Week Zero college football: Nebraska-Northwestern is one to watch


College football season kicks off Saturday with one of the more peculiar traditions that has taken root in recent years: Week 0, when a smattering of teams open their seasons the weekend before the generally accepted Labor Day weekend start date.

There are two ways for Football Bowl Subdivision teams to play in Week 0: by applying for a waiver to the NCAA or by being a team that has to travel to face Hawaii at some point in the season (the NCAA allows such teams to recoup the costs of traveling to Hawaii by scheduling a 13th game). Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky, Duquesne, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah State and UNLV will travel to face the Rainbow Warriors this season, and all are playing Saturday.

So while there aren’t many marquee teams in action Saturday, Week 0 still will serve to whet our appetites for the coming season.

Western Kentucky vs. Austin Peay

Northwestern vs. Nebraska

Stephen F. Austin vs. Jacksonville State

Utah State vs. Connecticut

Florida State vs. Duquesne

Florida Atlantic vs. Charlotte

North Carolina vs. Florida A&M

New Mexico State vs. Nevada

Nebraska and Northwestern travel all the way to Dublin for the season’s first game (and Week 0’s only game) featuring two power-conference teams. The Cornhuskers won only three games for a second straight season in 2021, nearly costing Coach Scott Frost his job — he was forced to take a pay cut and fire four offensive assistants — but the underlying statistics tell the story of a team that may have been just plain unlucky: Nebraska scored 63 more points than its opponents over the course of the season but was 0-8 in games decided by one score. Frost brought in a new offensive coordinator, Mark Whipple, who did wonders for Pittsburgh’s attack. That, plus a wealth of transfers, could lead to brighter days in Lincoln (or at least Frost hopes). The Wildcats, meanwhile, posted a 3-9 record for the second time in three seasons, their season undone by a leaden offense (they had only 124 plays gain at least 10 yards, which ranked 124th out of 130 teams). …

Illinois, which hosts Wyoming, showed progress as Coach Bret Bielema’s first Champaign campaign wore on, winning four of its final seven games in 2021, including that ludicrous nine-overtime road upset of then-No. 7 Penn State. But the Illini lost a whole lot of production from that team and are more or less starting from scratch. The Cowboys are dealing with a similar problem, particularly on offense: They must replace their top two quarterbacks, leading rusher, top two receivers and two all-conference linemen. But considering how bad Wyoming’s offense was last season — the Cowboys failed to reach 20 points in six games last season — that may be a blessing in disguise. …

Hawaii-Vanderbilt is about as “Week 0 Nightcap” as a game can get, especially considering it will be played at the Rainbow Warriors’ 9,300-seat practice field after Aloha Stadium was declared unusable after last season. Allegations of mistreatment by former coach Todd Graham sent many of Hawaii’s best players to the transfer portal, meaning there’s little left from last year’s 6-7 team for new coach Timmy Chang, who put up gaudy numbers as the Rainbow Warriors’ quarterback earlier this century. Vanderbilt’s brief moment of competence — the Commodores went to five bowl games over an eight-season stretch from 2011 to 2018 — appears to be over: Vanderbilt has gone 5-28 over the past three seasons.

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