College football season kicks off this Saturday with an abbreviated schedule, finally bringing the longest offseason of any major sport to an end. The first full weekend features a showdown between #1 and #3 in the coaches’ poll, and while preseason polls are incredibly stupid and often hilariously off-base on a few teams, a pair of single-digit numbers next to a pre-Labor Day matchup is still exciting.
Here are the best games to daydream about while you’re pulling your tailgating supplies and face paint out of storage.
September 2: #1 Alabama vs. #3 Florida State (in Atlanta)
What’s at stake? This is one of only two regular games scheduled between top-5 teams in the preseason coaches’ poll, so it seems… you know… kind of important. The winner will vault to (or stay) #1 in the polls and likely remain there as long as they’re undefeated. It won’t be a death blow to the loser’s national championship hopes, either. In each of the first three seasons of the playoffs, three of the four teams had a loss on their resume before being selected. It’s not exactly a phrase that will quicken the pulse, but consider this the Reduced Margin For Error Bowl.
September 9: #8 Oklahoma at #2 Ohio State
What’s at stake? Much like the Alabama/FSU game, this one won’t knock a team out of the national title picture, but will certainly give the loser a much tougher road to get back into the playoff field. As you will no doubt giddily recall, last year OU decided to caulk the Sooner Schooner and float it across the Basic Defense River. Things did not go well. The wagon tipped and Bob Stoops lost three sets of clothing, 157 pounds of food and any hope of a national title. This year, new head coach Lincoln Riley is just setting out from Independence, Missouri with a brand new wagon and big dreams, but the road will get treacherous quickly.
September 9: #14 Stanford at #4 USC
What’s at stake: The toughest game on USC’s conference schedule could also serve as a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game. These are two of the three teams in the league with the best shot at earning a playoff spot. Stanford has the toughest road of that trio, since they have to play at USC and then host Washington. The Trojans and Huskies don’t meet during the regular season.
October 28: #6 Penn State at #2 Ohio State
What’s at stake? Last season, the Big Ten’s most celebrated non-rivalry determined the East Division’s spot in the Big Ten title game, but not the league’s College Football Playoff representative.
This year, there’s a pretty good chance that it will do both. In five seasons at OSU, Urban Meyer has only played three “revenge games” against teams one year after a loss. He’s 3-0 in those, beating Michigan State in 2014 and 2016 and Virginia Tech in 2015. This will be the fourth.
November 4: #8 Oklahoma at #11 Oklahoma State
What’s at stake: If the Big 12 is going to get a team back into the playoff this season, it will probably be the winner of Bedlam. This rivalry has a reputation for being crazy and unpredictable, but in reality Oklahoma has won all but two of the meetings since 2002. Can you imagine dominating a big rival like that? Having only two losses since 2002 despite playing every year? That’s just crazy!
November 4: Illinois at Purdue
What’s at stake: Nothing. Just making sure you’re still paying attention.
November 10: #7 Washington at #14 Stanford
What’s at stake? If you assume the Pac-12 Championship Game will serve as a play-in game for the playoff, then this one could serve as a play-in for that play-in. A year ago, Washington announced that it was for real by reenacting the heart-rip scene from Temple of Doom on Stanford, 44-6 on a Friday night for all the nation to see. This year, the game is in Palo Alto and figures to be the Huskies’ toughest regular season test since they get UCLA, Oregon, Utah and Wazzu at home and don’t face USC during the regular season. If U-Dub survives this one, that will likely secure them a spot in a showdown with the Trojans on championship weekend.
November 11: #3 Florida State at #5 Clemson
What’s at stake? Remember how the season-opening showdown of Bama and the Noles was the first of only two preseason top-5 matchups on the schedule? This is the second. Clemson, as you may recall, won the national championship last season by defeating Alabama and… someone else… in the playoffs. Who remembers that far back? Whatever. It’s not important who else they beat. What’s important is that the Tigers have a ferocious defensive line and Florida State’s offensive line is coming off a shaky 2016. Assuming Clemson has found a suitable replacement for DeShaun Watson by this point in the season, the Tigers could hand FSU its second loss and put the Noles in danger of missing the playoff field.
November 18: #9 Michigan at #10 Wisconsin
What’s at stake? This is shaping up to be the toughest game on Wisconsin’s regular season schedule by a pretty wide margin. If they survive this, they’ll almost certainly have a spot in the Big Ten title game locked up and be squarely in the playoff picture. Meanwhile, Michigan will actually have to play a team with a pulse the week before the Ohio State game for the first time since 2011. In the five seasons since, they have not faced a team in the regular season’s penultimate weekend that finished with fewer than five losses.
November 25: #2 Ohio State at #9 Michigan
What’s at stake? Oh, nothing much. Just the annual showdown of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, light vs. darkness, people who understand football vs. those who thought the spot was bad, etc. Of the three most threatening games on the Buckeyes’ schedule, this is the only one being played away from the friendly confines of the Horseshoe. Michigan’s young team figures to be rounding into shape by this point in the season, but will also come in off a brutal trip to Camp Randall. At the end of a long, physical season, that won’t be easy.
November 25: #1 Alabama at #13 Auburn
What’s at stake: Outside of the week one matchup with Florida State, this figures to be Alabama’s toughest test. It’s possible that a loss could knock them out of the SEC title game. It’s possible that it could knock them out of the playoff. It’s possible that it could lead to a series of “THE DYNASTY IS DEAD” headlines. But because the world is a cold and uncaring place, it’s not possible that those headlines will be right.
September 2: Troy at Boise State and November 4: Houston at USF
What’s at stake? There is a pretty good chance that one of these teams will be the “Group of Five” representative in the New Year’s Six bowls. Unfortunately, both will get buried under much higher-profile games (Illinois-Purdue!). Still, one of them will be the answer when someone asks you “Wait, how did THEY make a bowl game this big?”