• Don Lichterman

College season kicks off

Believe it or not we are closer to the 2019 regular season kicking off than last Thanksgiving weekend when the 2018 regular season concluded for most teams.

“2019 College Football Season Will Kick Off With A Few Appealing Non-Conference Matchups -- Tom Layberger”

When Florida and Miami agreed to move their opener in Orlando up one week to help launch college football’s 150th anniversary, it meant a key non-conference game to get the juices flowing a week before the curtain rises in earnest.

Starting with the Sunshine State rivals here is a glimpse at some of the non-conference matchups that take place before the calendar flips to September.

August 24

Florida vs Miami (Orlando)

Something has to give as neither team has lost in August. The Hurricanes are 11-0 and Florida is 7-0. The game marks the first meeting between the programs since 2013 when unranked Miami, held to 10 first downs, forced five turnovers in a 21-16 win over the No. 12 Gators.

The ‘Canes, who hold a 29-26 edge in the all-time series, will have a new look following a 7-6 showing last season. Following a brief stint as Temple’s head coach, Manny Diaz took over a program that has many new staff members, including both coordinators. Depending on how a three-way competition at quarterback plays out, Tate Martell could make his Miami debut after transferring from Ohio State.

Capped by a Peach Bowl rout of Michigan the Gators went 10-3 last season and surged to No. 7 in the final AP poll in coach Dan Mullen’s return to Gainesville, where he had served as offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer. UF could have a new look at quarterback as well in Emory Jones, though Feleipe Franks showed much maturity last season.

August 29

Utah at BYU

In the 94th version of the Holy Way the defending Pac-12 South champion Utes will look to extend their win streak against BYU. Kyle Whittingham’s team leads the all-time series 58-31-4 and has won eight straight, seven by single digits, including a 35-28 win in last year’s regular-season finale.

Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley missed the matchup after breaking his collarbone a few weeks earlier. His return this spring was a welcome sight for the Utes. For BYU, which showed much improvement last season behind then-freshman quarterback Zach Wilson, snapping the skid against the Utes is paramount not only because of the rivalry, but getting into the win column out of the chute would make an opening four-week stretch that also includes a trip to Tennessee and visits from Washington and USC more bearable.

August 30

Wisconsin at USF

The Badgers’ first regular season game in Florida in 31 years is sure to be a sweatbox of a Friday evening at Raymond James Stadium. Jonathan Taylor, the nation’s leading rusher in 2018, might find the conditions to his liking especially if a Bulls’ run defense that ranked near the bottom (122nd) last season fails to show considerable improvement out of the gate.

Who will be handing the ball to Taylor? Alex Hornibrook (32 career starts) transferred to Florida State leaving Jack Coan as his likely successor. The junior started four games last season.

The Bulls, who lost their final six games last season, have a new offensive coordinator in the person former Florida, NFL and CFL quarterback Kerwin Bell. His extensive playbook has been a breath of fresh air this spring. Blake Barnett heads into his second season as the team’s starting QB and one of his targets will be Michigan transfer Eddie McDoom, who faced the Badgers twice (no catches) while with the Wolverines.

August 31

Houston at Oklahoma

This matchup in Norman is rich with storylines. Jalen Hurts makes his much-anticipated Oklahoma debut after transferring from Alabama where he appeared in three national championship games. Hurts, who will not have to be on the alert for the departed Ed Oliver, will be going against a defense that last season allowed 496 yards per game to rank 126th among 129 FBS programs.

Dana Holgorsen makes his debut on the Cougars’ sideline after eight seasons at West Virginia. His final regular season game with the Mountaineers was in Morgantown against the Sooners last Thanksgiving weekend, a loss that dropped him to 0-for-7 versus OU.

One of the nation’s most exciting players a year ago, Cougars’ quarterback D’Eriq King, returns after blowing out his right knee late last season. The senior, who accounted for 50 touchdowns in 10-plus games prior to the injury, looked good in the spring.

This will be the fourth meeting between the teams with the most recent a 33-23 Houston victory in 2016.

Auburn vs Oregon (Arlington)

Mario Cristobal’s Ducks will be a trendy pick by many for College Football Playoff inclusion. Within two weeks at the end of 2018, quarterback Justin Herbert and the team’s leading tackler, linebacker Troy Dye, announced they were returning for their senior seasons. CJ Verdell and Dye’s brother, Travis, are among the nation’s top running back duos.

Top recruit and defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux will make his Oregon debut and with an opportunity to make an immediate impression against an Auburn team that has a four-way competitionat quarterback this spring. Whoever leads the Tigers onto the field against the Ducks will be making his first-career start because none among the quartet has started a game. Whoever trots out to the huddle will do so under new coordinator Kenny Dillingham, though coach Gus Malzahn will be calling the plays.

The only previous meeting between these teams was in the 2010 national championship game, which the Tigers won on Wes Byrum’s 19-yard field goal as time expired.

Fresno State at USC

The intrigue going into this game will be the Trojans’ quarterback. Specifically, who will it be? New OC Graham Harrell has overseen a three-way battle this spring that will carry over into fall camp. J.T. Daniels started as a teenage freshman during a bowl-less 2018. He beat out Jack Sears and Matt Fink, who are back in the running.

Coach Jeff Tedford and the defending Mountain West champion Bulldogs are virtually starting over on offense. Quarterback Marcus McMaryion, KeeSean Johnson, the program’s all-time leading receiver, and four starting linemen have moved on.

The teams have met three times with USC’s 52-13 win in the 2014 season opener at the Coliseum the most recent matchup.

Florida State vs Boise State (Jacksonville)

Following a rough debut season in Tallahassee, Florida State caoch Willie Taggart cannot afford a slow start to 2019. As intense as the glare is, it would only get worse with a dismal showing against the Broncos. While there are signs new coordinator Kendal Briles’ offense made strides this spring, a unit that ranked 102nd nationally (361 yards per game) last season must create space for running back Cam Akers if much improvement is going to be realized.

Boise State just might be the opponent FSU needs to kick off 2019. Led by record-setting quarterback Brett Rypien and the nation’s eighth-leading rusher, Alexander Mattison, Bryan Harsin’s team lost a ton of production and it may take at least a couple of weeks for the Broncos to mesh. A strong defense (10th in sacks, 20th vs. the run) must also replace key contributors from last season, though DB/LB Curtis Weaver returns after recording 20.5 sacks his first two seasons.

South Carolina vs North Carolina (Charlotte)

Mack Brown vacated the broadcast booth for a second go-round in Chapel Hill. The 67-year-old member of the College Football Hall of Fame took a downtrodden program in the late-1980s and produced four top-20 finishes, including a pair of top-10 rankings at the conclusion of his decade on the Tar Heels’ sideline. Thirty-one years later Brown again has his work cut out for him. UNC has lost 16 of its last 18 ACC games and for much of the past decade the program has dealt with NCAA investigations.

Brown’s team will be going against Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks, who went 7-6 in 2018 and were blanked, 28-0, by Virginia in the Belk Bowl. Three-year starter Jake Bentley is back at quarterback, though something to watch is the emergence of early enrollee Ryan Hilinski.

This will be the fifth meeting this century between the Carolinas, with South leading the all-time series 34-19-4.

Northwestern at Stanford

Talk about having huge shoes to fill. Northwestern, which won the Big Ten West, competed in the conference championship game for the first time and capped a nine-win season with a Holiday Bowl victory over Utah, must replace quarterback Clayton Thorson, all-time leading rusher Justin Jackson and some major contributors on defense. Hunter Johnson takes over at QB after sitting out last season following his transfer from Clemson.

Given injuries that resulted in missing three games and playing at far less than 100 percent in at least a few others, Cardinal coach David Shaw got a bit of a preview of life without running back Bryce Love. Stanford still won nine games, but there are major departures on both sides of the ball, including all three starting linebackers. Shaw must have his team come together quickly because following the matchup with Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats are trips to USC, UCF and a home date with Oregon.