It almost doesn't feel real. College football is actually back — and this weekend is jam-packed with a slate of must-watch games.
From Thursday night until Monday — I won't be leaving my couch. It's the best time of year.
The ACC is my stomping ground and the best conference in college football last season looks more capable than ever of making noise when the College Football Playoff rolls around.
Here are the 5 best ACC games to watch during the first true weekend of college football.
5. California vs. North Carolina, Saturday, 12:20 p.m. ET, ACCN
Do we have any clue what to expect from Larry Fedora and North Carolina now that Mitchell Trubisky is gone to greener pastures? This is a program that has been almost overlooked in the offseason, quietly mastering a plan to make a run in the Coastal after coming off an average outing in 2016 (while they had the No. 1 QB in the NFL Draft).
As of now, just a few days before UNC hosts Cal in a strange opener against a Pac-12 squad, we don't have clarity who will be replacing Trubisky at QB in the fast-paced, high-octane offense. Most believe LSU transfer Brandon Harris will get the nod, but his struggles were well-documented with the Tigers.
So why is this game a must-watch? First of all, it's early in the day on Saturday. Secondly, it's a chance to see if North Carolina will be a true contender this season — or if the 'Heels are going to be a squad that takes a significant step back. Cal wasn't good last season with a 5-7 record, but it's a program that could come in and leave with a victory.
4. Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech, Monday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
This weekend is going to be so incredibly awesome. From Thursday night to Monday night — there is almost non-stop college football action with great matchups spread across the four days. In a rare FBS showdown on Monday night, Tennessee and Georgia Tech will meet in Atlanta in another game that just feels strange.
Is Tennessee finally going to turn the corner or is Butch Jones headed out the door? We know Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech will grind it out with the triple-option offense, but star RB Dedrick Mills was kicked off the team last week. It might be a surprise — but there have been a few reputable folks who cover the ACC who really believe Georgia Tech could win the ACC Coastal Division.
Johnson released a depth chart earlier in the week — but has yet to name a starting QB. It isn't crazy to assume he might use a few of the young guys on the roster, or just pencil in a starter the day of the game. This isn't an offense that asks the QB to do a whole lot, so the Jackets' should be fine there. Redshirt sophomore RB KirVonte Benson is getting the first chance to replace Mills, and while he's flashed in practice, we are still looking at a young player with no real game experience.
I have no clue what to make of Tennessee. Quinten Dormady will likely get the nod at starting QB — and while unproven — he's a 6-foot-4 pro-style passer that has earned a lot of praise in the offseason. Tennessee will always rely heavily on its defense, but that's a big test preparing for the triple-option in Week 1.
3. N.C. State vs. South Carolina, Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
This is a sneaky, overlooked, really interesting matchup to kick off the new year. Both programs are trying to change the narrative and return to contention in their respective conferences.
I haven't been shy on my thoughts about N.C. State — and the positive direction this program is going. The Wolfpack have a brutal 2017 schedule but could catch a ton of teams off guard. On paper, I think they're better than South Carolina and should win this game. Bradley Chubb leads a defensive front that has four future early-round NFL talents. There is stability on offense with Ryan Finley entering his second season as the starter — surrounded with weapons like Jaylen Samuels (one of the more dynamic tight ends in the country).
I'm not a big fan of Will Muschamp but think South Carolina could turn the corner soon, too. I'm a big fan of Gamecocks' starting QB Jake Bentley — and think he could emerge as one of the better signal callers in the SEC.
This should be a fun one. Not a ton of points scored, but big play opportunities will be there.
2. No. 21 Virginia Tech vs. No. 22 West Virginia, Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Boom. This one will feature a rare Sunday night clash against two squads who might not be far apart, but haven't played since 2005. There used to be an intense rivalry between Virginia Tech and West Virginia — and you better believe that will be renewed in front of 100,00 rabid fans at Fed Ex Field.
College football can be unpredictable early, and there are plenty of questions surrounding this game even though the squads are ranked right next to one another. Virginia Tech is coming off a unexpected Coastal Division crown in Justin Fuente's first campaign in Blacksburg. He will look to replicate that success with a raw, unproven QB in Justin Jackson — who will be without the Hokies' two leading WRs from 2016 (Bucky Hodges, Isaiah Ford) who are now both on NFL rosters. We don't know much about Fuente's offensive weapons — or really if there are any who can fill that void.
Hokies' fans have become accustomed to expecting greatness out of Bud Foster's defense — and this year shouldn't be an exception. The secondary is loaded with future NFL talent from Brandon Facyson to Greg Stroman. Tim Settle will be a force up front, while Terrell Edmunds should be versatile and dynamic at safety.
West Virginia enters the new campaign betting the house on QB Will Grier — who showed plenty of promise at Florida before getting suspended for the entire 2016 season. The Mountaineers have a new offensive coordinator (Jake Spavital), who is proven in the FBS. Can the new faces in Morgantown mesh quick enough to find success in Week 1? That's yet to be seen, but this is a team loaded with playmakers, particuarly on offense.
This one will be fun.
1. Florida State vs. Alabama, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
The granddaddy of them all. The best opening college football matchup I can remember in recent history — with two teams squaring off who are both fully capable of going the distance and reaching the College Football Playoff.
This Florida State squad has a ton of talent. Deondre Francois enters the new season brimming with confidence after finding his stride in 2016 — and he has elite talent in the backfield and at WR. The Seminoles' offense should be good, but their defense is freakish, fast and athletic. Derwin James returns after sitting out much of last season with an injury — and he's a once-in-a-generation type talent at safety, Mark my words, if healthy, James will have several game-changing plays this season.
Alabama is Alabama. Nick Saban lost a ton of talent from last year's team, but will restock with a bevy of blue-chip talent. I'm not sold on Jalen Hurts as one of the top QBs in the country, but I don't know that he has to be. Alabama has more talent on both sides of the ball than any team in the country — and Hurts is still the most dynamic signal caller we've seen in Tuscaloosa in a long time.
This game has everything you would want as a fan. I think it comes down to a final drive — or last-minute big play. I can't envision a scenario where it's a blowout, on either side.