While college football season began this past Saturday with four games involving some of the nation’s less-heralded programs, the real deal gets going Labor Day weekend. To guide you on your path of enlightenment, here’s a road map pointing you toward the best games of the year, weekend by weekend.
(All times Eastern.)
WEEK 1 (Aug. 30-Sept. 3)
Northwestern at Purdue (Aug. 30, 8 p.m., ESPN): Mentioned here mainly because it’s the first game of the season and only game of college football’s opening Thursday night to feature two Power Five teams. The Wildcats have taken four straight and six of eight from the Boilermakers.
San Diego State at Stanford (Aug. 31, 9 p.m., FS1): The Aztecs have posted double-digit wins in three straight seasons but have to replace a 2,000-yard rusher in Rashaad Penny. The Cardinal has no such worries: Bryce Love, who rushed for 2,118 yards last season and finished second in the Heisman voting, is back for more.
Florida Atlantic at Oklahoma (Sept. 1, noon, Fox): Lane Kiffin cheekily crafted an 11-win season in 2017 after the Owls had won nine games in the previous three seasons combined. FAU, which has reloaded with transfers and junior-college talent, kicks off with a massive early-season test against a Sooners team that should assume its place atop the Big 12, as usual.
Washington vs. Auburn in Atlanta (Sept. 1, 3:30 p.m., ABC): The sixth-ranked Huskies last were ranked so high in the AP preseason poll in 1997. They’re the first test for Auburn, which is playing its usual demonic schedule (seven games this season vs. teams ranked in Bill Connelly’s projected S&P+ rankings, and only two are at home).
Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 1, 7:30, NBC): A great nightcap to college football’s first Saturday, as the Wolverines and Fighting Irish square off for the first time since 2014.
Miami vs. LSU in Arlington, Tex. (Sept. 2, 7:30, ABC): The Hurricanes and their Turnover Chain were the talk of college football over their 10-0 start last season. Miami then lost its last three games, but we haven’t seen optimism like this in Coral Gables since the early aughts.
Virginia Tech at Florida State (Sept. 3, 8 p.m., ABC): An exhausting opening weekend comes to a close on Labor Day with a Hokies team that’s had an offseason full of injuries and departures against a Seminoles team that’s breaking in just its third new coach since 1976 in Willie Taggart.
WEEK 2 (Sept. 7-8)
Clemson at Texas A&M (Sept. 8, 7 p.m., ESPN): Unlike most of its compatriots, Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney isn’t afraid to play a nonconference road game against a Power Five opponent. His teams have played at Auburn and at Georgia in recent seasons, and there’s also the annual series against South Carolina. Meanwhile, Jimbo Fisher’s first game of any importance as Aggies coach is against a team that beat him in three straight seasons when he was at Florida State.
Southern Cal at Stanford (Sept. 8, 8:30 p.m., Fox): Pete Carroll and John McKay, the two previous coaches to lead USC to consensus national titles, each won one in his third season at the helm. That’s where Clay Helton finds himself now. Whether he has the roster to make the leap after one Rose Bowl win and one Pac-12 title remains to be seen.
WEEK 3 (Sept. 13-15)
Ohio State vs. TCU in Arlington, Tex. (Sept. 15, 8 p.m., ABC): Who knows where Ohio State’s head will be here, in the third and final game of Coach Urban Meyer’s season-opening suspension. The Horned Frogs reestablished themselves as one of the nation’s most dominant defensive teams in 2017’s 11-3 campaign, and many of their top players on that side of the ball are back for more.
Southern Cal at Texas (Sept. 15, 8 p.m., Fox): Tom Herman won seven games in his first season in Austin, hardly better than the three seasons of mediocrity under Charlie Strong that came before it. The problems centered mostly on an offense that didn’t scare anyone, and one has to wonder if that side of the ball will be the problem again this season.
WEEK 4 (Sept. 20-22)
Texas A&M at Alabama (Sept. 22, time and TV TBD): You may have noticed that a certain No. 1-ranked team that’s won five of the last nine national titles has yet to appear on this list. That’s mainly because, on paper, Alabama’s schedule won’t provide much of a challenge until November, when LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn come calling. The Aggies could be the Crimson Tide’s sternest test over its first nine games.
Nebraska at Michigan (Sept. 22, time and TV TBD): Scott Frost gets his first high-profile test as Nebraska’s coach, and any Cornhuskers fans who think he’ll be able to replicate his Central Florida success in Year One might be in for some disappointment: Former coach Mike Riley left the cupboard pretty bare.
WEEK 5 (Sept. 27-29)
Ohio State at Penn State (Sept. 29, time and TV TBD): Saquon Barkley may be playing on Sundays now, but his assumed replacement for the Nittany Lions, Miles Sanders, was the nation’s top-ranked running back recruit in the Class of 2016 and averaged 6.2 yards per carry as a college sophomore in 2017. Quarterback Trace McSorley, whose 28 straight games with a touchdown pass is the longest current streak in FBS, also is back. The cupboard hardly is bare.
Stanford at Notre Dame (Sept. 29, 7:30 p.m., NBC): It’s the blessed end of an arduous early-season stretch for the Cardinal, which has beaten the Fighting Irish in three straight seasons. The Fighting Irish returns nearly everyone from a young defense that improved throughout last season; now it’s time for the offense to catch up.
WEEK 6 (Oct. 4-6)
Washington at UCLA (Oct. 6, time and TV TBD): Chip Kelly’s first major challenge as Bruins coach comes in Week 2 at Oklahoma. His first major Pac-12 test is against the Huskies at the Rose Bowl. It might take some time for the talent to match his schematic innovations.
Florida State at Miami (Oct. 6, time and TV TBD): The Hurricanes broke a seven-game losing streak to the Seminoles last season. Now they look to beat them at home for the first time since 2004.
Texas vs. Oklahoma in Dallas (Oct. 6, time and TV TBD): The Longhorns have been middling-to-bad for the entirety of this decade, but the past four games in the Red River Rivalry each were decided by a touchdown or less, with the Longhorns winning one of them.
WEEK 7 (Oct. 9-13)
Wisconsin at Michigan (Oct. 13, time and TV TBD): The Badgers return quarterback Alex Hornibrook, running back Jonathan Taylor and nearly everyone else on offense. But this game is one of five tough conference road games for Wisconsin, which also plays at Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue.
Georgia at LSU (Oct. 13, time and TV TBD): Because of the vagaries of the SEC’s schedule rotation, this will be the Bulldogs’ first visit to Death Valley since 2008. It’s also the beginning of a brutal stretch for the Tigers, who play Mississippi State and Alabama in the two weeks that follow (all are at home, though).
WEEK 8 (Oct. 18-20)
Stanford at Arizona State (Oct. 18, 9 p.m., ESPN): By this point, we should have a pretty good idea about how Year 1 of Arizona State’s quixotic Herm Edwards experiment has gone: The Sun Devils will have played Michigan State, San Diego State and Washington. Then there’s this Thursday night affair against the Cardinal, plus games at Southern Cal and Oregon. Edwards might need at least one or two upsets from this list to make a bowl game.
Michigan at Michigan State (Oct. 20, time and TV TBD): The Wolverines lead the all-time series, 69-36, but the Spartans have won eight of the past 10.
WEEK 9 (Oct. 23-27)
Boston College vs. Miami (Oct. 26, 7 p.m., ESPN): If a few things shake their way, the Eagles could be 5-2 or better entering this Friday night clash. They might have to be if they want a third straight bowl appearance: BC’s next three games after the Hurricanes are at Virginia Tech, home vs. Clemson and at Florida State.
Clemson at Florida State (Oct. 27, time and TV TBD): It’s an ACC kind of weekend. For all the unpleasantness in Tallahassee last season, the ‘Noles won five of their last six games — the last four by an average of 37 points — and played the Tigers tight in Death Valley. Most of the offense from that team is back to run the plays in Willie Taggart’s fun attack.
WEEK 10 (Oct. 30-Nov. 3)
Stanford at Washington (Nov. 3, time and TV TBD): If everything goes according to plan, this very well could decide the Pac-12 North’s representative in the conference title game and maybe — just maybe — keep one of these teams on a path toward the college football playoff, which the Pac-12 has missed in two of four seasons.
WEEK 11 (Nov. 6-10)
Mississippi State at Alabama (Nov. 10, time and TV TBD): The Bulldogs haven’t beaten the Crimson Tide since 2007, Nick Saban’s first season at the Alabama helm, and it would be quite the accomplishment for first-year Coach Joe Moorhead, whose lone previous head coaching appearance was at Fordham. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and a scary defensive line perhaps could get it done.
Auburn at Georgia (Nov. 10, time and TV TBD): The Tigers and Bulldogs played twice in 2017, with Auburn blowing out Georgia in the regular season and the Bulldogs returning the favor with a three-touchdown win in the SEC title game.
Wisconsin at Penn State (Nov. 10, time and TV TBD): A possible preview of the Big Ten championship game.
WEEK 12 (Nov. 13-17)
West Virginia at Oklahoma State (Nov. 17, time and TV TBD): There could be anywhere between 80 and 2 million points scored here.
WEEK 13 (Nov. 20-24)
Oklahoma at West Virginia (Nov. 23, 8 p.m., ESPN): Six days later, the Mountaineers host Oklahoma’s other Big 12 power.
Auburn at Alabama (Nov. 24, time and TV TBD): The Tigers won the Iron Bowl battle last year, 26-14, but would lose the war, as the Crimson Tide skipped ahead of them into the playoff after Auburn’s loss to Georgia in the SEC title game.
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