With ‘Week Zero,’ college football gets an early jump this year

ESPN’s vast promotional machine is touting next weekend as the start of the college football season. Here’s a tweet from Wednesday, allegedly “9 DAYS” from the kickoff.

But that’s simply not true. On Saturday — this Saturday — we are blessed with four games featuring two FBS teams, two of them featuring ranked teams. This counts as a bona fide weekend of college football even though ESPN is informally calling it “Week Zero,” which sounds oddly ominous.

Anyway, it’s not the most compelling slate of games, but college football is back, and that’s a good thing.

All times EDT. All point spreads taken from the consensus odds at VegasInsider.com.

Colorado State (-4) vs. Oregon State

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network.

After an inconsistent 3-4 start, the Rams surged over the second half of last season, scoring at least 37 points in each of their last six games and putting up 113 in their final two, a 63-31 clobbering of eventual Mountain West champion San Diego State and a 61-50 bowl loss to Idaho. Nearly everyone responsible for that offensive surge returns, along with nearly the entire defensive backfield, and now some think Colorado State could dethrone Boise State as Mountain West kingpin. The Rams also could get a boost from their new stadium, which hosts its first game on Saturday. Oregon State, meanwhile, continues its rebuild under Coach Gary Andersen, who led the Beavers to two wins in 2015 and four last year. Andersen’s teams probably never will be confused with the Texas Techs of the world, but the Beavers’ passing attack was woefully impotent last season: Oregon State had only 68 passing plays that went for at least 10 yards; the only two Power 5 teams that had fewer were Rutgers (which is Rutgers) and Georgia Tech (which runs the option).

BYU (-33) vs. Portland State

Time, TV: 3 p.m., ESPN.

As noted by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly in his BYU preview, the Cougars have been consistent but never superb in their six years as an independent: They’ve gone 14-17 against Power 5 teams, 8-8 against top-level mid-majors and 30-1 against everyone else (last year’s records against those three categories: 3-3, 1-1 and 5-0). FCS Portland State would certainly seem to fit the “everyone else” designation: One year after beating two FBS teams in one season, the Vikings went 3-8 in 2016. More recently, Coach Bruce Barnum was reprimanded by the school for having an inappropriate relationship with a married athletic department staffer.

Massachusetts (-2) vs. Hawaii

Time, TV: 6 p.m., Eleven Sports Network.

This extremely weird season-opening matchup is made even more strange by the fact that these two teams played an extremely weird season-closing matchup last season, when the Minutemen flew all the way to Hawaii to suffer a 46-40 loss in late November, a pseudo bowl game for a team that finished 2-10 and now hasn’t won more than three games in its five seasons playing at college football’s top level. The Warriors, meanwhile, advanced to a bowl game for the first time since 2010 and return nearly all of the reasons for that, namely dual-threat quarterback Dru Brown (who accounted for five scores in the Warriors’ bowl win over Middle Tennessee) and running back Diocemy Saint Juste (who topped 1,000 rushing yards and averaged 6.1 yards per carry).

San Jose State (+22) vs. No. 19 South Florida

Time, TV: 7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network.

For a guy who got ousted from Texas after failing to win more than six games in a season, Charlie Strong fell into a pretty good predicament at South Florida, a team that features 16 returning starters from a 2016 edition that went 11-2. Most notable among the returnees is quarterback Quinton Flowers, who was named AAC offensive player of the year after averaging 8.7 yards per carry (if you don’t include yardage lost from sacks) while rushing for 18 touchdowns (he also threw 24 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions). If only the Bulls’ defense could pull its weight: South Florida allowed 220 plays of at least 10 yards last season, which ranked 123rd out of 128 teams in the country. One would think a guy like Strong, whose background is defense, will be able to patch things up with so many returning starters coming back. San Jose State also has a new coach in Brent Brennan, who inherits a fairly sound roster from the fired Ron Caragher. Of course, that sound roster — built in part via a surprisingly heralded recruiting class in 2015 — went just 4-8 last season.

Rice (+30.5) vs. No. 14 Stanford in Sydney

Time, TV: 10 p.m., ESPN.

Like U-Mass. and Hawaii, the Owls and Cardinal played each other to close out the 2016 regular season, with Stanford taking a 41-17 win on its way to another season of double-digit victories under Coach David Shaw (his fifth in six seasons). Now they travel all the way to Australia for the rematch. The Cardinal’s Christian McCaffrey rushed for 204 yards and a score while also catching a touchdown pass, but he’s now toiling for the Carolina Panthers. Never fear: Backup Bryce Love rushed for 111 yards against Rice, including a 50-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Keller Chryst also is back after leading Stanford to a 6-0 record as a starter last season, even though he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the Cardinal’s Sun Bowl win over North Carolina. Entering his 11th season, Coach David Bailiff has seen the Owls’ win total decrease — from eight to five to three last year — in every season since 2013, when Rice won 10 games for just the third time in program history (Bailiff was coach for two of those seasons). And thus came a very awkward news release from Owls AD Chuck Pool in November announcing that Bailiff would be back even though the team was “not meeting an acceptable competitive standard for this university.” Now Bailiff has to replace his top quarterback, rusher and receiver while also shoring up a defense that was one of just seven in FBS to allow more than 500 yards per game.

Also on TV:

Florida A&M vs. Texas Southern, noon (ESPNU)

Jacksonville State vs. Chattanooga, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Cal Poly vs. Colgate, 7:05 p.m. (ESPNU)

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