Fall camp brings the long-awaited return of college football season, but eyes are understandably wandering toward the weekends with meaningful games.
Conference standings and national rankings will undergo considerable movement, and these matchups will have large effects on one or both. Stanford alone has two important Pac-12 tilts in the opening four weeks.
Be sure to schedule your football viewing around this group of clashes when the season officially kicks off.
Washington vs. Auburn, Sep. 1
Both sides should be top-tier teams in their respective league. So, if either program remains in national contention later on, a marquee nonconference victory would provide a useful boost in the College Football Playoff discussion. This matchup will likely come down which quarterback can best overcome a ferocious defense. Washington’s Jake Browning, who struggled for much of 2017, must deal with a pro-Auburn crowd in Atlanta, too. However, a talent-packed secondary could force Jarrett Stidham into a couple of mistakes and swing the game in UW’s favor.
Michigan at Notre Dame, Sep. 1
For the first time since 2014, the classic rivalry will be renewed. Notre Dame will host the matchup, which features a pair of coaches — Jim Harbaugh and Brian Kelly — not exactly on the hot seat but certainly under pressure to excel in 2018. Additionally, it’ll be the Michigan debut of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson. Since most of the Fighting Irish’s defense is back, he’ll face a legitimate test on the road to begin the campaign. Notre Dame will need its quarterback, whether Brandon Wimbush or Ian Book, to handle a relentless pass rush.
Miami vs. LSU, Sep. 2
There should be plenty of defense when the Hurricanes and Tigers meet in JerryWorld. Miami’s “Turnover Chain” might even make its return to national television. But how about the offenses? Miami has a roller coaster of a quarterback in Malik Rosier, who can waver between decent and flat-out awful. LSU, meanwhile, is hoping Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow or former prized recruit Myles Brennan can propel an offense needing to replace the production of running back Derrius Guice. The Sunday showdown will offer an important look at what could be two inconsistent offenses.
Clemson at Texas A&M, Sep. 8
Jimbo Fisher left the ACC, but he can’t escape Dabo Swinney. The 2018 campaign marks the beginning of a home-and-home series between Clemson and Texas A&M. Fisher will have made his program debut against Northwestern State nine days earlier, so the Aggies should be well-prepared to face his longtime nemesis. Granted, they’ll be a considerable underdog to a Clemson squad favored to win the ACC and potentially reach the CFP for the fourth straight year. Playing in the unfriendly confines of Kyle Field should be valuable for Swinney’s crew.
USC at Stanford, Sep. 8
Stanford should be its steady 10-win self this season thanks to Bryce Love and an experienced, effective offensive line. How the Trojans will fare, though, is a discussion that invites many differing opinions. Mostly, that’s because we’re not certain who will be under center. USC will determine that answer during fall camp, choosing between Matt Fink, Jack Sears and touted freshman J.T. Daniels. Considering what’s at stake on the second weekend of the season — a valuable Pac-12 victory — the Trojans better have the right guy to counter Stanford.
LSU at Auburn, Sep. 15
Imagine the flurry of hot-seat discussions that would follow this SEC contest if LSU fell in the opener against Miami and then to Auburn. With two losses in mid-September after running offensive coordinator Matt Canada out of Baton Rouge, Ed Orgeron could be coaching for his job. Or, perhaps the Tigers could have defeated Miami, knock off Auburn and leave The Plains boasting a hard-earned 3-0 record. The game itself will be a classic defensive struggle, but the conversations surrounding the conference tilt could be fascinating.
Ohio State vs. TCU, Sep. 15
Dwayne Haskins has attracted a bunch of hype this offseason. Ohio State finally has a quarterback who is more than a runner! TCU should show whether that praise was merited, because it’s expected to have one of the Big 12’s stingiest defenses. Plus, the Buckeyes’ first two contests are opposite Oregon State and Rutgers — not exactly top competition. Yes, it’s possible the Nick Bosa-led Ohio State defensive line will overwhelm TCU and young quarterback Shawn Robinson, but the Haskins vs. TCU outcome at JerryWorld will shape perceptions about OSU’s ceiling in 2018.
USC at Texas, Sep. 15
One week after heading to Stanford, USC jumps on a plane and travels to Texas. Although the result of this nonconference meeting isn’t nearly as impactful, national attention is guaranteed to follow a matchup between historic programs. Last season, the Trojans pounced on a fumble near the goal line to survive Texas in double overtime. But what happens if USC loses to both Stanford and Texas? Will there be a quarterback change? Will any hot-seat talk begin to surround Clay Helton? Fair or not, it’s a possibility for the third-year coach.
Florida Atlantic at Central Florida, Sep. 21
Lane Kiffin and the powerful FAU scoring attack against last year’s surprise undefeated team? Sign us up. Florida Atlantic needs a new quarterback, but the offense will run through Devin Singletary. He piled up 1,920 yards and an FBS-best 32 touchdowns last season. On the other side, Central Florida returns a quarterback in McKenzie Milton who amassed 4,650 yards of total offense. Although head coach Scott Frost is gone, Josh Heupel’s system should be just as dynamic. Sit back, relax and wait for the scoreboard to break that Friday in Orlando.
Stanford at Oregon, Sep. 22
Oregon should sleep-walk to 3-0. Mario Cristobal’s first season as head coach starts with Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State. If you’re not hearing much about the Ducks until mid-September, it’s a good thing. However, that’ll change in a hurry — especially if Stanford upends USC and both teams enter this showdown unblemished. The loser of this contest will forfeit its margin for error in the Pac-12 race because, either way, Washington remains on the schedule. The victor, however, will own an important win for tiebreaker purposes.