- After one week of the offseason, we already can't wait for 2018 to kick off, and a deep scan of the schedule reveals more than enough enticing matchups to prepare for over the next seven months until Labor Day weekend.
It’s impossible to accurately predict which games will be most impactful a whole year in advance, because way too much can happen between now and the fall of 2018. Heck, it’s often not clear which games mean the most until weeks after the game itself.
Take last year’s Week 1 matchup between Alabama and Florida State. The Tide and Seminoles came to Atlanta ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, and pundits debated whether this was the best opening weekend matchup in college football history. The game itself was a dud: Alabama won 24–7 in nondescript fashion, and Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending leg injury late in the fourth quarter. Fast forward three months, and Florida State needed a win over Louisiana-Monroe to become bowl eligible one day after coach Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M. What was supposed to be Alabama’s signature win lost all its thunder as FSU’s 2017 unraveled completely by mid-October.
On the flip side, matchups are sometimes way, way better and more important than they appear at the time. When UCF and Memphis faced off in late September, not much attention was paid to a game between two unranked AAC teams. UCF, of course, is now claiming a national championship, while Memphis finished the season in the Top 25, with two regular season losses to UCF and a Liberty Bowl loss to Iowa State.
The point of all this is that things change in a hurry in the world of college football. Still, there’s no harm in letting the eyes wander to next year’s schedule to try to pinpoint the best games. Some of these will indeed turn out to be everything we expect and more, while some will be rendered virtually meaningless, whether we know it at the time or not.
Next year’s slate of games features the usual bevy of impactful in-conference gems, but there are some marquee matchups between big-names sprinkled throughout the season that have us hyped. (And the ACC has not released its conference schedule yet, so expect more key games to fill in the gaps within the lighter weeks on this list.) Without further ado:
Week 1: Michigan at Notre Dame
Jim Harbaugh’s seat isn’t warm, but it certainly is not as cool as he’d like it to be. There’s a growing sense of dissatisfaction in Ann Arbor as Harbaugh’s first three teams have struggled to pick up signature wins. Harbaugh gets a chance right off the bat to quiet some of his naysayers with a win over an iconic program like Notre Dame, a proposition that becomes much more likely if Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson is indeed ruled eligible to play quarterback in 2018. Notre Dame finished the ’17 season with a hard-fought 21–17 victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl but will have to replace stud running back Josh Adams, who decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
Honorable mention: Auburn vs. Washington—A season-opening clash at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta should tell us a lot about both teams. Florida Atlantic at Oklahoma—Lane Kiffin gets a shot at the big boys. Virginia Tech at Florida State—Willie Taggart’s opener in Tallahassee comes on Labor Day. LSU at Miami—Is Miami here to stay? An early test against a upper-tier SEC foe is a good way to find out. Alabama at Louisville—This one would have been a lot more fun with Lamar Jackson.
Week 2: Clemson at Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher doesn’t have to wait long for his first serious test as Texas A&M’s head coach. Kyle Field will be rocking when the new-look Aggies host Clemson, who should be loaded once again and return starting quarterback Kelly Bryant. This game presents an opportunity for Fisher to start off his tenure with a momentum-building victory over a team that’s certain to enter the season ranked in the top three.
Honorable mention: UCLA at Oklahoma—Chip Kelly’s first big test with the Bruins. Colorado at Nebraska—One of the old Big 12’s best rivalries is rekindled, with Scott Frost leading the Cornhuskers. Michigan State at Arizona State—An early look at how Herm Edwards’s Sun Devils measure up to a Top 25 team.
Week 3: TCU vs. Ohio State (at AT&T Stadium)
After a Week 2 loss to Oklahoma at home last season, Ohio State will be looking for a measure of September revenge against the Big 12. That opportunity awaits in Arlington as both the Buckeyes and Horned Frogs break in new quarterbacks. For TCU, it’ll almost certainly be Shawn Robinson, a dual-threat who was the 2016-17 Gatorade Texas Player of the Year. Ohio State’s situation is a little less clear, as Urban Meyer has a few candidates to guide his team through life after J.T. Barrett. The favorite to start for the Buckeyes is Dwayne Haskins, who filled in for an injured Barrett against Michigan, but keep an eye on Tate Martell, a mercurial playmaker who has drawn comparisons to Johnny Manziel.
Honorable mention: USC at Texas—Last year’s double-overtime thriller at the Coliseum was almost as epic as that national championship game in 2006 without any of the stakes. Boise State at Oklahoma State—Hey Broncos, want some respect? A win in Stillwater should do it. Colorado State at Florida—This game was part of the package Florida gave to Colorado State in exchange for Jim McElwain’s services, but McElwain didn’t last long enough to coach in it.
Week 4: Florida Atlantic at UCF
This is as enticing as a non-Power 5 matchup gets. On one side there’s Lane Kiffin, everyone’s favorite least-favorite coach, and an FAU team that finished ninth in total offense en route to an 11–3 season. This year’s Owls could be even better, as Devin Singletary (1,920 rushing yards, 33 total TDs) is back and Kiffin welcomes the first class of players he recruited to #thefaU. Then there’s UCF, the sort-of defending national champions, who will be looking to prove that their relevance isn’t tied to former head coach Scott Frost. Star quarterback McKenzie Milton returns to power the Knights’ offense, and he should be one of the top passers in the country under the direction of first-year head coach Josh Heupel, who was lured to Orlando after serving as Missouri’s offensive coordinator for two seasons. The points should flow freely.
Honorable mention: Texas A&M at Alabama—Fisher vs. Saban will dominate the midweek headlines. Florida at Tennessee—Another SEC battle, this one between two new coaches in the East in Dan Mullen and Jeremy Pruitt. TCU at Texas—Can Tom Herman’s Longhorns make some headway in the quest to reestablish their place as the state’s premier program?
Week 5: Ohio State at Penn State
The last two matchups between these Big Ten powers have been classics. Back in October, the Buckeyes came back from a 35–20 deficit to eke out a 39–38 victory that kept their playoff hopes alive and crushed Penn State’s. In 2016, the then-unranked Nittany Lions returned a blocked field goal 60 yards in the fourth quarter for a game-winning touchdown on their way to an unlikely Big Ten title. There are few better venues for a huge game than State College, and you can be certain that 100,000-plus dressed in all-white will be packed into Beaver Stadium. This will also be the first real challenge for Penn State’s offense in the post-Saquon Barkley era.
Honorable mention: Tennessee at Georgia—The Bulldogs are very familiar with Pruitt from his short stay in Athens. Stanford at Notre Dame—This is around the time of year the Cardinal typically round into form. Florida at Mississippi State—Mullen’s return to Starkville should be an emotional measuring stick game for both teams.
Week 6: Texas vs. Oklahoma (at the Cotton Bowl)
Tom Herman’s second season at Texas should be marked by the growing influence of players he brought to Austin have on the on-field product. That’s great news for Texas, because Herman’s first recruiting class was a consensus top-five haul, and this year’s could land in the top three. This game will also feature two of the country’s best young quarterbacks in Texas’s Sam Ehlinger and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, the five-star transfer from Texas A&M who faces the unenviable task of replacing Baker Mayfield. Herman’s presence should breathe new life into the Red River Rivalry for years to come.
Honorable mentions: Florida State at Miami—The Canes capitalized on a down year for FSU and ended a seven-game losing streak in this rivalry last season. Nebraska at Wisconsin—Could this be the first of many Big Ten West title bouts between these two programs in the years ahead? Notre Dame at Virginia Tech—Keep an eye on the Hokies as a potential ACC sleeper this year.
Week 7: Georgia at LSU
This will be the first matchup between these SEC elites since 2013, and it should be a doozy. The Bulldogs will enter the season as one of the nation’s top teams, fresh off an appearance in the national championship game. Sure, they will miss the graduating running back tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and yes, they’ll also lose their leading receiver (Javon Wims) and best defensive player (Roquan Smith), but they get quarterback Jake Fromm back and welcome the best recruiting class in the country to campus. This offseason has been notable for the LSU coordinator positions, but for different reasons— defensive coordinator Dave Aranda signed a new deal that will make him the highest-paid assistant in the country ($2.5 million annual salary), while former offensive coordinator Matt Canada was replaced by tight ends coach Steve Ensminger. The Tigers’ defense has been championship-quality for years, and if Ensminger can revitalize a sleepy offensive attack, LSU could challenge for the SEC title.
Honorable mentions: Michigan State at Penn State—Michigan State won a seven-hour marathon in East Lansing last season, otherwise Penn State could well have made the playoff. Wisconsin at Michigan—Another huge test for the Wolverines, who have one of the toughest schedules in the country.
Week 8: Michigan at Michigan State
Harbaugh will be under mountains of pressure to get a win over a rival, as his teams are a combined 1–5 against Michigan State and Ohio State. The Spartans return 10 starters on offense, including Brian Lewerke, who could become the next in a long line of NFL quarterbacks from Michigan State, and leading rusher L.J. Scott. They also get nine starters back on defense. The 2017 bowl selection process added another level of tension to this game: Spartans fans fumed when Michigan was selected for the Outback Bowl over Michigan State despite the fact that Michigan State had a better regular season record and beat Michigan. State will be out to reassert their supremacy.
Honorable mentions: Alabama at Tennessee—Saban vs. his defensive coordinator from 2017. Oklahoma at TCU—The Sooners beat TCU twice last season, so the Horned Frogs will be set on revenge.
Week 9: Clemson at Florida State
These two programs have had a stranglehold on the ACC for the last seven seasons, a span in which the winner of this matchup has won the conference crown every year. Clemson won the ACC title in 2011 before Florida State reigned supreme for three consecutive years. Clemson has retaken control, with three consecutive league titles. Meanwhile, the Seminoles had about as disappointing a year as possible in 2017 and enter a new era with Willie Taggart at the helm. The Tigers get their entire ultra-talented defensive line back and already have commitments from two five-star D-line prospects from the class of 2018.
Honorable mentions: Texas at Oklahoma State—Texas held an explosive Oklahoma State offense to just 13 points in an eventual 13-10 overtime loss last season. Florida at Georgia—The 2017 game was the death knell for the Jim McElwain era in Gainesville. Can Mullen change the conversation? Wisconsin at Northwestern—These were the top two teams from the Big Ten West last year, though Northwestern will be without quarterback Clayton Thorson. Iowa at Penn State—The Hawkeyes spoiled Ohio State’s playoff hopes last season. Can they ruin Penn State’s in 2018?
Week 10: Stanford at Washington
Stanford got a big boost with Bryce Love returning for his senior year, and coach David Shaw finds a way to keep his team near the top of the Pac-12 every season. Quarterback K.J. Costello played pretty well when he took over the starting job midway through the season, and he should improve with another year of development. Jake Browning should be one of the nation’s most productive passers in his senior season, but we’ll know a lot more about Washington as a whole after that season opener against Auburn in Atlanta. No matter what happens in Week 1, this game could be a de facto Pac-12 North championship game.
Honorable mentions: Texas A&M at Auburn—The Aggies have to deal with both Bama and Auburn on the road. Alabama at LSU—Can the Tigers end a seven-game losing streak to the Tide? Penn State at Michigan—The Big Ten East is the gift that keeps on giving.
Week 11: Wisconsin at Penn State
Wisconsin doesn’t draw the same national attention as some of its Big Ten foes, but the Badgers will once again be the heavy favorite to win the West. Jonathan Taylor rushed for a mind-boggling 1,977 yards as an 18-year-old freshman, and lefty quarterback Alex Hornibrook also returns. But the Badgers might once again have to go undefeated to get into the playoff, as their non-conference schedule (home games against Western Kentucky, New Mexico and BYU) is about as weak as you’ll see from a big-time program with national title aspirations. That makes every game of the utmost importance, and this trip to Happy Valley might carry the most risk and the most reward.
Honorable mentions: Auburn at Georgia—A rematch of last year’s SEC title game. Florida State at Notre Dame—These last time these two golden helmet–wearers met, in 2014, both teams were ranked in the top five, and Jameis Winston guided the Seminoles to a 31-27 victory. Oklahoma State at Oklahoma—Bedlam, minus Mayfield and Rudolph. Ohio State at Michigan State—Ohio State won this matchup by 45 in 2017, but something tells me that won’t happen in East Lansing.
Week 12: USC at UCLA
Will Chip Kelly’s presence tip the scales in a rivalry that’s been rather one-sided in recent years? USC has won the last three meetings and 15 of the last 19, but Sam Darnold’s departure leaves a little uncertainty about how good the 2018 team will be. UCLA coaches often talk about wanting to “rule the city,” and there’s no better way to do that than to beat USC. Kelly will need some time to implement his system and get his players to Westwood, but a win here would jump-start the rebuilding process.
Honorable mentions: West Virginia at Oklahoma State—West Virginia should be much improved in 2018, the final go-around for Will Grier and David Sills V. Michigan State at Nebraska—The importance of this game largely depends on how good Frost’s team will be.
Week 13: Auburn at Alabama
It’s always tough to identify the best game from rivalry weekend, which is always filled with classics like Ohio State–Michigan, South Carolina–Clemson and Florida–Florida State. But the Iron Bowl is electric every single year, and 2018 will be no different, with both teams projecting to be among the country’s best. Whether it’s quarterbacked by Jalen Hurts or title game hero Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama loses a ton of offensive talent to the draft. Meanwhile, Auburn loses its top rushers from 2017 but keeps quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Both offenses should reload without issue. The winner of this game will probably represent the West in the SEC title game, and the Tide’s national title won’t curb their desire for revenge after Auburn handled them 26–14 last season.
Honorable mentions: Florida at Florida State—Mullen vs. Taggart, Volume I. South Carolina at Clemson—The Tigers are looking for their fifth straight victory in this rivalry. Notre Dame at USC—There’s always something special about watching these two programs face off in Southern California. Oklahoma State at TCU—Again, the Cowboys control how much drama this one holds. Michigan at Ohio State—Is this the year Harbaugh finally beats the rivals to the south?