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That time Week 1 was randomly loaded with big games

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The first year of the BCS happened to give us twice as many ranked-vs.-ranked games as usual.

Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Think of Week 1 as an experiment. Take several teams, all both winless and undefeated, all tied for the lead in every statistical category, all holding an equal claim to a division or conference title. Combine them in pairs, and gather data about the relative merits of these teams. We judge the success of the experiment by how much data we get from it.

If I’m in charge of the lab, we’re aiming high with Week 1 by taking the preseason Top 25, making #1 play #24, #2 play #23, and so on. (#25 gets to play whoever’s atop Also Receiving Votes, the first and only time that distinction actually has any tangible benefit for a team.)

Week 1 can handle this because it has a property found nowhere else in the college football calendar: malleability.

There are no rivalry games that absolutely must happen this week and no other. There are no conference requirements to fulfill. We already spend the beginning of the season sending teams across the Pacific or to Ireland or to NFL stadiums that have no connection to either program.

Like all experiments, there are parts we can control and parts we can’t, but we need both to work in our favor if the experiment will succeed.

I know this because that’s exactly how we got the meatiest Week 1 in history, at the start of the 1998 season.

This is just a sampling of that delightfully volatile mix.

Saturday, September 5th, 1998 offered us a whopping five games with ranked teams facing ranked teams. Thursday gave us #16 Virginia shutting out #25 Auburn, and if you stretch it to include Week 0 games, we were also blessed with #15 Colorado State beating #23 Michigan State and #2 Florida State beating #14 Texas A&M.

(Yes, UNC really did follow one of the best seasons in school history, the one that got Mack Brown the Texas job, with a home opener loss to the MAC’s Miami.)

Think about that: a third of the preseason Top 25 was guaranteed to take a loss right out of the gate. A different third was guaranteed to claim what, at least in September, looked like a meaningful win. Week 1 never mashes the pedal that hard. Let’s graph!

One big part of this experiment could not be controlled: the preseason rankings themselves.

Take Washington-Arizona State. Both teams were coming off pretty good 1997s that ended with bowl wins over Big Ten teams...and neither team wound up above .500. Both were out of the Top 25 for good by mid-October. Move this game to Week 8 and it becomes a battle for a spot in the Oahu Bowl. (Did you know we used to play two bowl games in Hawaii on Christmas Day in the same stadium? We used to do that.)

Seven of the 16 teams ranked for these games didn’t show up in the final AP Poll at all. Southern Miss was one of those seven, the first time they’d ever made it into the preseason Top 25, thanks to a nine-win season in 1997 and the school’s first-ever appearance in the final AP ranking. Sadly for them, this was the only game they’d play as a ranked team in a much less magical ‘98. #25 Auburn? Exploded on the launchpad with a 1-5 start, jettisoned Terry Bowden, and finished in the SEC West basement.

Doesn’t that mean the preseason rankings were wrong?

Who cares?

It didn’t matter at the end of the year that Colorado State beat Nick Saban’s 6-6 Spartans. But it mattered in Week 1, thanks to the laughable assumption at the center of this poll: that the futures of dozens of college football teams can be foreseen and ranked.

Teams couldn’t control whether they or their opponents would be ranked entering the season. Week 1 of 1998 only existed because they embraced what they could control: opponent selection.

Only two of these eight games didn’t depend on ambitious scheduling. Washington-ASU was a conference game, and Notre Dame and Michigan had been playing nearly every year for two decades.

Penn State and Southern Miss had never played each other, and neither had Colorado State and Michigan State. A&M hadn’t faced the Seminoles in the regular season in thirty years, and Tennessee-Syracuse had gone a little longer than that without a matchup. Ohio State hadn’t played West Virginia in over a decade. Virginia had played Auburn in 1997, but that was the first time the programs had ever crossed paths.

Look at the history of these schools in the five to ten years before 1998. None of them were obvious, guaranteed pushovers. This magical Week 1 meant real, immediate tests for the eventual ACC, SEC, Big East, Big Ten, and Big 12 champions. Both of the national championship participants came close to losing; FSU trailed the Aggies at halftime, and Tennessee needed a fourth down pass interference call against Syracuse to keep their game-winning drive going.

Maybe it’s not prudent for teams to schedule like this in a world where the Playoff committee’s done with you once you lose two games. It’s safer to schedule a sure win and avoid a negative data point. But it’s a very boring experiment if there’s no chance things will explode.

Elsewhere, 1990 produced the opening weekend-ish thing that most altered any college football season ever.