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 August 30.
LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Houston, 9:00 p.m.)
Our first in a series of neutral site opening weekend games, this is an early opportunity for the Big Ten to make a statement against their SEC tormentors. These are two good representatives, as Wisconsin is the Big Ten West (farewell, Leaders and Legends; we will miss you) preseason favorite and LSU one of the more consistent powers in the loaded SEC West. Things will get interesting when the Tigers are on offense, as they look to replace a talented quartet of skill position players (Zach Mettenberger at QB, Jeremy Hill at tailback and the dynamic wide receiver tandem of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham) against a Wisconsin defense that returns only three starters and none in the front seven. (If frosh tailback Leonard Fournette is as advertised, however, the Tigers might not miss Hill all that much.) The other side of the ball should feel familiar for viewers, with an athletic Les Miles defense attempting to stop a grizzled Gary Anderson run attack spearheaded by 1600-yard rusher Melvin Gordon.
Texas A&M at South Carolina (6:00 p.m., Thursday)
The SEC Network’s debut will be a good one, as two programs look to find life after their stars. Kevin Sumlin has to replace three first-round picks from his offense with Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews moving on to the NFL, but recruiting has been very strong and blue-chip quarterback Kyle Allen has the folks in College Station excited. It would help if the Aggies could lean on their defense, which returns nine starters but hemorrhaged over 30 points per game in 2013. The Gamecocks are gunning for an SEC East crown coming off their third straight 11-2 season, but will have to do so without Jadeveon Clowney or consistently underrated quarterback Connor Shaw. The Ol’ Ball Coach will have some experience on offense, as quarterback Dylan Thompson has repeatedly played the last couple seasons in relief of Shaw, running back Mike Davis was just shy of 1200 yards on the ground last year and they return four starters from the line. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a whole lot of points in Columbia on opening night.
Boise State vs. Ole Miss (in Atlanta, 8:00 p.m., Thursday)
If this is anything like the Rebels’ 2013 Thursday night opener (a 39-35 see-saw affair with Vanderbilt), we’re in for a treat. A neutral site clash, this is an opportunity to see an SEC dark horse in action against the new era of Boise State football. Hugh Freeze’s Rebels bring back a majority of the key parts from last year’s 8-5 squad, including Dr. Bo Wallace at quarterback, freak sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell and nine defensive starters, including all-world sophomore Robert Nkemdiche. They’ll face a stiff test in the Broncos, who replace Chris Petersen (now head coach at Washington) with Bryan Harsin, a Boise alum and former offensive coordinator on the blue turf. Coming off their first season with more than four losses since 1998 (a real if completely insane stat), Boise rolls in with their quarterback, running back and wide receiver tandem from last year in addition to eight returning starters on defense.
Clemson at Georgia (5:30 p.m.)
Last year’s edition of this game in South Carolina was must-see TV, with Tajh Boyd and Aaron Murray dueling in at 38-35 Tigers win. But Boyd and Murray are gone, and unfortunately for Dabo Swinney, he also has to replace the receiver duo of Sammy Watkins and Martavius Bryant along with 2013’s leading rusher Roderick McDowell. Clemson will sport one of the best front sevens in the ACC, but that might not be enough against a loaded Georgia attack which returns receiver Malcolm Mitchell and tailback Keith Marshall from injury. Murray’s season-ending injury last year may have been a tiny blessing in disguise for the Bulldogs, as it allowed new quarterback Hutson Mason to gain some starting experience over the final few games of ’13. Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris will get his attack reloaded at some point in 2014, it’s just a question of whether it will be primed for the opener or not. Also worth noting that a whole bunch of players are suspended for this game, detailed here.
Ohio State at Navy (in Baltimore,12:00 p.m.)
After rattling off 24 straight wins to begin his tenure in Columbus, Urban Meyer is now riding a two-game losing streak (to two very good teams, but still). Playing Navy’s triple option to start the season is often an easier task than trying to prepare for it in the middle, but it’s still a unique task for the Buckeye defense. Navy returns fifteen starters from a squad that finished last year winning six of their last seven, finding perhaps the perfect triggerman for their multi-pronged attack in junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Odds are the ridiculous amount of talent acquired by Meyer rolls through the undersized Middies, but an early misstep could mean playing from behind, the worst possible position to be in against a clock-chewing offense like this. These two played at Ohio State back in 2009, a 31-27 escape by the home team.
Other games to consider:
Florida State vs. Oklahoma State (in Dallas, 8:00 p.m.)
Live from Cowboys Stadium, this is your first chance to see the defending champions and Heisman winner Jameis Winston in action. This would be higher on the list but Oklahoma State returns only eight starters and while we should all have total faith Mike Gundy will whip his young charges into fighting shape as the season wears on, it’s a big ask for them to compete against the Seminole war machine right out of the gates.
Alabama vs. West Virginia (in Atlanta, 3:30 p.m.)
Our first look at the Tide without A.J. McCarron, new starter Jake Coker (or perhaps Blake Sims) will get to ease into life as Alabama's quarterback against a West Virginia defense that hasn't put up much resistance under Dana Holgorsen. If Florida State transfer Coker starts for Nick Saban it'll be a battle of two former Seminole quarterbacks, as Mountaineer starter Clint Trickett also began his career in Tallahassee before matriculating to Morgantown.
Miami (FL) at Louisville (8:00 p.m., Monday)
Louisville’s ACC debut is a Labor Day duel that doubles as noted motorcycle enthusiast Bobby Petrino’s return to the Cardinals’ sideline. New quarterback Will Gardner (who has the unenviable job of replacing Teddy Bridgewater) will have plenty of experienced talent around him, while Al Golden will lean on all-everything tailback Duke Johnson as he tries to figure out a muddled quarterback situation.
Penn State vs. Central Florida (in Dublin, 8:30 a.m.)
James Franklin’s Penn State debut takes place on the Emerald Isle against George O’Leary’s Knights, coming off an American conference title and Fiesta Bowl win. O’Leary has to replace Blake Bortles while Franklin gets to unleash sophomore phenom Christian Hackenberg, last seen eviscerating Wisconsin in Madison. You’re not going to say no to breakfast football.
UCLA at Virginia (12:00 p.m.)
UCLA is a trendy playoff pick among many prognosticators while Mike London is just attempting to keep his job after going 6-18 over the last two seasons. This will likely be a Brett Hundley-led blowout, but it’s a 9 a.m. start for a west coast team on opening weekend against a desperate home team returning 17 starters…odder things have happened, although I wouldn’t necessarily bet on that here. (UCLA is favored by three touchdowns, if you were curious.)