You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Early Ranking of the 10 Best Games of Week 1 of the 2023 College Football Season

Athlon Sports 1/24/2023 Mitchell Forde
© Provided by Athlon Sports

A list of the 10 best college football matchups on the schedule for Labor Day weekend.

The start of the next college football season may still be seven months away. But now that the calendar has flipped to 2023, it's never too early to get excited about the games that await next fall.

Related: College Football's Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2023

As usual, Labor Day weekend will not only mark the start of college football season for most teams across the country, but it also should provide a compelling first test for quite a few. The stand-alone Sunday game between LSU and Florida State will make most of the headlines, but there are several other intriguing matchups on tap, as well, including a rivalry in the Carolinas and the juicy FBS debut for Deion Sanders as Colorado faces the reigning national runner-up, TCU.

While acknowledging that the next few months are sure to bring about more changes when it comes to rosters, coaches or even schedules that could alter this list, here is an early look at the best matchups for the first full week of the college football season in 2023.

Early Ranking of the 10 Best Games of Week 1 of the 2023 College Football Season

1. LSU vs. Florida State (Orlando, Fla.; Sunday, Sept. 3)

These two teams played an exciting, albeit messy, game to open the 2022 season, with Florida State winning 24-23. This time around, it should be another close game, but the expectations will be quite a bit higher for both squads. LSU won the SEC West in Brian Kelly’s first season in Baton Rouge, and the Tigers are set to return quarterback Jayden Daniels, receiver Malik Nabers, running back John Emery, and five of their top six offensive linemen. Kelly and his staff also are bringing in an impressive group of transfers. The Seminoles, meanwhile, have quarterback Jordan Travis and his top target, Johnny Wilson, back. Plus, Mike Norvell has taken full advantage of the portal for the second straight offseason, already landing commitments from nine transfers, six of whom played at the Power 5 level last season. As a result, Athlon Sports has Florida State ranked No. 6 and LSU No. 7 in our Way Too Early Top 25 for 2023, meaning this matchup will not only set the tone for both teams’ seasons but could have College Football Playoff ramifications, as well.

Related: College Football's Biggest Winners in Transfer Portal as of January Deadline

2. North Carolina vs. South Carolina (Charlotte, N.C.; Saturday, Sept. 2)

Another matchup between two of Athlon Sports' preliminary Top 25 teams, this one should feature some offensive fireworks. Following a 9-5 season, North Carolina will bring back star quarterback Drake Maye, who threw for more than 4,300 yards and 38 touchdowns last season. South Carolina, meanwhile, recently got the news that starting quarterback Spencer Rattler and leading receiver Juice Wells will return in 2023. The Gamecocks finished 2022 strong, beating a pair of top-10 opponents in Tennessee and Clemson to close the regular season. They’ll hope to carry that momentum into this neutral-site matchup. Points should be plentiful; behind Maye, North Carolina averaged nearly 35 points per game last season, while South Carolina averaged 44 per game across its final three contests. This will mark the 80th meeting between the two Carolina flagship schools but the first in the regular season since 2019 (they last met in the 2021 Duke’s Mayo Bowl, which South Carolina won).

3. Colorado at TCU (Saturday, Sept. 2)

Normally, a matchup between a team that went 1-11 the previous season and an opponent that finished No. 2 in the nation wouldn’t garner much preseason hype. But that’s the Coach Prime effect for you. After being hired away from Jackson State, Deion Sanders will make his FBS debut on the sideline for Colorado against the 2022 national runner-up. Sanders’ team will have significantly more talent on the field than the Buffaloes did when they lost 38-13 to the Horned Frogs to open last season, but how he and his bevy of transfers adjust to the competition level remains to be seen. TCU, meanwhile, will debut a new-look offense after losing coordinator Garrett Riley, quarterback Max Duggan, leading rusher Kendre Miller and leading receiver Quentin Johnston during the offseason. This game may not wind up being close, but the storylines will make it one of, if not the most, talked-about matchups of opening weekend regardless of the result.

4. West Virginia at Penn State (Saturday, Sept. 2)

Could this finally be the year that Penn State breaks through and makes the College Football Playoff? Will Neal Brown get past the six-win mark and get himself off one of the country’s warmest seats? We will get our first data point to answer both questions when the Nittany Lions host the Mountaineers in what should be a raucous atmosphere. The big unknown for Penn State is how the offense will fare with someone other than Sean Clifford starting at quarterback for the first time since 2018. Drew Allar, Clifford’s expected replacement, was a highly-touted recruit who showed flashes last season, but this will be his first real test. The good news for Allar is that he’ll have one of the best running back duos in the country to hand the ball to in Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, plus one of the best offensive linemen in Olu Fashanu blocking for him. West Virginia also will have a new starter behind center after the failed JT Daniels experiment. Garrett Greene and Nicco Marchiol will battle it out this spring and summer and possibly into fall camp for the No. 1 job, barring another transfer addition.

5. Florida at Utah (Saturday, Sept. 2)

Every year in college football, there are a handful of early-season results that make no sense by the end of the year. Florida’s 29-26 win over Utah in 2022 would qualify. The Utes went on to win 10 games, including the Pac-12 championship for the second season in a row, while Florida finished 6-7. Utah should be heavily favored to avenge the loss this time around. Quarterback Cam Rising has announced that he will return for his sixth college season. He and Utah will look to prove that they can survive a loaded Pac-12 slate and break through into the College Football Playoff during his final season. Florida, meanwhile, is searching for a quarterback to replace Anthony Richardson, and this matchup will be our first indication of whether or not head coach Billy Napier has found one. As of this writing, the Gators have just one signal-caller on their roster who has attempted a college pass. That's Jack Miller III, who has started exactly one game.

6. Tennessee vs. Virginia (Nashville, Tenn.; Saturday, Sept. 2)

After a dream season in 2022 that saw the Volunteers finish 11-2 and No. 6 in the AP Poll, Josh Heupel’s team will look to prove that it has staying power at the top of the SEC without quarterback Hendon Hooker. That will start with a neutral-site matchup (albeit one that should heavily favor the Vols in terms of fan support) against a Power 5 opponent. Quarterback isn’t the only question mark for Tennessee, which also lost two of its top receivers in Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman to the NFL and needs to improve a defense that gave up more than 400 yards per game a year ago. Virginia scuffled to a 3-7 record in Tony Elliott’s first season, but this should be an emotionally charged game for the Cavaliers, as the team hasn’t yet taken the field since three players were killed (another was injured, along with a fellow student) in a tragic on-campus shooting in November. our players were shot and killed in November.

7. Boise State at Washington (Saturday, Sept. 2)

Following the news that Michael Penix Jr., the nation’s leading passer next season, plans to return to school in 2023, Washington has emerged as a trendy pick to win the Pac-12. The Huskies could even be a College Football Playoff dark horse — they come in at No. 10 in Athlon's Way-Too-Early rankings. But they will have to pass a tough test to start the 2023 campaign if they’re going to live up to the hype. Boise State rebounded from a slow start to the 2022 season by winning eight of its final 10 games. The Broncos seemed to find something in quarterback Taylen Green, averaging 32.5 points per game after he took over for Hank Bachmeier behind center. Expect Washington to be favored, especially at home, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Boise State sprung an early-season upset of a Power 5 foe.

8. Nebraska at Minnesota (Thursday, Aug. 31)

The first game of the 2022 season between two Power 5 opponents will also mark the first game of the Matt Rhule era at Nebraska. While expectations Rhule’s rebuild will likely take some time, this game will give fans their first taste of what newcomers like quarterback Jeff Sims, tight end Arik Gilbert and defensive end MJ Sherman — part of a big transfer haul — are capable of. And the matchup is certainly winnable. Minnesota has been solid under P.J. Fleck, winning nine or more games in each of the past three full seasons, but the Golden Gophers will be without four-year starting quarterback Tanner Morgan and leading rusher Mohamed Ibrahim next year. The outcome of this one could wind up looming large in the race for the Big Ten West crown, which was a jumbled mess last season.

9. UTSA at Houston (Saturday, Sept. 2)

Since the start of the 2021 season, 15 college football programs have won a combined 20 games. The Roadrunners and Cougars are two of them. Next fall, both will start their tenure in new conferences by playing one another. UTSA is making the leap from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference, while Houston got called up from the AAC to the Big 12. With both programs set to face a tough league slate, it would be nice to start the season with a win. The Cougars defeated the Roadrunners in a 37-35 thriller to open the 2022 campaign. But despite the series now moving to Houston, UTSA might be favored this time around. The Roadrunners are bringing back coach Jeff Traylor and starting quarterback Frank Harris, who threw for more than 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2022. Houston, meanwhile, will have to find a replacement for four-year starting quarterback Clayton Tune.

10. Ohio State at Indiana (Saturday, Sept. 2)

No, we’re not going to try to convince anyone that Indiana has a real chance to upset the Buckeyes. But it will be interesting to see how Ohio State adjusts to life after C.J. Stroud. Whoever steps in for Stroud behind center (Kyle McCord seems like the early favorite) will have to face a hostile conference road environment in his first start, which could be revealing. That said, whoever is playing quarterback will still be able to throw the ball to Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka or hand it to TreVeyon Henderson or Miyan Williams, so we’re betting the Buckeyes will be able to score some points against an Indiana team that finished 120th out of 131 FBS team in scoring defense a season ago.

Other intriguing Week 1 matchups:

Texas Tech at Wyoming

Louisville at Georgia Tech

Oregon State at San Jose State

Northwestern at Rutgers

Utah State at Iowa

Coastal Carolina at UCLA

NC State at UConn

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon