a Florida State legend before even taking a snap. Winston appears to be the total package, from his cannon arm to his outstanding mobility to an engaging personality. So, as the hype reaches its preseason zenith, the Seminoles head to Heinz Field as undeniable favorites in the ACC debut of Pitt, giving Winston a perfect opportunity to showcase his talents.
The Panthers have an offense littered with question marks, but their defense, led by tackle Aaron Donald, is good enough to frustrate Winston, meaning a big night on the road against a solid defense would not be something to dismiss. But while Pitt can challenge Florida State in some areas, the Seminoles simply have too many playmakers at just about every position, from WR Rashad Greene to RB Devonta Freeman to DT Timmy Jernigan to DB Lamarcus Joyner, for Pitt to really have a chance to spoil Winston's coronation.
Pick: Florida State 28, Pittsburgh 12
Mississippi State vs. No. 14 Oklahoma State (in Houston)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Oklahoma State by 13
An opener against a Big 12 favorite all but guarantees that Mississippi State will not repeat last year, when it was terribly overrated after a 7-0 start that included wins against Jackson State, Auburn, Troy, South Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Middle Tennessee. The Bulldogs proceeded to lose by double digits in five of their last six games, including the Gator Bowl against Northwestern, meaning a huge fall from one of the most misleading top-15 rankings in recent history.
That's not to say Mississippi State is bad, or incapable of qualifying for a fourth straight bowl. Senior QB Tyler Russell was solid last year, and he's flanked by a 1,000-yard rusher in LaDarius Perkins, playing behind a pretty good and experienced offensive line. But the Bulldogs lost almost all of their production at both receiver and defensive back, leaving them without much firepower and without much to combat Oklahoma State's explosive offense.
Both Oklahoma State QBs Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh are expected to play, and with arguably the Big 12's best receiving corps, they're both capable of producing at a high level, although they did suffer an unexpected setback when starting left tackle Devin Davis tore his ACL earlier this week. That's about the only hiccup here for Oklahoma State, which has too many playmakers on both sides of the ball for Mississippi State to keep pace.
Pick: Oklahoma State 38, Mississippi State 20
No. 22 Northwestern at California
10:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2
Line: Northwestern by 5 ½
A West Coast trip provides a tricky opener for Northwestern, which has high expectations that come with being ranked in the preseason top 25 for the first time since 2001, when it finished 4-7. The Wildcats held second-half leads in all three of their losses last year, to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, and they return most of their key contributors. So we know what we're getting from Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald: a handful of solid defensive playmakers, and a difficult-to-defend offense centered around two QBs, passer Trevor Siemian and runner Kain Colter, and explosive tailback Venric Mark.
Cal hopes to change its fortunes under new coach Sonny Dykes, whose Louisiana Tech team led the nation in total offense last year, but he's breaking in a freshman QB, Jared Goff, on a team that went 3-9 a year ago. Patience is needed, although hit will be nice to see if Dykes' spread attack can at least find a way to more effectively utilize home-run-hitting running back Brendan Bigelow. Bigelow was only really able to make a name for himself last year with an electrifying game in a surprisingly close loss at Ohio State before Jeff Tedford ignored him. No matter how young, a Dykes offense is always capable of giving an opposing defense trouble, but Northwestern's collection of experienced playmakers will be too much for the Golden Bears to handle in Week 1.
Pick: Northwestern 37, California 26
Ohio at No. 9 Louisville
3:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPN
Line: Louisville by 20 ½
With no NFL until next Sunday, thankfully the best quarterback prospect for the 2014 NFL draft will fill the void in a game against what's actually a good opponent, by Louisville's 2013 standards. It's a nice showcase opportunity for Teddy Bridgewater in front of a national audience against a MAC-contending Ohio team that did actually pull off the upset at Penn State in Bill O'Brien's debut last season. But while Bobcats return QB Tyler Tettleton and RB Beau Blankenship, they don't have the all-around talent to adequately match up with Louisville, which adds Florida transfer Gerald Christian at TE and Auburn transfer Michael Dyer at RB to an already solid supporting cast around Bridgewater.
Pick: Louisville 31, Ohio 14
Toledo at No. 10 Florida
12:21 p.m. Saturday, ESPN3
Line: Florida by 23 ½
I don't see a monumental upset on the board in Week 1 -- which, of course, means there probably be five or six -- but keep an eye on The Swamp, where we still have no idea if Florida will finally be able to consistently move the ball or make big plays on offense. The Gators were challenged by both Bowling Green and UL Lafayette at home last year, and they'll be without starting LB Antonio Morrison, RB Matt Jones and G Jon Halapio against a good Toledo team that returns nine starters on offense, including star receiver/return man Bernard Reedy, productive tailback David Fluellen and mobile QB Terrance Owens. Toledo will have a rough time scoring, because even without Morrison the Florida defense is one of the best in the country, but don't be surprised if the Rockets make things interesting for at least 30 minutes or so.
Pick: Florida 24, Toledo 14
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter @MattBrownSoE. Check back on Sunday at Sports on Earth for the 2013 debut of The Professor, a weekly guide to everything we learned from the weekend in college football.