Most of us have lives, and are thus unable to watch an unlimited number of college football games every Saturday. With that in mind, this weekly compendium of college football picks will serve as your guide to watchability. Baseball has Wins Above Replacement; here we’ll cover the Games Above Replacement -- those matchups intriguing enough to justify ignoring real-life responsibilities/replacement activities, because mowing the lawn can wait, and your significant other will surely understand if you can’t go out to dinner. Some weeks, this list may include only four or five games. Others it might have 10. These are the games that matter most, ranked in order of value over your replacement activities. Plan accordingly, and happy football season.
(All times Eastern; rankings from USA TODAY Coaches’ poll)
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 8 Michigan (at Arlington, Texas)
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Alabama by 14
Nick Saban has likely been mulling how to stop Denard Robinson since birth. Tuscaloosa is home to an assembly line of 250-plus-pound athletic freaks on defense, so never mind the fact that four of the Tide’s top five tacklers are gone. We’ve seen this before. Then again, there are few athletes as freakish as Robinson, who will be forced to do it all in the backfield due to the suspension of tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint. Robinson very well could have a career-defining game against a somewhat-new Bama defense; this is the opener, after all, and Bama’s not always invincible. The Tide did lose three games in 2010, the year after its last national championship. Robinson vs. Saban’s defense is one of the most intriguing matchups in college football all season, but picking Michigan to win still feels like something only an overt contrarian would do. Fair or not, Robinson’s Heisman campaign begins or ends Saturday.
Pick: Alabama 24, Michigan 19
No. 22 Boise State at No. 13 Michigan State
8 p.m. Friday on ESPN
Line: Michigan State by 6½
Somewhere, a mythical supply of talented football players exists, and only Chris Petersen knows about it. Boise State has 15 new starters, but they’ll undoubtedly all turn out to be football wizards who lose no more than one game a year. Only one time in six years has Petersen lost more than once, and even then the Broncos won 10 games. Unfortunately, this is about the worst possible timing for a trip to East Lansing. Never rule Boise out, but Le’Veon Bell will run all over a Broncos defense that replaces all but two starters, and the Big Ten’s best defense will not be kind to Joe Southwick in his first start replacing Kellen Moore. Boise State can’t keep winning these high-profile games forever.
Pick: Michigan State 35, Boise State 23
No. 14 Clemson vs. No. 25 Auburn (at Atlanta)
7 p.m. Saturday on ESPN
Line: Clemson by 3
The most disappointing thing about college football’s opening weekend is that Sammy Watkins will not be in action at the Georgia Dome on Saturday, depriving us all of an opportunity to watch him make us forget that Clemson gave up 70 points the last time it played football. Auburn has been lost in the shuffle of the SEC West, only two years removed from a national title, and its defense gave up 34 points or more seven times last year, which won’t cut it in the SEC. Even without Watkins, one of the most explosive players in football, Clemson has enough firepower to light up the scoreboard thanks to Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington and DeAndre Hopkins.
Pick: Clemson 38, Auburn 30
Georgia Tech at No. 20 Virginia Tech
8 p.m. Monday on ESPN
Line: Virginia Tech by 7
Georgia Tech will run for many yards because that’s what the Ramblin’ Wreck does. And let’s remind ourselves after a long offseason that, last September against Kansas, the Yellow Jackets’ triple option rushed for 604 yards in one game. Obviously, that will not happen on Monday. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has been churning out stout defenses in Blacksburg since the War of 1812, and this year’s version is good enough to contain the option. The Hokies haven’t lost more than one home game in a season since 2001, and they’ll get off to a good start behind the arm of Logan Thomas, even with an inexperienced supporting cast around him.
Pick: Virginia Tech 23, Georgia Tech 17
No. 24 Notre Dame vs. Navy (at Dublin, Ireland)
9 a.m. Saturday on CBS
Line: Notre Dame by 15
Much has changed since the last time Notre Dame and Navy met in Ireland 16 years ago. Notre Dame was in the midst of an unprecedented winning streak in the rivalry, one that ultimately lasted 43 games. However, the tables have turned, and the Midshipmen have won three of the last five meetings. Not surprisingly, the Irish are back in the preseason top 25 despite the fact that they’ve lost at least five games in five straight seasons, and one win will surely start the premature “Is Notre Dame back?” conversation, despite Navy’s downturn in 2011 that saw its first losing season since 2002. The Midshipmen just don’t have enough on offense right now, even with Notre Dame breaking in yet another new quarterback in Everett Golson. But watching Navy run the option at 9 a.m. is still a perfect way to start a weekend.
Pick: Notre Dame 31, Navy 14
Tennessee at N.C. State
7:30 p.m. Friday on ESPNU
Line: Tennessee by 3
The dismissal of star Vols receiver Da’Rick Rogers put a damper on an intriguing game between two unranked sleepers with improving passing games behind quarterbacks Tyler Bray and Mike Glennon. Of course, Tennessee scored fewer than 10 points in five of its last seven games, and N.C. State was shut out by Florida State and lost 14-10 to 4-8 Boston College, so there are clearly no guarantees that this will actually be an intriguing game. This is probably why it was quietly stuffed in the background on ESPNU while everyone, justifiably, watches Boise State play on ESPN. Still, one of these middle-of-the-pack teams could use this game as a springboard toward unexpectedly contending in its division.
Pick: N.C. State 27, Tennessee 26
Ohio at Penn State
Noon Saturday on ESPN
Line: Penn State by 6½
This would be an uninteresting game under most circumstances, but obviously circumstances have changed. Even if Penn State’s offense fails without several key transfers in its first game under Bill O’Brien, it’s still worth watching, precisely because this is Bill O’Brien’s first game in what appears to be an impossible situation over the next four years. Ohio is a MAC frontrunner that won 10 games last year, so the Bobcats will likely give Penn State problems. However, they’ll have trouble up front handling Penn State’s defensive front seven, which remains loaded and was not hit hard by transfers. Long-term hopes are questionable for the Nittany Lions, but they’ll squeeze out a win in an emotionally charged opener.
Pick: Penn State 20, Ohio 14
Wild Card: Toledo at Arizona
10:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU
Line: Arizona by 11
The low point of the Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan arguably came in 2008, when the Wolverines lost 13-10 to Toledo as part of a 3-9 season. We should all love Toledo, because the Rockets are largely responsible for #MACtion, the wondrous phenomenon that sprung from their back-to-back 120-plus-total-point midweek games. Toledo scored at least 40 points in each of its last six games last year, and while the offense was decimated by graduations, Rodriguez’s teams have never been known for their defense, so perhaps the Rockets have a fighting chance in Rich Rod’s desert debut.
Pick: Arizona 34, Toledo 27