Top 10 college football games you’ll want to see this season
Must-see matchups on the FBS schedule, and the AP’s Top 25 preseason rankings
College football kicks off this weekend, and the amount of trash-talking that’s taken place has me Birdman hand-rubbing my mitts together. Are y’all ready for the sad, heartbroken and gut-wrenched fan memes that are only days away from creation? Which old-school rivals and new kids on the block will establish themselves in the conversation about a new — or old — national champion? Only one way to find out. Let the games begin.
These are The Undefeated’s top 10 college football games to watch this season. Bonus! The AP Top 25 preseason rankings were released Sunday, so scroll to the bottom to check out where your team falls to start the season:
H-Town Beatdown: Oklahoma vs. Houston — Sept. 3
Two years ago, Oklahoma announced that it would play the Houston in a two-game series. Pretty sure when the Sooners agreed to do this, they weren’t expecting to play a Cougars team that defeated three top-tier teams and went 13-1 en route to a Peach Bowl victory over Florida State in 2015. But Houston coach Tom Herman — grill firmly locked in — did, and now his team is a potential preseason top 10 unit. This is a huge opportunity for the Cougars to prove they would compete in the Big 12, a conference they’d like to join down the road. Houston’s mayor thinks the team will beat the Big 12 power by two scores, so just wait on it. Oklahoma marches into the contest at NRG Stadium in Houston after winning 12 games last season en route to playing in the College Football Playoff semifinals. The Sooners are led by quarterback Baker Mayfield, a Heisman Trophy candidate, who will be joined in the backfield by junior running back Samaje Perine, who has amassed 3,062 yards and 37 touchdowns over the past two seasons, good enough for fifth in the FBS in both categories.
And speaking of grills, Houston rapper Paul Wall — the man who gave Herman his custom-made grill — will perform the day before the game with Bun B.
Return of the PAC: Alabama vs. Southern California — Sept. 3
For the first time in 15 years, the Crimson Tide will play against a Pac-12 opponent. The last time Alabama did so was in 2001 when it lost to UCLA. The SEC-Pac-12 matchup is something to expect more of in the future. The University of Southern California should hope to see Alabama down the road as the school’s official bookstore is selling a “Roll Tears Roll” shirt that is apparently selling fast.
In the same breath, USC may want to avoid Alabama if the Crimson Tide roll the Trojans in this game after this cute stunt. Although the two teams are playing at a neutral site, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, is more or less a third home for the Crimson Tide, who have played in the building three times in the past four years. The personal relationships in this game also add some additional drama, such as former USC head coach and current Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin facing off against his former squad.
The Battle at Memorial: Ohio State at Oklahoma — Sept. 17
The last time Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops coached against each other, Meyer emerged as the victor — his Florida Gators defeated Stoops’ Oklahoma Sooners, 24-14, in the 2009 BCS title bout. The last time Ohio State and Oklahoma met was in 1983. The two teams have played each other only twice and are on schedule to play two times in the next two years. Get your popcorn, because this game has been sold out since July 22, Oklahoma’s athletic director announced.
Knox ’em, Box ‘EM: Florida at Tennessee — Sept. 24
The Tennessee Volunteers were the New York Giants of the college football world — they established a healthy lead, took it deep into the fourth quarter, and then somehow, some way managed to let the other team snatch the victory from their grasp. The Vols did this to the tune of a 3-4 record in the first part of the 2015 season. Against the Florida Gators, Tennessee held a 13-point lead with more than 10 minutes to play and the collapse didn’t occur until the last 4:09 of the game. That extended the Vols’ losing streak with the Gators to 11. So what makes this game worth a top 10 nod? Well, the last two times Florida and Tennessee did battle, the Vols fell short of winning by a single point in each game. Heartbreaking, but that is also a reason for optimism. Tennessee enters this season on a six-game winning streak, and could welcome the Gators to Knoxville, Tennessee, on a nine-win high. Home field has never felt so good.
red river showdown: Oklahoma vs. Texas — Oct. 8
I covered this game last year, and I can’t even begin to describe what it felt like being surrounded by two such ravenous fan bases. The Cotton Bowl divvies up the tickets to create a perfect split down the middle of Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorn fans. The smells from the Texas State Fair make your mouth water, along with the sounds of cheers and jeers from 95,000-plus fans. It’s a game of rivals unlike any other. You think Texas cared that it came into last year’s game with a 1-4 record and fresh off of a 50-7 defeat at the hands of Texas Christian University? The final score from this game doesn’t accurately show how the Longhorns dominated the Sooners and held them to 17 points total. Oklahoma went on to participate in the College Football Playoff semifinals, while Texas matched its fewest wins since 1997 with a 5-7 record. Texas coach Charlie Strong and Stoops have been recruiting like bandits since last season, so the infusion of new talent with the old will make this quite the centerpiece of the fair. If there was any monumental moment you could point to in Strong’s tenure so far, it would be this game. The elation on his face and look of absolute relief as his players lifted him on his shoulders was an undefeated moment, no doubt.
Cardinal vs. saints: Stanford at Notre Dame — Oct. 15
If you like robbery and live for drama, this game will fill all those boxes. Check it: One score has decided the last FOUR contests between the Stanford Cardinal and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, with the home team taking the win each time. Even better, Notre Dame’s slim chances of making it into the College Football Playoff were thwarted by Stanford’s 38-36 victory last season. We love grudge matches, and if history is any indicator, it looks like the Fighting Irish will return the love as it has won all but one of the last 10 meetings in South Bend, Indiana. Running back Christian McCaffrey, another Heisman Trophy candidate, was unstoppable last season, especially in the Rose Bowl against Iowa, when he accumulated 368 all-purpose yards, a Rose Bowl record and fourth-highest in bowl history.
Grudge match: Michigan at Michigan State — Oct. 29
This was easily one of the best finishes to a college football season last year. You have a Michigan team that with 10 seconds remaining punted the ball away to Michigan State. The score was 23-21 and appeared it would remain so after the Wolverines forced a turnover with 1:47 remaining. Michigan was right on the doorstep of winning its first contest against the Spartans in its last three meetings and second in eight games. The Michigan punter muffed the punt and instead of falling on it, tried to kick it away. Welp. Spartan players rallied around him and Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson returned the loose ball 38 yards for a game-winning touchdown as the Spartans went on to win 27-23. Unfortunately for Watts-Jackson, a rough tackle led to a dislocated hip. But as of April, Watts-Jackson is healthy and seems prepared for this season.
bring it back to back: Clemson at Florida State. Oct. 29
These two teams have made it the BCS title bout or College Football Playoff championship the last three years. It’s Florida State’s Dalvin Cook vs. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Watson recently stood up for himself regarding the insinuation that he’s a “dual-threat” quarterback, explaining that the term is just another way of saying a “black quarterback.” So it seems he’d love nothing more than to slice through Florida State’s talented defensive unit and prove he’s more than capable of dropping dimes from the pocket. The Tigers defeated the Seminoles in a 23-13 win last year, and it was the first time Clemson had done so since 2011. The Seminoles have been a perpetual thorn in the Tigers’ side over the years. But is this the year that Clemson gets back-to-back victories over their rival since the Tigers won three straight from 2005 to 2007? We shall see.
Cage fight: Alabama at Louisiana state — Nov. 5
Ah, the Saban Bowl. Coming to a TV near you in early November, this game decides far more than what happens in the SEC most years. It has implications across the college landscape, as the two programs that have sent a combined 81 players to the NFL since 2010 duke it out. LSU currently finds itself in the midst a five-game losing streak, including a 2012 BCS title game defeat to Alabama. If Tigers running back Leonard Fournette can have any measure of success against that staunch Crimson Tide defensive front, then the Bayou will celebrate like it’s Mardi Gras in November.
The Old Guard: Michigan at Ohio State — Nov. 26
The beautiful thing about this game is that you have one of the biggest rivalries in sports taking place on an extended holiday weekend, so you can get full into the action. How many times have the two teams seen each other? One hundred and thirteen times since 1897. Who holds the advantage? Michigan, 58-48-6. What has the series looked like recently? Well, that’s a different story. Ohio State is on a four-game winning streak and has won 11 of the last 12. So what’s going to give?
The preseason AP Top 25 (first-place votes in parenthesis):