Sam Darnold and USC will play Stanford, Texas and Washington State in the first month of the season
The college football season is almost upon us and while it may technically start in late August, it’s the month of September that is the heart of the action on the gridiron. Featuring the bulk of the non-conference matchups and several compelling conference openers, it doesn’t get much better than this slate after a long offseason without the sport.
What games are absolutely worth marking the calendar for? Here are 20 of the best college football games during the month of September and why you should tune in:
1. Florida State vs. Alabama (Sept. 2 — Atlanta)
This top-five battle between heavyweights has a little something for everybody. The NFL scouts will no doubt love the ridiculous amount of talent that will take the field on both sides while college football fans will delight in two of the most successful programs in the country clashing to begin the year. It’s safe to say this one will feature prominently in College Football Playoff discussions down the road.
2. Oklahoma at Ohio State (Sept. 2)
This was a highlight meeting between two blue bloods last year and the return game in Columbus should be even better this time around with many of the same faces. The Horseshoe figures to be extra loud to welcome the Sooners to town and it’s no stretch to say that the victorious side could not only see a clear path to the final four, but the winning quarterback also could become the prohibitive favorite for the Heisman.
3. Texas at USC (Sept. 16)
Hard to believe that epic national championship game at the Rose Bowl was 11 years ago but this rematch a decade later features plenty of college football stars, incredible athletes and pedigreed coaches all the same. The headliner will be Trojans’ QB Sam Darnold hitting the big stage again but don’t discount Tom Herman’s squad making things interesting out west all the same.
4. Auburn at Clemson (Sept. 9)
The title defense in Clemson starts here with a big test from a re-tooled Auburn team that is eyeing the SEC title in 2017. There are playmakers all over the field for both sides but don’t be shocked if this meeting of Tigers is a defensive battle like it was last year on the Plains.
5. Miami at Florida State (Sept. 16)
This bitter rivalry game has been extremely competitive the past three seasons no matter the venue and that is likely to be the case once again this year. The Hurricanes will sport their most talented squad in ages for the trip to Tallahassee while the Seminoles have designs on another national title run. Either way, this one will be pivotal for each side’s divisional hopes in the ACC.
6. Stanford at USC (Sept. 9)
These two Pac-12 heavyweights have kicked off conference play in style with some epic clashes over the years and that very well should be the case again when they meet at the Coliseum in Week 2. While the Cardinal may be a little tired from their trip to Australia before this one, they’ll be bracing for the Trojans’ best shot as they try to end Stanford’s three-game winning streak in this battle between NorCal and SoCal powers.
7. Boise State at Washington State (Sept. 9)
The Broncos could once again assume the mantle as the Group of 5 team to beat this year if they can head next door to knock off a very talented Mike Leach team on the Palouse. The Cougars won’t be easy to top though, as they feature one of the best offensive lines in college football and will put up points and yards a plenty with Luke Falk at quarterback.
8. Georgia at Notre Dame (Sept. 9)
Fans of a certain age will recall these two programs clashing in the Sugar Bowl with a national title at stake (the Bulldogs won, back in 1981). There may not be that much at stake come 2017 but each side will be looking to get a victory in order to live up to high expectations this season. This will be one tough ticket to get in South Bend as SEC teams hardly ever venture into the shadow of Touchdown Jesus.
9. Clemson at Louisville (Sept. 16)
The ACC game of the year last season wasn’t Clemson against FSU (as it had been for several years) but this matchup down in Death Valley. Lamar Jackson was heroic in a near upset that helped him win the Heisman and will no doubt be out for a little revenge when the defending champs make the trek to Louisville this time around.
10. USC at Washington State (Sept. 29)
The Trojans’ early schedule is not for the faint of heart and that includes their trickiest road trip of the year up in Pullman to face off against a dangerous Wazzu squad. The quarterback battle between Sam Darnold and Luke Falk is easily worth the price of admission for this one.
11. Stanford at San Diego State (Sept. 16)
This is a sneaky West Coast tilt between one of the Pac-12’s top teams and the Mountain West favorite. While this matchup came one year too late to see Christian McCaffrey against Donnel Pumphrey, there’s still plenty of intrigue around this California non-conference game that could help the Aztecs’ case if they want the Group of 5 New Year’s Six bid this year.
12. Michigan vs. Florida (Sept. 2 — Arlington, TX)
The Gators rarely venture outside the Swamp for a non-conference game so this one is special simply in that respect. But add in that it’s against a powerhouse like Michigan under the lights at JerryWorld and this Harbaugh vs. McElwain meeting is as interesting as they come and a true toss-up between teams.
13. TCU at Arkansas (Sept. 9)
These two old SWC rivals renewed their series with a thrilling double-OT game that was as wild as they came last season. What can they do for an encore? We’ll find out in Fayetteville in this key non-conference game for both sides looking to make a leap in the win column.
14. Utah at BYU (Sept. 16)
The aptly named “Holy War” is one of the fiercest rivalries in the country and can split households right down the middle in the state of Utah. There have been quite a few fluke plays that have come to become a hallmark of this series and it wouldn’t surprise anybody if another came at a pivotal moment in this year’s edition.
15. Texas A&M at UCLA (Sept. 3)
Both teams enter on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of record for this season opener but there’s little doubt that each head coach desperately needs a win on the Sunday stage to cool off his hot seat. The return of QB Josh Rosen in a new-look Bruins offense will be interesting to watch as they try to out-duel the Aggies in the Rose Bowl.
16. Clemson at Virginia Tech (Sept. 30)
Conference title game rematches are always worth tuning in for but this year’s meeting between ACC division winners is worth watching because of all the new faces on both offenses. Given how good the defenses are likely to be, this one might be a feature fewer points than when the Hokies and Tigers met in Orlando last December.
17. Pitt at Penn State (Sept. 9)
The Nittany Lions may have finished the season as the Big Ten champs but they won’t forget their close loss to their in-state rival early in last year’s campaign. This will be the Panthers’ first trip to Happy Valley since 1999 so you can bet there will be a hostile environment awaiting them for a payback game.
18. Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia (Sept. 3 - Landover, MD)
The Sunday night games during opening weekend have given us some thrillers in the past and there’s no reason to think that won’t be the case when these two former Big East rivals hook up once again. This matchup will be the first time the two Appalachian programs have met since 2005 and likely will be a season-defining game for both at FedEx Field.
19. Ole Miss at Alabama (Sept. 30)
The Rebels’ SEC opener was already interesting enough given the team’s success against Alabama in recent years but the dismissal of head coach Hugh Freeze and the existence of a bowl ban for the team only adds to the intrigue. Ole Miss won in its last visit to Tuscaloosa and you can bet that Nick Saban will remind his team of just that when they take the field.
20. Navy at FAU (Sept.1)
Lane Kiffin’s debut as head coach of the Owls is fascinating no matter how you slice it. Add in Navy’s fun triple-option offense, a host of former “Last Chance U” and Power 5 players on the FAU roster, and this AAC-CUSA battle will be worth staying up for in Boca.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.