#SEC

It ain’t just hype: The first weekend is legitimately great

NCAA Football
MARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS

It’s game week!

I can’t tell you how happy I am to write those words.

To those of us who live in the South, the start of college football season isn't just about the games that will soon be played for our entertainment. What we are feeling this week goes much deeper than that.

The start of college football season is the return of a dear, dear friend. He leaves us each January. Then we go through serious withdrawal pains, but we continue to talk about him through recruiting, spring ball and the dreaded dog days of summer. The calendar tells us he is going to return, but there are times in August when it feels that day will never, ever get here.

But the week has arrived and we embrace the game that always has provided a certain rhythm to our lives. To a lot of people, the New Year does not begin in January. It begins when college football season finally – and most mercifully – returns.

Alabama-Clemson celebration

We've been without college football since January, when Alabama's Cam Robinson (left) and Reuben Foster helped the Tide beat Clemson for the national title. MARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS

As I traveled around the South this summer I met so many people who plan their lives around college football season.

On August 9, several hundred people turned out in Cartersville, Ga., when broadcaster Wes Durham and I talked football for The Etowah Scholarship Foundation. It was just a random Tuesday night, but those folks couldn't wait for football to get here.

Last Friday, I met a couple in Greenville, S.C., who are South Carolina fans. Craig and Andi Cahaly are excited about their Gamecocks and the new coaching staff. They also can't wait to spend some quality time in Nashville before Thursday's South Carolina-Vanderbilt game.

On August 20, the activity room at the First United Methodist Church in Newnan, Ga., was packed with almost 200 people at 7:30 a.m. They got up really early to have breakfast, talk about college football and raise money for the Coweta Samaritan Clinic, which provides health care to underprivileged people in that area. I took one look at the crowd, all decked out in their school colors and said, "Folks, this doesn't happen in the Big Ten."

This summer I've spoken to Rotary Clubs, investment companies, a group of retirees in Highlands, N.C., quarterback clubs in Memphis and Huntsville and the men's breakfast club at my church, just to name a few. And the feeling from every group is the same: It has been a long time since Alabama beat Clemson in January in Glendale, Ariz. They are ready for the season to start right now.

Here's why: In an uncertain world where many things divide us, just about all of us can agree on this: College football – and grandchildren – are the two things in life that are not overrated.

Are there problems with college football? Of course. But the reality is that week after week college football always delivers.

And here is the really fun part. I've been covering college football for a long, long time. I'm not really big on "greatest of all time" labels (unless you're talking about Muhammad Ali). So I am not throwing this out there without giving it a lot of thought. But in my 40 years of covering this sport, I believe this is the best opening weekend of college football I have ever seen.

Just look at these eight games.

Houston vs. Oklahoma in Houston, Saturday, noon, ABC: The last time we saw Houston, the Cougars were 13-1 after thumping Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Technically, this is a neutral-site game to be played at NRG Stadium, home of the NFL's Houston Texans.

LSU vs. Wisconsin in Green Bay, Wis., Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC: LSU is loaded and will challenge Alabama in the SEC West if it gets decent play at quarterback.

UCLA at Texas A&M, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS: Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies need a good start. A year ago, new A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was at UCLA and working with Josh Rosen, the Bruins' sophomore quarterback. Now Mazzone's working with Trevor Knight at Texas A&M.

Georgia vs. North Carolina in Atlanta, Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN: Kirby Smart's first game as Georgia's coach.

Alabama vs. USC in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC: The defending national champions have a lot of questions, not the least of which is who will play quarterback.

Clemson at Auburn, Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN: Clemson, last season's national runner-up, has the best quarterback in the game (Deshaun Watson). Can Auburn keep it close?

Chad Kelly in Sugar Bowl after 2015 season

Chad Kelly and Ole Miss are involved in what may be the marquee game of the first weekend. DERICK E. HINGLE/USA TODAY SPORTS

Notre Dame at Texas, Sunday, 7:30 p.m., ABC: If Notre Dame is going to be a contender for the playoff, the Irish need to win this one. Needless to say, the eyes of Texas are on Longhorns coach Charlie Strong.

Florida State vs. Ole Miss in Orlando, Monday, 8 p.m., ESPN: Ole Miss has the SEC's best quarterback (Chad Kelly) but also a lot of holes.

And there are a bunch more games I could have added to this list. But here is what make this five-day opening weekend the best ever: At least six of those games will have a direct bearing on the College Football Playoff discussion. And that discussion will begin immediately after this weekend is over.

Example: What if No. 15 Houston beats No. 3 Oklahoma? Suddenly, Houston – which plays host to Louisville on November 17 in what should be one of the best Thursday night matchups of the season – is in the playoff discussion as a team that could go 13-0. Oklahoma, which plays host to Ohio State on September 17, is in trouble if it loses Saturday.

What if USC beats No. 1 Alabama? I don't expect that to happen, but if it did, Alabama suddenly has more issues with a road schedule that includes trips to Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU.

I've seen scenarios where No. 2 Clemson and No. 4 Florida State both make it to the playoffs. The key is both teams staying undefeated until they meet in Tallahassee on October 29. If either stumbles out of the gate against an SEC opponent, that scenario is less likely.

No. 10 Notre Dame can stay in the playoff discussion with one loss but not with two. So it's important for the Irish to win at Texas with games against Michigan State, Stanford and USC coming up.

The point is that in years past, we've sort of eased into the season and waited a few weeks for the national championship picture to take shape. This season, we're jumping into the deep end of the pool on the first weekend. By the time Florida State and Ole Miss finish their business on Labor Day night, we'll have a whole lot to talk about.

Welcome back, college football. Brother, we have really missed you.

(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)

© 2016, Tony Barnhart. All rights reserved.

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