In three weeks, the 2015 college football season will commence, entering the second year of the College Football Playoff format. Last year was an instructive experience, as we all learned that the CFP committee is a vast departure from the BCS with its computers and polls.
With that in mind, some games this season will take on more meaning because of its CFP implications. But a few others will also grab the spotlight because of who’s involved. And finally, there’ll be the timeless rivalries that are special every season.
Here are our list of 10 games to especially keep an eye on, in chronological order:
Michigan at Utah (Sept. 3)
Jim Harbaugh’s hiring this offseason was by far the biggest coaching splash in football – pro or college – and his coaching debut at his alma mater will render everything else on the season’s opening night into a sideshow.
But Harbaugh has anything but a cupcake to kick things off. The Utes routed Michigan at the Big House last season and will be tough to handle at Rice-Eccles for a Wolverines squad still in search of a starting quarterback. Rest assured cameras will be trained on Harbaugh the entire game to see how he handles things.
Ohio State at Virginia Tech (Sept. 7)
The Hokies were the only team to inflict a loss on Ohio State before it went on to claim the inaugural CFP championship. That loss at the Horseshoe nearly cost the Buckeyes a spot in the playoff, thanks mostly to VT’s awful season, including the infamous 0-0 tie at the end of regulation against Wake Forest.
To be sure, the Buckeyes won’t take the Hokies lightly this time, but they will have plenty of adversity to deal with. Not only is this game in hostile Blacksburg, Ohio State will be without four suspended players, including star defensive end Joey Bosa. Urban Meyer’s defending champs can easily open the season 0-1.
Boise State at BYU (Sept. 12)
The Broncos crashed the CFP party with a victory over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl, their third win there in the last 10 years. While Boise is poised to claim the New Year’s Six bowl bid guaranteed to a non-Power 5 team once again, BYU has similar ambitions as well.
The Cougars have a difficult schedule with four Power 5 opponents and seven of their eight other opponents come from either the Mountain West or American Athletic. BYU can play its way into an NY6 bid as an at-large, and a win over Boise State will help things considerably.
Oklahoma vs. Texas at Dallas (Oct. 10)
Both of these programs are trying to rebound from subpar seasons and reclaim their supremacy in the Big 12. Bob Stoops is under siege after a preseason top 10 team disintegrated in an 8-5 season at Oklahoma. Texas’ Charlie Strong got a pass for his first season, but Longhorns fans won’t be patient for long.
This version of the Red River Shootout probably won’t decide the Big 12 title, but it’ll give us an idea which team is closer to returning to elite status.
USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 17)
There hasn’t been a USC-Notre Dame game that had national title implications since the 2005 classic in which the two-time defending champion Trojans prevailed on a late Matt Leinart QB sneak thanks to the “Bush Push.” This year, both teams have national championship aspirations once again.
This game will mean more to the Irish in this respect: Without a conference title game, their only path to the CFP playoff is by going 12-0 or at worst, 11-1. A loss to USC might be a deal breaker as Notre Dame must negotiate a brutal stretch in its first seven games.
Florida State at Clemson (Nov. 7)
Clemson won 20 of its last 24 ACC games, but three of the losses were against Florida State and therefore denied the Tigers a shot to even make it to the conference title game. But Dabo Swinney and Co. hope this season will be different, as his team is now favored to dethrone the Seminoles.
Florida State managed to beat Clemson last year despite starting little-used Sean Maguire because Jameis Winston was suspended. The Noles might have to do that again with Maguire, unless he’s beaten out for the starting QB job by Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson.
USC at Oregon (Nov. 21)
It’s the titanic tilt between the Pac-12’s old money and new money. USC ruled the conference in the Pete Carroll era only to be supplanted by the Ducks when it was hit by severe NCAA sanctions.
The Trojans are back near full strength now and their late-season clash might not be the only time the teams meet this year. The last time those two faced each other in Eugene, USC pulled off a 38-35 upset that denied Oregon a shot at the BCS title game that season.
Baylor at TCU (Nov. 27)
Last year, this game essentially decided the Big 12’s playoff fate. With Baylor pulling off a stunning comeback in the fourth quarter, the teams shared the conference title but both got left out of the four-team CFP field.
This year the conference has voted to declare a single champion in the event of a tie, so this game might very well serve as either a winner-take-all or the tiebreaker. And it might take something like 61-58 to decide it again.
Ohio State at Michigan (Nov. 28)
In 1969, first-year Michigan coach Bo Schembechler shocked his mentor Woody Hayes’ defending national champions at the Big House. Will history repeat itself for Bo’s protege now?
Jim Harbaugh would like nothing less than that, of course, even if his team most likely will be playing spoiler as he restocks a program that’s fallen into mediocrity. Urban Meyer, on the other hand, will do his damnedest to make sure he comes out ahead in the most celebrated coaching matchup of the year.
Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 28)
Two years ago the Iron Bowl gave us perhaps the most memorable finish in the history of college football. As the game returns to Jordan-Hare Stadium, there’s plenty of hype and hope for another classic.
Both teams are expected to be a national title contender, but only one of them will get to play in the SEC championship game. The stakes will be enormous even considering that the SEC West might turn out to be even tougher than last year.