The College Football Playoff starts this week.
Oh, you haven't heard? Then you're not paying attention. Topping the list of my 25 Things to Watch in 2016 is the best opening week of college football ever.
"Been doing this a long time," said veteran scribe Tony Barnhart, a former CBS Sports columnist. "In terms of quality matchups and what they mean, this is the best opening weekend of college football that I've ever seen."
Six of the top 15 teams in the CBS Sports 128 are playing each other in Week 1. All six are putting their seasons on the line by opening with neutral site or true road games. That list includes the entire top four: Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Florida State.
Two 2015 CFP participants are playing top 15 opponents to start: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 15 USC and No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Houston.
By Monday night, the favorites of the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 may all have their playoff chances severely damaged by an opening-week loss.
In that sense, the playoff race begins immediately. A two-loss team has yet to make the Football Four.
"I think CFP committee has made it clear they're looking at strength of schedule as a strong barometer." Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek said. "Look at the opening weekend ... this is as much excitement about an opening weekend that I can remember."
Blame/credit the CFP. The number of quality season-opening quality games has just sort of grown organically as a reaction to the two most powerful words in the sport: schedule strength.
"What they look at in the new CFP is ... if you're going to lose, lose early and lose to a team that is going to be ranked at the end of the year," said Gary Stokan, executive director of the Peach Bowl.
While it's not possible to look inside Barry Alvarez' sweater vest to judge where his heart resides, the CFP mandate has been clear throughout.
"It's still going to be, 'Who did you play?'" said Bill Hancock, CFP executive director. "That's in each committee member's perception."
The sport has reacted accordingly. There are 20 neutral site games spread throughout the 2016 season. Quality is front-loaded. Nine of those will have been played by Monday night.
Five of those nine include at least one ranked team. Four of them include teams from the SEC, the conference gold standard.
Upgrading schedule strength has become an art. The ACC and SEC already mandate their schools play at least one nonconference game against a Power Five opponent. The Big Ten no longer plays FCS opponents. The only Power Fives not playing nine conference games are the ACC and SEC.
The Big 12 is reinstituting its conference championship game in 2017 to chase that now infamous 13th data point to boost its schedule strength.
Suddenly, during this opening week, the playoff chances of the Pac-12 (Kansas State at Stanford), SEC (Alabama-USC, LSU-Wisconsin), ACC (Clemson-Auburn, Florida State-Ole Miss) and Big 12 (Oklahoma-Houston) are at risk immediately.
Those four neutral-site games in Week 1 feature at least one team ranked in the top seven: Alabama-USC, Oklahoma-Houston, Florida State-Ole Miss and LSU-Wisconsin.
Houston may be playing the biggest game in program history on Saturday at NRG Stadium. If the Cougars can upset No. 3 Oklahoma, the path widens to an undefeated season and CFP berth. That would make Houston the first Group of Five program to play for a national championship in the BCS era (since 1998).
The game was arranged years ago by former ESPN scheduling matchmaker Dave Brown.
"You need to play these games if you want to have an opportunity at the end of the season to be one of the four teams," Yurachek said.
Stokan has been bit a pioneer in this space. Since 2008, he has hustled up teams to meet in an attractive one-off neutral site kickoff game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games have become a college football staple. Georgia and North Carolina meet Saturday in this year's game.
The quality of those games allowed the Peach Bowl to become a New Year's Six site. It will host a CFP semifinal for the first time this season. Atlanta's new Mercedes-Benz Stadium will host the 2018 CFP National Championship.
That follows next year's kickoff game doubleheader: Alabama vs. Florida State (Sept. 2) and Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee (Sept 4).
"It has only been fueled by the advent of the College Football Playoff," Stokan said. "These games, I think, are going to proliferate.
"I believe these are going to be the bowl games of the future."
Nick Saban has been a pioneer himself in neutral site games. Alabama has played in such a contest to open the season six of the last eight years. Saban believes a 34-10 win in a 2008 showdown against Clemson in Atlanta marked a turnaround for the program.
"At first nobody really bought into the concept much except me," Saban said, "because I wanted to do it to try to get some national exposure for the program."
National exposure? For Alabama? What a way to kick off a season.
And now, 24 more things to know ahead of the 2016 season.
2. The Joy of Six at Alabama: Saban's pursuit of a record-tying sixth national championship threatens to become the over-arching theme to the entire season.
Consider that, as recent as the 2012 preseason, six titles probably wasn't a talking point. Saban then won a second straight national championships at Alabama (third overall). Now he's trying to do it again becoming only the second human to go back-to-back twice.
The other is Bear Bryant, but even the game's patriarch didn't win four in seven years or produce two Heisman Trophy winners. Now, it cannot be denied. The Bear's shadow looms larger than ever in T-Town. If not this season, then soon Saban seems destined to tie -- or break -- Bryant's record.
In his 10th season at Alabama, Saban is 64, looks 54 and has the energy of a 44-year-old. Any talk about him stepping down at some point soon just isn't heard.
3. The game's best player: It's fair to say Clemson's Deshaun Watson is now the prohibitive favorite to win the Heisman.Sure, he finished third in last year's voting, but that was more than a month before he did what we thought couldn't be done by putting up 478 total yards against an Alabama defense.
That's a glaring advertisement for the Heisman -- and all awards -- to wait until all the games are played. What a concept, right? More than 15 percent of Watson's total yards and 13 percent of his touchdowns came after the Heisman ceremony.
Now that we've taken these eight months to absorb Watson's accomplishments, it's clear he is the nation's best player, the firestarter who can lead Clemson back to the CFP. He is the best example of what the game has become offensively -- a smart, fast, talented, run/pass option on each play who basically can't be stopped. Enjoy him this season as Watson is likely to surpass 5,000 total yards. Again.
4. One man's Heisman ballot: Three of the top four and five of the top seven Heisman vote getters from 2015 return. Here's my preseason ballot with last year's finish in parentheses:
- Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson (3)
- Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State (7)
- Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU (6)
- Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford (2)
- Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma (4)
5. The dichotomy of Ohio State: The Buckeyes are favored to win the Big Ten. They're also the least experienced team in college football, according to Phil Steele. By far, actually. Only six starters return from a team that won 12 games after trashing Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. At some point, then, you just have to have faith in Urban Meyer.
Defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis each had more sacks than Joey Bosa. Even if Mike Weber is 80 percent as productive as Ezekiel Elliott, he will run for 1,500 yards. Oh, and J.T. Barrett just happens to be the best quarterback in the Big Ten. By far, actually.
Do not weep for the Buckeyes. Meyer has not finished lower than seventh in national recruiting since he's been in Columbus.
6. Big 12 expansion lives: Anything you can say, write or broadcast at this point can't be wrong when it comes to Big 12 expansion. Fourteen teams? Sure. No expansion at all? Absolutely. UNLV to the Big 12? They're trying.
By now you know the Big 12 presidents voted July 19 to explore expansion. That seems about 100 years ago. The offseason process now threatens to distract from actual in-season football. It's also given a social media platform to a lot of Olive Garden shift managers who can give you a reasoned, objective analysis of why [Insert State U Here] should be invited.
Best guess: The Big 12 will do something by Oct. 1. But it's always something with this league. This is a conference that added a conference championship and approved expansion exploration with three interim presidents voting. This is the league that seemingly doesn't know what it's going to do in expansion but is sure is taking its time doing it.
7. Four for the playoff:
- Alabama -- That epic defensive front seven from 2015 has only two returning starters ... but they have a combined 40 career starts. Quarterback will take care of itself. It always does.
- Clemson -- The Tigers might be better than last season despite some departures.
- Oklahoma -- Has the roster and schedule to essentially clinch a playoff spot by November. Beat Houston and Oklahoma and the Sooners can maybe even afford a Big 12 loss.
- LSU -- Best team Les Miles has put together? Possibly.
8. Who's left out? In the above scenario, it would be the Big Ten and Pac-12 left out of the College Football Playoff. But that's hardly the point. Overall, the CFP has added a new edge to the regular season. Do the math: There are four playoff spots and five Power Five champions. Someone is always going to be left out.
The Pac-12 could be the first Power Five left out of the CFP twice (and in consecutive seasons). If Notre Dame, Houston -- or any other independent or Group of Five team -- gets to the CFP, that also means two Power Five champs get left out.
Don't underestimate the impact of two teams from the same conference getting in. The last time it happened (LSU ad Alabama in 2011) kicked off the slow eventual death of the BCS. Would an eight-team playoff be far behind?
9. The Harbaugh Effect: Love him or hate him, you must pay attention to Coach Khaki at Michigan.His influence has been quick and substantial whether on Twitter or the apparel industry. (Nike is actually designing Harbaugh-inspired khakis and has mocked up a gameday outfit for him.)
But the focus eventually has to be on the field. Michigan must win championships -- if not now, then soon. The Wolverines are considered a playoff team by some. Well, not yet. While Harbaugh, if he stays long enough, will have the chance to win multiple championships, Michigan isn't quite there yet.
10. An offseason of turnover: There's about a one in four chance your favorite team has a new look this season. That's because 29 of 128 schools (22.6) did indeed change head coaches.That's close to a single-offseason record. But inside the numbers, 19 of those 29 are beginning their first season as FBS head coaches. That's the most in at least 20 years.
11. The Tom Herman Sweepstakes: The career arc of Houston's second-year coach is worth watching. Fourteen games into that head coaching career, Herman's Cougars believe they are a playoff team. After that one season, Herman couldn't be hotter and his prospects couldn't be brighter. No matter what Houston does this season, word on the street is the former Ohio State offensive coordinator will be the next Texas or Texas A&M coach -- whichever opens first.
12. Team of the year: Before the season kicks off, it has to be LSU.Les Miles and his players have helped heal a community rocked by murders of police, and more recently, a devastating 500-year flood.Every city loves its college team but there is a special bond between the Tigers, Baton Rouge and all of Louisiana. The city needed those LSU players to show up at a shelter just to comfort folks, sign autographs and show they care.
LSU may not win the national championship. As of right now, though, it should be No. 1 in the hearts of those who care about human decency.
13. Going streaking: Let's take a look at some of the nation's longest active streaks, for better or worse.
- Consecutive wins: Alabama (12), San Diego State (10), Western Kentucky and Tennessee (six each).
- Consecutive conference wins: Western Kentucky (12), San Diego State (11), Clemson (9)
- Consecutive losses: Kansas (15); UCF (13), Charlotte (10)
- Consecutive conference loses: Eastern Michigan (14), Kansas (12), Oregon State (10)
- Home wins: Florida State (21), Clemson (16), TCU (13)
- Road losses: Kansas (35), Virginia (15), North Texas (13)
14. Dark horses
SEC: Ole Miss -- The Rebels have beaten Alabama twice in a row and get the Tide at home this year. Chad Kelly might be the best quarterback in the league.
Big Ten: Michigan State -- Can't believe the defending champs aren't getting more love. We know how hard L.J. Scott can run. Malik McDowell will disturb things defensively up front. Michigan and Ohio State both come to Spartan Stadium. Don't sleep on Mark Dantonio.
Big 12: Oklahoma State -- Mason Rudolph is underrated and has two of his top three receivers back. Trips to TCU and Oklahoma to end the season make it tough.
Pac-12: Washington State -- Call me crazy, but Mike Leach is just settling in with Wazzu in his fifth season. In the Pac-12 if you've got a quarterback you've got a chance. Luke Falk chucked it 644 times last year.
15. The inspiration of James Conner: Pittsburgh's tailback went through some spring practice drills with a port sewn into his chest. It had to be there. Conner was fighting Hodgkin's lymphoma. Amazingly, he was there running around with teammates 24 hours after his eighth chemo treatment. That's more than inspirational, it's flat-out impossible.
While cancer effects everyone differently, Conner has already effected us. In May, Conner said he had been declared cancer free. The ACC Player of the Year in 2014 missed 2015 with a knee injury. He wasn't going to let cancer keep him out of 2016.
16. Second-best comeback: NFL wide receiver Stedman Bailey was sitting in his car with his family in November when he was shot -- twice, in the head. Bailey not only survived but this season is returning to the college game to be a student assistant coach. While he recovers, Bailey will help out this season at West Virginia, his alma mater.
The circumstances surrounding Bailey's assault remain a mystery. Meanwhile, the now-Los Angeles Rams have put him on their reserve non-football injury list. Bailey, a former Mountaineers All-American, is taking a full class load.
17. Game(s) of the year: Take your pick of either Clemson-Florida State on Oct. 29 or Alabama-LSU on Nov. 5. Why? All four start ranked in the top six. The games are played a week apart. Aside from these momentous meetings, all four could otherwise go undefeated.
18. Week of the year (well, not including Week 1): That would be Week 13, Nov. 24-26, when as many as five Power Five divisions could be decided.
Thursday, Nov. 24 (Thanksgiving)
LSU at Texas A&M
Friday, Nov. 25
TCU at Texas
Nebraska at Iowa
Washington at Washington State
Saturday, Nov. 26
Florida at Florida State
Michigan at Ohio State
Notre Dame at USC
Auburn at Alabama
Duke at Miami
19. Welcome back
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia -- The guts of Georgia's rushing attack and key to Kirby Smart's first season, Chubb continues his recovery from a torn PCL, MCL and LCL suffered last October. Chubb is an easy kid to root for. Considering the Dawgs may be playing a true freshman quarterback, Chubb had better be healthy.
Taysom Hill, QB, BYU -- The 26-year-old senior endured three season-ending injuries. Any right-thinking human should be pulling for him.
Lovie Smith, coach, Illinois -- He last coached in college 22 years as an Ohio State assistant. At the moment, this former Super Bowl coach makes perfect sense for a fractured program.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama -- Alabama's talented tight end basically had a career during the Tide's two playoff games. He resisted leaving early for the NFL because "we've got next season, man." The 6-foot-6, 242-pound specimen returns for the defending national champs as a preseason All-American. Saban's draft magic with his juniors continues.
20. The Baylor plight: The sexual assault scandal that claimed the jobs of the coach, president and athletic director at Baylor isn't close to ending. Meanwhile, on the field, it could be a slow descent into mediocrity for the once-proud program. The 2016 recruiting class was gutted. The 2017 class has two commitments. The Bears will be competitive this season, but the future is dark no matter who replaces Jim Grobe after this year.
21. All-Name Team
QB Tago Smith, Navy
RB Shock Linwood, Baylor
WR Deebo Samuel, South Carolina
WR Ray-Ray McCloud, Clemson
WR Edgar Poe, Army
TE Standish Dobard, Miami
OL Dominique Threatt, South Florida
OL Messiah Rice, East Carolina
OL Tobijah Hughley, Louisville
OL Bar Milo, Miami
OL Sandley Jean-Felix, Marshall
DL Praise Martin-Oguike, Temple
DL Kimoni Fitz, Cincinnati
DL Walvenski Aime, Florida State
DL Mook Reynolds, Virginia Tech
LB Nyeem Wartman-White, Penn State
LB Rommel Mageo, Ole Miss
LB Zylesis Cannon, Louisville
DB Fish Smithson, Kansas
DB Nana Kyeremeh, West Virginia
DB Vegas Harley, Georgia Southern
DB Shalom Luani, Washington State
K Dylan Klumph, Cal
P Bentlee Critcher, Appalachian State
22. Most Humbled Coach: It has to be Mike Locksley. Last year, Locks was the nation's 14th-highest paid assistant as Maryland's offensive coordinator ($900,000). The former New Mexico head coach lost his job when Randy Edsall was fired, but he got scooped up by Alabama as an offense analyst making a reported $45,000. For those of you grumbling about your job, that's a 95 percent pay cut for Locksley.
23. Most Fun Bad Team: Syracuse. No one is expecting the Orange to challenge in the ACC's top-heavy Atlantic Division but, golly, is it going to be entertaining.New coach Dino Babers brings his up-tempo spread offense to the big time for the first time. The 55-year-old coach set offensive records at both Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green from 2012-15.
Since 2010, the former Baylor assistant has worked with offenses that have finished lower than 13th nationally only once. Take it to the bank: The Orange will be near the top in average plays per game and begin lighting up the scoreboard. Think Clemson Junior -- without the championship aspirations.
24. Most Boring Good Team: Michigan. All-America defender Jabrill Peppers may spice things up by taking snaps on offense. But other than that, Harbaugh still will be breaking a new -- yet to be determined -- quarterback. The Wolverines will pound the ball and mix in the odd play-action pass. In other words, Harbaugh is shaping Michigan into the teams coached by his mentor, Bo Schembechler
25. Whatever happened to ...
Oregon -- In Mark Helfrich's fourth season, he's led the Ducks to the first CFP National Championship and a graduate transfer quarterback for the second straight year (Dakota Prukop). Oregon starts the season with its lowest preseason AP Top 25 ranking since being unranked in 2007.
Boise State -- While the Broncos haven't fallen off a cliff, considering their 21-6 record under Bryan Harsin in the last two seasons, they aren't the BCS busters of the past. For the fifth time in six years, the offensive play caller has changed. Many favor Boise in the Mountain West Mountain Division, but beyond that the Broncos aren't back being a national story.
Miami -- You probably don't have to be told it's been 13 years since the Canes won an outright conference title. They've never won the ACC Coastal Division. That last national championship was in 2001. Mark Richt brings all kinds of optimism. Quarterback Brad Kaaya could be the second quarterback taken in the draft. Still, shouldn't Miami be better than a turn-of-the-century program?
Nebraska -- Do you have to be told? Since Tom Osborne retired in 1997, there has been one conference title (16 years ago), two major bowls and five coaches. The Huskers have pulled the rare double of late. They have proved not to be factors in two Power Five leagues (Big 12, Big Ten).