Top 10 games you need to watch in 2017 college football season

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#DearAndy: Early-season matchups that will impact the College Football Playoff race
Thursday June 15th, 2017

In our second week of college football top 10 lists here on ‪SI.com, we’re spinning things forward and taking a look at 10 games you need to watch in 2017. These should be some of the most competitive and fun matchups, and most seem likely to have implications for conference title games and the College Football Playoff. There’s one surprise game mixed in to give a reprieve from the Power 5 and offer a look at some of the better teams from outside of the major conferences.

Of course, surprises will creep up; I can’t imagine putting a Penn State game on this type of list last summer, and the Nittany Lions played in one of the most entertaining regular-season games last fall. That said, armed with what we know (or what we think we know), here are 10 games to plan to watch or set your DVRs to record this season.

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‪Sept. 2‪: Florida State vs. Alabama in Atlanta

On the first Saturday of the college football season, we get to see the team that’s No. 1 in nearly every preseason poll against a team that many people are ranking No. 2. It’s not every year this happens, let alone in a brand-new NFL stadium. (In fact, the opening of Falcons’ new home at Mercedes-Benz Stadium keeps getting pushed back, so it will have been in use for just a few weeks at the time of this game.) Alabama is a 4.5-point favorite almost three months out from the matchup, but a lot could change between now and Week 1.

What’s most interesting about this game isn’t necessarily its potential playoff implications; the loser could very well still have a good shot at making the field of four come December, should it win out. Instead, watch this game for what we might learn about these teams as they play potentially their toughest matchups right out of the gate. How has Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts developed in the off-season? And what about Deondre Francois, his Florida State counterpart? Both teams will feature top-notch defenses, and Alabama may feel the bigger loss of personnel on that side of the ball from a year ago. But the Seminoles will have adjusting of their own to do, having lost star running back Dalvin Cook to the NFL.

‪Sept. 9‪: Oklahoma at Ohio State‬

This game got a whole lot more interesting last week, when Bob Stoops retired and 33-year-old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley was promoted. The rookie head coach will have to travel to Ohio State for a night contest at the Horseshoe in just his second game, after a relatively easy opener against UTEP. That’s a tall task, although both teams should be ranked in the top 10 going into the evening, barring something going terribly wrong in that UTEP game or an Ohio State loss in Week 1 at Indiana.

Like the previous week’s Alabama-Florida State matchup, this won’t necessarily be an elimination game when it comes to the playoff. Ohio State has made the final four twice with a regular-season loss and could very well do so again, and now that the Big 12 has reinstituted a league championship game, its teams shouldn’t feel like one misstep against a big-name opponent will automatically count them out. 

Both teams will feature quarterbacks with big-game experience in Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, but both also lost plenty of talent to the NFL last spring. That’s a yearly reality for programs like these, though, and the bigger question will be whether the Buckeyes’ stout defense can stop an offense that was one of the country’s best a year ago.

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‪Sept. 9‪: Georgia at Notre Dame

Coming off a disastrous 2016 season that saw his team go 4–8, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is on the hot seat going into this fall. A big early win against a Power 5 opponent would strengthen his case that last year was an aberration, but doing so with a new quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, may be tough. 

Georgia, meanwhile, is trying to prove it’s a contender again this season after a mediocre 8–5 finish a year ago. In fact, the Bulldogs haven’t finished with more than 10 wins since 2012, but this group could the one to right the ship. Quarterback Jacob Eason, who started as a true freshman last fall, now has a year of experience to build on, and the Bulldogs’ secondary finished 2016 on an upswing it hopes will persist. Georgia is also counting on improved offensive line to get running back Nick Chubb back into pre-injury form. 

There’s a lot to be sorted out for these two teams, but this game is likely to present an SEC contender hit its stride. And as great a story as a resurgent Notre Dame would be, the impending end of the Kelly era would be nearly as interesting. 

‪Sept. 9‪: Stanford at USC‬

This will be the first game in the Northern Hemisphere for the post-Christian McCaffrey Cardinal (they open the season against Rice in Sydney, Australia). It’ll also be the first major test—and in-conference, to boot—for David Shaw’s team in 2017.

USC finished last season on a high note under first-year coach Clay Helton; its 10–3 record was good for second in the Pac-12 South, and it won the Rose Bowl against Penn State in spectacular fashion, scoring 17 fourth-quarter points to win 52–49. Freshman quarterback Sam Darnold was the star of that game for the Trojans, and he’ll start his sophomore season with a bang, first against (P.J. Fleck-less) Western Michigan and then USC’s NorCal rival. If he plays like he did last winter, the Trojans could very well live up to their preseason hype and Darnold will score an early mark in his Heisman Trophy campaign.

Stanford, meanwhile, will try to prove it can still play at a high level without McCaffrey and the No. 2 pick in last spring’s NFL draft, Solomon Thomas.

‪Sept. 16‪: Texas at USC‬

This game marks the first time the Longhorns and Trojans have met since Vince Young’s sensational win in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4, 2006. That was one of the greatest games in college football history, so to think this September matchup will come close would, well, be a stretch. Still, there’s something inherently exciting about the rematch, especially with Darnold under center for USC and Tom Herman as Texas’s new coach.

This will be the Longhorns’ first major test under Herman; Texas opens 2017 against Maryland and San Jose State at home. A night game in Los Angeles, though, will thrust it onto the national stage, and how it plays in Week 3 will begin to answer the question of how fast Herman might be able to get the Longhorns back into fighting shape.

Meanwhile, USC has another opportunity to beat a team that will likely be ranked going into the matchup. Two victories over ranked foes would give the Trojans a solid playoff résumé by mid-September.

‪Oct. 21‪: Wyoming at Boise State‬

We had to get out of the Power 5 for one of these games, and what better time to do it than in the relatively calm month of October, which will see most teams ease into conference play and few predictably huge matchups?

Neither team is projected in the top 25 to start the season, but both could be contenders to win the Mountain West. And depending on how the American Athletic Conference sorts itself out, the Mountain West champ would have a strong claim to the Group of Five’s bid in the New Year’s Six bowls.

Boise State looks like the early favorite, but last year, a young Wyoming team played spoiler and could very well do so again in 2017. Flash back to Week 9 of the 2016 season, when Boise State was ranked No. 13 in the country and lost on the road in Laramie. There might be slightly lower stakes this year, but the Broncos have proven consistently to be a team worth a top 25 ranking, while Wyoming, with age and experience on its roster, could again threaten to win—and end the year atop the conference.

If that’s not enough, tune in to catch Cowboys QB Josh Allen, who should be one of the top picks in next year’s NFL draft.

‪Oct. 28‪: Penn State at Ohio State

Last fall, Penn State upended the Big Ten by beating Ohio State in State College 24–21 in October. The upset was part of the Nittany Lions’ nine-game streak that delivered them a conference title and sent them to the Rose Bowl.

There’s little reason to think Penn State won’t return to its 2016 glory come fall. Quarterback Trace McSorley proved to be one of the better signal-callers in the game, and with receivers Saeed Blacknall and Juwan Johnson, the offense should feature a strong one-two punch in the passing game.

However, Ohio State is Ohio State, and there’s good reason to think both teams could enter the game undefeated. In this case, the loser could fall out of the playoff race, possibly ceding a Big Ten championship game berth and thus likely a shot at the playoff (despite what happened last year).

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‪Nov. 4‪: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State‬

Every year, Bedlam is one of the most fun rivalries in college football, and the stakes this year could be as high as they’ve been recently. Sure, both the Sooners and the Cowboys have been among the better teams in the Big 12 the past few seasons, but this rivalry matchup may go a long way in determining the teams that make the first return of the conference’s championship game.

This will be another chance for Riley to prove his offense can outpace anyone’s, and with Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington returning for their senior seasons, the Cowboys will give the Sooners a tough test.

And don’t worry; should this game live up to the hype, there’s even a chance of a rematch. With no divisions, the Big 12 will pit its No. 1 team against its No. 2 in the championship, meaning we could see a Bedlam 2.0 in December, with even higher stakes.

‪Nov. 11‪: Florida State at Clemson‬

The best-case scenario for this game is a matchup of two undefeateds, with Clemson having marquee wins over Auburn and Louisville and Florida State having defeated Alabama and Louisville. Worst case, it seems, the game would pit two two-loss teams, with even the winner likely trailing the Cardinals in the ACC Atlantic race. But let’s consider the more optimistic outcome.

This game will be Clemson’s best chance to prove it’s moved on from Deshaun Watson and can win even without its elite quarterback. Sure, the Tigers’ schedule is challenging throughout the first 2.5 months of the season, but the opponents featured are nothing compared to the Seminoles, who’ve reloaded again after losing another major offensive weapon in Cook.

Florida State will be looking for revenge after losing to Clemson the past two seasons (and going to overtime three years ago, in 2014, before winning). The winner of this game has reached the ACC title game every year since 2009.

‪Nov. 25‪: Alabama at Auburn‬

And finally, we come to the Iron Bowl and Auburn’s debut on this list. Alabama, after opening against Florida State, will likely cruise through much of the rest of the season, should its talent level be even close to what it’s been in recent years. Its toughest mid-season test will come on Nov. 4 against LSU, and then with Mississippi State and Mercer up next, it’ll get a slight break before the season-ending rivalry game. As usual, this matchup should determine the winner of the SEC West—or at least have some SEC Championship Game implications. Auburn, too, will likely be in the hunt.

The Tigers this season will have transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham under center, and expectations are high. He didn’t do much to dull the chatter during Auburn’s spring game, when he completed 16 of 20 passes for 267 yards and rushed for a touchdown. The Tigers also brings back eight starters on defense and talented kicker Daniel Carlson, making them one of the more complete teams entering the season in college football—and one of the biggest threats to Alabama’s supremacy in the SEC.

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