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What ten games really and truly matter on a national scale? Which ones will be a part of the playoff chase, and which ones will get everyone talking?
Just about every SEC game that doesn’t involve Vanderbilt or Kentucky should be on the list, and several battles in the other Power 5 leagues – along with a few Notre Dame games – will matter, too, but these ten – 11, actually – are going to be the true difference-makers.
These are the really, really good games and/or they might be key moments for teams with relatively light schedules – notice all the games involving the Big Ten. Blow off everything you have going on in your world to watch …
10. Michigan State at Michigan, Oct. 17 and/or Nov. 28 vs. Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 28
Even with Harbaugh at the helm, it’s still going to take a little working and tweaking to get back to the level of being MICHIGAN. However, assuming there isn’t a Big Ten title coming this year, all that really matters is setting the stage for big things going forward. One of the huge steps will be to finally start winning the rivalry games again on a regular basis, and that means Michigan has to at least split between its home games against the Spartans and Buckeyes. You want to really kickstart the Captain Khaki era? Beat Michigan State for the second time since 2007 and Ohio State for the second time since 2003.
– Read the full 2015 Michigan Preview | 2015 Michigan State Preview | 2015 Ohio State Preview
9. Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 14
Returning to the College Football Playoff is a two-step process for the Ducks—win the North Division, and then beat the South champ to capture a second-straight Pac-12 title. Winning the North, as always, hinges on beating the Cardinal, a nemesis over the years. Oregon and Stanford should be the two best teams in the division, with each winning the conference twice in the last four years and the winner of this game almost certainly set up to get another shot. By mid-November, both schools will know a ton more about the new starters spaced throughout their depth charts and should be jelled in time for the tone-setter of the North season. The South is just too strong, and each team has too many other big games to afford a loss here.
– Read the full 2015 Oregon Preview | 2015 Stanford Preview
8. Wisconsin at Nebraska, Oct. 10
Nebraska can lose all of its non-conference games and can drop the home game to Michigan State, and none of it matters if it rolls through the rest of the Big Ten schedule and gets by Wisconsin. Bo Pelini didn’t get fired because of the loss to the Badgers last year, but … Bo Pelini sort of got fired because of the loss to the Badgers last year. In the last two games against Wisconsin – last year’s date in Madison and the 2012 Big Ten championship – Nebraska was outscored 129 to 54 and allowed 1,126 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Mike Riley, this is the game you need to win.
This is it for Wisconsin. The Alabama opener is a bigger deal on a national scale, but the Badgers should be favored in every other game. With only some due respect to Minnesota and Iowa, and with no Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State to deal with, this is Bucky’s ticket to the Big Ten championship.
– Read the full 2015 Nebraska Preview | 2015 Wisconsin Preview
7. Florida State at Clemson, Nov. 7
The trip to Death Valley is more than just the most difficult test on the Florida State schedule; it’s also the most important showdown by far. Obviously, the Seminoles want to get back to the playoff, and even with a rebuilding team, that can happen by winning the ACC title again. That might not be possible without a win at Clemson.
The last time Clemson was all jacked up to make a statement against FSU, Jameis Winston and company had a little something to say in a 51-14 blasting on the way to the national title. Different year, different team, but this is more than just a game circled on the calendar – this could turn into a defining moment for the ACC season and the direction of the Tiger program. If Clemson is going to get to Florida State, this has to be the year.
– Read the full 2015 Clemson Preview | 2015 Florida State Preview
6. Oregon at Michigan State, Sept. 12
Okay, Spartans, your turn. Last season MSU lost to two teams – Oregon and Ohio State – but it had the Ducks in trouble for about 40 minutes before Mr. Mariota decided to go all Heisman in a stunning display on the way to a 46-27 win in Eugene. This time around, Sparty gets Oregon in its house with a chance to make a national statement early on. Connor Cook might play a different type of game than Marcus Mariota, but a huge performance could propel him to the top of the Heisman list early on – if he leads the Spartans to a win, of course. Win this, and it should be a 6-0 start for MSU going into the Michigan showdown. Meanwhile, in what might be a bit of a rebuilding year, Oregon can show that all is still right with its world if it can pull off the road victory. Barring a total gaffe, a win should mean a 7-0 start before going to Arizona State.
– Read the full 2015 Oregon Preview | 2015 Michigan State Preview
5. Alabama vs. Wisconsin (in Arlington), Sept. 5
In 1928, Alabama actually made a trip north to play a road game – and lost. The Badgers made the win part of a terrific 7-1-1 season with a win over Notre Dame and shutouts over Michigan, Iowa, Chicago, and with a 15-0 victory, Alabama.
This time around, the showdown in AT&T Stadium displays the ultimate running game vs. the standard for great run defenses. The Big Ten looks to pick up where it left off in New Orleans where Ohio State ran all over the Crimson Tide on the way to the national championship, while the SEC could use the PR of a splashy early win.
Can Wisconsin pound away on the Bama defensive front like the Buckeyes did? Can Paul Chryst kickoff his era with a bang? Can Alabama reestablish its dominance with a definitive win over a Badger team that – looking at the remaining schedule – might be good enough to be in the playoff hunt all season long? It’ll be a telling outcome no matter what.
– Read the full 2015 Alabama Preview | 2015 Wisconsin Preview
4. USC at UCLA, Nov. 28
The crosstown rivalry showdown always matters, but this year the stakes might be higher than ever if USC and UCLA play up to their respective talent levels. Both programs are pointing north, will be ranked high in the preseason polls, and will be among the favorites to win the Pac-12 South. Throw in the battle for the local four and five-star recruits, and the mile-high expectations for both teams, and this should at least determine the South champion and set the stage for bigger and better things.
UCLA has owned the Victory Bell since Lane Kiffin’s Trojans embarrassed UCLA, 50-0, in 2011, making Jim Mora perfect in a game of great significance in the city of Los Angeles.
– Read the full 2015 UCLA Preview | 2015 USC Preview
3. Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 28
There’s no chance this will live up to the 2013 kick-six classic, but it’s going to be more than just another big-time SEC game.
Auburn has to deal with Louisville and has road dates with LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M, but the pressure is on after being picked by the SEC media to win the West. If the Tigers can get to late November with just one loss, the Alabama game might be the ticket to a second trip to the SEC title game in three years.
Beating Georgia on the road will be tough, Texas A&M won’t be a pushover this time around, and LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss are all going to be daunting home battles for the Crimson Tide. Throw in the season opener against Wisconsin, and just about anyone else would be crushed by the weight of one of the nation’s toughest slates. Alabama can survive by losing one of those, but if Auburn turns into the team it probably should with the Will Muschamp-led defense improving and the offense cranking things back up to a 2013 level, the Iron Bowl will almost certainly be a key part of the playoff puzzle.
– Read the full 2015 Alabama Preview | 2015 Auburn Preview
2. Baylor at TCU, Nov. 27
If only this was the season finale last year … it wouldn’t have mattered in the playoff picture, but it would’ve made for a lively discussion. The worst part for Baylor about dealing with the loaded Horned Frogs this season is the timing. Not only is the game on the road late in the season, but it’s the third road game in four weeks and coming six days after on Thanksgiving weekend. TCU also has a short week coming off a trip to Oklahoma, but the second half of the schedule is relatively light – the Horned Frogs should be favored in every game except for, possibly, the trip to Norman until the season finale. There’s no way the game could be as strong and amazing as last year’s 61-58 classic Bear win, but it should go a long way to determining the Big 12 championship.
– Read the full 2015 Baylor Preview | 2015 TCU Preview
1. Michigan State at Ohio State, Nov. 21
Yeah, yeah, yeah, both programs are more interested in beating that team from Ann Arbor – at least the fan bases are – but this is quickly becoming a killer rivalry of its own. Considering it’s a showdown of the last two conference champions, and with the expectations and lofty rankings coming into the season, the hype should build to the point of possibly making this the biggest Big Ten game since the 2006 Ohio State-Michigan classic.
The 2015 Spartans are stronger and better than the 2014 version, and in some ways, they’re better than they were in 2013 when they won the Big Ten title. Things never go exactly to plan, and the Spartans have to deal with Oregon and the rivalry date against Michigan, but it’ll be an upset if MSU and OSU aren’t favored in every game up until their meeting. This probably won’t just be for the East title, it should determine the Big Ten championship and a spot in the playoff.
– Read the full 2015 Michigan State Preview | 2015 Ohio State Preview