With 124 teams, ll conferences and Notre Dame, there are no shortage of great match-ups to fill the 14-week college football season. Rarely will a weekend go by without a top flight, marquee dual taking place somewhere in the country. And honestly, the weekends that always look bland and vanilla on the front end are generally the ones that end up providing huge upsets with national title implications hanging in the balance.
2012 won't be any different. There will be more than one Iowa State-Oklahoma State or Texas Tech-Oklahoma. There will be at least one more Michigan State-Wisconsin match-up. Maybe even two. And yes, there will be two more "Games of the Century" this season as well. Let's just hope that they don't take place at the exact same time — looking at you greedy TV executives. So with honey-do lists and in-laws to deal with, football fans can rest easy and budget their viewing needs according to Athlon Sports Top 25 Must-See college football match-ups. Because you don't want to miss any of these.
Importance: Does the game carry national, conference or divisional championship implication?
Level of Ability: Does the game involve the most elite players and coaches in the game today?
Storylines: What sort of rivarry, history, tradition and backstory exists?
Production Value: Does this game have high-flying, big-play, late-game heroics-type potential?
1a. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Alabama at LSU
The plotline for these two programs over the last 18 months or so has been well documented. Game of the Century Part 1 was an offensively challenged 9-6 road win for LSU on the legs of Brad Wing and Drew Alleman. While the Tigers deserved all the credit for the brutally contested clutch win, it still appeared to most who watched the game that Alabama was the superior team. As it turns out, it wasn’t really even close. LSU showed up for the BCS national championship game woefully under prepared and clearly lacking focus and motivation. The game now shifts to Baton Rouge, and the Death Valley faithful have had November 3 circled on the calendar ever since that fateful night in January when their team gained 92 total yards and five first downs.
1b. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Oregon at USC
The West Coast Game of the Century is easily the top football game west of the Mississippi this fall. In fact, when all the dust settles on the college football regular season, it could easily be the No. 1 football game played this fall. Two special offenses, a Heisman Trophy candidate, national title implications and the revenge factor from a terrific 38-35 showing last fall makes this must-see TV on Nov. 3. Fans better hope that the greedy television executives don't play the game at the exact same time as LSU-Alabama — which should decide the other half of the BCS national championship game on the exact same day. The Trojans are the pick since the game happens at home and they won last year, however, the Ducks' defense will be improved and good enough to win down in L.A. The scoreboard operator better do some stretching before the opening kick-off.
3. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Oklahoma vs Texas (Dallas, TX)
The Red River Shootout (no, I refuse to call it the rivalry based strictly on principle) is easily the most important football game played in the state of Texas every single season. The last 12 Big South champions were eitherTexas or Oklahoma, and other than Oklahoma State last fall, one of these two teams had claimed the Big 12 crown seven straight years. With Texas reestablishing itself last fall and Oklahoma getting Landry Jones back on offense, these two once again look like the top Big 12 champion picks in 2012. Therefore, the Texas State Fair once again will host the most important game played in the Big 12 this fall when the Cotton Bowl is cut right down the middle with Crimson and Cream on one side and Burnt Orange on the other.
4. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Michigan at Ohio State
Easily the biggest rivalry in the Midwest is, in most years, the biggest rivalry game in the nation. With the Urban renewal taking place in Columbus and Brady Hoke reenergizing the Michigan faithful in lightning rod fashion last fall, this game should return to the 10 Year War level of intensity. So can the Wolverines walk into the Horseshoe and beat the Buckeyes this fall? It will be tougher than most Maize and Blue fans want to admit. Ohio State has nothing else to play for but ruining its rival’s season. Ohio State has a better overall roster of talent. And Ohio State is at home. Remember, the worst Ohio State team in a decade nearly defeated the best Michigan team in half a decade last fall on the road in Ann Arbor. The smart money is on Ohio State.
5. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Georgia at South Carolina
If the SEC West semifinal is LSU-Bama, then the Eastern’s semi will take place in Columbia on the first Saturday in October. Normally one of the first two games of the year, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks have to wait until the second month to square off. The Cocks won last year in a shootout in Athens on the back of turnovers and special teams — they scored essentially four touchdowns on defense and a fake punt. But Marcus Lattimore’s fourth quarter performance was what sealed the win for Carolina, and No. 21 is back healthy this fall. Georgia already has a strong track record of success in Williams-Brice Stadium and should have its full compliment of defensive stars by the time these two meet as well. The Dawgs have won four of the last five in Columbia.
6. Week 4 (Sept. 22): Clemson at Florida State
There are two games inside of the ACC that truly stand above the rest this fall, and since Clemson-Florida State figures to have more fireworks, it gets the nod as the most anticipated game of the year. The Tigers rolled-up 443 yards of offense in the 35-30 win over the Noles in Death Valley last year. Jimbo Fisher and company don't plan on allowing that type of offensive production this time around. Considering the rebuilt Clemson offensive line — and getting the game in Doak Campbell Stadium — FSU should be able to control the line of scrimmage this year. It will fall to Tajh Boyd, who dropped 344 yards and three scoring strikes on FSU last year, to make the key plays if Clemson wants to win. Of course, getting EJ Manuel back under center, who missed last year's game with an injury, helps the Seminoles' chances as well.
7. Week 3 (Sept. 15) Alabama at Arkansas
Arkansas fans are optimistic that, even without Bobby Petrino, their Razorbacks can compete for an SEC title. Well, winning the West is the first step and Week 3 gives John L. Smith a chance to prove his worth against the defending national champions. That said, AJ McCarron outplayed Tyler Wilson, Nick Saban out-coached Petrnio and the Bama defense out-stifled the Hogs last time they met. Arkansas will have to reverse nearly all of the above to pull off the upset this season. Running the ball more effectively will narrow the gap, as Bama outgained the Hogs 197 to 17 on the ground in the 38-14 decision last fall. Can the return of Knile Davis, and getting the contest at home, tip the scales in favor of Coach Smith? Fans won’t have to wait long to find out.
8. Week 13 (Nov. 23) LSU at Arkansas
Arkansas has had some recent success in this series with three wins in the last five meetings. However, last fall’s 41-17 whitewashing of the Hogs pushed LSU into the SEC title game. Les Miles’ bunch rushed for 286 yards and three touchdowns at a per carry clip of 6.2 yards. Tyler Wilson and company mustered 248 total yards of offense. Shifting the series back home gives the Hogs a better shot at an upset this time around. So will having Knile Davis back fully healthy — a guy who rushed for 152 yards and a score on 30 carries in the 31-23 win over LSU two years ago.
9. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Oklahoma at West Virginia
While this match-up hasn’t happened much over the years — four times total and only once since 1982 — the most recent showdown in the Fiesta Bowl back in 2008 was one of the signature performances of recent BCS lore. The 48-28 win for West Virginia featured peak of the Pat White era and won the late Bill Stewart the head coaching job in Morgantown. Now, the Sooners will make their first-ever trip to Morgantown and more than just bowl bragging rights will be on the line. This is the top road test for Oklahoma this fall and a win over WVU on the road is a must if Bob Stoops wants to win yet another Big 12 championship.
10. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Michigan State at Michigan
This game has been one of streaks of late. Michigan won six straight from 2002 to 2007 before Michigan State took over the state in 2008. If the Spartans want to win a fifth straight in the series, quarterback play will have to stabilize for Michigan State over the first half of the season. This game could easily decide not only the Legends Division title but also the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl participant. For a team like Michigan State, who hasn’t played in Pasadena since 1988, this game carries more than just in-state bragging rights. Shockingly, Michigan is searching for its first Big Ten title since 2004 and a win over Sparty likely gives it to them.
11. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Michigan State at Wisconsin
This season could be an inverted version of last season for Michigan State and Wisconsin. It is hard to see State going into Madison and getting the win — a place Sparty hasn’t won in since 2001. Yet, these could very easily meet again in the second annual B1G championship game. These two played two of the most memorable Big Ten football games in the history of the league last year and this fall could feature two more heart-stopping editions of what is developing into an elite rivalry game.
12. Week 1 (Sept. 3): Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech
The best current ACC stat? The winner of this game has gone on to win the Coastal Division every year since the conference split into two divisions. So no pressure in Week 1 in primetime on Labor Day night, right? Logan Thomas did his best Cam Newton impersonation in last year's 37-26 Thursday night win in Atlanta, scoring five times in the victory. Bud Foster's defense did just enough to get the win and will have had all summer to prepare for the vaunted Paul Johnson triple option. This game will feature strength on strength as the Hokies should possess one of the nation's elite defenses while the Yellow Jackets return a deep and talented offensive line and backfield. The whole nation will be watching the game that should once again decide one half of the ACC championship equation.
13. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
The Dawgs have won only four times in this series since 1989, but last year’s 24-20 win helped Georgia make it back to Atlanta and the SEC title game. On the arm of Aaron Murray and the river boat gambling of Mark Richt, Georgia won its first Outdoor Cocktail Party since 2007. If the Dawgs out-rush the Gators 185 to -19 again this year, fans can bank on another UGA victory.
14. Week 11 (Nov. 8): Florida State at Virginia Tech
Should the preseason predictions hold true, this will be a preview of this season's ACC championship game. Virginia Tech is the clear heavy favorite in the Coastal while Florida State gets its primary Atlantic Division test with Clemson at home. The last time these two met, the Hokies out-ran the Noles 44-33 in the 2010 ACC title game. In fact, after three decades of dominance from FSU in the series, Frank Beamer has won two of the last three meetings. These are easily the top two defenses in the league and points will be at a premium for a pair of mammoth quarterbacks — the 6-5, 240 pound Manuel and the 6-6, 260 pound Thomas. Expect heavy hitting and lots of ice packs.
15. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Auburn at Alabama
The Iron Bowl is filled with as much hatred as any other rivalry in the history of college football. And the stakes have never been as high as they have been over the past few seasons. The winner of this game has gone on to win the BCS National Championship in each of the last three seasons. The intensity and passion of an already rabid rivalry has reached an all-time high. With Bama acting as defending champs and Auburn enthused about new coordinators, War Eagle fans are expecting something much tighter than last season's 42-14 outcome.
16. Week 1 (Sept. 1) Alabama vs. Michigan (Arlington, Texas)
This might be the marquee non-conference match-up of the season. It is the first regular season match-up between the two historic programs and the Wolverines own a two (1988, 200) to one (1997) lead in the series. The thought that it may be one-sided, however, keeps it from sitting much higher on the list. The defending national champions have one of the deepest college teams ever assembled and Brady Hoke will be hard-pressed to stop the Bama rushing attack in the second half. Michigan can keep it close for three quarters, but in Jerry's Palace with that offensive line, Nick Saban should come away victorious. This game means more nationally to college football than it does within the Big Ten — and even less than that in the SEC.
17. Week 8 (Oct. 20) South Carolina at Florida
Both South Carolina and Georgia get plenty of key contests at home this fall, but Carolina’s trip down to The Swamp is the second biggest SEC East game of the year. From 1940 to 2004, the Gamecocks were winless against the Gators. Since then, Steve Spurrier has defeated his alma mater three out of seven times, including the last two. Having said that, last year’s meeting was a hotly contested, defensive struggle in which both quarterbacks struggled to complete passes. Expect the defenses and ground games to play huge roles. If South Carolina wants to take the next step in its search for its first SEC title, winning on the road within the division is a must.
18. Week 3 (Sept. 15) USC at Stanford
While the top game out West is easy to pinpoint, the rest of schedule is loaded with very similar contests. With USC and Oregon as the clearcut picks to win the league, the next biggest game would have to be the top opportunity for an upset. At this stage, the Trojans' trip to Stanford feels like the toughest test for either team. The Cardinal have played very well against the Trojans over the last half decade, they play a physical brand of football that matches up well with USC, the game is at home on The Farm and it comes in only Week 3 of the season. Obviously, Stanford's quarterback play will have to be solid to win, but the ball-control ground game will give them a chance at a huge upset.
19. Week 6 (Oct. 4) USC at Utah
Thursday night. Primetime TV. Sold out road game against a very well coached team. This also is a recipe for an upset for the Trojans who will face the best team in the South in Week 6. This was a tricky 23-14 win for the Trojans last year in Week 2 where Jordan Wynn actually went toe-to-toe with Matt Barkley and held his own. The John White-led ground game had yet to get rolling and should be good enough at home to keep Barkley and Company off the field. Within the division, this is easily the biggest game of the year. Should Utah pull off the upset, it could be the biggest game of the year nationally.
20. Week 6 (Oct. 6) LSU at Florida
The Tigers and Gators lay claim four of the last nine national championships and both claim two of the best SEC resumes in history. While Florida won’t feature a vintage Gators squad, particularly on offense, this game still has plenty of weight in 2012. Florida’s defense should be nasty, but will have to play better at the point of attack after allowing 238 yards rushing to LSU last fall. The Gators mustered only 213 total yards in their second straight loss in the long-time crossover series.
21. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Ohio State at Michigan State
The preseason buzz around C-Bus will either be proven wrong — or completely justified when both Michigan State and Ohio State open Big Ten play in Week 5. The Buckeyes don’t play a tough non-conference game, so fans will find out exactly how far Braxton Miller has developed and just how salty the OSU defense will be in this game. Should Ohio State win on the road against Sparty, an 11-1 type of season is extremely possible. Should Brutus return home with the loss, expectations for Ohio State will be tempered very quickly.
22. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Ohio State at Wisconsin
Bucky Badger was literally inches from being undefeated last fall. The MSU hail mary and Braxton Miller’s near-the-line-of-scrimmage touchdown heave were both inches from going Wisconsin’s way. The Big Red defeated OSU 31-18 with relative ease the last time Ohio State visited Camp Randall, but this game will be decidedly tougher. While Ohio State can’t technically play for the Big Ten title, winning this game and claiming the best record in the division still means a lot to Urban Meyer. Fans know who actually won the Pac-12 South last year.
23. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Michigan at Nebraska
The round robin in the Legends Division should be extremely entertaining this fall and Michigan has to face the Huskers on the road. However, if Nebraska wants to contend this fall, playing better defense against the Wolverines' rushing attack will be imperative. Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 221 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-17 blowout last fall. This game could be the pivotal road trip for Michigan — at least, until November 24.
24. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Michigan at Notre Dame
Michigan has won three straight in this historic rivalry and none more painful than the most recent edition. Last year's final drive with under 30 seconds to play capped one of the largest fourth-quarter comebacks in the series history. Denard Robinson was brilliant, at times, but really the Notre Dame secondary played poorly. Brian Kelly is looking for his first win in the series and has a nasty defensive front seven to play with this time around. Robinson will need more than one ice bath when this one is over.
25. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Notre Dame at USC
These two historic rivals will do battle for the 83rd time when they meet on the final week of the regular season. While USC won last year and has claimed eight out of the past nine in the series, Notre Dame actually won the last the time they met in The Coliseum, 20-16 in 2010. Matt Barkley led a balanced offensive attack last fall to the 31-17 win in South Bend. USC rushed for 219 yards and posted 224 through the air. If the Irish expects to win out West again, it will have to muster more than 41 rushing yards.
Best of the Rest:
Week 3 (Sept. 15) Florida at Tennessee
Yes, the Florida-Tennessee rivalry has seen better days. No, neither is picked to win the East. But this game has no shortage of storylines — or future NFL talent. One team possesses an electric high-flying offense while the other boasts one of the most explosive defenses in the league. And both have a head coach feeling the pressure from alumni and fans to win now. Florida has won seven straight in the series, but will be coming to Knoxville following a brutal trip to Texas A&M in Week 2. Meanwhile, the Vols will face ACC sleeper NC State in Week 1, so if both teams struggle out of the gate, this game could decide more than just bowl eligibility. If both enter 2-0, one team will leave as the clear contender to Georgia and South Carolina for SEC East supremacy.
Week 13 (Nov. 24): South Carolina at Clemson
It may not be the most high-profile rivalry and it may not have national implications like many other rivalries, but it is hard to find a yearly battle that possesses as much vitriol as the Tigers-Gamecocks. From 1997 to 2008, Clemson owned the series, winning 10 of the 13 meetings. But the last three years have seen South Carolina stake a major claim to in-state supremacy. None of the games have been close as Carolina has outscored its rival 97-37. Both teams are focused on a conference title in their respective leagues, so the game means little to the actual standings, but don't tell that to the people in the Palmetto State. Or to two teams that could potentially be ranked in the Top 10 by the time they meet.
Week 6 (Oct. 6) West Virginia at Texas
The Mountaineers have played the Longhorns just once in the two programs' history and fans should certainly see more excitement than the 7-6 Texas victory featured back in 1956 down in Austin. These two teams appear to be the top challengers to Oklahoma in the Big 12 conference crown race and this contest will feature arguably the top offense in the league and the easily the top defense in the league. Geno Smith and his wide receivers will put loads of pressure on a unit with dynamic defensive ends and great cornerbacks. From an Xs and Os standpoint, there are few match-ups that will be more intriguing in any league across the nation.
Week 5 (Sept. 27) Stanford at Washington
Both programs have aspirations to challenge Oregon in the North this fall and both should creep up on 10 wins. Stanford has crushed the Huskies the last three meetings and has won six out of seven in the series. Without Andrew Luck, however, Washington and Keith Price have closed the gap significantly. The key will be the growth of the Husky defense after allowing 65 points last year and 105 total points in the last two meetings. Getting the game at home in Seattle may give the Dawgs the bump needed to end the Cardinal's winning streak.
Week 1 (Sept. 1): Clemson vs. Auburn (Atlanta, Ga.)
The first Saturday night of the season in the Georgia Dome has turned into a yearly must-watch contest and these two Tigers won't disappoint. Clemson won the meeting 38-24 last fall while Auburn won the 27-24 thriller en route to its National Championship in 2012. Brian VanGorder should have the Auburn defense much improved, but if Aubie expects to upset Clemson, it will have to get quality quarterback play on offense. This will be a great barometer game for both programs right out of the gate.
Week 6 (Oct. 6): Florida State at NC State
The top sleeper team in the ACC is Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack. They are strong at the point of attack on both offense and defense and have excellent leadership from quarterback Mike Glennon. These two teams match-up extremely well and getting the game at home for NC State could spell upset for Florida State. Manuel will be pressed by one of the nation's top secondaries while the strong Florida State defensive line will force Glennon to be successful down the field. This was no contest last fall in Tallahassee 34-0, but the last time Fisher took his team to Raleigh, the Pack got the best of FSU 28-24.
Week 13 (Nov. 24) Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
The Bedlam Series is one of the great rivalries in all of the country, and while Oklahoma has dominated all-time (81-18-7) and of late (winners of eight of the last nine), the Cowboys claim the current bragging rights. The 44-10 destruction at home at the hands of Brandon Weeden and Mike Gundy was the first win for the Pokes in the series since 2002 and it clinched the program’s first Big 12 championship and a trip to the BCS. With a true freshman quarterback, walking into Norman and getting a win over the Sooners seems like a tall order. But fans can bet the atmosphere will be must-see.
Week 9 (Oct. 27) Notre Dame at Oklahoma
These are two of the most powerful, most prestigious, trophy-laden programs in the history of the sport. Notre Dame has dominated the all-time series 8-1, which includes an undefeated 4-0 record in Norman. The last time these two squared off was 1999 when Notre Dame outlasted the Sooners 34-30. The strength of this Irish team will be its defensive front and the strength of the OU team will be its offensive firepower, so the battle of wills in the trenches will determine if Notre Dame can maintain that unblemished road record against Oklahoma.
Week 11 (Nov. 10) West Virginia at Oklahoma State
These two have played one time since 1929 — and three times total — when Oklahoma State won 35-33 in the 1987 Sun Bowl in El Paso. Both teams have Big 12 title aspirations and both offenses ranked in the top 15 nationally in scoring and total offense last season. Add to it a Dana Holgorsen storyline that includes his former boss in Mike Gundy and fans should have plenty to watch on Nov. 10. The WVU headman spent 2010 as the offensive coordinator in Stillwater and now returns with a Big 12 rival stocked with offensive firepower.
Week 14 (Nov. 29): Louisville at Rutgers
The Cards are the prohibitive favorite and the 16-14 win over Rutgers last fall signaled a big turning point in Louisville's season. After a 2-4 start, the Cards out-lasted the top defense in the league before winning four of their next five games to end 2011. This year, on the final week of regular-season play, the Big East crown could be hanging in the balance. On paper, this road game should be the Cardinals' toughest league test and a third straight win over the Knights, a team that could be a top Big East contender, would likely produce Charlie Strong’s first trip to a BCS Bowl.
Week 12 (Nov. 17): NC State at Clemson
If the Pack is in fact the top sleeper team in this league, it will have to upset Clemson once again this season. After a 9-1 start, the No. 7-ranked Tigers went north to Raleigh and got embarrassed 37-13. Glennon was able to find success through the air throwing for 253 yards and three touchdowns in the win while the defense made Tajh Boyd look bad. He managed only 238 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. However, expect Clemson OC Chad Morris to point to the lack of a rushing attack last fall — 28 carries for 34 yards —as one of the biggest concerns. Getting the game at home gives Clemson the edge but should NC State defeat FSU in Week 6, this game could become an division championship contest.
Week 8 (Oct. 20): Virginia Tech at Clemson
These two played twice last fall and Logan Thomas will readily admit that he didn't get the job done in the two losses. The Clemson defense struggled all season long but somehow managed to stop the burly passer and the explosive Hokie ground game. The 23-3 regular season win was merely a precursor to Clemson's 38-10 dominance in the ACC title game. Thomas and the Hokie defense should be much improved in 2012, so fans can bank on this one being much tighter this time around. This, too, could be a championship game preview.
Week 12 (Nov. 17) Stanford at Oregon
Stanford-Oregon has decided not only the "North," but also the Pac-12 championship for back-to-back seasons and it could be the case once again in 2012. The Ducks have won two straight and eight out of nine in the series and the game returns to Autzen Stadium this fall. If the Cardinal expect to challenge Oregon in the North, its stacked linebacking corps will have to play better against the high-powered Ducks — a team that has scored 105 points in the last two meetings.
-by Braden Gall