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Week Zero preview: Notre Dame, Navy in Ireland highlights return of college football

It’s been over seven months since college football fans experienced a taste of their beloved sport, and the hunger for actual games has grown unbearable as August drags by. 

The good news? College football returns Saturday with seven games, two involving top-25 teams. 

Kirby Smart holds the national championship trophy

Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart holds the national championship trophy after beating the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship, on Jan. 10, 2022, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The bad news? It won’t satisfy the craving. 

Week Zero of the college football season is more than a welcome sight after months of discussing incoming recruiting classes, the collapse of the Pac-12 and whether the Texas Longhorns are finally “back.” 

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College football fans will sit down for the appetizer to the college football season on Saturday, eager to fill their bellies after nibbling on baseball and basketball since Georgia demolished TCU for back-to-back national championships in January. 

Unfortunately, the main course won’t be served for a few more days when Week 1 of the season arrives, kicking off Thursday with the Florida Gators traveling to Salt Lake City for a matchup with the Utah Utes, and Matt Rhule’s Nebraska introduction beginning in Minnesota against the Golden Gophers. 

Matt Rhule speaks to the media

Head coach Matt Rhule of the Cornhuskers answers questions at the press conference following the game at Memorial Stadium on April 22, 2023, in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

But just because college football fans won’t be full after Week Zero does not mean the opening schedule of games isn’t eagerly anticipated as fans sit down at the table. 

Week Zero is the charcuterie board of the college football season, filled with small portions of a variety of enjoyable snacks meant to hold you over until the main course is served. 

Are honey-drizzled assorted nuts satisfying? Nope, but they sure are a welcome sight after not eating since the ham sandwich at lunch. 

Let’s look at a few games to be aware of today. And yes, each game will be compared to a different type of snack on the charcuterie board because college football is supposed to be fun.

Assorted cured meats: No. 13 Notre Dame vs Navy – 2:30 p.m. ET

When you glance down at a charcuterie board, which item first catches the eye? If the answer is anything other than the assortment of cured meats, that’s a lie. 

It’s the first thing everyone wants to eat, just like Notre Dame and Navy will be the first game of the journey that is the 2023 college football season.

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And what better way to kick off the year than with a rivalry that dates back to 1927? And in Ireland to boot?

The Fighting Irish take a five-game winning streak against Navy into Saturday’s game at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. 

Sam Hartman plays during the Spring Game

Sam Hartman of the Fighting Irish celebrates after a touchdown during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football Game on April 22, 2023, in South Bend, Indiana. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Notre Dame enters its second season under head coach Marcus Freeman after going 9-4 in 2022. They’ll do so with a new quarterback under center after Sam Hartman transferred from Wake Forest as a graduate.  

“It’s different,” Hartman said about playing at Notre Dame. “It’s special here. There’s a lot of eyes (on you), which is pretty obvious at this point. I think you never really know until you’re out of it what it means to be in this position. Just as much as I can, I’m trying to soak it in. It’s a high-pressure, pivotal season for myself and more than myself – this team and this university.”

Last season, the Fighting Irish passing attack averaged just 207.1 yards per game, 98th in the country. Hartman averaged 308 yards passing per game in his senior season at Wake Forest. 

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“Hartman comes in, 45 career starts, highly experienced player. Set the ACC record for touchdown passes, 110 touchdown passes, [in] that slow mesh offense they run at Wake Forest. And if he can fix this offense then Marcus Freeman has got something,” Joel Klatt of Fox Sports said on a recent episode of “The Joel Klatt Show.” 

“I believe in Notre Dame,” Klatt continued. “Yes, they have to replace their offensive coordinator in Tommy Rees, but they brought in a fixer. They upgraded at a position they had to upgrade on.”

Notre Dame’s defense finished 22nd in the country last year in yards allowed per game (327.1)

A picture of a Navy Midshipmen helmet

A Navy Midshipmen helmet awaits the next series during the Houston Cougars game at TDECU Stadium on Sept. 25, 2021, in Houston, Texas. (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For Navy, it will be the first time in 15 years the Midshipmen have not been coached by Ken Niumatalolo, who was fired in December after losing to Army. 

Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry takes over as head coach and Grant Chesnut comes over from Kennesaw State to call plays. 

Variety of fruits: Vanderbilt vs. Hawaii – 7:30 p.m. ET

An interesting matchup that will take place at a stadium currently under construction is bizarre, much like the presence of grapes and dates on a charcuterie board. 

The Vanderbilt Commodores will play their home games at FirstBank Stadium as the north and south end zones continue to be under construction. 

“I appreciate Commodore Nation’s patience this fall as we reimagine FirstBank Stadium and the future of Vanderbilt athletics, together” said Candice Storey Lee, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletic director. “We are forging ahead with the progress that we all deserve, in spite of the temporary inconveniences that accompany such a huge undertaking.”

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Despite a stadium that will not be up to par with the rest of the SEC, Vanderbilt is building on the momentum of 2022 under head coach Clark Lea. 

After going 2-10 in 2021, Lea led the Commodores to a five-win season, including a win over No. 24 Kentucky in November. 

Clark Lea speaks at SEC Media Days

Head coach Clark Lea of the Vanderbilt Commodores speaks during SEC Media Days on July 18, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)

Vandy returns six starters on offense from 2022, including sophomore quarterback AJ Swann and wide receiver Will Sheppard, who was second in the SEC in 2022 with nine touchdown catches. 

Swann appeared in nine games last season, throwing for 1,274 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. 

Hawaii is entering its second season under head coach Timmy Chang after going 3-10 in 2022. 

Vanderbilt beat Hawaii 63-10 last year in Week Zero. 

Crackers, Cheese and Drizzled Jams: No. 6 USC vs San Jose State – 8 p.m. ET

Once the charcuterie board has been picked clean, a few stray crackers will remain along with an assortment of cheeses and a few jam spreads. Don’t look down on these items. They’ll be a big help as the main dish is being prepared. 

Welcome to USC vs San Jose State, one of the last games of the day before the first big weekend of the college football season in Week 1. 

The Trojans were one game away from the College Football Playoff in 2022 before coming up short against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

In Lincoln Riley’s first season in Los Angeles, the Trojans experienced an immediate turnaround, going 11-3 after a 4-8 campaign in 2021. 

They were led by Heisman trophy winner Caleb Williams, who returns for his junior season with a championship on his mind. 

Caleb Williams at USC football practice

USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams during USC Trojans’ spring game on April 15, 2023, at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Immortality comes from championships and things like that, and I haven’t reached one here in college yet,” Williams said. “We’ve got a special, special moment here this year to be able to go reach one.”

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Riley echoed his quarterback’s thoughts at Pac-12 Media Days, saying Williams is focused on winning going into 2023. 

“I think the situation last year, he obviously did a great job, was important for our program, but also I think for his learning and his growth, it was a great situation for him to be in as well,” Riley said. “Great quarterbacks at the end of the day get defined by their teams’ success, their championships. I know he’s very hungry to go close out this year with both.

“There is no one that I would rather go to war with than that guy.”

It won’t be the offense that’s the issue in Troy. Defensively is where USC must make strides.

The Trojans allowed 415.1 yards per game in 2022, 111th in the country. 

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Lincoln Riley at spring practice

USC Trojans head football coach Lincoln Riley arrives for a spring practice session at Howard Jones Field on March 8, 2023.  (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“If USC plays just competent defense… You don’t have to be world-beaters,” Joel Klatt said on his podcast. “You don’t have to lead the Pac-12 in defense. You don’t have to be second in the Pac-12 in defense. You don’t have to be third in the Pac-12 in defense. You don’t have to be fourth in the Pac-12 in defense. You can be fifth. 

“If they’re competent. They can go to the playoff.”

San Jose State is coming off a seven-win season and a bowl-game appearance. 

Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro returns for his senior season after earning second-team All-Mountain West honors last season. 

Remainder of the Week Zero slate

San Diego State vs. Ohio – 7 p.m. ET

A good matchup between an Ohio team that won 10 games in 2022 and an Aztecs squad looking to bounce back after a 7-6 season in 2022. San Diego State went 12-2 in 2021. 

The 2022 MAC Offensive Player of the Year Kurtis Rourke is expected to get the start despite an ACL injury in November that ended his season, according to ESPN. Rourke threw for 3,257 yards and 25 touchdowns in 11 games during the 2022 season. 

Kurtis Rourke throws against Penn State

Ohio Bobcats quarterback Kurtis Rourke looks to throw the ball against the Penn State Nittany Lions on Sept. 10, 2022, at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. (Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Aztecs return QB Jalen Mayden, who took over under center after a 2-3 start to the season. Mayden threw for 2,030 yards, 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2022, adding 231 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. 

New Mexico State vs. UMass – 7 p.m. ET

The Minutemen have just two combined wins in the last two seasons while the Aggies went 7-6 in 2022, earning its first bowl victory since 2017.

Jacksonville State vs. UTEP – 5:30 p.m. ET

Jacksonville State is making its FBS debut under head coach Rich Rodriguez. UTEP went 5-7 during the 2022 season. 

Louisiana Tech vs. Florida International – 9 p.m. ET

Last year, these two teams squared off in an epic double-overtime game that saw Florida International pull out a 42-34 victory. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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