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Top 10 NCAA Football Games to Watch on Opening Weekend of the 2021 Season

By Dan Vasta in College Football
| July 9, 2021 5:34 am PDT
College Football 2021

College football will soon be back, and many have never been more excited for a season than the one upcoming in 2021.

The pageantry of college football should be better than ever this year. The tailgating and die-hard fans that treat every fall Saturday like the Super Bowl are why college football is arguably the best sport in America.

The pure entertainment, joy, and love will be back for all the announcers that are calling this great sport. Without the fans, though, the sport loses a ton of its luster, and we all felt that last season. We were fortunate enough to even have a season last year, and many are still grateful for that.

Opening weekend will be here before you know it. So, without further ado, here are your top college football games to watch on the opening weekend in 2021.

September 4: Clemson vs. Georgia (Charlotte)

The opening weekend of college football is always can’t miss television, and it is only more thrilling if you get to witness the matchups in person.

This game is everything fans around the country want. Clemson and Georgia will both be preseason Top 5 teams with national title or bust mentalities.

In fact, you can dive more into their expectations (and others) in my 2021 college football preseason Top 10 rankings.

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Something has to give, but it won’t be shocking if both teams reach the College Football Playoff as they both did together in 2018.

Both coaches have major expectations, and none could be bigger than Kirby Smart. It’s been since 1980 in which Georgia has won the national championship, and with so many close calls over the years, every season adds more pressure.

Can the Bulldogs finally get over the hump? The painful memories continue to happen, and many are not holding their breaths. Many are already comparing Kirby Smart to Mark Richt due to their inability to win a national title.

Georgia wishes it could have the success that Clemson has shown under Dabo Swinney. Despite losing five of their last six meetings dating back to 1991, Clemson will be considered the favorite by most. Due to the two national titles since 2016, Clemson has stockpiled talent all around the roster.

DJ Uiagalelei is among the Heisman favorites this season, but it is the other quarterback in this matchup that makes this the best game out there entering the season. JT Daniels was a player that could have helped Georgia last season (knee), but he should be an elite pocket passer this season.

That final drive by Georgia in their dramatic Cotton Bowl victory over Cincinnati should be quite the springboard as they aim for their first national championship since 1980.

A pair of gunslingers under center with a bevy of weapons surrounding them will be fun to watch.

This will be a crucial game in the College Football Playoff picture, with the loser having a tough road ahead of them. Georgia needs it more due to their conference schedule and a likely date with Alabama in the SEC title.

September 2: Ohio State @ Minnesota

This Big Ten matchup as the season opener could bring a ton of excitement that we have seen in seasons prior.

Back in 2017, the Indiana Hoosiers put the first-half scare into the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. That was when J.K. Dobbins went bonkers, and the scoreboard looked a lot worse than the game was until it got a little ugly in the second half.

Minnesota will be massive underdogs in this game, but perhaps they can play keep away with an NFL style back in Mohammed Ibrahim.

Ibrahim is approaching 3,000 career rushing yards and could surpass Marion Barber to enter the top five. With 10 more rushing scores, the talented Gopher would also set a new program record with 41 career scores on the ground.

Every yard will be earned in this matchup against a stingy Buckeyes defense that has one of the better defensive coordinators in the nation.

Kerry Coombs has a few stalwarts in the trenches that could give P.J. Fleck nightmares until kickoff. Zach Harrison and Haskell Garrett should dominate, making life difficult for Minnesota to stay within a few scores.

September 3: North Carolina @ Virginia Tech

This is your classic college football contest where most of America hammers the money line, and they have to sweat the entire game out.

The Hokies getting points at home in a night game will be tough on the Tar Heels. Lane Stadium blasting Enter Sandman will be deafening and surely missed by most fans across the country.

The biggest reason the Heels are touchdown favorites on the road in a crucial ACC Coastal Division matchup is due to having arguably the best player in the nation on their side.

Sam Howell is placed in the perfect division for great success despite the talents of Miami and Virginia Tech. Those two teams will allow Howell to be featured in several matchups, and there is just no getting around his value to the Tar Heels.

This season’s opener in Blacksburg will be one of those pivotal matchups in the Coastal division.

A night game at Lane Stadium is where Heisman campaigns could go to die, but Howell and the Tar Heels are primed for this matchup. The schedule North Carolina has a few landmines, but this is imperative to win. A loss for the Heels would dash their College Football Playoff dreams and propel another team to potentially face-off against Clemson in the ACC Championship.

Miami would certainly garner a ton of attention, but this season opener is a crucial matchup for the Hokies. If Virginia Tech wants to put the Justin Fuente hot seat rumors to bed, winning this game would be a major bonus.

Many are questioning whether or not Mack and North Carolina can live up to the expectations, but I would tell the haters to replay last season. They didn’t dominate, but they did make a trip to the program’s first-ever Orange Bowl and played well despite several starters opting out of the game.

Sam Howell could give just about any Top 25 team a legitimate chance at competing for the College Football Playoff. He has shown off his pocket presence over the last two seasons, and the third year could be the charm for Howell and the Tar Heels.

September 4: Penn State @ Wisconsin

I am loving the 2021 college football season-opening weekend because we have some intense conference matchups.

A few seasons ago, Wisconsin was at South Florida in a blowout non-conference matchup for their season opener, but it was much worse for Penn State.

The Nittany Lions took Idaho of all teams to the woodshed for an all-time pummeling. Penn State looked awful last season, and this will be a brutal road opener to start on a high note.

The offense could not put together any consistent drives and has been unable to replace key pieces that they have missed. 2019 was a tremendous season to start the post-Trace McSorley era. They had a loaded backfield that matches up with any other program in the country not named Alabama or Georgia. The injury and health bug struck, and they lost some studs in the backfield that were too tough to replace.

A program that has not suffered too much over the years has been the Wisconsin Badgers.

Now, Wisconsin is also coming off a disappointing season after so many computers and human prognosticators were picking them to reach the College Football Playoff. Instead, they went 4-3 and barely snuck by Minnesota and Wake Forest to finish with a winning record.

The Badgers bring back a ton of returning production and will be one of the most experienced teams in the country. Plus, the expectations are not as high for them, which will luckily improve their chances of becoming a nationally relevant team. Jake Burger is poised to become the next great Badger running back running behind a stellar offensive line.

Jim Leonhard might be a top-five defensive coordinator and will help lead that key side of the ball entering his fifth season in Madison.

A victory in the opener for the Badgers would be huge since they have a monster non-conference showdown with Notre Dame looming on the schedule.

A loss would be disappointing at home, and many would question if they are the top team in their division. Iowa and Northwestern could steal some of the spotlights since both are coming off good seasons.

If Penn State loses, most won’t be stunned. It was a rough season last year, and while they want to return to national relevancy, it may take time for them to get back to being a Top 10 program like they were from 2016-2019.

James Franklin has done an amazing job and should bounce back with a winning season, but getting double-digit victories will be next to impossible in 2021. 

September 4: Alabama vs. Miami (Atlanta)

You know the Crimson Tide will appear on any list of top college football games for opening weekend.

This is a matchup that Nick Saban thrives in due to the greatness that he has shown since he has been coaching in the SEC for a few decades now. The great breakdown leading into the game will be on Saban’s defense finding ways to limit the big plays from the Hurricanes signal-caller.

D’Eriq King is electric, and he could dazzle us on any given play. King and Bryce Young give us a battle of dual-threat signal-callers that are athletic enough to keep defensive coordinators up late at night.

This is a surreal matchup in terms of recency bias.

We have not seen this matchup since the 1990 and 1993 Sugar Bowls. The winners of those two games both ended up claiming a national championship that season. The more recent one was in 1993 where Alabama upset Miami, 34-13.

The Tide were touchdown-plus underdogs, and that is something Miami will be in this one. Will they even cover the point spread?

Alabama has been favored in 80 straight games and 152 of its last 153 meetings. The last time we saw Nick Saban’s Tide as an underdog was in 2015 on the road against Georgia. The Tide cruised to a 38-10 victory as a one-point underdog.

The last game they were an underdog in prior to that matchup was in the 2009 SEC Championship game against Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators. Alabama won that game 32-13, and many argue that was the turning point for the elite program that ‘Bama has been.

Neutral-site games are a major advantage for Alabama due to the preparation time that Saban can dive into. Giving a legendary coach additional time to prepare is always a disadvantage to play them, but we can all admit that there is never a great time to play Alabama as long as Saban is at the helm.

Miami was once upon a time an elite program, and they are craving for elite success themselves. It has not been since 2003 where the ‘Canes have finished a season in the AP Top 10.

If that were to change, a season-opening victory over the Tide would certainly increase their chances of putting an end to that rough drought.

September 4: Indiana @ Iowa

Another conference matchup, and this will be an intriguing Big Ten season opener. What should we all make of the Indiana Hoosiers? The Hoosiers are now a football program thanks to the magic that Tom Allen has put on his team.

Michael Pennix (ACL) was injured down the stretch of what was a once-in-a-lifetime season for Indiana.

They still managed to play in the Outback Bowl and just missed out on finishing their season in the AP Top 10. They may not be picked by many to finish in the top 15, but their season opener might determine how far they can go.

The return of Ty Fryfogle and Peyton Hendershot should allow the passing game to remain electric, but the key will be the rushing attack. The addition of Stephen Carr out of USC could keep them balanced offensively. Indiana had some issues running the ball with conviction once Jack Tuttle came in and had to replace Pennix.

Their Outback Bowl came down to the wire against Ole Miss and that game summed up how far they have come. Many teams will lie down and die when their star quarterback is done for the season. Indiana did the exact opposite after they defeated Wisconsin on the road without their star quarterback.

The future looks bright for them, and they will be a factor in the Big Ten even if they aren’t quite as dominant as they were in 2020.

Kirk Ferentz continues to put together consistent and productive seasons. He is the longest-tenured coach in the FBS as he began in the 1999 season (December 1998 officially). Iowa has had three straight seasons finishing in the AP Top 25 with a combined record of 25-9. The Hawkeyes do not land the 5-star recruits that many other prestigious programs grab, yet the results are still there.

Iowa City will be rocking, and the atmosphere will be bonkers to kick off another successful season. Phil Parker deserves a ton of love entering his 10th season for the Hawkeyes. The defensive guru has been as productive as a coordinator as there has been in the country, and their ability to produce All-Big Ten performers has been remarkable.

Iowa at home is always a tough out, but this likely will be one of the more underrated games of the opening weekend with the season that Indiana is coming off of.

September 4: Louisiana @ Texas

The Big 12 was a disaster last year on the opening weekend, with the likes of Kansas State, Iowa State, and Kansas all losing to a group of five programs. It was a brutal way to start the season and left a sour taste in the mouth of both the Jayhawks and Wildcats all season long.

Iowa State was able to put it behind them by knocking off both Texas and Oklahoma in the regular season. They eventually made it to the conference title game and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

Texas should be wary of this matchup since Louisiana was the specific team that upset Kansas State in a crazy season-opening weekend. Louisiana went 10-1 with a final AP ranking of No. 15 when all the dust was settled and cleared.

The program has among the best rushing attacks for some time now under Billy Napier, who enters his fourth season for the Ragin’ Cajuns.

Look at where how this ground game has fared under his watch.

Year Rushing Yards Per Game National Rank
2017 182.1 44th
2018 211.5 24th
2019 243.4 10th
2020 213.6 21st

Levin Lewis is one fine running quarterback that has improved his passing skills. Finding ways to move the football despite losing their two stud running backs will be no easy task.

Elijah Mitchell ran for nearly 1,000 yards in a shortened season and is now on the San Francisco 49ers. Trey Ragas had similar numbers to Mitchell and is now part of the Las Vegas Raiders. This was one of my favorite backfields in the country last season, and the production should still be respectable.

The entertaining matchup to watch for will be who controls the line of scrimmage. Texas has struggled recently in the trenches, and the lack of a run game has cost them dearly. If the Longhorns cannot run the football when it wants to, they could be in jeopardy of another disastrous early-season defeat.

The Steve Sarkisian era has some brutal games in the early going (see Arkansas matchup), and they must execute simple tasks.

Bijan Robinson has received a ton of offseason hype, and he will need to find running room now that he is the clear-cut starting running back with the transfer of Keontay Ingram to USC. Roschon Johnson is a capable third-down back that moves the chains, but Robinson is capable of hitting the home run to paydirt.

It will make life way easier on Sarkisian and new starting signal-caller Casey Thompson if these guys can produce.

Expect a decent amount of points in this opener, and the hope for fans in Austin is that Thompson picks up right where he left off in the Alamo Bowl against Colorado last season.

September 4: LSU @ UCLA

Last season was the first time since 1999 that the Bayou Bengals had not won at least eight games. Despite the shortened year, a 5-5 season is not acceptable in Baton Rouge.

Ed Orgeron may sound like the Cookie Monster and Farmer Fran, but he has gotten the job done thus far. Taking over for Les Miles, Coach O has finished inside the AP Top 20 in four of the last five seasons.

Here’s how he fared prior to last year.

  • 2016: 6-2 (Won Citrus Bowl)
  • 2017: 9-4 (Lost Citrus Bowl)
  • 2018: 5-3 (Won Fiesta Bowl)
  • 2019: 15-0 (Won National Championship)

The talent level is still exceptional, but we found out life after Joe Burrow is not as easy it may seem.

Max Johnson and Myles Brennan are capable starters, but they need to stick with one consistent performer. Kayshon Boutte was one of the premier freshmen in the nation last season, and many believe he will continue the great tradition of Tiger wide receivers we have seen over the years.

On the other side of the ball, Derek Stingley Jr. will be relied upon to anchor the entire secondary. He will carry on the defensive back tradition of having an elite defensive back more times than not every year. Stingley can fly all over the gridiron and has been an absolute ball-hawk thus far in his collegiate career.

Going against an experienced UCLA squad that brings back the second-most returning production should allow them to get back to relevancy.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson has been known as ‘’DTR,’’ and he can use his legs to bail him out when pressure comes calling. The improvement DTR made last season was impressive, and it looks as if Chip Kelly finally has an offense back with a major pulse.

This game should come down to the wire as the top NCAA football betting sites have labeled LSU as only a 4.5-point favorite. Bank on this one being highly entertaining with a pair of coaches that will be looking to have an exceptional 2021 campaign.

September 5: Notre Dame @ Florida State

This matchup has been can’t miss television despite the more recent blowouts. Florida State was never in the game against the Irish in their last two meetings, but it has been a tough stretch since Jimbo Fisher left.

Historically speaking, the Noles had the overall number of the Golden Domers. 2003 was when Florida State gave Notre Dame their worst home defeat in the history of the program (37-0) at the time (USC then a few years later beat them 38-0 in 2007).

2011 and 2014 were tough pills to swallow for Irish fans as well. Notre Dame had a chance to win the game at the goal-line in 2014 against Jameis Winston, but the Irish were called for a clear offensive pass interference that negated a go-ahead and potential game-winning score in the closing moments.

The point spread is much more competitive as the Irish are only 9.5-point favorites this time around.

Notre Dame’s biggest advantage in most of their victories has been their ability to control the line of scrimmage and pave their way to easy scoring drives. The weakness with Florida State has been the key strength of the Domers.

Notre Dame has had a top-five or so offensive line for years under Brian Kelly. FSU wishes they had a top-five line in their conference. Mike Norvell still has a bunch of four-star recruits at his disposal, but it will be tough to side with the hometown Noles in this one as they have lost four straight openers.

September 6: Louisville vs. Ole Miss

This game features a pair of offenses that can light up the scoreboards. Louisville was 53rd in the nation in scoring last year, and they’re going to have to bring it against Ole Miss.

Just look at how Mississippi measured up against the rest of college football on offense in 2020.

Stat National Rank
Points Per Game (39.2) 14th
Yards Per Game (555.9) 3rd
Passing Yards Per Game (344.9) 7th
Yards Per Play (6.8) 10th
Points Per Play (0.480) 21st

Matt Corral is a potential dark horse for the Heisman this season, and Malik Cunningham is a similar athlete that can buy time with his legs.

Containing both of these star quarterbacks is easier said than done, but the Rebel’s weapons were tough to defend at the end of last season. Jerrion Ealy is a running back with a ton of talent, and he was not even fully healthy towards the latter stages of the year.

Braylon Sanders will be relied heavily upon, but it really did not matter who was playing. The Rebels played without their star wide receiver Elijah Moore in the Outback Bowl against Indiana, and they did not miss a beat. John Rhys Plumlee even made tremendous plays in the passing game, and it showed how improved Corral is as a pocket passer.

The Ole Miss offense under Lane Kiffin could be one of the fastest in the nation, and they will have a chance to be among the SEC leaders in points per game. Expect a double-digit season-opening victory over a respectable Cardinals team that likely won’t be able to hang with for four quarters.

Summary

The 2021 college football opening weekend is going to be as exciting as it sounds. Hopefully, this breakdown of top college football games to watch to start the year illustrates that.

Ideally, this isn’t just hype, and some of these games live up to their potential.

If you plan on betting on opening weekend for the 2021 college football season, consider some of the matchup breakdowns above and also factor in odds, injuries, and any other information you can get your hands on.

We’ll be handing out NCAA football betting advice leading up to the new season, and you can also hit up our college football betting picks for weekly odds and predictions.

To get you ready for the coming season, check out these college football posts.

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