Posted in: College Football
The college football season is a little over a month away and the anticipation for kickoff is boiling over. With so many exciting games to look forward to, it’s no secret why.
From the very start, there’ll be crucial games deciding the future of the College Football Playoff.
Yesterday, I broke down 10 important non-conference games for the upcoming season. You can find that analysis here.
Today in part two, I’ll be looking at the 10 biggest contests involving teams from different conferences.
The top three are all games being played on opening week. So, don’t just expect powerhouses to be playing “cupcake” teams in early September. National title aspirations could be broken right from start.
Here are the top ten matchups ranked from 10th to 1st, with ESPN’s FPI prediction placed at the bottom of each game. Enjoy!
The Buckeyes will play Penn State on the road this season. They will play Michigan State on the road this season. And as always, there will be a tough clash against Michigan. But no one should be looking past this matchup.
Gary Patterson and TCU are known for sneaking up on teams. Most pundits are picking Oklahoma in the Big 12 this year, with West Virginia and Texas getting the dark horse talk.
This is where TCU is the most dangerous: when expectations for them slip a bit.
The game is practically a home contest for them. Their campus is a half-hour away. But that didn’t faze Ohio State last time they traveled down to Big 12 country. They dispatched Oklahoma in Norman two years ago.
This battle will start and end with the powerful defenses on both sides. The fact TCU had a top-20 D last year in a conference known for basketball scores is tremendous. They’ll have some questions in the secondary. But whether Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins can take advantage is the real question.
Ohio State defense will boast the ultimate disrupter, DE Nick Bosa. Chase Young will be a monster on the other side as well.
It’s hard to tell whether TCU has the strength in the backfield and under center to challenge the Buckeyes. But Urban Meyer and Patterson coaching head-to-head will deliver plenty of interest.
FPI: Ohio State 80.6%
You could make a separate list of just Notre Dame games this year. After all, they play Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Northwestern, Florida State, and USC.
But we start with their mid-season showdown with the Hokies.
They’ll be facing a team with a fair share of turnover. But Virginia Tech is returning their quarterback, and that could make all the difference. Coach Justin Fuente knows how to develop at that position. Josh Jackson is only a sophomore, but he’s already making waves.
The major problem for Tech was their offensive line last year. They’ll need major improvements to contain Notre Dame’s front seven, which finally made strides late last year.
Their biggest question may lie at quarterback. Brandon Wimbush won back the starting job, but he won’t have the same help from his run-game this year.
Virginia Tech’s defense is nothing to scoff at. They’re built to compete for an ACC Coastal crown with their linemen. They were top-5 in scoring last year and won’t be fading much with this squad.
Wimbush will have to be more accurate. He won’t be done any favors by the Hokies. Week six could be the pivotal game that decides the potential of the Irish season.
FPI: Notre Dame 69.8%
With QB Sam Darnold and RB Josh Adams leaving the Trojans and Irish respectively, a little air has been taken out of this game. USC getting blown out by Notre Dame last season deflates it a bit more.
But one of college football’s best rivalries still has plenty of storylines.
Will JT Daniels already be the next big thing at QBU? Will a New Year’s bowl be on the line? Those are just a couple big questions when looking at this matchup.
If Daniels does start as a true freshman, this could be a season of peaks and valleys for the young Trojans. More than half their offensive starters will be freshmen or sophomores. But by the time they get to the end of the season, they should have ample experience.
The Irish will come in strong in the middle of their defense, poised to shut down Daniels. He will be thrown in the fire this year but will have great receiving options to help him with the heat.
This may come down to how composed he is by this point in the season. Because the Irish have ample pressure they can apply.
FPI: Notre Dame 59.1%
This rivalry has recently been dominated by the Seminoles. But the coaching changes for each program has brought new life to this Sunshine State faceoff.
Dan Mullen returns to Florida after winning two national titles as an offensive coordinator there. Willie Taggart returns to the state to coach his dream school, FSU. It should be quite the competition right from the get-go.
Florida State may not be a title contender right now, but they’ve still got playmakers. The biggest of note is RB Cam Akers, who ran for nearly 1,100 yards as a true freshman. He had one of his worst games against Florida last year and is looking to redeem himself.
Florida still has a tough defensive front to combat him with, even after the loss of DE Taven Bryan. Cece Jefferson should have a breakout year. Florida is also still loaded in the secondary.
FSU has talented but slightly raw options at quarterback. They’ll rely mostly on Akers and the production of the line in front of him.
Florida, on the other hand, has several playmakers. Finding a quarterback who can get them the ball regularly could be the problem. They better have that position figured out by late November, or else it’ll be another loss for them at the hands of the ‘Noles.
FPI: Florida State 60.6%
One program is on the rise and another is regrouping but rich with young talent. And they just happen to be two of the most legendary programs in the country.
Following up the nail-biter in the L.A. Coliseum last year, USC and Texas seem to be very close on paper this season.
Coming off an even tougher road game at Stanford, USC will truly be tested in Austin.
JT Daniels will be even more unproven at this point of the season. He may be needing some confidence after taking some bruises against Stanford’s defense. But he’ll get opportunities to shine against the Longhorns.
Texas is starting to come along on that side of the ball, but their pass D was not up to snuff in 2017. Kris Boyd is a veteran at corner, but the rest of the secondary isn’t something to brag about. With the receivers at Daniels’s disposal, this could potentially be his breakout game.
But Tom Herman’s squad will be better equipped than they were in that double-OT loss last season. Sam Ehlinger should start and now has a whole year of experience under center.
If he becomes more patient this year in the pocket and managing the game, this will be a dangerous opponent early on for USC.
FPI: Texas 61.4%
This may wind up being the Fighting Irish’s toughest game of 2017. It could also decide who out of these two teams is a national contender.
For as much scrutiny as the Pac-12 has gotten as the weakest of the power-five conferences, Stanford has been as steady as any team in the country. Don’t expect that to change with the Heisman favorite at running back and the best offensive line in the conference blocking for him.
If Stanford can find balance from the arm of K.J. Costello, Notre Dame could be in for a long night. RB Bryce Love’s productivity (2,118 rush yards, 19 touchdowns, 8.1 YPC) will be enough to deal with.
But playing in South Bend gives them a clear advantage. Notre Dame will rely on Wimbush a lot if he’s still the starting QB by week five. Stanford’s defense is by no means a pushover with seniors up and down the lineup. But Wimbush will face several better secondaries in 2018.
It’ll come down to whether the Irish can keep from getting manhandled by the line and shredded by Love. If Costello hasn’t improved, they may be able to commit more numbers to the box to stop the star rusher. But the improvements of Notre Dame’s D-line will be put to the test early and often in this one.
FPI: Notre Dame 76.1%
By the time these teams meet in November, it may not seem as important of a game. But it is an interesting matchup against teams who don’t play on a regular basis.
These teams last met in a 2014 clash that went down to the wire. FSU won 31-27 in a battle of top-five opponents.
This may not be as hyped as that game was at the time. But if the Willie Taggart magic gets flowing early on offense for the Seminoles, there’s plenty of reason to think they’ll put up a fight in South Bend.
Coming off games against Clemson and on the road against NC State, FSU’s resolve will certainly be tested. Whether the QB situation has smoothed out for them over the course of the year will be the main factor.
As will Notre Dame’s own ability to move the ball through the air. They were 103rd in passing last year.
Cam Akers will be relied upon to carry the load for FSU. By November, a lot of the young talent on this team could be budding alongside him. But if Notre Dame shuts down the sophomore running back, FSU may not have the signal-caller to pull out a win in such an environment.
FPI: Notre Dame 80.3%
Miami might be an ACC frontrunner and LSU an SEC question mark. But this game has the makings for a dramatic ending.
LSU looks to finally have their quarterback in Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow. Whether they’ve finally found the right play-caller or enough perimeter weapons for the QB is another story.
But the Tigers will still be strong on defense, and this could prove to be a 17-14, 21-17 kind of game. LSU still has a top-tier secondary. Miami and its turnover-chain defense are stacked in the front seven. And these are two teams that always play with an edge.
Miami QB Malik Rosier still has a lot of potential. But the senior has been inconsistent with throws at each level of the field and will be playing All-American-caliber CB Greedy Williams and Co.
That puts more pressure on RB Travis Homer to put up game-changing numbers. Of course, after the way he filled in beautifully last year for Mark Walton (ankle injury), Homer is known for thriving in tough spots.
LSU will have no such luxury at running back. They have no returning rushing touchdowns on their roster. They probably won’t be all that stacked at any offensive position. Jonathan Giles, a prized WR transfer from Texas Tech, will have to haul down a few 50/50 balls.
But with enough of their pressure and ball-hawking skills, Miami can keep LSU off the board for much of the game. Homer will likely do the rest. But don’t expect this to be easy for the Hurricanes.
FPI: Miami 65.7%
Full disclaimer: I am not a Notre Dame fan. I just think there’s a lot of must-see matchups on their schedule.
Opening week versus Michigan may be the most evenly matched of the bunch. It also gives us our first look at Shea Patterson in maize and blue at primetime.
The transfer QB finally gives Jim Harbaugh the prized QB he’s been craving. The coach can do wonders for him, much the same as he did for Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers. Patterson has those kinds of playmaking abilities.
He has Big-10 caliber No. 1’s at receiver (Donovan Peoples-Jones) and running back (Karan Higdon) to help him out. Notre Dame may be good up front but chasing down Patterson will be a challenge. It’s a good thing for him due to the Irish’s advantage between these lines.
The same could be said on the other side though, where Michigan’s defensive line is as stout as they come. This may be the best defense overall that they’ve had during the Harbaugh era. They’re top five nationally at all three levels.
Whether Higdon can get going is questionable given the nature of the Wolverines O-line. But Patterson has the skillset to make things happen against a developing but not complete Irish defense.
This will be a close one right to the end.
FPI: Notre Dame 68.3%
It’s not the undisputed game of the year like Alabama-Florida State was hyped up to be in 2017. But these are two top-10 caliber teams with plenty of unknowns involving the matchup.
Quarterback Jake Browning and Washington didn’t fare too well against Alabama a couple years ago in the College Football Playoff semi-finals. But despite losing, they showed they belonged with a juggernaut SEC opponent.
Auburn is a fringe playoff contender this year and has their own quarterback in place. The second year of Jarrett Stidham under center should be a head-turning one with a solid group of receivers. Replacing stud back Kerryon Johnson will be tough, but Kam Martin (6.1 YPC) should be the real deal.
But for all the great SEC defenses Auburn will play, from Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Miss State, Washington is right alongside them. They have the best secondary in the country, bar none. Their defensive line, despite losing Vita Vea, is not far behind.
Between Browning, Stidham, Martin, and Washington RB Myles Gaskin, there’s a considerable amount of offensive talent in this game. But don’t expect that to matter. Auburn is bested by few in their front seven, proving worthy adversaries to Washington’s dominant back-end group.
It’ll be interesting to see which capable quarterback can make the timely throw to pull this one out. We’ll find out in a little over a month. The anticipation is already becoming unbearable.
FPI: Washington 50.5%