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 October 4.
LSU at Auburn (TBD)
We didn’t think much of last year’s late September Tiger brawl between Auburn and LSU, a 35-21 Bayou Bengal smashing that was never in doubt. Then, of course, Auburn proceeded to not lose again until January in the title game. Gus Malzahn’s offense was held to its lowest 2013 output in Baton Rouge, but with quarterback Nick Marshall, most of his offensive line and every receiver of note back, he’ll have a good chance at improving on the 21-point total. Auburn had no answer for LSU tailback Jeremy Hill last year, and could face an even deadlier foe in five-star freshman Leonard Fournette, who will be running behind a veteran offensive line. Fournette is…well, he’s engendering comparisons to Adrian Peterson as a freshman and it’s telling that no one is really claiming blasphemy. Perhaps because they’ve seen his highlight reel?
Stanford at Notre Dame (3:30 p.m.)
Two years ago this was a battle of top-ten teams, with Notre Dame prevailing in a soggy overtime session that ended with a semi-controversial goal line stand. Stanford took care of business at home last year 27-20, grabbing two interceptions off of Tommy Rees in the final six minutes to maintain the margin. Rees (purveyor of end-game heroics in 2012 and fourth quarter picks last year) is gone, replaced by Everett Golson, who adds a level of dynamism to the Irish offense. He’ll be attempting to do damage against a salty Cardinal defense led by veterans Henry Anderson and A.J. Tarpley in the front seven and the cornerback duo of Wayne Lyon and Alex Carter sealing off the outside.
Alabama at Ole Miss (TBD)
Although the scoreboard hasn’t necessarily reflected it at the final gun, the Rebels have played the Tide tough the last two years under Hugh Freeze. The tremendous talent deficit they were facing hasn’t been eliminated (and likely never will be as long as the Alabama recruiting juggernaut rolls on) but it’s been reduced, and this will be the new Tide quarterback’s (likely Jake Coker) first road game of the season. Nick Saban also has to replace six starters on defense, including stars C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but there are plenty of blue-chip options on the depth chart with the potential to step up. If the Rebels are going to win this they’ll need a steady game from quarterback Bo Wallace, who threw seven of his ten interceptions last year in Rebel losses and had his season-low in passing (159 yards) against Bama. Wallace will have five-star sophomore Laremy Tunsil – the left tackle Freeze couldn’t stop praising at SEC media days - protecting his blind side against a reloading Tide defensive line.
Baylor at Texas (TBD)
The Longhorns are at the best the third team in Texas right now, behind the cult of Kevin Sumlin in College Station and Art Briles’ go-go war machine in Waco. Charlie Strong doesn’t have to wrest control of the state back from the usurpers immediately, but this is a prime opportunity in the Bears’ first real test of the season (they open with SMU, Northwestern State, at Buffalo and at Iowa State). Baylor handled Texas 30-10 in last year’s season finale en route to the league title and return two of the key pieces in Heisman candidate quarterback Bryce Petty (32 touchdowns to just three picks in 2013) and receiver Antwan Goodley, who accrued 1339 yards and 13 scores. Attempting to stunt the Baylor attack will be a Texas defense that returns eight starters, including senior defensive end Cedric Reed of the 10 sacks and just plain mean 16 QB hits in 2013.
Oklahoma at TCU (TBD)
TCU has struggled in their two years in the Big Twelve, stung by young teams, injuries and shaky quarterback play. This is their conference opener for 2014 and should serve as a stiff test for the Sooners, who are the preseason league favorite. Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight was sensational in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama and he will likely not have to worry about Horned Frog defensive end Devonte Fields, who was the league’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year pick but is likely gone from the team after an ugly offseason altercation. The Sooners’ strength should be their defense, which returns nine starters and should prove a difficult match-up for new TCU quarterback Matt Joeckel, who comes in as a graduate transfer from A&M after serving as Johnny Manziel’s back-up last season.
Other games to consider:
Virginia Tech at North Carolina (TBD)
Two of the favorites in the muddled Coastal Division clash to establish an early lead in what will be – barring a breakout year by one of the participants – a complete mess of a race through the end of November. The Hokies won 27-17 last year but dropped their 2012 visit to Chapel Hill 48-34.
Arizona State at USC (TBD)
After swapping home blowouts the last three years, it looks like it could be the Trojans’ turn to keep the streak going. The Sun Devils return only two starters on defense and will need to find a way to slow down Nelson Agholor, a junior who is ready to take on the mantle of “Uber-talented Trojan wide receiver no one can stop.”
Arizona at Oregon (10:30 p.m., Thursday)
The Wildcats humiliated the Ducks last year in Tucson, winning 42-16 and destroying any hopes new Oregon coach Mark Helfrich had at a conference crown in his first season in charge. Two big advantages swing back to Oregon this year: The game is at night in Autzen and their main tormentor from 2013 is in the NFL, as tailback Ka’Deem Carey finished last year’s blitzkrieg against the Ducks with 48 carries, 206 yards and four touchdowns. Both teams will be coming off byes.
Louisville at Syracuse (7:00 p.m., Friday)
Expect plenty of points from the old Big East foes. Bobby Petrino’s offense returns most of its skill player production and as long as Will Gardner can do a competent Teddy Bridgewater impression the Cardinals will score. Syracuse returns eight offensive starters and downed then-No. 11 Louisville 45-26 at the Carrier Dome in 2012.
Utah State at BYU (10:15 p.m., Friday)
Late-night Chuckie Keaton vs. Taysom Hill! The college football world was dealt an unfortunate blow last year when Keaton went down with a season-ending injury, but the dual-threat wunderkind is back against a Cougar backfield that should have no trouble moving the ball.
Nebraska at Michigan State (8:00 p.m.)
Michigan State handled the Huskers 41-28 in Lincoln last season en route to the Big Ten title and now get to host Bo Pelini’s squad, who won in East Lansing two years ago. Should be seeing two very strong defenses, along with a Michigan State offense that has some serious potential with the return of the Connor Cook/Jeremy Langford backfield.
Wisconsin at Northwestern (TBD)
The Badgers have won the last two in this series by a combined score of 105-29, but the Wildcats won the last match up in Evanston, 33-31 in 2009. Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said Monday that his quarterback competition is open between incumbent junior Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, a transfer who actually had 27 tackles as a Badger safety last year.
Ohio State at Maryland (TBD)
With two great receivers, what should be a solid defense (nine returning starters) and home field advantage, Maryland has a thrower’s chance against the Big Ten favorites.
Texas A&M at Mississippi State (TBD)
A big swing game in perhaps the best division in football. Giant home stand for the Bulldogs wedged between bye weeks, as they get the Aggies then turn around to host Auburn the next week.
Central Florida at Houston (7:00 p.m., Thursday)
Probably the Knights’ toughest conference game as they look to defend their American title. Big match up will be the Knights’ talented pair of corners (Jacoby Glenn and Jordan Ozerities) attempting to lock up equally capable Cougar wide receivers Deontay Greenberry and Daniel Spencer.