The Saturday Slant – Week 0: College Football Kicks Off With USC & Notre Dame In Action

August 24, 2023

Week 0 of the college football season is a perfect way to ease into things. There’s not an overwhelming slate of games — seven this year — and you won’t immediately see a bunch of high-stakes games. If the college football season is one gigantic meal, this is the free bread. It won’t blow you away, but it’s reliable, and you’re hungry for something, so it tastes delicious.

All season long, we’ll be letting you know which games you should watch as the college football season goes. It’ll look a little different than this going forward, but for now, here are the games you need to watch during Week 0.

Watch this: Ohio vs. San Diego State, 7 p.m. ET, FS1

Obviously, the best quarterback you will watch this weekend will be USC’s Caleb Williams — the dude just won the Heisman Trophy, plays in the most quarterback-friendly offense in the nation, and will probably make a lot of money as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

But earlier this week, we learned that one of the nation’s most entertaining signal callers will, indeed, play during Week 0 despite there being major questions about his availability.

Kurtis Rourke, the reigning MAC Player of the Year who suffered an ACL tear in mid-November last year, will suit up for the Ohio Bobcats on Saturday evening against San Diego State. His status was in question, but earlier this week, it was reported that he’d be able to give it a go.

This is great news for the Bobcats, which have legitimate aspirations of winning the MAC for the first time since 1968 — the team has won the MAC East five times but has never gotten over the hump in the conference title game.

Rourke and a talented cast of skill position players on offense, particularly RB Sieh Bangura, give them a real shot, although there’s skepticism around the Bobcat defense, which enters the year 131st out of 133 FBS teams in defensive SP+.

Rourke won’t have an easy first game back, though, as SDSU consistently has one of the best defenses in the Mountain West. Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke’s teams are known for their ability to muck things up with the best of them, and this year’s team enters the year at 66th in defensive SP+.

There are some questions about how SDSU defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix’s group will build up its front seven, as Bill Connelly of ESPN noted that the team lost six of the seven linemen and linebackers who recorded 400+ snaps last season and being able to consistently move the ball on offense hasn’t been easy for a team that was seventh and eighth in scoring and total offense, respectively, last season. Keep an eye on Cody Moon, a linebacker transfer from New Mexico who should step in and help them right away.

Ohio has the second-best odds to win the MAC. San Diego State has the fourth-best odds to win the MWC. If you’re looking for a game that has a chance to be competitive this weekend, this should be your best bet. (Or UTEP vs. Jacksonville State, which also has the potential to be very fun.)

The pick: Under 48.5

Also watch this: Navy vs. No. 13 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC

To get the obvious out of the way, Notre Dame is a better football team going into the season than Navy. There are very real questions about what the Fighting Irish look like in Marcus Freeman’s second year as head coach, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, as offensive coordinator Tommy Rees left for Alabama, both quarterbacks (Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner) who threw passes for them last year transferred, and their best pass catcher (tight end Michael Mayer) is in the NFL.

The good news for the Irish is that they landed arguably the top transfer QB on the market this offseason in ex-Wake Forest signal caller Sam Hartman, who will be playing behind a very good offensive line and with a deep running back room led by the returning Audric Estime.

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The defense in South Bend projects to be an impressive unit, as well, although the back seven looks to be more solid than a defensive line that lost three of its top contributors. Week 0 should provide a good test for that group, specifically, as they’re going up against a Navy program that went through a coaching change this offseason (longtime coach Ken Niumatalolo is out and was replaced by his defensive coordinator, Brian Newberry).

While it does sound like the Midshipmen might try to throw the ball a bit more than usual going forward, their bread and butter will still be a triple option attack that is a nightmare to defend against.

That approach has led to the Midshipmen pulling a few upsets over the years, and last season, they almost erased a 35-13 halftime deficit against the Fighting Irish. While Notre Dame went on to win, they did not score a single point in the second half, and a Naval Academy touchdown with 1:21 left made it a one-score game. The Irish went on to win, 35-32, but it was not pretty, and this year, Navy returns four of its top five rushing options from the previous campaign.

At the bare minimum, this game is an opportunity to look at a team with Playoff aspirations. And who knows? Maybe Navy and its (apologies for the pun) fleet of guys who know how to run the triple option can make it seem silly that it’s entering this game as 20-point underdogs.

The pick: Navy +20

Keep an eye on this: San Jose State vs. No. 6 USC, 8 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network

It’s weird to say that a game involving the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and a team with national title aspirations is worth keeping an eye on but considering the opponent (San Jose State is 97th in SP+ entering the season) and the fact that you might not get Pac-12 Network on your television, you may not even be able to watch.

Having said that, barring injuries, there are only going to be 12-15 more times to watch Caleb Williams play quarterback in college, and every one of those are worth checking out if you have the opportunity.

After a brilliant first year in Los Angeles, Williams will once again be the straw that stirs the drink for the Trojans in an offense where he’s surrounded by some of the most promising skill position talent in America.

Lincoln Riley’s offenses have generally been able to replace guys when they move on to the NFL, so while the team lost top RB Travis Dye and top pass catcher Jordan Addison, USC should still be right at the top of the list of the best offenses in America.

Guys like Mario Williams and Arizona transfer Dorian Singer should give the Heisman winner more established offenses in the passing game and keep an eye on how the Trojans break in true freshman receiver Zachariah Branch, the No. 1 player at his position in the class of 2023.

There will perpetually be questions about USC’s defense, as Riley’s teams have finished in the top-40 of SP+ one time between his five seasons in Oklahoma and his one year in California. It is extremely difficult to be a legitimate threat for a national championship without a trustworthy defense, especially in a conference like the Pac-12 with excellent quarterback play. But barring a disaster, we’re not going to learn too terribly much about them against the Spartans.

The pick: Under 66

Bill DiFilippo
Bill DiFilippo is a writer and editor based out of Columbus, Ohio. You should not, however, assume that he is an Ohio State fan. Feel free to tell him why he's wrong about stuff on Twitter, @billdifilippo. Just be nice.