Ranking the Top 50 Must-Watch College Football Games of 2014
If the DVR could be programmed all the way out to mid-December, we'd be all set for the 2014 college football season. Instead, we have to settle for marking the calendar with when and where to watch the 50 must-see games of the 2014 season.
From the first pairing of FBS programs on Aug. 28 all the way to the storied tradition of Army-Navy, not a week goes by this season without at least one great game to take in. Some are early-season clashes between power conference foes, most are annual tussles that no doubt will add another chapter to their long series' histories.
All of them are great. But which ones are the greatest?
Since ranking is one of the things we do best, we've listed the top 50 games to look forward to this fall. Check them out, and make sure to have a pen handy to jot them down on the calendar.
50. North Dakota State at Iowa State
When: Aug. 30
TV: Fox Sports 1
Can North Dakota State make it five in a row?
We're not talking about FCS championships, because the Bison have claimed only the last three titles. Instead, we also like upsets of FBS teams, as North Dakota State won on the road against an upper-division team in 2010 (Kansas), 2011 (Minnesota), 2012 (Colorado State) and last year, with its victory at Kansas State proving to be the most shocking of them all.
Ironically, the last time the Bison lost to an FBS foe was in 2009 at Iowa State, falling 34-17. The Cyclones don't want to be the latest victim, but they know how it feels after losing at home to FCS Northern Iowa in 2013.
49. Louisiana-Lafayette at Boise State
When: Sept. 20
TV: CBS Sports Network
Boise State is the poster child for teams outside of the power conferences that wants to get treated like the big boys, and the Broncos have made the most of those opportunities to shine by winning a pair of BCS bowl games and pulling off other upsets of big programs.
Louisiana-Lafayette could be the next team to do that, as the Ragin' Cajuns have won nine games in each of the past three seasons but are still trying to break through with a major victory. ULL will get another shot this year at Ole Miss, but just as impressive would be to win on the blue turf in Boise.
The Broncos are in a transition with new coach Bryan Harsin, but there's still plenty of talent on the roster. It will be a great mid-major game to highlight a relatively thin Saturday in terms of great games.
48. Rice at Marshall
When: Nov. 15
Conference USA went through another major overhaul with its lineup during the offseason, as out went East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane and in came Western Kentucky. Good thing last year's conference title game participants are back, and they get to tangle in the regular season this time around.
Rice soundly beat Marshall at home last December, though it was Marshall that ended 2013 on a high note with a win over Maryland in the Military Bowl, while the Owls fell to Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl.
The Thundering Herd should be favored to take the rematch, with senior quarterback Rakeem Cato poised for another great season as his stock continues to rise toward a possible NFL career.
47. Louisville at Notre Dame
When: Nov. 22
Louisville's conference ascension is finally complete, with the Cardinals making the long journey from Conference USA to the Big East/American to its current placement in the ACC. With that movement has also come the opportunity to face more notable teams and play at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame is one of two opponents on the Cardinals' 2013 schedule that they've never faced before (the other is Clemson), and they just happened to earn a pairing with the Fighting Irish in the first year of Notre Dame's loose scheduling affiliation with the ACC.
It's one of many challenging games on Louisville's schedule this year, and one that could go a long way toward determining what kind of bowl opportunity it gets in its first season among the power conference teams.
46. Penn State vs. Central Florida (in Dublin, Ireland)
When: Aug. 30
You're so excited for that first full weekend of college football that you'll probably be unable to sleep in anticipation of those early games, right? Good for you, since that first Saturday has a really early kickoff to get things rolling.
Central Florida and Penn State are meeting in Ireland, of all places, in what's being called the Croke Park Classic. The neutral-site game kicks off at 8:30 a.m. ET and is the tail end of a two-game series between the schools. The first meeting gave us early insight into what kind of a magical season UCF was going to have in 2013.
Central Florida's 34-31 upset win last September at Penn State was its first-ever victory over a Big Ten team, and to do it in Happy Valley was that much more impressive. But the principles behind that upset, quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson, have moved on to pro careers, and their replacements will get tested right away in this season opener.
The game will also mark the debut of Penn State coach James Franklin, who has the Nittany Lions looking very good coming into his first season behind Christian Hackenberg at quarterback.
45. Notre Dame at Arizona State
When: Nov. 8
Since 2009, Notre Dame's attempt to spread its brand throughout the country has given us the Shamrock Series game, an annual neutral-site tilt in a major city against a power conference opponent. Last year's game was in Arlington, Texas, against Arizona State.
Those schools meet again in early November, but this time it's in Sun Devil Stadium, marking Notre Dame's first trip to Arizona since falling to Ohio State in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl. The trip almost didn't happen, as once the Fighting Irish struck a deal to play five games each year against ACC opponents (starting in 2014), the existing game at ASU was considered expendable.
The schools eventually resolved their issue and found a suitable date for the 2014 game, which will come in the middle of ASU's stretch run to try and win a second straight Pac-12 South Division title. For Notre Dame, it will mark a third straight true road game on a schedule that only has four such contests.
44. East Carolina at Cincinnati
When: Nov. 13
Thursday night games offer a variety of attractions during the season. For this one, it's not hard to figure out what the allure is: quarterbacks.
Cincinnati should be under the guidance of Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel, while East Carolina features one of the biggest arms in the country in Shane Carden. Throw in the fact that this is one of a handful of games that will determine the American Athletic Conference's champion, and you've got yourself some weeknight appointment viewing.
East Carolina has moved over from Conference USA and, along with Cincinnati and Central Florida, help make the American very solid at the top with mid-major programs looking to grab that at-large spot reserved for a non-power conference team in the College Football Playoff.
43. North Carolina at Duke
When: Nov. 20
The battle for Tobacco Road supremacy gets a Thursday night slot this year, and it might just serve as the deciding game in the ACC's Coastal Division.
Duke won at North Carolina in 2013, a game that locked up the division title for the Blue Devils and further legitimized what coach David Cutcliffe and his staff had accomplished in Durham. It was the Tar Heels' only loss in the second half of last season, as their 1-5 start was erased thanks to a 6-1 finish.
The game will feature several notable individual players for both teams, but the spotlight might be shining brightest on North Carolina's Ryan Switzer. As a true freshman last year he tied the FBS record for punt-return touchdowns with five, and if he continues to be effective in that role, he could challenge the career record of eight during the latter parts of this season.
42. Bowling Green at Toledo
When: Nov. 19
TV: ESPN2 or ESPNU
Weeknights in November are a big time for network television, as it's one of the designated "sweeps" periods where big ratings help set ad rates.
But in the college football world, November weeknights mean something else: MACtion. That's the marketing term thrown about for Mid-American Conference football, particularly the games that the league gets shown on ESPN's family of networks on random Tuesday and Wednesday nights in November.
There are 14 such MACtion games scheduled this season, and the biggest pits last year's conference champion, Bowling Green, against a Toledo team that missed out on a bowl in 2013 despite a 7-5 record and which could contend for a division title this year after getting early nonconference tests from Cincinnati, Iowa State and Missouri.
41. Arkansas State at Louisiana-Lafayette
When: Oct. 21
The Sun Belt is the weakest league in FBS; there's no denying that. With five of its 11 teams having just moved up from FCS in the last three seasons and another two moving over from forced independence, the overall quality of the competition isn't top-notch.
But the upper end of the league has a pair of quality programs, ones that have produced the Sun Belt's last three league champions and the lion's share of conference bowl invitations during that time span.
Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette have had their success through completely different circumstances, though. ASU is on its fourth coach in as many years, as Blake Anderson steps in following three straight years of one-and-done coaches heading to bigger programs. But with ULL, there's major stability, as Mark Hudspeth is back after a third straight 9-4 season.
Odds are, the next Sun Belt champ is unofficially declared during this Tuesday made-for-TV tilt in mid-October.
40. Florida vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville, Florida)
When: Nov. 1
Rivalry games remain big, no matter what the records of the teams involved. That's why the annual Florida-Georgia clash, the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville, remains a must-see game even if both teams are coming off down years.
Florida had its worst record since the 1970s last season, but it still played one of its most competitive games in 2013 when it lost 23-20 to the Bulldogs. The Gators trailed 23-3 at the half but had a chance to win it in the fourth quarter, a testament to how high up both teams get for the yearly battle.
Both clubs should be far better this season, and when this matchup comes along, there could be a lot more than just pride at stake. The SEC East Division should still be wide open at this point, with the winner getting a big boost in that race.
39. Notre Dame vs. Navy (in Landover, Maryland)
When: Nov. 1
Navy and Notre Dame have met every year since 1927, but for a long while it was hard to call the game a rivalry considering Notre Dame's dominance in the series. The Fighting Irish won every matchup between 1964 and 2006 before the Midshipmen took three of four in the mid- and late-2000s.
Notre Dame has bounced back to claim the last three, including a 2012 tilt in Ireland, but last year's 38-34 back-and-forth home win was one of the closest ever between the teams. Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds showed off his talents with three rushing touchdowns, part of what ended up being a 31-TD season.
Though it's officially a neutral-site game in the Washington, D.C., area, it's a virtual home game for Navy as FedEx Field isn't far from the Midshipmen's home field in Annapolis, Maryland. Both schools will have a great showing of fans for one of the best nonconference games of the season's final weeks.
38. Missouri at South Carolina
When: Sept. 27
Missouri's second season in the SEC was far better than anyone could have predicted, with the Tigers rolling through the East Division en route to the conference title game. For a while, Mizzou looked like a dark-horse candidate for the BCS championship game after starting 7-0 and winning at Georgia.
But the one regular-season hiccup came in late October, when the Tigers' run for perfection ended with a thud. Or, rather, a clang, as Andrew Baggett missed a short field goal that banged off the upright in the second overtime of a 27-24 home loss to South Carolina.
The return match, in Columbia, South Carolina, is far earlier this season and will help set the tone for what happens in the SEC East in 2014. The Tigers are rebuilding on offense, while South Carolina is replacing big names on defense. Even without many of the individual standouts from last year's meeting, this should be one of the best intraleague games of the season's first month.
37. Florida State at Louisville
When: Oct. 30
Florida State's defense of the 2013 national title involves far more challenges than it faced during the regular season a year ago, and possibly the toughest test could come with a Thursday night trip to Louisville.
Bobby Petrino, back at the helm of Louisville after leaving for the NFL (and then other destinations) eight years ago, gets a national stage to show off the latest version of his high-octane offensive attack. The Cardinals don't have Teddy Bridgewater anymore, nor do they have many of the standout defensive players that helped Louisville go 12-1 the year before, but all signs point to a solid team that should be pumped for this chance at an upset.
It's unlikely FSU will come into the game overlooking the Cardinals, but having just faced Notre Dame and with a trip to Miami still on the horizon, there is the chance this game could fall into the "trap" category.
36. Central Florida at East Carolina
When: Dec. 4
The American Athletic Conference is no longer among the elite leagues in FBS, having been pushed out of the mix for automatic bids to the College Football Playoff with the transition from the BCS. The league could still get a team into that new system, and if that happens, then this final-week game will help determine who it is.
East Carolina is a legitimate contender to win the American in its first season, much as Central Florida was last year when it blazed through the league in its first year since moving from Conference USA. These teams have history as old C-USA rivals, with ECU taking five of the eight meetings between 2005-12.
Combined, these teams will have faced five power conference opponents during the early part of their schedules, so expect high-quality effort from both sides as this game kicks off the last weekend of the 2014 regular season.
35. Auburn at Kansas State
When: Sept. 18
Kansas State caught flak in 2012 after a previously scheduled game with Oregon had been canceled, a game that would have be huge in terms of BCS positioning for a pair of teams that each started 10-0 that season.
While it can't make up for that missed opportunity, the Wildcats do get another chance to make a big impact on the national title race this year, thanks to a long-ago-scheduled visit from Auburn this fall. And with Auburn having come off last year's title game, the Tigers' trip to Manhattan has instantly become appointment viewing that was a natural to get moved onto a Thursday in September.
K-State struggled with high-powered teams in 2013, but it still has a strong defense that could be a challenge for Auburn and its spread attack. More interesting is to see if Auburn can do what few have done, and that's to limit K-State receiver Tyler Lockett. Add in the clashing styles and philosophies of old-school Bill Snyder and new era Gus Malzahn, and this night should be circled on every college football fan's calendar.
34. Texas A&M at South Carolina
When: Aug. 28
TV: SEC Network
The upcoming launch of the SEC Network has been highly anticipated since it was first announced, and that excitement grew with the selection of this inter-division SEC game as the first official contest on the new channel.
Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans might not be around anymore at A&M, but Kevin Sumlin's system is one that has worked at multiple places and should still put up points. This will be the opportunity to see early on what the new version looks like, as the Aggies have to travel to Columbia to play a South Carolina team that hasn't lost at home in three years.
The Gamecocks have one of the best running backs in the country in Mike Davis, who could pile up huge yards even before the first full weekend of action against A&M's thin defense. The only thing keeping the entire nation from being tuned in, at least at this point, is the fact that the SEC Network still isn't scheduled to be offered on all cable and satellite systems.
33. San Diego State at Boise State
When: Nov. 15
The Mountain West expanded to 12 teams in 2013, thus allowing it to hold a championship game like many other conferences. It was a perfect opportunity for Boise State, the jewel of the league, to pick up another high-profile victory to add to its resume.
Only problem was, the Broncos failed to make the inaugural MWC title game, instead watching Utah State and Fresno State battle it out for the championship last year.
Boise looks to be a strong contender to make it in this year, though, and a possible opponent in that championship could be the West Division's most consistent program the last few years. San Diego State has won eight or more games each of the last four seasons—its best stretch since the late 1970s.
32. Wisconsin at Iowa
When: Nov. 22
Three teams are equal contenders to represent the Big Ten's revamped West Division this year, and they all get to face each other during a three-week stretch in November. Wisconsin's visit to Iowa marks the second of those three clashes, but it is no less important than the other two.
Wisconsin won last year's battle in Ames as well, the first time the teams had met since 2010. The winner gets the Heartland Trophy, a brass bull that has been claimed four times apiece by each since it was created in 2004.
The hardware would be a nice haul, but much more important is locking up the chance to face someone from the likes of Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
31. Florida State at Miami (Florida)
When: Nov. 15
The last meeting between the Sunshine State powers ended in domination by one and a devastating loss for the other. The former hopes to replicate that result, while the latter will be looking for revenge and redemption.
Florida State cruised to a 41-14 win last November, blowing out the previously unbeaten Hurricanes and setting them down a lowly path to a sluggish finish. Miami running back Duke Johnson broke his ankle in the game and hasn't played since, and the 'Canes offense fell apart without him.
Assuming Johnson is healthy when this game comes around, it could be the last hurdle for FSU to clear en route to another perfect regular season. What better atmosphere can you ask for in a rivalry game?
30. Notre Dame at USC
When: Nov. 29
Notre Dame makes at least one trip to the West Coast each year, over the Thanksgiving holiday, as sort of a thank you to its California-based alumni and fans. That visit to Stanford or USC also happens to be one of the biggest games of that weekend each year, since both teams are often in the hunt for high rankings and other implications.
That should be the case this year, though with USC having finished its Pac-12 slate the week before, the Trojans could have already clinched a spot in their conference title game. But that won't take away from the intensity of this matchup, which has always been a hotly contested one that USC had owned for a while before the Fighting Irish took three of the last four.
Two years ago this game was the last stop on Notre Dame's ride to the national title game. What will this visit include for added motivation?
29. Army vs. Navy (in Baltimore)
When: Dec. 13
It's often said that records don't matter when rivals meet. Such a statement is never truer than when Army and Navy meet in mid-December.
Played after all other regular-season college games have been completed, the entire country locks in on this clash of service academies that are playing for far more than bowl implications or rankings. They're playing for America, and we love them for this.
The series hasn't been particularly competitive of late, as Navy has claimed the last 12 contests during one of its best periods of overall performance in program history. Army has been down for most of that stretch, but with a new coach and an expected tweak to its run-heavy option offense, this year's game has some added energy to it.
Whatever the circumstances, knowing that most of the participants will soon be heading all over the world to protect our country eliminates the need for anything more.
28. Baylor at Texas
When: Oct. 4
The Charlie Strong era won't have much time to ease fans into what he'll be able to do with Texas, as the 2014 schedule is loaded with tough opponents and provides few stretches of breaks. One of the toughest two-steps starts with this visit from Baylor, which comes right before the Longhorns meet Oklahoma in the annual Red River Showdown in Dallas.
Texas was among the surprises in the league last year, starting hot but fizzling down the stretch. It then got to be the team that officially helped anoint Baylor with its first-ever Big 12 title last December.
But Baylor has only won in Austin once in the past 20 years, and that came in 2010. For the Bears to be able to head in there and knock out the Longhorns again would re-assert themselves as the top Texas team in the league and serve as a painful reminder that Strong won't instantly revive the Texas program.
27. Nebraska at Michigan State
When: Oct. 4
TV: ESPN or ESPN2
Nebraska has won nine or 10 games in each of Bo Pelini's six seasons as coach, never more and never less. That's amazing consistency for a program, even if the fanbase might want much more than that.
But where the Cornhuskers have struggled during Pelini's tenure are in the big games, particularly ones involving ranked teams and on the road. Nebraska hasn't won a road game against a Top 25 opponent since November 2011, but that victory over Penn State was the first game after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke at PSU.
Nebraska only faced three ranked teams last year, beating Georgia in the Gator Bowl but losing at home to both UCLA and this week's opponent, Michigan State. The Spartans had a magical season in 2013 and may be even better this year, but they will have one of their toughest home tests against the 'Huskers.
26. Oklahoma at Texas Tech
When: Nov. 15
Oklahoma hasn't managed to go unbeaten in the regular season since 2004, but the last great chance for the Sooners to do so came in 2011. A 6-0 start, complete with a sound win over rival Texas, had the Sooners rolling when they had their annual clash with Texas Tech. But by the end of the night, the Red Raiders had the shocking upset, and the dream of perfection was over.
Oklahoma could be 9-0 this time out when Texas Tech comes calling, and if that happens, the conditions could be perfect for an upset in Lubbock if Tech's passing game continues to fire on all cylinders. The Sooners' 38-30 home win last year was the closest of their victories in the past decade, the others being mostly blowouts while Tech has won the close games.
With the Big 12 capable of getting eight teams into bowl games this season, there aren't going to be many easy weeks. No letting down is allowed, and if Oklahoma tries to look past Texas Tech toward potential perfection, we could see another Red Raider triumph.
25. Michigan at Notre Dame
When: Sept. 6
All rivalries have a beginning, and it's usually a well-chronicled tale that adds to the series' legend and importance in the world of sports.
And, unfortunately, many rivalries come to an end, as appears to be the case for the time being with Michigan and Notre Dame. With Notre Dame exercising an out clause in the teams' contract a few years back, this season's meeting is the last one on the books.
Michigan holds a 24-16-1 edge in the series, which has featured countless great games and fantastic finishes. All we can hope for is that this last one gives us some great memories to carry forward through future Michigan/Notre Dame-less seasons.
24. UCLA at Arizona State
When: Sept. 25
TV: Fox Sports 1
The last time one of the Pac-12's Southern California teams played in Tempe, the coach didn't get to go back to campus with the team. We don't expect UCLA's Jim Mora to experience the same as Lane Kiffin did in late September, but the result could be the same if Arizona State's offense is as good as last year's.
ASU blew out USC last season en route to winning the Pac-12 South, a title it clinched later in the year with a great victory at UCLA. Now the Sun Devils can use this early tilt with the Bruins as a springboard to a second straight division crown, or UCLA can do so itself with a key road victory.
UCLA's last trip to the state of Arizona was memorable, as it was the debut of linebacker Myles Jack as a two-way superstar when he starred as a running back. What kind of craziness will come from this outing?
23. Wisconsin vs. LSU (in Houston)
When: Aug. 30
Long ago there was one, maybe two neutral-site games during the first week of the college football season, a rarity that was a special treat for college football fans hungry to see big matchups early on. But now that there's much more of a premium on improved nonconference scheduling, the neutral-site game is much more popular.
Lucky for us.
This year there are seven such games in the first week of the 2014 season, with the Big Ten-SEC clash between Wisconsin and LSU serving as the most intriguing. It will also feature one of the best pairings of running backs you'll see all year, with Badgers junior Melvin Gordon on one side and the debut of freshman superstar Leonard Fournette for LSU on the other.
Both could be stars in the NFL someday, so it's fitting this game will be played at the home of the Houston Texans.
22. Clemson at Georgia
When: Aug. 30
Starting in 2016, SEC teams are required to play at least one team from another power conference as part of its nonleague schedule. Most teams have already been doing that the last few years, with Georgia doubling up on that requirement this season thanks to its annual game with Georgia Tech and this early clash with Clemson.
Two of the Southeast's premier programs aren't afraid to tangle early, and last season's thrilling 38-35 win for Clemson gave us a great start to the year. They're not scheduled to play again anytime soon, so we'll have to make the most of this one.
Several new potential stars will be debuting for both teams, including at quarterback. Georgia's Hutson Mason will open his first season as the full-time starter, while Clemson will also go with a fresh face that has yet to be determined. Defense may ultimately decide this one, as Clemson lost some key pieces from that unit and Georgia's lineup has been thinned out by transfers and dismissals.
21. LSU at Auburn
When: Oct. 4
It was not much of a surprise last September when Auburn went to LSU and lost by two touchdowns, as it was coming off a 3-9 record and had a brand new head coach while LSU was loaded with returning talent from the year before and held a Top-10 ranking.
By the end of the 2013 regular season, though, that result was heavily scrutinized because it was the only blemish on Auburn's amazing and surprising run through the SEC.
There will be no sneaking up on anyone by Auburn this year, though when it hosts LSU this time around it will be the vastly more talented and experienced team. Many of LSU's stars departed early for the NFL, while Auburn has dynamic quarterback Nick Marshall back for a second season of read-option mastery.
The winner of this one takes the early lead in the SEC West Division race, though future clashes with Alabama loom for both.
20. USC at Stanford
When: Sept. 6
It was an amazingly surreal experience when, after USC upset Stanford last season, the coaches, fans and players of one of the nation's most storied programs all stormed the field at the Los Angeles Coliseum and celebrated like a long-dormant program had just knocked off the No. 1 team.
That's how tumultuous the 2013 season was for the Trojans, which saw their coach fired in September and numerous injuries ransack the depth on offense and defense. Interim coach Ed Orgeron became a folk hero with how he turned around the program, and his presence in the middle of the postgame festivities was as memorable as any moment from last year.
The loss all but ended Stanford's hopes of vying for a national title, though the Cardinal still managed to win the Pac-12 title and play in the Rose Bowl. This year's meeting is far too early in the season to end either team's chances, but an in-league loss that early won't help either.
19. South Carolina at Clemson
When: Nov. 29
Our careful analysis of all FBS football determined that the state of South Carolina has the best teams in the country. And, thankfully, they play each other each year to determine who is the best of the best.
Clemson and South Carolina finish their respective league schedules early every season so they can meet up on the final week and settle Palmetto State supremacy. Clemson leads the series 65-42-4, but South Carolina has claimed the last five meetings, including last year's 31-17 victory that ensured both schools finished with at least 10 wins for the third consecutive year.
The rivalry also features two of the most colorful coaches in the college game, as both Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Head Ball Coach Steve Spurrier at South Carolina never fail to pander to the media and the masses. And we're glad to enable such activity.
18. Texas at Oklahoma
When: Oct. 11
It used to be called the Red River Shootout, then in 2005 got a tweak to the Red River Rivalry. Now the annual game between Oklahoma and Texas, played during the Texas State Fair at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, is officially called the AT&T Red River Showdown.
You can call it late for dinner and we'll still watch, because few rivalry games bring out more passion from the players, coaches and fans than when the Sooners and Longhorns meet each year on the second Saturday in October.
Texas' 36-20 win last year reversed a recent trend of Oklahoma blowout victories, and helped breath added life back into a series that was starting to look one-sided. There will be some new excitement this fall with Charlie Strong taking over for Texas, marking the first time since the late 1990s that a new coach was involved in the rivalry.
17. Michigan State at Penn State
When: Nov. 29
Penn State isn't eligible for the Big Ten championship game or to play in a bowl, as it is in the third year of a four-year postseason ban related to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. But that doesn't mean the Nittany Lions can't play a role in who plays in the conference final and where its league mates go bowling.
PSU not only faces all of the top contenders from the East Division this season, it gets to host the two biggest games on its schedule. The last of those is this season-ender against Michigan State, which may be needing a victory to clinch the division and stay in the running for a College Football Playoff berth.
The schools haven't met since 2010, but depending on how much is likely to be at stake for this one they'll be well-acquainted with one another's abilities and tendencies come kickoff.
16. Oregon at UCLA
When: Oct. 11
UCLA's regular season featured one major two-game hiccup last season that kept it from seriously contending for a high-profile bowl slot, a road trip to Stanford and Oregon that began with the Bruins unbeaten and ended with them limping home a two-loss club.
UCLA gets both of those clubs at home this time around, and quarterback Brett Hundley will no doubt be looking to avenge the worst passing performance of his career. He ran for a touchdown and threw one, but as a passer had just 64 yards and two interceptions in the 42-14 loss.
Oregon has won five straight over UCLA, including the first ever Pac-12 title game in 2011, and other than the season finale at Oregon State this will be the Ducks' toughest scheduled outing outside of Eugene.
15. South Carolina at Auburn
When: Oct. 25
The SEC's 14-team alignment into two divisions and a scheduling format that only changes one opponent from the previous year's lineup means that some great cross-sectional matchups go a long way between happening. That's going to be the case with Auburn and South Carolina, who after this year won't meet again until 2021.
Of the cross-sectional games in 2014, this one is the best of the lot as far as one-time meetings. Auburn's spread attack against a South Carolina defense that should still be strong, even with Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles in the NFL. Steve Spurrier and his old-school tactics against Gus Malzahn's new-age approach to the game. There are so many storylines, we can't possible write about them all in this space.
14. Michigan at Ohio State
When: Nov. 29
Even with Michigan suffering a subpar season last year, the Wolverines still managed to be a part of some of the most exciting games in 2013. There was the quadruple-overtime loss to Penn State, the scoreboard calisthenics win over Indiana and one of the wildest meetings with Ohio State in a long time.
After a back-and-forth first half, Ohio State jumped out to a two-touchdown lead only to see Michigan come back. The game featured two scores in the final 2:20 of play, with the Wolverines going for two after they scored a TD with 32 seconds left.
The pass from Devin Gardner to Drew Dileo was picked off by OSU's Tyvis Powell, clinching a second straight 12-0 season for the Buckeyes.
We can only hope that this year's battle is anywhere near as exciting, though we can assume it will once again have a lot riding on it beyond pride and bragging rights.
13. Notre Dame at Florida State
When: Oct. 18
Notre Dame's loose affiliation with the ACC for scheduling means the Fighting Irish will play five games against that league each year. As a result, some longstanding Notre Dame rivalries have to end, but it also means a chance for the Irish to clash with some big powers in the South from time to time.
Lucky for us, we got one of the best right off the bat, as Notre Dame finds itself on Florida State's schedule in the regular season for the first time since 2003. That was a 37-0 wipeout win by FSU, one of the worst home losses Notre Dame has ever experienced, while the last meeting in Tallahassee in 2002 ended in a 10-point win for the Irish.
This game will already draw a lot of attention because of Notre Dame's national following and Florida State's status as defending national champion, but if one or more teams are still unbeaten at the time it could create a media maelstrom.
12. Stanford at UCLA
When: Nov. 28
The Pac-12 title game might be decided by the time Stanford visits UCLA to end the 2014 regular season. And there's a good chance those championship game participants will be meeting for consecutive weeks for the second time in three years.
The Bruins and Cardinal met for the 2012 title, won by Stanford, a week after Stanford downed the Bruins in a regular-season meeting.
There's so much that can happen to prevent this scenario from happening again, so we're more inclined to think one or both will be heading into this finale needing a victory to advance into the championship. Having it be a must-win for both will just add to the intrigue.
11. Ohio State at Penn State
When: Oct. 25
Christian Hackenberg had a superb season for a true freshman quarterback, one of the best ever for a first-year player, and was a big reason why there's a lot of hope for Penn State's future. But there was that Ohio State game.
That trip to Columbus in 2013 marked the low point of Hackenberg's career, when he threw for just 112 yards and was intercepted twice and sacked four times. The rest of the year he looked great, but on that night he looked like a freshman in a 63-14 blowout loss.
A year later, Hackenberg should be primed and ready to show that one game was an anomaly. This could mean bad things for Ohio State's defense, and great things for the Nittany Lions.
10. USC at UCLA
When: Nov. 22
The crosstown rivalry between USC and UCLA involves a pair of college teams, but in a city as big as Los Angeles that's been without an NFL team for 20 years, some of the meetings between the Trojans and Bruins feel like they're between the Packers and Bears.
Add in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and USC-UCLA games have a movie-star atmosphere.
USC had dominated the series for most of the past 15 years, winning all but one game from 1999-2011 (a stretch that included the devastating 50-0 result three years ago and contributed to UCLA firing Rick Neuheisel), but since Jim Mora Jr. took over the Bruins in 2012 they've knocked off the Trojans both times.
Another coaching change has pumped more juice into the series, with Steve Sarkisian set to coach in his first USC-UCLA game for the Trojans this year. The only thing that could make it even more exciting is if either club is in line to win the Pac-12 South with a victory.
9. Georgia at South Carolina
When: Sept. 13
There's no easing into the schedule for Georgia again this season, as the Bulldogs go right from hosting Clemson to visiting South Carolina two weeks later. There's a bye in between, but that's little consolation for a team that faces two of its toughest games right out of the gate.
The Gamecocks were unable to win in Athens last season, and as a result were already behind the eightball in the SEC's East Division standings and could never catch up despite going 7-1. Avoiding a similar fate this year will be one of the many motivations for South Carolina, along with keeping its long home winning streak alive.
On top of the team implications, the game will feature a head-to-head competition between two of the top running backs in the nation. Both Todd Gurley at Georgia and Mike Davis at South Carolina should vie for Heisman consideration this season, and their performance in this game will greatly impact their chances in that race.
8. Ohio State at Michigan State
When: Nov. 8
Ohio State and Michigan State weren't originally on each others' schedules last season, but all that was fixed thanks to the Big Ten's title game and both teams winning their respective divisions. The result was a great championship game with MSU outrunning OSU in the second half to end the Buckeyes' perfect season and send the Spartans to their first Rose Bowl in 1988.
This time we get the matchup a month earlier, smack-dab in the middle of the race to get back into the Big Ten final.
MSU has the target on its back after winning the league last year, but getting to play in East Lansing (where it went 7-0 last year after dropping five games at home in 2012) helps deal with the raised expectations that come from the 2013 results. OSU won some big road games last season to run the table in the league and will have to do so again to claim a division title in 2014.
7. Baylor at Oklahoma
When: Nov. 8
Baylor's blazing start to the 2013 season, complete with video game-like offensive numbers and no mercy on opposing defenses, came with an asterisk of sorts because the Bears didn't face many major challenges during the first two months of the season. That was until Oklahoma came into town, and Baylor answered the critics with a convincing win.
But now Baylor has to head to Norman, where it has never won in its history. The Bears are particularly bad when playing in the state of Oklahoma, last winning to the north in 1995 (against Tulsa) and last beating a league foe in that state (Oklahoma State) in 1942.
Oklahoma is 21-2 all time against Baylor, including the aforementioned home perfection. But against teams quarterbacked by Bryce Petty the Sooners are winless, and that stout defense is going to be pressed to the limit in a game that should go down to the wire.
6. Auburn at Georgia
When: Nov. 15
Even if you've seen it already a bunch of times, go ahead and click on the link for the play that's simply been called "the Prayer in Jordan-Hare." Need we provide more reasons to look forward to this year's game between Auburn and Georgia?
Auburn had a huge lead in this game last season, only to see Georgia rally late and put in severe danger the Tigers' hopes for a national title appearance. Faced with a 4th-and-long with time running out, Nick Marshall had to drop back and throw deep in hopes that Ricardo Louis would haul in the pass. He did, but only after it bounced off the hands of Georgia defensive back Josh Harvey-Clemons and into Louis' hands for a game-winning 73-yard touchdown pass.
The late heroics capped off one of the greatest games in the long history of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, as it's called, a series that began in 1892. It's such an important game for both teams that the SEC kept the cross-divisional game on all future league schedules, which is good news for the schools and great news for us fans.
5. Stanford at Oregon
When: Nov. 1
On June 7, the Pac-12 announced it would not have any football games on its network kick off at 7 p.m. PT, but would instead show games as early as 11 a.m. PT in an effort to appease fans and improve ratings. The annual Oregon-Stanford game won't end up on the Pac-12 Network, but even if it did it's the kind of must-see clash that college fans would stay up as late as necessary to watch.
For the past five years the conference has gone through either Eugene or Palo Alto, with the teams often winning on each other's fields along the way. That trend ended last year when Stanford won 26-20 at home in a game that looked like a blowout with 12 minutes left until the Ducks attempted a furious rally.
The Cardinal went on to win the Pac-12 championship game, just as it did in 2012 after beating Oregon, and in 2011 the Ducks downed Stanford en route to the Pac-12 title. In case you're not sensing the pattern, here it is in plainer terms: Whoever wins this game is likely to claim the league crown, so make sure your schedule is clear for whatever time this big-time game kicks off.
4. Alabama at LSU
When: Nov. 8
When the SEC schedule comes out each year, there are a few key games that every college football fan looks toward. Besides confirming that the rivalry games dot the final week of the season, as usual, the next one to search for and start planning your day around in the fall is when Alabama and LSU meet.
The rivalry between these Southern blue bloods has always been strong, but became stronger when Nick Saban left LSU (after winning a national title) for the NFL and then soon returned to the college ranks—at Alabama, where he promptly led the Crimson Tide to three national titles in a four-year span. And it was before Alabama and LSU faced off for the 2011 national title.
Nothing is low-key or subtle about the rivalry. It's heated and hated, but also well-respected by everyone involved, though that doesn't stop Saban and LSU coach Les Miles from trying to pull out all the stops in those games. Alabama has won the last three meetings, rolling 38-17 last season at home after winning in Baton Rouge the year before.
Even non-college fans will want to check this game out, because if they prefer NFL they can get an early glimpse at the future of professional football. A recent tally of players who competed in the Alabama-LSU games in 2011 determined 42 of them ended up getting drafted into the pros, an astounding number.
3. Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
When: Dec. 6
It's Bedlam. Not much more needs to be said about the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State rivalry than can be explained by that one word, which means "a scene of uproar and confusion" and is also the official name of the annual matchup.
Bedlam was the perfect way to describe how last year's meeting in Stillwater went. Oklahoma State was poised to win the Big 12 title, needing only to beat the Sooners at home and lock up a spot in the Fiesta Bowl, if not something better. Instead the Cowboys and their fans experienced a roller coaster of emotions in a game they ultimately lost 33-24 but was far closer and featured several amazing plays.
There was Oklahoma scoring on a fake field goal, with the kicker catching a touchdown pass from the holder. There was OK State going ahead 24-20 with less than two minutes remaining, only to see Oklahoma's sputtering offense suddenly come to life and march down the field to score the winning TD with 19 seconds remaining...then score again on a busted play as time expired.
All of this occurred during a blisteringly cold day, but the players probably had no idea how cold it was because of what was at stake. Oklahoma parlayed the win into a surprise BCS bid, and blew out Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to spark big expectations for the 2014 season.
When the Cowboys visit Norman in early December a lot will be on the line for both teams, most likely. But remember not to assume anything, for bedlam will once again reign supreme.
2. Michigan State at Oregon
When: Sept. 6
A big thank-you card needs to be sent to West Virginia for its decision to move to the Big 12. If that hadn't happened we wouldn't be blessed with one of the best early-season nonconference games in recent memory.
Michigan State and Oregon booked a home-and-home series for this season and next back in 2012, and according to The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon (h/t FBSchedules.com), the games came about after West Virginia backed out of a similar home-and-home with the Ducks to allow more flexibility with its scheduling as a member of the Big 12.
That this year's game was locked in far before MSU rose to the level it did in 2013—the Spartans were coming off an 11-3 season in 2011 but dipped to 7-6 in 2012—adds to the excitement because this wasn't a made-for-TV neutral-site clash or something that came about through third-party negotiations. It's a pair of true road games, with each team heading into a very hostile stadium for a game that will have a major impact on the new College Football Playoff.
There's also the on-field matchups to look at, as electric Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has to deal with an MSU defense that features one of the best edge-rushers in the game in Shilique Calhoun as well as a lockdown secondary, while the Ducks' defense will have its hands full with the solid tandem of Spartans quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford.
1. Auburn at Alabama
When: Nov. 29
And, finally, we get to the one we are most anticipating, the Iron Bowl. Only a select few regular-season games get tabbed with a "bowl" nickname, but none of those others rises to the prestige that comes from Alabama and Auburn going toe-to-toe.
This game probably would have been very high on this list even before what went down last year, when a late comeback by Auburn prompted one of the wildest finishes in college football history. You might have heard of the play, known affectionately as the Kick Six.
Heavy lobbying by Nick Saban to get one second put on the clock allowed Alabama to attempt a very long field goal to win the game, a kick that would have given the Crimson Tide the SEC West title and would have kept alive the path to a potential third straight national championship. Instead the kick fell short of the goalpost and into the hands of Chris Davis, who proceeded to run up the left sideline and past every defender for a touchdown with no time left.
We're guessing Alabama fans will want to have a chance to do some of the same things after this year's game, assuming the Crimson Tide are able to repay the favor and knock the rival Tigers out during the final week of the regular season.
All TV listings are based on information released by networks through Friday, June 13.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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