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2014 season preview: Five games to watch in week 2

The college football offseason is long and arduous, but its end is almost in sight. We’re going to take a look at five games you have to look forward to for every weekend of the season. (This is also a handy guide to decide how to RSVP for any autumn weddings.)

All times are Eastern and all games are played on Saturday unless otherwise noted.

These games take place the weekend of September 6.

Previously: Week One (August 30)

Michigan at Notre Dame (7:30 p.m.)

The last game in the current series (the Wolverines and Irish have been on-again, off-again for a century, despite what Mark May and Skip Bayless might tell you), there are plenty of bragging rights at stake in this Midwestern hatefest. The Wolverines have taken four of the last five, but all five contests were one-score games in the fourth quarter and featured some level of dramatics, with Notre Dame’s sole win coming at home in 2012. Everett Golson - back from an academic suspension – started that game but didn’t finish it after an ugly first half. He now has more experience and a myriad of weapons to leverage in Brian Kelly’s spread attack, including a pair of talented sophomore backs in Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. Michigan’s defense should be stout with eight returning starters in addition to five-star freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers and a full season from star linebacker Jake Ryan, but questions abound regarding their offense, specifically the line that slowly dissolved as 2013 wore on. If Devin Gardner plays like he did last year against the Irish, Brady Hoke’s squad should be in good shape, but attempting to predict anything in this series is a fool’s errand.

Michigan State at Oregon (6:30 p.m.)

After two seasons of cupcake non-conference games*, Oregon gets a considerably tougher challenge in the reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champs. Michigan State’s 2013 was one of their finest seasons in the last half-century, and while they return enough to make things interesting in Eugene, there are some big losses. Gone are Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Darqueze Dennard, but Mark Dantonio’s squad is essentially the Big Ten version of Stanford, a team that has suffocated the Ducks in consecutive years. Oregon, meanwhile, pretty much returns their entire offense save for top receiver Josh Huff, including a combined 2400+ rushing yards from Marcus Mariota, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook was much improved down the stretch last year, but he’s going to have to be great for Sparty to pull the upset.

* In their defense, Oregon didn’t know Virginia and Tennessee were going to be that bad in 2013 when they scheduled them, but they very much were.

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New USC coach Steve Sarkisian during spring practice. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian during spring practice. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

USC at Stanford (3:30 p.m.)

Last season’s Trojan upset looked like it might have sealed the head coaching job for interim man Ed Orgeron, but instead this will be Steve Sarkisian’s first PAC-12 game running USC. He gets quite a test, going against the two-time defending conference champions. To the benefit of Sarkisian and his staff, Lane Kiffin’s poor coaching didn’t affect his recruiting, which leaves a loaded roster bristling with blue-chip contributors. David Shaw’s Cardinal just keep plugging away with double-digit win seasons, but they’ll need to find replacements for some of the old guard, including three warhorse offensive lineman, tailback Tyler Gaffney and the terrorizing linebacking tandem of Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. With Oregon and UCLA looming as favorites, the margin of error for both of these teams in their division races is very slim.

BYU at Texas (7:30 p.m.)

Mack Brown’s last couple seasons at the helm in Texas produced more than a few ignominious results, but it’s hard to find one worse than last year’s trip to Provo. In that game a ranked Texas team didn’t just lose 40-21 but did so by giving up a staggering, almost incomprehensible 550 yards rushing. But Brown is gone now, and in comes Charlie Strong, some more discipline and an opportunity to get revenge at home. The main perpetrators are all back for the Cougars, who return their entire offensive line, quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams. Texas has returning starters and top prospects up and down the roster, but most of those highly ranked recruits were on last year’s disappointing squad. A telling early season test for both Strong and Bronco Mendenhall’s BYU team that’s looking to make a leap.

Virginia Tech at Ohio State (8:00 p.m.)

With Logan Thomas’ endless potential and volatility gone to the NFL, the Hokies face their toughest game of the season by far (they are blessed with missing Florida State and Clemson in league play) in a trip to Columbus. The Hokie offense is still a giant question mark that could have significant trouble moving it against a talented but not necessarily proven Ohio State front, but the real fun will come on the other side of the ball, where Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller will get to test his skills against a salty Bud Foster defense featuring All-American candidate Kendall Fuller at cornerback. The Buckeyes will also be coming off a game against Navy, so don’t discount a dinged up OSU defense dealing with some cut-blocking injuries.

Other games to consider:

Arizona at UTSA (8:00 p.m., Thursday)

Do not sleep on the Roadrunners, who return a whopping twenty starters from last year’s 7-5 squad. Former Hurricanes head coach Larry Coker has somehow already established UTSA as a Conference USA favorite. Rich Rodriguez will still be breaking in a new quarterback and returns a front seven light on 2013 starters. Road night game in a rocking opposing stadium for a major conference favorite…we’ve seen this story before.

East Carolina at South Carolina (7:30 p.m.)

The beginning of a brutal three-week stretch for Ruffin McNeil’s Pirates (at USC, at Virginia Tech, North Carolina), this is your chance to check out quarterback Shane Carden, who threw for 33 touchdowns and over 4,100 yards during East Carolina’s 10-3 campaign last season. Wide receiver Justin Hardy is the top returning pass catcher in the nation, hoping to somehow build on a 114-catch 2013.

Akron at Penn State (12:00 p.m.)

This could be a scheduling misstep for the Nittany Lions, who have a transatlantic flight following their opening weekend game in Ireland. They’ll be hosting the resurgent Zips, who improved from three consecutive 1-11 seasons to 5-7 last year, including wins in four of their last five and a near upset of Michigan early in the season.

Washington State at Nevada (10:30 p.m., Friday)

Mike Leach took the Cougars to their first bowl game in a decade last season, but with a loaded PAC-12 he’s not going to be able to scrape together six wins without taking care of business against the Wolf Pack. Much like the previous game, you’ve got a major conference favorite on the road at night, and Brian Polian’s Nevada offense gets to deploy Cody Fajardo, a dual threat quarterback who accrued over 3,000 yards of offense last season.

Northern Illinois at Northwestern (TBD)

Northwestern didn’t respond well to last year’s preseason expectations, but they return a bunch of starters and should put up plenty of points again. They get a formidable in-state foe in the Huskies, who return most of their offense from last year’s 12-2 team but must navigate the tricky proposition of replacing Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch.

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