Three Septembers ago, Michigan was eighth-ranked and coming off an 11-win season when it took the field in Arlington, Texas, for its opening game. What ensued — a seemingly interminable 41-14 beating put on the Wolverines by mighty Alabama — was hard to watch. Michigan never really recovered and finished the 2012 campaign a disappointing 8-5.
Which brings us back to Arlington for No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 20 Wisconsin (7 p.m., Ch. 7), one of the marquee matchups on the first Saturday of the college football season. Do the Badgers, who also won 11 games last year, have a legitimate shot to beat the Crimson Tide? Perhaps more important, is this Badgers team — the first under new coach Paul Chryst — built to withstand an early, high-profile defeat and still live up to expectations in the
‘‘I like where the guys are at right now,’’ said Chryst, whose players surely have glorious upset on the brain. ‘‘But I think we all have a healthy respect for Alabama.’’
How could anyone not? The Tide roll into yet another season as Southeastern Conference favorites, yet they don’t have things settled under center — the reason some believe Wisconsin can hang with them. Jake Coker, Cooper Bakeman and Alec Morris all could play Saturday, and the Badgers’ veteran core of linebackers and defensive backs will try to pounce on their mistakes.
That 2012 Alabama team, which went on to destroy Notre Dame for the national championship, was one of the most impressive of the bygone BCS era. It’s hard to believe Nick Saban’s 2015 squad is quite at that level. But this is still Alabama, whose typically hellacious defense could feast on the Badgers’ inexperienced offensive line.
It’s tempting to pick this one as a close game, but an upset? Not tempting at all. Badgers fall rather hard, 27-13, but live to tell about it.
No. 6 Auburn vs. Louisville (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2) in Atlanta is being hailed as the much-anticipated unveiling of Tigers quarterback Jeremy Johnson, though we’ve seen the 6-5, 240-pound junior before. Johnson started last season’s opener against Arkansas and was brilliant — for two quarters, after which Nick Marshall was finished serving a half-game suspension.
Johnson was the backup for two years to the dual-threat star Marshall, but many wondered if he was the most talented quarterback on the Auburn campus. Take a good look at a player listed on most preseason Heisman Trophy lists and don’t be surprised if the words “Cam” and “Newton” sneak into your thoughts. Auburn all day, 38-21.
There’s nothing “neutral” about No. 15 Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (6 p.m., ESPN) at Houston’s NRG Stadium, which sits a mere 100 miles from College Station’s Kyle Field. The Sun Devils have far more momentum carrying over from a terrific 2014, but the Aggies will have the crowd — a huge deal, especially early in the season.
TAMU also has a boatload of returning starters, as well as new defensive coordinator John Chavis, who had a great run in that role at LSU. Aggies in a thriller — let’s say 34-31 — on what’s shaping up to be a heck of a day for the SEC.
Upset alert: BYU at Nebraska (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7) could be a wrong-way kind of day for the favored Huskers. New coach Mike Riley has installed the offense his teams ran with success at Oregon State, but it’s an offense that takes a lot of getting used to. How will quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. fit into a true NFL-style West Coast attack?
The Cougars are a lot further along in terms of identity: Led by quarterback Taysom Hill, they run the ball stubbornly and physically — and play defense with a similar mindset.
“This [matchup] is what we want,” Hill said. “It gives us a chance to showcase what we’re capable of against Power Five talent, or whatever you want to call it.’’
Am I the only one who detects the wafting stench of Week 1 failure for Riley and his crew? BYU gets it done, 27-20.
Another Big Ten West team could be in for an uncomfortably tight squeeze on its home field. Might Illinois State at Iowa (11 a.m., BTN) result in yet another demoralizing non-conference defeat for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes?
If the Redbirds play like they did during their run to last season’s FCS title game — it’ll be nice to see you again, Tre Roberson and Marshaun Coprich — then this one should be competitive throughout. Alas, the Hawkeyes get it together in the nick of time and escape with a 31-28 victory.
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KENT STATE AT ILLINOIS
The facts: 8 p.m. Friday, BTN., 1160-AM.
The line: Illinois by 15.
The story line: There won’t be many mismatches (the good kind, that is) for the Illini this season, so Tim Beckman’s — sorry, Bill Cubit’s — team must take full advantage. Cubit likely will let quarterback Wes Lunt toss the ball all over the yard as long as the protection holds up; remember the huge passing numbers Nathan Scheelhaase and Lunt put up early in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The Illini could use a fun few hours after their summer of discontent. ‘‘I think everybody has rallied,’’ Cubit said. His message to fans: ‘‘Be loud and proud, and just keep going.’’
Greenberg’s pick: Illinois, 37-17.
NO. 21 STANFORD AT NORTHWESTERN
The facts: 11 a.m., ESPN, 720-AM
The line: Stanford by 12.
The story line: Geez, couldn’t the schedule gods have lined Clayton Thorson up with a tasty little cupcake for his first start as Northwestern’s quarterback? Instead, the redshirt freshman from Wheaton North gets Stanford — for years running, one of the best defensive programs in the country. Thorson will need every inch of his 6-4 and every ounce of his 220 to hang tough and find success against the Cardinal. ‘‘I know he’s excited about it,’’ Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ‘‘I know he understands the job in front
Greenberg’s pick: Stanford, 24-14.
TEXAS AT NO. 11 NOTRE DAME
The facts: 6:30 p.m., Ch. 5, 890-AM.
The line: Notre Dame by 9 ½.
The story line: With 881 victories all-time, Texas ranks third among all FBS football programs. Guess how many No. 2 Notre Dame has? Try 882. So the key for the Irish is to — see if you can stay with us here — avoid letting the Longhorns knot things up. Texas will be far more physical in Year 2 under tough-guy coach Charlie Strong than it was in Year 1, but consistent offense could again be a big problem. Meanwhile, everyone is excited to see what Malik Zaire can do with the reins of the Irish offense all to himself.
Greenberg’s pick: ND, 26-17.
UNLV AT NORTHERN ILLINOIS
The facts: 6:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network, 560-AM.
The line: NIU by 23.
The story line: A year ago, NIU handled the Rebels 48-34 in Las Vegas. It’ll be surprising if it’s that close in the rematch. Key for the Huskies is to keep a lid on the dangerous Blake Decker-to-Devonte Boyd passing combo; the Rebels don’t have much beyond that. Rod Carey’s offense ran the ball a whopping 69 times for 331 yards in the 2014 victory, so expect a heavy emphasis on the ground game again.
Greenberg’s pick: NIU, 52-28.