A year after the traditional Labor Day weekend bonanza of college football was whittled down to fewer than a dozen games by the pandemic, the 2021 season starts like none ever before.
For the first time since 2005, when the holiday weekend became college football's official launch date, the season will open with five games pairing Top 25 teams — including a top-five match-up.
The jewel of Week 1 comes Saturday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, where No. 3 Clemson faces No. 5 Georgia.
Elsewhere, No. 1 Alabama opens its national title defense and season as it usually does: At a neutral site against a Power Five opponent. The Crimson Tide and new starting quarterback Bryce Young face No. 14 Miami and D'Eriq King in Atlanta.
The Big Ten decided to open its season with a bunch of conference games that produced two ranked matchups. No. 12 Wisconsin hosts No. 19 Penn State, two Big Ten powers trying to quickly wash away the memory of disappointing 2020 seasons. No. 17 Indiana, ranked in the preseason for the first time since 1969, goes to No. 18 Iowa.
Maybe the most intriguing of the ranked vs ranked games is one that Texas probably didn't expect would require such heavy lifting when it was scheduled. The 21st-ranked Longhorns host No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette in the debut of head coach Steve Sarkisian.
The Ragin' Cajuns of the Sun Belt knocked off a ranked Big 12 team, Iowa State, on the road last season.
Beyond the ranked matchups, there is No. 4 Ohio State at Minnesota on Thursday night; No. 10 North Carolina visiting Virginia Tech on Friday night; No. 16 LSU playing UCLA in the Rose Bowl on Saturday night; and No. 9 Notre Dame goes to Florida State Sunday night.
Last year, there just nine games played over Labor Day weekend in mostly empty stadiums. The Power Five conferences had all delayed their seasons, and four conferences had no plans to play in the fall at all.
The pandemic hasn't gone away, but vaccination rates among college football players are well ahead of the general adult population. Optimism abounds. College football is back to — mostly — normal.
The picks, with odds from FanDuel Sportsbook:
No. 4. Ohio State (minus 13.5) at Minnesota
Buckeyes have won 11 straight against the Gophers and haven't lost a season-opener since 1999 against Miami ... OHIO STATE 35-23.
No. 10 North Carolina (minus 5 1/2) at Virginia Tech
Early tone-setter in ACC Coastal ... NORTH CAROLINA 28-20.
No. 1. Alabama (minus 19 1/2) vs. No. 14 Miami
'Bama is 10-0 in neutral-site openers under coach Nick Saban by an average margin of 27 points ... ALABAMA 42-25.
Tulane (plus 31 1/2) at No. 2. Oklahoma
Sooners were scheduled to play in New Orleans, but Hurricane Ida forced a change ... OKLAHOMA 49-14.
No. 3. Clemson (minus 2 1/2) vs. No. 5 Georgia
Don't call it a playoff elimination game, but it could serve as tiebreaker of sorts come December ... GEORGIA 28-24.
Kent State (plus 28 1/2) at No. 6. Texas A&M
Golden Flashes averages almost 50 points per game last season, but it was far Aggie-level competition ... TEXAS A&M 55-21.
Miami, Ohio (plus 22 1/2) at No. 8. Cincinnati
Bearcats have won 14 straight in the Battle for the Bell ... CINCINNATI 31-10.
Fresno State (plus 20 1/2) at No. 11. Oregon
Bulldogs warmed up by shutting out UConn last week; This will be tougher ... OREGON 38-16.
No. 19. Penn State (plus 5 1/2) at No. 12 Wisconsin
Nittany Lions have won four straight and six of seven meetings, dating back to 2007 ... WISCONSIN 24-21.
FAU (plus 23 1/2) at No. 13. Florida
After a three-year wait, Emory Jones takes over at quarterback for the Gators ... FLORIDA 35-14.
San Jose State (plus 14 1/2) at No. 15. Southern California
USC is 4-0 against the defending Mountain West champions ... USC 37-17.
No. 16. LSU (minus 2 1/2) at UCLA
Boy, could the Pac-12 use a victory over an SEC team to start the season ... LSU 31-23, BEST BET.
No. 17. Indiana (plus 3 1/2) at No. 18 Iowa
Hawkeyes have won three straight and seven of eight in the series, but these aren't your father's Hoosiers. Or are they? ... IOWA 28-23.
No. 23. Louisiana-Lafayette (plus 8 1/2) at No. 21 Texas
Ragin' Cajuns are coming off consecutive double-digit victory seasons ... TEXAS 31-21.
No. 9. Notre Dame (minus 7 1/2) at Florida State
Seminoles have lost four straight opening games ... FLORIDA STATE 27-23, UPSET SPECIAL.
Boise State (plus 5 1/2) at UCF, Thursday — @bkbeban
Two of the best programs outside the Power Five square off ... UCF 31-27.
Michigan State (plus 3 1/2) at Northwestern, Friday — @Colin_Dilworth
Spartans upset the Big Ten West champions last season ... NORTHWESTERN 23-20.
Texas Tech (plus 1/2) vs. Houston at NRG Stadium, Saturday — @jefe172
Cougars looking to prove they belong in the Big 12 ... HOUSTON 34-28.
Stanford (plus 2 1/2) vs. Kansas State at Arlington, Texas, Saturday — @Ben_Petersheim
Body clock game alert for this 11 a.m. CT kickoff for a West Coast team ... STANFORD 28-26.
Oregon State (plus 6 1/2) at Purdue, Saturday — @Ashleyrgsports
Get to know Purdue DE George Karlaftis, a possible future first-round NFL draft pick ... OREGON STATE 31-27.
Nevada (plus 3 1/2) at California, Saturday — @lilerq74
Get to know Nevada QB Carson Strong; Maybe this season's Zach Wilson ... NEVADA 28-24.
West Virginia (minus 2 1/2) at Maryland, Saturday, —- @SydneyCarton1
Mountaineers have dominated the regional rivalry recently, winning nine of 10 since 2004 ... MARYLAND 27-24.
Last season: 179-78 straight; 124-132-1 against the spread.
Bowl season: 12-13 straight; 12-13 against the spread.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://APpodcast.com
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