- Associated Press - Thursday, September 1, 2016

Now this is the way to start the college football season.

Opening weekend this year includes four matchups of ranked teams and marquee matchups that scream big-time college football game. Alabama vs. USC. Texas vs. Notre Dame.

Since the NFL moved the start of its season to the week following Labor Day in 2001, college football has turned summer’s last hurrah weekend into a delightful opening act. But it tended to be quantity — lots of games on TV spread out over five days — over high quality. Most top teams were playing cupcakes.

The College Football Playoff has encouraged teams to play step-up nonconference scheduling since one loss early won’t kill a team’s national championship hopes. The demands of television networks and fans — who are paying the bills in college football — also pushed schools to accept more challenging games.

This opening weekend is not quite the greatest in college football history. In 1998, eight games matched Top 25 teams. But it is better than most.

The last time four games paired ranked teams in the first week of the season was 2009. The opening slate that year included a top-10 matchup in Atlanta between No. 5 Alabama and No. 7 Virginia Tech, won by the Crimson Tide, and No. 20 BYU upsetting No. 3 Oklahoma at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium in Arlington, Texas.

A third-ranked Sooners team losing in an NFL stadium to a school from outside the power conferences? Houston fans would like to see a repeat of that Saturday.

Here’s what fans have to look forward to on Saturday and Monday night:

No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama in Arlington, Texas

Defending national champion Alabama would like to show it’s the team to beat once again, and that the Crimson Tide’s new starting quarterback — either Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett — is capable of leading the way. The Trojans, who have seven wins over No. 1 teams, could make a huge statement to open Clay Helton’s first full season. They’re targeting the program’s first Pac-12 title since 2008.

USC’s offensive line versus Alabama’s defensive front seven is the key matchup The Trojans return all five starters but Chuma Edoga will start at left tackle instead of injured senior Chad Wheeler. They will face a deep group led by dangerous pass rushers Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams. USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is coming off a huge season with 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’ll lead a deep receiving corps for quarterback Max Browne that faces a talented Tide secondary led by S Eddie Jackson and CBs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey.

Alabama running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris take over for the departed Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. They had a combined 261 rushing yards as freshmen but are former five-star recruits who need to take the pressure off the Tide’s quarterback early in the season.

No. 2 Clemson at Auburn

Clemson is hoping to mount another run to the national title game — and win this time. It could also be the first notch in QB Deshaun Watson’s Heisman Trophy campaign. Auburn is trying to rebound from a disappointing season that may have left coach Gus Malzahn needing improvement to secure his job.

No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 15 Houston

So, so much is at state for Houston. A victory by the Cougars sets up coach Tom Herman’s team to possibly make a push to become the first team outside the Power Five conferences to reach the College Football Playoff. It would also be a huge win for the American Athletic Conference as a whole and it could sting the Big 12 all season. Oklahoma has opportunities to rebound, but a loss would be a tough start for a team with national championship aspirations.

No. 11 Mississippi vs. No. 4 Florida State, Monday in Orlando, Florida

With 17 returning starters, Florida State would like to show that the early expectations of being a College Football Playoff contender are valid. Ole Miss lost 14 starters off last year’s team but has one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Chad Kelly, who threw for 4,042 yards last season which was the third-most in SEC history.

No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin in Green Bay, Wisconsin

Another pivotal season for LSU begins in a “neutral site” road game at Lambeau Field, far from the comfy confines of SEC country. The Tigers are a national title contender featuring a Heisman Trophy hopeful in running back Leonard Fournette. A loss to Wisconsin puts coach Les Miles back on the seemingly perpetual hot seat. The Badgers could get a huge confidence boost with a schedule looming filled with tough games, including Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State.

No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas

Texas coach Charlie Strong’s future is at stake. After consecutive losing seasons — no Longhorns coach has had three in a row since the 1950s — the third-year coach has a national stage to sink or make a statement the program is turning around.

No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina in Atlanta

For the first time in 15 years, Georgia has a new coach on the sidelines. After firing Mark Richt, the Bulldogs turned to Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart in hopes of taking the underachieving program to a championship level. North Carolina is coming off an 11-win season that included an appearance in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, but the Tar Heels could use a defining win under fifth-year coach Larry Fedora to build some national momentum.

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