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 13.
Georgia at South Carolina (3:30 p.m.)
Unless Florida gets significantly better or Missouri can stave off the regression monster, this game likely features the SEC East winner. The Dawgs finally broke through at home last year after three straight years of torment at the hands of Steve Spurrier’s crew, and they’ll get a bye week between their opener with Clemson and their trip to Columbia. It seems fair to expect points (200 over their last three contests) but Georgia’s defense should be much improved after suffering a ridiculous amount of turnover going into last season. The Dawgs return linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amario Herrera, who combined for just under 250 tackles in 2013. South Carolina will need to find some answers on a depleted defensive line (the loss of the number one overall pick tends to reduce production a little) if they wish to slow the junior tailback tandem Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. This game is ridiculously fun almost every year and there’s no reason to think that will change in ’14.
UCLA vs. Texas (in Arlington, 8:00 p.m.)
The Bruins are the PAC-12 South favorite and a trendy national champion pick after two seasons of progress under Jim Mora and the infusion of some very talented recruits. Charlie Strong is attempting to repair a Longhorns program that was among the best in the nation for most of the 2000s before crumbling over the last few years of Mack Brown’s tenure. If David Ash stays healthy at quarterback (a tricky proposition so far during his Texas career), he has a pair of five-star backs in Malcolm Brown and Jonathan Gray to complement his passing attack (although they haven’t quite produced at a five-star level thus far), but they’ll all be working behind a retooled offensive line. They face a UCLA defense that loses top-notch pass rusher Anthony Barr but brings back a heap of talent across the depth chart. This will also probably not be the last time Bruin Brett Hundley plays in an NFL stadium, as mocks continue to place the dual-threat quarterback near the top of the 2015 draft. I would also be remiss to neglect mentioning that this should be an aesthetically pleasing game with the clash of burnt orange and true blue.
UCF at Missouri (12:00 p.m.)
Two of the darlings of 2013 square off, both looking to avoid too much of a crash after putting up 12-win campaigns last year. Central Florida lost Blake Bortles and must also account for the departures of leader rusher and All-Name Team MVP Storm Johnson (the two combined for 45 touchdowns a season ago). Giving the offense time to figure things out will be a defense that returns nine starters, including a sterling secondary. Missouri doesn’t have that benefit on either side of the ball, returning just eight starters split evenly across the offensive and defensive depth chart. Thankfully sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk got plenty of playing time last year (1300 yards of offense and a dozen touchdowns) and a majority of his offensive line is back, but stalwart tailback Henry Josey is gone along with the entire receiving corps and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam. Gary Pinkel has his work cut out for him in 2014.
Nebraska at Fresno State (10:30 p.m.)
This is Fresno State’s home opener after road trips to USC and Utah to start the season, and regardless of how they come out of those tough tests, they’ll be waiting to attempt to spring a late-night upset on a talented but flawed Nebraska squad. Ameer Abdullah is one of the top backs in the country but he’ll be running behind an overhauled offensive line and sharing a backfield with likely starter Tommy Armstrong, Jr. a talented but shaky quarterback thrown into duty last year after Taylor Martinez’s injury. Yes, their opponents lose Derek Carr and two 100-reception wideouts, but Tim DeRuyter’s system seems primed to just hum on, and the Bulldogs will be helped by eight returning starters on defense, including his top six tacklers. Whoever ends up starting at QB for Fresno will face a talented Blackshirt front seven, anchored by standout end Randy Gregory, a monster athlete who notched 10.5 sacks and a pick six last year.
Indiana at Bowling Green (12:00 p.m.)
Wait, stop: hear me out. Indiana went 5-7 in 2013, falling just short of their first bowl bid since 2007. They generally score a whole lot of points and return 17 starters, including their entire offensive line. Bowling Green went 10-4 last year, won the MAC Title and is the East division favorite. Their backfield of Matt Johnson (3700 yards of offense and 30 touchdowns in ’13) and Travis Greene (over 1700 yards from scrimmage) is one of the more complete in football. Oh, and last year’s game in Bloomington went from a 10-7 Falcons lead to a 42-10 Hoosiers victory. There will be points aplenty and big stakes for an Indiana team desperate to reach the postseason. (Also, as you’ll notice below, this week isn’t exactly overflowing with clear-cut options, so we are making due with what we have.)
Other games to consider:
Minnesota at TCU (4:00 p.m.)
Jerry Kill got his Gophers to 8-5 last year (after going 3-9 and 6-7 the previous two seasons) and while the trip to Fort Worth won’t affect their chances at competing in the Big Ten West, it’s certainly a fun test for a relatively experienced squad (15 returning starters). With transfer Matt Joeckel (sliding over from Texas A&M) set to stabilize the quarterback position, TCU should be very much improved from last year’s edition that suffered innumerable snakebites along the way. Also: Golden Gophers versus Horned Frogs, perhaps the apex of potential mascot fights.
Illinois at Washington (4:00 p.m.)
The seat could be getting rather hot for Tim Beckman at Illinois as he enters his third season with a 6-18 record. (Ron Zook was fired after consecutive 7-6 seasons.) The Illini played Washington tough at Soldier Field last year, falling 34-24, but need to settle on a quarterback. Transfer Wes Lunt had some success at Oklahoma State but sophomore Aaron Bailey is a four-star, dual-threat blue chipper who might be the playmaker the Illini need to pull a cross-country upset.
Louisiana-Lafayette at Ole Miss (4:00 p.m.)
The Sun Belt favorites travel to Oxford in what should be a stiff test for the Rebels. The Ragin' Cajuns return nine defense starters and a veteran backfield with quarterback Terrance Broadway and running backs Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire, a trio that combined for over 2,200 yards and 30 touchdowns on the ground in 2013.
Toledo at Cincinnati (7:00 p.m., Friday)
In-state showdown between a MAC favorite and an American Conference contender. Toledo needs to settle on a quarterback, but they have the option of turning to Phillip Ely, a transfer from Alabama, but they have nine starters back on defense. The Bearcats will be starting their own transfer under center in five-star recruit Gunner Kiel, who began his college career at Notre Dame.
Houston at BYU (9:00 p.m., Thursday)
Potentially a very fun little weeknight shootout. Houston is bringing back 17 starters, including quarterback John O’Korn, every receiver and running back of note and a wrecking ball convention at linebacker. They’ll get quite the challenge on the road against Taysom Hill and the Broncos, who return their complete rushing attack from 2013 and a very adept secondary.
Tennessee at Oklahoma (8:00 p.m.)
If Butch Jones can keep bringing in solid recruiting classes, there is a day this could be a close contest. Considering Rocky Top has to rebuild both of their lines, Oklahoma is considered a playoff contender and this is in Norman, it would take a minor miracle for the Vols to prevail.
UTSA at Oklahoma State (7:00 p.m.)
UTSA returns 20 starters and the Cowboys return eight, and this early in the season that could matter. It’s a big road game against a perennial power for a nascent program short on big names, but it could be interesting if the Roadrunners aren’t immediately in over their heads at The House T. Boone Built.