Wisely, college football’s opening Thursday night has grown into a bigger event lately, with ESPN scheduling a doubleheader involving one national contender and three other top-40 caliber teams, in addition to a handful of other legitimately interesting games kicking off the season on other channels. Several games, as always early in the season, are throwaway contests against FCS opponents, but overall the lineup presents plenty of opportunities to keep busy from 6 p.m. ET until well past midnight, thanks to USC’s trip to Hawaii.
In celebration of the start of college football, allow us to break down the first night of the season, prioritizing what you need to watch by ranking all the games.
1. North Carolina at South Carolina (6 p.m. ET, ESPN)
It goes without saying that no single offensive tackle is capable of totally neutralizing Jadeveon Clowney. SB Nation published a great piece detailing ways coaches plan to try to limit Clowney’s effectiveness, but, of course, Clowney is almost always going to make a big play at some point. And even if multiple blockers can somehow contain him, all the extra attention opens things up for guys like Chaz Sutton to make plays. He’s capable of dictating the flow of a game like few other defensive linemen we’ve seen, enough so that it seems like he alone has elevated South Carolina to another plateau.
North Carolina won’t take him out of the game, but if nothing else the Tar Heels boast one of the two best left tackles Clowney will face all season: potential first-round draft pick James Hurst (the other being Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson), who will have an opportunity to earn himself some NFL money. Clowney aside, North Carolina presents a solid opening-week test for the Gamecocks, who have holes to fill at running back, receiver and especially linebacker. Behind Bryn Renner — who would get honorable mention in the SoE QB Countdown — the Tar Heels ranked 14th in yards per play last season. A visit to Williams-Brice Stadium is obviously a tough nationally televised showcase for Renner, especially in his first game without dynamic RB Giovani Bernard, but UNC has the talent to at least make things interesting in a low-scoring game.
2. Ole Miss at Vanderbilt (9:15 p.m., ESPN)
Under Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss is trying hard to make a leap into the SEC’s top tier, cleaning up on the recruiting trail while returning one of the SEC’s most experienced rosters. First things first: To be among the SEC’s elite, you have to beat Vanderbilt. That’s a different task now, though, as Vandy — which gave South Carolina all it could handle on last year’s first night — went 9-4, 5-3 in the SEC, and is expected to maintain that competitiveness in James Franklin’s third season. While this is the second game in ESPN’s doubleheader, it has an undercard feel, especially with much-hyped Ole Miss true freshman defensive end Robert Nkemdiche making his college debut after Clowney finishes up against UNC.
3. Rutgers at Fresno State (10:30 p.m., ESPNU)
Along with Boise State, Rutgers poses one of the two biggest defensive threats to star Fresno State QB Derek Carr (brother of David). The Scarlet Knights can’t score, even with talented wideout Brandon Coleman, but their defense ranked eighth in yards per play allowed and should continue to put up great results despite a lot of roster turnover. The game’s an interesting gauge for both teams and an important test in seeing if Fresno State, in Tim DeRuyter’s second season, has a chance to take down Boise State in the Mountain West and maybe even compete for a BCS bid, and to see if Rutgers QB Gary Nova can test defenses more consistently.
4. USC at Hawaii (11 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
Cody Kessler and Max Wittek will likely both play for the Trojans at quarterback, and it’s really an ideal situation for their opener, even if it’s on the road halfway across the Pacific. Hawaii, coached by former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, was dreadful last year at 3-9 and has similarly bleak prospects in 2013, and a road trip to Honolulu presents a less pressure-filled experience than a marquee opponent or even a home game against a mediocre team for USC. However, for all Hawaii’s faults, the Warriors did actually rank 11th nationally against the pass last season, with the help of a solid pass rush, and USC will be playing without starting RB Silas Redd (knee). Still, even if there are some hiccups for USC, Marqise Lee will find a way to do Marqise Lee things, and that’s really all the Trojans need against an opponent like this.
5. Tulsa at Bowling Green (7 p.m., ESPNU)
This is one of the best nonconference games between non-AQ teams we’ll see all season. Tulsa’s offense never stops producing, but the backfield combination of Nebraska transfer QB Cody Green and RBs Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas will be tested by what should be the MAC’s best all-around defense, even without former star Falcons DT Chris Jones.
6. Utah State at Utah (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
For most of a century, Utah has held the upper hand in the “Battle of Brothers,” building a 77-29-4 series lead since their first meeting in 1892, but after a two-year hiatus the Aggies beat the Utes 27-20 in OT last year. This will be their first game without head coach Gary Andersen, who took the Wisconsin job after a breakout 11-2 season, while Utah, behind sophomore QB Travis Wilson, continues to try to adjust to life in the Pac-12. It’s not the most glamorous matchup nationally, but at least Fox Sports 1 gets a heated rivalry for its college football debut.
7. UNLV at Minnesota (7 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Now we’re starting to reach, even if last year’s meeting was an unexpected thriller. You may be forgiven if you forgot that Minnesota actually went to a bowl game, and actually almost beat Texas Tech (a 34-31 loss in the Meineke Car Care Bowl). UNLV has won a total of six games in three seasons under Bobby Hauck, yet Minnesota actually needed three overtimes to win 30-27 in Las Vegas in last year’s opener between these two. Both teams should be a little better, but the Golden Gophers, who could be staring at 6-6 again in the regular season, will likely cruise at home with star defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman wreaking havoc on an overmatched UNLV O-line..
8. Liberty at Kent State (6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
If nothing else, it’s entirely possible that the first play of the 2013 college football season will involve Dri Archer returning a kick for a touchdown.
9. Akron at UCF (7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Akron went 1-11 in Terry Bowden’s first season and has a chance to duplicate that illustrious feat. However, this is at least a matchup between two FBS teams, which you can’t say about the rest listed below. Mostly, it’s a cakewalk warm-up for a good UCF team that finishes September with Penn State and South Carolina.
10. Presbyterian at Wake Forest, Indiana State at Indiana, Illinois State at Ball State, Southern Utah at South Alabama, Towson at Connecticut, Western Carolina at Middle Tennessee, Jackson State at Tulane, Sacramento State at San Jose State
Aside from the 2013 debut of San Jose State QB David Fales, there’s nothing to see here in a bunch of games between FBS and FCS teams. Still, bad football is better than no football, something we no longer have to deal with in 2013.
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