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Big Game Hunting: It’s Notre Dame-Texas and a spectacular Week 1

Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire has a chance — maybe — to win back the starting job he he held before last season's injury. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

By the time No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas takes center stage on Sunday (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7; 1000-AM), the college football season already could be on tilt.

Few seasons in memory have had so much anticipation wrapped into the opening weekend of games. The top five teams in the country — four of which play Saturday, the other Monday — face serious danger to their College Football Playoff hopes right off the bat.

If all five escape unscathed into Week 2, it’ll be a real surprise.

But back to Sunday and the Irish, who are favored by 3½ over the Longhorns and face as much pressure as any higher-ranked team to deliver a Game 1 victory. Brian Kelly and his staff have recruited at an elite level for years now. The ceiling is, without question, playoff-high. The floor? It could be three- or even four-loss low.

If the Irish are going to win, their two-headed starting quarterback — righty DeShone Kizer and lefty Malik Zaire, each of whom should see extensive action — will have to outperform whoever lines up at the position for Texas. True freshman Shane Buechele seemingly exited training camp with an edge over senior Tyrone Swoopes, but either player could start and both might play.

Kelly sees neither the need to pick his No. 1 guy yet nor an obligation to stick with whoever has the early hot hand.

“Flow is important and rhythm is important,” said Kelly, “but if we get into a particular field zone [where] I think another quarterback can be more effective based on what Texas is doing, I may have to supersede the hot quarterback, if you will, for the right person at the right time.”

The Longhorns — and coach Charlie Strong, 11-14 at the school — need a big win in the worst way. It’ll have to come at a later date. Irish get it done, 27-17.

Speaking of quarterback uncertainty, will it be junior Cooper Bateman or freshman Blake Barnett under center when No. 1 Alabama takes on No. 20 USC (Saturday, 7 p.m., Ch. 7) in Arlington, Texas? For a team at the very top of the polls, a persistent quarterback question mark doesn’t seem to fit. Then again, quarterback issues in the Nick Saban era have been resolved beautifully — like last season, when Jake Coker won the job and, four months later, the national title.

Alabama’s defense will present a wicked challenge to first-time Trojans starting quarterback Max Browne, who has a superstar to throw to in JuJu Smith-Schuster. USC finds the end zone at least twice and covers the 11½-point spread, but it’s not enough to get the victory.

No. 2 Clemson at Auburn (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN) should be gigantic fun. Which Tigers come out on top? It depends on several factors. Will Clemson still have a great pass rush post-Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd? Can Auburn’s passing game take a significant step forward as many believe it can? Will the Jordan-Hare crowd lift the home team — a 7½-point underdog — to a thrilling upset? What the heck, let’s go with a yes on that last one. Auburn wins.

No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 15 Houston (Saturday, 11 a.m., Ch. 7), played at NRG Stadium, home of the Texans, is make-or-break for both teams. The Sooners, favored in this one by 11½, will have a very hard time getting back to the playoff with a loss to a non-Power 5 team — even one as excellent as Houston — on their résumé. For the Cougars, meanwhile, this could be the only major hurdle standing between them and the playoff. Isn’t that nuts? A little too nuts. Boomer Sooner, 38-24.

What a spectacle No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Ch. 7) at Lambeau Field should be. Even with Aaron Rodgers on their side, this would be a big test for the 10-point-underdog Badgers. LSU coach Les Miles, who has his best squad in years, took time this week to warn his players against doing the Lambeau Leap. Yes, there will be touchdowns. Geaux Tigers, 30-7.

Let’s not overlook No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., ESPN) at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Will the Bulldogs — favored by a field goal — get the Kirby Smart era off to a rocking start? Smart coordinated many a spectacular defense for Saban at Alabama. He’ll have his guys ready in the fourth quarter against a very talented offense. Georgia, 24-20.

Maybe the most intriguing matchup of Week 1: No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 11 Ole Miss (Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN) in Orlando. The Rebels have a star at quarterback in Chad Kelly. The Seminoles have a first-time starter in Deondre Francois who has been drawing nothing but raves. I like the Rebs better through the air, but Francois has Dalvin Cook to hand the ball to. FSU covers the 4½-point spread.

My favorite favorite: West Virginia (-10) vs. Missouri (Saturday, 11 a.m., FS1). It’s going to be a trying debut season for Tigers coach Barry Odom.

My favorite underdog: Hawaii (+41) at Michigan (Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN). Always — always — take the 41.

THE LOCALS

WESTERN MICHIGAN AT NORTHWESTERN

The facts: Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPNU; 720-AM.

The records: Western Michigan 0-0; Northwestern 0-0.

The line: Wildcats by 5.

The story line: The Broncos are going to unleash standout quarterback Zach Terrell and the passing game and see if Northwestern — which was terrific against the pass in 2015 — can stop it. Everyone still wonders, meanwhile, if the Clayton Thorson-led Wildcats offense can throw it well enough to stay balanced. It could come down to the Broncos lacking the fortitude on their defensive front to handle Thorson and Justin Jackson in the running game. If the Wildcats don’t dominate up front offensively, they pretty easily could lose this one.

Greenberg’s pick: NU, 27-20.

MURRAY STATE AT ILLINOIS

The facts: Saturday, 2:30 p.m., BTN; 1160-AM.

The records: Murray State 0-0; Illinois 0-0.

The line: N/A

The story line: In case you haven’t heard, Illinois has a new head coach. Oh, you knew that already? Yes, the Lovie Smith thing is real. We’ll get early glimpses that’ll tell us a thing or two about how the Illini have been impacted by Smith and his impressive group of assistants … but only a thing or two. The Racers are, after all, a supbar team from a lower division. This will not be one of the Illini’s tougher afternoons.

Greenberg’s pick: Illinois, 52-6.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT WYOMING

The facts: Saturday, 9:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network; 560-AM.

The records: NIU 0-0; Wyoming 0-0.

The line: Huskies by 10.

The story line: It sure is nice to see quarterback Drew Hare back in NIU’s lineup after the Achilles injury he suffered last season. The Huskies are a different animal offensively when they have balance; against the Cowboys defense, they should be able to do pretty much whatever they want to do. If NIU’s defense keeps Wyoming running back Brian Hill relatively under wraps, the rest should be easy enough.

Greenberg’s pick: NIU, 38-21.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com