In less than two weeks, we'll finally be celebrating the return of college football and the end of the offseason nonsense that comes with it.
Fifteen Saturdays (and Thursdays, and Fridays and then some Tuesdays and Wednesdays) lie ahead on the road to the final BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, and as always they're full of heated rivalries, top-10 clashes and surprising traps. So before play begins, let's lay out the path the season will take and help you decide if you can actually attend that October wedding and which Saturdays should be spent locking yourself inside with a pizza.
The biggest weekends are obvious, but then again it's always important to remember that chaos usually occurs when we least expect it.
*Notes: Upset Alert selections below are not necessarily upset predictions; they're trap games for contenders that could potentially result in upsets. Sleeper games are under-the-radar matchups that have some sort of intriguing angle, whether it's a rematch of a classic from last year or a matchup of two high-powered offenses that will undoubtedly provide three hours of entertainment. And the dates listed after each week refer to Saturdays; non-Saturday games are noted in parentheses.
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Week 1, Aug. 31
What you'll be watching: Georgia at Clemson, Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (in Atlanta), LSU vs. TCU (in Arlington, Texas), North Carolina at South Carolina (Thursday), Florida State at Pittsburgh (Monday), Ole Miss at Vanderbilt (Thursday), Boise State at Washington, Oklahoma State vs. Mississippi State (at Houston), Ohio at Louisville (Sunday)
Upset Alert: Toledo at Florida
A frequent thorn in the side of BCS conference opponents, Toledo took Arizona to overtime last year, lost by five at Ohio State in 2011, won at Purdue in 2010 and won at Michigan in 2008. It's the Rockets' first ever game against an SEC opponent, and despite an 11-2 record Florida's stagnant offense caused it to receive home scares from both Bowling Green and UL Lafayette in 2012.
Sleeper: Texas Tech at SMU (Friday)
What have we come to expect on Friday nights? Passing and points. Former star Air Raid quarterback and Johnny Football play-caller Kliff Kingsbury returns to the Red Raiders for his head coaching debut at age 33, while SMU debuts new offensive coordinator and Air Raid guru Hal Mumme alongside run-and-shoot guru head coach June Jones. Also, you might remember SMU QB Garrett Gilbert from the national title game four years ago.
Grade: A. The first weekend of the season can't make a big impact on the national championship race, because major conference teams who lose one game are much better off losing that one game early so there's time to recover in the minds of voters who care most about what happened recently. While it will be difficult for a one-loss ACC team like Clemson to get into the national title game with a weak schedule, with a lot of help a close loss to Georgia can still be overcome. Even if the first weekend won't do much to decide the ultimate fate of the season, it is the first slate of games with games five days in a row, capped by the debut of Florida State freshman Jameis Winston on Labor Day. It's a glorious thing.
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Week 2, Sept. 7
What you'll be watching: South Carolina at Georgia, Florida at Miami, Notre Dame at Michigan, South Florida at Michigan State, San Diego State at Ohio State, Oregon at Virginia
Upset Alert: Texas at BYU
Is Texas back might be the closest college football can get to golf's incessant is Tiger Woods back every time he plays well. The richest team in the land is loaded with talent but trying to escape a three-year run of disappointment. This is an early-season test visiting a sneaky-good BYU team with a tough defense led by Kyle Van Noy and a promising mobile QB in Taysom Hill.
Sleeper: Arkansas State at Auburn
The Gus Malzahn Bowl features Malzahn coaching his second game at Auburn after one year at Arkansas State … after three years as Auburn's offensive coordinator. The Red Wolves went 9-3 under Malzahn last year, and 10-2 in 2011 under Hugh Freeze. Both coaches are now in the SEC West. Win this, and maybe new coach Bryan Harsin will follow them.
Grade: B-. We love the SEC for scheduling games like South Carolina-Georgia (a week after both play ACC favorites in their openers) in Week 2, but come November we'll hate their late-season tilts against Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State. Still, there's enough to satisfy the college enthusiast on the first weekend of the NFL season, so long as Michigan and Notre Dame top last year's 13-6 debacle in what should be a good barometer for quarterbacks Devin Gardner and Tommy Rees.
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Week 3, Sept. 14
What you'll be watching: Alabama at Texas A&M, Wisconsin at Arizona State, Tennessee at Oregon, Ohio State at California, UCLA at Nebraska, Ole Miss at Texas, TCU at Texas Tech (Thursday)
Upset Alert: Nevada at Florida State
A week after his national debut against Pitt, Jameis Winston returns home to face a smaller name but a better team. Coach Chris Ault may be gone, but Nevada will still score plenty behind QB Cody Fajardo. He'll at least challenge a talented but green Seminoles defensive front that lost six starters.
Sleeper: Kent State at LSU
The Golden Flashes will almost certainly get blown out, but their trip to Baton Rouge provides a nice chance to see what all-purpose back Dri Archer, one of the most explosive players in college football, can do against a top SEC defense.
Grade: A-. One game is enough to make the weekend, assuming Johnny Manziel is eligible. For the SEC West, both Alabama and Texas A&M play weak schedules, with only two marquee league games each. This is obviously one of them, and winning presents a rather clear path to Pasadena. And you know that Nick Saban has spent at least a moment every day since last Nov. 10 thinking about the Aggies. While the SEC will take 99 percent of the spotlight with one game, Big Ten contenders also play a trio of tricky nonconference games against Pac-12 opponents that will be worth watching.
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Week 4, Sept. 21
What you'll be watching: Arizona State at Stanford, Boise State at Fresno State (Friday), Michigan State at Notre Dame, Tennessee at Florida, Auburn at LSU, Arkansas at Rutgers, Clemson at N.C. State (Thursday), Utah at BYU
Upset Alert: Oregon State at San Diego State
This might be the only game standing in the way of a 7-0 start to the season for Oregon State, which saves its five toughest games for its last five.
Sleeper: UL Monroe at Baylor
As a proud member of the 2013 Baylor bandwagon, I refuse to believe the Warhawks will push the Bears like they did last year (47-42) or even pull the upset. But Baylor might be able to score 50 playing with 10 players on offense, and UL Monroe enjoys using two-quarterback formations. There is no way this won't be fun.
Grade: C-. Arizona State might be the best team in the Pac-12 South, but it has to navigate a brutal first month, including this possible league title game preview on the road at Stanford. But, beat Wisconsin and upset Stanford, and suddenly the Sun Devils are a top-10 team heading into games against USC and Notre Dame. It's not a glamorous weekend -- maybe the worst of the season -- but there's enough to stay entertained, especially when you throw in a Friday showdown between Boise State and Fresno State in what could be an elimination game for a BCS at-large bid.
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Week 5, Sept. 28
What you'll be watching: LSU at Georgia, Oklahoma at Notre Dame, Wisconsin at Ohio State, Ole Miss at Alabama, USC at Arizona State, Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (Thursday), Texas A&M at Arkansas
Upset Alert: Miami at South Florida
After a brief rut, everyone's again focused on the state of Florida's three historical powers, who all play each other. They're a step or two behind, but don't sleep on the Bulls, who in Willie Taggart found the right guy to replace Skip Holtz. They'll surprise someone.
Sleeper: Utah State at San Jose State (Friday)
The beauty of weekday games is the opportunity for star players at smaller schools to shine. So say hello to San Jose State quarterback David Fales, potential first-round draft pick, against Utah State's Chuckie Keeton, who had nearly 4,000 total yards and 35 total touchdowns in an 11-2 season last year.
Grade: B. While Ole Miss is the third-best SEC team on Alabama's schedule, Nick Saban looks at his cross-division schedule of Tennessee and Kentucky and smiles as Les Miles leads his LSU Tigers between the hedges at Georgia. LSU almost certainly needs a win to have any chance in the SEC West. The same goes for Wisconsin in the Big Ten Leaders with its trip to Columbus.
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Week 6, Oct. 5
What you'll be watching: Arizona State vs. Notre Dame (in Arlington, Texas), Washington at Stanford, TCU at Oklahoma, North Carolina at Virginia Tech, Texas at Iowa State (Thursday)
Upset Alert: Ohio State at Northwestern
Ohio State finished a perfect 12-0 last year, but nobody would say the Buckeyes played perfect football, aside from their record. Northwestern is always pesky, especially with weapons like Kain Colter and Venric Mark, and the Wildcats just need to figure out how to close out games to pull a big upset somewhere.
Sleeper: West Virginia at Baylor
Surely nobody forgets last year's amazing 70-63 shootout in Morgantown in which Geno Smith threw for 656 yards and eight touchdowns. The Mountaineers may have tanked in the second half of the season, and they may be universally projected to finish eighth out of 10 teams in the Big 12 this year, but a Dana Holgorsen offense is always going to score points, especially against a Baylor team that's built to do the same.
Grade: C. Despite a promising young QB, Taylor Kelly, and a good tailback, Marion Grice, and an All-American defender, Will Sutton, Arizona State hasn't gotten a lot of preseason attention. As already covered, that could change in a hurry. The schedule is brutal, but Week 6 presents another national opportunity against Notre Dame in Jerry World. Throw in a potential night for Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads to be SO PROUD and perhaps the most important game on the ACC Coastal schedule, and this will probably be one of those sneaky good weekends of football that doesn't have many good matchups on the surface but ends up surprising us anyway.
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Week 7, Oct. 12
What you'll be watching: Florida at LSU, Oklahoma vs. Texas (in Dallas), Oregon at Washington, Rutgers at Louisville (Thursday), Arizona at USC (Thursday), Michigan at Penn State, Northwestern at Wisconsin
Upset Alert: Texas A&M at Ole Miss
Hugh Freeze has proven to be a top-notch recruiter, and he's already had on-field success after engineering a five-win turnaround from 2011 to 2012. Next he needs to notch a big win, and both Texas A&M and LSU come to Oxford in back-to-back weeks in October, starting with a matchup of Manziel vs. the Nkemdiche brothers.
Sleeper: Alabama at Kentucky
Kentucky fans are finally excited about football. New coach Mark Stoops is shocking everyone on the recruiting trail, and even the spring scrimmage filled the stadium. Here's your midseason reality check.
Grade: B+. Once again, Nick Saban laughs: Kentucky and Tennessee for Alabama, Florida and Georgia for LSU. Neither Florida nor LSU is favored to win its division, but they're both top-10 caliber teams who will contend in the conference. As for Oklahoma-Texas, it'll be one of the biggest games of Mack Brown's career, given that the Sooners have out-scored the Longhorns 118-38 the last two years at the Texas State Fair. Texas desperately needs to change its fortunes in a year in which it's expected to be favored.
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Week 8, Oct. 19
What you'll be watching: Florida State at Clemson, USC at Notre Dame, UCLA at Stanford, Miami at North Carolina (Thursday), LSU at Ole Miss, TCU at Oklahoma State, Nevada at Boise State
Upset Alert: UCF at Louisville (Friday)
Louisville plays an embarrassingly bad schedule for a supposed national title contender, but the common offseason assumption has been that the Cardinals will drop a game somewhere. "Weird things happen in Friday night games" isn't necessarily a good reason to call for an upset, but, hey, weird things happen in Friday night games, and UCF will be competitive behind quarterback Blake Bortles.
Sleeper: UL Lafayette at Western Kentucky (Tuesday)
The MAC doesn't own a monopoly on weird midweek timeslots. Don't like October baseball? The Sun Belt is here to help. In this case, noted weight-lifting head coach Mark Hudspeth meets noted [insert adjective of choice] coach Bobby Petrino.
Grade: B. The ACC's game of the year provided entertainment last year, and Clemson should be even better this year. College football fans should all hope that Jameis Winston turns out to be a star, because a Winston-Tajh Boyd showdown in Death Valley would be must-see TV. The SEC is quiet in Week 8, but there's action in the Pac-12, as USC-Notre Dame remains one of the best rivalries in football, and UCLA and Stanford meet again after their back-to-back matchups to end last season.
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Week 9, Oct. 26
What you'll be watching: Penn State at Ohio State, Texas at TCU, UCLA at Oregon, Stanford at Oregon State, Tennessee at Alabama, Boise State at BYU (Friday)
Upset Alert: South Carolina at Missouri
I'm not quite as bullish on South Carolina as most. It feels like the totally justified Jadeveon Clowney hype has resulted in slight South Carolina overhype. Key word being slight. The Gamecocks' schedule has four clear headliners (North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Clemson), but Missouri is the last game in a run of four road games against competitive teams in five weeks (UCF, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri) that could cause a midseason slip-up.
Sleeper: N.C. State at Florida State
It's almost certainly not going to happen again, but the Seminoles were ranked No. 3 last Oct. 6 when they blew a lead and lost 17-16 at N.C. State, dashing their national title hopes.
Grade: C. Ohio State should take care of business at home against a depleted Penn State, but nevertheless the young border rivalry has had its moments over the last decade and features two of the best coaches in America. Little jumps off the page this weekend, but like Ohio State, national title contenders Stanford and Oregon also face decent conference tests.
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Week 10, Nov. 2
What you'll be watching: Georgia vs. Florida (at Jacksonville, Fla.), USC at Oregon State (Friday), Miami at Florida State, Michigan at Michigan State
Upset Alert: Oklahoma State at Texas Tech
The Red Raiders don't have high expectations, but they're actually in a good situation: They had a solid year last year and still managed to make a long-term upgrade at head coach from the experienced but out-of-place Tommy Tuberville to Kliff Kingsbury, one of the most identifiable Red Raiders of the last couple decades. They're good enough to beat at least one of the Big 12 frontrunners.
Sleeper: Northwestern at Nebraska
This might rise above "sleeper" territory, given that both teams are ranked in the preseason coaches' poll, but Northwestern games (which so often over the last decade have seemed to appear in the noon timeslot on ESPN2) are rarely perceived as must-see games, even if this one most certainly is. Their two meetings in Big Ten play have been classics, including Northwestern's 28-25 road win in 2011 and Nebraska's 29-28 road win last year in which the Wildcats blew a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Grade: B-. An ugly 17-9 win for Georgia at last year's Cocktail Party decided the SEC East title, and will certainly be crucial again as the obvious headliner of the weekend in a game matching one of the nation's most talented offenses (Georgia) against one of the most talented defenses (Florida). Throw in Miami-Florida State and Michigan-Michigan State and there is a trio of intense conference rivalries that are good enough to carry the weekend.
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Week 11, Nov. 9
What you'll be watching: Oregon at Stanford (Thursday), LSU at Alabama, Oklahoma at Baylor (Thursday), Nebraska at Michigan, Virginia Tech at Miami, BYU at Wisconsin
Upset Alert: USC at California
USC is one of the most unpredictable teams in college football heading into the season. After last year's 7-6 debacle, the Trojans aren't hopeless given their roster full of talented players, but scholarship reductions hurt their depth, and Lane Kiffin has yet to break the negative perceptions of being Lane Kiffin. USC's trip to Berkeley comes right in the middle of a tough second half, sandwiched between a Friday game at Oregon State and homecoming against Stanford. Sonny Dykes should have Cal's offense turned around in some capacity by this point.
Sleeper: MACtion begins
Hardly a secret anymore, but the MAC's run of nationally televised games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays finally begins here. First up: Bowling Green vs. Miami (Ohio), Ohio vs. Buffalo and Central Michigan vs. Ball State. Multiple overtimes in at least one of those games, guaranteed.
Grade: A. It's tough to beat the headliners here, with two of the best intradivision rivalries in college football, played on different days. While it's great that Oregon-Stanford and LSU-Alabama won't be played in the same timeslot -- a frequent problem with increasingly loaded Saturday prime-time schedules -- somehow the Pac-12 North showdown is still up (although staggered by 90 minutes) against a potentially important Big 12 game between Oklahoma and Baylor (you may remember the last time these two met in Waco) on Thursday. Not ideal scheduling, but then again complaining about multiple games overlapping on TV is ultimately dumb. There's no such thing as too much good football, and this weekend will be one of the best.
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Week 12, Nov. 16
What you'll be watching: Florida at South Carolina, Oklahoma State at Texas, Stanford at USC, Georgia Tech at Clemson (Thursday), Washington at UCLA (Friday), Michigan State at Nebraska, Michigan at Northwestern, Oregon State at Arizona State
Upset Alert: Georgia at Auburn
Let's forget last year, when Auburn went winless in the conference and lost to Georgia 38-0. For that matter, forget the previous year when Auburn lost to Georgia 45-7. The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry hasn't exactly been exciting, and maybe it won't again this year. But let's put a little faith in Gus Malzahn and say Georgia's game will be just as important as the Florida-South Carolina showdown that same day.
Sleeper: Marshall at Tulsa
Nobody ran more plays than Tulsa over the course of the 2012 season (1,160). Nobody ran more plays per game than Marshall (90.6). Enjoy this fast-paced potential preview of the Conference USA title game.
Grade: B+. The day that will decide the SEC East, with Florida-South Carolina and Georgia's trap at Auburn likely determining who will get a shot at dethroning Alabama. Throw in a game between what appear to be the Big 12's two best teams on paper, two pivotal Big Ten Legends matchups, Clemson's toughest cross-division game and a tough cross-division road game for Stanford, and the third-to-last weekend will play enormous role in shaping conference championship races.
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Week 13, Nov. 23
What you'll be watching: Texas A&M at LSU, Baylor at Oklahoma State, Nebraska at Penn State, BYU at Notre Dame, Arizona State at UCLA
Upset Alert: Oregon at Arizona
Maybe my mind's still stuck in 2007, when No. 2 Oregon went into Tucson and left with a 10-point loss as Dennis Dixon played through a torn ACL and the Ducks fell out of the national title rce. But provided he finds a quarterback, we know Rich Rodriguez's offense will score points. Well, probably … they didn't score any in a 49-0 loss in Eugene last year. So there's that. But here's betting that won't happen again and the Wildcats can at least be competitive.
Sleeper: Vanderbilt at Tennessee
We're accustomed to seeing blowouts in this pseudo-rivalry that's only a rivalry because the teams exist in the same state. All of those lopsided scores were in favor of Tennessee ... until last year, when Vandy blew Tennessee off the field 41-18 and notched its first home win in the series since 1982. Any non-Vols fan had to feel good for the Commodores. This year's edition will likely play a key role in both teams' pursuit of a bowl bid.
Grade: C+. Texas A&M didn't break through last year until the win over Alabama, which means the 24-19 home loss to LSU kind of got lost in the shuffle, even though Johnny Manziel threw three picks and no touchdowns. It'll likely take a backseat to each team's game against Alabama, but that doesn't mean it's not still one of the biggest games of the season. It could, at the very least, help decide the SEC's second BCS bid.
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Week 14, Nov. 30
What you'll be watching: Ohio State at Michigan, Florida State at Florida, Clemson at South Carolina, Alabama at Auburn, Notre Dame at Stanford, UCLA at USC, Texas Tech at Texas (Thursday), Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday), Arkansas at LSU (Friday), Oregon State at Oregon (Friday), Penn State at Wisconsin, Baylor at TCU, Georgia at Georgia Tech, Arizona at Arizona State
Upset Alert: Washington State at Washington
The Huskies somehow lost the Apple Cup in overtime after blowing an 18-point lead last year to a nine-loss Cougars team, and while Washington should be better this year, so should Washington State in year two under Mike Leach. If the Huskies continue on their current pace of mediocrity (three straight 7-6 seasons), it's possible Steve Sarkisian could be coaching for his job in this one.
Sleeper: UL Monroe at UL Lafayette
Having never set foot in the state of Louisiana, I like to imagine this as much more hate-filled than it probably is. For whatever it's worth, these two might actually be the best two teams in the Sun Belt, and while the Ragin' Cajuns have won five in a row in the series, there's reason to expect fireworks with two entertaining offenses possibly fighting for a league title.
Grade: A. Football nirvana. Thanksgiving weekend is an endless parade of impact rivalry games that comprise the best all-around slate of the season. Ohio State-Michigan, unfortunately, may end up as a precursor to a Big Ten title rematch the next week, but it's still arguably the nation's best rivalry with arguably the two best teams in the Big Ten this year. It will at least impact the Big Ten title race, if not the national title race too. Florida State-Florida, Clemson-South Carolina and Notre Dame-Stanford could all be games between top-10 or -15 teams. And if Ohio State-Michigan isn't the best rivalry, then Alabama-Auburn is, even if the Tide will be a heavy favorite. You can't ask for a much better last full weekend of college football.
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Week 15, Dec. 7
What you'll be watching: SEC championship, Big Ten championship, Pac-12 championship, ACC championship, Texas at Baylor, Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
Upset Alert: Louisville at Cincinnati (Thursday)
There's a good chance Cincinnati will be ranked by this point, and this game could decide whether Louisville goes undefeated, as well as who will represent the American Athletic Conference in the BCS. Plus, it's the last time they'll meet for the Keg of Nails as conference rivals before the Cardinals head for the ACC.
Sleeper: Mountain West championship
With Boise State and San Diego State deciding to stay put instead of joining the fake Big East, the league has 12 teams for the first time and will stage its inaugural league title game between the champions of the Mountain (Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State and Wyoming) and the West (Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, UNLV, San Diego State and San Jose) divisions. It's possible a BCS at-large team could come out of the MAC (Northern Illinois) again, but the best small-conference bet is here, between Boise State or Fresno State, who would be meeting for the second time if they win their divisions.
Grade: A. Obviously, all eyes will be on Atlanta. Last year's classic between Alabama and Georgia will be hard to top, but the SEC title game has a good chance to once again act as a play-in game for the BCS title game. And the winner's opponent in Pasadena will likely be decided on this Saturday too, making it the closest thing we can have to a playoff before the playoff actually begins.
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