College football preseason roundtable – best games, breakout stars and more

The college football season is here again, and good luck trying to tell me it’s not the best time of the year. The games are just so darned exciting, and while there’s no direct correlation between my love of the game and my overinflated notion of my own ability, I’m not going to lie: I’m terrible at it, and I’m terrible at making predictions, so if you want to turn to me for help, prepare yourself for disappointment.

It’s almost time for the college football season to begin, but before it gets underway, let’s take a look at some of the best games coming up this year.

With the calendar turning to July, it’s officially time to predict what the football season has in store for fans across the country.

After the most unusual season in recent history, fans can expect a return to normalcy with sit-ins, full stadiums and all the traditions that make the sport unique. There are a lot of games on the line in the preseason, and some of college football’s future superstars can make their mark on the big stage right away.

With less than two months to go until the first round, what are the must-watch games in September? And which players, both those ready to compete for national championships and recruits ready to make a name for themselves, should be watched for fall camp?

Our editorial team will take care of you while we patiently wait for the season to begin.

Which match are you most looking forward to in September?

David Hale: Clemson and Georgia are a perfect football game for September. Clemson is an established title contender and Georgia is the fashion choice for 2021. It’s an important QB competition in Southern California. These are two teams that have been recruiting at the highest level for years. And it’s not a one-off show, it’s a game about which history has been made: UGA and Clemson have played each other 64 times in the past. The last meeting in 2014 featured Deshaun Watson’s inspired first pitch and an absolutely stunning performance from Bulldogs superstar Todd Gurley on the field. It was the most successful opening week college football has seen in a long time.

Adam Rittenberg: Aside from the Clemson-Georgia game, I’m really looking forward to seeing Oregon and Ohio State play each other in Week 2 in a packed Ohio Stadium. The cancellation of last year’s game in Eugene was unfortunate, but the defending Pac-12 (twice) and Big Ten (four times) champions will finally play on the same field in Columbus. Both teams are aiming for participation in the PSC. Oregon’s defense should be one of the best in the country, as wideout Kavon Thibodeau will have to hunt down Ohio State’s new quarterback (possibly C.J. Stroud) and the Ducks’ defense will feature Chris Oleive, Garrett Wilson and arguably the best receiving corps in the country. The Pac-12 really needs this game, but so does Ohio State. Ryan Day has yet to lose a regular season game as coach of the Buckeyes.

Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are one of the best receiving corps in the country. AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

Tom VanHaaren: I agree with Hale and Rittenberg, these two games will be interesting. I would add Notre Dame and Florida State. It’s a Sunday in prime time on ABC, and it’s two teams in very different stadiums with different goals. Notre Dame is hoping to get off to a fast start and make the playoffs, while Florida State is trying to rebuild and get back on track. Seminoles offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham told ESPN that he feels much more confident this season than last, mainly because of the preparation and coaching they were able to get from the aborted 2020 season. The staff has attracted some key transfers and hopes to see them on the field this season. I’m looking forward to seeing how both teams fare and the progress they’ve made in the early part of the season.

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Dave Wilson: D’Eric King and Bryce Young will be at the center of much intrigue to see how far they can take Miami and Alabama this season. Will Miami take a step back and become Miami this season? Will Alabama always be Alabama? We’ll see how they look on the 4th. See September. Honorable mention at halftime: I’m also looking forward to seeing the antics of the Owls Rice band on their first visit to Texas in 10 years on June 18. September will walk away having shouted $EC at Texas Field on his last visit in 2011 when Texas A&M left the Big 12.

Bill Connelly: The two teams that interest me the most this year are Penn State and Wisconsin and how they look. They play the first Saturday of the season at noon. The Nittany Lions and the Badgers haven’t met since the 2016 Big Ten Championship, and both teams have both obvious potential and problems for 2020. Does Wisconsin have a primary running back after last year’s struggles? Does it matter that Paul Chryst is back in charge of player selection? Will Penn State’s new offensive coordinator, Mike Jurcic, reinvigorate the Nittany Lions’ offense? Will PSU’s rebuilt defensive line be able to stop the Wisconsin attackers? We will have at least partial answers by Saturday afternoon #1.

Who will be a star in 2021?

Alex Scarborough: Understandable if you missed Keyshawn Butte’s late arrival last season. Just when the former four-star aspirant began to show what he could do, LSU struggled to reach the 500-point mark. With the absence of Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall, Boutt has become the Tigers’ main offensive player – a real burner and a threat on the field. If he can accomplish at least half of what he did in the final three games of last season, when he scored 527 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama, Florida State and Ole Miss, he could very well become one of the best receivers in college football.

Hale: The easiest answer is Clemson QB D.J. Huyagalelay, who gave us a taste of his abilities by setting the record against Notre Dame last season for the number of pass-yards from an opponent in his second career start. He’s now a full-fledged replacement for Trevor Lawrence, and the combination of his big arm and bright personality sets him up to be a star. The second pick on the All-Star list is likely Alabama QB Bryce Young, which creates a good situation since Young and Uyagalelei, who were rivals in high school at Southern California and went to college together, are the two highest rated recruits in the country. All of this provides a pretty good basis for the plot we’ll be assessing in the coming years.

Chris Lowe: Had he played at Alabama, Ohio State or Clemson, Malik Willis would have been one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. He now plays at Liberty and will be one of the most notable players in college football in 2021, especially after another year of development under coach Hugh Freeze. Everywhere he’s been, Freese has had the best quarterback performances, and Willis, 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, is Freese’s most talented and versatile quarterback. A year ago, Willis ran for 944 yards and 14 touchdowns, and opponents’ defenders couldn’t catch him on the ground. He also accounted for 2,260 yards and 20 touchdowns. Although he threw just six interceptions in 2020, he will be an even more polished and determined passer this season. In 2021, Willis and Liberty will become one.

VanHaaren: I also like Butte, Uyagalelei and Young. I would add Bijan Robinson, the runner-up from Texas, as a candidate. As a rookie last season, Robinson averaged 8.6 yards per carry on just 86 carries. With Steve Sarkisian as coach, his workload will likely increase, and Robinson is an explosive player waiting to happen. As a senior in high school, he accounted for 2,235 yards on the ground and 38 touchdowns. You read that right, it was a season. From his second to last season, Robinson totaled 6,658 yards and 99 touchdowns. He’s an interesting player, and he should shine in the new attack.

Bijan Robinson was explosive in limited action last season. With the increase in touches, expect a big season in Austin. Eric Gay/AP photo

Wilson: I agree with TVH about Bijan, who with his speed has the potential of a one-cut back and go-go if the Longhorns’ offensive line can improve. Robinson’s colleague at Texas A&M, Devon Achan, had a very similar career last season. He caught just 43 passes on the season (Robinson caught 86) before being named Orange Bowl MVP after racing for 140 yards and receiving two TDs, including a 76-yarder. He ran in the offseason for the Aggies, including a time of 20.31 in the 200 meters at the second meet, making him one of the fastest student-athletes in the country this year. The Aggies have stars in Isaiah Spiller and Inias Smith, but Ahane, who is averaging 8.5 yards per carry in his Aggie career, will force Jimbo Fisher to get creative.

The true freshman you are most looking forward to?

Scarborough: Alabama’s spring game was a wake-up call for anyone not paying attention to A.J. Hall, according to ESPN the third receiver in the 2021 class. The Florida native came into action against the first-team defense and caught everything within a block of his back number 17. Whether it was a contested catch or not, he jumped up, went around his body and caught the ball with his hands. With his 6-3 stature and excellent speed, Hall looked like the successor to star receivers DeVonta Smith, Jalen Waddle and Jerry Jodi, and the perfect complement to star running back John Metchey.

VanHaaren: This class has a lot to choose from, and one of the most intriguing candidates on this list is Clemson running back Will Shipley, who could have an immediate impact on the Tigers’ roster. He will help us get over the loss of Travis Etienne, because Shipley is a genie in a bottle. In his junior days, he ran the 55 meter dash in 6.36 seconds, and before coming to Clemson, he had a time of 4.46 seconds in the 40 meter dash. He’s not just a guy who plays track football, he’s a football player who can play track football, and he’ll be fun to watch. Another name I would like to mention is Ohio State running back TreVeion Henderson. He was the leading running back in the class and did not play his senior season in high school. Instead, he used that time to train and prepare for college. It paid off, because now he looks like he’s been weight training for three years. The Buckeyes will need Henderson this season, and he has the talent to be an outstanding player this season.

Low: Explosive receivers and Oklahoma have become synonymous under Lincoln Riley. Marvin Mims returns after a sensational first season, and now it’s Mario Williams’ turn. He doesn’t have a big stature (5-9, 181 pounds), but he’s exceptionally fast, quick after the catch and versatile. He was also a star baseball player in high school. Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler said in the spring that Williams was one of the fastest players on the team, that he could get open and do anything. It looks like Mims won’t be the only receiver Rattler wants to throw the ball to this fall.

Rittenberg: USC’s defense has made remarkable progress in 2020 under coordinator Todd Orlando, whose risky scheme has produced 16 interceptions in six games. But the Trojans are still looking for their first appearance in the CFP, and to get there, they’ll need to keep improving their defense. The arrival of Corey Foreman should help. Foreman, according to ESPN the third recruit in the 2021 class, stayed home to give USC a pass rusher from day one. Although he has not yet participated in spring training with his new team, he should immediately find his role complementing Drake Jackson in the offense.

Connelly: I’m trying to curb my skepticism about Washington offensive coordinator John Donovan – the conservatism and predictability of his system – but he has an incredibly experienced and talented team, and there’s at least a chance that star rookie Sam Huard, the most anticipated subscriber in UW history, will be ready to run the show from Day 1. There’s a lot of competition for the position and he may have to wait his turn, but he’s a young, quick, accurate passer and his skillset will define UW’s ceiling in the coming years.

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