Labor Day weekend cookouts and the kickoff of a new college football season signal the transition from summer to autumn. It's an American tradition as quintessential as the changing of the leaves.
College football has the most important regular season, in part because it's the shortest. Each weekend is crucial, beginning from the opener on Labor Day weekend, through the rivalry games of Thanksgiving weekend.
With September upon us, there are no shortage of games with championship implications. Great contests across and in conferences punctuate the first month of the 2018 season.
1. Auburn vs. Washington (Sept. 1 in Atlanta)
Week 1 kicks off with a potential College Football Playoff-impacting contest. Were it not for a loss in this same venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Auburn would have been in the playoff in 2017. Washington reached the final four in 2016, but lost here in Atlanta.
Shaking that recent Atlanta curse will have the winner on the inside track to the championship tournament. It won't come easy: Gus Malzahn and Chris Petersen both have legitimate contenders. The talent-rich defenses on both sides suggest a hard-hitting, old-school affair.
2. Ohio State vs. TCU (Sept. 15 in Arlington, Texas)
The turmoil of Ohio State's past month comes to a head in Week 3, the final of coach Urban Meyer's current three-game suspension. The Buckeyes are ostensibly on the road in their final contest with Meyer on the sideline; it's officially a neutral-site game, but one could practically throw a football from Amon G. Carter Stadium to AT&T Stadium.
TCU has a prime opportunity to again position itself for the playoff bid that has eluded the Horned Frogs in 2014 and '17.
3. Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 1)
An old rivalry renews for the first time since 2013. With both Michigan and Notre Dame harboring realistic (if not apprehensive) playoff aspirations, this should have the feel of an old Wolverines vs. Fighting Irish clash. Of course, given recent results for both programs, a Week 1 loss surely will inspire plenty of angst.
Notre Dame and Michigan are similarly constructed teams, building off excellent defenses: Notre Dame featuring Jerry Tillery and Khalid Kareem, Michigan with Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary. The determining factor may well come down to quarterback play. Notre Dame returns Brandon Wimbush, though head coach Brian Kelly has not yet named him the Week 1 starter. Michigan introduces Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, hopefully settling a years-long carousel that has spun at Michigan consistently since Denard Robinson's departure.
4. Ohio State at Penn State (Sept. 29)
The Big Ten East is a gauntlet in 2018, featuring four teams with legitimate national title aspirations. Two of them are Ohio State and Penn State.
The division essentially came down to the past two meetings between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, with the two splitting decisions in a pair of memorable games. Last season's Ohio State rally adds an element of revenge for Penn State this time around.
5. USC at Texas (Sept. 15)
The 11-year wait for a rematch of the epic 2006 Rose Bowl Game proved worth it when, last season, USC and Texas went to overtime in Los Angeles. Sam Darnold engineered an end-of-regulation drive to negate Texas' only lead of the night and force extra frames; Darnold's done, but much of an impressive Texas defense returns.
USC's visit could be pivotal for both teams. Texas needs a signature win as a confidence builder ahead of Big 12 play. The Trojans could be looking at two consecutive losses, depending how the prior week at Stanford unfolds. This will be a major test of the mettle of young USC quarterback JT Daniels.
6. Virginia Tech at Florida State (Sept. 3)
To label the 2017 season a disappointment for Florida State would be an understatement. The Seminoles kicked off against Alabama harboring very realistic national championship aspirations, only to see quarterback Deondre Francois go down with an injury that set the tone in a near-disastrous campaign. The Seminoles' almost four-decade run of above-.500 finishes and bowl games nearly snapped, only being saved when an early-season cancellation against ULM was rescheduled for championship week.
That near-miss of an unprecedented moment in Seminoles history followed a truly landmark one: Jimbo Fisher's departure for Texas A&M left a head coaching vacancy for the first time in almost 40 years (Fisher succeeded Bobby Bowden as a coach-in-waiting). With Willie Taggart taking on the rare vacancy, Florida State has renewed energy; the return of Francois; and a Top 20 ranking in time for a marquee ACC showdown.
Virginia Tech has been almost as consistent as Florida State for almost as long. Justin Fuente transitioned well into the post legendary Frank Beamer left, introducing his own offensive flair to mesh with the stingy Hokies defense. The winner here takes an immediate pole position in the deep ACC.
7. Georgia at South Carolina (Sept. 8)
For a period earlier this decade, the early-season showdown between Georgia and South Carolina shaped the complexion of the SEC East for the entire campaign. Such high stakes may well return in 2018, with a Bulldogs squad that came a few plays shy of a national championship going on the road against arguably the greatest overachiever in the SEC a season ago.
Quarterback Jake Bentley leads an experienced Gamecocks side under head coach Will Muschamp. Building off last year's surprise second-place finish in the division could translate into upset against the defending SEC champion.
8. Washington at Utah (Sept. 15)
A potential preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game kicks off the conference slate for both Utah and Washington. These are two of the hardest-hitting teams in the conference, so this late-summer matchup should have all the feel of a late-November brawl.
Utah has come oh-so-close to knocking off Washington in each of the past two seasons. With head coach Kyle Whittingham overseeing what should be his best all-around team since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes might finally be able to get over the hump against the conference favorite Huskies.
9. Miami vs. LSU (Sept 2 in Arlington, Texas)
The 2018 edition of the Cowboys Classic gets the college football spotlight all to itself on the Sunday before Labor Day. Miami aims to build off a breakout 2017 in which Hurricanes alum Mark Richt coached his alma mater to its first New Year's Six/BCS bowl game since the '03 season.
Miami's bevy of talent on both sides of the ball have some thinking national championship. LSU is talented in its own right, but an offseason with a multitude of changes speaks to the tenuous nature of this program. Ed Orgeron needs to silence critics if he's long for Baton Rouge.
10. USC at Stanford (Sept. 8)
Arguably the premier rivalry in the Pac-12 over the past decade, the Trojans and Cardinal meet for the third time in 12 months. USC won both matchups in the 2017 season, including December's Pac-12 Championship Game. However, a large-scale rebuild of the Trojans' offense will still be in its initial phases when USC visits a veteran-heavy Stanford bunch down on the Farm.
On the flip side, Stanford returning with Bryce Love running behind an impressive offensive line clashes with what might be the most talented defense in the Pac-12.
11. Stanford at Notre Dame (Sept. 29)
Stanford's bear of a first month concludes with its annual cross-country rivalry matchup against Notre Dame. This series has taken some fascinating turns in recent years, with a national championship implications (2012 and '15 stand out, with Notre Dame ostensibly denying Stanford a shot at the BCS National Championship Game in the former, and the Cardinal keeping the Fighting Irish out of the playoff in the latter).
Both Stanford and Notre Dame could be in the championship conversation again this time around. The month leading up to Stanford's visit to South Bend will determine the Cardinal's positioning; three of their games appear in this ranking, and the only reason a fourth does not (Friday vs. San Diego State) is that it's Aug. 31.
Last year's wild second half saw Stanford take control in a torrid few minutes, which also functioned as the national coming-out party for quarterback K.J. Costello.
12. Oklahoma at Iowa State (Sept. 15)
One of the greatest shocks in a 2017 season filled with the unexpected was Iowa State's upset of Oklahoma. The Cyclones planted their flag in Norman, in the process announcing that head coach Matt Campbell has Iowa State positioned to contend in the Big 12.
The Sooners come to Ames this year with revenge in mind, but the Cyclones have an opportunity to become surprise, early front-runners in what should be a wide-open Big 12 race.
13. FAU at UCF (Sept. 21)
Both FAU and UCF occupied prominent places under the college football spotlight in 2017. The Knights' run to an undefeated finish, including a win over SEC West champion Auburn in the Peach Bowl, prompted an offseason-long debate about the place of Group of 5 programs in the College Football Playoff landscape.
Meanwhile, FAU gained national attention for its 11-win finish under the unique leadership of head coach Lane Kiffin. While Kiffin's social media presence and offense-friendly coaching approach generated much of the chatter, fact is FAU was loaded with talent; a lot of it returns, including standout running back Devin Singletary. UCF counters on its end with McKenzie Milton, one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the nation.
14. Boise State at Troy (Sept. 1)
Boise State's the perennial benchmark for non-power conference programs; a yearly winner and regular fixture of the AP Top 25. The Broncos are a popular choice for the Group of 5's bid into the New Year's Six bowl, and with good reason. Head coach Bryan Harsin returns an impressive defense and a high-potential offense with quarterback Brett Rypien.
Quietly, however, head coach Neal Brown's established a winner at Troy, building off the foundation of legendary coach Larry Blakeney. Troy won a share of the Sun Belt Conference in 2017, and among its 11 wins was a victory at LSU. While the Sun Belt has an uphill battle to contend for the New Year's Six bid, Troy's success the past two seasons and a Week 1 victory over Boise State could vault the Trojans into the conversation.
15. Stanford at Oregon (Sept. 22)
Oregon should roll to a 3-0 start against one of the softest non-conference schedules in the country. That should give the Ducks ample time to get acclimated to first-year head coach Mario Cristobal and gain confidence in the renewal of a recent rivalry.
From 2009-15, the champion of the Pac-12 always came from this series. With Justin Herbert at quarterback and a dramatically improved defense, Oregon may have the pieces to again make this a de facto divisional title game.
16. Mississippi State at Kansas State (Sept. 8)
Mississippi State comes into 2018 with plenty of excitement. Former Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen built a solid foundation, and new head coach Joe Moorhead -- a proven offensive mastermind in his time at Fordham and Penn State -- inherits a roster rich with playmakers.
Mississippi State could be a dark-horse contender in the SEC West, but first it must escape from Manhattan. Kansas State promises a typical Bill Snyder-coached style that's hard-nosed on defense and grinding on offense. This clash of styles marks a huge opportunity for the Wildcats to roll into the 2018 Big 12 schedule.
17. Boise State at Oklahoma State (Sept. 15)
Boise State's reputation as a national powerhouse really came together in the late 2000s and early 2010s with non-conference wins over power-conference opponents like Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia. The Broncos nearly scored another such victory last season, but lost to Washington State in a wild, overtime shootout.
Boise State's Week 3 visit to Oklahoma State could take on a similar look. Mike Gundy's teams love to attack aggressively on the offensive end, juxtaposing the turnover-generating style the Broncos employ on defense.
18. Arizona at Houston (Sept. 8)
Two of the most intriguing preseason Heisman Trophy dark-horse candidates will face off -- and not in the usual sense, with two offensive players never sharing the field for a single snap. Khalil Tate vs. Ed Oliver is a very real sub-plot to the already exciting return of Kevin Sumlin to Houston.
19. West Virginia at Texas Tech (Sept. 29)
No Big 12 team travels further in conference play when West Virginia and Texas Tech meet. Perhaps the change of scenery, and definitely the shared offensive philosophies, make for combustible possibilities when these programs square off.
Last year's installment in Morgantown was certainly wild, with the Mountaineers using a 22-point fourth-quarter rally to win. That will stick with Kliff Kingsbury's Red Raiders in a game West Virginia needs to establish itself as a legitimate Big 12 contender.
20. Clemson at Texas A&M (Sept. 8)
New Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher sees a familiar foe early into his tenure, with former ACC Atlantic division rival Clemson, led by Dabo Swinney, bringing a national championship-caliber squad into College Station.
Clemson's stacked defensive line faces a new-look Texas A&M offense. The Aggies are shrouded in enough secrecy, and Fisher's familiarity with Swinney and Co., could make this otherwise seeming mismatch a prime upset candidate. Oh, and don't forget the 100,000-plus screaming Aggie fans, making Kyle Field as inhospitable as possible for the Tigers.