College football returns for its 150th season, and the sport commemorates its birthday with a loaded first month. Week 1 begins in August, so Athlon Sports' breakdown of September's most exciting games includes contests from the eighth month. But hey, who doesn't love celebrating their birthday a little early?
High-stakes non-conference games and early, yet pivotal league matchups define the season's first five weeks. Home-and-home series make something of a triumphant return, as some of the month's best games indicate. The potential for overreactions is plentiful as summer transitions to fall.
1. Notre Dame at Georgia (Sept. 21)
If the second half of this home-and-home series lives up to the first, Georgia and Notre Dame will produce a Game of the Year contender. Two of college football's most high-profile programs went down to the wire under the watchful eye of Touchdown Jesus two years ago, and last year, their supporters battled it out over social media for the claim to a College Football Playoff berth. Each has been to the final four in the past two seasons, and the winner could emerge as an early front-runner to do so again in 2019.
2. Auburn vs. Oregon (Aug. 31 in Arlington, Texas)
It's an all-too-rare SEC vs. Pac-12 showdown, emanating from Texas as Auburn and Oregon square off in Week 1's most high-profile game. Oregon comes into 2019 with high expectations and maybe the best offensive line in the nation — we'll know just how good that front is when it faces the talented Auburn defensive line, though. This game also features an interesting juxtaposition at quarterback, with Oregon's veteran leader Justin Herbert behind center on one side, and true freshman Bo Nix debuting on the other.
3. Texas A&M at Clemson (Sept. 7)
The 2018 meeting in College Station provided an instant classic. Fast-forward a year, and Clemson is the reigning national champion, while Jimbo Fisher's second season kicks off with Texas A&M generating some not-insignificant buzz as a potential party crasher out of the SEC. The Aggies' championship chops get an immediate test against the Tigers, who replace one of the most talented defensive lines in college football history but return a wealth of talent on offense.
4. LSU at Texas (Sept. 7)
An impressive performance against Georgia in January's Sugar Bowl began anew the common refrain, which many have been singing for the better part of the last decade: Texas is back! Returning a high-profile quarterback in Sam Ehlinger has helped fuel the excitement for the Longhorns after a 10-win campaign, but head coach Tom Herman must replace six starters on offense and eight on defense. That new-look starting rotation gets a stiff test at home Week 2 against an opponent with playoff aspirations in its own right, LSU. The Tigers return eight starters each on offense and defense from a team that won the Fiesta Bowl, including star pass rushers Michael Divinity and Rashard Lawrence.
5. Iowa at Iowa State (Sept. 14)
In-state rivals Iowa and Iowa State both enter 2019 ranked and each with realistic designs on conference championships. The buzz following the Cyclones, however, is a tad louder than that around Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes. While it has no bearing on a league title, the CyHawk Trophy is an important marker of Iowa State's growth under coach Matt Campbell — largely because the Cyclones have yet to win it in his tenure.
6. Ohio State at Nebraska (Sept. 28)
Defending Big Ten champion Ohio State won a handful of heart-stopping games en route to the Rose Bowl in 2018. Conversely, Nebraska's debut season with alum Scott Frost back in Lincoln was rife with near-misses. The gap between finishing the season in Pasadena and spending the holidays at home with a losing record is a narrow one, which puts this rematch of one such game for both teams in the spotlight. Ohio State escaped the Cornhuskers at home last season, 36-31, but replaces a bevy of talent from that offense. Nebraska, meanwhile, returns the core of a young lineup. A not-insignificant portion of the college football punditry projects this as a Big Ten Championship Game preview.
7. Clemson at Syracuse (Sept. 14)
Clemson follows a high-profile non-conference affair with an intriguing ACC road game. Syracuse has been the Tigers' gravest, regular-season threat each of the past two seasons, winning in 2017 and taking the Tigers to the wire last year in Death Valley. Dino Babers returns playmakers on both sides of the ball, and the Orange boast an intimidating, home-field advantage in the Dome.
8. Oregon at Stanford (Sept. 21)
Quite honestly, one-fifth of this ranking could focus exclusively on Stanford. The Cardinal play a brutal schedule that's especially intense in the first month. Defending Big Ten West and Holiday Bowl champ Northwestern in Week 1, a trip to rival USC in Week 2, trekking across the nation to play a rare road game at a Group of 5 opponent — THE Group of 5 opponent, UCF, all leads all lead up to a Pac-12 North heavyweight showdown with Oregon. Depending on how Week 1 goes for the Ducks, Stanford's greatest challenger in the division for most of the last decade might be in the way-too-early playoff discussion when they visit the Farm. That translates to a national spotlight on this one, akin to last year, when Stanford stole a shocker in Eugene.
9. Auburn at Texas A&M (Sept. 21)
Depending on how developments in prior weeks unfold, this SEC West showdown could be a battle of top-10-ranked teams, or a fight to avoid two-loss holes early in the season. Either way, the stakes are raised in this meeting of head coaches who first squared off on opposing sidelines of a memorable national championship game. Auburn won last season's matchup, rallying with a pair of touchdowns in the game's final 5:14, overcoming a brutal 19-yard rushing performance on the day.
10. Michigan at Wisconsin (Sept. 14)
Michigan poured 31 consecutive points on the Badgers in last season's win at the Big House. Better believe that memory lingers with Wisconsin in 2019, as it gets the Wolverines at Camp Randall this time. Michigan's reloaded front seven against the best running back in the nation, Jonathan Taylor, makes this a quintessential Big Ten contest. With both the Big Ten East and West expected to be multi-team races in 2019, this also sets an important tone early in the league slate.
11. Stanford at UCF (Sept. 14)
A point of some debate and plenty of contention this offseason centers around UCF's scheduling philosophy. After twice running the table in the regular season, the Knights want to be treated like a Power 5 program, which means not scheduling two-for-ones with the power-broker conferences. Few Power 5 programs will take such a dive; Stanford's an exception. The Cardinal played San Diego State on the road two seasons ago and now go across the country to face the Knights, looking to hand them a rare regular-season loss. The usually stout Stanford defense is undergoing some changes heading into 2019, however. And with this one sandwiched between two rivalry contests, the Cardinal face the preeminent Group of 5 program of the last few years in a precarious spot.
12. Washington State at Utah (Sept. 28)
You'd be hard-pressed to find two more opposite programs in the same conference than Utah and Washington State, starting with head coaches Kyle Whittingham and Mike Leach. Washington State's style has gotten the better of Utah repeatedly in recent years: last season's 28-24 win marked the Cougars' fourth straight in the series, all by 12 points or fewer. With Utah a trendy pick to win the Pac-12, and Washington State a perennial overachiever, the pressure is on the Utes to protect Rice-Eccels Stadium.
13. Boise State vs. Florida State (Aug. 31 in Jacksonville, Fla.)
Boise State solidified its giant killer reputation in the latter days of the BCS era by playing power-conference opponents in neutral-field contests that were de facto road games. The 2019 opener follows that formula. A Boise State team with a salty defense and front-runner status ahead of the Mountain West Conference season can make a statement against a national brand name, though the pressure may be more on Florida State in this one. The Seminoles need to show significant improvement after the rough first season coach Willie Taggart endured. The offensive line, in particular, needs vast improvement, but Boise State's the kind of opponent built to exploit such a weakness. [Editor's note: The pending arrival of Hurricane Dorian could impact the start time of this game or result in it being postponed altogether.]
14. Army at Michigan (Sept. 7)
Just how legitimate of a threat is Army against a playoff aspirant, Power 5 opponent? Just ask Oklahoma, which nearly had its run to the final four derailed by the Black Knights last season. Army's 11-2 2018 campaign was no fluke, as the program's steadily built under head coach Jeff Monken. The Black Knights' triple-option attack frustrates opposing defenses with lengthy, time-consuming drives, and savvy operation from quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. The short turnaround time for Michigan before facing it complicates the process.
15. Utah at USC (Sept. 20)
Historically, USC has not been the program synonymous with playing spoiler. But in 2018, on a Friday night in September, the Trojans did exactly that. Their win over Washington State ostensibly denied the Cougars a Pac-12 North title, and possible opportunity at the College Football Playoff. The Trojans draw another team with a potential playoff forecast on the same weekend, again on a Friday night, when Utah comes to town. The Utes' woes at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum are longstanding; they're winless at the venue since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
16. Michigan State at Northwestern (Sept. 21)
Michigan State is the Big Ten East's perennial sleeper; the team that may not excite outsiders with its defensive-minded approach, but it's effective. The Spartans have the pieces, particularly on defense, to emerge from a top-heavy divisional race. And just about every description that applies to Michigan State can also be applied to Northwestern. What's more, the Wildcats' dangerous dark-horse status shines through more against one opponent than any other in recent years: Michigan State. Last year's 29-19 win was key in Northwestern advancing to the Big Ten Championship Game and extending the Wildcats' win streak over the Spartans to three games.
17. Washington State vs. Houston (Sept. 13, at NRG Stadium)
Dana Holgorsen's return to Houston is marked with a tough non-conference schedule, pitting the Cougars against some high-scoring offenses. Maybe the most interesting is a Friday the 13th showdown with Mike Leach's Cougars from the Pacific Northwest. Holgorsen is a product of the Leach coaching tree, having deployed the air raid at such programs as Houston, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia. He's back at Houston with the personnel and the history to get it rolling immediately, just in time for a visit for a Top 25-caliber opponent. No matter if Anthony Gordon's experience in the program keeps him behind center after a Week 1 start, or if Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud is taking snaps, Washington State will put up points.
18. Air Force at Boise State (Sept. 20)
Getting ready for the option on a full week's notice is difficult enough. Shaving off a day compounds the difficulty facing Boise State ahead of its Mountain West Conference opener. Then, add that Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun is not shy about showing off wrinkles not otherwise seen from his scheme when the Falcons face the Broncos, and the potential for Friday night fireworks exists on the Smurf Turf.
19. Houston at North Texas (Sept. 28)
Psst: Hey, you. You like points? Well I've got a whole lot of them in Denton when North Texas hosts Houston in an excellent, Group of 5 showdown. Two of the nation's most entertaining quarterbacks are in action in this one, with D'Eriq King taking over Dana Holgersen's version of the air raid, and the Heisman Trophy buzz-generating Mason Fine leading the Mean Green. Depending on how prior non-conference games against Power 5 opponents go, this one could also be for an inside position on the New Year's Six bid.
20. Cincinnati at Ohio State (Sept. 7)
Two eras of Ohio State football collide in this in-state, non-conference matchup. Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell bridged the Jim Tressell era with Urban Meyer's tenure, serving as interim head coach between the two icons. Ryan Day takes over as Meyer's successor this season. Both oversee teams that won a double-digit number of games in 2018, and are capable of doing so once again in '19. Cincinnati's outstanding defense draws a revamping Ohio State offense early in the season, which could allow the Bearcats to make things really interesting in Columbus.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.