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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
C.J. Doon

The Top 25, Week 0: Games, players and teams to watch as college football season begins

Welcome to The Top 25, a weekly rundown of the best of college football.

Each week of the season, The Baltimore Sun will break down the top games, players and teams to watch, from the Power Five to the Group of Five. We begin with Week 0, which has quickly become a beloved tradition for giving starved fans an early taste of all the season has to offer.

(Note: Thursday night kickoffs for Week 1 on Sept. 1 are included to broaden this discussion.)

5 games to watch

— Nebraska vs. Northwestern at Aviva Stadium in Dublin (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Fox): It’s the second straight season Nebraska kicks off in Week 0, and if it’s anything like last year’s loss to Illinois, it’s sure to be entertaining. Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost desperately needs a win to avoid making his seat any warmer, while Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald looks to rebound from a disappointing 3-9 season.

— Vanderbilt at Hawaii (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network): At SEC Media Days, second-year coach Clark Lea said Vanderbilt, in time, “will be the best program in the country.” It’s a bold statement for pretty much any team to make, let alone one that hasn’t had a winning season in almost 10 years. We’ll see how much progress the Commodores have made in the first late-night kickoff of the season.

— Central Michigan at No. 12 Oklahoma State (Thursday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1): After its best season in more than a decade under coach Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State enters this year with Big 12 title aspirations. The loss of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to Ohio State stings, but the Cowboys return one of the best defensive lines in the country and experienced quarterback Spencer Sanders.

— West Virginia at No. 17 Pittsburgh (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN): The Backyard Brawl is back for the first time since 2011, when both teams were members of the Big East. Not only is it one of the nastiest rivalries in college football, but an intriguing litmus test for both teams and their new quarterbacks (USC transfer Kedon Slovis at Pitt; Georgia transfer JT Daniels at WVU). Pitt and coach Pat Narduzzi are trying to prove their stunning ACC championship was no fluke, while West Virginia looks to climb into the top tier of the Big 12 under fourth-year coach Neal Brown.

— Penn State at Purdue (Thursday, 8 p.m., Fox): Penn State’s last two season openers against Big Ten opponents include a gut-punching loss at Indiana and an exhilarating win at Wisconsin. What’s in store for the Nittany Lions this year? There’s pressure on both coach James Franklin and fifth-year quarterback Sean Clifford to improve after two straight disappointing seasons, while Purdue is coming off an exciting 9-4 finish under Jeff Brohm.

5 players to watch

— Nebraska QB Casey Thompson: As a junior at Texas, Thompson recorded 2,268 total yards and 28 touchdowns. He’s not as dynamic of a runner as former Huskers starter Adrian Martinez, but his passing skills could unlock Frost’s offense and elevate a team that was much better than last season’s 3-9 record suggests.

— Penn State QB Sean Clifford: In his fifth season at Pittsburgh, Kenny Pickett became a Heisman Trophy candidate and a first-round draft pick while leading the Panthers to the ACC title. Could Clifford make a similar leap? How he handles Purdue’s defense will be an early indication of what’s to come.

— Purdue QB Aidan O’Connell: O’Connell enters the season ranked 15th in the nation by Pro Football Focus, who note that he finished 2021 with a Power Five-leading 7.8% big-time throw rate. If Penn State’s defense isn’t ready to fill safety Jaquan Brisker’s big shoes, it could be in for a long night.

— Oklahoma State DE Collin Oliver: While Sanders remains the key to the Cowboys’ title aspirations, Oliver’s development is perhaps just as important. The freshman All-American ranked seventh in the country and set a school freshman record with 11 1/2 sacks last season.

— Pittsburgh DE Habakkuk Baldonado: The Italy native was one of the most disruptive linemen in the country last season, recording 11 1/2 tackles for loss and nine sacks.

Power Five Top 5

— 1. Alabama: QB Bryce Young and OLB Will Anderson Jr. are back, and Nick Saban is still the coach. Any questions?

— 2. Ohio State: QB C.J. Stroud and a dynamic group of receivers give the Buckeyes the firepower to compete with any team in the country.

— 3. Georgia: A boatload of defensive talent left for the NFL, but coach Kirby Smart’s annual recruiting dominance has his team reloaded to defend its title.

— 4. Notre Dame: We’ll find out early whether new starting QB Tyler Buchner and first-year coach Marcus Freeman are ready for the spotlight when the Irish open the season at Ohio State.

— 5. Texas A&M: Coach Jimbo Fisher has built one of the most talented rosters in the country, but can he finally get over the hump in the SEC?

Group of Five Top 5

— 1. Cincinnati: Replacing star QB Desmond Ridder and CB Sauce Gardner will be tough, but Bearcats coach Luke Fickell has built a sustainable winner.

— 2. Houston: Clayton Tune might be the most underrated QB in the country. Add an experienced defense, and the Cougars have top-10 potential.

— 3. Central Florida: The addition of Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee gives coach Gus Malzahn an intriguing dual-threat quarterback to build his offense around.

— 4. SMU: QB Tanner Mordecai should thrive in new coach Rhett Lashlee’s offense and give the Mustangs one of the nation’s most potent passing attacks.

— 5. Boise State: QB Hank Bachmeier returns to lead an efficient offense, but the Broncos need to generate more big plays to improve under second-year coach Andy Avalos.

Heisman Top 5

— 1. Alabama QB Bryce Young: Question marks at wide receiver could lead a more run-heavy offense for the Crimson Tide, but the reigning Heisman Trophy winner should still be one of the most efficient QBs in the country.

— 2. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud: Even after losing two first-round wide receivers, the Buckeyes should have one of the most explosive offenses in the country.

— 3. Alabama OLB Will Anderson Jr.: Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson came close last season, but a defensive player still hasn’t won the Heisman since Charles Woodson in 1997. Anderson, who led the nation with 34 1/2 tackles for loss and 17 1/2 sacks last season, could end that streak.

— 4. Texas RB Bijan Robinson: A running back has won the Heisman just once since 2010 (Derrick Henry in 2015), but Robinson could put up the kind of eye-popping numbers that keeps him in the conversation all season.

— 5. Kentucky QB Will Levis: The Kentucky offense relied heavily on WR Wan’Dale Robinson last season, and now he’s catching passes in the NFL. If Levis can spread the ball around and live up to the first-round hype he’s received this offseason, he should be a Heisman contender.

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