The obsession with college football led to the creation of “Week 0” and it’s an American oxymoron to which no one will object. The tribalism compared to the NFL’s fandom spreading to every corner of the country that comes with having a longer season – that will only get longer next season with the extension of the College Football Playoff – is good for sports. And the traditional beginning of the season is here with 11 games featuring FBS teams on Thursday night. Only four of those matchups are without an FCS team, but this slate gives us an under-the-radar preview of the rest of the season.
By far the biggest game of the night is Florida traveling to face Big-12-bound Utah, competing in a season opener as part of the Pac-12 for the final time. It’s the rematch from both team’s openers a year ago, with the Gators pulling that huge upset of then-No. 7 Utah in Gainesville. It’s the game with Anthony Richardson’s fake-out 360 to find a wide-open receiver for a 2-point conversion that might’ve single-handedly lifted him to the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL Draft and starting for the Colts. Florida wasn’t bowl-eligible without that win last season and may need to pull another upset to not be on the wrong side of the postseason line in 2023. It’s year No. 2 under Billy Napier at The Swamp and the rest of the SEC East’s non-division winners, because let’s face it, the SEC Championship Game will be Georgia versus the SEC West’s winner, are all expected to have decent seasons at least.
Vanderbilt is no longer the division’s doormat, even though the Commodores are a common pick for last place again. South Carolina, Missouri, and Kentucky have a wide range of expectations from sixth to second place in the conference standings. The Gamecocks, Tigers, and Wildcats respectively should all be good enough to make a bowl game and I wouldn’t be shocked if those are three losses for Florida. Then there’s Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, and LSU to round out SEC action. And a season finale against Florida State? I’m calling it now: Florida isn’t making a bowl game this season. And Napier’s seat will be white hot entering 2024. As for Utah, with an outside shot at the final four-team CFP, I believe it’s the third-best team in the Pac-12 and needs a convincing win against the Gators to gain momentum for harder challenges down the road.
My daring pick of NC State making a New Year’s Six Bowl last year didn’t pan out, and that’s okay, as the Wolfpack still went 8-5. They begin this season by facing whatever UConn has left of a college football program before facing Week 0 heroes Notre Dame next week. Kent State vs. UCF will be a fun game, but is merely interesting because it’s scheduled during a time that’s not heavily populated by others. The final all-FBS matchup is actually a Big Ten Conference game between Nebraska, which had its volleyball team sell out its football stadium this week, and Minnesota. It’s game No. 1 of the Matt Rhule era for the Cornhuskers and get ready for them to still suck. All the fan support in the world doesn’t make a good team and it’ll take the former Carolina Panthers head coach more than a year to right the ship. People forget, with how good a pedigree Nebraska has, that the program hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2016. That doesn’t change this year. In the other seven games, the best chance of an FBS team being upset I’ll give to Elon. Ranked No. 18 in the FCS, and facing a Sam Hartman-less Wake Forest about 50 miles from campus, the Phoenix definitely have a chance to pull it off.