Ohio State at Indiana
Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) August 30, 2017
KICKOFF: Thursday, 8 p.m. ET
SITE: Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Indiana
SERIES: Ohio State leads Indiana 73-12-5
RANKINGS: Ohio State No. 2
KEYS TO THE GAME
Indiana University coach Tom Allen knows the challenge his team faces Thursday night.
"Biggest home opener in the history of our program," Allen said. "I've know I've said that many times, but it is what it is, That's exactly the situation we find ourselves in."
The Hoosiers will host No. 2 Ohio State in a season opener against the Big Ten powerhouse at 8 p.m. at Memorial Stadium. The Buckeyes finished 11-2 last season, reaching the College Football Playoff semifinals before losing to Clemson 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl.
The ESPN College GameDay crew, which includes former IU coach Lee Corso, is making its first live visit to Bloomington for a football game, where most of the spotlight is shining on the visitors.
The game will remark the return of former IU coach Kevin Wilson, who was forced to resign after philosophical differences with athletic director Fred Glass after the regular season. There were concerns how injured players were handled under Wilson. Allen was then promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach prior to the Foster Farms Bowl, which IU (6-7) lost to Utah 26-24.
Wilson was hired as the Buckeyes offensive coordinator in January.
Allen said he hasn't mentioned Wilson's return to the players
"Very genuinely, it's all Ohio State," Allen said. "Really haven't mentioned that once."
Allen said he expects the offensive scheme of the Buckeyes to be a combination of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and Wilson.
"As you go back and look at how they performed last year, they hung 62 on Maryland and beat Nebraska by 60-something," said Allen, who was close as the Buckeyes beat Nebraska 62-3. "It wasn't like they were anemic, you know?"
Allen said he keeps telling players it will be a game of adjustments on both sides. The Buckeyes averaged 39.4 points per game last season.
Meyer said quarterback J.T. Barrett has made the biggest strides in accuracy and his relationship and timing with the wideouts.
"To say that he mastered our offense, he's done that quite a while ago," Meyer said. "It's just the timing, the execution and the trust."
Barrett threw for 2,555 yards with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season. Sophomore Mike Weber is back for the Buckeyes at running back, rushing for 1,096 yards and nine TDs.
The Hoosiers' rushing attempts will likely be by committee. Allen said he expects four or five guys to gain meaningful time at running back. The Hoosiers must replace Devine Redding, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards each of the previous two seasons. Redding left early for the NFL.
"Mike Majette is kind of that solidifying, does everything really well kind of guy," Allen said. "(Freshman) Morgan Ellison has been a surprise. I knew he was a good player, thought he might need time to develop, but he's right there in the mix. Devonte Williams has been as quick and explosive as he's always been and Cole Gest, getting him back was good. He's got a great burst."
Gest played in three games last season before suffering a season-ending injury. Tyler Natee is the leading returning rusher with 237 yards.
Meyer said playing this season opener is a little easier than 2016 because 15 starters return compared to six returning starters in 2016.
"Last year was very alarming because our whole team was new," Meyer said. "This year is a little more comfort because guys have been in the environment before. This is a whole different set of circumstances because it's on the road in a Big Ten game. But we've practiced as such and like I said, Billy Prince is snapping a ball to J.T. every play, as long as they stay healthy and that's a little more comforting."
The Hoosiers return Richard Lagow as starting quarterback. He threw for 3,363 yards, but had just two more TDs (19) than interceptions (17).
The Buckeyes have won 21 consecutive games against the Hoosiers and lead the all-time series 72-12-5. IU's last win over the Buckeyes came in 1988 in Bloomington. The Hoosiers did give visiting Ohio State a scare before falling 34-27 in the final seconds in 2015. Host Ohio State won 38-17 last year.
IU senior linebacker Tegray Scales said the Hoosiers have to take advantage of this opportunity against the Buckeyes.
"You don't get this opportunity often," Scales said. "It's one of the biggest openers in Indiana history. We embrace it and plan to take it head on."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--WR J.T. Barrett is the focal point of an offense that has designs on being more dynamic this year. Entering his final season, the senior has started since he was a freshman with the exception of injuries and the Cardale Jones experiment two years ago. Barrett enters the 2017 season with a chance to win the Heisman Trophy. With former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson taking over as Ohio State's offensive coordinator and Ryan Day as quarterbacks coach, expectations are great that Barrett will have his best season yet.
--DE Tyquan Lewis is a returning All-Big Ten player and one of nine Ohio State captains who will lead the country's deepest defensive line. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior has accumulated eight sacks each of the last two seasons. As part of a four-man rotation at defensive end, Lewis should be fresh and ready to wreak havoc against the Indiana offense.
--CB Denzel Ward could be Ohio State's next first-round draft pick at cornerback. The Buckeyes have produced four first-rounders at the position in the past four years. The junior has playing experience and more speed than any player on the roster. Ward and the Ohio State secondary will be tested in the opener by Indiana's pass offense led by quarterback Richard Lagow.
--QB Richard Lagow needs to protect the ball better as his touchdown (19) to interception (17) ratio was an issue last season. For IU to have a shot at competing against Ohio State, it can't afford turnovers. Allen said Lagow has made leadership strides and has become a more confident player in the offseason. Lagow should benefit from a strong wide receiver unit.
--LB Tegray Scales was the Big Ten's leading tackler last season. Scales enters his senior season on six award watch lists, including the Butkus Award, and was honored on nine preseason All-American teams, including first-team by Lindy's, ESPN and Street & Smith.
--K Griffin Oakes is seeking to return to his 2015 form when he made 24 of 29 field goals. Last year, he made 16 of 26 FGs.
Tulsa at Oklahoma State
KICKOFF: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET
SITE: Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater, Oklahoma
TV: Fox Sports 1
SERIES: Oklahoma State leads Tulsa, 39-27-5.
RANKINGS: Oklahoma State No. 10
KEYS TO THE GAME
By most descriptions, Oklahoma State-Tulsa looks like a serious rivalry.
Two FBS schools, residing in the same state, separated by 69 miles of turnpike. The Cowboys and Golden Hurricane have squared off 71 times, with Oklahoma State holding a 39-27-5 edge in what shapes up as a competitive series.
And yet, there's little current-day evidence to suggest much disdain between the schools. They haven't played since 2011. They're in different conferences. For the most part, they don't recruit the same players.
"I know there's a lot of guys on the team from Tulsa, but they haven't really said anything about that," said Cowboys linebacker Chad Whitener. "I think it's more the season opener, the buzz and excitement for the season to get rolling."
At least there's that. And the fact that both sides look at their Thursday meeting -- 7:30 p.m. ET at Boone Pickens Stadium -- as a season-opening statement opportunity.
For No. 10-ranked Oklahoma State, 10-3 last season, it's an opportunity to confirm its status as a Big 12 and national contender.
For Tulsa of the American Athletic Conference, also 10-3 in 2016, it's an opportunity to seize some spotlight.
"I've talked a lot about trying to gain respect in our conference and trying to gain respect in our state, and this gives us an opportunity," Golden Hurricane coach Philip Montgomery said.
Much buzz surrounds the Cowboys, who return the bulk of an offense that ranked ninth nationally in passing (323.9 yards per game) and 17th in scoring (38.6). Quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington are both prominent on the preseason award watch lists. With Rudolph, Washington and running back Justice Hill, Oklahoma State boasts an attack that returns a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher.
In addition, the Cowboys return their second-leading receiver from 2015 in Marcell Ateman, who missed all of last season with a foot injury, and they add former five-star receiver prospect Tyron Johnson, who transferred from LSU. Four offensive line starters return, with massive Cal graduate transfer Aaron Cochran stepping in to round out a veteran unit.
"They are a very, very talented team," Montgomery said.
Tulsa was a very talented team a year ago, behind an historically productive offense. The Golden Hurricane became the first FBS school to produce a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and two 1,000-yard rushers.
Only one of those skill players returns, however. Beyond tailback D'Angelo Brewer, who ran for 1,435 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016, there are no obvious replacements, particularly at quarterback, where Montgomery still hasn't named a starter to replace Dane Evans, who left as the school's all-time passing leader.
Two inexperienced underclassmen -- sophomore Chad President and freshman Luke Skipper -- battled throughout preseason camp for the starting role. Neither emerged and both could play, at least until one takes hold of the job.
Tulsa could lean on a veteran offensive line, anchored by returning all-conference center Chandler Miller, to run the ball with Brewer and either of the mobile quarterbacks. But Montgomery's history, both in reloading on offense and developing quarterbacks, has Oklahoma State's attention.
"I would caution everybody, as I've done with our defense, in that there haven't been many rollover years with (Montgomery)," Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said. "With his play-calling and running offenses at other schools where he was, there would be a group of guys leave and people thought, 'OK, now they'll settle down.'
"But that wasn't the case. And they went out and got 5,000 yards with some new guys."
Since both defenses enter the season with question marks, the advantage would seem to swing to Oklahoma State, which still claims guys who went out and produced more than 5,000 yards a year ago.
Rudolph, a Heisman Trophy candidate, is 22-6 as a starter and ranks in the top six among returning FBS quarterbacks in career passing yards, career passing yards per game, career passing efficiency and career touchdown-to-interception ratio.
And this year, he believes he's got the best set of weapons he's had with the Cowboys.
"I'm ready to go," Rudolph said. "It's been a long offseason. It's been fun; we got a lot of good work in, a lot of good practice. We've fine-tuned it and we're ready to go."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--OT Larry Cochran moved into the starting lineup and will protect the blind side of QB Mason Rudolph after arriving at Oklahoma State as a graduate transfer from Cal. Cochran started in 16 games for the Bears and was involved in protecting two productive quarterbacks, Jared Goff and Davis Webb. He was part of a line that ranked in the top 25 nationally in fewest tackles for loss and fewest sacks.
--WR Tyron Johnson transferred from LSU and sat out last season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules. The initial question could be how much rust Johnson must shake off, though he was impressive gaining yards after the catch during fall camp. The former five-star prospect (Rivals) will provide an additional target who keeps opponents from keying heavily on standout WR James Washington.
--RB Justice Hill proved that Oklahoma State can rush the football effectively, becoming the program's all-time leading freshman rusher with 1,142 yards a year ago. The 5-10 Hill is stronger, adding 15 pounds since his arrival, and should help balance the OSU attack. Last year he became the only freshman in Oklahoma State history to rush for 100 yards in six games. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
--RB D'Angelo Brewer is ninth on Tulsa's career rushing list with 2,400 yards on 465 carries, a 5.2-yard average. He rushed for 1,435 yards last season, when he missed more than two full games due to injuries. Included in his performance was a 252-yard effort against Fresno State.
--WR Justin Hobbs has 82 catches for 1,236 yards and six TDs in his career. He had three 100-yard receiving games last season.
Washington at Rutgers
KICKOFF: Friday, 8 p.m. ET
SITE: High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
TV: Fox Sports 1
SERIES: Washington leads 1-0, winning 48-13 last season in Seattle.
RANKINGS: Washington No. 8
KEYS TO THE GAME
Washington coach Chris Petersen is making repeated attempts to reduce the high expectations for his club.
That is a losing battle after the Huskies went 12-2 and reached the College Football Playoff last season.
The No. 8 Huskies begin their fourth season under Peterson on Friday when they visit Rutgers, and there is no getting away from the hype, even when Petersen asserts the Huskies are a brand-new team.
Petersen insists the talented squad isn't reloading but is instead rebuilding.
"Because you start from scratch," Petersen said Monday. "This is not even kind of the same team it was last year. The program is similar in the things we believe in. But this is a new team, so we rebuild the team every year. We rebuild a new team every week, because you're different week-to-week.
"You win, it feels different. You lose, it feels different. And so there's a different mindset and psychology with that. So we don't reload, we rebuild week-to-week. People can say whatever they want to say, but I know what our mindset is, and I know what I want it to be."
The Huskies will be without one of their stars against the Scarlet Knights, who lost their final nine outings while finishing 2-10 last season.
Washington senior All-Pac-12 linebacker Azeem Victor will miss the game against Rutgers due to a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
"Guys make mistakes, nobody's perfect. It's a mistake," Petersen said. "The hard thing is, you're in the public eye, so it's tough. Azeem's a good guy -- he is. But guys make mistakes, and we have team standards, and we live by them."
The player the Huskies count on the most is junior quarterback Jake Browning, who looks to build on a season in which he tied the Pac-12 record of 43 touchdown passes and helped the Huskies roll up a school-record 585 points.
Browning underwent offseason surgery on his passing shoulder but has fully recovered.
But just as pleasing to Petersen is the growth Browning is displaying as a team leader.
"Jake is doing a great job (at) the most detailed, the most meticulous position," Petersen said. "He's done a great job -- he's able to branch out from his own assignments and make sure he and the receivers are on the same page, and he's doing a great job there."
Rutgers is breaking in a new quarterback in fifth-year senior Kyle Bolin, a graduate transfer from Louisville.
Bolin will be making his seventh career start. He has passed for 2,104 yards in 17 career games.
"We're excited to watch him go play and I'm really glad he's here," second-year coach Chris Ash told reporters. "He's created a great competition at the quarterback position. I think he's elevated the play of others around him and just the leadership and the ethic the kid has demonstrated and brought to our offense has been outstanding so far."
Seniors Robert Martin and Gus Edwards will share the ball-carrying duties. Martin has 1,822 career rushing yards and Edwards (977) is a transfer from Miami.
Former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is the Scarlet Knights' new offensive coordinator.
Perhaps even more exciting than Kill's presence will be the sight of receiver/return specialist Janarion Grant, who shares the NCAA record of eight career return touchdowns (five kickoffs, three punts). He was granted a medical redshirt last season after suffering a broken ankle early in the season.
Junior linebackers Trevor Morris (102 tackles) and Deonte Roberts (95) headline the Scarlet Knights' defense. Junior cornerback Blessuan Austin (14 passes defended) leads the secondary, which allowed just 186.5 passing yards per game last season.
Rutgers couldn't stop Browning last season as he passed for 287 yards and three touchdowns in a 48-13 victory in the first meeting between the schools. The Scarlet Knights aim to compete better this time.
"Washington (is) not going to determine the success or failures of our overall season," said Ash, "but to go out there in game one and play them again and measure your football team, the improvement hopefully that you see, that's a motivating factor for everybody."
Washington senior inside linebacker Kieshawn Bierria had a team-best 12 tackles in the trouncing of the Scarlet Knights, and he will be the focal point of the defense with Victor home in Seattle.
Bierria led the nation with five fumble recoveries last season.
Junior defensive tackle Vita Vea is rising up the list of NFL talent evaluators and primed to build on his five-sack campaign of last season.
Huskies sophomore free safety Taylor Rapp had a team-best four interceptions last season en route to being named Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and earning Freshman All-American honors.
Washington has its own standout returner in senior Dante Pettis, who has five career punt return touchdowns, one off the Pac-12 record held by California's DeSean Jackson.
In addition to Victor, Huskies sophomore cornerback Austin Joyner will also be missing after getting a two-game suspension for violating team rules.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Jake Browning, a junior, is healthy and ready to follow up a terrific campaign in which he passed for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns. He passed for 287 yards and three touchdowns in last season's romp over Rutgers. Coach Chris Petersen is seeing further growth and a higher of level of maturity from Browning, who finished sixth in last season's Heisman Trophy balloting.
--WR Dante Pettis is now Washington's top target after standout John Ross departed early for the NFL. Pettis had 53 catches for 822 yards last season and his 15 receiving scores tied for third most in school history. The senior also is a gamebreaking punt returner with five career touchdowns, one off the Pac-12 record held by California's DeSean Jackson.
--ILB Kieshawn Bierria, a senior, has a knack for creating havoc and making big plays. Bierria's five fumble recoveries in 2016 were the most in the nation and matched a school record. He and suspended Azeem Victor are considered one of the top linebacker duos in the country and it will be Bierria's turn to grab the spotlight against Rutgers.
--DT Vita Vea, a junior, is one of the top defensive linemen in the country and was tabbed a second-team preseason All-American. The 6-foot-5, 340-pound Vea clogs space in the line and emerged as a standout over the second half of last season. Vea recorded five sacks and has deceptive athleticism for an interior lineman of his size.
--QB Kyle Bolin didn't get a chance to play much at Louisville (17 games) and now begins a graduate year at Rutgers as a starter. Winning a three-man competition for the starting spot, Bolin was also voted in as one of the Rutgers captains for his only season in Piscataway. "Kyle is really a grown man. He's mature. He's intelligent," said coach Kyle Ash. "You can tell he's been around a high-level game of football. He's been well-coached, understands offense and concepts. He's a competitor, and he's just a good teammate, too."
--WR/RET Janarion Grant has already tied the FBS record for return touchdowns with eight and also helps the offense in all areas. He went down with a leg injury in the fourth game last season and is back for another shot at his senior year. He is first in school history with 2,606 return yards and fourth in all-purpose yardage with 4,251. He's healthy but is being brought along slowly -- the coaches often having to slow him down. But asked what he expects out of Grant, receivers coach Jafar Williams said, "Everything, I hope. We're planning on him being the guy he was -- and even better than when he got hurt. He's been looking good on the field. He's knocking off a little bit of rust and we've had to monitor his reps throughout camp a little bit to make sure we can get him to game day."
--DE Kemoko Turay had 7.5 sacks and three blocked kicks in 2014 but has had only four sacks the past two seasons, with injuries getting in the way. If he gets back to form, he will be Rutgers' best defensive player. "The goal I (set) was 13 (sacks), hopefully I'll go past that," he said. "I'm the new Kemoko. So I'm not worried about the old Kemoko." But the new Kemoko has been slowed by injury in camp and was somewhat questionable for the opener.
--RB Gus Edwards, a transfer from Miami, should handle much of the workload, along with holdover Robert Martin. Edwards had 977 yards at Miami, while Martin has run for 1,388 yards and led the Knights in rushing each of the past two seasons.
--WR Everett Wormley, a freshman, was called "the surprise" of camp by new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill. "Wormley is, strength-wise, size-wise, ready to play," Kill told NJ. com. "He's an athletic dude. I mean, he's done well. Really, really done well." Said Wormley: "Coach Ash tells us every day, 'Look, some of you freshmen are going to have to get ready to play against Washington from Day 1,' so I've been going out every day and preparing for that."
Utah State at Wisconsin
KICKOFF: Friday, 9 p.m. ET
SITE: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin
SERIES: Tied at 1-1, with Wisconsin defeating Utah State 16-14 in 2012.
RANKINGS: Wisconsin No. 9
KEYS TO THE GAME
Wisconsin's resiliency has been tested before the opening kickoff, as the team deals with season-ending injuries at linebacker.
Despite that challenge, the No. 9 Badgers boast strength on offense and veteran leadership in key positions as they prepare for their season opener Friday at 9 p.m. ET against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst announced last week that junior outside linebacker Zack Baun is sidelined for the year with a left foot injury. Baun, a reserve expected to log significant playing time, joins senior inside linebacker and co-captain Jack Cichy, who tore his right ACL on August 8.
Chryst said sophomore linebacker Tyler Johnson and freshman linebacker Christian Bell will need to grow and be ready to contribute when called upon.
"(Johnson) has been impressive in the ways he's grown," Chryst said. "You feel bad for Zack, but I think it'll be interesting to see how they (Johnson and Bell) continue to progress, which we need them to do."
The game marks a return to Camp Randall for the Aggies, who posted a solid effort in a 16-14 setback at Wisconsin during the 2012 season under coach Gary Andersen, who departed the program to lead the Badgers for two seasons. In 2015, Chryst replaced Andersen, who is now the head coach at Oregon State.
Two Aggies who are likely to pose challenges for the Badgers are Utah State senior safety Dallin Leavitt and senior quarterback Kent Myers.
Leavitt, a transfer from BYU, posted team highs with 57 tackles (32 solo, 25 assists) and three interceptions in eight games last season.
Myers is versatile. Last season he completed 211 of 361 passes for 2,389 yards, with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also had 116 rushes for 448 yards and six TDs.
Chryst said he expects a strong performance from Utah State.
"I think they play with tremendous effort; their schemes challenge you," he said.
"Anytime you're looking at first games, there (are) a lot of the axioms -- it's turnovers and it's being efficient. There are a lot of challenges to every football game, and it doesn't matter who you're playing."
Matt Wells, in his fifth season as Aggies head coach, was Utah State's offensive coordinator when the team played at Wisconsin in 2012.
"Camp Randall Stadium is a tremendous atmosphere, so it will be a major test for our guys and one that we're looking forward to," Wells said.
Utah State will attempt to rebound from miserable performances on offense last season, as the team posted a 1-7 record in the Mountain West Conference and a 3-9 overall mark.
Wells said one of the Aggies' priorities will be taking advantage of Badgers' miscues.
"I can't predict the situation, but are we going to be able to capitalize on a mistake by them, if they make it early?" Wells said. "If we do, that will be a good sign."
Meanwhile, Wisconsin sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook seems poised for a productive season after splitting time last year with then-senior Bart Houston.
Hornibrook completed 108 of 181 passes for 1,262 yards, with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. A 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, Hornibrook participated in George Whitfield's QB camp in San Diego in the offseason, and he has been the undisputed starter since the beginning of spring camp.
Wisconsin's passing game will have tantalizing targets, most notably senior wide receiver Jazz Peavy (43 catches for 635 yards and five TDs last season) and senior tight end Troy Fumagalli (47 catches for 580 yards and two TDs).
The running game should, as usual, be powerful. Sophomore Bradrick Shaw averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season. He was listed as a co-starter with Pitt transfer Chris James and true freshman Jonathan Taylor, who was excellent in camp.
Junior running back Taiwan Deal hopes to remain healthy after playing in only six games last season. He was hampered by ankle injuries and underwent surgery in January.
Senior left tackle Michael Deiter and junior right guard Beau Benzschawel will anchor the offensive line. They have a wealth of experience, starting all 14 games last season.
Stopping Wisconsin's run game is usually the top priority for opponents.
"(The Badgers) are a very physical bunch on both the offensive and defensive lines," Wells said. "We're going to have to match that and we're going to have to be very physical and play with relentless pursuit on defense and put hats to the ball."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--TE Troy Fumagalli, rated as one, if not the best, tight ends in the country, caught 47 passes for 580 yards last season. He should improve on those numbers with the Wisconsin offense lacking experienced playmakers. Fumagalli has good hands, is a quality blocker and is battle-tested.
--RB Jonathan Taylor, a true freshman and former four-star recruit, is strong and has breakaway speed that helped him shoot up the depth chart to co-starter. He is 5-11, 214. "Some of the stuff was just crazy that he was doing," QB Alex Hornibrook said of Taylor in camp. "There was I think three different instances where we were scrimmaging offense against defense, and I had to ask somebody if we were playing live or it was thud because he wasn't getting tackled and he wasn't going to the ground. Every time it was live, he just wouldn't go to the ground."
--S D'Cota Dixon enters his second year as a starter after logging four interceptions last season. He has the potential to be a game-changer in the secondary, which is going against veteran Utah State QB Kent Myers.
--QB Kent Myers, a senior, will be making his 27th career start this weekend, which ranks sixth in school history. He ranks among the top 10 quarterbacks in school history in six categories, needing 159 yards of total offense to move into fifth place in school history. Myers is versatile, having rushed 1,115 yards.
Alabama vs. Florida State
KICKOFF: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
SITE: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Georgia
SERIES: Alabama leads Florida State 2-1-1. Florida State won the last meeting 21-14 in 2007.
RANKINGS: Alabama No. 1, Florida State No. 3
KEYS TO THE GAME
After finishing last season against No. 2 Clemson in the national championship game, No. 1 Alabama kicks off 2017 by facing the nation's third-ranked team, Florida State, in the Chick-fil-A Classic Saturday in Atlanta. Kickoff in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is 8 p.m.
If Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is correct, ABC's national television audience will be in for a treat.
"I think both of these teams are going to be well-prepared to play this game," Saban said. "I know our guys have done a really good job in preparing for this game. We're pleased with the progress we've been able to make with a lot of players."
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher feels the same.
"Nick does as good a job as anybody, and does a great job preparing his team, and we know they'll be ready," he said. "But we're ready to play, too."
Saban has urged his players to move on and put last year's last-second loss to Clemson last year behind them as they prepare for 2017.
"This is a completely different team," Saban said.
"The identity of this team is going to be created by what this team does, not what happened last year, not what happened on the last play of the game. None of that is going to matter to how this team develops their identity and their ability to conquer adversity.
"With a lot of new faces, especially on defense, it will be interesting to see who those players respond to their new roles."
The Tide had seven players drafted off last season's defense, and those players combined for 162 career starts and 161.5 career tackles for loss, including 79 sacks.
There are holdover defensive stars, including safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne, and plenty of other NFL timber. But it all has to fit together immediately against a Florida State team that has a dynamic quarterback in Deondre Francois and a super running back tandem (even with Dalvin Cook off to the NFL) in Jacques Patrick and freshman Cam Akers.
Francois was the only freshman quarterback in the country to throw for over 3,000 yards last year, finishing his first year with 3,350 yards and 20 passing touchdowns. He also rushed for five touchdowns, most by an FSU quarterback in 13 years.
On the Florida State defense, safety Derwin James returns from missing almost all of last season because of injury. If Bama's Fitzpatrick isn't the best defensive back in the country, FSU's James is.
"We knew who we're going against," said Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts, who struggled at times with his down-the-field passing game. "They're going to bring it, and we have to bring it as well."
As usual, mistakes -- or lack of them -- will be a key.
"This game is going to come down to who can play with the most discipline and execute for 60 minutes. That's how a lot of first games are," Saban said. "Who is going to make the most mental errors? Who is going to take care of the ball the best? This is always the challenge in an opening game."
In addition to the current rankings -- no preseason No. 1 team has ever opened a season against an opponent ranked higher than No. 4 -- the game also brings together two of the most successful programs in recent years.
Over the last seven years, Alabama has won four national titles and Florida State one. They are the only two teams to finish ranked in the Top 25 in each of the last seven seasons, and they are 1-2 in wins -- Alabama with 86, Florida State with 78 -- over that span.
The two coaches also have interesting ties. Fisher worked for seven seasons under Saban at LSU and was serving as Bobby Bowden's offensive coordinator at Florida State when the teams last met in 2007 (LSU won 21-14 in Saban's first season at Bama).
Both also are from small towns in West Virginia. Born in Fairmont, Saban grew up in Monongah, Fisher in Clarksburg.
"I knew of him," Fisher said. "We had to drive through the town to get to my grandfather's house."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Jalen Hurts struggled late last season in the downfield passing game, and now he has to take on arguably the best defensive back duo in the country -- safety Derwin James and cornerback Tarvarus McFadden. Hurts rushed for nearly 1,000 yards, finishing with 954, but passed for just 185 a game as a freshman last year.
--WR Calvin Ridley is a big-play guy in Alabama's passing game. He had 72 receptions for 769 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore last year.
--DT Da'Ron Payne is the new leader of the defensive line after some departures to the NFL. He's 300-plus pounds, which helps make him a powerful run-plugger, which will be needed against Florida State. He made 36 tackles last season.
--LB Shaun Dion Hamilton is a bit of a wildcard as he comes back from a torn ACL in the SEC title game victory over Florida. He looked fine in fall camp and should be a leader after posting 64 tackles, including nine for loss last season.
--QB Deondre Francois returns with loads of hype around his sophomore season. He's already on the Davey O'Brien and Manning Award watch lists, and his name will be tossed around as an early Heisman frontrunner if he shines in a win against No. 1 Alabama.
--RB Jacques Patrick has only 50 carries for 269 yards under his belt in three seasons as he assumes a leadership role in 2017. Patrick is the team's returning leading running back with 350 yards and four touchdowns a season ago.
--LB Matthew Thomas was the biggest question mark during fall camp after his on-again, off-again attendance at practice. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said Thomas was sick, then hinted there were "other issues" keeping Thomas off the field. He was last year's leading tackler with 77 stops.
--CB Tarvarus McFadden tied for the nation's lead in interceptions with eight in his first season as a starter last year. He and FS Derwin James, who had one interception in 2016 before his season was ended by injury after two appearances, lead an experienced Seminoles defense.
Western Michigan at Southern California
KICKOFF: Saturday, 5:15 p.m. ET
SITE: Los Angeles Coliseum, Los Angeles, California
TV: Pac-12 Network
SERIES: First meeting
RANKINGS: USC No. 4
KEYS TO THE GAME
USC's season of big hype begins against a team that captured the college football world's imagination last season.
The No. 4 Trojans open Saturday at home against Western Michigan, which started 13-0 last season, winning the Mid-American Conference title game and advancing to the Cotton Bowl as the highest-ranked team from the Group of 5 conferences. The Broncos lost 24-16 to Wisconsin.
Gone from that team is coach P.J. Fleck -- now at Minnesota -- although Western Michigan remains one of the favorites in the MAC under new coach Tim Lester.
"I have been very impressed with Western Michigan's personnel," USC coach Clay Helton said.
"One, watching them play from last year, the confidence that they bring to the table. It's hard to win (13) games in a row and to see what they did and how they accomplished that, it takes good players."
Helton mentioned linebacker Robert Spillane and cornerback Darius Phillips, both seniors. Spillane made 111 tackles last season. Phillips picked off four passes and returned a kick and a punt for touchdowns.
"He is kind of that team's Adoree' Jackson," Helton said, referring to the USC's departed do-it-all All-American cornerback from last season. "He's a very special player."
But when it comes to special players this matchup is mostly all about USC. That starts, of course, with redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, the preseason Heisman favorite, college football cover boy and projected No. 1 pick in the draft.
That's a lot on Darnold's plate, although Helton often praises his quarterback for being humble.
"You've got to hone in on what you're doing, every single day, to get better," Darnold said of his focus amid the anticipation of a huge season. "I just want to start playing."
USC won its final nine games last season with Darnold at the helm.
"He's the best college quarterback I've seen at anticipating since Andrew Luck," Stanford coach David Shaw said in ESPN The Magazine. "When you evaluate quarterbacks who can play at the next level, you're looking for guys who can see a play before it happens and get the ball out of their hands quick. He's the best I've seen in years."
Darnold has a mostly young receiving corps, after losing JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, but junior Deontay Burnett is back to lead the way.
"In terms of the young receivers getting to know the playbook a lot better, we've grown a lot in that area," Darnold said. "We are going to continue to learn, continue to get better, continue to develop that chemistry with them and continue to roll into the season, and we are going to be ready come week one."
This will be the first pairing of USC against a current member of the Mid-American Conference.
Western Michigan loses standout quarterback Zach Terrell and wide receiver Corey Davis, the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft, from last season.
Western Michigan's ground attack should shoulder much of the offensive duty in the opener. The Broncos return three running backs -- Jarvion Franklin, Jamauri Bogan and Davon Tucker -- who combined to rush for 2,486 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2016.
Helton also mentioned the return of Western Michigan running back LeVante Bellamy, limited to three games last season due to injury, but responsible for almost 500 yards in 2015.
"Getting Bellamy back, too, who's one of the fastest players on their team, we know that it is a big-time run threat," Helton said. "You know they're going to try to take pressure off (quarterback Jon Wassink) with a very talented offensive line and three talented backs."
Helton said each Broncos' running back brings something unique to the offense, with 225-pound Franklin a prototypical every-down ball-carrier and either Bogan or Bellamy providing "scatback" options.
Lester credited the depth and diversity of the backfield, as well as that experienced offensive line, for somewhat easing the learning curve on first-time starter Wassink. Terrell was a four-year starter who graduated with 12,100 yards passing and 96 touchdowns.
Lester knows the challenge WMU faces trying to move the ball on a talented USC defense that ranked No. 38 nationally in points allowed.
"Their defense, the team speed is special," Lester said. "They fly around to the ball, they play with their hair on fire. It's going to be a heck of a challenge."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--LB Cameron Smith is a great run-stuffing middle linebacker, and that will be important this week against Western Michigan's ground game, led by Jarvion Franklin (1,353 yards last season). "They're really good at running back," USC coach Clay Helton said. "We have to be prepared to stop a talented running game." Smith made 83 tackles last season, including seven for loss.
--RB Ronald Jones II is 18th in USC history with 2,069 rushing yards, averaging a gaudy 6.27 per carry. The junior should play a bigger role this season after mostly being in a time-share last season and if he manages a very doable 1,300-yard season, he would jump to sixth on the Trojans' career charts.
--CB Jack Jones takes over for Adoree' Jackson at cornerback and it will be interesting to see how much the sophomore contributes in the return game as well. There aren't many cornerback combinations more athletic than Jones and junior Iman Marshall, who will be trying to disrupt passes from new Western Michigan starting quarterback Jon Wassink.
--LT Chukwuma Okorafor is rated as the No. 45 pro prospect by NFLDraftScout.com, certainly capable of playing his way into the first round. He and the rest of the Western Michigan line will be a significant test for USC's defensive front, which has to replace 2016 anchor Stevie Tu'ikolovatu at nose guard.
--RB Jarvion Franklin is the school career leader for rushing touchdowns with 41 and ranked third nationally among current players with 3,639 career rushing yards. He is up to 235 pounds while cutting his time in the 40 to a laser-timed 4.48 seconds.
Kent State at Clemson
KICKOFF: Saturday, noon ET
SITE: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, South Carolina
SERIES: First meeting.
RANKINGS: Clemson No. 5
KEYS TO THE GAME
As if the challenge weren't enough for Kent State, which opens the 2017 campaign by facing the defending national champion for a second consecutive season, the Flashes will go into the game at Clemson without their head coach.
As game week preparations began, it was announced that Paul Haynes is taking a medical leave of absence that is expected to last for two or three weeks. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Don Treadwell will be in charge when the Flashes take on the No. 5 Tigers in Clemson's Memorial Stadium. Kickoff time Saturday is noon ET with ESPN telecasting the action.
Treadwell is somewhat familiar with the role. In 2010 he served as interim coach at Michigan State for Mark Dantonio.
"One of the great things about all of the tremendous coaches I've been connected with, and coach Haynes is right up there at the top with the rest of them, is that they have an opportunity to lay the foundation for the program," Treadwell said during the Mid-American Conference coaches conference call. "We already have a direction. We already have a focus for each game."
It's a monumental task for the Flashes, who are coming off a 3-9 season and have had only once winning record since 2001. The Tigers are 28-2 over the last two seasons, having lost to Alabama for the 2015 national title before winning it last year.
The Flashes are familiar with Alabama. They lost 48-0 to the Crimson Tide last September.
"Once again, we find ourselves heading into the lair of a defending national champ," Treadwell said.
The Tigers will be missing some key figures from last year's team, starting with quarterback Deshaun Watson. Also gone are its top two receivers from 2016, first-round NFL draft pick Mike Williams and free-agent signee Artavis Scott.
But replacements are waiting their opportunity.
"Across the board, they give you everything that you could imagine you would expect to see from a national champ," Treadwell said. "I mean there's simply not a weakness, they just simply retool."
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney named junior Kelly Bryant for Watson's spot.
"I just want to see Kelly Bryant do what he's already done on the practice field," Swinney said. "He's just got to translate it to game day.
"Hopefully he won't miss a beat. He's been put in every situation and he's responded. He won the transformation phase. Now he's got to win in prime time."
The receiving corps looks all set.
Hunter Renfrow, the former walk-on turned National Championship Game hero, is back for his junior season along with speedy Deon Cain, who had nine touchdown receptions a year ago as a backup to Williams.
Add junior breakaway threat Ray-Ray McCloud to the mix along with freshman phenoms Amari Rodgers and Tee Higgins, and one can see why Swinney is high on his latest group -- one that he calls his deepest yet.
"I think all nine of the scholarship guys we have will have a chance one day to play at the next level," Swinney said. "I really do. They all have that type of ceiling and potential."
Swinney is looking forward to how they perform against what he considers the strength of the Kent State defense.
"This is one of the better secondaries we'll play all year, to be quite honest with you," Swinney said. "A couple of them are probably going to play on Sundays.
"They're really, really confident and they play to their strengths -- a lot of man coverage. I expect them to pressure us a ton especially with a new quarterback."
Sophomore defensive back Jamal Parker made three interceptions in his final two games last season and, prior to an injury-riddled 2016, cornerback Demetrius Monday finished 7th in the FBS in total interceptions (6) in 2015 and scored a pair of defensive TDs.
Among another new face for Clemson will be at running back, where C.J. Fuller, who has backed up Wayne Gallman (now with the New York Giants) the past two seasons, will start. He rushed for 211 yards on 47 carries last year.
Overall, the Tigers lost 78 percent of their offensive production from the national championship team, but the defense should be formidable with seven returning starters and will be charged with holding serve until the offense catches up.
Seven starters return from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in total defense in 2016, including defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, both of whom are All-America candidates.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Kelly Bryant gets his first start, charged with the unenviable task of replacing Deshaun Watson. Bryant flashed his running ability during his two seasons as Watson's backup, but remains a largely unproven commodity in the passing game.
--WR Deon Cain is charged with replacing first-round draft pick Mike Williams, and he has shown he has the ability to do just that. Cain has 14 touchdowns on just 72 receptions over his first two seasons, which means he scores roughly every five receptions.
--DT Christian Wilkins was a first-team All-American and a finalist for the Nagurski Award in 2016. He finished with 56 tackles with 13 of them for losses and broke up a team-high 10 passes.
--DT Dexter Lawrence combines with Wilkins to give the Tigers the best defensive tackle combination in the nation. As a freshman last year, he recorded 78 tackles with seven of them sacks.
--QB Nick Holley is a threat as a runner after leading the team in rushing with 920 yards and rushing touchdowns with 10. He completed less than half (72) of his 146 pass attempts for just 868 yards and four touchdowns.
--LB Jim Jones has come up big in some of Kent State's biggest games. He had nine tackles against MAC champ Western Michigan and a career-high 11 against Northern Illinois to finish off his sophomore season.
--DB Jamal Parker finished his freshman season in a big way with three interceptions in his final two games. He also blocked a field goal in a win at Central Michigan.
--CB Demetrius Monday will be trying to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2016 season. Prior to that, he had six interceptions in 2015 and scored a pair of defensive touchdowns.
Akron at Penn State
KICKOFF: Saturday, noon ET
SITE: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
SERIES: Penn State leads Akron 5-0. The Nittany Lions haven't allowed more than 16 points in each of the last three meetings.
RANKINGS: Penn State No. 6
KEYS TO THE GAME
No. 6 Penn State will begin the season hoping to pick up where it left off on offense.
The Nittany Lions averaged 45.6 points in their final seven games as they surprisingly surged to the Big Ten title. They even scored 49 in the Rose Bowl against Southern California, before losing on a last-second field goal.
The main authors of that attack -- junior quarterback Trace McSorley and junior running back Saquon Barkley -- are back as Penn State opens the 2017 season against Akron on Saturday at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa.
"If you had to choose between Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, I think most people are going to say they are going to try to eliminate Saquon Barkley as much as they can and make Trace beat you," said Penn State coach James Franklin.
Whether Akron can stop either is the question.
Barkley set the school's sophomore rushing record with 1,496 yards last season. McSorley set school single-season records for passing yards (3,614), passing touchdowns (29) and total offense (3,979).
"You have to talk about them first because they have the ball in their hands," Akron coach Terry Bowden said on Philly.com.
"If the best player on Penn State's team is the offensive guard, he may kill our defensive lineman. But when your quarterback and your tailback are Heisman candidates, and the ball is going to be in their hands a lot, they can beat you themselves because of their ability to make big plays.
"I think those two, because they're going to touch the ball, because they had great years last year, are the ones that worry you the most."
Even with receiver Chris Godwin in the NFL, McSorley has ample targets, including sophomore wideout Juwan Johnson, who emerged in the offseason and through camp. At 6-foot-4 and 227 pounds, Johnson has the size and speed to create mismatches in an offense that loves to take shots down the field.
Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton is versatile and dependable, just 18 catches shy of breaking the school career record of 179, held by Deon Butler. Wideout Saeed Blacknall and tight end Mike Gesicki both made big plays last season. Gesicki led all Big Ten players at his position with 48 catches for 679 yards and five touchdowns.
McSorley's ability to extend plays with his feet make them all more dangerous.
The Zips allowed 466.0 yards per game last season in a 5-7 season in which they flopped against their one Big Ten foe, losing 54-10 at Wisconsin. Akron was picked to finish fourth in the MAC East this season in a vote of league coaches.
Injuries played a part in the losing record last season, but quarterback Tommy Woodson is back after offseason shoulder surgery. Akron, which returns 17 starters, is also eager to see more of running back Warren Ball, a 2016 Ohio State graduate transfer who was injured in the second game of last season and received a medical redshirt.
The Zips are led defensively by junior linebacker Ulysees Gilbert, who made 122 tackles last season, including 11.5 for loss and four sacks.
As Franklin embarks on his fourth season at Penn State, the Nittany Lions return nine starters on offense and six on defense. The coach said he's been through training camps that felt like a grind, but that wasn't the vibe around the Nittany Lions in August.
"I think more than anything, we've got a group of guys that decided they wanted to practice at a really, really high level every single day and made sure that happened," Franklin said. "There wasn't a day where the coaches left the field angry and frustrated and the players feeling like they could've gave more looking back at it after the fact."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--C Connor McGovern started nine games at guard as a true freshman last season and now switches to center where he'll anchor a line that's teeming with experience. McGovern played well last season as his sparkling recruiting resume suggested he would. Now the 6-foot-5, 307-pounder will be responsible for making the calls up front.
--DE Shareef Miller has shown flashes that he can develop into a bonafide pass rusher and now he has a lot more opportunity. While defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to rotate a bunch of players, he'll likely give the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Miller a good chunk.
--DE Torrence Brown, like Miller, has made the most of the reps he's gotten thus far. With Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels gone, Brown has a chance to star opposite Miller. He's got a big wingspan and added 10 pounds in the offseason.
--WR Juwan Johnson, according to receivers coach Josh Gattis, was performing at a level he probably hadn't seen from a receiver in practice midway through camp. He's got the size and speed to create mismatches and could be a focal point for coordinator Joe Moorhead down the field.
--RB Warren Ball, sixth-year senior, was ranked 22nd on Sports Illustrated's "Freaks List" in college football. Ball (6-1, 225) has been clocked at 4.4 seconds in the 40 and only has 3 percent body fat.
--QB Tommy Woodson started eight times last season, completing 146 of 242 passes for 2,079 yards and 18 touchdowns. He is fifth on the school's career passing chart with 5,087 yards.
Texas-El Paso at Oklahoma
KICKOFF: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
SITE: Gaylord Family -- Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Norman, Oklahoma
SERIES: Oklahoma leads UTEP 3-0, winning the last meeting 24-7 in El Paso in the 2012 season opener.
RANKINGS: Oklahoma No. 7
KEYS TO THE GAME
Lincoln Riley doesn't have a script for No. 7 Oklahoma's first few offensive plays of Saturday's season opener against UTEP.
"We just wing it," Riley said. "I'm serious, we don't even know what the first play call is until we get the huddle."
Riley's career to this point hasn't followed any kind of script so it's not surprising his play-calling philosophy would be any different.
The 33-year-old will make his head coaching debut this week after taking over for Bob Stoops, who retired suddenly in June after 18 years at the helm in Norman.
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield grew up around Bob Stoops and the Sooners, often making the trip from Austin, Texas, to attend games in Norman as a boy.
So it'll be strange for Mayfield to play for another head coach.
But at the same time, he has been closer to no one on the coaching staff than he has been to Riley.
Mayfield beat out Trevor Knight for the starting job in 2015, Riley's first season as the Sooners' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Riley is thrust not only into a new role as a head coach but doing it at a program with sky-high expectations with Mayfield and the entire offensive line returning intact from last year's Big 12 championship team.
"He knows why he's here and he's worked very hard and he's paid attention to the people around him," Mayfield said. "It's not just his own experiences, but he's learned from (Mike) Leach, from Ruffin (McNeill) at ECU and from Coach Stoops. He watched all those guys and took notes and paid attention to all of them. He hasn't changed at all and that's the best thing about him.
"You know you can build a relationship with him and he'll be there throughout every phase of your life."
All three of those running backs left for the NFL with eligibility remaining.
Riley faced no questions about UTEP at his weekly press conference Monday, his only mention of the Miners coming in his opening statement, where he praised UTEP coach Sean Kugler.
Riley mostly addressed his head coaching debut and the many questions surrounding his team, especially when it comes to offensive skill position players and the defense, with an eye looking toward next week's monumental game at Ohio State.
Kugler, however, talked plenty about the Sooners at his meeting with the media.
"I'm realistic when it comes to this game," Kugler said. "I'm not a fool. We're 45-point underdogs. But I'm also realistic with what type of team we have and I know these kids are going to go out and compete their tails off."
Coming off a 4-8 season and searching this year for just UTEP's second winning season since 2005, Kugler wants to see progress that the Miners can take into the rest of their schedule.
But he's also not writing off the game, even if he knows the odds are long.
"We can't drop balls," Kugler said. "We can't turn the ball over, and we're going to have to steal possessions from these guys, whether it's us running the ball efficiently and dragging out series and try to gain two possessions with possession time or gaining the ball on defense with one, two or three turnovers and gaining possessions that way.
"If you give Oklahoma extra possessions, they're going to make you pay because they have the talent to do that."
While the Sooners didn't turn the ball over much last season -- just 17 times -- they also didn't force many.
No defensive back had more than two interceptions despite the defense breaking up 55 passes.
"That's a high, high point of emphasis," Sooners defensive end/linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said.
The Sooners moved to a four-man defensive front this offseason to try to make it harder for quarterbacks to find much time in the pocket. While UTEP might not match up in many spots with Oklahoma, they will provide a test in that area at least.
The Miners' top player is left guard Will Hernandez, a preseason All-American.
"Even with all the good teams that we're going to play this year, I don't know that we'll play an offensive lineman individually any better than this guy," Riley said. "He's fantastic. He's got a bright future and looks like a guy that has a chance to play on Sundays for a long time."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--DE/LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo was the Sooners' best pass-rusher a year ago, with nine of OU's 25 total sacks. Okoronkwo will line up primarily as a defensive end this season after playing linebacker a year ago. One of Oklahoma's objectives will be to get to UTEP QB Ryan Metz often and Okoronkwo figures to play a huge role in that.
--OGs Ben Powers, Cody Ford and Dru Samia all started at times last season, with Powers stepping in for Ford at LG after Ford's season-ending injury against Ohio State. It's likely that all three will see similar action in the season opener, with Powers able to play either side.
--DT Matt Romar should see plenty of time matched up with UTEP OG Will Hernandez, a preseason All-American according to many publications. Romar has said he thought the Sooners' move to a four-man defensive front would help free him up more as a playmaker.
--WR CeeDee Lamb is among the large group of freshmen expected to play for the Sooners in Saturday's opener. Lamb is not only likely to see time on offense but is expected to be OU's punt returner in the game. Another receiver, Jeff Badet, is expected to return kicks.
--QB Ryan Metz started seven games last season, completing 64.7 percent of his passes and throwing for 14 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. Metz can move a little, too. He posted a career-long 42-yard dash against North Texas last season.
--OG Will Hernandez has started every game -- all 37 of them -- at the left guard during his three years with the Miners. He was selected to the AP preseason All-American second team and was rated the No. 3 guard nationally by Lindy's College Football Annuals.
Michigan vs. Florida
KICKOFF: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
SITE: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
SERIES: Michigan leads 3-0. The Wolverines won the last meeting 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016.
RANKINGS: Michigan No. 11, Florida No. 17
KEYS TO THE GAME
If the game on the field is as entertaining as the mind games the two coaches are playing, fans watching Florida and Michigan are in for a treat.
The teams meet Saturday in the Advocare Classic in Arlington, Texas. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. ET at AT&T Stadium with ABC doing the broadcast honors.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh refused to release his team's roster until Wednesday, declined to formally announce his quarterback, and then went overboard by insinuating No. 17 Gators coach Jim McElwain was the one playing games by not revealing his team's signal caller.
Michigan's Mason Cole hears all the chatter and just shrugs.
"We don't think anything of it," the senior said at a press conference. "We just go out and play. We don't really worry about the rosters."
All the secrets will be unearthed during Saturday's game, but this much is known: The Wolverines lost a lot of stars off last season's 10-3 squad while 10 Florida players will be serving suspensions.
Michigan had a school-record 11 players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, meaning there are new faces in new roles all over the field.
The Gators, who went 9-4 last season, have won 27 consecutive season openers -- the best streak in the nation -- but have questions of their own.
McElwain released a depth chart Tuesday but it didn't provide an answer when it comes to the starting quarterback.
Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, junior Luke Del Rio and Malik Zaire -- a graduate transfer from Notre Dame -- are all still candidates to open the game.
"The quarterback situation, we have a plan that's in place," McElwain told reporters. "I'm not going to tell you what it is, so there's no reason to ask, but we're excited about that. We'll leave that for them to guess, as well."
Meanwhile, junior Wilton Speight appears to once again be Michigan's quarterback after waging a tight battle with senior John O'Korn in fall camp. But Harbaugh isn't interested in revealing anything related to personnel.
"I have not heard Florida announce who their starting quarterback is going to be," Harbaugh said. "We'd love to have that information, and so, no, we're not announcing our starting quarterback."
The one undisputed fact about the matchup is that standout junior receiver Antonio Callaway (54 receptions for 721 yards last season) and junior running back Jordan Scarlett (889 yards) are among the Gators who will be serving suspensions on Saturday. The suspensions for Scarlett and redshirt freshman receiver Rick Wells were announced Wednesday.
Sophomore Lamical Perine, who rushed for 421 yards last season, will move into the featured running back role.
Florida figures to once again be stingy on defense. The Gators allowed an average of 16.8 points last season and junior Jared Zuniga (team-best five sacks) is back to deliver more damage.
Michigan's defense was ravaged by departures, creating more opportunity for ballyhooed defensive end Rashan Gary to live up to the hype. The sophomore is a second-team preseason All-American despite being a reserve last season, when he had 27 tackles, including five for loss.
Senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (4.5 sacks last season) goes from stellar backup to the leader of the line, while senior weak-side linebacker Mike McCray looks to follow up a campaign in which he registered 12.5 tackles for losses.
There are lots of new starters on the offensive side as well -- sophomore Chris Evans (614 yards) figures to be the starting running back -- but Harbaugh maintains he isn't concerned.
The coach, beginning his third season with the Wolverines, feels the transition has been smooth and he sees the chemistry developing.
"I like the way our team has worked," Harbaugh said.
"I've liked the way they've competed without complaint. That's been especially good. I like the way the team's hung together. I like the communication where we are with our football team on the field, communicating calls, and I like their understanding of what we're doing schematically. I like the way they worked."
Florida dealt with some offensive struggles last season after Del Rio (1,358 yards, eight touchdowns, eight interceptions) suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Del Rio underwent surgeries on both shoulders in the offseason and missed spring drills.
Though the Gators aren't tipping their hand per their starter, there has been a level of optimism due to how well the three candidates have practiced in August.
"Once we get rolling, I think our offense will be great. Once we get it rolling, I think nobody will be able to stop us," sophomore wide receiver Josh Hammond told reporters. "If we get it going early against a great team, it'll definitely boost a lot of confidence for us moving forward."
Callaway, Scarlett and Wells are among nine Florida players who are serving indefinite suspensions for misusing university funds. The others are defensive