College football preview: Plenty to watch on the first true Saturday of the s

  • FILE - At left, in an Oct. 31, 2015, file photo, Southern California head coach Clay Helton gestures before the start of their NCAA college football game against California, in Berkeley. At right, in an Aug. 9, 2016, file photo, Alabama coach Nick Saban gestures during practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala. In some cases, regardless of the quality of the competition, the names alone scream big-time college football game. Alabama vs. USC. (Vasha Hunt/AL.com via AP, File)

  • FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2015, file photo, Southern California quarterback Max Browne warms up before an NCAA college football game against Washington, in Los Angeles. Max Browne insists he wouldn't want slightly less daunting circumstances for his long-awaited debut as No. 20 Southern California's starting quarterback. His first shot finally comes Saturday against top-ranked Alabama in the Dallas Cowboys' massive stadium. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) Jae C. Hong

  • Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin works with his players during football practice, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, at the Hank Crisp Indoor Facility in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Vasha Hunt/AL.com via AP) Vasha Hunt

  • FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2015, file phot, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney watches prior to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against North Carolina in Charlotte, N.C. Three SEC-ACC matchups and Pittsburgh RB James Conner’s emotional return after his fight with cancer headline opening weekend around the Atlantic Coast Conference. North Carolina faces Georgia, Florida State takes on Mississippi and Clemson visits Auburn in three games that could go a long way toward shaping the ACC’s season. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone, File) Bob Leverone

  • FILE - In this Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, file photo, Houston head coach Tom Herman stands on the stand after the Peach Bowl NCAA college football game against Florida State in Atlanta. Houston won 38-24. The 15th-ranked Cougars are the clear favorites to get the New Year’s Six bid from the Group of Five. Herman enters his second year at Houston as arguably the nation’s hottest coaching prospect after leading the Cougars to a 13-1 record last season. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File) John Bazemore

  • Oklahoma’s defense, including Jordan Thomas (7), will have its hands full today against Houston and explosive quarterback Greg Ward Jr. Kickoff is set for noon. AP file

Associated Press
Published: 9/2/2016 11:24:06 PM

ARLINGTON, Texas – Top-ranked Alabama has never lost an opener under Nick Saban. And the Crimson Tide’s last two national championships, including a season ago, started at the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.

Maybe Crimson Tide fans should go ahead and make plans for Tampa in January for the next College Football Playoff title game. Many of them probably already have even before the start of Saban’s 10th season.

Alabama opens tonight at AT&T Stadium against 20th-ranked Southern California, which is facing an SEC team for the first time in 10 years.

It is the seventh of Saban’s openers to be played in a neutral site against team from another Power Five conference – the Tide have won all of those first six at least double figures. That includes beating Michigan in 2012 and Wisconsin last September in the stadium where they also won the CFP semifinal in the Cotton Bowl last New Year’s Eve.

“Well, I’d rather play here in Tuscaloosa,” Saban said this week on campus. “The issue is getting people to play you in Tuscaloosa that are quality opponents, and then when you do home-and-home. That means next year we’d have to play in California. So next year we wouldn’t make any money, this year we would. This is a business decision but it’s also a program decision in the tremendous amount of exposure, when you play a quality opponent like USC.”

The Tide have won four national titles under Saban. The first was in 2008, when the Trojans won their last Pac-12 title.

USC has seven wins in its history against No. 1 teams, but the last was in 1984.

USC’s Max Browne won the job to replace Cody Kessler as starting quarterback but has attempted only 19 passes in nine games. Alabama’s starter is a mystery, either junior Cooper Bateman or redshirt freshman Blake Barnett. If Saban has picked a guy, he isn’t saying – just like the past two years when Blake Sims and then Jake Coker claimed the jobs through game performances.

Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is plenty familiar with the Trojans, having coached 19 members of the USC team. He’s a former USC head coach and assistant.

“It won’t be about me, just like it wasn’t about me when we were at Tennessee,” Kiffin said early in preseason camp. “It’s not about coach when we go to LSU. It’s about our players playing really well. All we can do is put our players in the best position to win.”

No. 2 Clemson opens in SEC country at Auburn

Deshaun Watson and Clemson pick up where they left off last season – sort of.

The second-ranked Tigers open against another Southeastern Conference team from the state of Alabama, visiting Auburn tonight, hoping to resume their pursuit of a national title and, perhaps, a Heisman Trophy for Watson.

They finished an otherwise unblemished season with a 45-40 loss to Alabama in the national championship game. Watson was at his playmaking best in racking up nearly 500 total yards against one of the nation’s top defenses.

The task now will be to beat an Auburn team seeking redemption after a disappointing season.

“It’s a big challenge out of the gate for us,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said.

Not so big as the one Swinney’s Tigers faced to finish off last season. Auburn opens picked to finish sixth in the Southeastern Conference Western Division after flopping last season amid much higher expectations.

Auburn also lost its top three rushers from last season to a dismissal, a transfer and an early entry into the NFL draft. The receivers are mostly unknown, and Sean White won a renewed quarterback battle after throwing one touchdown pass in five starts last season.

It makes for a tough opening challenge for Coach Gus Malzahn’s team. Swinney points out that openers carry a certain amount of mystery for both sides.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” he said. “They have players we don’t know a lot about, and we have players they don’t know a lot about. You don’t ever really know until you see a team for two or three games.”

High stakes for No. 15 Houston, No. 3 Oklahoma

Houston Coach Tom Herman has spent all offseason downplaying the importance of the Cougars’ opener against No. 3 Oklahoma.

The high-profile matchup at NRG Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Texans, today won’t decide a conference championship nor will it pave the way to a spot in the College Football Playoff for the winner.

“Just going in with the mindset that it’s just another game that we will be prepared for,” said Houston cornerback Brandon Wilson, toeing the company line.

So, yes, there is still almost a whole season to play and the opener only counts for one. All the cliches apply. But a victory by 15th-ranked Houston unquestionably opens up a world of playoff possibilities for the much-hyped Cougars, the American Athletic Conference and maybe the Group of Five conferences in general. A loss by the Cougars and they can focus on defending that league title.

The Cougars capped a 13-1 season with a 38-24 victory against Florida State in the Peach Bowl in January. The buzz in Houston for the Coogs hasn’t been this high since the late 1980s and early ’90s. Back then it was star quarterbacks Andre Ware and David Klingler run-and-shooting their way into the record books.

That era ended abruptly. Houston started the 1991 season ranked No. 12, and went into its second game of the season against No. 2 Miami ranked 10th. Instead of a breakthrough, Klingler and the Cougars got buried 40-10 by the Hurricanes.

Houston’s preseason ranking this year is its best since ’91, but the Cougars are trying to hold on to the underdog intensity they had last year when they weren’t even favored to win their division.

“We’ve tried to keep that chip on our shoulder. That kind of made us who we are,” tight end Tyler McCloskey said.

What will it take for Houston or any Group of Five team to reach the playoff? The playoff has only been around for two years and there hasn’t been a test case yet for the selection committee. An undefeated record is probably a good start. At least one big non-conference win will be important because the quality wins the committee looks for are tough to accumulate outside Power Five leagues.

A big season by the Cougars has the potential to be the story of the playoff race when the rankings start coming out in early November. That’s why of all the compelling matchups in a great first weekend of the season, the stakes are highest in Houston.




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