The first of six College Football Playoff rankings will be revealed on Oct. 31, but the 13 members of the selection committee shouldn’t have to wait that long to determine who to take seriously. No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida State on Saturday in Atlanta will answer that.
“It really tells you, regardless of the result, where your team is, legitimately,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
It’s the first time since the AP preseason poll began in 1950 that the No. 1 team is facing a top-three opponent on opening weekend. It’s the best nonconference game in the past decade, according to ESPN’s Pregame Matchup Quality, and it features two of five Power 5 teams with the best chance to go undefeated this season, according to ESPN’s FPI.
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Top-ranked Alabama’s showdown with No. 3 Florida State is just one game in a five-day opening weekend that starts with Ohio State traveling to Indiana on Thursday night.
FSU or Bama — possibly even both if it’s a close game — will legitimize its spot as a top-four team after just one game. The question, of course, is if the winner can stay there. While there is only one epic opener, Week 1 is filled with intriguing matchups featuring ranked opponents — including No. 11 Michigan vs. No. 17 Florida, No. 2 Ohio State at Indiana, and No. 22 West Virginia vs. No. 21 Virginia Tech — but let’s remember they can also be fool’s gold as far as true playoff revelations go.
Remember Texas vs. Notre Dame last year? A double-overtime instant classic that faded quickly into playoff irrelevance. LSU vs. Wisconsin? Not even a Lambeau Leap could get them into the CFP last year. That was the same blockbuster opening weekend that then-No. 4 FSU beat then-No. 11 Ole Miss 45-34.
Two weeks later, FSU was embarrassed at Louisville, 63-20.
Fisher said the Seminoles’ preparation this summer has been much like last year when they opened against the Rebels.
“It motivates you every day because you know, ‘Listen, when I work out today I’ve got to work out at 1,000 percent, I can’t give it 90 percent or 95 percent,'” he said. “You hope your kids don’t ever do that, but at the same time that’s realistic, and knowing who you play, you’ve got to really be in shape, conditioned, and they may have watched more film and things like that, but our actual summer itself, our whole procedure and operation haven’t changed.”
Week 1 results, while important to the CFP race, are often mirages that look different come November, but many coaches agree with Saban that playing a tough nonconference opponent early provides a more accurate perspective on the true makeup of a team. Not all of them, though, want to take the gamble to find out.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who wasn’t thrilled with opening the 2014 season against No. 1-ranked Florida State. “I would prefer to go the other direction for a variety of reasons. One, a risk of injury. Two, you try to do everything you can to save as much energy and legs on your players throughout the season, and the more times they’re stressed out during the year, that makes it more difficult. I would say by playing a team early — a very, very, very difficult team — you’ll certainly find out where you are.”
Not to mention earn some credit with the selection committee, which has shown its preference for strong nonconference scheduling. Without the possibility of a marquee win early in the season, the Cowboys — and anyone else who chooses to play three unranked nonconference opponents — have less margin for error once they enter conference play.
Oklahoma sideline this year, as 33-year-old coach Lincoln Riley will open the season and his head coaching career against UTEP, but the outside world long ago already shifted its attention to the Sooners’ Week 2 game at Ohio State.
“I’ve done it both ways, where you’re playing an opponent that has a lot of notoriety or a high ranking and I’ve done it the other way, and I honestly don’t think it matters a ton,” Riley said. “I think the first game is just so much, nobody knows. It’s all guessing at this point. Nobody has seen these teams, these teams have not competed. We don’t have scrimmages like you do in high school, we don’t have preseason games like you do in the NFL. Nobody knows how good we’re going to be. Nobody knows how good UTEP or anybody else is going to be, either. The first game you’re really just trying to find yourself a little bit.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney agreed.
Last year, the Tigers began their run to the national title with a 19-13 win at Auburn. This year, Clemson opens against Kent State.
“Guys are so excited to go play, it doesn’t matter if it’s Florida State or Kent State,” Swinney said. “When you’ve spent a month just looking at each other and practicing against each other, you’re so excited to go play and perform. It’s like last year, going to play at Auburn. Those games, if you play one of those games, they’re really hard, you don’t have near as much room for error, things like that. But as far as finding out about your team, I don’t think you know everything about your team either way, whether you’re opening up against Auburn or opening against Kent State. I think you still have a lot to learn, there’s a lot to emerge either way.”
Saban said opening with a marquee opponent has benefits that continue throughout the season.
“I would rather play Florida State,” Saban said. “Not just Florida State, but a good team in the beginning of the season because I think it does a lot for your team and your team’s chances of being successful. … And if you play a really weak team and you win the game 45-7, you still don’t really know for sure if your team is really good or not good.”
Bama and FSU might be the only two teams in the country that will know that answer on Saturday.
Here are the top five games to track for opening week:
No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 1 Alabama (ABC WatchESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
Why it matters: The winner asserts itself as a leader in the CFP race, and boosts its résumé with what could turn out to be the best nonconference win of the season. The loser faces immense pressure to run the remainder of the table to return to Atlanta.
Number to know: 1983. No team has won a national title after losing its season opener since Miami recovered from a loss to Florida in Week 1 of 1983.
No. 2 Ohio State at Indiana (ESPN WatchESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
Why it matters: Because Ohio State can’t afford to start out 0-1 with Oklahoma coming to Columbus in Week 2. The Buckeyes have overcome an early loss before (in 2014 to Virginia Tech in Week 2) and went on to win it all, but an 0-2 start would be devastating.
Number to know: 100. Buckeyes QB J.T. Barrett has 100 total career touchdowns, six shy of the Big Ten record set by Purdue’s Drew Brees. He also has 8,846 career yards of total offense, four shy of breaking the school record set by Art Schlichter (1978-81).
No. 11 Michigan vs. No. 17 Florida (ABC WatchESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET)
Why it matters: This is Michigan’s only ranked opponent until its Oct. 21 trip to Penn State. If the Wolverines win the Big Ten, this is the kind of nonconference win that could separate it from another Power 5 champion.
BYU vs. No. 13 LSU (ESPN WatchESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET)
Why it matters: What would the selection committee do with an undefeated BYU team that has wins against LSU, Wisconsin and at Mississippi State? If the Cougars don’t beat LSU, they’ll never find out.
Number to know: 758. Derrius Guice ran for 758 yards in LSU’s final four games last season. From Week 11 on, that was 73 more yards than any other FBS player.
No. 22 West Virginia vs. No. 21 Virginia Tech (ABC WatchESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Why it matters: This is the only ranked nonconference opponent for both teams, and both of them also play East Carolina. Not only will the committee have this head-to-head result, it will also have a game against a common opponent. If either of these teams are still relevant in November, this game will have a lasting impact.
Number to know: 18. Josh Jackson will be the first freshman quarterback to start the season opener for Virginia Tech in 18 years. Michael Vick was the last in 1999.