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What is college football's 'Week Zero' and why are some games starting early?

Notre Dame to face Navy in Ireland, FIU visits La. Tech on early kickoff date
Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Audric Estime runs for TD vs. Navy Midshipmen in 2022
Posted at 10:36 PM, Aug 25, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-25 22:36:17-04

Ten college football games will be played this Saturday on what is unofficially known as "Week Zero."

But how did this kickoff window come to be and why are there only a handful of teams that play on this date?

Under NCAA bylaw 17.11.4, Division I teams (from both the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision levels) cannot play their first game until the Thursday before Labor Day.

However, an exception to the rule was instituted in 2016 (NCAA bylaw, allowing Hawaii and teams that visit Hawaii the option to play on the Saturday before Labor Day weekend.

Among the teams taking advantage of "Week Zero" in 2023 is No. 6 Southern California, which hosts San Jose State this Saturday. The Trojans and Spartans, who travel to Hawaii on the last Saturday in October, will benefit from a second bye week this season.

Southern California Trojans QB Caleb Williams runs vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Nov. 26, 2022
Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams runs the ball during the first half against Notre Dame Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Los Angeles.

A second exemption, which also began in 2016, allows FCS teams to play a nationally televised nonconference game on the Saturday before Labor Day weekend (NCAA bylaw Hence a pair of games between North Alabama and Mercer in Montgomery, Alabama, and the MEAC/SWAC Challenge pitting Jackson State against South Carolina State in Atlanta.

Last year was the introduction of a foreign travel exemption (NCAA bylaw, allowing Navy to face Notre Dame at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. The game will be televised on WPTV at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Historically, Hawaii has been able to schedule an extra game to make up for the cost of traveling to and from Honolulu during the season (NCAA bylaw But this exemption also applies to any team that travels to Hawaii (NCAA bylaw (g)).

Hawaii football team performs dance before game against Vanderbilt in 2022
The Hawaii football team performs a Ha'a, or Hawaiian war dance, before a game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, in Honolulu.

Alabama most notably benefitted from this exemption after the NCAA imposed a two-year bowl ban on the school. The Crimson Tide added a 13th regular-season game at Hawaii in 2002 and 2003, essentially serving as Alabama's bowl game.

As the season has expanded in the College Football Playoff era, fewer teams are electing to do so, instead choosing to play a game during "Week Zero" and thereby gaining an extra bye week.

The NCAA also granted waivers for two Conference USA games (UTEP at Jacksonville State and Florida International at Louisiana State) to be played during "Week Zero" because of scheduling conflicts brought on by conference realignment.

College Football's "Week Zero" Games

Navy vs. Notre Dame2:30 p.m.NBC17.11.4.3
North Alabama vs. Mercer3:30 p.m.ESPN17.11.4.2
UTEP at Jacksonville State5:30 p.m.CBS Sports Networkwaiver
Fordham at Albany7 p.m.——
UMass at New Mexico State7 p.m.ESPN17.11.4.1
Ohio at San Diego State7 p.m.FS117.11.4.1
Hawaii at Vanderbilt7:30 p.m.SEC Network17.11.4.1
Jackson State vs. South Carolina State7:30 p.m.ABC17.11.4.2
San Jose State at Southern California8 p.m.Pac-12 Network17.11.4.1
Florida International at Louisiana Tech9 p.m.CBS Sports Networkwaiver