The much-anticipated college football season is almost here, and we cannot wait for toe to meet leather on the gridiron. From Cowboys Stadium to the Rose Bowl to the Georgia Dome, here are the top intersectional games to put on your calendar for August and September.
1. Alabama vs. Michigan (Sept. 1 at Arlington, Texas)
This gridiron battle has it all: two tradition-laden programs, the SEC versus the Big Ten, a defense-dominated defending national champion trying to stop college football’s most electric QB weapon and the hype that goes with Saturday night at Jerry’s World on college football’s opening weekend. Could a Wolverines win be the Big Ten’s most satisfying victory in a decade? B1G fans live to see their teams beat SEC squads, who have won six consecutive national titles. Alabama holds the current championship belt but lost four key defenders — Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw — in the first 35 picks of the NFL Draft. The revamped Tide defense has plenty of talent, but stopping Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will provide quite the challenge. The speedy senior signal caller has accounted for 68 touchdowns over the last two seasons and can be a matchup nightmare. Michigan could be without star running back Fitzgerald Toussaint after some off-the-field trouble this summer. College football fans will be fired up for the Wolverines and the Crimson Tide: this is must-see TV.
2. Boise State at Michigan State (Aug. 31)
The Broncos have been the BCS killer in season-openers, beating Georgia, Virginia Tech and Oregon over the last three years. While Chris Petersen has an amazing record of 73-6 as a head coach, Boise State suffered major personnel attrition this offseason. The Broncos lost NFL first-round selections Shea McClellin and Doug Martin, the winningest quarterback in NCAA history (Kellen Moore), All-America offensive lineman Nate Potter, as well as key defenders in George Iloka, Billy Winn and Tyrone Crawford. The offense has potential with proven players like running back D.J. Harper, receivers Matt Miller and Mitch Burroughs and three starters back on the line. Joe Southwick takes over at quarterback, and he will be challenged big time in the opener. MSU has eight starters back from the Big Ten’s top defense of 2011, and the Spartans could be even better this year. Powerful back Le’Veon Bell and four offensive line starters return on the MSU attack, so the focus for Mark Dantonio and staff will be the development of new quarterback Andrew Maxwell and an inexperienced receivers group. This game would be a huge W for either program.
3. Washington at LSU (Sept. 8)
The Tigers were the most dominant team in the country last season from September to December, producing big-time wins over Oregon, West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia. Then there was the dud in the BCS Championship Game. LSU will be right back in the national mix this year with its usual physical run game and top-level defense. The big question early for the Tigers will be how much new quarterback Zach Mettenberger can improve the passing game. Les Miles’ bunch should be able to score points on a Washington defense that struggled mightily a year ago, but the Huskies can light up scoreboards as well with Keith Price at quarterback. He led the UW offense to over 33 points per game last season, and top pass-catchers Austin Seferian-Jenkins at tight end and Kasen Williams at receiver could become stars in 2012. They will need to play well versus LSU, as running the ball on the Tigers defense can be very difficult. Steve Sarkisian’s crew will face a wild atmosphere with a night game in Baton Rouge, but this game will give his squad a good litmus test before Pac-12 play.
4. Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 22)
The 2011 version of this rivalry was a tale of two games. The Irish led 24-7 after three quarters in Ann Arbor, but then the ND defense fell apart as the Wolverines scored 28 fourth-quarter points to win, 35-31, in dramatic fashion. Brian Kelly’s club had a solid campaign overall last year but did suffer from way too many turnovers and some defensive lapses. The big question for the Irish offense will be at quarterback, as Everett Golson, incumbent Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix compete for the starting gig. Whoever wins the job will face a Michigan defense that improved greatly under coordinator Greg Mattison last year. The Wolverines front seven has some question marks, but the secondary should be a solid group. The UM offense will look for Denard Robinson’s playmaking ability to take over once again, although All-America Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o will lead a quality defense with a tough front seven. It is unusual to see this game as each team’s fourth contest of the season, but expect another classic like we have witnessed over the last three years.
5. Auburn vs. Clemson (Sept. 1 at Atlanta, Ga.)
Dabo Swinney’s bunch beat a very inexperienced Auburn team, 38-24, in Death Valley last September. Star freshman receiver Sammy Watkins led the victorious Tigers that day with 10 catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns. However the sophomore All-America candidate will be suspended (offseason arrest) for Clemson’s first two games of 2012, which is huge news for an Auburn club looking for revenge in the Georgia Dome. Quarterback Tajh Boyd, receiver DeAndre Hopkins and running back Andre Ellington will still give Clemson a formidable attack, but there is no doubt Watkins will be sorely missed in this contest. That group will face a tougher AU defense coordinated by Brian VanGorder in 2012, with all four line starters (including All-America candidate Corey Lemonier) and a quality secondary back. Scot Loeffler takes over an Auburn offense looking for a consistent signal caller (Kiehl Frazier or Clint Moseley), but he does have solid senior skill players in running back Onterio McCalebb, receiver Emory Blake and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. Clemson also has a new defensive boss in Brent Venables, who will look for major improvement on a unit that gave up over 29 points per game last season.
6. Notre Dame at Michigan State (Sept. 15)
This September rivalry provided an unusual game in South Bend last season. The Spartans had more yards, first downs and won the turnover battle, but the Irish dominated the scoreboard for a 31-13 victory. MSU could not run the ball (23 carries for 29 yards) in last year’s loss, and that will need to change this season with junior Andrew Maxwell replacing Kirk Cousins at quarterback. Notre Dame could have a new QB starter as well, with Tommy Rees suspended for the first game in Ireland against Navy. His absence will allow Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix a chance to take over at signal caller, and whoever has the job in this game will face a challenge versus the Big Ten’s best defense.
7. Tennessee vs. NC State (Aug. 31 at Atlanta, Ga.)
This Friday night opener is absolutely huge game for both programs. Tennessee’s Derek Dooley has gone 11-14 in two seasons at the helm in Knoxville, and the Vols need to give their coach and the fan base a signature victory. The UT defense will have to adjust to new coordinator Sal Sunseri, but the offense could be electric with quarterback Tyler Bray and big-time receivers Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter leading the way. For the Wolfpack, the 2012 season brings high expectations because of seven starters returning on both sides of the ball and a senior signal caller in Mike Glennon (over 3,000 yards passing and 31 touchdowns in 2011). The NC State defense finished eighth nationally in sacks a year ago and led the country in interceptions with 27. The Wolfpack secondary versus the Vols receivers will be a great positional matchup.
8. Washington State at BYU (Sept. 1)
The college football world is eagerly awaiting the return of Mike Leach to the sidelines. The former Texas Tech coach will now lead WSU after compiling an 84-43 record and 10 consecutive bowl appearances during his decade in Lubbock. The swashbuckling bench boss will inherit a senior quarterback in Jeff Tuel and an All-America candidate at receiver in Marquess Wilson. The WSU offense should continue to be productive under Leach, but the defense must improve for new coordinator Mike Breske. BYU should have a quality passing game as well, with senior signal caller Riley Nelson throwing to solid receivers in Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo. Bronco Mendenhall will have another top defense led by a veteran linebackers unit, but Washington State’s passing attack can provide tough matchups. Leach’s return and a fun atmosphere makes this battle of Cougars a must watch.
9. Nebraska at UCLA (Sept. 8)
This Big Ten-Pac 12 battle has some compelling storylines. The Cornhuskers have had some interesting trips to the West Coast over the years, and current NU stars Taylor Martinez and Daimion Stafford hail from the southern California. The Bruins open at Rice, but hosting the Huskers will be the Rose Bowl debut for new head coach Jim Mora. The former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks boss will try to turn around a program that is solid with talent and tradition, but has struggled to score points in recent seasons. The UCLA defense returns eight starters, and they will be challenged heavily by Nebraska’s vaunted running attack. Stud runner Rex Burkhead and Martinez at quarterback will look to exploit a Bruins run defense that finished 96th nationally last season, although UCLA should be much better up front this year. The NU defense is also looking for improvement after a subpar 2011, so wild things could happen in this storied venue.
10. Florida State at South Florida (Sept. 29)
These Sunshine State schools have only met once on the gridiron, with the Bulls upsetting the Seminoles in Tallahassee, 17-7, in 2009. This one will be in Tampa, and USF definitely has FSU’s attention after non-conference wins over Notre Dame, Miami and Clemson over the last two seasons. The Bulls return a veteran defense that finished 15th nationally against the run a year ago but failed to finish games strongly in Big East play. A solid linebacking crew led by DeDe Lattimore should be able to stifle the FSU run game, so the Noles may have to rely on the passing of senior quarterback EJ Manuel. Conversely, the Florida State defense is among the best in the country and will make life for USF quarterback B.J. Daniels very difficult. Expect a hard-hitting, low-scoring affair when these two talented rosters go at it.
---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
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