USA TODAY Sports Weekly

College football ’21: Sizing up big games that fill the Week 1 schedule, including ClemsonGeo­rgia, Penn State-Wisconsin.

- Eddie Timanus

Games to watch in college football’s Week 1:

No. 9 North Carolina at Virginia Tech

Friday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN Tipico Sports line: North

Carolina by 5 1⁄2

One could make the case that this Friday night special is the most important game of the loaded opening weekend slate. It’s a key clash in the ACC Coastal Division that will give the winner an important leg up for the remainder of the season. The Tar Heels have the potential to challenge Clemson for the league title should they reach the final but have much work to do first starting here in Blacksburg. The Hokies, with an upset victory or at least a competitiv­e showing at home, could go a long way toward cooling the somewhat warm seat of coach Justin Fuente.

The primary reason for the optimism of UNC fans is the return of prolific QB Sam Howell. He will, however, have a lot of new playmakers around him who must establish themselves quickly, though the Virginia Tech defense must also be retooled. The Hokies attack will be in the hands of dual-threat QB Braxton Burmeister, who will also be in search of a reliable backfield running mate.

Prediction: The crowd will be fired up under the lights as “Enter Sandman” blasts through the stadium. Eventually, though, the Tar Heels’ overall depth and talent will take charge.

North Carolina, 38-24

No. 20 Penn State at No. 15 Wisconsin

Saturday, noon ET, Fox Tipico Sports line: Wisconsin

by 5 1⁄2

The Big Ten also leaps directly into conference play with a pair of top-25 clashes. Both are cross-divisional tilts and thus are not make-or-break prospects as far as the league championsh­ip hunt is concerned. But nobody wants to be working from behind moving forward. This first contest of the day features teams coming off somewhat disappoint­ing seasons for different reasons. The Nittany Lions got off to a 0-5 start in 2020, while the Badgers had trouble getting on the field at all due to COVID-19 cancellati­ons. Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz is back, but the Badgers must reestablis­h their identity as a potent running team. Penn State QB Sean Clifford is also back, but his protection will have to be better.

Prediction: A low-scoring affair might favor the Badgers, who like to control the time of possession. But the Nittany Lions, with just a few more explosive plays, will do enough to get out with the “W.”

Penn State, 24-16

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 16 Miami (Florida) in Atlanta

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC Tipico Sports line: Alabama by 181⁄2

The Crimson Tide open their defense of their 2020 national championsh­ip with a lot of new names on the depth chart. The Hurricanes haven’t been in the title conversati­on for a number of years but have a chance to create the season’s first huge splash. The keys to the Alabama offense, now under the direction of coordinato­r Bill O’Brien, will be handed to QB Bryce Young. With him will be Brian Robinson, who will be ready to step in as the featured back. Miami’s season hinges largely on the health of veteran QB D’Eriq King, who sustained a severe knee injury in last season’s bowl game but has been a full go in preseason practice.

Prediction: King will make his share of plays, even against the Alabama defense that will feature a strong linebackin­g group. But the Tide will make more and will roll on.

Alabama, 41-21

No. 17 Indiana at No. 18 Iowa

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN Tipico Sports line: Iowa by 3 1⁄2

The Big Ten’s second battle of top-25 squads pits the Hawkeyes, one of the league’s most consistent programs, against the upstart Hoosiers hoping to follow up on last year’s breakout campaign that have football expectatio­ns in Bloomingto­n higher than they’ve ever been at what is usually thought of as a basketball school. IU QB Michael Penix had his season cut short by injury last year but returns along with dynamic WR Ty Fryfogle. The Hawkeyes offense isn’t usually as explosive, and incumbent QB Spencer Petras will be working behind a deep but somewhat inexperien­ced line.

Prediction: The Iowa defense will keep the Hawkeyes in it for most of the day. But the offense that struggled on third down in 2020 will give the Hoosiers too many chances.

Indiana, 23-17

No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 19 Texas

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, Fox Tipico Sports line: Texas by 8 1⁄2

The sneaky good matchup on the opening week slate pits the Longhorns, under new management as Steve Sarkisian takes over, against the Ragin’ Cajuns, one of last year’s surprise teams sporting a preseason ranking for the first time. The Cajuns stunned Iowa State on the road in their season opener a season ago, but Texas will not be caught off guard. That upset in Ames was fueled by breakdowns on special teams by the Cyclones, so ULL will need a more complete game from QB Levi Lewis to pull off another stunner. Sarkisian gave the starting QB nod to redshirt freshman Hudson Card over junior Casey Thompson, though Thompson is likely to play in the game, but the star of the offense could be RB Bijan Robinson.

Prediction: As mentioned, there is no element of surprise this time with the Cajuns coming to town. ULL does have talent, but the Longhorns should have more.

Texas, 38-27

No. 2 Clemson vs.

No. 5 Georgia in Charlotte, North Carolina

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC Tipico Sports line: Clemson

by 3 1⁄2

The headliner for the weekend and the season’s first top-5 matchup is certainly worthy of its prime-time placement. It won’t matter in either team’s

quest for conference supremacy, and it’s early enough that the loser will not be out of the playoff picture. But it will be a good indicator of how good these two national contenders are and of what each will have to do better as the year progresses. Both teams for the most part know what they have at QB, though Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei hasn’t seen as much live action. Bulldogs QB J.T. Daniels is back to provide the aerial threat Georgia has been missing for much of the Kirby Smart era, but he might not have the weapons on the receiving end with George Pickens rehabbing a serious knee injury.

Prediction: The difference here could be the defensive lines. The Bulldogs have a very good one, but the Tigers have a potentiall­y great one. Look for Clemson to make more negative plays, including one big one in the fourth to seal it. Clemson, 28-24

No. 13 LSU at UCLA

LSU by 1⁄2

The handful of so-called Week Zero contests that jumpstarte­d the 2021 season last weekend did little to shed light on the rest of the campaign – with one possible exception. A few prognostic­ators had UCLA pegged as a possible dark-horse contender in the Pac-12 South Division, and the Bruins’ impressive outing against an overmatche­d Hawaii team could mean those expectatio­ns are warranted. But we’ll know a lot more when a much stronger LSU squad visits the Rose Bowl. The Tigers are coming off a disappoint­ing follow-up to their 2019 national title run and will 3

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Fox Tipico Sports line:

be eager to start this campaign off right. There was a bit of a setback for LSU in the offseason, however, when QB Myles Brennan suffered a fluke arm injury.

Max Johnson must assume the reins against a defense with a game under its belt. Veteran Bruins QB Dorian ThompsonRo­binson didn’t have to do much against the Rainbow Warriors as his line paved the way to a dominant 244-yard ground game. He’ll certainly have to do more against the Tigers as CB Derek Stingley and the LSU secondary look to show they are better than last year’s dismal numbers indicated.

Prediction: There might be a bit of rust for the visitors who’ve had their game-week schedule altered by Hurricane Ida. UCLA will make things happen early to provide a scare, but the Tigers will find their footing after halftime and pull clear. LSU, 37-24

 ?? MARK ALBERTI/USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Sean Clifford has thrown 41 touchdown passes against 16 intercepti­ons in 25 games at Penn State.
MARK ALBERTI/USA TODAY SPORTS Sean Clifford has thrown 41 touchdown passes against 16 intercepti­ons in 25 games at Penn State.
 ?? KIRBY LEE/USA TODAY SPORTS ?? In the rout of Hawaii, quarterbac­k Dorian Thompson-Robinson had one TD pass as UCLA relied on its ground game (43 carries, 244 yards and four TDs).
KIRBY LEE/USA TODAY SPORTS In the rout of Hawaii, quarterbac­k Dorian Thompson-Robinson had one TD pass as UCLA relied on its ground game (43 carries, 244 yards and four TDs).

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