Top five college football games for Week 1 of 2021 season

D.J. Uiagalelei takes over for Trevor Lawrence at Clemson this season.
USA Today

The early weeks of college football are usually reserved for non-conference matchups -- some between premier programs, others between powerhouses and mid-major FCS teams.

In 2021, there’s a stacked slate of college football games in Week 1. There are five games where ranked teams are set to battle and another handful of games between ranked teams and high-level programs.

Here are the top five games of Week 1 for the 2021 college football season:

Georgia vs. Clemson

The No. 5 Bulldogs will face the No. 3 Tigers in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers, on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. This is undoubtedly the headline game of the weekend, as both programs have made the College Football Playoff in recent years. Georgia lost in the national championship back in 2017 in its only playoff appearance, while Clemson has made six straight playoff appearances.

Even though the uniforms and coaches will look familiar, the players on the field are more of an unknown this season. Both teams had significant turnover at key positions after the 2020 season, including at quarterback. Georgia went through three quarterbacks last season before finally settling on JT Daniels, a junior who will begin the 2021 season under center. Daniels had 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and 1,231 passing yards in four games last year. Georgia hasn’t lost a September game since 2016, head coach Kirby Smart’s first year on the job.

As for Clemson, Trevor Lawrence was drafted first overall after going 34-2 at quarterback for the Tigers. Clemson had five players drafted in 2021, while Georgia had nine. Sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei -- who had four touchdowns, no interceptions and 781 passing yards in two starts last year -- will start for Clemson this season. Uiagalelei shined in those two starts when Lawrence was out due to COVID-19, but it’s a different pressure when you’re the guy. This is his team in 2021 -- it’s up to the 20-year-old to follow Lawrence and Deshaun Watson’s footsteps and lead Clemson to a seventh straight playoff berth.


Alabama vs. Miami (FL)

The Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1 entering the season for the fourth time in six years after winning the 2020 national title. Nick Saban’s team will face the No. 14 Hurricanes in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Alabama underwent another total remodel this offseason -- 10 players were drafted, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian took the head coaching job at Texas and several other assistants were poached by other schools. Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, quarterback Mac Jones, receiver Jaylen Waddle, cornerback Patrick Surtain II, O-lineman Alex Leatherwood and running back Najee Harris were all first-round picks, so there’s a lot of talent to replace. Saban is always ready to reload, though, and this year will be no different. Sophomore quarterback Bryce Young takes over for the Tide, and his No. 1 receiving target will be junior John Metchie III.

Miami is still looking for its first College Football Playoff appearance, and 2021 might be the year. Head coach Manny Diaz gradually improved the program in his first two seasons. Redshirt senior quarterback D’Eriq King, 24, has an age and experience advantage on almost everyone in college football. Last season was King’s first with Miami, and he had 27 total touchdowns in 11 starts. Defeating Alabama in the first game of the season would instantly give the Hurricanes a huge resume boost, but it’ll all come down to winning the ACC title game, likely against Clemson.

Penn State vs. Wisconsin

The Big Ten has four conference games scheduled for Week 1, and they’re all intriguing. The No. 19 Nittany Lions visit the No. 12 Badgers on Saturday at 12 p.m. ET. Both teams are coming off disappointing seasons, and it’ll be up to coaches James Franklin (Penn State) and Paul Chryst (Wisconsin) to turn the tide in 2021.

Penn State returns plenty of talent from its 2020 team -- the problem is that that team went 4-5. Quarterback Sean Clifford returns for his senior season, his third as a starter. Senior wideout Jahan Dotson, with eight touchdowns in nine games, emerged as a star last year. The Nittany Lions will have a chance to quickly change their fortunes in 2021. They might not be a playoff caliber team, but returning to a New Year’s Six bowl is in play.

Wisconsin entered the 2020 season with loads of hope, as redshirt freshman Graham Mertz looked like a star in the making in the team’s season-opening win over Illinois. Three of the Badgers’ next five games were canceled due to COVID-19, and the season was derailed. With Mertz back on campus, Wisconsin has the potential to be a playoff team in 2021.


Louisiana vs. Texas

The No. 21 Longhorns host the No. 23 Ragin’ Cajuns as Texas begins the Steve Sarkisian era in a ranked matchup. Louisiana coach Billy Napier has turned his team into a nationally respected program over the past few years, while Sarkisian is trying to carry Texas back up the mountain.

Louisiana went 10-1 last season, and redshirt senior Levi Lewis is back under center for his third season as starting quarterback. With 45 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 25 games over the last two seasons, Lewis is ready to take another step for Louisiana. Leading receiver Kyren Lacy also returned to school, as the Ragin’ Cajuns could be even better in 2021.

Four bowl wins in four seasons wasn’t enough to keep Tom Herman’s job as Texas’ coach safe, as he was fired in favor of Sarkisian. Texas was a respectable 7-3 last year, but that’s not good enough for a program that expects playoff berths. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger is in the NFL, and Sarkisian still isn’t sure who is replacing him. Both Hudson Card and Casey Thompson will get snaps in the season-opener, with Card getting the start.

Notre Dame vs. Florida State

Fresh off its second playoff appearance in three years, Notre Dame is again ranked in the top-10 to begin the 2021 season. The No. 9 Fighting Irish will travel to Tallahassee for a matchup with unranked Florida State in Week 1. Kickoff is set for this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Notre Dame has consistently been solid under head coach Brian Kelly, but it has never been able to win the big games. That was evident again last year when the Irish started the season 11-0 before losing to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game and Alabama in the CFP Semifinal. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan will take over at quarterback this season after Ian Book’s graduation.

The Seminoles have been a mess since coach Jimbo Fisher skipped town for Texas A&M in 2017. In the past three seasons, FSU is just 14-20. Willie Taggart lasted less than two seasons, and Mike Norvell struggled just as badly in his first season last year. Florida State is in a rebuilding phase right now, but it can take pride in trying to upset some of the playoff contenders on their schedule this season (Notre Dame, Clemson, Miami, Florida, North Carolina).