Ten most anticipated nonconference games entering the 2014 season
This is the hardest time of year to be a college football fan. Spring practice is a distant memory. The season is getting closer, but it's not yet close enough to feel imminent. As much as fans want to enjoy the start of the summer, part of them wants to go ahead and skip straight to the fall.
Well, let's do that right now.
The start of a new season is primarily occupied by nonconference games, many of which are admittedly glorified scrimmages, such as Nebraska-Florida Atlantic on Aug. 30. But others, like Clemson-Georgia on the same day, make for appointment viewing to kick off the campaign. With the start of the College Football Playoff era, and particularly with the selection committee's emphasis on strength of schedule, many of this year's intersectional games could have a direct bearing on which teams make the inaugural four-team field.
These are the 10 nonconference games I'm most interested to watch in 2014 (all times Eastern).
1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6, 6:30 p.m., FOX): The only thing better than an intersectional game between preseason top-10 teams is a contrast of polar opposite styles. Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Ducks' blur offense will face off with coordinator Pat Narduzzi's perennially stingy defense, which ranked No. 1 nationally following last season's Rose Bowl triumph. Meanwhile, underrated Spartans quarterback Connor Cook could provide a nice litmus test for an Oregon defense that loses longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti but returns All-America cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olumu.
2. Notre Dame at Florida State (Oct. 18, TBD): Since meeting in an unremarkable 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, each team has played in a BCS championship game. With the return of reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston, wide receiver Rashad Greene and a cast of future NFL millionaires, the Seminoles should be in national title contention again come this matchup. Notre Dame, which brings back quarterback Everett Golson after a year in academic exile, might not be on the playoff short list, but a win here would go a long way toward impressing the committee and attaining the ranking to at least reach the Orange Bowl.
*Note: Though Notre Dame has a scheduling agreement to play five ACC opponents per year, those matchups will be considered nonconference games.
3. Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30, 5:30 p.m., ESPN): This one won't have quite as much buzz as last year's showdown, given the departures of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins to the NFL. Still, Clemson's offense shouldn't fall far as long as Chad Morris remains the coordinator. New Tigers quarterback Cole Stoudt has been in the system four years and will look to exploit a Georgia secondary that lost three projected starters (Tray Matthews, Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins) during the offseason. And it's always fun to watch Bulldogs star Todd Gurley, who is arguably the nation's top returning running back. Joining him in the backfield could be Keith Marshall coming off ACL surgery and/or five-star incoming freshman Sony Michel.
4. LSU vs. Wisconsin in Houston (Aug. 30, 9 p.m., ESPN): Fans often see the Big Ten and SEC square off in the Capital One or Outback bowls, but rarely on opening weekend. The last such neutral-site edition -- Alabama's 41-14 rout of Michigan in 2012 -- did not go particularly well for the Northerners. However, the Badgers seem to stand a shot against a reloading Tigers team that lost 17 underclassmen to the NFL over the past two years and may start a true freshman, Brandon Harris, at quarterback. But LSU's defense will have its usual plethora of athletes to help counter Wisconsin's speed-demon running back, Melvin Gordon.
5. UCLA vs. Texas in Arlington, Texas (Sept. 13, 8 p.m., FOX): Led by quarterback Brett Hundley and two-way star Myles Jack, the Bruins enter this fall as dark horse playoff contenders -- lofty expectations for a program that last reached a BCS bowl in 1998. Conversely, new Texas coach Charlie Strong has already downplayed the hype surrounding his team. "We will not be in the national championship game," he said in April. The most pressing question for the Longhorns: Who will be the starting quarterback? Injury-maligned David Ash, sophomore Tyrone Swoopes and heralded true freshman Jerrod Heard will all compete for the job.
6. Florida State vs. Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas (Aug. 30, 8 p.m., ABC): ABC's first Saturday night prime-time showcase is relevant for two reasons: It's the defending national champions' season opener, and it provides the first glimpse of what to expect in Winston's redshirt sophomore campaign. The Cowboys are coming off a 10-3 season, but they'll head into an already daunting matchup without most of their top contributors from last year's top-10 defense. That includes cornerback Justin Gilbert, who was selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. That doesn't bode well against a 'Noles' offense that returns Winston, Greene and five senior starters on the offensive line.
7. Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 6, 7:30 p.m., NBC): This is the last scheduled meeting of this often-entertaining rivalry and the fourth straight showdown under the lights. Golson will likely line up under center after a season away from the Fighting Irish, and while Notre Dame's defense loses standouts Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, it brings back linebacker Jaylon Smith and steady defensive end Sheldon Day. As for Michigan, Wolverines fans will be curious to see how quarterback Devin Gardner and the offense fare under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, especially after a not-so-promising spring game showing by the offensive line.
8. Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18, 7:30 p.m. ESPN): Who needs the NFL on Thursday nights when Gus Malzahn is matching wits with Bill Snyder? Kansas State's longtime head coach is the master of finding ways to neutralize more talented opponents, which he'll certainly need to do in corralling Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall and his deep cast of receivers. Whether the Wildcats, who finished 8-5 last fall, have the offensive firepower to keep pace with high-scoring Auburn is another story. But strange things tend to happen in Thursday night games -- and they often end with the home team's fans storming the field.
9. Miami at Nebraska (Sept. 20, 8 p.m., ABC): The onetime Orange Bowl combatants have spent the past half-decade or so alternately encouraging and frustrating their fan bases as they struggle to turn the corner. Polarizing Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini would do even more to placate the Lincoln faithful with a win over the Hurricanes than he did with his fantastic spring game entrance, which was reminiscent of The Lion King. He'll need big performances from I-back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory. Miami coach Al Golden returns lethal tailback Duke Johnson and tackling machine Denzel Perryman, but Ryan Williams' spring ACL injury leaves a huge question mark at quarterback.
10. Penn State vs. UCF in Dublin, Ireland (Aug. 30, 8:30 a.m., ESPN2): Top o' the mornin' to ya, football season. The first game of the James Franklin era at Penn State will take place five time zones away, but the folks back in Happy Valley will be eager to see sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg's debut outing in a new system. The Knights, fresh off a breakthrough 12-1 season and a Fiesta Bowl victory, beat the Nittany Lions in Beaver Stadium last year but now must replace quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson. While Penn State may be down, another win would further legitimize UCF's program.
Five more: Ole Miss vs. Boise State in Atlanta (Aug. 28), Alabama vs. West Virginia in Atlanta (Aug. 30), Tennessee at Oklahoma (Sept. 13), Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4), Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29)