In exactly nine days — four if you’re a degenerate like me who counts defending FCS champion North Dakota State at Montana this coming Saturday — the 2015 major college football season kicks off, with all eyes initially focused on Charlotte as border rivals North Carolina and South Carolina will jumpstart the FBS portion of the schedule. That same evening features other FBS vs. FBS matchups, including Michigan-Utah (welcome back. Mr. Harbaugh), TCU-Minnesota (underrated early road test for the Horned Frogs), Oklahoma State-Central Michigan, Western Kentucky-Vanderbilt, Ohio-Idaho and FIU-UCF.
As we have been and will continue doing throughout the month of August, CFT marches on with previews of the upcoming season, with the 10 games that could have the biggest impact on both key conference races and the national landscape. Said national landscape will include, for the second consecutive season, a College Football Playoff to determine the FBS national champion. Of course, the reality once we get into the season can change greatly from the preseason perceptions, but the following 10-pack should form some sort of solid guide through what’s certain to be yet another eventful season in the great game of college football.
So, without further ado and for your reading pleasure — and armed with the knowledge that there are a hell of a lot more than 10 games that merit mention — here’s a sampling of some of the top games on the 2015 slate. And, as always, you can whine/bitch/moan in the comment section that your team/conference was snubbed…
OHIO STATE AT VIRGINIA TECH, SEPT.7
LAST MEETING: Sept. 6, 2014, a 35-21 Virginia Tech win in Columbus
SERIES RECORD: Virginia Tech leads 1-0
THE SKINNY: There’s one reason and one reason only this game made the cut: revenge. Well, that and it’s being played in Blacksburg this time around, making it a seemingly stiff(ish) opening challenge for a Buckeye squad embarking on the defense of its 2014 national championship. The first-ever meeting between the two programs in Week 2 last season served as OSU’s lone loss, with the Buckeyes ripping off 13 consecutive wins thereafter to claim the title in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The biggest difference between this game and last year’s is at the quarterback position for the defending champs. J.T. Barrett was making just his second start in 2014, and his first against the kind of quality defense constructed and coached by Bud Foster, and it showed as the then-redshirt freshman was harassed into three interceptions as he completed just 31 percent of his passes. Barrett went on to set a Big Ten record for total touchdowns, and it will either be him or postseason hero Cardale Jones under center this time around, giving OSU experience at the position they didn’t have a year ago. Add that to the embarrassing riches of returning talent in Columbus, and the Buckeyes should be able to exact some savory revenge on the homestanding Hokies Labor Day night.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Ohio State 41, Virginia Tech 13
OREGON AT MICHIGAN STATE, SEPT. 12
LAST MEETING: Sept. 6, 2014, a 46-27 Oregon win in Eugene
SERIES RECORD: Oregon leads 3-2
THE SKINNY: This is arguably the most anticipated non-conference matchup of the season, with both teams likely entering the contest in East Lansing deep inside the Top 10. The Ducks used the nearly three-touchdown thumping last year to propel themselves into both a berth in the playoffs and spot in the championship game. That, though, was with 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota in charge of the offense; in this game, and on the road no less, UO will hand the keys of the offense to a first-time FBS starter at quarterback. The fact that the Spartans will be led by senior Heisman Trophy candidate Connor Cook, and the game is being played on their turf, could tip the scales in favor of a Sparty team that looks to have the talent to be in the mix for a playoff berth throughout the season. One final note before getting to my prediction actually involves my prediction from a year ago: Oregon 48, Michigan State 27. Be afraid, Ducks. Be very afraid of the resident Nostradumbass going all blind squirrel/nut in back-to-back years.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Michigan State 31, Oregon 24
ALABAMA at GEORGIA, OCT. 3
LAST MEETING: Dec. 1, 2012, a 32-28 Alabama win in SEC title game
SERIES RECORD: Alabama leads 37-24-3
THE SKINNY: This matchup could very well serve as a preview of the SEC championship game as the Tide is one of the favorites in the West and the Bulldogs carrying that label in the East. While the two teams played for the conference title following the 2012 season, this early-October game will mark the first regular season meeting since 2008. The teams should enter the game with very similar styles, with both squads breaking in new starting quarterbacks and seemingly ready to rely on punishing running games — UGA’s Nick Chubb and UA’s Derrick Henry are two of the nation’s best — as well as stout defenses in leading them into divisional contention. The matchup to watch in this one? The respective lines as the Bulldogs’ offensive line returns four starters while the Tide, annually one of the best and deepest defensive lines in the country, returns eight of its top 10 linemen from a year ago. The fact that the game is being played Between the Hedges in Athens certainly plays in UGA’s favor.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Georgia 27, Alabama 24
USC AT NOTRE DAME, OCT. 17
LAST MEETING: Nov. 29, 2014, a 49-14 USC win in Los Angeles
SERIES RECORD: Notre Dame leads 45-36-5
THE SKINNY: Last year’s 35-point blowout was the Irish’s worst loss in the rivalry since the second of back-to-back 35-point losses in 2008, and came after the Trojans had dropped three of the last four in the series. While many will whine and/or bitch and/or moan and/or complain about the mere appearance on this list, this game has the potential to help shape the look of the national stage. USC is viewed by many, including the media, to be the favorite to claim the Pac-12 and, potentially, a spot in the playoff. The Domers will, once again, head into the season shouldering lofty expectations; the question, as has been the case in the recent past, is can they match the hype with on-field results. While the game’s in South Bend, the Trojans have had success of late playing in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus as they’ve won five of the last six on the road.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: USC 34, Notre Dame 28
FLORIDA STATE AT CLEMSON, NOV. 7
LAST MEETING: Sept. 20, 2014, a 23-17 Florida State win in Tallahassee
SERIES RECORD: Florida State leads 20-8
THE SKINNY: Jimbo Fisher has owned Dabo Swinney in this divisional rivalry, winning three straight and four of the last five. That Tallahassee momentum, though, could — I say could — shift toward the north, if but for a season, in a game that could very well determine the ACC’s best shot at a playoff spot. The Seminoles will be forced to replace a Heisman winner in Jameis Winston, although 2012 BCS title game starter and Notre Dame graduate transfer Everett Golson could make for a veteran replacement. If Deshaun Watson can stay upright and healthy — and, after his true freshman season, that remains open for debate — the Tigers should have a hefty advantage at the most important position on the field as the true sophomore is one of the top young signal-callers in the country. Clemson’s defense, though, tremendous a year ago, will be forced to replace multiple quality individuals, while the Seminoles will simply plug-in various four- and five-star players on that side of the ball. All things considered, and given its home-field advantage, I’m going to have to give the edge to Clemson [/ducks as #FSUtwitter loosens up].
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Clemson 27, Florida State 21
MICHIGAN STATE AT OHIO STATE, NOV. 21
LAST MEETING: Nov. 8, 2014, a 49-37 Ohio State win In East Lansing
SERIES RECORD: Ohio State leads 29-13
THE SKINNY: At least when it comes to national implications, this should prove to be The Game in the Big Ten this season. Both teams are currently ranked in the Top Five — OSU No. 1, MSU No. 5 — and, depending on how they tackle their respective schedule challenges heading into it, could come into the game unbeaten. The Buckeyes were the class of the field in East Lansing last season; there’s no reason, given the returning talent, the same won’t be said in Columbus this season. One thing’s for certain: the winner of this game will have the inside track to both a Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Ohio State 45, Michigan State 27
USC AT OREGON, NOV. 21
LAST MEETING: Nov. 3, 2012, a 62-51 Oregon win in Los Angeles
SERIES RECORD: USC leads 37-18-2
THE SKINNY: The second appearance for USC on this list; I guess you could say I’m drunk on the Trojans’ chances this season, right? Anyway, as was the case with the Alabama-Georgia game, this could very well prove to be the first of two matchups between the teams this season, with the Trojans being the favorites in the South division of the Pac-12 and the Ducks the favorites in the North. Defense has been a mere rumor between these two teams of late, with each team scoring 30 or more points in each of the last three meetings. That could change this year as, even going up against what will once again be a very talented and potent offense, the Trojans will field a very talented and deep defense in all three units. In fact, the great Phil Steele, in his preseason football Bible, has the USC defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs rated as the best in the conference. Expect there to be fireworks, but more muted, relatively speaking, than recent history suggests.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: USC 38, Oregon 35
ALABAMA AT AUBURN, NOV. 28
LAST MEETING: Nov. 29, 2014, a 55-44 Alabama win in Tuscaloosa
SERIES RECORD: Alabama leads 43-35-1
THE SKINNY: Not only will the annual Iron Bowl very likely determine SEC West supremacy, but it could very well determine which team represents the conference in a playoff semifinal for good measure. In fact, the winner of the last six meetings has gone on to either play for the BCS title or qualify for a playoff berth. If both teams play to expectations, this year’s version of one of the greatest rivalries in college football should be no different. The knowns in this game should be a tremendous defense and, provided they can remain healthy, a punishing rushing attack for Alabama, while Auburn still has Gus Malzahn and will thus have offensive firepower. Can, though, Will Muschamp do the quick one-season turnaround of a defense that was absolutely abysmal last season? That more than anything will determine the outcome of this game… and the conference… and the national picture as AU appears ready to move back on the big stage — if the defense can line itself up, of course.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Auburn 28, Alabama 21
OHIO STATE AT MICHIGAN, NOV.28
LAST MEETING: Nov. 29, 2014, a 42-28 Ohio State win in Columbus
SERIES RECORD: Michigan leads 58-46-6
THE SKINNY: As long as I’m in charge, The Game will always be included in this preview piece. This year, though, despite UM being in a down cycle, there’s a very good reason this rivalry matchup is so highly anticipated: Jim Harbaugh. The former Wolverines quarterback has rejuvenated a fan base kicked in the tentacles for four years under Brady Hoke and added a little off-field spice to a rivalry that’s been, to say the least, one-sided. While the Wolverines have owned the overall series, it’s the Buckeyes who’ve owned That School Up North this century as OSU has won (on the field) 10 of the last 11 and 12 of the last 14. On paper, this should be no contest as UM is in rebuilding mode while OSU is gunning for back-to-back national titles. Here’s to guessing, though, that Harbaugh in Ann Arbor makes this one much closer than most think it has the right to be.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Ohio State 31, Michigan 27
BAYLOR AT TCU, NOV. 27
LAST MEETING: Oct. 11, 2014, a 61-58 Baylor win in Waco
SERIES RECORD: Baylor leads 52-51-7
THE SKINNY: As this went in order of when the games will be played, I didn’t specifically save the best for last, although it wouldn’t be surprising that I did indeed end up saving the best for last. Last year, TCU coughed up a 21-point lead on Baylor in the final 11 minutes to not only lose the game but also very likely cost the conference a seat at the playoff table. Once again, the Bears and Horned Frogs should be the class of the Big 12 — they both should be unbeaten headed into this clash — and this regular-season finale for the latter — BU closes out the season the following weekend against Texas — should determine which conference team the playoff committee will consider. Expect another high-scoring shootout, with the only difference possibly being the location: Fort Worth instead of Waco.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: TCU 48, Baylor 41