Saturday afternoons already feel emptier.
With Clemson’s resounding win over Alabama in the rearview mirror, college football fans have nothing to do over the next eight months but look forward to next year. While it’s nearly impossible to predict which regular season matchups will have the most on the line this far away from kickoff, previewing the games with the greatest potential to impact the 2019 regular season can help pass the dead time. There will be plenty of news, roster shuffling and trips through the transfer portal between now and Week 1, but most teams already have a general idea of their best- and worst-case scenarios for next year.
There won't be any live college football until Aug. 24 (Arizona-Hawaii will be the Week Zero headliner), so we might as well get a head start breaking down these games. They might not end up meaning as much in December as they did in August—who could have predicted Army-Oklahoma being one of the 2018 playoff race’s pivot points?—but most of the year’s marquee conference matchups and intriguing non-conference games are safe bets to retain their intrigue throughout the offseason.
Now that the ACC has released its 2019 slate, we have all the Power 5 schedules in hand. Here are the matchups to plan each of your fall Saturdays around.
Week 1: Houston at Oklahoma
The season’s opening weekend offers a few more high-profile Power 5 clashes, but this game carries the most narrative intrigue of any Week 1 offering. Both of these schools will have significant offseason questions to ponder before they meet on opening weekend. With the arrival of Alabama legend Jalen Hurts in Norman as the latest coveted transfer QB to steer Oklahoma’s explosive offense in the wake of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray’s Heisman seasons, expect a different yet still dangerous attack. On the other side, this will be Houston’s first game under new head coach Dana Holgorsen, who was lured away from West Virginia to replace Major Applewhite.
The last time these two teams met, Tom Herman’s final Houston squad beat Mayfield and Oklahoma 33–23 on the first weekend of the 2016 season at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The two programs have taken radically different paths since then, but their next game will set the table for countless 2019 storylines.
Honorable mentions: Auburn vs. Oregon — The first in what will be a season full of win-or-else games for Gus Malzahn will be against Justin Herbert and the Ducks in Arlington. Northwestern at Stanford — It’s hard to believe, but this is Week 1’s best game based solely on both teams’ finish in the 2018 year-end AP poll. Former Clemson five-star QB Hunter Johnson should make his debut for the Wildcats. Florida vs. Miami — It’s a shame this is in Orlando instead of at one of these in-state rivals’ home stadiums. Boise State vs. Florida State — Willie Taggart's seat could get very warm if FSU blows another season opener, this one to an always-tricky Boise State in Jacksonville. Duke vs. Alabama — Brace for a beatdown as the Crimson Tide put the title game behind them, while people who inexplicably root for Duke basketball and Alabama football can put together some of those “A House Divided” posters.
Week 2: LSU at Texas
At a bare minimum, this game will be a litmus test for two storied programs that haven’t won a national title since the mid-2000s. If things break the right way, this could have major playoff implications. After Texas’s win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the Longhorns weren’t shy about reinserting themselves into the ranks of the elite, but a loss at home to LSU would put that back into doubt. Texas returns quarterback Sam Ehlinger (3,292 passing yards, 25 passing TDs) and a host of other talent, while LSU should have another top-tier defense with coordinator Dave Aranda calling the shots. This matchup between the No. 8 and No. 13 teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25 is definitely the game of Week 2.
Honorable mentions: Texas A&M at Clemson — Last year’s game in College Station went down to the wire, and Jimbo Fisher’s second Texas A&M team should be even better. Army at Michigan — No one will be underestimating Army this year after the Black Knights almost upset Oklahoma, went 11–2 and won their third straight bowl game. Maybe we won't even need to watch their next upset bid on a random Twitch stream. West Virginia at Missouri — This will be the first chance to check in on the start of tje Neal Brown era at West Virginia and grad transfer QB Kelly Bryant’s lone season at Missouri. Cincinnati at Ohio State — A duel of the past two Ohio State interim coaches has been made even more interesting by the Bearcats’ 11-win season.
Week 3: Clemson at Syracuse
In the past two years, Syracuse has been the conference opponent that has given Clemson the most trouble. Last year, Clemson lost Trevor Lawrence early in the game and needed a clutch fourth-down conversion to keep the game-winning drive alive. In 2017, the last time Clemson went to the Carrier Dome, the Tigers lost a different starting quarterback and fell 27–24 to the Orange. Syracuse had a breakout season in ’18, winning 10 games and ending the year ranked in the top 15, and eight defensive starters are set to return. While the Orange will miss QB Eric Dungey, backup Tommy DeVito should be ready to take over.
Honorable mentions:Florida at Kentucky — Kentucky finally broke the Gators’ three-decade winning streak last year, and the Gators will be eager to start a new one. TCU at Purdue — Jeff Brohm spurned Louisville to stay at Purdue, but he’ll need to have a better start than the three-game losing streak that tripped up the Boilermakers out of the gate in 2018. Alabama at South Carolina — This game probably won’t be as good as the teams’ last meeting in Columbia, but it will be nationally televised anyway. Iowa at Iowa State — This is almost always an evenly matched rivalry game that is worthwhile viewing for neutrals. Stanford at UCF — UCF didn’t face a quality Power 5 opponent at home during its win streak. Can Stanford win in Orlando, or will Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush lead UCF to victory?
Week 4: Notre Dame at Georgia
Praise both sides for agreeing to an on-campus home-and-home, the first half of which ended in a thriller two years ago. This stands to be the biggest non-conference game of the season and one of the most important games of the season’s first month. Georgia gets a chance to make an early College Football Playoff statement, as it did when it edged Notre Dame in 2017; the Irish get a chance to avenge Georgia’s 20–19 victory in South Bend and chart their own playoff return. The atmosphere in Athens should be electric, and both teams’ 2018 starting quarterbacks, Ian Book for Notre Dame and Jake Fromm for Georgia, will be back.
Honorable mentions:Michigan at Wisconsin — This will likely be the first major Big Ten clash of 2019. Tennessee at Florida — This rivalry is always packed with drama, and Vols fans will be looking for a sign Jeremy Pruitt is closing the gap on the rest of the SEC East. Appalachian State at North Carolina — The Tar Heels open a tricky September with South Carolina, Miami and Wake Forest and then take on an App State team that lost head coach Scott Satterfield but should retain its knack for scaring Power 5 teams.
Week 5: Ohio State at Nebraska
Barring a big surprise, the first four games of the Ryan Day era should leave the Buckeyes at 4–0 heading into a trip to Lincoln to face Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers in year two. Nebraska went on the road and played Ohio State surprisingly close in 2018. As long as the Huskers win at Colorado in Week 2, they should also be undefeated heading into this matchup.
The Huskers won four of their last six games, and sophomore QB Adrian Martinez is poised to have a breakout season. Ohio State is set up for another good year. The Buckeyes added Georgia transfer QB Justin Fields and will await a ruling on his eligibility status for 2019, but they return a number of offensive playmakers and 10 starters on defense. The Buckeyes have made a habit of losing games to Big Ten West teams on the road in spectacular fashion.
Honorable mentions:Virginia at Notre Dame — The Cavaliers had a banner year in 2018, and this is a big opportunity to add to that momentum with a signature upset. Washington State at Utah — Last year’s Pac-12 South champion hosts last year’s Pac-12 North runner-up. USC at Washington — This game might end up being the final nail in the coffin for Clay Helton, with the bye week looming after the Trojans finish off a tough opening stretch in Seattle. This could also be the first indicator of how far transfer QB Jacob Eason can take the Huskies.
Week 6: Auburn at Florida
Auburn has so many question marks heading into the season: Quarterback Jarrett Stidham entered the NFL draft, two starting linebackers have moved on to the NFL and Malzahn accepted a reduced buyout so that he could keep his job. Meanwhile, Florida is flying high after a 10–3 finish in Dan Mullen’s first year at the helm that was highlighted by QB Feleipe Franks’s steady improvement and a demolition of Michigan in the Peach Bowl. Florida's next challenge will be getting back into the SEC title picture, and this game will likely be critical to those hopes. Because of the SEC’s weird inter-divisional scheduling rotation, these teams have not met since 2011, a 17–6 Auburn win.
Honorable mentions:Michigan State at Ohio State — Michigan State was not very good last year, but the Spartans usually show up for big games and still have an elite defense. Purdue at Penn State — Penn State should be adjusted to life without Trace McSorley by now, but Purdue appears to be on the upswing.
Week 7: Oklahoma vs. Texas
Unless a contender emerges from the Big 12’s second tier, this will be the league’s game of the year. What’s not to like? These teams played two very entertaining games in 2018, and while last year’s Red River Showdown loss did not end up being a College Football Playoff eliminator for Oklahoma, the loser of the 2019 meeting might not be so lucky. The winner will have a massive leg up on the Big 12 and an inside track on the playoff. The duel of dual-threat QBs Sam Ehlinger and Jalen Hurts should be enough to make this must-see TV on its own.
Honorable mentions: Alabama at Texas A&M — This nearly took top billing in Week 7, but the potential for another Bama blowout kept it out. Jimbo Fisher will throw everything at Alabama to earn an upset that turns the Aggies into SEC West factors. Iowa State at West Virginia — The Cyclones threw a wrench in the Mountaineers’ conference and playoff hopes in Ames last year. Florida at LSU — This classic SEC rivalry game has gotten nastier and nastier. Syracuse at NC State — Two ACC also-rans that exceeded expectations in 2018 square off in primetime on a Thursday night.
Week 8: Michigan at Penn State
It’s not hard to see a situation where this game defines the whole season for either team. The Wolverines draw Wisconsin and Iowa in the cross-divisional opponent rotation, but they will be in good shape to challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten East title if they can beat Penn State, which may be in for a step back without McSorley and running back Miles Sanders. Will Michigan’s defense hold up without Chase Winovich, Devin Bush and Rashan Gary? Can Penn State’s offense find consistency early on with Tommy Stevens under center?
Honorable mentions:Ohio State at Northwestern — A rematch of the 2018 Big Ten championship game at Ryan Field, where the Wildcats have been known to scare favored visitors. Kentucky at Georgia — The Wildcats are bracing for a regression without Benny Snell and Josh Allen, but Georgia’s SEC East challengers are few and far between.
Week 9: Washington State at Oregon
Most of the nation will be focused on Notre Dame vs. Michigan, but head west for something a little more exotic. Justin Herbert could have left for the NFL draft and been a first-round pick, but instead he’ll put the Ducks’ Pac-12 North hopes on the line against Washington State’s Air Raid offense. If the Cougars can find an adequate replacement for quarterback Gardner Minshew, this game has serious shootout potential.
Honorable mentions:Notre Dame at Michigan — Two storied programs tee it up once again, with the Wolverines eyeing revenge for 2018’s season-opening loss. Auburn at LSU — Given that at least one of these teams may have imploded by this point, an SEC rivalry that always delivers has to stay in honorable mentions. Wisconsin at Ohio State — Ohio State has won six straight against Wisconsin, and it’ll be tough for the Badgers to break that streak in Columbus. Penn State at Michigan State — The Spartans have stolen two straight from the Nittany Lions, and weather delays stole the show during a seven-hour epic two years ago in East Lansing.
Week 10: Georgia vs. Florida
As the calendar turns to November, it’s impossible to know which games will have been rendered meaningless at some point in the season’s first two months. However, you can be sure that this game will be on CBS and that it will carry some major SEC East implications.
Honorable mentions:Utah at Washington — A rematch of the borderline unwatchable Pac-12 championship game. Miami at Florida State — Both programs will enter 2019 on shaky ground, and this game reverberates through recruiting season in the Sunshine State. UAB at Tennessee — UAB was one of the Group of Five’s best stories last year, and the Blazers would love to knock off Tennessee.
Week 11: LSU at Alabama
Joe Burrow and LSU did nothing against the Crimson Tide last year in Baton Rouge, but an offensive outburst in the Fiesta Bowl has given the Tigers some optimism that things will be different than they’ve been for the past eight meetings.
Honorable mentions:Missouri at Georgia — This game could have been even closer than the 14 points it was decided by in 2018. Iowa State at Oklahoma — The Cyclones seem to give the Sooners trouble every year and could be a dark horse Big 12 title game participant. Clemson at NC State — NC State nearly knocked off Clemson in 2016 and ’17, then got blasted last fall. Perhaps the Wolfpack can make a game of it back in Raleigh.
Week 12: Florida at Missouri
Missouri came a few bounces from 10 wins last season, and the Tigers never looked better than during their blowout of Florida in Gainesville. If the quarterback switch from Drew Lock to Kelly Bryant takes and back-to-back trips to Kentucky and Georgia don’t sink Mizzou’s season, this could be a de facto SEC East title game.
Honorable mentions:Georgia at Auburn — Georgia had the East wrapped up by this time last year, but the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry always has high stakes. Stanford at Washington State — One of the best Pac-12 games of last year deserves the full #Pac12AfterDark treatment this time around. (It kicked off at 4 p.m. local time in 2018.) Oklahoma at Baylor — Matt Rhule has Baylor back to being dangerous, if not yet a Big 12 title player. Regardless, expect offensive fireworks.
Week 13: Penn State at Ohio State
There’s no telling what the Big Ten picture will look like come November, but it’s normally a safe assumption that this game will have a lot on the line. James Franklin will have spent the past year-plus thinking of a better fourth-down play call than the one that ended the teams’ 2018 meeting.
Honorable mentions:Texas A&M at Georgia — The Aggies have an absolutely brutal 2019 schedule.
Week 14: Texas A&M at LSU
Last year’s seven-overtime classic (a record-setting 74–72 Aggies win) has set the stage for the bad blood to build over the next month. After several controversial penalties, crazy plays and a post-game fracas on the field involving staffers from both teams, this one could challenge the nation’s more storied rivalries.
Honorable mentions:Alabama at Auburn — You can't not watch the Iron Bowl. Clemson at South Carolina — South Carolina’s offensive output in last year’s game sent Clemson fans into unneccessary panic mode. Washington State at Washington — The Apple Cup has decided the Pac-12 North title in two of the last three years, and the Huskies’ supremacy in this rivalry gnaws at Cougars fans.