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 27.
UCLA at Arizona State (10:00 p.m., Thursday)
The PAC-12 South is one of the toughest divisions to predict in 2014, and this game matches up the champs from the last two years. Arizona State took it last season, holding on to defeat the Bruins 38-33 in Pasadena. In 2012 it was UCLA who won both the game (45-43 in Tempe on a field goal as time experied) and the division. The Sun Devils have some issues, as they return only two starters from a defense that was starting to fall apart at the end of last year (75 points allowed in the final two games). UCLA will need to find some playmakers to exploit those weaknesses, as quarterback Brett Hundley (a trendy Heisman pick) looks for a receiver to step into the void left by Shaq Evans’ departure. Juniors Jordan Payton and Devin Fuller both topped 400 yards last year and will have first crack at the starting roles. Arizona State does return the combo of quarterback Taylor Kelly, wideout Jaelen Strong and pass-catching tailback DJ Foster. This game usually yields some point, and there’s no reason to think this year’s will be an exception.
North Carolina at Clemson (TBD)
A refrain that will be repeated often over the course of this preview series is that the ACC Coastal Division is absolutely wide open. The Tar Heels are a favorite in some quarters and for good reason: They return 15 starters from a team that finished last year winning six of seven, the sole loss coming by two to Duke in the regular season finale. Their backfield is dangerous, with five-star frosh tailback Elijah Hood joining dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams (the team’s leading rusher last year) and sophomore T.J Logan (who finished with a nice little 5.7 yards-per-carry average). Clemson’s been one of the top teams in the league for a long while and it would be a statement game for UNC as they embark on a pretty brutal little four-game stretch (at Clemson, Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame, Georgia Tech).
Stanford at Washington (TBD)
Perhaps the toughest part about Chris Petersen’s new gig in Seattle is that to take control of the division his Huskies have to usurp two teams in Stanford and Oregon with established identities and recent histories of consistent BCS-level success. Of the two targets, the Cardinal appear to be the more attainable scalp, with Washington pulling the 17-13 upset in 2012 and falling by three in 2013. Both teams would probably be happy to lean into a slugfest and the Huskies may even find an advantage in that style of play, as they return their complete offensive and defensive lines from 2013 along with all-world playmaker Shaq Thompson at linebacker. Stanford will likely turn to Barry Sanders, Jr. (yes, son of that Barry Sanders) to fill 1,709-yard hole left by Tyler Gaffney’s graduation
Cincinnati at Ohio State (6:00 p.m.)
A nice little intrastate contest in the Horseshoe that caps off an interesting opening month for the Buckeyes (at Navy, Virginia Tech, Kent State and a bye precede this game). At this point in the season we should see some of Urban Meyer’s top recruits comfortable in his system, with sophomores Ezekiel Elliot and Dontre Wilson stepping in at tailback and wide receiver while five-star freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan could help fill the hole left by Ryan Shazier. Former top quarterback recruit Gunner Kiel finally sees the field after a year of redshirting in South Bend and then missing a year after his transfer to the Queen City, and he gets to ease into his college career with six returning players who notched over 400 yards from scrimmage in 2013 and a senior cornerstone at left tackle in Eric Lefeld. Tommy Tubberville’s defense will need to do something to slow down the Buckeye attack at the line and he has at least one very capable tool to do some damage, with All-AAC and All-Name team performer Silverberry Mouhon returning at defensive end (9.5 sacks and another seven QB hits last year). It’ll be a tough test for the Bearcats, but between the returning experience and Tubberville’s penchant for top-five upsets, a surprise is in play.
Missouri at South Carolina (TBD)
South Carolina’s double overtime upset of then-undefeated Missouri last year could have sent Gary Pinkel’s team into a tailspin, but the Tigers gamely rallied to win the SEC East and Cotton Bowl. With South Carolina now one of the two division favorites (along with Georgia), Missouri has the chance to return the favor. These two teams combined for 23 wins last year but are coming into 2014 without their quarterbacks (Connor Shaw and James Franklin) and defensive line standouts (Jadeveon Clowney and Michael Sam). Pinkel seemed confident in his ability to fill the holes at wide receiver and Maty Mauk was solid in relief of Franklin last year, so perhaps the offensive drop-off will not be severe. Also should be noted that since taking over at South Carolina, Steve Spurrier has been good for one completely befuddling loss per year (2013’s edition was at Tennessee, where USC was a seven-point favorite), and this is as good an opportunity as any.
Other games to consider:
Northwestern at Penn State (12:00 p.m.)
Northwestern has struggled against both Joe Paterno and Bill O’Brien in recent years, dropping their last six to the Nittany Lions, including blowing a double-digit fourth quarter lead last year. Now they get to try their hand against James Franklin on Penn State’s homecoming. Big game for an experienced Wildcats team looking to both compete for the inaugural Big Ten West crown and get back to a bowl after last year’s disappointing 5-7 effort.
Duke at Miami (FL) (TBD)
Another piece to the Coastal puzzle. The Hurricanes were a three-point favorite in Durham last year when the Blue Devils smashed them 48-30 on their way to the division title. Miami won 52-45 in 2012, so expect a few points here.
Notre Dame vs. Syracuse (at the Meadowlands, TBD)
The Syracuse offense returns a lot of talent and a desire to roll with a hurry-up no huddle. They’ll be playing against a Brian Kelly spread that might be reaching its full potential with a tailback combo of sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant to go along with a slew of receiving options on the outside. Plenty of potential points at MetLife Stadium.
Minnesota at Michigan (TBD)
The Golden Gophers have only won the Little Brown Jug three times since 1968 and must travel to face an experienced Wolverine defense in Ann Arbor. Michigan won last year 42-13, riding seven catches and 154 yards from returning tight end Devin Funchess.
Oregon State at USC (TBD)
This game used to be trouble for the Trojans in Corvallis towards the end of the Pete Carroll era, but they exorcised some demons last year with a 31-14 win. This will be the fist big test for senior Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion, who chucked it for 37 touchdowns and over 4600 yards last season. He’ll be attempting to move the ball against a crazy athletic USC defense.
Maryland at Indiana (TBD)
Maryland’s Big Ten debut and a big swing game as far as bowl eligibility in the loaded East Division (Ohio State and both Michigan schools are at the top, along with Penn State). Tune in to check out Maryland’s dynamic duo of Stefon Diggs and Deon Long at wide receiver against an Indiana defense that has had difficulty stopping most offenses the last few years.