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Grand opening: College football starts, playoff talk begins
By RALPH D. RUSSO AP College Football Writer

No sports season starts better than college football.

With little competition right before the baseball pennant races heat up and the middle weekend of U.S. Open tennis, college football opens with a long holiday weekend of games, concluding with No. 1 Ohio State trying to avenge its last loss at Virginia Tech on Labor Day night.

True, many of the matchups are of the hammer vs. nail variety, with Power Five teams facing low-level Group of Five foes. Or those FBS vs. FCS matchups, which produce about 10 blowouts for every upset (Villanova over UConn if you're looking for an FCS upset).

But there are plenty of enticing matchups in Week 1. And even in this playoff era where second chances are more plentiful, one loss can be one too many. Just ask TCU and Baylor.

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We start the season by introducing a new feature to the picks, reaching into the Twitter bag to answer a few questions from readers and take requests on games to pick outside the Top 25:

Q: How bad is the Illinois job? - (at)BSargentOKC

A: My perception of Illinois is a program that should be more successful than it is. That if it can just get the right coach it should be able to match the type of success Iowa has had through the years. Hawkeyes fans may be tired of Kirk Ferentz, but if you offered Illinois fans 12 bowl games and four double-digit-win seasons in 14 years, I'd bet most would sign up.

The reality is during the 17 seasons Ferentz has been at Iowa, Illinois has had five winning seasons and won more than seven games three times - which strongly suggests there is more than just a coach problem in Champaign.

Q: What are the chances there will be four or more undefeated teams at season's end? - (at)Jamie-crane

A: An unbeaten team from one of the Power Five conferences not getting into the College Football Playoff would almost certainly create the greatest outcry and calls to expand it.

The good news for the selection committee is the odds are stacked against that happening. During the 12-year BCS era, only twice (2004 and `09) did more than four teams go into the bowls unbeaten, and never were the five teams from what we now consider the Power Five (Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference).

Q: Sleeper team to make a push for the CFB playoff? - (at)SydneyCarton1

A: Defining a dark horse is the first step.

We'll make the line outside the AP preseason top 15 for this discussion and offer up Oklahoma. The Sooners are coming in with relatively low expectations after sinking to 8-5 last season. The combination of new quarterback Baker Mayfield and new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley should drastically improve the passing game. The running game with Samaje Perine is already strong. The pass defense needs to be better, but I have a hard time buying that the Sooners are simply no match for TCU and Baylor in the Big 12.

The picks:

THURSDAY

No. 2 TCU (minus 14 1/2) at Minnesota

Gophers could use some snow to slow down the Horned Frogs. Forecast calls for a low of 70 degrees. ... TCU 34-17.

FRIDAY

No. 5 Michigan State (minus 18) at Western Michigan

Broncos coach and Illinois native P.J. Fleck seems like a logical choice to become the next Illini coach, regardless of whether he can upset the Spartans. ... MICHIGAN STATE 38-14.

Washington (plus 12) at No. 23 Boise State

Chris Petersen returns to Idaho to find the team he left is better than the one he now coaches ... BOISE STATE 28-10.

SATURDAY

MARQUEE MATCHUPS

No. 3 Alabama (minus 10) vs. No. 20 Wisconsin at Arlington, Texas

Who plays quarterback for the Tide? Against the Badgers and their rebuilt lines, it might not matter ... Best bet, ALABAMA 31-13

No. 6 Auburn (minus 10 1/2) vs. Louisville at Atlanta

Tigers hope this will be one of two games for them this season in the Georgia Dome, home of the SEC championship ... AUBURN 33-20.

Texas (plus 10) at No. 11 Notre Dame

The Longhorns' depth chart is loaded with freshmen. That might bode well for the future, but not for this trip to South Bend, Indiana ... NOTRE DAME 28-14.

No. 15 Arizona State (plus 3) vs. Texas A&M at Houston

Pac-12 South vs. SEC West. The College Football Playoff selection committee should pay particular attention ... ARIZONA STATE 35-31.

VERNON BOWL

Eastern Washington (no line) at No. 7 Oregon

New Ducks QB Vernon Adams faces his old team in one of the oddest FBS-FCS matchups ever ... OREGON 45-21.

POWER FIVE CROSSOVERS

Virginia (plus 19 1/2) at No. 13 UCLA

Freshman QB Josh Rosen leads the Bruins ... UCLA 30-14.

No. 21 Stanford (minus 12) at Northwestern

Smart football ... STANFORD 24-20.

PLUCKY UNDERDOG

Bowling Green (plus 20 1/2) at No. 25 Tennessee at Nashville

The Falcons high-speed, Baylor-style spread will try to get the Vols into track meet ... TENNESSEE 45-24.

TWITTER REQUESTS

Michigan (plus 5 1/2) at Utah, Thursday night

The Harbaugh era has been a blast for Michigan fans so far. Now a dose of reality ... UTAH 23-14.

Penn State (minus 7) at Temple

Nittany Lions only road game until mid-October is in Philadelphia ... PENN STATE 23-14.

BYU (plus 7) at Nebraska

Upset special: We'll see how much Huskers fans love new coach Mike Riley after Taysom Hill and the Cougars come to town ... Upset special, BYU 31-24.

Georgia Southern (plus 19 1/2) at West Virginia

The Eagles looked like a trendy upset pick until QB Kevin Ellison was suspended ... WEST VIRGINIA 35-28.

MISMATCHES

Arkansas State (plus 27) at No. 8 Southern California ... USC 49-20.

Louisiana-Monroe (plus 35) at No. 9 Georgia ... GEORGIA 45-7.

Texas State (plus 29) at No. 10 Florida State .... FLORIDA STATE 48-17.

UTEP (plus 33) at No. 18 Arkansas ... ARKANSAS 52-10.

Akron (plus 31 1/2) at No. 19 Oklahoma ... OKLAHOMA 49-10.

MONDAY NIGHT MAIN EVENT

No. 1 Ohio State (minus 11) at Virginia Tech

So much intrigue about which quarterback starts for the Buckeyes, but the question is can the Hokies feisty defense provide some real drama for the defending national champions? ... OHIO STATE 27-17.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP