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 20.
Auburn at Kansas State (7:30 p.m., Thursday)
Kansas State didn’t suffer the massive 2013 drop-off many expected after their 11-2 campaign the year prior, settling in at 8-5 with a bunch of competitive losses and a six-out-of-seven win streak to close the season. Auburn is coming off a fantastic SEC title run and this will serve as their first real test of the season. The Tiger defensive line will need to recover from the loss of stud sophomore Carl Lawson, likely gone for the season with a torn ACL, but there is plenty of talent and returning production there. The offense should roll again, returning quarterback Nick Marshall (cited in early July for weed possession, but it’s hard to imagine that will affect the third game of the season) and all but one of their offensive linemen, although they will need to settle on a suitable replacement for Tre Mason at tailback. The Wildcats will look to senior receiver Tyler Lockett to spring some big plays if they want to pull the upset and he’s proven himself more than capable coming off a 81-reception, 1262-yard, 11-touchdown 2013. Weeknight road game for a potentially heavy favorite against a host that’s won 29 games the last three years and is quite possibly coached by a wizard who has both utilized and defended quite a few spread offenses over the years? Lots of potential here.
Clemson at Florida State (TBD)
In a battle of top-five teams last year, the Noles demolished the Tigers to the tune of 51-14 in Death Valley on their way to a division, conference and national title. Florida State is a huge favorite to take the Atlantic division and along with potentially Louisville, Clemson is their main hurdle. Do the Tigers have much hope here? A little. A month into the season, Chad Morris’ offense will have likely settled on a quarterback to guide his attack, either going with five-star freshman DeShaun Watson or senior Cole Stoudt, who has been serving as Tajh Boyd’s backup. Whoever draws the assignment will be going against Florida State’s collection of defensives Monstars, sure, but at least Morris might be comfortable with his Boyd replacement by then. Clemson will also be rolling out one of the finest defensive lines in the country, featuring All-American candidate Vic Beasley (13 sacks last year) which gives them a shot at tying up Jameis Winston. Probably worth noting both team will be coming off of bye weeks.
Florida at Alabama (TBD)
Of all the hot seats across the land, the one in Gainesville is likely the toastiest after Will Muschamp guided the Gators to a 4-8 record and their first season missing a bowl in over two decades. He returns seven starters on both sides of the ball, but there’s a question of whether that’s a positive considering last season’s results. (Answer to hypothetical question: Yes, this is a talented roster.) This is Florida’s first big game of the season after opening with Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky at home (all at least quasi-must-wins) before traveling to Tuscaloosa. I don’t think anyone will be expecting a Gator win, but it would bode well for Muschamp to not get embarrassed (the Tide won the last meeting between these two 38-10 in ‘11). Alabama’s offense has to replace A.J. McCarron but Florida State transfer Jake Coker likely won’t have too tough of a time with it considering he still has T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper, Derrick Henry, O.J. Howard…you get the idea: the Tide aren’t hurting for offensive weapons. If Florida’s defense can get back to 2012 standards this could be a tough test for new Bama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, but he has plenty of tools with which to work.
Mississippi State at LSU (TBD)
Speaking of SEC hot seats, Dan Mullen’s termination seemed imminent in the middle of November when the Bulldogs sat at 4-6, but they rallied for consecutive overtime victories (including an Egg Bowl crown) to get to the Liberty Bowl where they smashed Rice 44-7 to keep their head coach safely ensconced on the sideline. If the Bulldogs want to take the next step in the loaded SEC West, this is their first chance. A big part of the late turnaround was dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott, who came off the bench to beat Ole Miss and then accounted for five touchdowns in the bowl game. Prescott will need to survive in Death Valley against a Bayou Bengal defense that returns seven starters, including junior cornerback Jalen Mills and freshman understudy Jamal Adams, who are taking the baton in the seemingly endless relay of ridiculously talented LSU defensive backs.
Miami (FL) at Nebraska (8:00 p.m.)
Their first game since the 2002 Rose Bowl, where the Hurricanes capped one of the most dominant seasons in the sport’s history by systematically destroying the Huskers. The Big Red faithful will be looking for some measure of very belated revenge, and will do so by hoping the new offensive line (the Huskers are replacing four of five starters) can punch some holes into a Cane front that features tackling machine Denzel Perryman in the middle. Any team that features Duke Johnson is going to score points, but it would behoove Miami to settle their quarterback situation (injured senior Ryan Williams has this game circled for his return, but we shall see) before they face the Blackshirts on the road.
Other games to consider:
Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech (TBD)
Per usual, the Coastal Division is complete chaos and the two Techs are as good as candidates as any (along with Miami, Pitt, North Carolina and reigning champ Duke) to take the crown. Paul Johnson is 28-23 since winning the ACC title/Orange Bowl combo in 2009 with five straight losses to in-state rival Georgia. A win in Blacksburg would not hurt Johnson’s standing with the Yellow Jacket faithful.
Iowa at Pittsburgh (TBD)
The Panther schedule is very manageable in Paul Chryst’s third year at the helm and they feature a dynamite trio of sophomores on offense with quarterback Chad Voytik, receiver Tyler Bord and running back James Conner. The Hawkeyes ended up cobbling together a nice little 8-5 season in ‘13 and with a very favorable schedule could steal the Big Ten West with their strong offensive line anchored by cornerstone left tackle Brandon Scherff.
Oklahoma at West Virginia (TBD)
In 2012, Oklahoma won this game 50-49. In 2013, it was a 16-7 Sooner victory. Your guess is as good as mine here, but the Mountaineers have lost 14 of their last 20 and a win in their conference opener would look good on Dana Holgorsen’s resume.
Oregon at Washington State (TBD)
Mike Leach’s squad only trailed by ten at the half last year, but between the five turnovers, two yards rushing and 28-0 Duck run that started with the third quarter, the upset didn’t quite happen (62-38 final). Oregon’s first road game of the season and the first of a few potential upset candidates in Pullman for the Cougars