What are the most important, must-see match-ups of the 2011 season?
The start of the 2011 college football season is two weeks away. With kickoff right around the corner, Athlon takes a look at the top 25 must-see games in the nation for 2011.
1a. LSU vs. Alabama (Week 10)
Nov. 5, All-Time Series: Bama leads 45-24-5
This one pretty much has it all: Coaching and fanbase storylines, divisional and conference title implications, a Heisman Trophy candidate and a potential BCS National Championship berth. Despite Alabama dominating for most of this rivalry and winning two of the last three, LSU has had Bama’s number for the better part of a decade – winning six of the last eight meetings. Both defenses should be downright nasty against the run which, of course, will be the strength of both offenses. Whichever quarterback can convert key third and longs in the fourth quarter will likely set his team up for a national title run. These are two of the best rosters in the nation, but the edge goes to the better coach and home-field advantage.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Bama by 3
1b. Oklahoma vs. Florida State (Week 3)
Sept. 17, All-Time Series: Oklahoma leads 5-1
There’s a lot at stake in this Week 3 matchup. Oklahoma and Florida State are national title contenders, and a marquee non-conference win would go a long way towards an undefeated season. The Sooners easily handled the Seminoles last year, winning 47-17 in Norman. Florida State will be hungry to avenge last season’s embarrassment and a victory over Oklahoma would be a statement win in Jimbo Fisher’s second season in Tallahassee. The Sooners suffered a blow when linebacker Travis Lewis was lost for at least the first month of the season due to a foot injury suffered in fall camp. Although Lewis is out, Oklahoma’s linebacking corps remains one of the best in the Big 12, especially with the rapid development of sophomores Tom Wort and Corey Nelson. Much of Florida State’s national title hopes will hinge on quarterback EJ Manuel, who enters his first year as the starter. The junior has six starts over the last two years and there’s no question he has the talent, but has yet to prove himself over a full season.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Seminoles by 3
3. Oregon vs. Stanford (Week 11)
Nov. 12, All-Time Series: Stanford leads 44-29-1
The Pac-12 conference title will likely be on the line when Oregon flies south to Palo Alto during November. Stanford has owned the all-time series, but over the last decade the Ducks have dominated the meetings. Oregon dropped 52 points on the Cardinal last fall and has won eight of the last nine meetings. The Ducks have struggled against power teams (Ohio State, Auburn) over the last two years and the Cardinal will have as close to a power rushing attack as there is in the league. Will the Ducks’ front seven jell in time to slow the Andrew Luck-led attack by Week 11? And can the Cardinal keep the Ducks from scoring 52 points again?
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Cardinal by 4
4. Nebraska vs. Wisconsin (Week 5)
Oct. 1, All-Time Series: Nebraska leads 3-2
This game will usher in a new era of football for Nebraska as it travels to Madison to play in its first ever Big Ten conference game. The corn-fed Big Red will have to face the dairy-fed Big Red in what could be a preview of the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. These look like the two most complete teams on paper as the play of Taylor Martinez against the JJ Watt-less Badger pass defense will be the deciding factor. These two Midwest powers have not been on the same field since 1974, when the Huskers topped the Badgers 21-20 in MadTown – which will be absolutely rocking for the visit from Bo Pelini and Company.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Huskers by 6
5. Oregon vs. LSU (Week 1, Arlington)
Sept. 3, All-Time Series: LSU leads 2-1
A berth in the BCS national championship game could be on the line in the palace in Arlington on the first Saturday of the season. These two have not met since 1977 and this game marks the first time they will meet outside of Baton Rouge. One of the nation’s best offenses will square off against what should be one of the nation’s top defenses. The deciding factor should be whether the Ducks’ reworked front seven can slow the power rushing attack of Spencer Ware and Michael Ford – or if Jordan Jefferson can complete key third-and-longs in the fourth quarter against one of the nation’s top secondaries. The LSU line of scrimmage will be too much for Oregon – who has struggled against big, powerful front lines in its last two losses (Auburn, Ohio State). Should the game be close, and each team runs the table following the meeting, a rematch in the BCS title game isn’t out of the question.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Tigers by 10
6. Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State (Week 14)
Dec. 3, All-Time Series: Oklahoma leads 81-17-7
Dan Beebe and the Big 12 had to highlight one game on Championship Saturday after losing its title game and The Bedlam Series was an easy choice. Not only will in-state bragging rights be on the line for the 105th time, but the Big 12 title could be at stake as well. Oklahoma State fancies itself as the prime contender to Oklahoma in the league and will have a chance to prove it on the final weekend of the regular season. The Sooners have won eight straight in the series including last year’s 47-41 that featured 967 yards of total offense and 725 combined passing yards. Landry Jones and Brandon Weeden combined for 105 pass attempts, six touchdowns and six interceptions. With the stellar offenses returning for both in 2011, fans can expect fireworks once again from the Bedlam Series.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Sooners by 3
7. Ohio State vs. Nebraska (Week 6)
Oct. 8, All-Time Series: Buckeyes lead 2-0
In what will be another first for Nebraska fans, Larry the Cable Guy and the rest of Husker nation will welcome the Buckeyes to Lincoln for the first time. It will also mark the return of the Tat-5 (or four) when Mike Adams, Boom Herron and DeVier Posey rejoin their teammates on the field. This too could be a preview of the Big Ten title game as the Buckeyes, despite the suspensions, are very much a contender in the Leaders Division. Quarterback play will be huge in this game as both teams should struggle to run the football against two solid front lines. Can ageless wonder Joe Bauserman or youngster Braxton Miller keep their composure in one of the most difficult places to play in the nation?
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Huskers by 3
8. South Carolina vs. Georgia (Week 2)
Sept. 10, All-Time Series: UGA leads 46-15-2
A trip to Atlanta is on the line in only the second weekend of action when these two SEC East contenders do battle Between the Hedges. The Dawgs have won six of the last eight over Carolina in Athens, but if Georgia expects to reverse last year’s loss to the Cocks, Todd Grantham’s defensive front will have to contain star tailback Marcus Lattimore. In only his second collegiate game a season ago, Lattimore carried the ball 37 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the tightly-played win This games always seems to be a low-scoring, blocked field goal type of game (other than ’09). Expect the same in 2011.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Dawgs by 1
9. Wisconsin vs. Ohio State (Week 9)
Oct. 29, All-Time Series: Ohio State leads 53-18-5
Ohio State won 21 straight meetings with the Badgers from 1960 to 1980. Since then, Wisconsin has held its own in the blossoming rivalry 11-14-1 in the 26 games since. In fact, the these two teams have split the last six, eight and 10 games played. But Ohio State has won the last two in Columbus in convincing fashion (at least on the scoreboard) 69-30. Russell Wilson will be playing in the most hostile environment of his career when he walks into the Shoe and will need his running game if he expects to leave Columbus with a win. However, the Bucks have totally stymied the Badgers’ potent rushing game in the last two meetings on the Banks of the Olentagy’s. Sconie has mustered only 130 yards on 81 carries in the two losses.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Buckeyes by 4
10. Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma (Week 10)
Nov. 5, All-Time Series: Oklahoma leads 18-11
Crimson and Cream faithful certainly have this one circled on the calendar this fall. Not only is Texas A&M one of, if not the, top contender to the Sooners’ title hopes, but they also are programa non grata in the Big 12 and upset OU in last year’s bout. The Aggies entered the fourth quarter with a narrow 19-17 lead before two big play touchdowns from Cyrus Gray and Ryan Swope broke open the game. Landry Jones was sacked four times as the Sooners were held in check on the ground. TAMU held Oklahoma to 72 yards rushing on 44 carries. Without Von Miller, the game moves to Norman with revenge on the mind of Bob Stoops.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Sooners by 10
11. Arkansas vs. Alabama (Week 4)
Sept. 24, All-Time Series: Bama leads 11-8
Since these two became divisional rivals the series has been nearly dead even with Bama owning a slight edge 9-8. But the Tide has won five of the last six meetings (technically, there were two wins vacated) and three straight at home against the Hogs. Arkansas will do battle all season without star running back Knile Davis, so Tyler Wilson’s performance will be even more critical. Bobby Petrino knows how to draw up ball plays and the Hogs have loads of firepower still left on offense. The key will be the new-look offensive line and how they fare against the Courtney Upshaws and Dont’a Hightowers of the world. A very stingy Arkansas front seven should make it difficult on whoever is under center for Bama. Home field advantage will be massive in this contest.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Bama by 7
11. Ohio State vs. Michigan (Week 13)
Nov. 26, All-Time Series: Michigan leads 57-43-6
The greatest rivalry in all of college football will be renewed for the 107th time when these two Midwest powers lock horns in the final week of the regular season. Despite the prestige, tradition and nostalgia created from watching the Maize and Blue battle with the Scarlet and Gray, this rivalry has been totally one-sided of late. Ohio State has won seven straight and nine of the last ten. Brady Hoke and Denard Robinson look to have Michigan pointed in the right direction and could be in a position to surprise in 2011. However, the Buckeyes should be too strong at the end of the season for Michigan to sneak-up on them. Michigan will beat OSU in the near future, it just isn’t likely to be in 2011.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Buckeyes by 7
13. Oklahoma vs. Texas (Week 6, Dallas)
Oct. 8, All-Time Series: Texas leads 59-41-5
The Red River Shootout doesn’t appear to have the same sex appeal as it has had over the last decade. This game has consistently been the best game in the league every season. However, after a 5-7 season from the Longhorns – and huge question marks looming along the offensive line and under center – this game losses some of its edge. But only some – this is still Texas-Oklahoma after all. Expect the Cotton Bowl to be rocking when these two bitter rivals square-off for the 105th time. Texas’ defense was the strength (if there was one) of this team last year, but DeMarco Murray rushed for 115 yards and two scores while Landry Jones tossed a pair of scores and protected the football in the 28-20 OU win. These two have split 2-2 over the last four years and the winner of the rivalry has gone on to win the Big 12 title each of the last three years. Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Sooners by 13
14. TCU vs. Boise State (Week 11)
Nov. 12, All-Time Series: Boise State leads 2-1
When the Horned Frogs head to the great northwest to do battle on the blue turf, it will mark the first time these two growing powers will face off in the regular season. All three meetings have taken place in bowl games with bragging rights on the line, however, Mountain West Conference supremacy will be on the line this time. The offensive and defensive lines from Boise have NFL talent and will certainly test the reworked TCU team that returns only six starters. Kellen Moore also owns a massive edge over Andy Dalton's replacement. Home field advantage will give one of the top two mid-major programs a chance at yet another BCS bowl.
Athlon's Very Early Prediction: Broncos by 7
15. USC vs. Oregon (Week 12)
Nov. 19, All-Time Series: USC leads 37-18-2
This game should have been one of two potential Pac-12 championship game previews. USC is the best team in the South but will not be allowed to play in the inaugural conference title bout. That doesn’t really affect the players on the field, however, as these are arguably the most talent-laden rosters in the conference. Despite being dominated for the better part of the century, Oregon has reestablished its home field advantage in this budding rivalry, winning five of the last seven meetings in Eugene. The Ducks have also won three of the last four overall reunions, including a 53–32 shellacking in 2010.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Ducks by 7
16. Alabama vs. Auburn (Week 13)
Nov. 26, All-Time Series: Bama leads 40-34-1
The Iron Bowl is one of the single greatest football games of the season each and every year. And while the 2011 edition might lack the national appeal of last season’s unbelievable come-from-behind Tigers victory, there will be no loved lost come November 26. Auburn will be a shell of its former self with a completely replaced offensive line and defensive unit. Oh, and Cam Newton isn’t around either. While there is loads of young potential running around the Plains – that will most assuredly be game tested by Week 13 – Alabama has too much veteran talent to miss an opportunity at payback. Especially when a BCS national championship could be at stake.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Bama by 17
17. Arkansas vs. LSU (Week 13)
Nov. 25, All-Time Series: LSU leads 34-20-2
Arkansas has taken three of the last four from LSU, including a thrilling 50-48 win in Baton Rouge over the eventual National Champions in 2007. It is the Hogs only win in its last eight trips to the Bayou. An outstanding Arkansas front seven will be put to the test as the Tigers will look to pound the rock early and often. The battle for control of the line of scrimmage will either make Jordan Jefferson’s job much easier or much more difficult. Should Arkansas win that match-up, Tyler Wilson and the excellent talent around him will have to make plays down the field. The Hogs should have the holes on the offensive line plugged by then, but picking up yards on the ground against LSU sans Knile Davis will be a difficult task.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: LSU by 3
18. Notre Dame vs. Stanford (Week 13)
Nov. 26, All-Time Series: Notre Dame leads 17-8
This game has a chance to dramatically impact the overall national title landscape in the penultimate week of the regular season. This could be the only contest in which Notre Dame is not favored, and both teams could enter this arena unblemished. Even if both have dropped a game or two elsewhere, an at-large BCS bowl bid will likely be on the line. The Irish front seven showed massive improvement in the final month of 2010 and will be tested by one of the most physical running games in the nation. On the flip side, it could be an absolute treat to watch Dayne Crist (or whoever is running the Brian Kelly attack) square off with Andrew Luck, the best player in the nation.Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Cardinal by 6
19. Michigan State vs. Nebraska (Week 9)
Oct. 29, All-Time Series: Nebraksa leads 5-0
The Spartans are still looking for their first ever win over Nebraska, and with one in 2011, they could find themselves playing in December in Indianapolis. After a nearly unblemished 2010, Sparty fancies itself as the primary contender in the Big Ten Legends Division and has no desire to let the new kid win it all. The sledding will be tough for Michigan State despite the outstanding skill talent it possesses on offense. There are 39 starts gone from the offensive line and the new faces will be put to the test against Jared Crick and the All-American Husker front seven. The last meeting between the two took place in the Alamo Bowl in 2003 and Nebraska has outscored Michigan State 181-34 in the five meetings with an average margin of victory just under 30 points.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Huskers by 4
20. Oklahoma State vs. Texas A&M (Week 4)
Sept. 24, All-Time Series: TAMU leads 17-9
The right to challenge the Oklahoma Sooners for conference supremacy should be on the line when these two explosive offenses take the field in late September. The Pokes have won three straight in this series, including an edge-of-the-seat three-point win as time expired last fall. However, this game is in College Station and Jerrod Johnson – and his four interceptions – won’t be under center. Despite passing for 409 yards and five touchdowns against OSU last fall, Johnson lost his starting job shortly thereafter, giving way to Ryan Tannehill. This game could have been dramatically different had it been played after the switch at quarterback.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Aggies by 3
21. Boise State vs. Georgia (Week 1, Atlanta)
Sept. 3, All-Time Series: UGA leads 1-0
There will be plenty on the table on kickoff weekend when Boise State travels to Atlanta to take on the Dawgs. A potential undefeated season for the Broncos will be at stake while Georgia has to get the bad taste of 2010 out of its mouth before taking on rival South Carolina the following weekend. Two of the nation’s best gunslingers should be on full display with Kellen Moore and Aaron Murray going head-to-head. Georgia will have to show marked improvement in its front seven if it expects to slow down what is an NFL offensive line from Idaho. History is on the Dawgs side as the only other time Boise ventured into Georgia, Jared Zabransky threw five interceptions and UGA won 48-13. That was in Athens and didn’t feature Chris Petersen, however. Expect a much stronger showing from these blue stallions as Peterson has been deadly when given seven months to prepare.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Broncos by 3
22. South Carolina vs. Arkansas (Week 10)
Nov. 5, All-Time Series: Arkansas leads 12-7
This will be the third in a brutal late season road swing for the Gamecocks. After visiting Mississippi State and Tennessee the previous two games, Steve Spurrier will have to have his team prepped for another nasty environment in Fayetteville. Especially after getting torched by Ryan Mallett and company in Columbia a season ago. Stephon Gilmore and the USC secondary will have to play better against Tyler Wilson than it did against Mallett – who completed 21 of 30 passes for 303 yards and a score in the 40-21 drubbing. Quarterback Stephen Garcia (14 of 29, 161 yards, TD, 2 INT) and running back Marcus Lattimore (11 carries, 30 yards) will have to be at their best if they expect to win on the road for the third straight game.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Hogs by 7
23. Florida vs. Georgia (Week 9, Jacksonville)
Oct. 29, All-Time Series: UGA leads 46-40-2
In one of the more exciting football games of the season, the Gators topped the Dawgs 34-31 in overtime last fall. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party should be just as intense in 2011. Murray set a career high with his first 300-yard passing game (313) and tied his career best with three touchdown tosses. He also set a career mark with three interceptions (he had eight total in 2010). Georgia will have to play better in the first three quarters of this one if it expects to get to Atlanta in December. Murray led UGA to three fourth quarter touchdowns to pull even before Florida kicked the game winner in overtime. The fireworks should be on display once again in Jacksonville.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Dawgs by 4
24. Iowa vs. Nebraska (Week 13)
Nov. 25, All-Time Series: Nebraska leads 26-12-3
These two heartland powers really haven’t met since World War II. The border rivals met regularly during the World War I era as well as in the 30s and 40s, but have played only six times since 1946. The renewal of what is now an intra-divisional rivalry could provide a berth into the Big Ten title game. The whole ear of corn, so to speak, could be on the line in the season finale in Lincoln. The Hawkeye offense, despite losing leader Ricky Stanzi, shouldn’t miss a beat under James Vandenberg. And even though Kirk Ferentz must replace most of his starting defense, one would assume that by Week 13, this group will once again be a hard-hitting, stingy unit. Home-field advantage is the deciding factor in this one.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Huskers by 3
25. Alabama vs. Florida (Week 5)
Oct. 1, All-Time Series: Bama leads 21-14
Seven of the last 12 meetings between these two national powers have come in the Atlanta with the SEC crown hanging in the balance. While this bout in the Swamp may not have SEC title implication, it certainly could have BCS bowl repercussions. Florida will feature a totally reworked coaching staff and offensive game plan. The Gators will need it after the 31-6 undressing at the hands of the Tide last fall in Tuscaloosa. This Florida team should be improved and hosting the game certainly helps. But if Will Muschamp expects to pull the upset, his uber-talented yet very young defensive front line will have to control the line of scrimmage.
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Bama by 7
26. Pitt vs. West Virginia (Week 13)
Nov. 25, All-Time Series: Pitt leads 61-39-3
27. USC vs. Arizona State (Week 13)
Sept. 24, All-Time Series: USC leads 17-9
28. West Virginia vs. South Florida (Week 14)
Dec. 1, All-Time Series: Tied 3-3
29. Florida vs. South Carolina (Week 11)
Nov. 12, All-Time Series: Florida leads 23-5-3
30. Florida vs. LSU (Week 6)
Oct. 8, All-Time Series: Florida leads 30-24-3
31. Michigan State vs. Ohio State (Week 5)
Oct. 1, All-Time Series: Ohio State leads 27-12
32. Wisconsin vs. Michigan State (Week 8)
Oct. 22, All-Time Series: MSU leads 28-21
33. Notre Dame vs. Michigan (Week 2)
Sept. 10, All-Time Series: Michigan leads 22-15-1
34. USC vs. Notre Dame (Week 8)
Oct. 22, All-Time Series: Notre Dame leads 43-33-5
35. Nebraska vs. Penn State (Week 11)
Nov. 12, All-Time Series: PSU leads 7-6
36. Miami, Fla. vs. Virginia Tech (Week 6)
Oct. 8, All-Time Series: Miami leads 17-11
37. Florida State vs. Florida (Week 13)
Nov. 26, All-Time Series: Florida leads 33-20-2
38. Miami, Fla. vs. Florida State (Week 11)
Nov. 12, All-Time Series: Miami leads 31-24
39. Nebraska vs. Michigan (Week 12)
Nov. 19, All-Time Series: Michigan leads 3-2-1
40. Oregon State vs. Oregon (Week 13)
Nov. 26, All-Time Series: Oregon leads 58-46-10
41. Missouri vs. Oklahoma (Week 4)
Sept. 24, All-Time Series: Oklahoma leads 65-25-5
42. Oklahoma State vs. Missouri (Week 8)
Oct. 22, All-Time Series: Okie State leads 28-22
43. Stanford vs. USC (Week 9)
Oct. 29, All-Time Series: USC leads 58-27-3
44. Missouri vs. Texas A&M (Week 9)
Oct. 29, All-Time Series: TAMU leads 7-4
45. BYU vs. TCU (Week 9, Arlington)
Oct. 28, All-Time Series: Tied 5-5
46. Florida State vs. Clemson (Week 4)
Sept. 24, All-Time Series: Florida State leads 17-7
47. LSU vs. West Virginia (Week 4)
Sept. 24, All-Time Series: LSU leads 1-0
48. Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Week 5, Arlington)
Oct. 1, All-Time Series: Arkansas leads 40-24-3
49. Utah vs. BYU (Week 3)
Sept. 17, All-Time Series: Utah leads 51-31-4
50. Arizona State vs. Utah (Week 6)
Oct. 8, All-Time Series: Arizona State leads 16-6