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#Nuggets: This is the biggest opening weekend ever, literally and figuratively

After a pandemic-induced absence, college football's non-conference season returns with a jam-packed opening weekend.

Before we begin, a programming note. Nuggets has been the Internet's most comprehensive college football recap for many seasons running (I honestly don't remember when I started this column. It was probably somewhere around 2014.) Due to life changes -- i.e., my 3rd grader's football team regularly kicking off games at 4 p.m., and/or in towns an hour away from home -- I faced a choice: change my approach to covering college football weekends or miss his entire season. That wasn't much of a choice at all. It's simply no longer realistic to park myself on the couch from 11 a.m. Central to 11 p.m. Pacific. 

We'll still have plenty of post-game coverage each Sunday and Monday, but Nuggets has evolved. Rather than serving you the most comprehensive 1-click weekend review on the Internet, the goal is to deliver the biggest, best weekend preview on the Internet.

And, boy, what a week to begin.

Clemson and Georgia stage one of the greatest openers ever. The No. 3 Tigers and No. 5 Bulldogs are playing the first Top 5 vs. Top 5 opener since No. 1 Alabama opened 2017 with a 24-7 defeat of No. 3 Florida State; Alabama would go on to win the national title in the same stadium, Florida State still hasn't recovered from that loss.

We don't yet know when the College Football Playoff will expand, assuming it does, but there's a chance this is the last of these "Holy crap! The winner of this game is going to the Playoff and the loser's out!" games. The 12-team field will make October and November more interesting for more teams, but that will come at the expense of games like these. We'll see more top-10 teams willing to share the field with each other in the season's opening weeks, because they'll know their Playoff fate won't be determined before Labor Day.

As for now, though, the stakes of this game are clear: the winner moves to the front of the line for the 4-team field, while the loser will spend the next four months with their back against the wall. 

I'm not going to sit here and say Saturday night's loser has to win out, however. 

While it's true that all 28 teams to reach the CFP thus far did so with no more than one loss, are we really going to sit here and declare a 2-loss Georgia -- with, say, a 3-point loss to Clemson; a 2-point loss to Kentucky; and wins over Auburn, Florida, and Alabama in the SEC Championship -- won't make the Playoff? Of course not. Clemson should enter Saturday with a greater sense of urgency. Dabo Swinney's Tigers don't have a single ranked opponent on their schedule outside of Georgia, and the only other ranked ACC team is No. 10 North Carolina.

Georgia has finished first or second nationally in yards per carry allowed over the past two seasons; Clemson led the nation in 2018 and has finished among the top 25 in that metric for seven seasons running. This game likely boils down to which of these acronymed Californian QBs -- Georgia's JT Daniels, Clemson's DJ Uiagaleilei -- plays better, and plays better early.

This is a clash that could very well have long, loud echoes -- to Selection Sunday in December and Heisman Saturday in December, to the championship game in January, to the 2022 draft in April. 

While Clemson is more desperate for a win collectively, Kirby Smart needs this win more personally. His roster is annually among the most talented in college football, but the results haven't borne that out, at least not yet. 247Sports ranks Georgia as the second-most talented team in college football, a step behind Alabama, which also happens to be the most talented team in the metric's 7-year history. 

247Sports Team Composite Rankings (since 2015)
1. 2021 Alabama -- 1,004.04 points
2. 2021 Georgia -- 1,001.75
3. 2017 Alabama -- 997.57
4. 2020 Georgia -- 990.52
5. 2020 Alabama -- 985.86

And yet Kirby has dropped four straight games against AP Top 5 opponents. Kirby the Recruiter has done his job, this season will serve as a referendum on Kirby the Game Day Coach. 

Oh, and one other storyline: The last time Georgia lost its opener: 2013, in a 38-35 setback to Clemson. The last time Clemson lost its opener: 2014, in a 45-21 defeat to Georgia. 

Clemson-Georgia is most certainly the biggest game of the weekend, but it may not be the most consequential. That honor belongs to No. 23 Louisiana at No. 21 Texas (4:30 p.m. ET, Fox). To date, no Sun Belt team has ever played in a New Year's Six game. It'll still be an uphill climb for Billy Napier's Cajuns even with a win in Austin, but any hope of reaching the Peach or Fiesta bowl pretty much require the Cajuns beat the Longhorns. 

For that reason, you can argue this is the biggest game in Louisiana's 121-year history. No big deal.

I've written on the stakes for Texas multiple times this offseason. To quote myself, from defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski's entry as the most important assistant coaching hire in college football.

No, Texas has to be competitive the moment it joins the SEC, which means it has to recruit well, which means it has to win straight out of the gate next month. And considering the offense, at least the passing game, appears to be a work in progress with two quarterbacks competing to be a first-time starter -- "(N)either guy played up to the standard that I that view as acceptable," Sarkisian said after UT's first scrimmage Saturday -- the defense has to carry the team early, with the weight of the entire university on its back.

Tom Herman memorably dropped his opener, at home, to Maryland. Texas coaches are 1-6 in their first games against ranked opponents since Darrell Royal's hiring. The only two coaches to face ranked opponents in their openers -- David McWilliams and John Mackovic -- both lost. 

What follows after this for Texas: a trip to a fired-up Fayetteville to face Arkansas, and then the most difficult Big 12 schedule in years. No pressure.

Two interesting games in LA. Chip Kelly secured his first non-conference win as UCLA's head coach with last week's pummeling of Hawai'i. Next up: No. 16 LSU (8:30 p.m. ET, Fox). "This is our Super Bowl," Kelly said.

It's LSU's first Los Angeles visit in a generation (1984, at USC), and the Tigers will come prepared. Ed Orgeron's crew needs to show the 5-5 showing of 2020 was the aberration, not the 2019 national championship. Expect Hurricane Ida to provide more purpose to LSU's playing and its fans' partying.

Across town, No. 15 USC hosts a tricky opener against defending Mountain West champion San Jose State, led by 11th-year senior Nick Starkel at quarterback. If there's an under-the-radar upset pick that's so under-the-radar no one's talking about it, this is it.

The end of an era for Alabama. Since 2008, Alabama has opened all but two seasons at neutral sites (not counting 2020's odd circumstances). Every one of them ended in a double-digit victory. 

2008: vs. No. 9 Clemson (at Atlanta): W, 34-10
2009: vs. No. 7 Virginia Tech (at Atlanta): W, 34-24
2010: vs. San Jose State
2011: vs. Kent State
2012: vs. No. 8 Michigan (at Dallas): W, 41-14
2013: vs. Virginia Tech (at Atlanta): W, 35-10
2014: vs. West Virginia (at Atlanta): W, 33-23
2015: vs. No. 20 Wisconsin (at Dallas): W, 35-17
2016: vs. No. 20 USC (at Dallas): W, 52-6
2017: vs. No. 3 Florida State (at Atlanta): W, 24-7
2018: vs. Louisville (at Orlando): W, 51-14
2019: vs. Duke (at Atlanta): W, 42-3
2020: vs. USC (at Dallas): Canceled due to pandemic
2021: vs. No. 14 Miami (at Atlanta): ???

The 2022 Alabama begins in Tuscaloosa against Utah State. The following week, the Tide begin a home-and-home with Texas. Home-and-homes with Wisconsin, Florida State, West Virginia and others will follow. Nick Saban's Tide are near 20-point favorites to end this era a perfect 11-for-11. 

Alabama isn't the only team putting major opening weekend streaks on the line. The longest opening week win streak belongs to Ohio State, at 21 games. Here are the five longest 1-0 streaks. 

Week 1 Winning Streaks

1. Ohio State -- 21
2. Alabama -- 19
3. Air Force -- 14
4. Cincinnati -- 10
5. Marshall -- 8

Last year's covid-altered schedules snapped a lot of opening game winning streaks. Utah, for instance, had won 12 straight openers before beginning 2020 with a loss to USC. 

Week 1 Losing Streaks
1. FIU -- 5
    New Mexico State -- 5
    Oregon State -- 5
4. East Carolina -- 4
    Florida State -- 4
    Middle Tennessee -- 4
    Utah State -- 4

The Big Ten begins the season with a big bang. The conference that infuriated the entire sport with the way it tip-toed into the 2020 season leaps into 2021 with a cannonball. Already we saw Illinois move to 1-0 in conference play at Nebraska's expense, and more Big Ten-on-Big Ten carnage follows this weekend.

-- No. 4 Ohio State at Minnesota (8 p.m. ET Thursday, Fox)
-- Michigan State at Northwestern (9 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN)
-- No. 19 Penn State at No. 12 Wisconsin (noon ET, Fox)
-- No. 17 Indiana at No. 18 Iowa (3:30 p.m. ET, BTN)

Thursday marks Ohio State's first trip to Minneapolis since 2014, and Penn State's visit to Camp Randall will be its first since 2013 and just its ninth since joining the Big Ten nearly 30 years ago. 

The most biggest opening weekend ever (figuratively) is also the biggest (literally). College football has put the Week in Week 1. The weekend begins Wednesday night with UAB meeting Jacksonville State in Montgomery and continues for six straight nights. Sixteen games go down Thursday night, eight more follow on Friday. After the main course on Saturday, we get two desserts: No. 9 Notre Dame at Florida State on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and Louisville vs. Ole Miss in Atlanta on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). 

A major Group of 5 showdown. The best teams are understandably wary of embracing the Group of 5 label, but Thursday night gives us a clash of the titans in this sub-sub-division of college football -- the first-ever meeting between Boise State and UCF, from Orlando (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). 

Boise State has booked 15 10-win seasons in its last 20 tries, winning 12 conference titles and two Fiesta Bowls. Since 2007, UCF has seven 10-win seasons, six conference championships, wins in the Peach and Fiesta bowls, and a self-proclaimed national championship.

Cincinnati holds the mantle as the top G5 team, and neither the Broncos or Knights enter Thursday night ranked. (Boise has only one preseason ranking since 2016, after entering six of the preceding seven seasons in the AP Top 25; UCF's string of three straight preseason rankings ended last month.) But these two brands are still the strongest of the genre, and this should have as much or more of a big game feel than any this weekend.

This would sure be a good opportunity for proof of life in Tallahassee. Notre Dame and Florida State have played just 10 times previously, and almost all of them seem to be consequential. A quick rundown: 

1993: No. 2 ND beats No. 1 FSU 31-24 in South Bend in one of the biggest regular season games ever -- this was College GameDay's first road show. (The Irish would lose to Boston College the following week and the 'Noles would win their first national title.)

1995: No. 6 FSU beats No. 8 ND 31-26 in the Orange Bowl.

2002: The peak of the Tyrone Willingham era. In his first season, No. 6 ND moves to 8-0 with a 34-24 defeat of No. 11 FSU in Tallahassee. Willingham would go 13-15 from there.

2014: No. 2 FSU survives No. 5 ND 31-27 when a game-winning Irish touchdown is called back for offensive pass interference. It was the defending national champions' 23rd straight win. 

Beating the No. 9 team in the country may be too steep a hill for a Seminoles program now five years removed from its last winning season but, boy, is this a golden-domed opportunity for Mike Norvell's outfit to look competent. We mentioned the 2017 game above, but openers have not been kind to Florida State during this reign of mismanagement and incompetence -- the 24-3 home loss to Virginia Tech open the Willie Taggart era on Labor Day of 2018, turning a 31-13 lead into a 36-31 defeat to Boise State in 2019, last season's loss to Georgia Tech. 

Head coaching debuts. We touched on a few of these already, but here are the head coaching debuts for all the 2021 new hires. Guys coaching their first game as a full-tiome head coach, period, are noted*.

*Jedd Fisch (Arizona): vs. BYU (at Las Vegas) -- 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Butch Jones (Arkansas State): vs. Central Arkansas -- 7 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Bryan Harsin (Auburn): vs. Akron -- 7 p.m. ET, SEC Network+
Andy Avalos (Boise State): at UCF -- 7 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN
*Maurice Linguist (Buffalo): vs. Wagner -- 7 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN3
Bret Bielema (Illinois): defeated Nebraska, 30-22
Lance Leipold (Kansas): vs. South Dakota -- 8 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN+
Terry Bowden (ULM): at Kentucky -- noon ET, SEC Network
*Charles Huff (Marshall): at Navy -- 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
*Kane Wommack (South Alabama): vs. Southern Miss -- 8 p.m. ET, ESPN+
*Shane Beamer (South Carolina): vs. Eastern Illinois -- 7 p.m. ET, SEC Network+
Will Hall (Southern Miss): at South Alabama -- 8 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Josh Heupel (Tennessee): vs. Bowling Green -- 8 p.m. ET Thursday, SEC Network
Steve Sarkisian (Texas): vs. No. 23 Louisiana -- 4:30 p.m. ET, Fox
Gus Malzahn (UCF): vs. Boise State -- 7 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN
Blake Anderson (Utah State): at Washington State -- 11 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network
*Clark Lea (Vanderbilt): vs. East Tennessee State -- 8 p.m. ET, SEC Network+

Of course, no coach, in any job, has more personally at stake than South Carolina GA Zeb Noland, who will start at quarterback for the Gamecocks. 

Rapid Fire:

Northern Iowa at No. 7 Iowa State (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+): Iowa State reliably improves throughout the season under Matt Campbell's leadership, which is the polite way of saying Campbell's teams regularly stink in openers. The Cyclones are 2-3 in Week 1, including last season's loss to Louisiana, a 2016 loss to Northern Iowa, and a 2019 game with UNI where the ISU needed triple overtime to survive the Panthers. 

Texas Tech vs. Houston (7 p.m. ET, ESPN): This is the fifth Raiders-Cougars game since the breakup of the Southwest Conference. Houston took the first, but Tech has since won three straight. Both Matt Wells and Dana Holgorsen need wins here after going 15-27 collectively in their first two seasons on the job.

Florida Atlantic at No. 13 Florida (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network): The fourth Owls-Gators meeting ever. Florida is 3-0, although the margin of the 2015 meeting, the most recent, was just six points.

Louisville vs. Ole Miss (8 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN): Everyone (rightly) drools over Lane Kiffin's offense, but have we forgotten about a Rebels defense that surrendered 38.3 points, 519 yards and 207 rushing yards per game last season? The over/under is 75.5. We may get there by halftime. 

No. 2 Oklahoma vs. Tulane (noon ET, ABC): This was supposed to be the biggest game ever at Yulman Stadium. Alas, Ida had other plans. The Green Wave will still "host" the Sooners, they'll just do so on the Sooners' home field. 

Fresno State at No. 11 Oregon (2 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network): Will any team see as big a week-to-week whiplash as Fresno State? After pounding the UConn puppies 45-0 a week ago, the Bulldogs now get to deal with the No. 11 team in the country in Autzen Stadium.