The 2015 college football season begins Thursday and, unlike in some of the recent past seasons in the BCS era, there are actually plenty of games worth watching this weekend. And a handful of them even have immediate impact on this season's playoff picture.
Here's the full list of this weekend's games (when and where and on what network), but let's get right to the games most worth watching:
Game of the Week
Ohio State at Virginia Tech, Monday 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
No fewer than 10 of the playoff contenders were undecided at quarterback going into camp in August and defending national champion Ohio State is one of them. The big difference is that the Buckeyes didn't have a dilemma (defined as needing to select between two bad choices) but an embarrassment of riches. Urban Meyer really can't go wrong with either J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones.
But whoever starts at QB on Monday night is going to be severely tested by a Virginia Tech team that registered the only blemish on Ohio State last season. And this game is at hostile Blacksburg with the Buckeyes missing several key players due to suspensions and injuries, including star defensive end Joey Bosa. While we know an early-season loss won't necessarily derail their quest to repeat, the Buckeyes will not want to show so much vulnerability this early.
Other games the committee will be watching
TCU at Minnesota, Thursday 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Washington at Boise State, Friday 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Auburn vs. Louisville at Atlanta, Saturday 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Virginia at UCLA, Saturday 3:30 p.m. ET, FOX
BYU at Nebraska, Saturday 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Arizona State vs. Texas A&M at Houston, Saturday 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Texas vs. Notre Dame, Saturday 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC
Alabama vs. Wisconsin at Arlington, Saturday 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Yes, the 13 members of the playoff selection committee will have to keep their remotes handy so they can keep track of at least half a dozen potential playoff teams that will be facing high-profile opponents this weekend. Many of them are unsettled at quarterback, including Alabama, which will be debuting its third signal caller in as many seasons after having just three starting QBs in Nick Saban's first seven seasons in Tuscaloosa.
A pair of teams potentially in play for one of the New Year's Six berths are also facing quality opponents this weekend. Boise State, last year's Group of Five representative, welcomes back Chris Petersen and his Washington Huskies to the blue turf. The Broncos are once again the top choice to land an NY6 spot and a second consecutive victory over a Pac-12 team (after beating Arizona in last season's Fiesta Bowl) will immediately boost their prospects.
BYU also has designs on an NY6 berth, maybe even a playoff spot. Moreover, the Cougars are officially auditioning for inclusion in a Power 5 conference, most likely the Big 12. A road victory over erstwhile Big 12 stalwart Nebraska will not only be noticed by the selection committee, but also commissioner Bob Bowlsby and other power brokers of that conference.
Also keep an eye on ...
Michigan at Utah, Thursday 8:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
The most hyped game of the week probably is none of the above, but Jim Harbaugh's coaching debut at his alma mater. The Wolverines are coming off a 5-7 season that also led to the dismissals of former AD Dave Brandon and coach Brady Hoke. But upon Harbaugh's messianic return to Ann Arbor, Michigan has been the most talked-about program for the past eight months.
But Harbaugh has anything but a red carpet rolled out for his return to the college ranks. The Utes are good enough to contend in the brutal Pac-12 South. And after having trounced Michigan at the Big House last season, they will be in no mood to play gracious host at Rice-Eccles.
Grambling at Cal, Saturday 5 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network
Every week we'll pick out a team to direct our special venom at for scheduling a mismatch. While we generally do not look favorably upon FBS teams stomping on overmatched FCS foes, we're grudgingly OK if you're playing a North Dakota State or Eastern Washington that might be better than half of the FBS teams, including Power 5 programs.
But we're definitely not OK with this game. Because this is not your father's or grandfather's Grambling. It's a pathetic shadow of its former formidable self.
While the Tigers went a respectable 7-5 last season, they won just two games in the previous two seasons combined. They have not beaten an FBS team since a 23-6 win over Oregon State in 1985 (when the legendary Eddie Robinson was still coaching). And since 2000, Grambling has been outscored 544-95 while losing all 13 games against FBS teams.
The Tigers, who ranked 108th among 121 FCS teams last season in passing yards allowed, open as a 43 1/2-point underdog against pass-happy Cal. If the Golden Bears don't hang at least 60 on Grambling, it should count as a loss. And even if they do, it should still count for nothing.
We probably gave this away in our contender and pretender list, but here's our preseason top 15:
1. Ohio State, 2. TCU, 3. Oregon, 4. Georgia, 5. Alabama, 6. USC, 7. Michigan State, 8. Notre Dame, 9. Clemson, 10. UCLA, 11. Auburn, 12. Florida State, 13. LSU, 14. Baylor, 15. BYU.