College football fans get to wet their appetite for the 2018 season this past Saturday with “week 0”. But now, there are five straight days of college football to look forward to with non-stop action from Thursday through Labor Day night.
There’s a lot to look forward to so let’s break it down, starting with the first slate of games on Thursday night.
Game of the Night
Northwestern @ Purdue is the Thursday game of the night. Not just because it’s on ESPN, but because it’s the only all-power 5 conference matchup and a key Big Ten game to kick off the year. Our Big Ten projections have both teams finishing 7-5, so this could be a crucial game early on in the race for bowl eligibility.
Northwestern has two big questions to answer on offense – how do they replace their top offensive player, RB Justin Jackson, (who ran for 5,440 yards in 4 years) and who starts at QB? Returning starter Clayton Thorson is returning from a knee injury suffered in last year’s bowl game and is questionable to start.
Purdue has less questions and more depth as they look to build off an exciting year one of the coach Jeff Brohm era, which ended in a bowl victory. Elijah Sindelar or David Blough will start at QB and DJ Knox and Markell Jones are handling the back field.
Head Coaching Debuts
Two new head coaches begin their tenures on Thursday night. First, defending national champions UCF, coming off a 13-0 season and Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, replaces Scott Frost, who left for his alma mater, Nebraska. He is replaced by former Missouri OC and Oklahoma QB Josh Heupel, who gets his first crack at head coaching experience. The key for UCF’s season is the return of QB McKenzie Milton, so the momentum and talent is there for Heupel to continue the success. The Knights open up at Uconn, renewing their legendary Civil CONFLict rivalry.
Jimbo Fisher did what very few men have done before him – voluntarily leave one job for another with championship experience on his resume. Fisher led Florida State to the national championship during the 2013 season. He took the money (a lot of it) and ran to Texas A&M to help elevate the program beyond the 8-4 status. Fisher has an easy task week 1 against Northwestern State, which should serve as a good dress rehearsal for his QB competition (more on that below), but with Clemson coming to town week 2, they need to be sharp and prepared.
QBs to Watch
Kellen Mond, Texas A&M – the Aggies named true sophomore Kellen Mond the starter for week 1, but RS soph Nick Starkel should see plenty of playing time too in a game that should be a route. TAMU needs to be confident in their QB going forward with Clemson and Alabama in two out of three weeks to end September.
Zach Annexstad, Minnesota – PJ Fleck and the Gophers are taking the Baker Mayfield route, starting true freshman walk on Zach Annexstad at QB. He will debut against New Mexico State, who lost in week 0 to Wyoming.
McKenzie Milton, UCF – Milton is our 6th ranked QB in the country and has long shot Heisman hopes in 2018. To do so, he will need to use a true road conference game to help pad his stats.
Taylor Cornelius, Oklahoma State – Cornelius was named the starter but both he and Hawaii transfer Dru Brown should see playing time against Missouri State. The Cowboys have a relatively soft schedule to open the year (minus week 3 when Boise State visits) so they have some time to sort through both QBs strengths and weaknesses, but need to do it soon.
Tyler Huntley, Utah – Junior QB Tyler Huntley had an up and down first season as a starter last year, throwing 15 TDs, 10 INT and completing 63.8% of his passes. Utah hosts Weber State with a nice opportunity to put some points on the board and build momentum with a gauntlet PAC-12 schedule to open up – after playing @ Northern Illinois week 2, they open conference play with presumed favorites Washington at home, at Washington State, at Stanford, Arizona and USC.
Pursuit of Bowl Eligibility
Is it too early to talk about bowl eligibility and getting to six wins in August? Maybe but we’re doing it anyway! Wake Forest vs Tulane is a fun opening game and a rematch of the classic 2016 opener that ended 7-3 (Wake won that game). Both teams have come a long way since than and both have bowl aspirations in 2018. According to our ACC and AAC projections, both teams are picked to finish 6-6, which makes this an important game.
UAB is projected to have a strong since in Conference-USA. The concern with them is getting to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. The Blazers, who are a year removed from a two-year hiatus, returned to football in 2017 and played (and lost) and in the Bahamas Bowl. They are one of 11 teams (that are eligible for bowls in 2018) who have never won one . They open up at home against Savannah State. Worth noting, Louisiana-Monroe plays Southeastern Louisiana and they are also on that list.
Gambling Pick of the Night
I think Tulane beats Wake Forest outright and the moneyline is favorable in that case, but if you want to be cautious, take Tulane, at home, with +7 points. 4 of Tulane’s 7 losses in 2017 were by less than 7 points. It’s worth noting that in 2 of those other three, their opponent was #3 Oklahoma and #25 Memphis. They didn’t play UCF and lost to #21 USF by 6 points. Senior Jonathan Banks has plenty of experience running coach Willie Fritz’s complicated offensive system and Wake Forest’s normal starting QB, Kendall Hilton, is out due to suspension.
Upset of the Night
This is a slightly unconventional pick but give me coach Dan Hawkins, WR Keelan Doss and the UC Davis Aggies over San Jose State, in an FCS over FBS upset.
Stay tuned for our preview of Friday night’s action along with the rest of the weekend. You can also view our full week 1 picks.