A Smashing Opening Weekend

The 2016 college football season got off to a rollicking start Down Under last week. With neither team much interested in playing defense, Cal emerged as a 51-31 winner at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium.

That was hors d’oeuvres, and this week the main entrees will be served. For a change, the opening weekend of this season actually features more than a few significant matchups already with playoff implications. The games start Thursday night and continue every day through Labor Day on Monday.

The most intriguing matchup is our game of the week, but there are plenty of others worth watching, so get your remote ready and get busy …

Game of the Week

USC vs. Alabama (-11.5) at Arlington, Texas, Saturday 8 p.m. ET, ABC

There are eight matchups featuring ranked teams (by AP) against Power-5 competition, but nothing is going to beat USC vs. Alabama at Jerry World.

Sure, the Trojans are not the juggernaut of the 2000s while Alabama is still in the midst of a dynastic run under Nick Saban, but USC still is loaded with NFL-caliber talent. The question is if Clay Helton, the Trojans’ fourth head coach in as many seasons, will have his players primed to face the defending champions, especially with depleted offensive and defensive lines.

For certain, it’s an unusual opening weekend for the SEC, which typically loads up its nonconference schedule with cupcakes and rarely travels out of its home region. In 2016, seven SEC teams will face Power -5 nonconference opponents with only two playing at home in their respective openers.

Also keep an eye on

Oklahoma (-12) at Houston, Saturday noon ET, ABC

Don’t snicker, but this game has playoff and perhaps national championship implications. Houston, coming off a 13-1 season that culminated with a rout of Florida State in the Peach Bowl, is by far the best non-Power-5 team. A victory over Oklahoma may set the Cougars up for a real run at one of the four playoff berths.

The Sooners, of course, are looking to return to the playoff after being dumped by Clemson in the semifinals last year. Oklahoma has little margin for error as it will host Ohio State in two weeks before playing nine Big 12 conference games.

Upset special

UCLA at Texas A&M (-3), Saturday 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

The host Aggies are favored even though they’re not ranked and the Bruins are (at No. 16 by AP). But this matchup, more than the USC-Alabama game also played in Texas a few hours later, will reveal more about the relative strengths of the SEC and Pac-12.

UCLA, with much-hyped sophomore QB Josh Rosen, is probably the favorite to win the Pac-12 South while Texas A&M is decidedly an also-ran in the difficult SEC West, with head coach Kevin Sumlin on the hottest of hot seats. Frankly, UCLA can’t afford to lose this game if it wants to entertain any thoughts of making the playoff.

Player to watch

Kansas State at Stanford (-15), Friday 9 p.m. ET, FS1

Last season’s Heisman runnerup really should’ve been its winner. Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey narrowly lost to Alabama’s Derrick Henry in 2015 and now has another shot at succeeding Jim Plunkett as the school’s second honoree.

McCaffrey will need to put together command performances from the get-go. Remember, it was a season-opening loss at Northwestern a year ago that ultimately cost the Cardinal a spot in the playoff. With a new starting quarterback for the first time in four years, Stanford will need McCaffrey to be as good as he was last season, and then some.

Our rankings

Unlike most voters in the AP and coaches polls, we’re not wed to our previous rankings, so there’s a fresh look every week. Here’s what we see on the eve of the 2016 season:

1. Clemson, 2. Oklahoma, 3. LSU, 4. Ohio State, 5. Michigan, 6. Stanford, 7. Alabama, 8. Houston, 9. Florida State, 10. Michigan State, 11. Notre Dame, 12. Tennessee, 13. Washington, 14. TCU, 15. USC.

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