The biggest, most anticipated college football season in history is going to be one that we will all remember when all is said and done.
This offseason has seen historical changes to the game with the inceptions of the new NIL regulations, and the inevitable migration of both Oklahoma and Texas from the Big-12 to the SEC conference. 2021 has been a year that has changed the landscape of college football.
With the chaotic COVID-19 year of 2020 behind then, this year will see fanbases returning to stadiums everywhere, which only adds to the excitement of this season. Week zero will be no exception, as the matchups on schedule are an excellent tune-up to what should be a season for the ages. Here are the top three matchups for this week.
Nebraska vs. Illinois
Nebraska Cornhuskers -
The offseason has not been kind to Nebraska head coach Scott Frost, as their program is currently under NCAA investigations for possible violations. Yet, after a dismal 3–5 record in 2020, the Cornhuskers are looking to rebound and record their first winning season since 2016.
Success starts with senior quarterback Adrian Martinez. In seven games last season, he registered 1,055 passing yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Despite some criticism, Martinez finished with an offense grade of 77.9 and run/rushing grade of 80.8, according to Pro Football Focus. Martinez will have a valuable weapon this season in 6-foot-3 senior transfer wide receiver, Samori Toure. In 2019 with Montana, Toure recorded 87 receptions for 1,495 yards and 13 touchdowns, each program records. The true strength of Cornhuskers will be on defense, which will feature senior safety Deontai Williams, junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, and standout senior linebacker JoJo Domann, who was named Preseason All-American second-team and first-team Preseason All-Big Ten by Pro Football Focus.
Illinois Fighting Illini -
Despite losing standout lineman Kendrick Green in this year's NFL Draft, the Illinois offensive line was blessed with three senior starters returning—Alex Palczewski, Doug Kramer, and Vederian Lowe. In addition to this trio, senior Blake Jeresaty will make his long-waited debut, after sitting out the 2020 season with a shoulder season. To complement their offensive line will be third-year running back Chase Brown, who set career highs in carries (104), rushing yards(540), and touchdowns(3) in just eight games played last season.
The biggest question mark with this team is at the quarterback position. Without a clear starter, head coach Lovie Smith will likely employ a combination that features Brandon Peters, Isaiah Williams, and Coran Taylor. On defense, the Fighting Illini will be led by fifth-year senior linebacker Jake Hansen. Last season, Hansen finished with the team lead in total tackles (68), tackles for loss (10), interception return yards (12), and forced fumbles (2).
Hawaii vs. UCLA
UCLA Bruins -
When you think of UCLA's offense, the name of Dorian Thompson-Robinson. During his time with the Bruins under head coach Chip Kelly, Thompson-Robinson has amassed 418 completions for 5,132 passing yards and 40 touchdowns. Despite finishing 3–4 last season, their ability to produce offensively was among the best in the conference, as they accumulated 3,190 yards of total offense, while averaging 35 points per game.
One should expect this year's team to continue the same trend, as they have the weapons to do so. For instance, junior Tight End Greg Dulcich. Last season, Dulcich led all pass catchers on his team with 517 receiving yards and five touchdowns. To add to their talented group is talented running back Brittain Brown. Last season behind starting running back Demetric Felton, Brown averaged 6.6 yards-per-carry on 82 attempts. With Felton in the NFL, expect big things from Brown this upcoming season.
Last season on defense, the Bruins led the PAC-12 conference in sacks. Even with the departure of standout defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa to the NFL, the Bruins have plenty of talent returning this season. Leading the way is senior linebacker Caleb Johnson, who led the team in tackles (44) and sacks (5.5). Alongside him is talented linebacker Mitchell Agude, who led the team in tackles for loss. Their secondary will feature senior safety Stephan Blaylock, and the cornerback duo of Jay Shaw and Obi Eboh.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors -
Finishing with a respectable 5-4 record last season, Hawaii has plenty of reason to feel confident this upcoming season. For starters, they have three players named to the Mountain West preseason all-conference team - cornerback Cortez Davis, linebacker Darius Muasau, and running back/wide receiver Calvin Turner. In Turner's case, he elected not to enter the 2021 NFL Draft and return for a big senior year.
On offense, sophomore quarterback Chevan Cordeiro will be tasked with running head coach Todd Graham's brand of run-heavy offense. Alongside him, will be senior receiver Jared Smart, Howard transfer running back Dedrick Parson, and all-purpose player Dior Scott, who will look to make a name for himself this season.
The Rainbow Warrior's defense will not be just Muasau and Davis. Sophomore cornerback Cameron Lockridge should also be a key player, as he finished last season with 39 tackles, an interception, and two passed defended. To complement these two in the secondary will be 6'2 senior Eugene Ford, and sophomore Kai Kaneshiro. One name to remember is senior linebacker Jeremiah Pritchard. Last season, Pritchard recorded 31 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks.
By perception, this contest is seemingly a mismatch. No matter what the result may be, the Rainbow Warriors will not make it easy for the Bruins.
UTEP at New Mexico State
Utep Miners -
After a dismal 3–5 season, things can only get better for the UTEP Miners. This offseason, five players were named to Conference USA’s 2021 preseason watch list. Leading the way on offense is sophomore wide receiver Jacob Cowing, who led the team in receptions (41), receiving yards (691), and tied for the team lead in touchdowns with three. The other notable player is offensive lineman Bobby DeHaro, who earned Honorable Mention All-Conference USA last season.
With these names in mind, the key to their success should be linked to quarterback Gavin Hardison. Last season, Hardison set career highs in all statistical categories, including completions (108), passing yards (1,419), and touchdowns (5). As he continues to develop, the Miners should improve their offensive output, which only averaged 23 points per game last season.
On defense, the Miners had both defensive end Praise Amaewhule and defensive back Dy’vonne Inyang on Conference USA's Watchlist. Amaewhule, last season, led his team with eight tackles for losses, seven sacks, and nine pass breakups. As for Inyang, he finished fifth on the team with 32 tackles, with two tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. A name that should be kept in mind is defensive tackle Kelton Moss, who finished second on the team in sacks with 1.5, with 21 tackles and four tackles for loss.
New Mexico Aggies-
New Mexico State last season played only two games, in which they ended up with a 1–1 record. Coming into this season, the Aggies have a reasonable amount of talent to make a statement in their conference this season. On offense, the Aggies will be relying on their star running back, Juwaun Price. In just two games last season, Price rushed for 222 yards on 32 attempts and a touchdown. To complement him is sophomore running back Alex Escobar, who could help carry the load. Arguably their biggest acquisition this offseason was running back O’Maury Samuels, who transferred from Michigan last year. Their offensive line may still be a work in progress, but they will have senior Sage Doxtater returning for his final year. The hope is for both JUCO transfer Stephawn Thompson, and former Ole Miss center Eli Johnson to help provide support.
For the Aggies, their strength this season will likely be on defense, led by talented linebacker Trevor Brohard. Last season, Brohard led the team in tackles with 16. With him is a platoon of weapons, which includes king-sized defensive tackle Zach Stokes, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Lama Lavea, junior safety Devlin Kirklin, and junior cornerback Daemahni Williams. With this ensemble, they have the potential of making some noise this season, starting with the Miners this weekend.